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Elizabeth Metzger: California Poets Part 7, Four Poems

Elizabeth Metzger

July 1st, 2024

California Poets: Part VII

Elizabeth Metzger


The Last Witch


The last witch burned was speaking

as she burned                The last witch burned


herself              was speaking to herself


Her mouth might have moved around

like a rock loosened from earth


What if            


she wanted to live         wanted finally to stop

expecting to be forgiven


Is that how a witch must change


at the last second         It was the hardest joy

to set myself on fire

Not on Earth

Once we imagined a house where we would meet

in the future, if we ever got separated,

if we broke up and should not have,

if we divorced or died.


Let’s go because we stayed,

because we changed, because the real life

is to blame. The real life made us

give up the fantasies it’s based on.


Let’s go there

even if it means the children were never

real for a minute


and you will demand as much as I do.

Talking to Jean About Love


I plan to go there as soon as I land to bring you back

English jam,

California dirt.


My chapped heart.

My wanting to visit 8F.


Was that your apartment, my mind

scrolls through every letter


8A 8J 8E the 8 flies off


flips to wire wings you held down daughters with.

I am not yours.


Seven, nine, maybe it was zero

your plank of air


where I came to be forgiven.


Where you once implied a spirit

might bring me physical pleasure


I already claimed to have.


Has it become clear yet

what we meant by spirit?

Black Goat


There was a black goat

and a mile later, twelve brown goats

on the lava rocks


All of them were saying Get out

but I didn’t know how


All homes had turned into funeral

homes, and I didn’t have a body

to bury


But I consoled my son when I could

I said Don’t worry

there will be another goat on the road


Finally I saw a white one with brown spots

and for a moment we smiled

and held hands


Then he said How many goats

did we not see


Then even those ones started shouting at me


July 14th, 2024

California Poets Interview Series:

Elizabeth Metzger, Poet, Editor

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: You’re the poetry editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. What do you love most about editing and what’s the most difficult aspect?

EM: It’s an honor not only to be in conversation with so many contributors who have unique perspectives on poetry, but also to do a deep dive into so many books and contexts I might not otherwise have known about. The extra fact that after learning so much from others, I have the chance to reach for and connect disparate views and perspectives together, beyond my own experience or even my aesthetic preferences, is humbling, illuminating, and altogether expansive. I am one of two poetry editors at LARB, and that’s actually what I love most—the intimate collaboration, both with the authors I work with, and with my co-editor Callie Siskel. Curating is what I love most, and discovering new writers as we go. The difficult part, I guess, is then having to turn away so much that also deserves attention!

DG: Emily Dickinson has had a profound impact on your writing—not so much in terms of form but in fact the direct treatment of subject, really as you’ve said “her relationship to words.” When and how did you discover her work and what are some of your favorite pieces?

EM: Thank you for recognizing Dickinson’s impact on my poems. I have a portrait of her, given to me by my teacher Lucie Brock-Broido, who was gifted the framed sketch by Helen Vendler and Seamus Heaney. I cannot write at my desk without looking up at Emily, and I find it equally powerful that her influence on me comes through such lineages (poets I know and can name, and also those I do not or haven’t read yet). I discovered Dickinson through a non-poetic lineage: my mother! She read me her nature poems for their sing-song rhythms and associated me with the myth of her shy reclusive nature.

I don’t think my mother knew what she was offering me, but I remember that in rejecting or not understanding how my personality was like my mother’s idea of the poet, I somehow absorbed, anyway, the music and mystery of her language. I don’t think it was so much the imagery or the meaning as much as it was the secret way it felt to hold in my mind (and body) cadences that transcended their sense. They would come to me, the way a song stuck in your head does, and sometimes I mis-remembered the specific words, but this sort of sourceless way they spoke to me beyond my mother’s voice or my own has been very important to my own listening for a poem and how I follow its mental music.

My favorite poems are often those that take on a posthumous perspective, as well as those that explore doubt, god, and silence. I adore her letters, especially The Master Letters, and three of my favorite poems of hers are There’s a Certain Slant of Light, After Great Pain, and It was not Death. I also like examining all the variations (such as versions of Safe in their Alabaster Chambers).

DG: Your poems utilize questions in interesting ways: sometimes there’s a succession of two or three; sometimes they’re followed by an answer; sometimes the subsequent line alters the spirit of the question. Do you choose instinctively or does the question itself more or less dictate the choice?

EM: I think the question is the most organic rhetorical form, meaning it feels closest to the way I think. While people consider the uncertainty at the end of the question, where the mark is, where there is the expectation of an answer, I feel the articulation of a question is sort of the closest we get to certainty, the carving out or articulation of an opening, a door made by the voice. Often a question leads to another question or answers itself. Sometimes it leads me to a surprise. I don’t know if the question is dictating. I don’t know if there is a choice. I guess I think I’m trying to say “all of the above.” The question is the grammar of instinct.

DG: Another huge influence has been Louise Glück and in a tribute to her you write: “Listening to Glück read her poems aloud, one can’t help but hear in her famously detached style a refusal to interpret, as if she is trying to become the paper and let the poem speak without her person. In contrast, when she is speaking spontaneously, one notes in Glück a dazzling, sometimes biting, presence.” To what extent do you compose with performance in mind and do you feel you’d write differently if the chance to read your work never existed?

EM: Oh, interesting question, because I certainly don’t feel a kinship with Louise’s reading style. I guess this might suggest that I do care a lot about performance. Max Ritvo was a great influence in my thinking about this. He performed so wildly and kinetically and with feelings that emerged and shifted line to line and reading to reading. Frank Bidart also taught me a great deal in the way he led his workshop so that he first responded to poems only by hearing them. Based on feedback, we’d revise our poems on the page, and only then would he consider the poem on the page. This was not because performance mattered more than the page, but because he talks about “fastening the voice to the page,” and the page seemed to me a living performance, less than a script. He also encouraged us to get up close to the mic as if on the phone reading into the ear of an intimate.

I don’t really feel I perform my poems in my body as Max did, spinning in circles when it felt right, circumambulating the stage, but I do think the voice matters more than anything. Even the space on the page I think of as an effect of the voice. Silence, an effect of breath. And breath, always tethered to emotion. That said, I think it is a voice of thinking (an inner voice) that matters to me, more than the spoken conversational voice so if I never had a chance to read my work, I think I’d still see the page as the stage of the mind talking to itself. There need not be a mouth let alone a room of readers.

DG: Apart from Lying In, published by Milkweed Editions in 2023, you’ve also written two chapbooks. Generally speaking, chaps allows the overarching theme to develop with fewer poems whereas full-lengths provides greater range. At the same time, there’s an undeniable aesthetic line that connects these collections. In terms of writing process, can you talk about some of the differences and similarities between Lying In and the chapbooks—the difficulties and discoveries associated with each one?

EM: I have two full-length collections, The Spirit Papers and Lying In. I published a chapbook called The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death right around when I published my first book. These were entirely separate entities, and I made the chap as a result of realizing these persona poems (in the voice of or in relation to the forensic dioramas of Frances Glessner Lee) did not belong with my other poems. They disrupted the other voices and the coherence of the whole. I think of Brenda Hillman’s Death Tractates needing to be separate from Bright Existence, though written around the same time.

Lying In was a different story. It had been a long journey of years, writing in a vacuum, without my first reader Max (he died before TSP came out), and I felt it might not ever see the light of day as my lived experience kept multiplying and threatening the coherence of the book. While it turns out I found a structure in which this doubling of experiences (losing two important beloveds and enduring two bed rest pregnancies) became a feature of the forever-multiplying self of parenthood and beyond, I felt the need to create a narrower chapbook first before I could appreciate these broader implications. I therefore used the bed at the center of my experience to weave a single arc between bed-rest pregnancy and a return to romantic desire in my chapbook Bed. It was a clarifying process and allowed me to remove many poems from the larger manuscript and write several new ones (including the two long poems in the book, the opening title poem, and “Mother Nothing”) to complete the full-length Lying In a couple years later.

DG: Do you feel that the amount of revision has decreased the more you’ve gone on to write, or do you consider writing to be unlike music or sports—in the sense that each poem, each book is its own thing and you never really get “better?”

EM: I think the amount of revision is roughly the same, which is a lot, but I don’t think this has much to do with getting better or not. I think the revision process has changed radically. While it still requires a lot of time and patience, it does also feel more intuitive and maybe more ruthless, and yet there’s also the sense of caring more about revising toward fuller thinking and even narrative clarity, rather than the more mystical sense I had with my first book of letting an artifact emerge through a kind of severe compression, erasure, or letting go. These gestures of cutting and letting go are ingrained in my writing process, but ongoing revision has more to do with content now, as well as form.

I also wrote my third book probably three or four times, cutting nearly every poem, before writing the version I will publish, so it’s not always about revising poems so much as reconceiving the whole book. I had thought it was going to be about only one relationship, but the poems ended up becoming about significant others, and of course ultimately revising themselves into a new self I didn’t know I had become. I do think we get better, or we like to think of it that way, but I wouldn’t trust a better that means easier. I think the process has to always feel very new, very risky. Maybe I’ve gotten better at recognizing that when I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m doing something right.

DG: In Lying In you write “All children grow into questions.” Has motherhood already changed your writing habits, and if not so much these days, do you think it will greatly down the road?

EM: Oh yes, I had to be more comfortable with interruption from the start, and I think that changed my relation to lyric time, to the line, to moving between imaginative and real experience. My children, and their journeys into themselves, both apart from me and in relation to me, and their uses of language, and questions of the world, have greatly infiltrated my own mental voices and interests. I am less interested in a beautiful word than I am in the mess of syntax.

Motherhood has made my writing habits feel more focused on connections while also opening up my process for making those connections. It may not all happen in one quiet moment. I may have to wait with a line much longer than I like. I do usually leave my children to write in a separate space when I ca (they’re school age now), and this distance adds a kind of pressure, at once a rebellious freedom I find creative and a remorse that lyric time is earned by losing little moments of real (shared) life. 

DG: The cover of the book is profound—simple, yet evocative. How much input did you have in the choice and was the matter pretty much clear-cut or was it the case of a difficult decision?

EM: I was so lucky to work with the incredible creative director and designer at Milkweed, Mary Austin Speaker, who drew the incredible image of the bed and fire herself. The lettering calls back to the text of Max Ritvo’s The Final Voicemails, and that meant a great deal to me as well, as he was an important spiritual part of Lying In (even though he died before I wrote most of the poems in it). I had originally imagined a photograph, almost monochrome white, of a woman lying in a room-sized bed. Mary was generous enough to make versions of the cover according to my vision, and while I still adore that photograph, Mary’s vision was immediately the winner. I gasped the first time I saw the cover design—somewhere between the primal power of a cave painting and the playfulness of a visual riddle, the cover design is one of my favorite aspects of the book!

DG: In a Los Angeles Review interview you’ve said: “Usually I don’t think of form as ‘informing’ the collection so much as emerging out of the poem.” How does a poem start for you? Do you write in a single stanza then break the lines, if necessary, or does the form take shape as you’re writing the poem?

EM: It takes shape as I’m writing the poem. And then it might change as I revise the poem. It feels symbiotic with what I consider “feeling.” More than an idea, I feel my way through the poem, and as I feel my way, I make the walls or footholds, leap across spaces etc. I want the form to form that process of emotional emergence not just emerge with the poem. Form is the feeling. We move through it. We are moved.

DG: You were friends with Max Ritvo and have done much to promote his work after his tragic death at the age of 25. How did you meet and what are things you love most about his work?

EM: Yes! I’m so glad you asked—as you can see, I can’t speak about writing without thinking of him. We met in Dorothea Lasky’s workshop at Columbia, where we were pursuing an MFA in poetry. Max was already terminally ill, but he was an immediate, palpable genius of life. He told me the first night after workshop that he could see I had a soul and that our soul was the same. I was more focused on how startlingly different we seemed from each other.

That night, sharing a taxi, we argued about which was better company: books or people. Max claimed not to be a reader, but the truth was he read more widely and deeply than most, and focused his reading on people and the world around him (he knew as much about floral arrangements as Vedic texts). No culture, high or low, no topic was beyond his knowledge and eloquence. What I love most about his work is its rawness and its playfulness. He writes beautifully about humor in his Divedapper interview with Kaveh Akbar, the way he hopes the moments of most laughter are the moments of greatest sadness.

I witnessed this blurring in his process. In the first year of our friendship, Max told me he wrote about death most when he was happy and about love most when he was despairing, but by the end, the body in pain was the body in love, the raging voice was the tender clown, etc. Some of my favorite poems are “Afternoon,” “Poem to My Litter,” “Plush Bunny,” “Tuesday,” “Heaven is Us Being a Flower Together,” and “Living It Up.” These poems come from both his collection Four Reincarnations and his posthumous collection The Final Voicemails, edited by Louise Gluck, his great mentor.

I learned from Max that focusing too early on craft, the best words in the best order so to speak, could actually inhibit the most wild and profound thinking and feeling, and that a poem was a space to do that, the way he also taught me therapy was! I think I admire not only the embodiment of his speaker in a world of pure imagination, but also the feeling that I am known by the speaker of his poems. Usually, I read a poem as the I, and Max’s poems certainly offer blueprints for a mind well-worth trying on, but I think these days, it’s the feeling of being seen by the poems as much as seeing through them, that I admire. They are not masks with eye-holes, but mirrors with hands reaching out, asking us all to dance!

What I also miss was the way we worked together, entered each other’s work like a compass, with one foot firm in our own aesthetics and the other absolutely roving in the orbit of the other’s creativity. It was hard to write again after he died, without that rhythm of our process, which felt so enriching—equal parts push and praise, parsing and tearing apart. I have come to hear him still, and I think in some ways I am still writing to him. Five years after he died I had a novel-length conversation with his spirit. By the end, I could write poems again.

DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?

EM: I just turned in my manuscript for my third book, out in late 2025. It is called The Going Is Forever, and it feels like new territory for me so I’m really excited (and a little nervous) for it to be in the world. The whole time I was writing it, I thought I have no idea how this will end, and each poem felt like the end. It turned out the book showed me the whole thing was the end because nothing ends just once as long as we are alive. We are made up of endings, and they make us grow and go places we might never have noticed.

Now that I write this, I realize that’s the idea of the relationships in the book, too. Not only are there three forms of present absences (all masculine figures) that led me to expand in new ways, but each of their distances/departures kept changing. They were not quite the final endings I expected. While I still don’t quite know the last poem (maybe a sort of epilogue), I think seeing each poem as a possible last led to each poem being stronger, more urgent, with more of the sudden freedom of realizing, after much grief, that life is always just beginning, an endless surprise.

Author Bio:

Elizabeth Metzger is the author of Lying In, as well as The Spirit Papers, winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry, and the chapbook Bed. Her poems have been published in the New YorkerParis ReviewPoetryAmerican Poetry ReviewThe Nation, and Poem-a-Day. Her essays have been published in Boston ReviewGuernicaConjunctionsPN Review, and Literary Hub, among others. She is a poetry editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and she lives in California.



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