Poet Elyse Fenton ’03 was the winner of the 2010 Dylan Thomas prize, given annually to a writer under the age of 30. Photo by James Davies.
Elyse Fenton collects words, holds them in her mind like river stones, then stacks them into poetic form with the same precision she employed those summers she spent building trails in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. She orchestrates the movement of words through reckless play with the adroitness she displayed as a scrum half on Reed’s rugby team. Yet her work remains alight with tenderness, awe, and love. Not just for the power of words but also, one feels, the literal existence of words, how they look, read, and sound as well as the residue they leave behind on the lips.
“Once upon a time I had a journal,” she laughs over the phone from Philadelphia, where she lives with her husband Peenesh and their 14-month-old daughter Mira. “I would write words in the journal, and I’d look things up. That process has faded, but I’m still hungry for words.”
Not only has Elyse stayed hungry for words, but she also remains loyal to the notion that a single word can lead her into the guts of a poem. Her love for language helps make reading Clamor, her award winning debut poetry collection, such a delight.
The collection has won a great deal of acclaim, including the 2008 Pablo Neruda Prize for the poem “Infidelity,” the 2009 Cleveland State University first book prize, and most recently, the 2010 University of Wales Dylan Thomas prize, given annually to a writer under the age of 30. Elyse was the first American and the first poet to win the award.
Most of the attention, from back-cover blurbs to international interviews, dwells on the book’s subject material—a war bride channeling words from the front delivered via text messages by her soldier husband. And while many of the poems read like memoir, Elyse’s poetic grace and aptitude for language allowed her to enter any number of worlds the words presented, thereby embodying the experience in new ways. This willingness to follow the thread of language—be it a sentence, phrase, or single word—is something Elyse has been doing almost her entire life.
“Around the time I was five or six,” she says, “I had the habit of saying everything out loud, then repeating the words under my breath in a quiet whisper. I was learning to read the sound and surfaces of language. Even then I wanted to savor words.”
In the poem, “Commerce,” which opens the book’s dream-like second section, she engages the reader in her language play, hovering around the heteronyms wound (“wownd”) and wound (“woond”). In “Word from the Front,” we fall into the poem on the back of a corkscrew landing, a phrase that came her way across 7,000 miles.
“The material of war demands that we navigate the language in different ways,” Elyse says. “The way we speak of war can often feel clichéd and over-used. In order to articulate things in a wilder, more accurate sense, it becomes necessary to reach deeper into our poetic bag of tricks.”
Professor Lisa Steinman [English 1976–], who served as Elyse’s thesis adviser, and also worked with her in a number of classes, isn’t surprised by her willingness to delve deep into language, nor of her success.
“Elyse arrived here as one of the most careful craftsmen of language I’d seen in an undergrad,” Steinman says. “It made working with her a great pleasure.” Steinman recalls how Elyse’s thesis, Hammer Struck Music, worked language in a similar way, with the language in this case coming from the world of manual labor, something Elyse knew about from working as a trail builder and carpentry apprentice.
“Her thesis was very carefully crafted,” Steinman says. “As we read poems aloud, she was always thinking about diction, syntax, clarity… even the etymology of words.”
“I was obsessed with various tellings of the John Henry song,” Elyse says of her thesis. “The thesis includes a series of poems about John Henry and imagining John Henry’s wife. A lot of that thinking, I believe, translated into the thinking, or at least the pre-thinking, for Clamor.”
Whether describing the thoughts of John Henry’s wife, or grappling with the uncertainty brought on by Peenesh’s deployment, Elyse’s poetic drive is fueled by her desire to see how closely language can connect us to moments that are both fragile and fleeting.
“In Clamor, the material is very much about language, which in itself is anchored by the potential for failure. It’s a very elegiac notion – our attempts to articulate something are hampered because we can’t actually get to the thing itself.”
Elyse is well aware that the majority of the public interest and praise for Clamor has to do with the book’s portrait of a 21st century war bride floating kernels of thought back and forth to her soldier husband via a handheld screen, then dealing with the emotional aftermath of all that couldn’t be said and shared. Still, she hopes that readers are able to move beyond the subject and sink into the craft as well.
“It’s amazing to have a readership come of this. I’m certainly thankful the book has reached varying audiences, but it would be great if, in being attracted to the material, readers take more time with the language.”
Winning the Dylan Thomas prize, along with its $47,000 bounty, has been a great honor for Elyse, but hasn’t really changed the painstaking process of writing for her. She remains committed to keeping her nose on the page, her keen ear tuned to conversations and everyday language. She will always be collecting words, holding them in her mind then stacking them into poetic form, building trails through new terrain.
Elyse Fenton will read from her work on Thursday, Mar 31, 6:30 PM at the Psychology Building Auditorium 105 at Reed College, 3203 SE Woodstock Boulevard, Portland OR. The reading is free and open to the public.
Word from the Front
His voice over the wind-strafed line
drops its familiar tone to answer,
Yes, we did a corkscrew landing down
into the lit-up city, and I’m nodding
on my end, a little pleased by my own
insider’s knowledge of the way
planes avert danger by spiraling
deep into the coned center of sky
deemed safe, and I can’t help but savor
the sound of the word—the tracer round
of its implications—and the image—
a plane corkscrewing
down into the verdant green
neck of Baghdad’s bottle-glass night
so I don’t yet register the casual solemnity
of newscaster banter
falling like spent shells
from both our mouths, nor am I
startled by the feigned evenness
in my lover’s tone, the way
he wrests the brief quaver
from his voice like a pilot
pulling hard out of an engineless
plummet, but only at the last minute
and with the cratered ground
terrifying, in sight—