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Please join us for a conversation with award-winning novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist and creative writing professor Elizabeth Cox.
Cox received the Robert Penn Warren Award for Fiction and was inducted into the Fellowship of Southern Writers in 2011. Her novel Night Talk received the Lillian Smith Award from the Southern Regional Council, the University of Georgia Libraries and Georgia Center for the Book.
In addition to four novels, Cox has published a recent collection of poetry I Have Told You and Told You and a collection of short stories called Bargains in the Real World. Of this story collection, poet Mary Oliver wrote, "Those who know Elizabeth Cox as a person and as a writer know that she is continually courageous and melodious and has never yet softened the difficult facts of the world. Her stories are treasures, full of truth, possibility, and beauty."
Two of her stories have been featured on NPR; “The Third of July” was an O’Henry Prize winner.
Cox has also received the North Carolina Fiction Award - Individual Artist Grant, a Massachusetts Arts Council Grant, and Fellowships from Yaddo and MacDowell writers’ colonies.
She was the 2003 Jack Kerouac Writer-in-Residence at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and has also taught at Duke University, University of Michigan, Tufts University, Boston University, the Bennington Low Residency Program, and MIT. She recently retired from the John Cobb Chair of Humanities at South Carolina's Wofford College, a chair she shared with her husband C. Michael Curtis.
Tiferet Journal is pleased to also offer to you our multiple award-winning The Tiferet Talk Interviews book. This book includes 12 exceptional interviews. It can be purchased in both print and Kindle formats at this link on Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/bu8m2zs
A warm welcome to tonight's conversation with award-winning novelist, short story writer, poet, and distinguished creative writing professor, Elizabeth Cox. Elizabeth received the prestigious Robert Penn Warren Award for Fiction and was inducted into the Fellowship of Southern Writers in 2011. Her novel Night Talk received the equally prestigious Lillian Smith Award from the Southern Regional Council, the University of Georgia Libraries and the Georgia Center for the Book. In addition to four novels, Elizabeth has published a recent collection of poetry I Have Told You and Told You, and a collection of short stories called Bargains in the Real World. Of this story collection, poet Mary Oliver wrote, "Those who know Elizabeth Cox as a person and as a writer know that she is continually courageous and melodious and has never yet softened the difficult facts of the world. Her stories are treasures, full of truth, possibility, and beauty." Several of these stories have been featured on NPR; "The Third of July" was an O'Henry Prize winner. Elizabeth taught at Duke University for 17 years and in the Bennington Low Residency Program for 10 years. She held the Jack Kerouac Writer-in-Residence at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and taught at MIT. Most recently, she shared the John Cobb Chair of Humanities with her husband, C. Michael Curtis, at Wofford College in Spartanburg South Carolina. It is a true pleasure to welcome our distinguished guest, Elizabeth Cox to tonight's show.
Elizabeth, welcome. It's a personal joy and honor for me to have you with us tonight.
Thank you so much.
It's been some time ago that I first fell in love with your writings when I saw the title of your earlier novel, The Ragged Way People Fall Out of Love. I fell in love with the unexpected juxtaposition of those words and how beautifully they convey the complex concept and since I first saw that book, you've gone on to publish many more books and received many well-deserve awards, and throughout, your mastery of language has prevailed.
It's true. You're truly one of the finest language writers I have read, a user of language in writing. I listened to The Slow Moon on Audible and as I was listening to it, I would bookmark pages and write down notes of phrases like these: That are again poetry within the prose of a novel, the embarrassment of loneliness, a smile that had in it, the very meaning of hidness, and the air hung like blue milk. It seems to me that in all those genres of writings in which you practice, you write as a poet with wonderful attention to words and I wondered if you would talk to us a little bit about how you come up with those unusual pairings of words or the process.
You know, I'm not sure how, they come to me after I am in the story or novel or poem for a while, they don't come at first. But, I had The Way People Fall Out of Love and then it came to me Ragged, I should put Ragged in there because it's the ragged way people fall out of love and how it's never completely done and ragged means it's still there, it's just torn. And, so, sometimes, I think these odd juxtaposition of words go deeper into the heart, bypass the logic mind so that you have to think of them differently. And I think that's what I like about language, how it can pierce you in ways if you use the odd juxtaposition of words. I think that's what poetry does and since I read a lot of poetry, it's part of my regular reading and I love to write it, so I think that kind of language enters the heart better than explanation can do.
Definitely, yes. And it kinds of explodes again in an unexpected way. So, these unusual combinations usually come to you as you're thinking deeper into the story, novel or poem...
...as you're revising
And as I'm thinking into it or sometimes it comes in the middle of the night and I get up and write it down and I don't know where it's gonna fit but I'll know when I sit down with the work where it fits...
Uh hmm. Uh hmm.
But sometimes those odd juxtapositions come at night. You know, (crosstalk) yeah, I'm not quite so conscious.
Yeah. And you have a pen and paper close by to write them down there.
Yes, I do. Yes, I do.
Uh huh. Uh huh.
Because I also write down dreams so those were it come from, that place.
Uh huh. And I think I have read or heard from you that one of your stories came to you completely in a dream. Is that, can you tell us a little bit about that?
You know, I'm not sure if it was a dream or if it was kind of a conscious dream state where I'm in my imagination. But I know, I don't think I was asleep, but I was sitting and working and usually, I have to start with a character and then work to figure out what the story is about. I mean, I love that. I love discovering the story. This one came whole. It was called Old Court, it was one of them that was read on NPR but and sometimes, if it comes all of a sudden, it's not the story, it changes. But this one came whole piece.
And I had to revise a lot in terms of language but the story itself was all there. And that was nice, I mean, I like that. It hadn't happened since.
That's amazing though. So, you got up that day, were you able to get up that day and capture it then (crosstalk)?
I wrote the whole story in one sitting. Not a lot of people I think do that. I just don't do it, it was just a gift to me. Now, I had to revise a lot in terms of language, which I always set to do. But, the story itself was there.
That's lovely. That's a lovely story-telling about it too. So...
(Laughs) Though I wish it would happen again.
Well, yeah, you never know. You never know. Can I ask you to read one of your poems to us?
Certainly. The book is called I Have Told You and Told You, and I have a poem called Teacher and it's for my daughter, and it starts off with, it was written for my writing teacher who said "What is imagined is real." I think he got that from Picasso's All That is Imagined is Real. And it starts out sort of for him and then it moves into something my daughter did when she was about 3. We were taking a trip and we were playing a game where people were naming something smaller than the other person named and you know, my son said a mouse and my husband said a bug, but she said the smallest thing. So, this is for her. Teacher. "What is imagined is real, you said. The imaginer's eye makes me crazy sometimes. It is blood caught in my pale heart, a river going through the house. Blindness comes in, like vision perplexing the inner space. Swans go on the surface, their wings lifting. I would go with them anywhere. That's good. It's what I told my daughter when she played our game: naming something smaller than the other person named. She was the smallest one herself, when she said, "The black part of a baby ant's eye." That's good, honey. The one with the wildest dreams wins. Try to remember the last time you stepped into the bark of a tree, closed it up behind you. A fat oak with rings going around your arms like bells.
The sun can pull you taller in that deep chamber of wood, and all your talk becomes a wilderness. But when you step out from that, you find the world is not what you thought. Your earliest memory is not "of someone," but of green water, and cells changing, or skin. You are as alone as you feared. Think hard about the breath you take. It is not like kissing. I can do nothing but shuffle these papers around the desk and put on my shoes. I am grateful for the string and the hard dark that pulls me in, for the imaginer and for the pupil found in the baby ant's eye but mostly, for the flight occurring in my daughter's young face when she spoke up, and won."
Hmm. That's truly, truly exquisite. It gives me chills to hear you read it too.
And I also, I was, it's also that particular poem is a wonderful example of not only the musicality in your writing but also the very precise observation of the world and also empathy and nurturance what you certainly do as not only as a mother but as a teacher.
Oh, thank you. You know, I hear a music. I hear a kind of music of language in my head, and sometimes in my revisions or when editors get hold of it, they have to edit some of that music out because sometimes, I don't care if it makes sense and I sacrificed since for the music of it, and I really, really cannot do that, I mean, and sell it. (Laughs) so they edit it out so that it makes a little more sense, but I do very much hear a music. I don't know if other people, I'm glad you said it was musical because I want other people to hear it, but it's what I hear all the time.
Uh huh. And do you ever object when an editor...
...is not hearing the same rhythm or the music...
Oh, oh, I think most of my editors have heard but it sometimes goes too far (laughs) and I know that, I know that but I can't always see where it goes too far. Sometimes, I'm not able to edit the music that I hear. I have to have somebody else do that, but I don't let them take it out, I just let them edit it for cents (laughs) you know, to make just so the reader will get it. I want the reader to get the meaning.
Yes, and people (crosstalk)
So I let them edit for that.
Or else if they edit it, I change it so that the music is still there, the presence is there too.
Uh hmm, uh hmm. And do you like to listen to music while you are writing?
No, not while I'm writing. Music in my head is too loud to listen to music while I'm writing.
I listen to it other times, but not while I'm writing. I have to have silence while I'm writing.
Uh hmm, uh hmm. And also before you read the poem Teacher, you mentioned the quote from Picasso and so I know that you also, your interests are wide ranging and fascinating, and from painting to physics, and all kinds of things and I know that, I read something that you had said that the topic like reading something about physics might not necessarily obviously apply to the novel or story or poem that you're writing, but somehow, there's a connection that you feel. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Well, you know, in The Ragged Way People Fall Out of Love, I took a course in astronomy and read a lot of physics and I what I noticed was that there is a particular order to things and orbits, say, and if one thing moves out of the orbit, there's chaos for a while until you get something else in there. And it felt right for a book about divorce.
I was just gonna say that applies to family constellations.
Family constellations, exactly. And I kept thinking how that stability, that instability would come back around if a new pattern is developed. And you know, when I wrote my first novel, I had no idea how to write a novel, an agent read one of my stories and said "Could you write a novel?" and I said "Sure" because I tend to say sure to things I don't know how to do and I knew I wouldn't go home and read a book on how to write a novel. That's not my way. But I did go back, I lived in Durham, North Carolina, and I took a class at Duke University in the Sonata and Symphony studying the sonatas' form, the statement, the development, the reiteration of a sonata, and then the form of a symphony and while I was writing this book, Familiar Ground, which is my first book...
I listened to mainly symphonies by Dvo?ák over and over and Beethoven. And I learned something about form and pace, I can't tell you what I learned, I just listened to that music and learned to write a novel. And I never cared if anybody noticed it, you know, but I learned to do one thing by studying something else.
It's really fascinating and it's so opposite, the kind of story boarding plot outlining or reading a book on how to write a novel approach.
I wouldn't be able to do that. I wouldn't be able to do that. It's like if somebody shows me a dance step, I am real clumsy. But just give me the music and I can dance (laughs). I don't go at anything straight because I don't want to miss anything. I remember when I was in school and I was in the classes for Algebra and all the highest classes. Everybody was smart, I was the dumbest one in there and hanging on by my teeth. And I remember I would go to the board and I would solve the problem, I would get the answer.
But I would take about 14 steps to get there and the smart ones would say you could do it 1-2-3, but you know, I didn't want to do it (laughs)
I wanted to include more steps.
I don't know what that says about me. I also couldn't have done that problem again (laughs) you know, I couldn't have done it again. I just...
A new problem, you could use the same process.
Yeah, right, right, right, right. But I studied music and I studied astronomy with Night Talk, I read biology and botany, and with The Slow Moon, I listened to the blues.
Oh. You know, did you...
I just find it more interesting.
Did you choose the blues after you knew what Slow Moon would be about? And for our listeners, maybe, well, just, can you tell us a little bit about this one?
I think I started the novel and realized that the blues would help me. I have no idea how I came to that.
I'd even use some of the titles from the blues but I finally edited those out.
Okay. So, The Slow Moon...
No, you go ahead.
Uh huh, uh huh. It's a beautiful book about a difficult subject teenagers and a rape in a small southern town and what's amazing about that book is the way this entire community is filled with very beautifully articulated complex people and again, how they all interact with each other and what happens, so, I had written down the Washington Post review "...its insight into the emotional turmoil of teens and their parents in the wake of a terrifying crime." Did you know about a crime like that and then decide to write about it or?
No, I didn't.
And Donna, I really love that they included the teens and the parents because as I wrote about these teens, I realized that much of their damage was reflected within the parents. You know, I guess what happened is Columbine happened around that time, and I kept wondering, what are we doing as parents? Raising children to hurt other children. What are we doing wrong? Because I think we need to look at ourselves so when these children were hurting other children, I looked at the parents and there's nothing they're doing that we can fault them for, maybe one or two, but not really, it's just they have damaged lives and those lives are reflected in these teenagers.
And that's kind of the story I wanted to write. I wanted it to be more than about a rape, but to be about these kids and they are good kids, but they have some damage, all of them.
Yes. I think again empathy is just so shining through in everything that I've read, everything that you've written, the empathy towards people and all their light and darkness, I guess shines through and...
Yeah, I hope so.
Yeah. And I'm thinking like of tying the thread of empathy together with the process of writing you just described, which is not following a narrative arc or a plot. Let's move into your teaching and I know you're a wonderful teacher with a lot of experience teaching, and I wondered two things, one, how teaching hurts or helps your own writing, and two, more about how you teach with the process that you just described.
Well, start with how I teach which is oh, my writing teacher, maybe someone else said it before he did, but he said "I am not sure creative writing can be taught but it can be learned" and I teach them I think to look closely at human behavior but I teach them to look at the world. And I think that's mostly what I've been teaching for the past 30 years, how to wake up, and they do and then they go back into the world and I have, students writing me, they're lawyers in Miami and you know, and they're in the world but they want to keep that awakeness alive. And so I do hear from them, over and over. And I can tell that they're reaching back because they want to keep that aliveness and it's hard to do in the world, working job, you know, but I think that's really what I've taught them along with writing a story, but you know, everybody's story is different so it's a very individualized process to me so that I have to hear what they want to tell and how they want to tell it...
So that I can't tell them how to do something, I can only tell them to go deeper into the character. I ask questions about their character until their character comes alive to them.
But, I've retired now. I did love teaching. I love, you know, watching their minds open into that new imaginative place, but when I was teaching, it's right, I couldn't write seriously. I could work on a scene, I could take notes about stories or poems or I could begin something, but I couldn't ever finish a novel or story or a poem while I was teaching because to finish something takes a kind of commitment and I was giving that away to the students so I didn't have it for myself. And I was always grading papers or preparing for classes. I love those years but I also love being retired and having more time to write and read the things I want to read not just the things that I'm teaching, you know, just read all the things I want to read.
What are you reading now?
I love Van Gogh and I'm reading a book on Van Gogh by two scholars. I don't think they adore Van Gogh as much as I do. They're kind of critical of him. I'm sure he has many things to be criticized but I see him as a very spiritual figure. I'm rereading some short stories by Richard Yates who is a master at the short story. I'm reading, I'm always reading some science, David Bohm is a physicist and he has written something on the implicate order and I'm trying to figure that out. I'm reading all kinds of things about that and trying to figure that out.
He was a friend of a friend who was a dream therapist and used to visit her in New York at her apartment.
Oh really? Who was the dream therapist?
Catherine Steinberg and she and her husband were friends with David Bohm so, he's a fascinating man
He's wonderful. He's a wonderful writer and is accessible, more accessible than others. I'm in a young group, I have been reading for 25 years and I love the way he talks about the darkness and I'm in a group of people who are reading him. Right now, we are reading a lot about dreams. I'm always reading some kind of poetry.
You know, Robert Richardson. He wrote a book on Emerson and one on Theroux and one on William James, I've just sent you one on William James, but he's also written a book that's marvelous called The Heart of William James. And so, you know, I always have about eight books going, different kinds, and if I get to nine or 10, I make myself finish one (laughs) before I go on to the next one.
Before they topple off the nightstand, right?
Yes, right, right.
And so, in between all of the reading, you also, I know you recently completed the novel.
Yes. I completed a novel and sent it to my agent, Marly Rusoff, and the title is Question of Mercy.
And it said in the 1950s during the Korean War, a young girl named Jess loses her mother, her mother dies and her father remarries a woman who has a mentally challenged son, they called it retarded at that time in the 50s. The girl hates the intrusion of the new mother and this weird brother she calls him, his name is Adam. As time goes on, she begins to love him, but the boy, Adam, is at the center of this novel. I taught special education for almost 10 years, in my 20s and 30s and the students I taught were more mentally challenged than this boy is, but I did see how a lack of formal intelligence created children or people with no meanness in them. I think meanness takes a kind of intelligence. Now, they could be bad, but they were never mean and I love being around these kids. I've never forgotten their perseverance and their kindness, and so, my love for Adam comes from my love for those children. But, in the 40s and 50s, these mentally deficient kids, were sent to institutions. As they begin to develop their sexuality, their parents would usually get scared and they were lobotomized as Rosemary Kennedy was lobotomized
Yes, right. Yes.
Some were castrated, they were put into induced comas, this too is part of my novel and there is a moral decision that has to be made. You know, I started this novel wanting to write about a good person. I had read Dostoevsky's The Idiot, I'd read Don Quixote's Cervantes and usually, if an author writes about a good person, that person is slightly off or crazy...
And I didn't wanna do that so the good person in this novel is the girl, Jess, but it's a good person who does the terrible thing and the reader has to decide if the thing that society says is criminal might be something that they themselves might've done. You know, I like stories and novels that disturbs slightly or challenge our normal thinking and so, we'll see if anybody will take it. (crosstalk) sell it now.
It sounds wonderful. I look forward to holding it in my hands and reading it.
I'll send you a copy when it's done.
Alright, alright. What about, you do, you move back and forth between novels and again, your most recently published book is I Have Told You and Told You, which is a book of poems. How does that work moving back and forth between those genres?
I like moving back and forth. I've been working on the book of poems years, maybe 25 years, 30 years. Some of those were written a long time ago, but I've just been always writing poetry. I think maybe it's my first love, but my brother is a poet, my brother is __32:31__ and he's the poet. So, he's got that. But, he made me love poetry and so I'm always writing poems but I, in between, I usually can tell now when I start something. I start with a character or a scene or an image. If it's an image, it's usually a poem. Characters are stories or novels. But, I can tell if it's a kind of piece of a life, it's a short story, if it's gonna, I can tell pretty soon if it's a poem or a story or a novel and I'm working on a book of essays right now I call Vespers and it's really about spiritual life, which I'm very uncomfortable writing about but those are essays and that, I'm not sure, what starts an essay for me, maybe some idea that I get while I'm reading something and see it move into a part of recognizable life.
Maybe that's how it starts but...
I'm delighted to know that you're writing a book of essays about spirituality and...
That's hard to write about, you know.
Yeah. Yes. Without being cliché or...
That's right. That's right.
Without missing the mark, I guess. Do you see a connection between writing and spirituality in your own life, in your practices, I guess or on your own journey? And the word spirituality itself, I think, is a weighted word, but...
I think so too.
Yeah. But whatever it means for you and your life, and that's probably a movable thing to what it means, but how do you see it connecting to the act of writing or vice versa?
You know, I might be able to answer that better after I finish this book...
But I've never seen it connected to my writing connected to spirituality except to try to tell the truth and spirituality to me is so private and so how in the world am I gonna write about this thing? I write about silence (laughs), that's the hardest one to write about. I write about darkness, that's part of my spirituality, facing the adversary and that your calling says that's the only way transformation can occur is by facing it, and so, in that way, maybe it enters my writing but I'm not sure it's all that conscious, maybe with this book, I will make it more conscious. I wrote about one essay about contemplating columbine and the laws of imagination and oh, let's see, and a lot of this comes from reading other things that give me images that talk about an idea that's better than talking about it straight out, so I think even in these essays, telling stories and using images.
Yes, well I'm really gonna look part of that book.
If I ever finish it (laughs)
You will, you will. We're coming up on the end of our time together unfortunately. I feel like I could talk with you much longer but I wanna make sure that we have time for you to read another one of your poems as well and...
I would love for you to share that with our listeners.
Okay. Alright. This is a poem I, oh, the book I Have Told You and Told You, my editor was going to change the title which I love because I didn't have a titled poem so I said, "No, no. I'll write a titled poem" so I wrote a titled poem for my students and I always told my students to be awake. I would say, "Do you care how light falls into a room?" (laughs) "Do you care a lot?" and so, this is for my students. Also, when I married my husband, I always go out and look at the moon at night and I sit on the ground and one night, he woke up in the morning and he said "Why do we have leaves in our bed?" (laughs) that part is (inaudible). For my students; "I have told and told you not to throw sticks. When you pick up a stick, look instead to see if it has life, any shade of green or see if it is brittle, breaking apart - either way is right. I have told you so many times how to peel a peach. Skimming the thin edge of fuzz to find the pulp and juice below. I have told you to bury the large hard seed and a whole tree might grow. I have said you must dip your feet into every river you pass so that water licks your legs and for a moment, breaks the flow before all goes back to what it was. I have told you and told you to rise up in the middle of the night, to see the moon, to find where it is, to sit on the ground in the moonlight...
until leaves stick to your gown and the next morning, wake to find leaves on your bed sheet. I have instructed you about ways to sing to animals and rocks, to children in the yard, to a hummingbird or to yourself when you remember someone who is gone. I have told you to see the world, to be awake and amazed at the way light falls into a room or the way shadows change with each season, to walk on mountain sides anticipating a glimpse of those tiny blue flowers hiding beneath thick stems. I have told you to seek the heart of someone's face, to look behind what is said and hear the language of all that cannot be spoken. I have told you too about trees and how they die inside those rings, wrapping them around your arms until you don't remember who you are. If you can do these things, you will never be bored. You will be wide, wide awake."
Again, absolutely beautiful. Beautiful.
Thank you, Donna.
Your writings, to me, your writings help readers awake and that's a true gift to all of us. So, thank you.
Again, I'd love to talk forever, but I'm going to put on the closing here and I just thank you so much. Oh, before I end, is there anything, we're waiting for the novel to come out and the book of essays to be finished, are there any other upcoming events or (crosstalk) to know about?
The book Night Talk is a freshmen, it was chosen for the freshmen at Wofford College and I'm setting up some readings in Durham but I don't have them posted yet. It's elizabethcox.net, it's where you'd find me.
Yes, elizabethcox.net, yes, and your books are there and we have your books for sale on the Tiferet website as well and we're going to give a copy of I Have Told You and Told You to one of our listeners tonight too so...
Good. Thank you.
Thank you so much, Elizabeth, and...
I enjoyed this so much, thank you!
Alright. Me too. Thank you. And have a good rest of your evening.
Alright. Goodbye, Donna.
Bye, bye. I hope you've enjoyed tonight's Tiferet talk. The show will be archived and accessible for later listening on our website at www.tiferetjournal.com. You're invited to join our global community of writers there and to subscribe to our literary magazine. You can enjoy a generous 40% off summer discount if we hear from you before August 31st. While on the website, you can also order a copy of our first Tiferet talk, book of transcribed interviews, with Robert Pinsky, Ed Hirsch, Julia Cameron, and more. Special thanks for this and all our shows to Melissa Studdard, R Jeffreys, and Udo Hintze. Please join us at Tiferet Talk next month when we interview poet, Aliki Barnstone on Tuesday, August 12, at 7 p.m. Eastern standard time. If you have questions you'd like to ask this wonderful poet, please email them to us at email@example.com before the show. In the meantime, all of us at Tiferet wish you and the world a meaningful and creative peace.
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