The poet and teacher speaks to Colby Magazine about publishing in The New Yorker, 5 a.m. writing sessions, and the inspiration of middle-schoolers.
Poet Elly Bookman ’09 has continued to ply her craft since studying with Associate Professor of English and poet Adrian Blevins on Mayflower Hill. Publications and awards have followed, including publication in The New Yorker in August. Bookman recently spoke with Colby Magazine about her writing life.
Congratulations on your publication in The New Yorker, Elly. Was this the pinnacle of your career as a poet thus far?
Thank you! And yes, definitely. One of my first publications was in American Poetry Review, in 2010, when I won their Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize and my poem appeared on their back cover. That was a big deal for me, and I’ve always been slightly sure that was as good as it would get. Being in The New Yorker feels like the realization of an even bigger dream, one I didn’t even consider a possibility. I’m very grateful and still shocked.
How did it come about?
I submit constantly, with the mindset that I’m collecting rejections. I sent a batch of poems to The New Yorker on a random afternoon in June of 2016 and then sort of forgot about it, assuming I’d be rejected. When I heard back in January I didn’t believe it at first. I emailed Adrian Blevins and said, “Is this real?” She assured me it was.
So not a poem scam.
No, but it still took me a little while to fully believe it.
Take us through your writing career at Colby. Adrian Blevins [poet and associate professor] was a mentor?
I came to Colby with vague ideas of pursuing journalism. At the end of my freshman year, after I’d taken critical theory and a poetry workshop with Adrian, I declared myself an English major with an emphasis in creative writing. Adrian and I connected because we’re both from the South. (I’m from Atlanta and still live there.) Once I encountered her and started writing poetry in her class, I was hooked. I remember the first poem I turned in for that workshop and the wonderful, encouraging note I got back from her.
And you just kept on writing?
I took more workshops with Adrian after that, worked a little bit with Ira Sadoff, and did an honors project with Adrian in my senior year. Everyone in the Colby English department was always so generous with me; it was an incredibly formative time for me as a writer.
I’ve always written. But in high school I thought I could be a singer-songwriter. I wrote songs on the piano and I loved it. The problem was I had no real skill or natural aptitude on the piano. When I started seriously writing poetry, it was like finding an instrument I could play. I’m still writing and singing songs, but with language and the page as my instrument. It just fits me.
What moves you to write?
I suppose more than anything else I just love the feeling of finding words to describe an experience in such a way that someone else will recognize it in their heart and body. Nothing thrills me more.
Links to more of Bookman’s poems are at ellybookman.com
How would you describe your work?
I think my poems capture instantaneous versions of the self, flashes of consciousness that I hope are recognizable to an audience. I want them to be accessible and relevant, as well, so images of American life, meditations on politics, identity, etc., often work themselves into the scenery of my work.
Speaking of work, you’re a full-time middle school teacher. How do you balance the two parts of your life?
I’m someone who benefits a lot from a routine, and I’m also a morning person. So I get up at 5 every morning and work on poetry for an hour. It’s my favorite part of the day. And the more consistent I am with it, the better the results, so I try to never let myself slack off or skip a morning. Weekends and summers come in handy, too.
Do your students know you’re a poet?
Yes. I teach writing, and so I talk very openly with them about what it’s like to be a “real” writer, which I tell them they all are, too. I show them drafts and talk about process and rejection and failure and success. It’s a valuable exchange for them—and for me.
Do you get inspiration from being with 12- and 13-year-olds?
I rarely write about my students but I definitely get inspiration from them. I often say kids this age are like raw adults, with all the capacity for deeply emotional experience with none of the coping skills or disillusion. They’re true poets, in other words, and getting to read their work and help them develop as writers definitely keeps my poet mind spinning in wonderful ways.
So what’s next?
I’ve been working on assembling a book of poems for what feels like forever, but it’s starting to feel almost done now. I’ll be sending it out to try and get it published this fall. And of course, still collecting rejections, though I’ve had a couple more recent acceptances to keep me encouraged. My next poems will be in the fall issue of Yemassee, a magazine out of South Carolina, and The Georgia Review in the spring.
Life is good?
Yes! More than one person paid me for poetry this year, and I also get to teach at a school I love. I’m very thankful and motivated to keep going.