A good year for Liz Powell


Don Landewherle

Associate Professor of Writing and Literature Elizabeth Powell

2016 is shaping up to be an exciting year for Associate Professor of Writing and Literature Liz Powell. An accomplished poet, Powell has been awarded the 2015 Robert Dana-Anhinga Prize for poetry for her second book of poems,Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter: Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances.”

In addition to having her new book published by one of the United States’ premiere poetry presses in Anhinga Press later this year, Powell will embark on a reading tour of several Floridian colleges.

The Robert Dana-Anhinga Prize for Poetry was established in 1983, more than a decade after the inception of Anhinga Press in Tallahassee, Florida, for all poets interested in submitting an original 48- to 80-page manuscript in English. The Robert Dana-Anhinga award recognizes the most compelling works from the manuscripts received during the designated months for submission, Feb. 15 through May 20, 2015.

Fellow poet and Yale alumna Anna Maria Hong culled the title poem of Powell’s book, “Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter: A Story in Couplets,” for the Best American Poetry Series blog on Nov. 20, 2015. Within the post, Hong lauds Powell’s work for her marriage of different elements such as drama, essay, and verse to convey the message of her poems.

Even with her recent accomplishments, Powell remains humble upon receiving her award. “I think a lifetime is a process, and in all processes there are steps. Sometimes the steps are ordered and sometimes they’re meandering,” says Powell. “I don’t tend to compare one thing to another. I think each thing we do in our lives is its own.”

As for the prize itself, Powell understands the significance of her award and what it entails. “I’m thrilled that this book won the Robert Dana prize, it was a long time in the making.”

The inspiration for Powell’s new book has its roots in playwright Arthur Miller’s seminal work, “Death of a Salesman.” In addition to Miller, Powell cites contemporary playwright David Mamet for his own recurring motifs involving American business.

“‘Death of a Salesman’ has always stood out to me as sort of larger than life,” says Powell. “I grew up with a travelling salesman; everyone in my family was in business. I just thought that Willy Loman was such an iconic character. But then I wondered, what’s the female role in that road warrior narrative? Because there’s Linda Loman, the wife, and she’s especially submissive and in many ways part of the larger problem, but she’s not given much of a voice at all. So, I wondered, what is the female voice of the American dream gone wrong?”

According to Powell, the foundation for her new book was laid while writing a few initial persona poems.

“I wasn’t sure who the voice was, and I suddenly started to realize that the voice was of the daughter of the American businessman, the daughter of somebody much like Willy Loman. I started to think about the erasure of the female voice and the silencing of the female voice,” she adds. “I wanted to come up with an erased character. This imagines that when Willy Loman has an affair with the woman in the play, that there is a daughter from that union; the long poem in the book speaks from that voice.”

Powell’s new book also calls upon American actor Sanford Meisner for its subtitle and influence of method acting. “That’s where the other part of the book’s title comes from. Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances, that’s what he defined acting was,” says Powell. “I think that’s also a metaphor for life and disillusionment, learning to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances. It’s true of acting, but maybe in some way reality is imaginary and in what ways is that so? And how do we act out of that?”

Powell cites fellow writers Claudia Rankine and current Green Mountains Review Nonfiction and Managing Editor Jessica Hendry Nelson as inspiration for their innovation on their respective works. “This [book] is a way to bring many different genres that I find compelling into one place, looking at an issue from many different sides,” Powell said.

Powell’s influences as a poet are as eclectic as the 2016 Coachella music festival lineup. Her references include Kenneth Koch, the aforementioned Rankine, Eileen Myles, Elizabeth Bishop, and Frank O’Hara. Powell also divulges her interest in several confessional poets such as Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and Anne Sexton, among others.

As Powell looks into her future endeavors, she insists that any pressure to out-do her previous successes are not from any external source, but internal. “I think the pressure comes from having a question that arises in one’s soul, and then having to answer that question,” says Powell. “I think that’s where the pressure is for the artist or the writer.”

“I know that this world is a temporary place and all things in it in some ways are temporary. So I choose not to succumb to the pressures of the workaday world and the insistence of social media and all those voices that ultimately aren’t that important,” Powell says. “What’s important are the real questions of what it means to lead an examined life. That’s where I feel the pressure from, I don’t know if I’d call it pressure exactly.

“How am I going to lead an examined life given all of the constraints I have? Also, how can I have the time to think about those questions and explore those questions through my art? That’s where the pressure comes from. The meditative quality of it is if I don’t get to it, there’s an internal pressure that builds up because one is not doing one’s work.”

Even with her recent success, Powell remains hard at work on new material for the future, providing details on another book she’s in the process of writing.

“I’ve been writing a lot of lyric essays lately, I’m interested in that form where the lyricism meets poetry, having a fragmented lyric and how that is poetic but also can be essayistic,” says Powell. “So I’ve been working on some projects like that, and also finishing up a third collection of poetry called ‘Object and Experience: “If” is Further than You Think,’” Powell says of her new works. “It looks at all the objects in our lives and how we experience them, [and] how those experiences create ideas we have about life.”

For Powell, the demands of teaching creative writing complement her own work. “When I’m teaching creative writing, the worlds coincide well,” says Powell. “Because the creative writing exercises I give my students, I do them, too. I try and write along with them at home. So that inspires me and helps me look at my own work with a sharper eye. By doing and teaching the craft, I’m constantly having to think about it.”

“Of course there is a balance between being an educator and an artist. To be an educator you need to use your extroverted self, and the writer and artist needs introspective time,” Powell says. “The speed of society is what makes the balance difficult.”

With a new award for her mantel and a new book being published in September, Powell’s year has had an excellent beginning. Even so, she remains cognizant of the need for young artists and creative thinkers to step forth to have a presence in Vermont’s workforce.

“At the Vermont State College’s retreat a couple of summers ago, we had Vermont business saying ‘We need creative thinkers in Vermont to be the workers of Vermont,’” Powell says. “To know how to do a job well takes creativity and imagination.”

Powell remains confident that the humanities and fine arts are ever relevant in today’s society. “Start a revolution, be an artist. Learn for learning’s sake. I like what Joseph Campbell said, you know, ‘follow your bliss.’ I think when human beings are creating things and thinking about things, it makes the world a safer, more peaceful place for all of us.”