INTERVIEW WITH ELIZABETH QUINLAN
Photo: Jon Gummer
How long did it take you to work on your book, Promise Supermarket? Was it painful to write about your childhood?
The first poems in the series, I wrote twenty-nine years ago— while my young daughter slept, I enjoyed a long bath. Two poems:
Betty’s Faith, (which spawned a play) and Spencer Avenue, became many poems, eventually became the second manuscript in the memoir
series. The poems came out whole, though they went through revisions through the years—I added the prayer years later, and characters
came out into their own poems. After awhile it’s as if the work has a life of its own! Later, I found fragments or images in the
poems in my earlier journals (where I started most of my poems). There were very different versions of the collection over the
years. Through the years I’d put it away, and pick it up again— going a little deeper.
I first started to tell some of the stories in my visual artwork. When I was at the Boston Museum School, (in my twenties) I
did a series of black and white etchings, from my dreams. Nightmares really! They were created on a subconscious level— I didn’t
understand why they disturbed people. They were very grotesque and quite explicit. Now, most of the meanings of the images are
clear to me. I understand what stories they were trying to tell.
There were experiences that I’d never forgotten but hadn’t realized the full significance of— my parents behaviors had a deep
effect on me. That last door of memories terrified me. I would write a word, a fragment, an image— then hide my journal under
my mattress. But I have told these stories! I have a strong belief in the creative spirit as a healing force giving hope.
The title poem of the book, Promise Supermarket, still fills up my throat when I read it, as does Mental Tests— because I
can still feel my mother’s pain and shame. There is a poem, In the Dark, in the second manuscript, which revisits in a fuller
way the experience of my mother being hit by the plate my father has thrown. That night, when my mother bled (what seemed to me
as a child) all night—was probably the most traumatic event. We were so isolated emotionally—we just cried and prayed.
Even though I had written the poem, Betty’s Faith, years earlier—watching a film, where suddenly blood ran down a woman’s face,
I was stunned back to that event. I recall sitting in Barbara Helfgott Hyett’s workshop in her home, and starting to read that
poem, In the Dark, and was then again that broken child, crying. Some one beside me gently read the poem for me.
I think it’s important to feel safe, when you explore this kind of work. I am very grateful that the years I went deeper into
these memories I had an excellent therapist— she was my guide.
Talk about your experiences going to the Joiner Center. What were the things you learned attending workshops?
This past June was my eleventh year attending the Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences, Writer’s Workshop.
I could go on and on— it’s an amazing community of writers, too many to name, and wonderful participants. The Workshop this year
runs from June 15-26th. You can attend for one week of two weeks. I’ve worked with many esteemed writers: Bruce Weigl; Marilyn
Nelson (whose coming back this year); Macdara Woods, Larry Heinemann, Eva Bourke and many more. Other writers, filmmakers,
playwrights have come to lead workshops and/or to participant in panels. Iraq Veterans Against the War, came several years ago,
when they were a small brave group speaking out that has since grown to a very strong movement. Grace Paley was a regular we
looked forward to: her down to earth humor, stories and ideas—she came even while she was dying. Martha Collins ran the
translation workshop for years; and has translated two books of Vietnamese writers. And this June she’s leading a one-week
non-fiction poetry workshop so many of us are excited about. People like Lady Borton, who has lived in Vietnam for many
years and works for the American Friends Service Committee, a wonderful writer— and also has been working to eliminate the
landmines that still litter Vietnam, and brought films that have shown us the still present devastation of Agent Orange on
birth defects. Barbara Sonneborn whose award winning film, Regret to Inform, that took ten years to make, is a remarkable
journey to Vietnam by a widow— as the train moves through the countryside she tells her story, but her story opens into the
stories of Vietnamese widows. She spent two weeks at the Joiner. Her beautiful film could stand as a metaphor of the journey
the Joiner has taken starting with the Vietnam Veterans with their own stories of war and trauma; these writers who are still
telling their remarkable stories, have also gone beyond their own stories...
The work that Kevin Bowen, the Director, Bruce Weigl and Nguyen Ba Chung (all remarkable poets in their own rights), have
done is no less astonishing! These American Vietnam Veterans (and Chung a Vietnamese American) have brought writers from
Vietnam, translated their work, and seen their work to publications: Writing Between the Lines, An Anthology of War and Social Consequences,*
(University of Mass. Press.); Two Rivers, New Vietnamese Writing From America and Vietnam, (University of Hawaii Press). The most
recent translated work is Zen Poems From Early Vietnam, Bowen and Chung ,(Saigon Cultural Publishing House), with images by Nguyen Duy.
The Writer’s Workshop is only part of the Joiner Center’s work— year round it sponsors panels, conferences, and visiting writer’s
and artists in it’s fellowship program. Last month it sponsored For Gaza, a night of readings and conversations at the Cambridge
Friends Meeting House, to an overflowing crowd of people sad and outraged by the deaths. I’ve learned so much I’m grateful for,
as well as having a safe place to work on my own difficult stories. I’ve personally had excellent criticism but also encouragement.
The experience has really opened up my world, to so many voices of struggle and survival. These writers: Kevin, Bruce, Martha, Lady,
Grace Paley…have done so much to cross borders, to create reconciliation and healing in the world. I’m so grateful for the work
they’ve done and keep doing. You can go to the web site to find out more about their work year round and the Writer’s
Martha Collins helped you edit many of your poems. What was this experience like?
It was a wonderful experience— Martha just made my book so much stronger. And her forword for the book, my God, she’s been such
an incredible mentor to me. We go way back, since I worked on my Honors in Poetry with her at UMass/Boston in the late eighties,
and even years before that in a workshop. I was pregnant with my daughter then, and remember giving her poems with a thousand commas,
long winding cryptic poems. I even gave her one of my grotesque etchings of a nightmare for a gift. What was I thinking?
My manuscript for the Honors was a collection of poems, which I called, Betty’s Faith, some that are in the book in different
versions. Martha’s is such a brave writer. As you know her book, Blue Front, is about a lynching her father witnessed as a
child— She never made me feel that the work was too difficult or painful, and understood as well as respected what I was
doing. We took out some of the weaker poems (her instincts were right about that) and we merged some others, and had some of
the same ideas. She even helped me with the cover. Sometimes it was magical: like when I showed her the
last cover (I had made nine versions)and the green on that ninth cover (like the new leaves unfolding in spring)
was one of her favorite colors. She felt it represented a hopefulness. Another time she suggested I change the title, from
Blueberry Storm, to Promise Supermarket— since the Stories started in the country, but they quickly moved to the city.
When I was trying to find a new title for the second manuscript, I thought of Promise Supermarket, but realized that poem
was in the first manuscript. Martha has such a keen eye, is such an expert editor. She was very generous with her time to
take this on. I’m so grateful, and feel truly blessed.
As a visual artist, you have studied book art. Do you make books? What are some of the things you’ve done?
Yes, I do make handmade books. I use to sell them at craft fairs where my daughter would sell her jewelry. But it really wasn’t
very profitable. Mostly, I enjoy making personal books for occasions: gifts for weddings, birthdays, journals, thank you books.
I recently made a triptych book with a kind of medieval look for a thank you gift. I’ve also made healing books (with tree collages)
the pages contained compiled poems or letters from friends sent to a poet experiencing illness or grief. Those were very important
to me. A few years ago, I made a sculpture book, Stories of the Grandmother, a compiling of stories, some family history, photographs,
collages and found objects. The book focused on the complicated relationship between my mother and my grandmother (whom I’d
never met), as well as my relationship with my mother. I would like to turn this into a small edition.
I also teach book arts and make books with all ages from Preschool to school ages to seniors.I am presently working part
time as an artist in residence at Red Oak after school program.
I’ve been making multi-cultural books with the children, and also doing staff workshops for the teachers. I love all parts
of the book arts from decorating papers to making paper and create a lot of my own techniques.
I recently taught my husband, Vincent Dorio, (one of the Jamaica Plain Carpenter Poets) to make books, and he’s turned our
dining room into a (temporary) workshop. He’s completed 41 hard cover hand made books of his poems for a fundraiser. Each
book is distinct and beautiful (which I’ve added a flowers or leaves to the covers) all the proceeds from the sale will go
to St. Margaret’s Convent in Haiti).