Meet the Editors: An Interview with Nonfiction Editor, Elizabeth Theriot
It’s a new year and new staff here at BWR. We (the editors) interviewed each other so that you (the world) could get a sense of us as editors/readers. We’re pleased to meet you!
Interview by CAT INGRID LEECHES
Cat Ingrid Leeches: You entered UA as a poet, yet you seem to be branching out across all genres, even art forms! – recently I listened to your text score, Baby Teeth – can you talk about creating that? Are you working on similar projects? How has this openness and willingness to experiment changed you as a poet?
Elizabeth Theriot: I had no idea what a text score was until last summer—instead of musical notation, the piece moves based on written instruction; these can be very specific or interpretative. “Baby Teeth,” and probably any text score I write (since I’m not a musician!) are super interpretative. Stuff like, “Play the feeling of your tongue pressing beneath bone, into gums. // Duration: As long as it takes to remove the tooth” and “Play your cannonball into the swimming pool, a quick and searing shock. The sound should sting.” Every time I’ve heard my partner play the piece it’s sounded different, and I think any musician could play it with a myriad of instruments. I worked on the text score at a time when I was really struggling to make anything. It was a totally new way of writing and thinking about text—because the text I’m writing isn’t going to be read, but interpreted by a musician, so I had to ask myself questions like…how might this image or situation sound? How could a musician (in this case, I wrote it specifically with improvisational percussion in mind) translate my written directions into sound? Justin and I plan to keep working on text scores together, including ekphrastic work on my end in response to his compositions. I’m also really interested in working with visual artists! I was always one of those kids who hated group work, and carried this distaste for collaboration into adulthood, so my more recent collaborations have definitely challenged me. I’m learning to trust other artists, which is also teaching me to trust any potential readers more and, I suppose, myself—to let go of control, to play, be flexible.
CIL: When I first came to Alabama, everyone told me that you were an amazing cook – and it’s true! What’s your favorite recipe? Can you talk a bit about your relationship with cooking and creativity, and how these parts of your life might meld together?
ET: One of my all-time favorite things to make are sweet potato biscuits! I love biscuits so much. I love bread in general—and I often feel pretty guilty about that, struggle with it. My relationship with food is really complicated. As a child I’d reached an unhealthy weight for my age and height, and subsequently spent all of middle and high-school on various diets…really regimented eating, calorie counting, that kind of thing. To this day I can’t stand the taste of Italian salad dressing! This stuff has been such a huge focal point of my life that I guess it unavoidably impacts my writing life too. Obviously I write a lot about weight, food and dieting, my sense of self-worth/self-depreciation, body positivity and fatphobia…beyond that, I’ve noticed over the last few months that I unconsciously place value on trimming in my work—revision, for me, has usually meant cutting, eliminating, shrinking. I’m trying to let my writing be expansive if it needs to be, to take up space. I’m [always] trying to love both my writing and myself more.
CIL: What books have you read recently that have made you rethink the possibilities of the page?
ET: Phew, first and foremost I’m thinking of Olio by Tyehimba Jess and Patter by Douglas Kearney. I had never ever experienced books like these! Aristilde Kirby’s Sonnet Infinitesimal from BWR 44.1 also completely blew my mind (seriously, treat yourself to it if you haven’t). Also Sea-Witch by Moss Angel Witchmonstr!
CIL: What excites you about the nonfiction genre?
ET: Non-fiction, I think, is a genre of pirates and mad-scientists. There’s so much potential for hybridity and fracture, and something that feels so nascent and malleable about creative nonfiction—precedent doesn’t work in quite the same way as it does with other genres. It resists standardization (despite how often that standardization gets imposed).
Further, in our current moment, insisting truth, challenging accepted truths, and elevating the truths of people under attack just for existing, is so so important. It’s always important, of course. But I think creative nonfiction can only be ballast to resistance. I see such an urgency to assert identity and experience: I am real, my life matters, you do not have the luxury to ignore the truth of me. This can apply to any genre but feels especially significant in creative nonfiction, right now, in print and all-the-heck-over the internet.
CIL: What are your favorite pieces that you’ve read in BWR?
ET: Phew…as far as nonfiction goes, some recent faves are “What Grows Inside” by Jill Schepman and “Feet to the Flames” by Janelle Garcia forthcoming in 44.1, Villany by Justin Phillip Reed and “Monster Glossary” by Alexander Pines, “On Needles” by D. Allen, and “Eva, she kill her one daughter” by Shelley Puhak
CIL: One of the qualities of yours that I admire, is that you are an incredibly open and generous reader. When you are reading submissions, what are you looking for?
ET: I’m not sure if this is a strength or weakness, but when I read anything I tend to respond emotionally first—do I feel curious? Devastated? Elated or excited? A more intellectual (though tbh I reject this binary) engagement with a piece comes later, I think. So with submissions, I’m immediately struck by something that grabs me emotionally, and that can mean many, many different things. I love pieces with a memorable voice; language that is maybe beautiful and maybe ugly but definitely delicious and distinct. Does this essay sound like essays I’ve read before? I also get excited when a submission is doing something different on the page, as text and artifact; maybe something different with paragraph and sentence structures. And let me say, I’ve been reading submissions the last few weeks that are strange, striking, and hit me square in the belly.
CIL: You grew up in Louisiana, and currently live in Alabama, how has the south shaped you as a writer and an artist?
ET: When I first started taking poetry classes as an undergrad I wrote a lot about my mom and Maw-Maw, women who raised me and lived in the South their whole lives, in this specific geographical stretch of St. John Parish…the levees, the Spillway bridge. Using the iconography of this place, and my own matrilineal history, gave me a way into poetry that felt different than just writing about my sad feelings had (although I never really stopped doing that and really none of us should). The specific shapes of [white] Southern girlhood, womanhood, masculinity, race, queerness, landscape, history, they’re always around me.
But it took me a really long time to love and appreciate Louisiana and a Southern upbringing; I wanted to leave the backwards South for someplace with culture. I didn’t recognize that I was surrounded by rich, diverse culture and people everywhere making art, mounting resistance. I’ve found this in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee…idk, I feel like the American South is a convenient scapegoat, often dismissed by the rest of the country as in need of saving or not worth saving. Anyway I guess living here has taught me how to love something that is beautiful and bad and complicated and doesn’t always love me back, the implications of my white femme working-class identity in this context; and this unavoidably lives inside what I wrest with in my writing. It’s hard to imagine myself not living and creating somewhere in the South; I’m past that point of seeing only things I want to escape everywhere. (The summers, though, will never not be significantly hellish.)
CIL: You have two incredible cats – Simon and Mr. Darcy – what are their literary aspirations? Does Mr. Darcy live up to his name?
ET: In some ways Mr. Darcy does live up to his name—especially when I first visited him and his kitty siblings. He was very aloof and reserved, but eventually warmed up to me. Also, he is a tuxedo cat, and Fitzwilliam Darcy is obviously an impeccable dresser. Simon is much more a Mr. Bingley type—he’s sweet and earnest. As for their literary aspirations, I think of them more in terms of music: my partner and I are convinced Simon would be a sad-boy singer/songwriter, and I guess Mr. Darcy would make some kind of eccentric music that takes a long time to listen to, weird and lumbering like him.
(follow me on Instagram @lovecrumbs if you want to see pictures of my cats if you’re into that kind of thing because they’re super perfect)
CIL: We both love Sansa Stark! Can you talk a bit about why you think she’s so amazing?
ET: Honestly I spend too much time thinking about Sansa Stark, so apologies for the length of this (& the spoilers). Sansa was probably the most derided character on GOT in the first few seasons because she was a young girl who wanted all the things young girls are trained to want, like beautiful dresses and a betrothal to a handsome prince. She was a nag, a brat, immature, naïve…If there’s one thing we’re good at culturally, it’s hating girls for being what they’re basically trained to be! But, like so many girls, Sansa had to learn that the things she loved and wanted were too frequently lies and traps that led her to oppression and misery. She was constantly threatened with physical violence in King’s Landing, especially sexual violence. She was isolated and manipulated and controlled. As she grew up she had to quietly, cautiously survive, like so many women. She didn’t exhibit strength in the masculine way we tend to celebrate, like her sister Arya—wearing pants, swinging a sword, exacting bloody revenge. But Sansa Stark is so, so strong.
After Sansa undergoes brutal physical and sexual torture to take back her home, Winterfell (war waged with her body not a battlefield) she exhibits a bit more of this steely, traditionally masculine strength—feeding her rapist-husband to his own hunting dogs, strategizing war and political revenge, not smiling. But her machinations are also of the stereotypically feminine variety, her lying and secret scheming. Women, you gotta remember, can’t be trusted! I’ve seen online criticism of her being too harsh and unsmiling, shrill, a kill joy, challenging Jon Snow’s authority (even though she’s the rightful ruler of Winterfell imo)( #NotMyWardenofTheNorth #ImWithHer)
So yeah, women can’t ever win no matter what they do, how they perform their gender, how they hold power, and Sansa has stopped giving a shit, which I admire; also her winter wardrobe is fantastic.