BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
The Eloquent Poem, a newly released collection of 138 never-before-published contemporary poems, is propelling its editor, the prolific poet Elise Paschen, coast to coast as she introduces its poets and the stories behind their works to large audiences. A Portland book preview sold out immediately, and Paschen is off soon to New York, Tulsa, Boston, and Point Reyes, California, to continue the whirlwind tour.
Having previously edited two New York Times bestsellers, in addition to reaching 13 million people a day through her Poetry in Motion poems on buses and trains in 13 US cities, Paschen articulates daily that poetry should be at the crossroads of American life.
The Eloquent Poem represents diverse cultural and aesthetic backgrounds and a multiplicity of voices and writing styles appealing to a wide variety of readers. At a May launch at the Poetry Foundation here in Chicago, several poets who appear in the anthology, including Rosanna Warren, Calvin Forbes, Angela Jackson, Chris Green, and Helen Spica, read from their works and explained the inspiration behind them. Paschen, author most recently of The Nightlife, Bestiary, and Infidelities, chooses not to publish her own poems in the anthologies she edits.
Fresh from Pilates class following an East Coast tour, Paschen met us at Third Coast to talk about editing the collection. Smiles, laughter, and exuberance come easily to the writer, who has the elegant posture of her mother, the late Maria Tallchief as well as her extraordinary cheekbones. Tallchief was America’s first major prima ballerina and the first Native American to hold that title. Paschen herself is an enrolled member of the Osage Nation.
She had just attended a benefit for the Poetry Society of America at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx featuring an interview of Paul Simon by poet Billy Collins, who appears in The Eloquent Poem. She was also on hand to toast Joy Harjo who received the prestigious Jackson Poetry Prize from Poets &Writers, presented to annually to a writer of exceptional talent whom the organization feels should receive wider recognition.
“She is the first Native American to be named United States Poet Laureate, and she is amazing. She wrote the poem “Break My Heart” specifically for The Eloquent Poem. It is an example of ars poetica, which may be defined as a poem about the act of writing a poem. When writing an ars poetica, you tap into your own creative process and create a metaphor of language for that vision or impulse,” Paschen explains.
It was the poet Gabriel Fried, Poetry Editor for Persea Books, that asked Pashcen to edit the anthology, part of a series including The Eloquent Short Story and The Eloquent Essay. In her introduction to the collection, Paschen tells the reader:
At the heart of The Eloquent Poem beats the teachings of my college professor Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet and Nobel Laureate. I studied with Seamus when I was an undergraduate at Harvard University and participated in several of his classes including one of the first poetry workshops.
He brought in poems weekly by Elizabeth Bishop, Dante Alighieri and William Butler Yeats and others, encouraging close reading of the great masters. I still vividly remember his writing prompts—he called them ‘notions’—based on such poems, an ars poetica, an aubade, an echo poem, a villanelle, a litany. The Eloquent Poem is designed with these various modes in mind, divided into sections by poetry approach—some formal, some occasional and some thematic.
What’s more, the book includes original, never-before published poems—many specifically for it—by some of our best poets, many eminent, many emerging—representing diverse cultural and aesthetic backgrounds, a multiplicity of voices and a variety of styles and approaches to writing poems.
A poet since childhood, Paschen says that she has been editing poetry since her student days at Francis Parker School. “In high school, several of us revived the literary magazine The Prints. At Harvard, I served on the staff of The Harvard Advocate and then became poetry editor,” she shares.
At Magdalen College at Oxford, where she received her master’s and doctorate degrees, her mentor and professor, John Fuller, asked Paschen and three other students—the late Scottish poet Mick Imlah; Nick Jenkins, now an English professor at Stanford University; and Nicola Richardson—to resurrect Oxford Poetry once edited by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice.
Paschen stayed as editor for five years, receiving her D.Phil. in British and American Literature, writing her doctoral dissertation on William Butler Yeats. “Other editors rotated in and out, but I continued in that spot. About five years ago I attended the 100th anniversary of Oxford Poetry and discovered that I had been its longest standing editor.”
She continued, “After Oxford. I went to New York intent on working my way up in something like The Paris Review but then learned of an opening for executive director of the Poetry Society of America in 1988. I lived and breathed my job and in 1992, we launched the Poetry Motion program in New York City. By the time I left the PSA in 2001, we had placed poems in subway cars, buses, and trains in those 13 cities across the country. During that time we co-edited two anthologies based on those Poetry in Motion poems, Poetry in Motion: 100 Poems from the Subways and Buses and Poetry in Motion from Coast to Coast.
In 1997 Paschen wed Stuart Brainerd who grew up in Winnetka and who had just moved back to area. The two decided to live in Chicago to be close to family. For four years she commuted back and forth to New York City for her job at the PSA and, during that time, gave birth to daughter Alexandra and began teaching in the MFA Writing Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “I have a firm vision of my mother wheeling our daughter, Alexandra, around Gramercy Park when I was working in the PSA offices. After I retired from the PSA, I gave birth to our son, Stephen. He was a post-PSA baby!”
Stephen’s birth coincided with the publication of the first in a series of Poetry Speaks anthologies. Paschen was co-editor of Poetry Speaks and Poetry Speaks: Expanded and the editor of Poetry Speaks to Children and Poetry Speaks: Who I Am, both of which appeared on The New York Times bestseller list.
Paschen will teach a course at the School of the Art Institute in the fall based on The Eloquent Poem.