Matthew Lippman and Elizabeth A.I. Powell
Constructing Love and Truth: A Conversation




Your poems make me fall in love with you. The poet you. That’s because I search my whole life for voices that organically resonate in my bones and spirit and I find one, then I fall in love. These poems in ATOMIZER, make me fall in love in a way that wonders: Do you think, as you have evolved and grown as a poet, that the matters of the heart—love, rage, sorrow, ecstasy, holding—have become more important to write about in a generous manner, for you ? These poems in ATOMIZER are so generous. They bring the reader so close and it feels like that this is intentional. Can you comment on this notion of ‘generosity’ and ‘heart’ in these poems? I am thinking, specifically, about poems like, “Killing Rabbits,” “Match.Com,” and “Escape,” but, really, the whole collection.



I think one falls in love when there is a gut recognition about a shared truth or that someone has scaled the glacier of truth that has previously eluded one. Love as truth, truth as love. As French philosopher Alain Badiou has written: “To make a declaration of love is to move on from the event-encounter to embark on a construction of truth.” When we recognize the other in a voice in a poem, too, we are constructing a truth.” Truth and Love are abstract feelings and ideas that grow over time and experience, and that’s why the questions that we must live change over time. Like Mallarme, Badiou sees poetry as "chance defeated word by word."  To live is a verb adjacent to the verb to love. Moreover, song and voice lull and lure, they are a way we say to those who might love us, pssst over here buster….. Let us construct a truth, which is much like….Let us construct a poem.


Regarding “," that diptych of poems responds to the modern dilemma of online dating and what, in a philosophical sense that does to love with all its commercialism. Those poems, and the book in general, are informed by my favorite of Alain Badiou’s work, “In Praise of Love," where he points out:


             “That’s right. Paris is plastered with posters for the Meetic                             internet dating-site, whose ads I find really disturbing.” Get                       Love without chance!’ And then another says: ‘Be in love                             without falling in love!” ... I believe this hype reflects a safe                       first concept of “love”.... The Meetic approach reminds me of                     the propaganda of the American army when promoting the                       idea of “smart” bombs and “zero dead” wars....It’s all rather the                 same scenario...nothing random, no chance encounters.


               Backed as it is, with all the resources of a wide-scale                                       advertising campaign. I see it  as the first threat to love...”


And love can be threatened in so many other ways, by society, by family, by hate, as “Escape” and “Killing Rabbits” explore.


For me, love has much to do with recognition: The light in me honors the divine light in you. Like your poem “A First True Love Big Problem” in SADLY MESMERIZINGLY BEAUTIFUL says : “ My problem is that I think every conversation is filled with love and the big heart.” It is that kind of empathy that informs your work with such generosity. I love the ending of that poem, the moment where the world is too much with us:


“There’s too much of it in my heart

And I want everyone to have it, all of us.

That’s my problem. It’s huge.

It gets me in so much trouble.

Do you feel it?

Forgive me if I want you to have it, too.”


That’s a wild stay against confusion that I wish for in poems. How everything is all mixed up in everything. It’s beyond postmodern. Sometimes I think if my grandparents came back to earth they wouldn’t believe their eyes. It’s almost as if your poems try to help me reconcile myself to this mysterious other self who has to live in this strange moment we find ourselves in, politically and otherwise.



At the end of the line, the road, the end of the day, and during the day, most importantly during the day, the most essential thing we can give one another is the open palm. “Here, take my hand. I’ve got you.” It’s not just some bull crap. It’s real. “I know you’ve had a hard day. I got dinner.” You know, that kind of thing. Everything stems from this gesture. The way I treat others. The way I treat myself. That’s all I want my poetry to be about. All poetry. Because, for me, generosity is everything. These poems of yours are about this, too. The generous and open spirit. I swear to God when I read “At Old Yankee Stadium” I wept. These lines:


Baseball is never the problem, mostly the solution.

There is no buzzer in baseball.

Everyone you love is everyone you love in 1977

Because we hadn’t invented ironic distance yet.



It seems, as I get older, that it was a lot easier to love a lot more people in 1977. But, really, that’s just nostalgia talking. What’s real is that you recognize in this poem that it does not matter what time period we era we are in--technological, industrial--everyone that you love is everyone that you love. “At Old Yankee Stadium” is about the distance between people, the real and the imagined, and how, in that distance, we find each other. The dead Thurman Munson and the imaginary husband on the plane that went down with the brass-balled catcher. The one and the other no matter the circumstances. As someone who loves baseball you are someone who loves the quiet, contemplative space between exact distances and the messiness that happens between those distances, those lines and bases. It is the most generous sport because it is the quietest sport and what happens on the field is what I want to happen in poems. The big, quiet, open heartedness. The messiness. That’s the love and this is why I love your poems.

You give us this love here:


My mood ring was purple most of the time, which meant

I was becoming more visible with a kind of looting intensity,

Like the great silence of my imaginary husband

Rounding the bases, sliding so fast into home

He made the present emerge right here,

The old stadium gone.


But, it’s not gone, because that ‘old stadium’ is the old heart and you beat it into nowness with these poems and so, because of this, generosity the construction of love is everywhere (and everyone) in your work and in your living, which, of course, is more important than anything that ever happens in a poem. It has to be in your living, in your daily life, this generosity. If it’s not, I don’t think one can write poems with the openness that happens in your work.



Yes, baseball is a deeply poetic sport. If Gaston Bachelard were alive I wish he would write about the spaces and psychodynamics and poetics of baseball. I think we are poetic siblings, raised on the temple of late 1970’s baseball. And I also feel a deep sisterhood to your voice vis a vis Jewish humor’s way of letting laughter try to soak up the dark despair of nothingness in order to become beauty.


Yours is a poetic voice that pays tribute to the depth and trembling of Yiddish theater or maybe the comic timing of a joke within the line’s own timing, which is the freedom and safety of Jewish humor in a world that is increasingly dangerous. As Mel Brooks has said: “If they’re laughing, how can they bludgeon you to death?”


Sometimes I find myself following that line of thinking, bursting out into humor as a refuge from pain. Can you talk a bit about that aspect of humor in your work?



I get asked this a lot, about the humor. It goes back to the generosity thing. I’ve always been able to make people laugh. Laughter, for me, is about joy. So, I want to bring that to the world, to people, when they read a poem. It’s a way of blowing folks open a bit. It’s a way of blowing myself open, too, and, selfishly, I like when that happens. When the playfulness, or the playing with humor, brings joy even in the darkest of moments and subjects.




There is also a tension in your work where oppositions are held together by love and truth in a way that creates the mesmerizingly sadly beautiful world we find ourselves in, like in your startlingly poignant poem “Moaned a Little Moan”:


One day you are going to die.

I will come to your funeral and miss you.

I will cry.

When it is over,

I will go to the store and buy Brillo pads for tomorrow night’s greasy dishes.

It is important.

Nothing is important

And the soft tissue is everything.


In other poems, too, there is a construction of truth and love through opposition. Can you tell me about where that comes from?



I think I have to put this back on your work for a second. See, I have been unable to stop thinking about your poem “Killing Rabbits.” I want to say it is about sex and abortion and love and womanhood and freedom and yet I don’t know what to say about it, really. Only that it’s a poem that resonates with me on some primal terrain, inside and outside of my consciousness and experience. Your complete voice is here in this poem.


It’s a brilliant poem that, at its core, compresses opposition, opposing forces, into something so exquisitely unsettling. The moment when you write:


I am a free woman because I place my legs in stirrups and kill a baby and a rabbit. Full moon that night. We fuck like rabbits, take acid, watch Bugs Bunny,

Looney Tunes.

Death is everywhere and pretends to be life, eats too much dirty lettuce.


...breaks me up around the ankles, so my whole body pancakes down to dust every time I read it. This idea/feeling of being a free woman because one can put her legs in stirrups ‘and kill a baby and a rabbit’ is so intense. In these lines you capture something so foreign to me, physically, because it’s so intimate and un-male. But--and I don’t quite get this yet in my development as a human--I feel it in my bones. Perhaps because what I feel is truth and love through opposing forces--freedom and sex and sadness and Loony Tunes and desire and profound loss. It occured to me, in my late 30s, early 40s, that this kind of tension brought on by opposition was the only thing that would save me from being a mediocre poet. Every poem needs to work towards that point where things collide. Two or three things. I find that every time I write a poem I am struggling towards that moment to get something cool and disconcerting and beautiful and wild. It’s the best thing ever. Seriously, because it’s so much fun.


This is what the composition process is for me, fun. And For you? What is it like for Elizabeth Powell?



There is something magnetic about the composition of poetry, the push and pull of forces. I like to think of composition as a kind of string theory of poetry, which is driven by forces like intuition and emotion and reaction to physical space, things like gravitational pull, or the nature of how time exists. Composition is letting the brain’s most mysterious space telegraph to us messages that will save us. Composition is an opportunity to receive answers to the our SOS-save our souls-questions. I think you and I have similar SOS questions, no?



That is interesting to me because I have been trying to put my finger on something that has eluded me while reading ATOMIZER. It’s that I want to be your sister. Not your brother. The poems open something very feminine in me. That’s all I know as a man. I am surprised that I am saying this but when I read lines, “O, olfactory neurons. Sensory pathway through space and time. Heart notes hold the scent just before the top notes evaporate. Heart notes are the distinctive aspects of perfume, most alluring-charming, most  intelligent and clever,” from the section “Heart Notes” in the poem “Atomizer,” that side of me is opened up and I feel like your sister, or, a sister to the poet. It’s mysterious and I love that mysteriousness. I am so grateful for it because it so surprising and I believe that one of the essential elements of any poem is to help us discover something about the world and ourselves inside of ourselves inside the world. These poems have that effect. Their exact sensuality, their precise sensuality, destroys anything myopic in the reader and human experience, animal experience, takes just goes nuts into beauty. Because these poems, this voice of yours, is all “heart notes”, and so they blow apart any notion of human construct. It's a language that dissolves boundaries and categories. That is why, when I read these poems, I am your sister and I love being your sister.



And I am your brother! What happened in these new poems in ATOMIZER is that I allowed myself to sledgehammer what I thought to be true in order to find deeper meanings. I made myself look at my past poems and ask them what they weren’t telling me. These new poems are a kind of relenting to the questions of living, to stop trying to wrestle angels so hard until they swear to bless me. I wanted my poems to help me to stop getting wounded in this world that can sometimes be quite beautiful. And that is where I feel a deep sisterhood to your new book, that tension of duality as a way to explore beauty and being. In MESMERIZINGLY SADLY BEAUTIFUL the tensions of earth and all its attendant cares is revealed through those tensions, which seem irreconcilable.



Right. I feel the poems in ATOMIZER are working so hard to move out of violence into beauty. It’s a birthing kind of thing of sorts of styles. I don’t know. I am a guy and these poems are so female. I don’t even know what I mean by that because I don’t know what to say anymore and I keep saying this in the world, “I don’t know what to say anymore.” Your poems are so much about the experience of being female, a woman, in all of these difficult and beautiful ways. The honesty and breadth of emotive hunger is right there on the surface. It’s elemental, primal. Can you talk a bit about “Poems With Atoms In It.” I love this notion of ‘spray’, or ‘spraying’ as in water, perfume, scent, animal.



“Poem With Atoms in It” comes from hanging out in art museums with my scientist grandfather. He infused me with the sense that art and science didn’t have to be in an either/or construct. The poem wanted to explore the atomic structure of beauty as well as the elemental structure.


And that’s what I love about poems in MESMERIZINGLY SADLY BEAUTIFUL the vulnerability, the truth of not knowing what to say anymore when it is as plain as day that something is going very wrong, environmentally, politically, and that to believe in love despite the dearth and horror of our contemporary truths in the political and thus the personal realm is a way to survive. I love how so many of the poems in your book call out the insane plenty of 21st century America, a place with:


twelve acres of Ho Hos

thirteen thousand bottles of twitter tweets

I am sure there are kids in other worlds

that could conceive….”.


It is a plenty that makes us sick with commercialism and hate, and yet your poems set out to find the beauty in which “someone will love you many times/ Many times over and over a red flame…”.


Yet, there is a childlike narrator still inside me, the child that is your brother, that I find enacted on the pages of your monumental poem “The Ocean is a Flower called Roberto Clemente.” In some ways ``I have been seven ever since” the great tragedy of the death of the one “who swings for the fences,” and yet it is only in the recognition of grief that one can transform it. We are all still children in adult bodies, and this allows us to shapeshift, be whoever we want to be in relation to the other, as long as it comes out of empathy and understanding. Again, baseball is a way to contemplate the world.


Your poems, like Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,” represent a stay against the confusion of our modern day laments. The transfiguring grace of understanding between parent and child, between lovers and friends brings love front and center. I think you love my poems because your poems actively love because “one day you are going to die/ You’re going to get up in the morning and you are not going to live anymore” as you say in “ And you Moaned a Little Moan.”


As Rilke said in his “Letters to a Young Poet”: We must live the questions. When did you realize what this book you were writing was “about”? What questions were you living that your poems were trying to answer?



The essential question was: How the fuck am I going to survive this? I mean everything and anything: the political situation, being a parent, my heart, my song, my body. But, then it got bigger, the question: How are any of us going to survive this? Every day the world is always very clear to me. There are beautiful things and there are not beautiful things and in temperament and in temperatures there is one commonality: sadness. Rilke knew this. Actually, when I was a young man, his words, his poems, his letters, put what I was feeling in my life into some context. Sadness is everything, where all the best stuff comes from. I think this is one of the reasons why I love your book so much. Out of the violence, and the sorrow, there is this celebration. You write the violence alive. Your poem ‘Fumigation’ is one that illustrates this with such a sparkling: “I hum like a propane heater, rusted, but operational.” And then, at the end of the poem, “Once I loved you madly like a girl pirate,/Now I use my sword to pick up moldy, low-loft towels from the floor.” Can you speak to how this poem unfolded? Every time I read it I am in a constant state of surprise.



This poem unfolds like an advertisement until someone rushes in on set to offer a reality check on the commercialization of home and hearth and heart. I try to use all my senses to suss out the truth, find out what is elemental and true.



Yes. I know in my bones that one of the elements of fire that burn in both of us, because fire has many elements, is this deep appreciation we have of and for love. It is central to everything in your poems. Perhaps, even though there is a slipping in and out of destruction and violence in the work, there is also kindness. It’s very simple. It’s very spiritual. It’s almost God-esque and it comes from being sweltered by the heat of hurt and sadness. There is this moment in your poem “Shorewood Hills,” where you write:


The trees move toward the light,

which is also toward each other,

felled yet live again,

bloom great bowls and blossoms.

I reach over to touch your arm,

the long limb of you.

The oak calls like God through time:

I recall the girl I was and still am,

all thick with sap and leaf and hubris.


Damn. This moment here, “I recall the girl I was and still am,” this is what I am talking about. The touching, the being ‘felled’ and the connection to earthly and non-earthly things. This is love. It’s love right and always. So, if I have a question for you it is this: do you think that no matter how hard and difficult things can get, your poems are an organism of resistance against that difficulty? Is your poetry a small and spectacular form of resistance against the hurt into the love?




Yes, the girl I was and still am is the same as the boy narrator in your Roberto Clemente poem who will always be seven. Constructing truth and beauty is our stay against impermanence and pain.





Found In Volume 49, No. 06
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Matthew Lippman and Elizabeth A.I. Powell
About the Author

Matthew Lippman and Elizabeth AI Powell have new books of poems out in 2020. Lippman’s Sadly Mesmerizingly Beautiful won the Four Way Books Larry Levis Prize, and was published in February 2020. Powell’s third book of poems, Atomizer, was released in September 2020 by Louisiana State University Press.