Interview with Elizabeth Onusko.

Elizabeth Onusko sat down with Tell Tell to talk about her writing process, science writing, grief, and her future projects.
Elizabeth Onusko Cover

Elizabeth Onusko’s first full-length collection, Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor, won the Bryant-Lisembee Book Prize and will be published by Red Paint Hill in spring 2016. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Witness, Best New Poets 2015RedividerThe Awl, and Southern Humanities Review, among others. She is the assistant editor of inter|rupture. Her website is She sat down with Tell Tell to talk about her writing process, science writing, grief, and her future projects.

Kallie Falandays: Your book Portrait of the Future With Trapdoor just won the Bryant-Lisembee Book Prize. Can you talk about what that process was like for you? From writing to publishing? And perhaps can you shine a light on what your post-publishing plans are like? (many of our readers are submitting work out, so they’d love to hear more about this process)

Elizabeth Onusko: After I completed my MFA in 2007, I concentrated on building my career in nonprofits out of necessity. I wrote inconsistently. In retrospect, those years were important — I found my own voice and subject matter without feeling pressure to publish. I just wish I had been able to do that faster.

In 2011, I started thinking about a manuscript. I abandoned my thesis — it was an artifact of my graduate school apprenticeship, which was all it needed to be. For every new poem I wrote that I felt was “book worthy,” I cut another one or two. I only realized I was close to having a manuscript in early 2015 after watching a friend bring her first book into the world. I spent three intense months writing and editing poems. It was an awesome experience; I was in a state of flow. Finally, in April, I began submitting the manuscript. It went through several more incarnations — finding the right order has been my biggest challenge. Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor was rejected thirteen times before it won the Bryant-Lisembee book prize in October. It will be exactly one year from when I first began sending it out to when it will be published, which seems miraculous to me!

My plans now are to promote the book by giving readings, teaching workshops, visiting classes, etc., and to keep writing new work.

How would you describe your work to someone who has never read a single poem?

That is a tough question. I can discuss other poets’ work with relative ease, but describing my own is challenging. Hmm… I would say my poems are slightly obsessed with the process of thinking; they often double back and question and grapple with contradictions, especially those concerning our bodies and society at large. They tend toward the surreal.

Your book was described as “electrically charged” — what do you think makes readers see your work in that way? What it is about language, in your opinion, that can do that?

I care a great deal about tension in poems, particularly in terms of theme, diction, and line. The movement from compression to expansion and vice versa. Which, I suppose, is another way of saying I like to experiment with energy. Where is it coming from and how quickly? What can I do to alter its speed in unexpected but meaningful ways? This is why I am drawn to language as opposed to paint or clay. All of these materials manipulate energy, but I am singularly drawn to how it plays out in words.

Can you talk a little bit about your experience writing and your experience as a reader and perhaps explore the point at which those intersect? I’m thinking about your process here — or, really, your life, and how it relates to your collection.

I have always loved to read. It is also fundamental to my creative process, especially if I am trying to write more regularly after an unproductive stretch of time. Having poetic rhythms in my head inspires me. I might read poets who are writing in the same sphere as I am at the moment, and I may opt to read those whose work is far from what I am doing. It depends on whether I need to be guided or unsettled. Both are important.

My favorite poem in the collection is “Symbiotic Quixotic,” for the echo that occurs at the end– an echo that sort of cuts through the entire book just like the pulsing of the frog or the planet forming inside the speaker or the mountains forming in the floor. What is it about the echo or nature or the body that allows us to properly deal with grief?

Grief is a process, but it is looping and indirect and can seem unending. At the risk of sounding totally obvious, the seasons and our bodies are also driven by systems, by cycles — by time. It enables us to endure grief. The most awful moment is ultimately just a moment.

This book was so bucolic and I connected with the body-as-nature motif that coursed through the book. Can you talk a bit more about your influences? What were you reading, watching, staring at, or thinking about when you wrote this collection?

When I was growing up, my family lived a half mile from Lake Erie. My mother is an avid gardener, so our yard was filled with plants. Just beyond our house was a forest with a creek that led to a park. My brothers and I spent many, many summers back there. We were surrounded by nature — well, as much as one can be in the suburbs. That time was very influential. I remember reading the Anne of Green Gables books in the forest and earnestly writing in a journal. I still have it. A brilliant red tulip is pressed inside.

While I wrote many of these poems, I was struggling. After an early miscarriage, I spent several years traipsing from doctor to doctor before I was finally diagnosed with endometriosis. I read a lot of Dean Young and Mary Ruefle because their work really spoke to the sense of absurdity I felt as I stumbled along. Portrait of the Future with Trapdoor started coming together as a collection about six or seven months after my daughter was born.

Can you talk more about the idea of emergence, empathy, and existence that spirals in your work? Many of your poems seem to swirl and circle and come back to these ideas and I’d love to hear more about how they reflect or play off each other or live within you.

Empathy is very close to metaphor — both involve the transference of meaning from one entity to another via the imagination. I can’t fathom writing poetry that doesn’t consider the lives of others with some degree of compassion. Poetry is a social act.

Many of your poems tie together science and memory and loss. Can you talk a bit about those ideas and how they came to sort of fit so perfectly in this one collection?

Memory and loss are, to me, unresolvable questions, constant dilemmas. Science promises the possibility of answers. I find the detached, analytical tone of science writing to be reassuring. It started creeping into the poems to serve as a counterweight for uncertainty.

“Convince me / my body is not the enemy” might be the best phrase for a whole society to focus on. What is it that we seek to destroy or change about the body? How does that play into the collection as a whole? How can we come back from that? When I read many of these poems, I get a sense of everything all at once– loss and regrowth. It’s quite cyclical, and placing that poem come right after one where “a field of molten flowers / [is] continuously blooming” is extremely powerful. What is your favorite juxtaposition in this collection?

If you think about it, our bodies serve us in incredible ways, yet they inevitably betray us. Sometimes often. Sometimes much earlier than we expect. And we can rage against those circumstances, incredulous.

But our bodies are also capable of healing. How that happens on a cellular level fascinates me. The process of breaking down and rebuilding is constant in us. I suppose I was aiming to capture that on some level.

I honestly tried to pick my favorite juxtaposition in the book, and while I found several poem pairings that had surprising resonances for me — poems speaking to each other in ways I had missed earlier — I couldn’t decide. I just felt relief that the order finally makes sense. Arranging this collection was challenging.

What are you currently working on? Where can we read more of your work or keep up with your projects?

A second book is taking shape, but it’s still very young, and I need to let it develop. I seem to be writing equal amounts of lyric and prose poems. We’ll see how they get along! I post links to new work and list my reading schedule on my website, My Twitter handle is @elizabethonusko.

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