Exclusive Q&A with Eleanor Boudreau AB '07 (Poet, EARNEST, EARNEST?)

EleanorBoudreau1.jpgPoet Eleanor Boudreau AB '07 is a Kingsbury Graduate Fellow at Florida State University, where she is currently completing her Ph.D. Her first book, Earnest, Earnest?, will be published on September 8th; the book has also won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize. Boudreau's work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Tin House, Barrow Street, and other journals. Follow Boudreau on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook!

Q. When did you first start writing and then decide to pursue writing as a career? Did your experience as an undergrad at Harvard factor into that decision?

A. I took my first poetry writing workshops at Harvard. I had wanted to take classes like that in high school, but they hadn’t been offered. The only problem was, at Harvard, you had to apply to get into the creative writing classes—you had to submit a number of pages of poetry—and I didn’t have any poetry to apply with. What I did have was a notebook where I’d written down images. It was mostly filled with things I’d seen while driving. I would drive with the notebook open on the passenger seat, then when I saw something I wanted to record, I would describe it in words in the notebook without ever taking my eyes off the road. I’m righthanded. Had I been lefthanded, this likely would not have been possible. Even so, my handwriting was atrocious. But I could read it. I typed up a few pages from my notebook and inserted line breaks, and it was good enough to get me into the beginner poetry workshop with D. A. Powell my first semester at Harvard (fall of 2003). I learned a great deal in that class and I wrote a few things that could more properly be called poems. I used those poems to apply and get into more poetry workshops. 

Q. You received an M.S. in broadcast journalism at Columbia and worked at NPR, before pursuing your current Ph.D. in creative writing. What led to the turn from journalism to poetry?

A. It is more precise to say that I turned from poetry to journalism (because I needed to make money and I wanted to do something good for society), then back to poetry again when I got stuck creatively. I knew from a relatively young age, say 11 or 12, that I wanted to be a poet. I just didn’t know how I would be able to support myself writing poetry. And I still don’t know that. But I guess I’ve decided that life is too short and too painful—you have to at least try to pursue the thing you are most passionate about. For me, that’s poetry. 

Q. What does your daily writing practice look like?

A. If you use the same process, you will arrive at the same poem. You have to change how you write poems in order to arrive at different poems. Part of my practice is avoiding doing the same thing. And now that Earnest, Earnest? is complete, I have tried to change my practice even more, so that I can avoid writing the same book twice. 

An analogy I find helpful—sculptors have two methods, either carve small pieces individually and mold them together, or start with a large block and carve the negative space around the figure. Earnest, Earnest? is the former, but now I am beginning with large prose-blocks and carving the negative space (the line-breaks and stanza-breaks) into those blocks to make poetry. 

Q. Writing can be such a solitary process. What do you find are the most fruitful ways to connect with other writers? 

A. The most fruitful way is reading. You read what others have written, and it gives you ideas you never would have had on your own. But it’s hard to ask a text what it thinks of this line-break, or the use of persona in your own work. You rarely get a direct response.  

Beyond reading, I have also found the MFA I earned at the University of Houston and the Ph.D. I am now completing at Florida State University to be very helpful. My professors and classmates have inspired me with their work, and I’ve been able to ask craft questions that have guided my practice and my revision. 

Q. How do you know when a poem is ready to share, whether with your first trusted reader, an editor, anyone?

A. I usually finish pieces late at night. I know it’s finished because I’m just so excited. I go to thinking, I’m going to be so famous! Everyone is going to love this! Then when I wake up, I reread what I thought was excellent the night before, and I think, O, no! This is the worst thing I’ve ever written! It’s going to make everyone think I’m a bad poet and that I have a bad soul!

That’s when a poem is ready to show to someone else—when you are completely uncertain whether it is the best or worst thing you have ever done. 

Earnest__Earnest_.jpgQ. Congratulations on winning the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize for your upcoming poetry collection, Earnest, Earnest? Can you tell us how this book was originally conceived and how it evolved to its final form? 

A. The “Earnest Postcards” that structure my book began as “Dear Diary” poems. Sixteen years ago, instead of writing Dear Earnest, as she does now, Eleanor wrote, Dear Diary. There was only one problem: No one believed she was talking to herself. So I changed my “Dear Diary” poems to “Earnest Postcards.” But questions hang in the balance—Is Eleanor really mailing these postcards to Earnest? Is Earnest reading them? Is he writing back?!? To amplify these questions, Eleanor sometimes refers to Earnest by the letter that begins both their names: E. 

The initial temptation is to assume that the speaker (Eleanor) is—more-or-less—me (Eleanor the author) and Earnest is—more-or-less—an ex-boyfriend of mine; and I admit I encouraged this reading by giving Eleanor my name. It is more accurate, however, to say that I assigned parts of myself to Earnest and other parts to Eleanor, I entwined the two in an unhappy romantic relationship, then I watched the couple break up over and over. But for a long time, I didn’t have a poem that made it clear that both Eleanor and Earnest were personaes of myself. The manuscript was finished when I wrote the book’s ars poetica, “If Tony Hoagland Was Right,” a poem that is also part-elegy for Hoagland:

. . . Now my teacher

is dead. Cancer. Horrible suffering

and I invented Eleanor and Earnest

for some forgotten reason. They’re both

so lurid and despicable. All I know is

While both Eleanor and Earnest are personifications of parts of myself, they’re some of the worst parts without any of the qualities that—I hope—redeem me somewhat. It makes me uncomfortable that Eleanor and Earnest are now out in the open (in book form), but that is what I wrote. 

Q. You currently teach creative writing at Florida State University; how does your teaching inform your writing process, and vice versa?

A. Teaching helps me to clarify and articulate the skills that I believe are most essential for a poet to have. And teaching keeps me humble—for example, I teach line-breaks, but I also still struggle with line-breaks—teaching reminds me that poetry is a craft and I’m still learning that craft. 

 I also find that the energy my students bring to class reminds me why I’m there to begin with. My students are excited about poetry and eager to learn. I was like that when I was their age. Then I started having trouble making ends meet. For more than ten years, I’ve worried about money just as often as I’ve thought about poetry, and that worry has clouded my enthusiasm at times. My love of poetry is still very much there, but it’s fogged over. My students help clear the fog away. 

Q. We hear you are working on a lyric mystery, which sounds intriguing in both concept and form. Can you tell us more about that project, or anything else you're working on next?

A. Years ago, I wrote a story with a teenage first-person narrator also named Eleanor. Eleanor is at a sleepover. When she wakes up, her friend is dead, as she explains it:

Meredith died last night. She was stabbed thirteen times in her sleep. The strangest thing is I was in the room with her. 

As I told the police—

Eleanor tells 911 that a man murdered Meredith, but there is a question about whether this is true. I published this story as fiction years ago, but I’ve always felt that there was more to it—that it is, in fact, poetry. So, I’m trying to expand it and find the proper form.

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