October 23, 2014

Elizabeth J. Colen: Grand Conspiracy Theories

Posted on 20. Feb, 2013 by in Interviews

“…I realized that what conspiracy theories are—if they aren’t true—are our way of seeking order, of making sense of the chaos of these terrible events…”

In her recent book of poems, Waiting Up for the End of the World, Elizabeth J. Colen examines conspiracy theories from the 20th and 21st centuries—anything from Area 51, the fluoride conspiracy, chemtrails, the North American Union, the assassination of JFK, and much more. Released in July of 2012 by Jaded Ibis Productions, this collection is based loosely on first-hand narrative accounts gathered during a road-trip across the globe to the sites of these alleged conspiracies. It is unique in the way that it looks at the history of politics, governmental affairs, and the inner-workings of the corporate world through the lens of poetry. The design of the book itself is also distinct, a weaving together of text and collage-like images and illustrations of human figures stacked on top of surrealist-like backgrounds. Throughout her work, Colen manages to blend together the seemingly antithetical—organized attempts to control society and individual free artistic expression—by narrowing in on the inherent anxiety that these conspiracy theories have generated amongst the public. This is really a collection about the discrepancies between appearance and reality in American culture, and Colen is not afraid to tackle these subjects head-on, to make us reexamine what we thought we knew. Elizabeth graciously took time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions about the book with me.

How did you first get the idea to write a book of poems entirely about conspiracy theories? Is this a kind of topic that has inspired you over the years?

My grandfather once talked to me at length about the JFK assassination. I think I was ten at the time. I’m not sure the talk was appropriate, but it was memorable. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, per se, but I’ve always been interested in JFK and the assassination and, by extension, conspiracy theories in general. I certainly believe there are a lot of things we, the general public, aren’t aware of. Also, as a child I knew one of the pilots who went down in Pan Am flight 103. So those two confluences were what started the project. “Toshiba Bombeat,” which is about my memories of that pilot, Raymond Wagner, was the first poem I wrote of the collection, though I didn’t know it would grow into the project it did. And it is more personal, less conspiracy than any of the other poems.

I imagine there had to have been a lot of research involved in the creation of this collection, perhaps a kind of an examination of the discrepancy between factual, fabricated and invented information. What was this process like for you as a poet?

I’m not sure I can separate the experience of that research as a poet and as a person. As a person I got a little nutty. Reading about conspiracy theories for hours every day. Reading every book on JFK I could find. Watching wacked out “documentaries” online. Somehow everywhere I went the conversation would turn to conspiracies, and/or I would make it turn that way. Close friends had to tell me I was sounding crazy. But the truth is, I don’t believe most of it, I just get very excited about whatever I’m researching!

That line between factual and fabricated, I’m not sure I understand. To some degree I’ve never believed in the “true” story, everything is so mediated and filtered through the telling. It is hard to ever know what actually happened with anything, maybe this is why this particular material seemed so right for me. Of course, there was a lot of inventing on my part too, but that was primarily about getting the sounds right, and molding greater coherency out of the material.

One thing that really strikes me about the book is how it might blur the boundaries of “poetic license.” Is maintaining historical accuracy something that is important to you as a poet? How did you handle the inherent nature of conspiracy theories that beg to question the notion of truth and reality?

I fully expect people to approach me to point out the historical inaccuracies in the book, of which, I think, there are actually very few. Sometimes for sound I adjusted things. As with any writing I do, I am more interested in sound, and in getting at the emotional truth of something than I am about any historical accuracy. To me emotional truth and sound are inherently more accurate than history. I would certainly never want someone to use this book as a textbook on the 20th century, but I’ve given enough information to where it could be a starting point for any research someone might want to do.

The way you ordered the collection seems very unique, both because of how it’s sectioned and because of the way it fluctuates between decades. Could you explain the logic of it all? 

There’s a loose narrative running through, an “I” and a “you” who road-trip across the globe to visit, firsthand, these sites of alleged conspiracies, so there’s that, but the main ordering mechanism is sound. When putting together a manuscript, if there isn’t a clear narrative (point A to point B) I use a mix-tape mentality, where I match the sound and rhythm of the end of one poem to the sound and rhythm of the beginning of the next, and I always knew “Assassination Interlude” would go in the middle.

Could you also talk a little bit about your use of narration and point of view throughout the collection? Much of it was written in the first person. Was there perhaps a deeper meaning behind this choice?

At first I tried to get away from the lyric “I” when writing these poems, except for that first one (“Toshiba Bombeat”). I decided I didn’t want first person, I wanted the point of view to be hovering. Third person. But the “I” kept creeping back in, and I realized that what conspiracy theories are—if they aren’t true—are our way of seeking order, of making sense of the chaos of these terrible events, and that that is a personal thing, even if it’s being produced on a collective scale. The narrator of Waiting Up for the End of the World is meant to be both a personal and collective “I.”  There is a bit of me in there, sure, I am of the collective, but these poems are far less personal, less autobiographical than anything I’ve written before or since.

Outside of this collection of poems, what other kinds of writing projects have you been working on recently? 

I recently finished a novel in prose poems, What Weaponry, which I’ve just started sending out as a whole, so that’s one. My current poetry endeavor is a book of lineated poems entitled Feral, which explores that concept from several angles. Much of that is also research-based. I’m also coming into the home stretch, finishing my MFA at the University of Washington. So I’m also working on my critical thesis, which is an examination and attempt at defining the prose poem by looking at poets who move back and forth between prose poetry and lineation within a collection of poems. There are a few other projects I take out from time to time, but I can’t say I’m actively working on them. I tend operate best if I have my hand in several things at once.

Julie Levine is a poetry MFA candidate at The New School. She received a BA in English and Creative Writing from Emory University. Her work is forthcoming in Tar River Poetry.

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