The Sunday Spotlight: Poet & Renaissance Woman Elizabeth J. Coleman
Today’s featured Poet: Elizabeth J. Coleman
The featured poem: “One Way of Looking at Grace” published at Per Contra: An International Journal of the Arts, Literature, and Ideas.
While my focus here on The Sunday Spotlight is to feature new and emerging writers, and technically with two chapbooks, two full poetry collections, and a work of translation, Elizabeth has already “emerged,” I think when it comes to poets, much like essayists, they can use all the promotion they can get. So I introduce you to Elizabeth J. Coleman, who attended Vermont College of Fine Arts at the same time as me, graduating with her MFA in poetry in 2012.
I didn’t know Elizabeth well during grad school. What I believed of her was that she was gracious, intelligent, respectful, and forthright; what I knew was that she was a very snazzy dresser, a talented classical guitarist in addition to poet, and a Jewish attorney from New York City. This last summer, I had the opportunity to hang out closely with Elizabeth, drinking wine and sharing long conversations, when we both attended VCFA’s Postgraduate Writers Conference (I highly recommend this conference, btw). At the conference, the things I had believed about Elizabeth were confirmed, but I also discovered that Elizabeth is a sort of Renaissance woman, talented in and passionate about an array of formidable activities and causes.
I was excited to discover that Elizabeth shares a passion for teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction along with my husband, who is also trained in MBSR, an eight-week program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn that incorporates mindfulness meditation, body awareness, and yoga practice and was designed to help people deal with physical pain and stress. Elizabeth has taught MBSR for a decade. As an attorney, she now works with law firms and judges to teach them to manage stress through mindfulness. She was trained to teach MBSR through the Center for Mindfulness.
I also learned that Elizabeth is an accomplished watercolor painter responsible for the covers of her two chapbooks Let My Ears Be Open (Finishing Line Press, 2013) and The Saint of Lost Things (Word Temple Press, 2009); a translation into French of poet Lee Slonimsky’s Pythagoras in Love (Folded Word Press, 2015); and her two poetry collections Proof (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2014), a finalist for the University of Wisconsin Press’ Brittingham and Pollak prizes, and The Fifth Generation, released on February 8, 2016, also by Spuyten Duyvil.
I have not yet gotten my hands on The Fifth Generation, but I have a copy of Proof, which is full of depth and beauty. Today’s featured poem “One Way of Looking at Grace” and the poem “How Poppies Grow” (also published at Per Contra) are from Elizabeth’s new collection The Fifth Generation, of which poet Kathleen Graber has this to say:
Here is an excerpt from “One Way of Looking at Grace”:
For 150 million years birds saw
their reflections only in the sea,
but now the last typewriter repair
shop in New York is going out
of business, and monk parrots
nest in Sheepshead bay. Still
that fire escape casts a lovely shadow,
the way the wheel of a slow-moving
bicycle seems to slow time
Elizabeth’s poetry has been published in numerous journals, and her poems appear in The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, and Poetry in Medicine Anthology (Persea Books 2014).
Elizabeth also plays the classical guitar, playing regularly for the patients and families at Memorial Sloane Cancer Center. She performs annually at a concert sponsored by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.
The bulk of Elizabeth’s career was as an attorney for twenty-five years. Her areas of specialty were poverty law, consumer rights, and civil rights. She holds a JD from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She is a member of the New York, Georgia and DC Bars.
Elizabeth is married to civil rights lawyer, Robert Stroup, and has two children and three splendid grandchildren. She lives in New York City. Visit her at elizabethjcoleman.com.
A few questions for Elizabeth:
I’m so impressed with your accomplishments in a variety of genres in the arts: poetry, music, and painting, which is why I have dubbed you a Renaissance woman. Did you always have an aptitude for all three, or did these each manifest at different times? Is there one genre that you identify with more than the others? I mean, do you primarily consider yourself a poet? Or do you consider yourself a painter and musician equally amidst your literary life? Does one genre carry more weight in terms of your soul’s survival, so to speak?
Probably more than the other two, I consider myself a poet. Words were my tool as an attorney, and they are my tool now. Books were highly valued and prized in our house; my mother read me a lot of poetry at a young age, and I have always been a great reader. Though I did come to writing poetry itself late.
I feel the need to write and write every day. And I love the challenge of poetry, its off-the-wallness, its variety, that words are your palette, your medium, and that poetry is music too. I’m challenged by the fact that, as Archibald MacLeish says, a poem “should not mean, but be” and by what Emily Dickinson said about how a poem could make her feel physically as if the top of her head were “taken off.”
One reason I feel the most comfortable calling myself a poet is that it is the only one of the three where I have professional credentials, an MFA and several books to my name. If you had told me this would be the case 15 years ago, I would not have believed you. Nonetheless, I majored in French literature, and before going to law school taught French and English in junior high and high school.
I grew up in a house filled with music too. My mother and father played the piano, and I played the piano and cello. I love that you can communicate with someone else, of a different culture, or someone who is suffering, without having to use words. Sometimes when words divide us, music unites us.
Of the three, I feel the least comfortable calling myself a visual artist. This is where I have the least training, though I love the extraordinary freedom and sense of abandon I get working in watercolor. I’m also very interested in collage. But visual art is where I feel the most timid, and I have not yet been able to devote as much time as I have to poetry and guitar.
But the three stem from a common impulse: to express my awe at being here and my gratitude. All three are like a prayer, or, as the non-deist Buddhist philosopher Stephen Batchelor put it, “How extraordinary it is to be here at all.”
I find it fascinating that in addition to being a multi-talented artist, you are also an attorney. What comes to mind, when I think of the journey to becoming an attorney is lots of studying, memorization, and test taking, which seems counter to using the part of your brain that dominates creativity. What was your incentive to pursue a career in law? Did this more left brain type of path come naturally to you?
That’s such a great question, Laurie. Yes and no. As a child of the ’60s, who felt I must work within the system to effect social change, it seemed like my duty to go to law school. I also came from a business background, and my parents encouraged me to pursue the law, as they encouraged me—to their credit—to be a professional. It was not easy for me, not so much because I’m not a left-brain thinker—I think that side of my brain is pretty strong (and that’s sometimes a problem in poetry!)—but because I’m a highly emotional person. I could not distance myself from the subject matter, could not be objective, as the professors taught us to be in law school. In retrospect, I’m thrilled because the only work I could really do involved helping people, and that brought me great satisfaction. Law school transforms some people as they become more “reasonable.” I think, both in good ways and bad, that did not happen to me. Also I met my husband in law school, and he has been an extraordinary partner all these years.
I know there is a personal story behind how you came to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Would you be willing to share some of that with us?
Sure, I came to MBSR after a bout with endometrial cancer in 2001. I’m fine, but it really made an impression and changed the course of my life. The combination of the experience of cancer and taking MBSR are what led me to being a poet and to devoting myself more to music and art. Again, another great quote from Stephen Batchelor comes to mind: “If my death is certain, but the date of my death is not certain, what should I do?”
In addition to being Jewish, Buddhism—in relation to your mindfulness practice—seems to have an influence on your poetry. How do these two cultural heritages inform your writing?
Among the amazing teachers I encountered at VCFA was Rick Jackson. Rick always used to say to write about your obsessions, and I would say I’m obsessed with both Judaism and Buddhism and with questions of spirituality in general. I was raised in a secular home, and a complex set of experiences caused me to want to delve further into that part of my heritage. My interest in Buddhism stems from learning and teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, which is really a kind of lay Buddhism.
The latter is an influence on process as well because Buddhism causes you to face your mortality, face reality, and is really quite existential. I think I feel the need to write, to play music, to create art now because I can’t put it off.
The combination of having had an experience of cancer and studying mindful meditation caused me to be interested in human spirituality and our relationship to our lives, compassion towards others, stewardship of our planet and mortality. I keep looking for angles on these essential subjects.
Who are your favorite poets? In addition to poetry, what do you like to read?
I have to admit that my favorite poet is generally the one I’m reading right now. For example, I’m reading a book by Grace Schulman at this moment, and I’m just blown away by the beauty. I keep coming upon new poets and loving their work. The other day I read Jessica Greenbaum’s, “A Poem for S,” and it moved me immeasurably. I love many, many poets from every century and every country and civilization. Each day I discover a new one who excites me. Here are a few I adore, though the list is far from complete: Guillaume Apollinaire, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Yehudi Amichai, W.B. Yeats, Czeslaw Milosz, Nazim Hikmet, Cesare Pavese, Robert Hass, Philip Levine, Gerald Stern…. I’ve given you these in no particular order. I’ve decided not to list the terrific poets I worked with at VCFA, but they were uniformly wonderful.
As to other reading, I try, as poet and teacher Natasha Saje always says, to “follow my nose.” Right now in addition to poetry, in fiction I’m reading The Brothers Karamazov, and in nonfiction Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquahar. I tend to read what grabs me. One of my goals is to read more about philosophy, Judaism, and astronomy. I have read much fiction over the years and am a particular fan of the nineteenth century British novelists. Those are books I go back to over and over for comfort. I also read a fair amount of Buddhist philosophy, and Pema Chodron always inspires me.
Can you offer up a quote that has helped to guide your life for all the aspiring artists out there?
There are many great quotes, but here’s one I keep coming back to. In Stephen Sondheim’s play Sunday in the Park with George, there is a moment when Seurat’s grandson, also named George, is having a crisis about being a visual artist, feels he has no talent, and he sings to his grandmother, “There’s nothing that’s not been said,” and she answers, “But said by you, George?”