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An Interview with Eve L. Ewing
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
Dr. Eve L. Ewing, a sociologist of education and writer in Chicago, has been called the "Zora Neale Hurston of [her] generation." Electric Arches, her collection of poetry, essays, and visual art, was released in 2017 by Haymarket Books. The collection was named 2017 Best Poetry Book by the Chicago Review of Books, and was cited by the Chicago Tribune as one of the Top Ten Books of the Year. Ewing's second book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago's South Side, will be released by the University of Chicago Press this year. Eve can be found on Twitter at @eveewing, and her website is eveewing.com.
TMR: At the beginning of Electric Arches, you mention the future of Chicago, where "every child ... has food and a safe place to sleep, and mothers laugh all day and eat Popsicles." What are your thoughts on how to obtain this future Chicago?
EE: Part of the reason I write poetry is to have a space where I don't have to answer that question. As a social scientist, a lot of the work that I do is caught up in the weeds of, "We need to have this policy, we need to address this issue, we need to expand access to this resource." And those things can be really overwhelming. Part of what's exciting about poetry is to have a space where we lead first with imagination, where we say, "We don't actually know how we're gonna get there, but this is what it looks like."
I'm really inspired by people here who do good work every single day to create the reality that they want to see. Mother's Day was a few months ago, and there's this huge coalition of people who host a vigil outside of Cook County Jail for mothers who are incarcerated and make sure that they have flowers, sanitary supplies and toiletries, and things like that. The group Assata's Daughters recently have been working on gardening on the South Side and building gardening spaces that allow us to put free produce in neighborhood stores so that anybody who wants to can get free fruits and vegetables. Those are the kinds of examples that I appreciate, of Chicagoans trying to live out the kind of future that we want to see in small ways.
Everybody has a small role to play in that kind of imaginative work, but I do appreciate that poetry is a space where I don't have to get into the nuts and bolts of the path from A to B. I think it's exciting to have that kind of imaginative space.
TMR: What work from Electric Arches, if any, was the most difficult for you to create?
EE: "The Device." For a long time, I had this idea for a poem, and I realized "This doesn't actually want to be a poem. It wants to be a short story." The way I was imagining it in my mind and what I wanted for it was more conducive to a short story, which was scary because I had always really wanted to be a fiction writer, and always found it challenging to write fiction. I've found it difficult across my life. But once I realized, "If I'm going to tell this story, this is what it's going to have to look like," I was able to push myself. I'm really happy with what resulted, and also grateful that the story allowed me to challenge my perceptions of what my own strengths and weaknesses are as a writer.
TMR: You spoke with Guernica about your upcoming book Ghosts in the Schoolyard. Can you discuss your experiences working on this book?
EE: It's a very different kind of work. Whenever you're going to write a long book, you have to have a sense of a broader arc—where it's going and where it's coming from, and how you're going to make it cohesive. That is what's so scary about the idea of writing long fiction or long nonfiction; we read books like that that we love, and it just seems so impossible: How did this author pull off this amazing feat of tying together so many complicated things over such a length of work?
With Ghosts in the Schoolyard, thinking about the structure and the length was not intimidating because I had a sense of how I wanted the pieces to fit together and the story that I was trying to tell. I also had a wonderful editor who made me consider, "Actually, why don't you do it this way?" The structure of the book is different than how I initially thought it was going to be. I'm lucky in that regard to have that critical feedback.
I think it's worth it to take the amount of time that you need to learn the fundamentals as a writer—figure out your own voice, read a lot.
Whether you're writing poetry, or essays, or doing anything else in your life, it's much easier when you have a clarity of focus: "This is what I'm doing, this is what it's about, this is what it's gonna be." I think it's worth it to take the amount of time that you need to learn the fundamentals as a writer—figure out your own voice, read a lot. I'm still constantly reading and developing my voice and trying out new things, and I've been writing for a long time. The things that I'm interested in exploring now, and the skills that I want to hone, that's a constantly evolving question. It's important to leave some space for yourself to figure that stuff out.
TMR: What role can poetry play in the future of a literate America?
EE: I think that illiteracy and lack of access to reading instruction and literacy instruction is a reflection of the inequality in education that faces our country more broadly. People still have limited access to reading instruction and books, and to opportunities to learn to read. That's not something that poetry is going to be able to address on its own, but I do think that it matters to have texts that are accessible and engaging to people, that help them feel like there's something waiting for them in literature, and I think poetry can play a role with that.
One of the reasons I wanted to make sure to record an audio book for Electric Arches is so that it would be accessible to people who access texts in a wide variety of ways, whether it be people with disabilities or anyone who just enjoys an audio book. I think that poetry offers something to people once they're able to get there, but in order to get there, we need to have much broader conversations about access inequality.