Elise Hempel

Pine Row Issue No. 3 Spring 2021 - Featured Poet

A Picture of My Great-Grandparents

Her silver hair curled back, pinned up, and two

necklaces, one reaching past her waist –

this knotted strand of pearls thick as a noose.

And his tilted Homburg hat, its wide silk band,

white shirt, dark tie that’s tucked behind a beige

wool sweater, each button done for this unknown

occasion they’re half-smiling as they stand

in front of their house, beside the melting snow.

But there’s her simple dress, its sack-like drape,

his faded denim pants refusing to crease,

the scuffed tips of her old laced ankle-boots,

his own boots dulled by dust and dirt and grease –

how in a moment both of them will scrape

back to the day’s work from that plain wood stoop.

Interview with Elise Hempel

by Pine Row Editorial Board

Has your relationship to poetry changed in any way during the pandemic?

In some ways I suppose it has. Inexplicably, I’ve grown more distant from it and rarely write. When the pandemic first started, I tried to write a few poems (one called “Pandemic”) but soon abandoned them. Perhaps it’s been the lack of travel, of having things to write about. But I haven’t been reading poetry either. I’ve felt a need to focus on simpler, easier, more tangible things – mostly my collection of antique bottles, which bring me pleasure without any work. Writing poetry puts you in touch with your feelings and imagination, but it also takes you away for hours at a time from the “real world,” and it can sometimes take you to a “dark place,” both of which the pandemic has done too much already.

What inspires you to write poetry. Why do it?

It’s an odd thing. My fraternal twin sister recently said that she’s never had a desire to write a poem, which made me wonder why on earth I do. I wrote poetry as a child, stapling together these homemade “award-winning” little books of my highly rhymed writing. I still like rhyme, and I like the craft of writing and revising and getting words into a well-made form. But I also suppose that writing poetry is a way of telling how I feel, of having a voice, of finding my way. My sister and I both have soft voices, but she’s the more sure and confident one. Maybe that’s why she never had the same need to write.

How do your poems transition from inspiration to draft to final version?

With travel being limited now, “inspiration” usually comes while I’m walking my dog. I may see something new to write about, or I may just be ruminating about an older poem I’ve been struggling with. The physical process begins the old-fashioned way, with jotting down notes – phrases, lines, ideas – in a spiral notebook. Then I stick with the notebook and form the poem more fully in longhand, making a draft (containing cross-outs, insertions, and arrows) that no one else could possibly interpret! After that I usually keep going with the notebook, making a neater draft, and then it’s off to the computer. I used to only be able to revise on a printout, but after I got rid of my printer I learned to revise directly on the computer. I try to let my “finished” poems sit for a while before I look at them again, to see with a fresh eye that clumsy line or flat ending. Sometimes I still ask my old poetry teacher for help!

What book is currently on your nightstand?

I mentioned antique bottles, which I’ve collected for a long time, and sell on ebay, and try to read about as much as I can. So there are several bottle books on my night table now – books about Boston and Sandwich glass from the mid- to late 1800s, books about old perfumes and the fine cut glass made during the American Brilliant period. I’ve been fascinated with glass bottles since I was a child. I suppose they’re like poetry to me, with their beautiful round forms, the music of their colors in the sunlight, their fragile permanence and ability to somehow freeze time. I’m interested in the history of their making and in the lives of those who made them. Since we watched the Ken Burns documentary on Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea is also waiting for me.

Will you please name a few poet/s (or people / role models) who inspire you?

Well, I mentioned my old poetry teacher, Bruce Guernsey. I don’t think I’d have gone as far as I did in poetry without having taken his classes over 40 years ago. And his opinion on my poems is still the one I trust most. I’m not sure I have any role models, but other poets who have inspired me are May Swenson, Maxine Kumin, Robert Hayden, Roethke, and, more recently, Catherine Tufariello, a formalist who maintains a natural voice in poems full of feeling.

Do you have access to a community of writers / artists / poets?

This one’s easy: No. But I’m friends with lots of poets on Facebook.

Do you have a routine, such as where or when you write?

As I said, I haven’t been writing much, but when I do write it’s always in the morning, the earlier the better (no phone ringing, no distractions, no one needing me yet). And always with coffee! I need to be clear and alert. I also like it best when there are clouds in the sky, and a bit of rain. I can’t write with too much sun and brightness and openness. My imagination needs some gray, a place to go. Whether I’m working in my notebook or on my laptop, it’ll be on the couch (my dog next to me), at the coffee table. Of course, whatever poem I’m working on will also be moving with me all day long, playing in my head.

Anything else you'd like to add?

I wish I could announce an upcoming second book, but so far that achievement has eluded me. Right now I’m just sending out poems when I think of it – to a journal here, a journal there, slowly but steadily getting things published. I’m not what you’d call an ambitious writer! I do have one poem forthcoming in Tar River Poetry.

Elise Hempel grew up in suburban Chicago and has worked as an editor, proofreader, copywriter, columnist, and university English instructor. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Poetry, Measure, Southern Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry, and The Midwest Quarterly, as well as in Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and Ted Kooser's American Life in Poetry. She is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award and the winner of the 2015 Able Muse Write Prize in Poetry, the 2016 String Poet Prize, and the 2017 No Chair Press Chapbook Contest. Her full-length collection of poems, Second Rain, was published by Able Muse Press in 2016. She lives in central Illinois.