The Vaudeville Horse
Elizabeth Kerlikowske’s The Vaudeville Horse is a whimsical, yet honest and eye-opening poetry chapbook, from stinkbugs, butter, and walnuts, to talking about how one should ask to see the map of abandoned dreams when buying a home. In this collection, The Vaudeville Horse is a journey that makes one think differently about the things in their life. For this reason, the book is sprinkled with dialogue between things that one may not have even thought of. Yet, the interactions make up what life is all about. The Vaudeville Horse definitely has a lens of reveal and revere.
In a collection of poems over the span of ten years, Kerlikowske’s wisdom and experience shows itself on each page, all woven together to even go so far as to give advice to readers. The Vaudeville Horse stands out by giving readers varied poetry forms that show experiences, little stories, the what-ifs, and much more. Anyone can pick up this humorous and grounded book to read over and over again, uncovering nuggets of wisdom in each read. The Vaudeville Horse is an offering to a world that deeply needs connection.
Interview with the Author
Etchings Press: What was your inspiration for your book?
Elizabeth Kerlikowske: An organization I headed for thirty years, Friends of Poetry, in Kalamazoo sponsors the Celery City Chapbook contest. A year ago, one of the winners had a book similar to this. We also have student designers from the graphics program at the college where I taught. They loved his book. More designers chose his to do than any other. I thought that if students liked his work, they would probably like mine. I already had the book put together, but when I saw you were student-run, I just had a good feeling about it.
EP: When did you first decide that you wanted to be a writer?
EK: I decided to be a writer when I was sixteen. I set up an office in our basement and shared it with an old wringer washer and my grandfather’s waders and fishing gear. I had my first poem published when I was eighteen. And I’ve been writing and publishing ever since. And it wasn’t that I wanted to be a writer so much as I had to be a writer to figure everything out. It was the only way to understand life.
EP: Do you find yourself basing characters off of people you know or yourself?
EK: A manuscript I just finished is about a friend of mine with dementia. It’s about him and our relationship over forty years. I like writing because all my work allows me to explore different facets of myself.
EP: What does your planning process look like?
EK: There is no planning process. I start writing and wait to see what happens, what shape or form the work will take. Once I start to understand what it is I’m getting at, then I can begin to participate in an advisory capacity to myself. There is the generative person who creates and the synthetic person who shapes. A book doesn’t come together for me until all the individual pieces are written.
EP: What advice would you give to new writers?
EK: To new writers, I would say read widely. Experiment with everything to see what suits you, what is natural, what is difficult. But through that, always try to hear your own authentic voice. Don’t put limits on what you write. When I start a piece, I don’t know if it will be a traditional looking poem, a prose poem, an essay, a dialogue. I have to let it grow on its own and see where it leads me. So no limits and wide parameters.
EP: Do you think there are any topics that writers should not write about?
EK: It is the writer’s job/responsibility to examine everything. We are social critics and commentators. We are watchers and agents of change. Writers should not start out limiting themselves by saying “Oh, I am a nature writer.” when the upshot of that is watching the environment be degraded and not mentioning it because it’s not “poetic” meaning beautiful or heart-warming.
EP: How do you feel about the advancing technology of literature like our easy access to e-books, online posts, and interactive websites, for example?
EK: I feel a couple ways about technology. Compared to the old days of snail mailing out poems with sufficient postage to have it returned, rejected, months later, technology is a fantastic time saver and speaks to the immediacy of experience. On the other hand, I have had to learn to be an IT person, a videographer, and my own sound technician, none of which I planned to do in my seventies.
I love that a poem can be sent, accepted, and sometimes up online in a matter of days. That’s a wonderful experience.
EP: How do you express perspective without the preconceived notion that you will offend someone?
EK: People can be offended by anything. Writers must write their truths, and if offense is taken by someone, so be it. Am I the kind of person who tailors my personality to those I’m around or am I me regardless? In one of the pieces in the book, I say something (in the voice of the speaker, which is me/not me) about the unvaccinated. That remark is part of that character’s world view. To not say it would paint an incomplete picture of that person. I don’t tiptoe through the tulips; I stomp sometimes.
EP: How do you go about revising your work? Is there a process you follow/any tips for doing so?
EK: I give workshops on revision because that’s where the final writing is done. Revising is the final step. You have to be able to step away from yourself to look at the poem as if it’s not yours, as if you know nothing about it, then ask what would make it better. And then of course because it’s yours, you have the power to do that. I’ve had students say to me, “The ending of my poem is so boring.” and all I can respond is “Well, who’s in charge of that? Make it interesting!”
EP: What was something surprising you learned while writing your piece?
EK: I learned I write a lot of dialogue, but people (or things or concepts) interacting with each other is what life is all about. We learn from each other, and everyone has something to offer, even though we might not readily see that.
EP: What process do you go through in order to choose an ending to your stories? Do you know it before you write or later on?
EK: Stories/poems have an organic ending, and if the writer is paying attention to the entirety of the piece, we know intuitively where it ends. I frequently read pieces that have two or three endings at the end because the writer was unable to decide on one and left them all there. I always want to “stick the landing” in a piece. I want the reader to feel that the end was both surprising and inevitable.
EP: How do you decide what stories or poems to add into a collection? Do you go off of a particular theme? Or do you see what might fit together later on?
EK: I just finished a manuscript that is extremely cohesive about a friend of mine with dementia. It is of a piece and completely unlike The Vaudeville Horse. I grouped the pieces in Horse to be like a vaudeville show with different acts, so to speak, different performances. It’s a little out there sometimes but gives the imagination great play. I chose pieces that were a little edgy, a little confrontational. The other manuscript is a smooth narrative read that tells a story in a more logical way and asks the reader to feel as well as think. Vaudeville Horse is the other way, its more thinky but requires feeling too but in a less obvious way. So the ultimate answer to your question is that I work both ways, by accumulation and by direction.
EP: If you were to describe your book to someone completely new to poetry, how would you describe it?
EK: Someone completely new to poetry would think, “How could I have skipped this much fun for so long?” I’ve always thought comedians are poets in some ways. They say things that other people only think. I was encouraged to write fiction in grad school because my instructors told me, “There’s no humor in poetry.” Thank God I didn’t listen to them. While I do write more traditional poetry, I wanted to put a book together that was fun and accessible to non-poetry buffs. The pieces in here were written over maybe ten years, but I just finally had the idea to put them together and voila!
EP: As an individual human being, what do you want the world to know about you?
EK: This is a really hard question to answer. It’s so personal in a way writing is not. Writing is the disguise for the writer. You are asking me to drop my disguise, my vaudeville horse, and tell you all the truths that made me turn out the way I did and see the world as I do. I am a hyper-vigilant person which happens when children experience early trauma. It’s a great gift for a writer, to have a tremendous memory and eye for detail. But I am not an ivory tower writer. I am friends with many former students. My world is rich with a great array of personalities. Connection is the key to a rich psychic life, and I am wealthy with friends, acquaintances, and you, Adam. A thousand years ago, I was in a beauty pageant. For my talent I read a poem I’d written, which the judges did not think was a talent. I could tap dance. I could play the piano, but I wanted to be a writer. I lost, but I was voted Miss Congeniality.