On Mercy and Forgiveness: Q & A with Elizabeth Hazen


Where is your usual starting point – in research, an image, the middle of a story, an outline?

The place a poem begins varies for me. In some poems, like “Burning Trash,” I begin with an image – in that case, the image was of a fire burning inside an old dishwasher in the middle of the woods. The image of flames in that unexpected place stayed with me for months until I wrote the poem. Sometimes I also have very vivid dreams, scenes of which become the basis for a poem. With many of the poems in this collection, I found myself reading books and articles on scientific theories. I would come across phrases and ideas that resonated either because of their symbolism, their sound, or often both – “strange attractors,” “sculpted by impacts,” “echoing,” “spectral lines,” and so on. Science is rife with metaphor and music – a perfect muse for a poet.



What’s one piece of writing advice you never follow and why?

“Write what you know.”

While my poems are usually based in some way on my experiences, for me the process of writing is a way of approaching ideas and feelings that I don’t understand. By writing about that which I can’t quite grasp, I come closer to understanding. The writing process one of constant discovery and, in fact, one that is pleasurable primarily because I am writing my way to figure out something I don’t know. For example, much of the science in my poems remains elusive, but in my attempts to parse the theories, I discover new ways to explore my relationships, my emotions – all those intangibles that are difficult to write about.


Describe your relationship with the characters in this book. Are you a merciful writer?

I suppose it is odd to think of a collection of poems as having “characters,” yet they are there nonetheless – my younger selves, my mother, my father, my brother, my son, my ex-husband, my friend Flynn. I think one of the purposes behind these poems (though a purpose I only identified in retrospect) was to come to terms with the relationships that have shaped me, the losses I have caused or endured, and the mistakes I have made. In that sense mercy and forgiveness – of others and of myself – is paramount. There are poems about childhood in which I try to understand the world as I saw it then and to understand my parents and my relationship with them. I try to understand and forgive and comfort that child who was so frightened and so desperate and so naïve. I try to find ways to understand and forgive Flynn for leaving us too soon. I try to make sense of my marriage and my divorce, again finding ways through poems to understand what happened and to forgive – mainly myself – for failing to make it work. I certainly strive to be merciful and compassionate — as a writer and as a human being. I hope that comes through in the poems.


What’s the craziest idea for a poem you ever had? Did you try to work with it or move on?

In my early twenties, I spent a lot of time watching old sitcoms and horror movies. Probably in part to justify all that time spent in front of the television, I decided to work on a series of poems based on my favorite shows and movies. I wrote a sonnet about the candy factory episode of I Love Lucy, a poem about Three’s Company, sonnets about zombies and Kubrick’s The Shining . . . I tried many times to write a poem about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but that never worked out, and in general these projects had varying degrees of success. The zombie sonnet is still one of my favorite poems. In any case, it was a lot of fun writing and “researching”!



Follow Elizabeth Hazen on Twitter @Liz_Hazen. You can buy her book of poetry, Chaos Theories, at our website here.