By Pamela Avila
Her book release party on September 12th at Marwen Gallery in Chicago sold out in 12 hours. Later that month, at bell hooks’s home in Kentucky, a woman read a poem off of Electric Arches at hooks’s intimate birthday gathering, to which she said, “About how old is this Eve? You can tell her I have her book and enjoyed her poem.”
Eve Ewing took to social media to share the indescribable excitement she felt when she heard the news. She also screamed into a pillow.
Ewing’s debut collection of poetry, prose, and visual art from Haymarket Books, Electric Arches, offers refreshing and captivating sensations about the growing pains of womanhood, the experience of racism, and her upbringing in Logan Square, Chicago. Most uniquely, she teaches us to find magic in the mundane, re-imagining the world we live in. Hers is a world where children can use a time machine to speak with their ancestors, where Chicago’s South Side children can escape on flying bicycles, and black women can confidently reclaim their beauty. The first piece in Electric Arches, and also one of the oldest, entitled “Arrival Day,” is a response to a quote by activist Assata Shakur: “Black revolutionaries do not drop from the moon. We are created by our conditions.”
Ewing is also a sociologist at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, where she focuses on racial inequality and school closures, specifically in Chicago public schools. Her first stage script, No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, co-written with friend and editor Nate Marshall and produced by Manuel Cinema, is set to debut in Chicago in November. In fall 2018, the University of Chicago Press will publish a book she describes as thematically in conversation with Electric Arches, titled When The Bell Stops Ringing: Race, History and Discourse Amid Chicago’s School Closings.
PAMELA AVILA: How does it feel to finally have shared Electric Arches with the world?
EVE L. EWING: It’s a really strange experience. Most of the poems in the book span a two- or three-year span in terms of when I wrote them. The book was something I wanted to do to document my work for my community and for other poets and for educators — something they could use in the classroom for teaching artists and for other people in the poetry community. I definitely didn’t anticipate the really warm reception the book has received, and so it’s a little trippy to even be having conversations with people like you, that I thought would never have any remote interest in the book, to be quite honest with you. Having that kind of public conversation has been really surprising but also really positive.
How did you arrive at the title Electric Arches?
The book was originally going to be How I Arrived and Other True Stories (based off of the poem “How I Arrived”) but my editor and good friend Nate Marshall was like, “yeah that’s a good title but it’s horrible, it’s impossible to Google anything about your book, and it’s not clear how it unites the themes of the book.” That was really helpful to me, and oddly enough, the first way I started thinking about the title was: how can it make a distinct claim on the world? Not something generic or a familiar phrase, but something that invites some new imagery.
I’ve always been into imagery of electricity and energy. So, the title came from that place. I’m also into gadgets, robots, and pseudo fictional/sci-fi technology — I’m also really into Jules Verne and old science fiction, and people who were imagining steampunk visions of what the future would look like. I got the term “electric” from all those images, and then I was just thinking about the city and the landscape of Chicago. It’s intentionally vague because it can refer to arches that are present at any scale — it could be the electric arches of static energy that moves, like when you move across a room when you have your socks on and then you touch the door and shock yourself. That’s a tiny electric arch that’s going through your body to the world around you. We, as human beings, are so electric. It’s intentionally supposed to allow for people to envision things at any scale.
Can you tell me about the cover art?
I started thinking right away about what I would want the cover to be, because visual language is really important to me and I really believe that visual engagement is something that can attract readers to a book. I wanted it to be exciting and engaging for people that aren’t necessarily veteran readers of poetry. A lot of people have said, “I didn’t know I liked poetry before I read your book,” or are teachers or people that are introducing poetry to readers for the first time, and so the cover was really important to that. I used to be a middle school teacher and I frequently know of students who literally gravitate toward a book because of amazing cover art, which is natural.
I also wanted to highlight the work of a black woman artist if I possibly could. Someone recommended I look into Brianna McCarthy, this amazing artist from Trinidad. Her work is jaw-dropping and stunning. I started looking at some of her more recent work and it’s incredible because all of her images tell a story. They all have these arresting pictures of black women who all look kind of otherworldly, they all look on the one hand kind of familiar but they also look sort of strange like they’re from some other place or some other time. They all look like they have some unspeakable truth with them, you can’t help but look at them, you’re just fascinated — they’re so beautiful and also so complicated as images. I feel extremely grateful that she agreed to let me use her art on the cover and it’s really special to me because I see the book as also a collaboration with another artist, and I see the book as a visual artifact in addition to being a work of literature.
You’ve spoken about how you want Electric Arches to be an introduction for readers who haven’t previously ventured into poetry. Was the unconventional style of Electric Arches part of making it more accessible?
I came of age among a community of poets who draw from all different kinds of forms and influences, so I always felt very free to create poems that in some instances reflect very formal structure. For example, the poem “Requiem for 5th period” is kind of influenced by my readings of Homer, The Odyssey and The Iliad, and pieces that are longer, epic poems. But the poems are also very influenced by hip hop, and also by fiction. I’m actually a much more studious and consistent reader of fiction than I am of poetry, and also just a big believer in clarity of image. I do see the audience as very participatory in the work that I do, and I’m not somebody that’s extremely precious about the “right” or “wrong” way of reading my work. I have been very blessed to live the life that I do in terms of the work that I’m able to consume and I feel like I’ve been so blessed in my life to listen to incredible music and view incredible visual art and read incredible works of fiction and nonfiction and poetry, and with all of the art that I consume I understand that the person that created it is lending me this gift of a chance to make my own meaning and to have my own experience that in some cases may be a departure from their own life and their own experience. That has been so important in my life, and it seems important to me to also offer that to others and to create space for them to enter the work in whatever way feels comfortable to them.
Tell me more about your “re-tellings,” which essentially rewrite and re-imagine racist encounters and offer an alternate ending.
When I was a kid, whenever I woke up from a nightmare, my mom would ask me to finish it. She’d be like, “okay, and then what happened?” and I would have to come up with some kind of ending, one that didn’t negate the thing that frightened me or the thing that had been scary, but allowed me to reassert some sort of agency. Because I was a child and we were already operating within the dream landscape, there was some kind of infinite possibility within that right.
I was writing this book between 2013-2017, and the political landscape that emerged in that time, as well as the ways in which black people have been asserting and reasserting our own humanity, relates to how artists and creators think about what it means to grapple with the constant specter of violence, pain, loss, and death in a way that on the one hand, accounts for the devastation of those things, but also re-inscribes our own humanity and our own agency. We have to not just let black death become endless spectacle while also refusing to turn away from the truth of black death.
That’s really hard, and there’s obviously no one answer on how to approach that kind of consistently devastating problem. But so many different artists and creators have come up with so many different interventions of how to address that fundamental tension, and I think for me the re-tellings are one small attempt at doing that and entering that conversation and saying, “it’s not that this is the way, but this is one way to respond creatively and emotionally” and to do it through magic and through fancy.
All the things that are in the re-tellings have happened to me in my life, and it’s also my small way of following my mother’s advice again as an adult. Just doing it on the page.
Electric Arches talks a lot about time and space in regards to youth coming of age. How do you want Electric Arches to reach young women of color, or be there for them as they maneuver through their girlhood and womanhood?
As women of color, all of us have those authors that have made us feel seen, you know? Those authors that when you first read their work, you felt like clouds opened and a beam of light was shining down, onto you, and this person was speaking just to you and speaking your truth. I think that one challenging thing — in a world where few women of color are even offered the opportunity or allowed the opportunity to have our voices taken center stage — is that there are sparse opportunities for people to connect, and for the people that need to hear those stories to hear them. So, I do not expect this book to be for everyone, or for every black girl, or for every teen girl of color, but I hope that literally even if it speaks to just the one person who needs it, in the way that I so very badly needed some of the literature that has saved my life at different moments, then that’s what I’m trying to do. To be there for that one person.
One black woman on the internet said, “this book will make you feel invincible.” That just opens up my heart, and because as you can probably tell from reading the book, I’m a person who’s a little bit ridiculous in the ways I literalize images. When I read that, I imagine a black woman literally floating down the street surrounded by a force field. The most honest, if ridiculous, answer, is that I want young women of color to read the book, and I want a force field to spontaneously erupt around them and allow them to proceed unencumbered on the train, on the bus, or that last mile home that they have to walk by themselves and the street lights flicker a little, and maybe they don’t feel so good. I just want it to envelop them and carry them home, where there’s hot chocolate waiting for them. That’s what I want the book to do.
Photo of Ewing by Daniel Barlow