Poet Elizabeth Schmuhl’s "Premonitions" makes connections to the natural world
While I get déjà vu from my dreams, I do not usually experience premonitions. Sometimes I might have them about people I meet, but the premonitions are usually wrong and maybe excess cautiousness instead. So when I started reading Elizabeth Schmuhl’s new collection of poetry called Premonitions (Wayne State University Press), I was intrigued by what they might be.
Schmuhl, who describes herself as having lived all over the place (Chicago, New York City, Washington D.C., Atlanta, and Michigan), covers a range of topics beyond premonitions in her new book. Elements of the natural world, seasons, and change also figure strongly in the poems. As an artist with many talents, including dance, Schmuhl also includes bodies and movement in the collection.
Poems in Premonitions are not titled but rather numbered, and the number is encircled by a colored dot. Dark topics, from death to loneliness, contrast bright colors and hopeful moments.
The first poem drops us into a world without internet, which perhaps makes premonitions more possible in the absence of the constant fact-checking and forecasting that are rampant online. Reading Premonitions can feel like a fascinating flux of trying to get one’s bearings, finding a line that centers oneself, and then finding that the next line changes it all.
Schmuhl will read at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, October 2, at 7 pm. Ann Arbor poet Keith Taylor will introduce her and conduct a discussion with her. She shares about premonitions, her collection, and more about her life in the following interview.
Q: At a glance or distance, the cover looks like pretty shades of pink and green but, closer, is a picture of grass shaded with red and orange tones, too. I admired it while reading and am curious what your thoughts are on how it represents the book and any role you had in its appearance, knowing, of course, that cover design is usually handled by the publisher.
A: I was very picky about the cover, and I owe a lot of thanks to Wayne State for letting me have so much say in the final design.
The photograph is from Jordan Sullivan’s series After the Funeral. (Side note: Jordan’s work is amazing; his work is in the MoMa’s collection!). About the series, Jordan states, “The series was photographed after my grandmother’s funeral. Following the ceremony, a lush field of wildflowers had bloomed near the house where she lived.”
There’s a clear connection for me between the image and my poems. Life in the midst of death, the body as tied to the natural world, connections.
Additionally, the setting for my book is my family’s centennial fruit farm, even though the speaker in the poems is not me.
Q: The title Premonitions is likewise so compelling. Tell us about this title.
A: The title refers to the intention I feel behind each poem; they are premonitions -- “a strong feeling that something is about to happen.”
Oftentimes premonitions are assumed to be negative, but I’ve taken that assumption for a spin. Many of these poems contain beauty, joy, happiness.
Secondly, premonitions have a special significance for me. On my mother’s side, many of the women have premonitions -- manifesting as thoughts or dreams -- and they come true.
Q: Each free verse poem varies from others in length, both the lines themselves and the total number of lines. Yet they all fit in this collection. You also dance and illustrate. What draws you to poetry, in addition to other art forms, and this unrhyming, varied style?
A: I write because I have to write. And I write poems for the same reason. It’s an impulse that I can’t quit.
For me, poems often resemble waves; each poem contains different rhythms, thicknesses, speeds. I feel quite literally moved by the form, and as a dancer, this appeals to me.
Q: Questions are scattered throughout the poems, such as, “Who was it that told me not to be greedy? Who said / some sweetness is too deep?” These questions, in particular, convey a criticism of the person who said those things and also a recalling of those sentiments. In my reading, many lines that seemed straightforward with plain language could have several implications. How do you think of this divergence, and of the questions, in your poems?
A: I love that you picked up on this. I see the questions as pauses in the poems in which they appear. It’s a moment for the speaker to reflect and in some way, time travel. It’s almost like a breath; a moment or a movement that changes the direction of the poem, even if temporarily.
It also gives the audience different emotional access to the speaker and I hope, makes the reader reach even further into themselves. In everyday life, we’re not privy to many of the questions people ask themselves, especially private, critical ones. But it’s something we all do (I think and hope!).
Q: Seasons figure strongly into these poems. I think many Midwesterners might relate to the feeling of “… waking up green / every morning hoping to see a frog or some sign / I’ll make it to summer.” That poem is directly followed by one about autumn, in which the speaker imagines her blood becoming wine to be drunk, “underneath the harvest moon.” Currently, autumn is just starting in Ann Arbor. What is your relationship to the seasons, and how do you see them in this collection?
A: I’m very connected to the seasons, especially because my family has a farm, and I’m outside in the dirt a lot: planting, weeding, harvesting. I’ve danced in the orchards, too, even barefoot.
Being outside is something my mother always encouraged. I was the kid catching frogs, turtles, and snakes. I learned a lot from being outside in the weather.
In the collection, I see the seasons as markers: something concrete for the reader to orient themselves. Even though these poems are set on my family’s farm, that feels secondary to the seasons. It’s a way of mapping.
Q: This past summer, I lived near two fox dens and would glimpse them regularly. #27 includes a fox and concludes that “If a fox appeared and asked me to join her, I’d say okay and go willingly, / I think.” What inspired this fox?
A: For a while, I was living near a den, too. Sometimes, though, I’d see a fox outside of the den, what I assumed to be the mother, and she always looked a bit frantic, like she needed to go somewhere, and she wasn’t sure where it was, but she was late. I think what I admired about her was her purpose, and I wanted to bring that into the collection as a sort of reprieve from some of the spookier poems. She’s a way out and yet, the speaker isn’t sure about going with her.
Q: Darkness and hopefulness are both present in these poems. I particularly appreciated #117 with the old lover who points out the impermanence of a flower and the speaker who mails one “… to the person who thought they could leave me and yet.” Amidst endings and uncertainty, some things remain and might even be good. How would you describe this balance?
A: Sometimes I feel like the darkness is hidden, and I really wanted it to be present in this book. In that spirit, I didn’t shy away from including it. For whatever reason, I associate nature poems with positivity, even though I know there are many examples where that’s not the case.
Still, I wanted both sides of the human and natural experience to be present in this collection; it felt like the most honest thing to do, because well quite simply, that’s life!
Q: I keep returning to #101, in which beauty (if I may infer that) springs from letting go. Since it is near the end of the book, would you say this is a message or lesson from these poems?
A: I think it definitely could be. I keep finding over and over again, in all mediums in which I work as well as life in general, that things “go the best,” or when I’m feeling most at peace, is when I’ve let go. Holding, grasps, etc. are important concepts, but I feel like dominant culture is too reliant on holding and/or reaching to hold. In my personal experience, holding on to people and/or objects always leads to disappointment.
I’m more interested in entropy.
Q: This is a forceful, compelling first book. What are you planning next?
A: Thank you! I’m at work on a memoir, which I’m hoping will combine more painting / illustrating with a focus on my relationship to dance and/or movement in general. It’s one of the hardest subjects for me to write about because it is so emotional, and by “so emotional” I mean there are so many emotions tied to it. I want to excavate those and feel like I’m ready. I’ve already started.
I’m also starting a book of illustrations/paintings -- which may be supported by some text -- using ink foraged from my farm. Jason Logan, who started the Toronto Ink Company and recently wrote the book Make Ink, has deeply inspired me to create this book, and I’m looking forward to seeing what it becomes.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.
Elizabeth Schmuhl will read from "Premonitions" at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, October 2, at 7 pm.