“Elijah Burrell gives us the grit and spark, the immediacy, the beating heart of a place and its people, with all their magic, guts, grimness, and gusto.” – Amy Gerstler, editor of Best American Poetry.
Elijah Burrell is the author of the poetry collection “The Skin of the River” (Aldrich Press, 2014). He joined the faculty at Lincoln University in 2012 as an assistant professor of English. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Agni, Sugar House Review, Measure, Cider Press Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Structo, and many others. He recently finished writing his second book of poems, and he talked about his poetry, his process, and his town with City Magazine.
When did you start writing?
I started writing when I was really young — everything from stories to song lyrics to radio plays to comic books. I suppose I always felt like I had something I needed to say. Poetry didn’t reveal itself to me until my creative writing courses at Mizzou and then Lincoln University. Once I found it, it felt like home.
What do you listen to while writing?
I think what I happen to be writing determines what’s playing through my headphones. Music inspires. A question folks always ask is what inspires a poet to write poetry. Sometimes it can simply be a great song. Rhythm, rhymes, they get me inspired.
While I was writing this latest batch of poems, I found myself listening to mid-’70s Dylan; a lot of bluegrass, like Jim and Jesse and Flatt and Scruggs; Delta blues, like Skip James and Peetie Wheatstraw; and early Springsteen. This music paired well with those new poems’ general sense of weariness and unrest. For many writers, the last thing they want to hear is someone else’s voice and words in their ears as they write — maybe even especially when it’s a voice like Bob Dylan’s. During the initial phases and drafts, I usually welcome it.
Where do you go to write?
It doesn’t necessarily have to be a quiet space, but I enjoy some degree of solitude when I write. I have a family, and I teach a 4/4 course load at the university, so I make time where and when I can. Sometimes I find the best moments to formulate ideas — or even write first drafts — is while traveling. I live outside of town, so it’s not that difficult to locate quiet areas where I can sit down to write.
What motivated you to publish?
It’s the drive to share things I’ve encountered, and to create — to put something new into the world. I tell my students that one of the pleasures we find in poetry — and poetry is all about pleasure — is that no matter what a poem makes us feel, or might be about, we can all find little commonalities within it. It’s cool when someone tells me she or he identified with something I’ve written.
It’s kind of the same thing. People interest me. We all have more in common than we think or admit. I want to share things I’ve learned and pass them on to other people that might never have considered how to find beauty in grief, or music in the things they see on their way to work each day. I love helping a student find her voice when she hasn’t thought about the fact she even has a voice. That’s why.
Favorite part of teaching?
Engaging with the students. Some of my students come from backgrounds and experiences that many of us could never imagine. Some of these same students have never been taught how to put what they’ve seen, come up against — endured — into words. I delight in helping them learn how to do that.
One of the great things about teaching at a school the size of Lincoln University is that it affords the student an incredible opportunity to build lasting relationships with his or her professors. I know my students’ names. I know their stories. How could that not be my favorite part?
Do teaching and writing influence each other? How?
As I show my students work by writers like Baldwin, Plath, Bolaño, Yeats, or Borges, I’m also immersed in that great work. Believe me when I tell you I’m continually influenced. A great thing about teaching creative writing is that I’m part of a writing community. There are certainly other writers in Jefferson City, but I’ve enjoyed helping create a collective of new voices there at the university.
Does Jefferson City enter into your writing?
I was born in Columbia and grew up in Ashland. Ashland is just a few miles north of Jefferson City, so it feels a lot like home here. Much of my writing is directed by what I know of the natural world. If you read something I’ve written, you might find a familiar river, field, or town. In much of my writing, the Midwest works like an important thread in my favorite jacket or a familiar refrain in a song I’ve known forever.
What would you say to aspiring writers?
Read! Immerse yourself in the written word. Delight in it. Always carry a book.
Write! If you want to write a novel, write it. You have to be committed to it. Writing well is hard work, and you have to be dedicated. If you consider reading and writing to be equal pursuits, you are well on your way.
Read some of Burrell’s work, and purchase The Skin of the River