Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle In Person

By Claiborne K.H. Smith

DECEMBER 22, 1997: 

Ellen Dore Watson at UT

In the ambulance a child

is turning blue around the edges.

The sweep of time has lifted up her life

and we are a blur of hands trying

to refasten her to it.

-- "Liza," from We Live in Bodies

I am stupid with awe of Ellen Doré Watson. Reading her work does that to you, makes you a little drunk on the world, a little tipsy and stumble-tongued. She has been compared to Sharon Olds, a comparison that she says she feels ambivalent about but which seems apt; both Watson's work and Olds' show a similar insistence on life in the midst of death, life in the midst of everything.

In 1996, Watson's chapbook, Broken Railings, won the Green Lake Chapbook Prize; this year, her first book of poems, We Live in Bodies (published by Alice James press), won the Rona Jaffe award. Before these successes, she was one of the foremost translators of Brazilian literature. Her reading in the Harry Ransom Center on October 28th consisted of a wide range of work: Watson began by reading her translations of Prado's "Successive Deaths," and "Denouement," continued with pieces from both the chapbook and the book, and finished with several as yet unpublished poems, reading to a quietly appreciative audience. "There was one girl, she didn't say anything but she kept making these body noises -- like, 'oooh,'" Watson enthused on her way to the Cactus Cafe. "I love that."

In addition to her current work as editor of the Massachusetts Review, and poet, Watson is a volunteer EMT in the small Western Massachusetts town where she lives. Her experiences as an EMT often find their way into her poems. "Everywhere you go, whatever your perceptions are, it becomes [creative] material," she said. "When I first started writing poems about the EMT experience, I felt kind of guilty. The thing that changed it, that allowed me to write about it was the poem 'Liza,' the poem about the little girl. When I wanted to publish that poem, I really wanted to call it 'Liza.' Her mother was standing at the open door of the ambulance, saying 'Liza, Liza, Liza,' the whole time that people were working there on the side of the highway. So I just had to have her name there. So I went to her parents. I felt so strange, approaching these people. But they were incredible, they were so honored -- 'Yes, please use her name, of course.'"

With all this plus a 10-year-old daughter, Watson squeezes a great deal from her life. When I asked her if she ever felt a conflict between writing poetry and her other activities, she mused, "I think you can write from either a cloistered or an in-the-world perspective; it's a personal thing. I don't care whether you write from your personal experiences or not. But I'd like regular folks to read it. There's nothing better than reading to people who have never read poetry and hearing them say, 'I understood it!' That's really powerful. You know, I don't want to write about poets anymore than I want to write just for poets."

-- Barbara Strickland


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