Elizabeth Cowen on Cultivating a Patient Urgency

An interview with Elizabeth Cowan, from The Write Stuff series:

Elizabeth Cowan is an essayist currently completing her most recent collection, White People Will Never Forgive O.J. Originally from Pennsylvania, she holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and serves as a fulltime member of the English faculty at Laney College in downtown Oakland, where she has taught since the twilight of what she hopes was the final Bush presidency. You can follow her intermittent tweets @elizabethrcowan.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?

Oh shit, why are we at an American cocktail party? Well, hopefully the drinks are strong. My answer? I’m-a-writer-and-I-teach, all-one-word. The rest of the interaction depends entirely on your follow-up: “what do you write?” OR “what do you teach?”

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?

Cultivate a patient urgency. If that sounds contradictory, work on your acceptance of the discordant. Because writing, especially when conducted in the margins, is hard, and it necessitates need; the urgency will lead you back to the desk day after day, week after week. But writing, especially when compressed by a livelihood, is hard, and a book often seems to have its own birth plan; the patience will pull you away from the deep wells of despair that threaten to swallow it all.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

Are we still at the cocktail party? If so, and your follow-up was “what do you teach?,” then by “what do you do” you probably meant: “how do you get paid?,” which is really another way of asking “how much do you matter?,” and this is a boring conversation, so I’d say Yes, I consider myself successful. But if you asked “what do you write,” then you might have meant: “how do you exist in the world?,” making this a potentially interesting conversation, so I’d be more honest and say that I think the word successful is far too static an adjective to apply to something as dynamic as a human being. That I hope never to consider myself successful (until perhaps the last moments before death) – for that would suggest that I’ve ceased seeking, which is the only reason to still be here. What I hope instead is that at the end of more days than not, I feel that I’ve crawled a little closer toward a worthy goal, that I’ve avoided crumbling into one of those yawning wells, which wouldn’t make me successful, but would mean I’m succeeding.

When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?

Despair is something I try to avoid as it doesn’t seem to be a very effective catalyst; however, I am not convinced it’s always a good idea to dismiss other negative emotions. For me, anger is best harnessed, so when I’m pissed off I try to write. And sadness, well sadness is something to steep in. The two – sadness, anger – feel intimately connected, and one often leads into the other. The bridge, I would say, is Love, which is a good bridge to cross.

Grumpy? Time for a visit to the Brugmansia. Sorry, YouTube.

Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?

The first white woman born in New England was named Elizabeth. Her parents held their courtship on the jostling decks of the Mayflower in 1620, and Elizabeth was born the year New England’s first slave owner arrived in the Massachusetts colony. When she was fourteen years old, the native men and boys not slaughtered in the Pequot War were all shipped to the West Indies where they could be traded for the more desirable (experienced and less prone to revenge) negro slaves. So efficient a transaction: the export of dangerous natives eager to defend their home, the import of trained Africans capable of cultivating the land. So efficient, in fact, that by the time Elizabeth was twenty-two years old, it had become official policy in New England to capture natives and exchange them for Africans, one “drove of Adam’s degenerate seed” for another, a gift from God, it was believed. Elizabeth is my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother. I don’t have a “favorite” ancestor, but she is the one I’ve been thinking about lately because she was – nearly four-hundred years ago – the first of my ancestors to live her entire life amidst the very particular physical, emotional, and spiritual violence of New World racist ideologies, the psychological descendants of which I am currently confronting in my work.

What’s wrong with society today?

The stubborn cowardice of white liberals who insist on raising “colorblind” children. These parents are today’s true defenders and perpetuators of white supremacy and the biggest threat to racial progress. Fox News in all its grotesqueness is a distraction and not nearly as dangerous.

Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?

Yoga, meditation, alien technology, single-malt scotch, neat or on a lone rock.

How many times do you fall in love each day?

Depends on the day’s degree of freedom. Utterly free days? With every breath. But obligations crowd the mind, contract the heart.

What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?

There are many revolutions to which I’d like to bear witness, perhaps starting with a complete overhaul of the entire U.S. criminal justice system, replacing a structurally racist, dehumanizing farce fueled by hatred, retribution, and fear with a net of compassion built of individuals singularly committed to protecting the safety, dignity, and positive transformation of all people. Then we can do the exact same thing with education.

What is art? Is it necessary? Why?

The language through which we have all of our most important conversations. Is it necessary? If we desire to remain human – to succeed – absolutely.

When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?

Through the nose, through the mouth, slowly, quickly, deeply, in tiny gasps, suddenly, not at all, all at once. Breathe.

What are you working on right now?

My current project,White People Will Never Forgive O.J., is an essay collection concerning the psychic violence of American colorblindness, the most insidious of today’s racist stances.

What kind of writing do you most admire?

I admire writing that engages the world in a way that demands I RE-consider/examine/imagine/act/cant/vision/align/define. Writing that is insistent, unapologetic, and gorgeous.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

Bring back the Black Panthers.

What are some of your favorite smells?

Outside: Brugmansia, commonly known as Angel’s Trumpet, which is a gloriously pendulous flower I had never encountered before moving to the Bay Area where they are abundant. I am incapable of walking past one at face height without pressing my nose into its bell. Inside: dampened sheets.

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