Bitter Language: Exclusive Q & A with poet Elka Cloke

Forgive the steampunk pun, but what makes a poet tick? Elka Cloke took some time to answer this and a number of other questions about her new collection, Bitter Language.


Q. Two of your poems are featured in books by Cassandra Clare. How did that come about?

A. Cassie and I have been friends since we were 13. The first time we met she asked me what I was reading and I quoted the whole of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” to her. I was weird, but fortunately in Cassie I met someone who thought it was cool to be able to do that. At that time she was writing an historical novel about a rock band, and I used to ghost write their awesomely horrible lyrics. We have been friends ever since. I was so happy when she asked me if she could put part of “Bitter Language” at the front of City of Ashes! The best part was probably when the publisher asked her if she had the poet’s permission. She was like “Um, yes, she’s pretty psyched.” “Thames River” was actually written specifically for the Infernal Devices books.

Q. You’ve mentioned that you often write poems about places you’ve visited. Can you tell us about that process?

A. When I am in a place, especially when I’m traveling and especially in a country where the language is different, I become more aware of my surroundings and then I start to look at things differently or hear language differently. It’s the contrast between that and the usual routine which makes me feel like the place itself has something to say, and I try to say it.

Q. What are the major themes of your pieces, and who is the target audience?

 A. The major themes of the collection are cities, rivers, mysticism, fairy tales and fantasy. Some poems are about supernatural themes (vampires, magic). I love to read fantasy and I love science fiction, so when I write poetry I often do so as a fan. If I could pinpoint an intended audience (although, to be honest, I am delighted when anyone reads and enjoys my poetry), I would say it is for nerds like myself. In order to understand my themes it helps to be a fan of nerdy things, but it isn’t necessary.

Q. We’ve heard about steampunk novels, movies, TV shows and art, but “Thames River Song” is some of the first steampunk poetry we’ve come across. Can you tell us about writing in that genre?

A. I love steampunk stuff. It so perfectly transitions between history and fantasy, science and magic. Steampunk for a while was like a fandom in search of a canon, there were so few steampunk novels, so I’m delighted to see a novel like Clockwork Angel which recognizes the fascination of steampunk and how fun it is to play in that world. I’m honored to have the first steampunk poem featured on this site, but I predict it will be far from the last.

Q. I know authors often don’t have a control over their books’ covers, but what’s up with the pomegranate?

A. I asked for some fruit. No, but really I am happy about the pomegranate, I love my cover! Pomegranates have mystical significance in both Greek and Jewish mythology. In Greek myth they are the fruit Persephone eats which binds her to the underworld, and in Jewish myth they are the fruit of mystical wisdom. There were pomegranates carved on the pillars of the Temple of Solomon, and some people argue that the fruit in the garden of Eden was a pomegranate. In Kabbalah to have a mystical experience is to “enter the orchard of pomegranates.” I am Jewish and I have always been obsessed with Greek myths. So much of poetry comes from that mystical tradition. Also, pomegranates are delicious!

Q. Who are your artistic influences?

A. I read any poetry I can get my hands on. When I was little I had a book called A Child’s Garden of Verses, which had the works of many of the best poets in history writing for children. I love Rumi, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Tennyson, Shakespeare, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. I had a copy of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” that I used to carry around everywhere.

Q. What would you say to people who aren’t usually poetry fans?

A. A lot of people think they don’t like poetry, but really they do. If I ask someone who says they don’t read poetry who their favorite musician is, for example, they will quote song lyrics to me from memory. People put song lyrics on their MySpace pages. Early poetry was often song lyrics, published today as poetry because the song part has been lost. Even Homer’s Odyssey was accompanied by music. Song lyrics are poetry. I would like my poetry to be relatable in the way that song lyrics are relatable. I think it’s wonderful that your readers love poetry and have not been turned away from it like so many are.

Q. Many of our readers are still in high school and/or are aspiring writers. How did you learn your craft? Was there a special teacher or a defining moment?

A. I have had many wonderful teachers but most especially Peter Levitt, who is also a poet and Zen teacher. He once told me that trying to write a poem which is universal is a mistake. No one on earth has a universal experience, but every single person on earth has a personal experience. If you want your poetry to be universal, you must make it personal. Personal experience is the only thing that is universal.

Q. There are some recurring images in your poems — trees, coils, Lilith, bridges, bones and lots of water. Can you explain some of these and what they symbolize for you?

A. I am really glad that you picked up on all of that! Those are the most important images. They are intended to have layered meanings which change with each poem and gather complexity. Trees are a reference to the tree of life, which is a symbol for the structure of reality. Houses are built out of trees (wood) which means the structures we live in are a reflection of that. Coils have to do with bodies (mortal coils) and with snakes, mortality and immortality. Lilith in Jewish mythology is the first wife of Adam who left him and was damned. She represents a version of femininity which is outcast, neither fully evil nor fully good and is a feminist symbol for me. Bridges and bones are also often about structure, like trees.

Water is something I have lived around all my life. I grew up by the ocean and the sound of water was very influential on the way I see language and poetry. The way that manmade landscapes, like cities, interact with bodies of water, like rivers, has always fascinated me.

2 thoughts on “Bitter Language: Exclusive Q & A with poet Elka Cloke

Add yours

  1. Wow, loved this interview. Elka, you have such an amazing talent. Firstly, I’m not a geek and so far I’m loving your poetry so I’m quite sure many other non geeks will enjoy your beautiful poems. I love the depth of meaning in your choices of the pomegranate for your cover – who would have thought a fruit would have such an amazing history/meaning.Thankyou for explaining your meaning for use of particular words/images I’ll read them now with a much clearer understanding. Now that you’ve mentioned that travelling plays a big part of the themes/context of your poems – how about you come to Australia when Cassie comes next year, we have such an amazingly beautiful, multicultural society & an even more mystical history of aboriginal dreamtime stories/art/sacred sites- you would be so welcome here-please think about:) Loving your work:) Cheers

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