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Northwest Passages: Elyse Fenton

Pete Springer/OPB

When Elyse Fenton was in second grade, a writer came to her classroom with seashells.

I don’t know what I was expecting. Everyone was clinking seashells around their desks and I thought, this is poetry?

It was an invitation, she realizes now, to observe and process. “That is poetry,” Fenton says.

Fenton’s observations of war as a soldier’s wife left behind in Eugene won Cleveland State University’s First Book Prize and led to the publication of her first book, Clamor. Last month Clamor won the Dylan Thomas Prize, awarded to a writer under 30 by the University of Wales. Fenton is the first poet and first American to take home the relatively new prize’s nearly $50,000 purse.

Clamor reflects the fragmented communication she had with her husband, who deployed in 2005 to serve as a medic based in Baghdad’s Green Zone . They spoke on the phone occasionally, but “talked” through instant messaging almost daily. Fenton told NPR those messages infused her writing.

The last thing I looked at before I wrote was the screen with our sort of fractured and distant communication. And so, that text was what I focused on, what I was navigating when I began to write, was thinking about all of this distance and these attempts at articulation and then also just seeing all the white space on the page.

Her husband shies away from the attention brought to his time in Iraq through Fenton’s poetry. She says he calls his experience “mundane and boring.” She, in turn, is careful to clarify that her writing captures her own experience, not his.

Part of Fenton’s poem “After the Blast” is excepted here:

It happened again just now. One word

snagging like fabric on a barbed fence


Concertina wire. You said: I didn’t see the body

hung on concertina wire. This was after the blast.


After you stood in the divot, both feet

in the dust’s new mouth and found no one alive.


Just out of the shower, I imagine

a flake of soap crusting your dark jaw, the phone


a cradle for your bare cheek.

I should say: love. I should say: go on.


But I’m stuck on concertina –

What would you like to ask Elyse Fenton? What writings about the war in Iraq, or other wars, have stuck with you?

books iraq northwest passages poetry war

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