Into the Swamp: An AJB Interview with Elizabeth Lyons

AJB: American painter and writer Walter Anderson is at the heart of your collection, The Blessing of Dark Water. How did you first discover Walter and his wife, Agnes? What fascinates you most about their stories?

EL: In a sense, I grew up with Walter and Agnes. The Anderson family moved to Ocean Springs, MS—my father’s hometown—in 1924. Agnes was my dad’s first grade teacher, and my parents have always had pieces of Walter’s art in the house.

I was really fascinated by the letters between Agnes and Walter. They’re both pretty open in discussing the toll Walter’s art and his mental illness takes on the family. Logistically, how do you co-parent four kids, paint a mural, and drag yourself out of a depression? The simple answer is: you can’t. The more complex answer is: you can, but it will be imperfect.

There’s also something weirdly Southern Gothic about it all: two brothers (Peter and Walter) marry two sisters (Patricia and Agnes), everyone lives on the family property, and Walter works in the pottery studio his brother founded.

AJB: You write about an interesting concept, of a body going under revision and even being a typewriter, as if it’s a manuscript. It’s as if there is a reverse personification happening within some of the poems. Can you delve deeper into that idea?

EL: I have this t-shirt that’s an x-ray of a dog. The x-ray shows the dog has math homework, a calculator, and a pencil in his stomach. I know it’s silly. But I really liked taking that idea and pushing it further. So in the poems, narrators move from ‘I did this’ to ‘the typewriter in my body did it’ or even ‘the radio in my mind made me do it.’ By turning the body into a thing that’s being remade—and by external forces—I could tackle those themes of loss and frustration in a sideways fashion. I mean, imagine if we could ‘reject’ memories we didn’t want in our body. How would that change us?

AJB: Describe the process of shifting from the points of view from Walter, to Agnes, to Elizabeth. How did you find the harmony between these three voices?

EL: This was probably the hardest-fought battle for me. For the first two years, I only had poems from the perspective of Walter and Agnes. It felt very one-note. After a mentor suggested I have a third person interrupt the story, I came up with the idea of having an angrier, bossier, time-traveling version of myself in the story.

I often joke that I have the soul of an engineer and the math skills of a poet. I love order and spreadsheets and office supply stores. So after I wrote two poems, and knew it would be a larger sequence, I stopped writing poems and sketched out a timeline and storyboarded certain events. Then I designated certain events to certain people. After that, I color-coded the three voices (Walter was green, Agnes yellow, Elizabeth orange) to make sure the overall narrative was balanced. Throughout the process, there was a lot of arrangement and re-arrangement. I kept shifting voices around until I found a sequence with strongest sense of velocity.

AJB: Art is binding, it connects us as people but perhaps that’s not enough sometimes. In exploring the relationship between Walter and Agnes what did you uncover about the human experience, about human relationships?

EL: Agnes has this great quote where she says Walter was “… an artist always, a husband sometimes, a father never.” That quote really stayed with me. She lays out the dynamic of their relationship in a very pragmatic way. And Walter always admitted his art came first. I think exploring their dynamic helped me recognize how at times, I’ve been both ‘a Walter’ or ‘an Agnes’ in relationships. We’re human. We crave connection. And that requires sacrifice and compromise. But it also means advocating for ourselves. We have to say, “This week, I choose art. Figure out dinner.” But understand: a week later, when it’s laundry day? Handle it. Good art comes from a place of empathy. And that same empathy also drives relationships.

AJB: There’s a dream-like quality to this collection. It’s as if we, the reader, are trapped in this swamp with recurring images of gators. What do the gators represent? How do we avoid being eaten alive?

EL: For me, the gators are Protean. They have, scientifically, outlived humans. They’ve learned to adapt, and I think the voices in the book are all looking to the gators as a seer. How do I survive this? What comes next? Tell me, gator mommy. Sometimes the gators are lushness and beauty. Sometimes they’re the hard counter we need in order to crack an artistic idea open. But I think the gators also represent the emotions we’re not supposed to admit we have. Depression, fear, alienation, greed—they all coexist with our happier selves, our more positive emotions. I’d say the gators only eat the people who stop paying attention to the world around them. So I think if you’re reading this, you’ll be ok. But if you drop your cell phone in the swamp, don’t dive in. That’s just foolish.