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News / Life / Clark County Life

Vancouver poet collaborates with high school artists in book of poetry about poverty

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: February 4, 2021, 6:00am
5 Photos
&quot;Boulevard of the Broken Soldiers&quot; (Ava Town illustration)
"Boulevard of the Broken Soldiers" (Ava Town illustration) Photo Gallery

In the alley behind the martini bar, a woman lingers, selling packets of chewing gum.

Eileen Davis Elliott remembers watching a baby’s foot pop out from under the woman’s skirt, feel the cold and disappear again.

“A nursery here in the alley / While mama sold gum for a dime,” Elliott writes in a poem called “Chiclets in the Zona Rosa.” “No license for business was posted / Survival the plan for the day.”

If pandemic lockdown has you itching for a trip around the world — not for scenery and luxury but rather a reality check about poor people’s struggles — try Elliott’s short, accessible, insightful book of poetry, “Pobrecitos.” (The word means “poor ones” or “poor little things.”) It includes illustrations by Vancouver School of Arts and Academics junior Lily Engblom-Stryker and graduating senior Ava Town.

“I’m intrigued with the idea of collaborating in the arts,” Elliott said. So she put out the word through an art teacher she knows at VSAA, and eventually drew up real legal contracts with Engblom-Stryker and Town, whose work she described as “just amazing. They freshened up the whole project.”

Elliott was a high-schooler herself when she started writing poetry, but then she set that aside while pursuing a four-decade career as a counselor and psychologist. Now she credits Vancouver’s local “Ghost Town” poetry community, which holds readings and workshops regularly, with helping her restart and take her writing seriously.

Honest feedback helped Elliott get beyond simply “whiny” writing, she chuckled, and deeper into the hard realities she witnessed during travels to 30 different countries. 

In Poland, a fearful housewife climbs stairs toward her angry husband after a fruitless trip to an empty supermarket. In Mexico, men form an assembly line to paint cheap black-velvet portraits of Elvis for American tourists. In Ukraine, a woman advertises herself online and strategizes an escape with her mother:

“She will marry the Detroit plumber / Or the guy who drives a truck in Philly … Her beauty goes for the price of two tickets / And so her new life begins.”

And in a place that could be Clark County, there’s a sweet, hopeful glimpse of charity arriving in a poem called “Meals on Wheels is Food for the Soul”:

“Door swings wide and life pours in / Pushes away the cold air / Chases out futility and brings in mashed potatoes.”

Elliott said she was strongly influenced by her justice-minded grandmother, the kind of person who’s always demanding, “What are you doing to make the world a better place?”

That’s partially why Elliott chose a career in mental health, she said, and why she decided later on to write about some of the “poor dears” she met along the way.

“I just want to crack open people’s perceptions about people in other countries,” she said. “I just want people to see how both pain and hope are worldwide.”

The final image in the book is a version of Elliott herself: an unsettled social worker lingering in a parked car, suspicious about deep trouble in the family she just visited, unsure what to do.

“I always felt more responsible than I was able to deliver on,” she said. “I just wanted to keep looking at this problem. I was trying to make a big problem relatable.”

Relatable is a good description of the style of “Pobrecitos”: it’s never obscure or “artsy,” just earnest and straightforward. 

“When first reading Eileen’s poems I was struck by the detailed yet clear imagery that conveyed such a deeper and more emotional meaning,” said illustrator Engblom-Stryker. “While sometimes the pieces were hard to stomach, the act of processing them through art only gave them greater meaning to me.

“The wonderful Meals on Wheels lady … held a special place in my heart surrounding my own grandparents and the fragility of relationships as you age,” Engblom-Stryker said.

If you’re interested in poetry but scared off by overly “fancy” writing, consider this plainspoken book. Elliott is also the author of two earlier, self-published books of poetry, “Prodigal Cowgirl” and “Miles of Pies,” both of which revisit her Midwestern upbringing.

A Zoomed book launch for “Pobrecitos” is set for 4:30 p.m. Friday. To get the link and tune in, email Elliott at Pobrecitos2021@gmail.com.

Poetry and Zoom

While poets may be more comfortable with solitude than most people, they share the same wide-ranging reactions to month after month of pandemic lockdown. Some have been more focused and prolific than ever, while others feel stuck, stopped, alone.

“I have been very productive this last year, but there have also been times of dormancy,” Elliott said.

Ironically enough, a daily Zoom group of a dozen other poets has been key to keeping at it, she said.

“We write six days a week for 20 minutes and I have filled six notebooks. I knew none of these people or their work before the pandemic,” she said.

“It has also been a time of finishing and reviewing previously started projects. It seems my creative spirit has also enjoyed — perhaps needed” a time for completing things, she said. 

Former Clark County Poet Laureate Christopher Luna continues to convene the Ghost Town poetry group for monthly Zoomed events that combine open microphone with a featured reader. Surprisingly, he said, the Zoomed events have wound up with comparable attendance (40 to 50 people is typical) and a wider audience.

“People have been tuning in and participating from around the country — New York, California, Texas,” he said. “The Zoom version also allows our friends in Washington and Oregon who live several hours away to join us every month.”

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Luna has been posting videos of the recent readings on YouTube; visit the Ghost Town Facebook page (Facebook.com/GhostTownPoetryOpenMic) to reach the link.

But, he added, poetry via screen is no substitute for poetry in person. 

“The energy exchange between a performer and their audience cannot be replicated in the virtual space,” he said. “While nothing will ever replace gathering in person, it helps to have a way to see and hear my friends and fellow poets. We all look forward to returning to in-person readings as soon as possible.”

While in-person poetry gatherings may be best, creativity itself can be a solace in the meantime, former Clark County Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Morgan wrote in an email.

“I continue to encourage everyone to create anew — write, draw, paint, sing, compose, play, poem, cook, sew, dance, drum and share with others.”

“May we note anew the spring migration and nesting time of birds. … May we literally stop and smell the roses, the wild roses, the garden roses, the soft petals of each new day. May we shelter in art and poetry.”