Vermont Poet Elizabeth Powell Explores 'Death Of A Salesman' From A Feminist Perspective

Dec 15, 2016

A Vermont author is following the success of her first book with a new collection of poetry. Elizabeth Powell’s new collection is called Willy Loman's Reckless Daughter or Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances.

The collection won the Robert Dana prize in poetry. Powell is also the editor of Green Mountains Review and serves as associate professor of writing and literature at Johnson State College in addition to being a faculty member for the Vermont College of Fine Arts' MFA in Writing program.

VPR spoke to Liz Powell about her new collection of poems.

VPR: I want to start with the title of this collection. I love it. "Willy Loman's Reckless Daughter" is a reference to the tragic character created by Arthur Miller and his famous play Death Of A Salesman. Does the subtitle to this collection, "Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances," provide a clue to the origins of the lead title? Because of course in the play, Willy Loman has two sons but no daughter.

Powell: “Yes, in fact, it does. 'Living truthfully under imaginary circumstances' is what Stanford Meisner, the great method acting teacher, talked about what acting was … living truthfully under imaginary circumstances. It's also a nod to one of my favorite Joni Mitchell albums, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter.

Elizabeth Powell's new collection of poems won the Robert Dana prize in poetry.
Credit Marion Ettlinger

"Listeners will recall, if they have read Death Of A Salesman, Willy Loman has an affair with a buyer and he's caught by his son, and this book that I've written imagines that he has conceived a daughter with the buyer Miss Frances.

“[Their] illegitimate daughter gives voice to a feminist perspective of Death Of A Salesman, the American dream and the world of the American salespeople."

There seems to be a theme within the poems collected in this book about feminism and about giving voice to women. As great of a play it is, Death of a Salesman didn't give a lot of that voice. It was very much about men.

“Willy's wife Linda Loman is the ultimate 1950s wife, taking care of everyone and worrying about everyone but perhaps not taking care of herself.

“She's not living very truthfully under her circumstances at all. In fact, she finds a pipe down in the cellar which signals that Willy might be trying to commit suicide, and she just further buries the secret.

“I think Linda Loman is a good example of, ‘You're only as sick as your secrets.’ She tries to hold up the whole family, but ultimately fails because they've all eaten the American dream and it has made them sick.”

For anyone who thinks that poetry is stuffy or stodgy, it should be noted that you're not afraid to drop the occasional or perhaps even frequent F-bomb in poetry. Did you ever feel that poetry was too precious in some ways, and needs a dose of profane language to shake things up a bit?

“Oh, absolutely. The absence of profanity will offend no one except me, my friends like to say.

"My father was a good Brooklyn boy, and one point in his life he just drove a cab in Manhattan ... I think swearing and using profanity, it's just language. It can emphasize things, it can also tell us things about socioeconomic class and point of view ...

“When I was 14 or 15 I worked in family business on Madison Avenue and my father didn't want anybody to think I got preferential treatment, so I was assigned to be the secretary for the pool of salesmen in the basement. I have to say that that was quite eye-opening on many levels, especially linguistically.”

Where is poetry in the 21st century now? Is it still relevant in the digital age of YouTube videos, tweets and binge-TV watching?

“I think it's so, so relevant. In fact, I think we should have poet laureates of political campaigns. I had this notion that if you wanted to be the poet laureate of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and travel around with the campaign and write poems about it, sort of a documentary poetics.

“Thank goodness that there is public radio, because corporate journalism has really, I believe, let us down and we are living in this so-called world of untruth now.

“The great poet [Percy] Shelley said 'poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,' and I that we voice what are the issues of our time. We are right now combating this notion of untruth, and combating notions of hate and combating attacks to our freedoms.”

Listen to the interview above to hear Powell read one of her poems, "Care Package with Riddle as Missive."