Author Spotlight: Owen Elphick

Meet Owen Elphick! Owen is a senior writing, literature, and publishing major (Receiving a BFA in Creative Writing) at Emerson College about to publish his collection of poems entitled Thoughts & Prayers. The book will be published through the Wilde Press branch of Emerson's Pub Club! In addition to publishing an amazing work of poetry, Owen is also one of my closest friends at Emerson. Having worked with Owen for the past three years, I can speak for his absolute dedication to his work, and I am so excited to see his work get published by Pub Club this semester before he graduates in December. Here's what Owen had to say about his book:

What inspired you to write Thoughts & Prayers?

I started writing poems about and in response to gun violence shortly after the Parkland shooting in 2018. In the wake of the #NeverAgain movement and the March for Our Lives, it felt like there was this giant imperative, especially amongst young people, to do something about the gun violence epidemic. And while I absolutely supported that sentiment, and the fight for gun control, I also felt really overwhelmed and paralyzed. I was in this paradoxical place where I simultaneously felt like I needed to do something, but also that there was nothing I could do, which is a brand of hopelessness that I think is very particular to people of my generation who are coming of age in the Trump era. So I turned to poetry, both to overcome that sense of hopelessness, but also to write into it and discover more about it. The result was this book-length sequence.

Violence is a recurring theme in a lot of the work I’ve done in the past few years--it’s something I’m simultaneously disturbed and fascinated by. And gun violence in particular is an issue that I have a lot of personal connections to. My freshman year at Emerson, I acted in a play about the Columbine Massacre—which before Parkland was the biggest high school shooting in US history—and that had an enormous impact on me. And I’m from Connecticut, so I have very vivid memories of when the Sandy Hook shooting happened. It was one of those moments, like Parkland, where gun violence was really pushed to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness, and it was the first time I’d ever been forced to think about it. So I have very strong feelings about it. At the same time, it’s not an uncomplicated issue for me. I have family members who own guns. My uncle, who I mention in the book, was on the board of the NRA for a time. And then there’s also the fact that a lot of the early history of the firearms industry in America was centered in Connecticut, so much so that my home state was once called the “arsenal of democracy”—I learned that while I was doing research. So I think a lot of the book is me trying to come to terms with that history, with this legacy of gun violence in America, and my own obsession with guns growing up. 

Graphic provided by Pub Club

You decided to donate all proceeds to March For Our Lives. What was your motivation behind choosing them to receive your donations?

It would be strange to write a book so focused around gun violence and then not donate the proceeds to a group fighting to end it. And it was hard to choose, because there are so many incredible and worthy organizations devoted to this issue. I settled on March For Our Lives because it felt like so much of the initial spark for Thoughts & Prayers came from that movement and their work. They genuinely give me hope for the future, which is not something I typically have a large supply of. I love that it’s driven by young people, and places such an emphasis on the importance of youth activism, because I think it’s ultimately going to be young people who will create the change that needs to happen in this country. It’s a relatively new organization, so it doesn’t have the same strong base of financial support that more established ones like Everytown or the Brady Campaign do. But at the same time, it’s had this wide reach, and really tangible impact—not just in terms of the original March itself, but also the effect they’ve had on actual legislature. They pushed Florida to pass gun control laws for the first time in thirty years; and within a year of the Parkland shooting, 67 new pieces of gun control were passed in 26 states. That’s really inspiring to me, and the kind of work I want to be contributing to. Also, there’s a chapter at Emerson, so it just felt appropriate.

To donate to March For Our Lives, please follow this link

What was the biggest challenge in writing Thoughts & Prayers?

Getting out of my own way, I think. It was partly me giving myself permission to write about such sensitive issues—I’ve never thought of myself or my poetry as being particularly political, and here I was trying to write a bunch of poems about something highly political (and politicized). And on the one hand, I don’t want to remain silent; but as a straight, cis, white male, I don’t know that my voice is really the one that needs to be heard the most in the conversation. More than that, though, what I think I struggled with the most was me constantly asking myself, What is my responsibility to this subject matter, and what’s the right way for me to write about it? 

For example, I felt a lot of pressure, especially early on, to do justice to the victims of mass shootings. In one of the later poems in the sequence I say, “I would like to write a poem for every victim, for every one lost.” But also, how can you? Elaine Scarry (and, to a lesser extent, John Green) writes about how pain destroys language, and I think violence is similar—it’s so hard to find a way to talk about something that is inherently destructive. Especially when you haven’t actually experienced it. So is it something I’m actually capable of writing about, or will I always be failing to capture it, and failing the victims in the process? Is it even okay for me to be attempting to capture it in the first place? Is it moral to make art out of their tragedy? What good are my poems actually doing? Am I writing them because I want to make a difference, or just because I want to feel like I’m doing something? Am I just making myself more comfortable with my own inaction? 

I had to get very honest and ask myself a lot of hard questions, and those questions and that process of unpacking and self-reflection are as much what Thoughts & Prayers is about as anything else. Because I don’t think my experience is unique to me. Whenever a mass shooting happens, I think a lot of us get paralyzed by the enormity of the tragedy, and don’t know how to respond. And we also focus so much on the killer, and the extremity of what they’ve done, that we lose sight of our own culpability, and the fact that gun violence is a much bigger issue than mass shootings. Gun violence is a constant in this country, whether you’re experiencing it in real life, or in the media you consume, or the language we speak, or the culture that conditions us. In the same way that there is no America without slavery or white supremacy, I would argue there is no America without gun violence. Mass shootings are just a symptom of a much larger sickness, one we’re all infected with, and I think I had to realize that—and that by putting myself under the microscope, I can interrogate that sickness in myself, and learn about it. That completely changed what the sequence was about for me. I also had to realize that all I can bring to the writing is my own perspective—even if I’m trying to understand someone else’s—and be as honest as possible about it. After that, it’s up to other people to decide whether or not what I’m offering them is valuable.

The biggest success?

I think I’ve found a lot of new and unexpected ways to approach this issue poetically. I got to bring a lot of the technical craft I’ve developed during my time at Emerson to these poems, and engage with form in a way that freed me up to write about what I needed to. Same thing goes for structuring the sequence as a whole—I got to incorporate all these motifs, and make connections and patterns across the poems that really excited me. There’s a ton of intricacies to the way these poems were made and organized that made the process intellectually and creatively stimulating to me, and not just daunting because of the seriousness of the subject matter. And I got to pour a lot of my obsessions into these poems. Because so much of this sequence is about investigating the ways in which we see gun violence manifest itself in culture, I got to bring it into conversation with so many other works and reference points—everything from rap music to 19th century poetry to musical theater to American historical figures to films. You really get a sense of the inside of my brain, and a lot of the stuff I’m influenced by, by reading this collection.

Graphic provided by Pub Club

Is this the first time you have been published? If so, how does it feel?

I’ve had my work published in chapbooks and an anthology before, as well as in literary magazines (some of them at Emerson) and other publications. But this is the first time I’m getting a full book/manuscript/collection published, the first time it’s just my name on the cover. It’s very strange, honestly. I’ve dreamed about having my first book published since I was five, and I definitely didn’t imagine it being a book of poetry for most of my childhood. And even when I became a poet, I didn’t think my first collection would be such a political one. Of course, it’s also incredibly exciting and validating, especially after getting this manuscript rejected the first time I submitted it to Pub Club. I’m glad things happened the way they did, because I definitely needed more time with this manuscript. And it’s my last semester, so in a lot of ways this feels like a culmination of my time as a writer at Emerson. At the same time, I’m trying not to get so wrapped up in this being my first book that I make it too much about me, because the book is about something bigger than me.

Is there anything you wish you could change?

A lot of very tiny things that most people probably wouldn’t notice the significance of, and that my publisher and designer would probably kill me if I tried to change. I’ve asked enough last-minute changes of them as it is.

What is one thing you want everyone to know/keep in mind about your book?

Mainly that I don’t have the answers, and I didn’t write this book to find them. I wrote it to ask more interesting questions than the ones I currently see being asked, and to make myself and other people uncomfortable in a way that is useful. I’m not an authority on this issue, and I’m coming at it from a pretty privileged perspective. That’s all I can offer, and I hope you can take something valuable away from it.

Anything else you would like to add? 

Fuck the NRA.

Bonus Questions: 

What is your Hogwarts house? 

I’ve never actually taken the test, but I’ve been told by a number of people, including my partner, that I’m a Slytherin. If not that, then probably a Ravenclaw.

Favorite place in Boston to visit/write in? 

Oh, I have so many spots, but probably the Public Garden. When I’m really trying to get a project done, I get the most writing done in my room, or my courtyard, or the Quiet Lounge in Piano Row, or deep in the stacks of the Iwasaki Library. But the Common and the Public Garden is where I’ve always gone when I need to relax or re-energize, or generate new material. I’ve written a lot of poems on benches and blankets and in the grass and the graveyard and on that little island in the middle of the Swan Pond. Coming from a rural area, it’s always nice to take a break from the city have nature available to me in the Common or the Public Garden. Going there has saved me a number of times while at Emerson.

What is your go-to restaurant in Boston? 

I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite restaurant in Boston (that honor probably goes to Barcelona in the South End, which I’ve only been to twice because it’s *expensive*), but the one I’ve probably gone to the most is Panera. Basic, I know, but it’s developed this strange significance to me. Whenever my partner comes to visit, we always end up going to the Panera on Tremont at some point, because it works with both of our food restrictions. Also, there’s this Panera on Huntington Avenue, across the street from where I work, and I’ve gone in there for dinner a lot, especially if I’m working a double and I have a break between shifts. I’ve actually worked on an embarrassingly large amount of Thoughts & Prayers in that Panera. And one of the folks who works there knows me by name, and knows about my food allergies, and they always make my day 1000% better. So shout-out to them.

Graphic provided by Pub Club

What is something you like to do for fun? 

Since moving off-campus, honestly, cooking and cleaning have become enormous comfort activities for me. It’s so nice being able to just block everything else out and focus on domestic stuff. I usually listen to music while I do that, so that too. And also reading, of course, though I haven’t been able to do that for pleasure as much as I’d like to these days.

If you could have dinner with one person, who would it be and why? 

If we’re talking alive, probably Lin-Maneul Miranda, because he’s such an inspiration to me as an artist, and I really want to pick his brain and have a conversation where we can get really specific about craft and life and being an artist. If we’re talking dead, probably Nâzım Hikmet, who was a Turkish writer who spent most of his life in prison or exile for his political beliefs. His poem “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved” is one of my favorite poems of all time, and I just have so many questions for him about his life, and how he was able to survive all the things he did.

 

I'd like to offer a HUGE congratulations to Owen and all the hard work he put into writing Thoughts & Prayers! It's truly a must-read! 

Make sure to stop by Pub Club's book launch to purchase your copy of Thoughts & Prayers for only $8.00!  And, in addition, remember that all the proceeds from Owen’s book will go to benefiting March for Our Lives!  For more information about Pub Club's book launch event, check out our article!

And a P.S. just for Owen: 

Owen, 

I am so thankful to have gotten to know you over the past three years, and I am unbelievably proud of you for getting published. I know that it wasn’t easy, and that there was a ton of stress that went into it, but I’m so happy that it paid off for you. I know that you are going to make something big out of yourself, and I can’t wait to see what comes next. <3