A Conversation Between Two Poets: The Authors of Tobit Detours and Meta-Verse! Talk It Out

Tobit Detours
by Elisabeth Mehl Greene
Fernwood Press (March 12, 2024)
Paperback, 140 pages

Meta-Verse!: It’s going to be interesting to see how yesterday goes
by Joann Renee Boswell
Fernwood Press (May 26, 2023)
Paperback, 272 pages

Elisabeth Mehl Greene was the first poetry editor of the Untold Volumes feminist theology poetry blog on Christian Feminism Today. Joann Renee Boswell was the second. Lis and Jo met as music majors at a small university near Portland, Oregon. They spent ten days bouncing about Europe together a few years later. During grad school, Lis turned a set of Jo’s poetry into a song cycle. In November 2017 they started writing poetry weekly and sending the poems to each other, cross-country, for feedback. They deemed themselves The Poetry Starship. Each was often the first person to read the poems of the other that eventually appeared in their recent books, and they influenced and encouraged each other in their writing. They dream of one day publishing a book together that is a conversation of their poetry, back and forth.

 

Tobit Detours book cover shows a graphic representing a desert landscape with dunes, in shades of orange.
Click to purchase.

Joann Renee Boswell (JRB): Lis! How did you come to write about Tobit?

Elisabeth Mehl Greene (EMG): During lockdown with small children and short windows of time to write, I was looking for character studies to compose, based in biblical literature where I had background knowledge already. Reflecting outward from the character of Tobit, I found the surrounding cast of characters intriguing, especially as they shed light on the unreliable narrator of Tobit. His voice begins the book with praise of his own virtues while, in interactions with his family, he’s impossible! Tobit falsely accuses his wife Anna; lectures his son Tobias and then sends him off on a dangerous mission with no idea where he’s going and, furthermore, against the wishes of Tobias’s mother. Initial small sketches exploring those discrepancies evolved into telling the entire epic. And, as you and I were trading poems across the country in a collective known as The Poetry Starship, one of my main goals was to make my friend laugh.

JRB: And indeed you succeeded. Thank you. I’d love to hear about when you first heard the story of Tobit, and did it immediately capture your attention?

EMG: I first encountered the Book of Tobit as a young reader of the Bible. Tobit was nested in a list of apocryphal books of the Bible, grouped in with more intriguing-to-young-me titles like Bel and the Dragon, Judith, and Susannah. I recall church leadership in my young years warning off engaging with apocrypha, appropriating the infamous words of Revelation 22:18, “if anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book,” casting an aura of the dangerous and forbidden to the noncanonical. On closer inspection, I’d found the story mostly a tale of boys and men and their doings. Being more interested in the lady heroes of Robin McKinley’s Blue Sword at the time, Tobit mostly escaped my notice until 2020.

JRB: I have never read the apocrypha. What can you tell me about it?

EMG: The word apocrypha comes from the Greek word apokryphos which means “hidden away” and now typically refers to texts excluded from an accepted canon. The Book of Tobit is considered apocryphal by Protestants, not used in services or included in their scripture, while it is still included in canon by the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

JRB: I’m fascinated by your style of poetic storytelling that is part poetry, part play, part pretend media. Can you tell me more about the ways that you use these elements in this book?

EMG: The shapeshifting forms of Tobit Detours come from searching for the best, most immediate ways to tell the story, in the neighborhood of verse but not limited to it. Form follows function, although some pieces are more abstract and impressionist than others. The ensemble scenes seemed best suited to scriptwriting, while the news stories set the piece back into conversation with modern life. The variety keeps the story moving, and often highlights the comedy with unexpected tonal shifts. And I adore the mixed media approach in novels like Where’d You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple.

JRB: How much of your book is straight from the Book of Tobit, and how much is an elaboration or creation on your part? And are there any elements that came from other documents or research?

EMG: Did I follow a recipe of one cup Book of Tobit, 2/3 cup of my elaborations and interpretations, and several handfuls of research? Not exactly. The bones of the story are, of course, from the Book of Tobit, following the narrative arcs and roadmap laid out in the original text. But within that framework, I kept looking around to see who else was in the room, who gets to speak, who is silent, what else is happening out-of-frame, what happens if we shine the spotlight away from the supposed main characters. These detours frequently lead to research, but only a fraction of that reading makes its way into poems. The comparative literature references tied in other things I’d been reading, finding their echoes in this story; Telemachus’s journey in the Odyssey mirroring that of Tobias, Byron’s words about Sennacherib, Shakespeare’s meditations on death in Hamlet, several biblical prophets’ vitriol about Nineveh, all had resonances with the events of Tobit. And the occasional pop song. Among others.

JRB: Did you draw the maps yourself that are in your book?

EMG: I did! With software. I’ve always loved fantasy maps from my childhood and used to spend hours crafting maps for my own invented lands. I’m hoping that some of my next projects take me map-ward again.

JRB: Who is your favorite character in your version of Tobit?

EMG: Hard to choose! I love Sarah; unearthing surprising depths in her part of the journey was a major driving force for the book. But the most fun to write has to be the supernatural characters, Raphael and Asmodeus. Did you have a favorite character or moment in the story?

JRB: Ooh! I always love your supernatural characters. You have so much fun with them and they make me laugh so much. They remind me so much of the whimsy of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens. Wickedly good. Was there a character that was the easiest for you to write?

EMG: Anna’s responses to her husband Tobit’s behavior were the first pieces I wrote, extrapolating from her documented salty words to Tobit about the bonus goat, adding more of her personality and perspective to the texture.

JRB: Are you working on any other projects right now that your readers can be looking forward to?

EMG: I have another apocryphal project in progress with a feisty semi-canonical heroine and supernatural shenanigans. Stay tuned!

JRB: Can you tell us briefly about your first book of poetry, Lady Midrash? [CFT’s Review]

EMG: Lady Midrash reexamines the stories of Biblical women, highlighting peripheral voices and reframing familiar stories. Rather than telling a single overarching narrative as in Tobit Detours, those poems were about individual perspectives throughout canonical scripture and their unique moments, with special attention to the unusual sides of their stories. If you have a favorite woman of the Hebrew Bible or New Testament, you might find her in Lady Midrash!

JRB: Thank you so much for your time! I loved your book—each time I read it—and I can’t wait for more readers to experience it.

Meta-Verse book cover. It's a picture taken in space of an astronaut floating off in the distance with the earth visible at the bottom of the photo.
Click to purchase.

EMG: Thanks for chatting about my books! Now onto your new book Meta-Verse! Both your first book, Cosmic Pockets [CFT’s Review], and Meta-Verse share an obsession with space imagery. Could you talk about how a love for sci-fi, space operas, and the universe intersect with your writing?

JRB: I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, and that so greatly impacted my imagination. The canvas of the universe is so expansive that I find my mind often off on a wild adventure there. I think it’s for this reason that my writing often has so much space (pun intended) to wander in cosmic imagery.

EMG: Conversely, the specific Pacific Northwest setting of many poems sometimes feels like a character unto itself in your work. How do you see your poetic relationship with your local natural world?

JRB: I go on a lot of walks. I’ve always enjoyed walking, but during the lockdown at the start of the pandemic, and then after receiving a medical diagnosis that also requires that I regularly move my body to mitigate symptoms, I walk A LOT. I love it. And when I get to walk by myself on any of the wonderful winding wooded trails in my little city, my mind runs about as well. Many of these poems were written while I was walking.

EMG: Your books feature uncommon additions in the world of poetry collections—the photos in Cosmic Pockets, and now the grown-up coloring book illustrations and choose-your-own-adventure redirects in Meta-Verse. Could you talk about the conversation between your poetry and these elements?

JRB: I love interactive art. My mind wanders if there isn’t a tangible way for me to interact. Some candy for my brain to go along with the words. I also want to slow things down for readers. A bit of a palate cleanser before moving on to the next poem. My hope is for people to be able to take their time with my books and have many ways to interact with them. For Meta-Verse, I worked with two illustrators who selected poems of mine to create art for. This was so satisfying and fun to see what they each came up with.

EMG: As you are also an accomplished photographer, do you mentally pair images with words as you write?

JRB: Not usually. Mostly I’m writing word pictures and sometimes I seek out a mental picture to assist me in that, but usually it is a word bouquet and the pictures come later on. I think I work best when my focus is completely in the visual world or in the world of words.

EMG: How do you see your inner poet growing/changing/becoming since your first book?

JRB: I have more confidence for sure. More awareness that poetry is subjective and that it is okay if people don’t understand my voice, even if those people find themselves to be experts. I have spent enough time reading other peoples’ work that I can see the wide array of ways to write poetry. This helps me to have more fun, to write more clearly, to try some unusual forms. Many of my unusual forms were inspired by you, Lis. Thank you.

EMG: I’m honored to be part of your poetic journey. On my side, I’ve always been amazed at your ability to rapidly crystallize a moment in time: a reaction to the news, an up-to-the-minute pressing concern from social media. What kinds of issues are on your mind to write about these days?

JRB: Yes, I find that when I am in a jumble about an issue, personal or global, that finding words for this in the form of poetry is so helpful. I feel at peace after I’ve worked it through and completed a poem. Poetry is a very helpful form of processing for me. These days I am pretty low on free time to write poetry, but if I had more time, I would be writing about what’s happening in Gaza. I’d be writing about trans rights. I’d be writing about reproductive rights. And always, it seems, I’d be writing about leaving the faith of my childhood.

EMG: Can you share any unexpected influences behind your work that might surprise your readers?

JRB: Ha. No, I think I’m a pretty open book. What you see is what you get. Billy Collins, Hollie McNish, and you are some of my biggest influences in the poetry world. Musical theater always inspires me.

EMG: You’re often working with extremely close-to-home subject matter—have your kids or partner ever written a response (or rebuttal!) to their portrayal in your poems?

JRB: Not really. They’ve been very supportive. There are a few poems that have not made it to print due to my own discretion. And there is one poem in Meta-Verse that was written by my oldest child. It was not in response to the poem that appears right before it in the book, but it was written very shortly after, without my kid being aware of the poem I had written. Their poem is called “Croissant” and I’m so pleased to have been able to include it in this book.

EMG: I remember that one! Very neat to collaborate that way. If you could choose anyone’s voice to record reading your poems, who would you pick?

JRB: Myself! I really would love to record an audiobook of my poetry. Actually it would be fun to have a variety of people read them, different voices for the different types of poems in the books. Jeff Goldblum for the spacey poems. Emma Thompson for the parenting poems. Patrick Stewart for the farting poem in Cosmic Pockets. Ayo Edebiri for everything else.

EMG: Either of these would be so fun to hear. I loved your Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy audiobook you recorded for fun ages ago.

JRB:  Oh yes. I’ve been meaning to listen to that again; after all, I will be turning 42 this coming fall, so it has been on my mind. And now I want to ask you the same question about who you’d like to record reading your poems.

EMG: Seeing much of Tobit Detours and Lady Midrash as scenes and monologues, I’d really love to cast a whole radio play for each. But just to name a few in Tobit—I’d love to hear Liev Schreiber as Tobit, Golshifteh Farahani as Sarah, Matthew Goode as Raphael, Theo James as Asmodeus, Hasan Minhaj as Ahiqar, and Adjoa Andoh as Naqi’a Zakutú.

Finally, Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to tease?

JRB: I have an idea, but it’s in the super early stages. Too early to tease. I might need to get all three of my kiddos through middle school before I have time to get another book out into the world.

EMG: I’m looking forward to seeing what you write next, finding topics in the cosmos, in Camas, Washington, or somewhere in between.

 

 

 

Editors
The Christian Feminism Today website addresses topics of interest to Christian feminists. It features articles, opinion pieces, reviews of books and recordings (audio and video), interviews with Christian women and men who live according to Christian feminist principles and promote gender equality, love, and social justice among all people. We welcome submissions for consideration. Writer's guidelines are here.