PATERSON – Elizabeth Estella, the delicate, sensitive, yet tough poet laureate of this North Jersey factory town of Paterson, has inspired Facebook around the world with her artful and always poetic posts about life, the -language, love and the crisis of her cancer diagnosis. . Already a veteran of two massive cancer surgeries, and pneumonia four times in two months, she is now facing this reduction – already scheduled and postponed – the mother of all surgeries (14 hours), which requires it -removal of all non-essential organs and chemotherapy by hand. . As a consequence of scar tissue fused together in her body, she cannot eat, but speaks with a voice of strength and determination.
At this moment in her own courageous journey, in a political atmosphere divided and fragmented by partisan sloganeering, ugliness, narcissism and ad hominem attacks as a substitute for dialogue, Estella, or “Lizzie” as she is known to family and friends -friends, you want to transmit a certain grace, humanity, and adoration of beauty.
“Poetry has seen me through a lot of it,” she told InsiderNJ on the porch of her Paterson home on the city’s East Side. “I’m not against social media, but I’m not particularly social media savvy. I suppose what I do is a kind of cross-genre prose, and it gathers responses from people all over the world. I am shocked by it. People will mail me things. I received a rosary, a pressed flower. I think at a time when things are very divisive in American history, and so broken, I think I’m in this unique position of seeing only the best in people. When you have cancer, people are so nice to you. Politics aside. … I want the regular mundane gossip too but of course people try to keep it away from me because of my condition. Of course, ultimately my message is for hope. I have no room for anything else in my body other than hope. People respond to hope. They write something small on my page and it means the absolute world to me. I am also surprised by how poetic, naturally and generously people are. They allow themselves to be poetic on my page, and it pushes back the idea that poetry is esoteric.”
Can poetry be defined as language in its most essential parts? And how much of Estella’s poetry is the condition she is in now against the nature of a poetic man?
“I think the poem just happened,” she said. “There is no other way for me. I was a poet long before I got sick. I am never a poet. This is how I see the world. Everything is fodder for poetry. It is frustrating to be my partner because just walking down the street is not a simple task. I love finding loose pieces of paper. I will read the whole grocery list while my partner is not always in the mood sometimes you just want to have some milk. I didn’t realize the posts would come to anything. It became a journal for me. It is difficult to inform people about the updates in my life. I could have outlived my prognosis. Maybe now it’s about leaving it behind. People will read them when I’m gone, so I want to leave a record poetically. I want to get the words out as much as I can. There is tenderness there because it is a tender subject. Death is there. We all know I’m sick. How do we make that beautiful?”
Born to an Iranian father and an American mother, Estella grew up in Hillsdale, the adopted daughter of a Russian Jewish mother and a Cuban father. Partly a search for identity among supposedly irreconcilable worlds led her to poetry, which she studied at Columbia University (BA) and then at New York University (MFA). She has taught creative writing and poetry at her alma mater, NYU, and at Passaic County Community College. The politicization of poetry itself through ethnic designations that serve in part as a basis for publishing and awarding grants, and the rage of identity politics, raised little inspiration in the poet, who went resides in Paterson with her beloved daughter and husband, Damen, a native Patersonian and owner of the Underdog Bar and Grill.
Paterson, with her cauldron of overlapping and intersecting identities, a boiling point of humanity, provided her sustenance, and strengthened her poetry.
“People are angry and rightfully so, and a lot of the poetry we’re seeing now is a direct response to what’s going on in the world,” she said. “I am not that poet. I thought about it and part of me feels guilty for not getting into bigger and more important topics, especially as a first generation Iranian American, but I don’t get into identity politics. Poetry is narcissistic, including me. I was constantly fighting against this. I don’t want to be that person with words on paper who insists that what I have to say is important.”
Sometimes, or most of the time, this poet drawn to the work of William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, says that the poem is about a flower, or a tree, or a waterfall.
“Being the poet laureate is a political nomination,” she acknowledges. “There’s a lot of politics involved, and as much as I like to get away from politics, I’m very involved in it. I’ve gotten away from it the past few years just to get my priorities in order, and to stop worrying about things I’m trying to fix in Paterson. There are many things that need fixing. My family was getting tired of it. What I have observed is that everyone wants to reinvent the wheel. The attitude is ‘I’m going to do a backpack drive,’ and then you get someone to say, ‘I’m going to do a backpack drive.’ If they came together it would be much more effective. I found it easier to help one person at a time rather than through organizations, which waste a lot of time through the political infrastructure. I found that it accounted for a lot of photo opportunities without really doing much. I tried to help people on an individual basis by connecting them to each other on my page. It’s a really strange mix of people, from the actual [US] poet laureate to someone who won the Nobel Prize, followed by someone who might have helped me get sanitary products since I did a poetry workshop with girls teenagers. Writing something for a political event is very challenging. It needs to touch everyone, including the people who didn’t vote for this guy, [in the case of Mayor Andre Sayegh, whose first swearing-in ceremony included a poem by Estella], hope, and patriotism. It is difficult for me because I am a love poet. So I approached the inaugural poem like this, as a love poem to Paterson.”
Part of her work – perhaps political by definition – includes her efforts to ensure the continued recognition of Williams and Ginsberg in the same city that inspired those late poets. When she found out that a mural recreated by Great Falls outside of a quote from Williams, she intervened. “I was livid that they were destroying Williams and putting anonymous colloquialism,” she said. This, after all, was the poet who wrote Paterson, an epic poem about the city in which he worked.
“I made about 18,000 phone calls, and I found Dave Thompson and now the mural has a Ginsberg quote, ‘The weight of the world is love.’ So many people come up in front of that mural and take pictures. I think it is appropriate. We have all these street names with the council people from 20 years ago. We should have a quote honoring Allen Ginsberg, who grew up here and went to Eastside High School. Part of what I want to contribute is that I want to make the city proud following the legacy of Williams, Ginsberg and Maria Mazziotti Gillian.”
Silk City is her adopted hometown, and the one she needs.
“I never felt at home until I moved here,” said Paterson’s Poet Laureate. “My neighbors have such incredible grit. You look at this city, at places like the Art Factory and the Court and how beautiful things were and how beautiful they can be, if only. In the suburbs I felt very stifled. I remember going to Starbucks and seeing 12-year-olds ordering complicated coffee drinks while unsupervised, while not looking the baristas in the eye. I thought, this will be my life; this artless sense of entitlement? There is not enough pain. I’m not saying there isn’t pain in the suburbs, of course. But here you can see urban decay and this is great as a poet. We have the river. We have the waterfall. People have these beautiful stories because they have experienced many hardships. I love talking to older people about what Paterson was like in the 50’s and 60’s. And remember, we were almost the nation’s capital. Think about [Alexander] Hamilton’s role in this; there’s so much history here, and it aggravated me that in [the Broadway show] Hamilton, where was Paterson?”
Estella’s other forays into politics were painful, or at least instructive.
As a poet, she considers herself fragile by nature. On an occasion in 2018 when she asked a question to a political candidate expressly to make him look bad and benefit someone else, she felt guilty. It didn’t give her a good feeling about Paterson’s politics. “He’s very Hamlet-like, the back. But yes, I did, I asked [Councillor Mike Jackson] who the vice president was and he didn’t know, and it went viral and I didn’t feel good because if you get into something with the aim of vilifying someone, that’s not good . I hate hurting people. I hate it. I am a poet. I didn’t know how to fix it. That’s when I realized I can’t be a politician.”
She ended up apologizing personally to Jackson, who accepted, saying he would pray for her.
She is good friends with other politicians, including Prospect Park Councilor Robert Artis. She also warmly joined Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.
“Mayor Baraka found out through a friend that I am sick, and he came here, right on this porch and had
tea with me Sunday afternoon to cheer me up,” said Estella. “He came here without an agenda, about a year and a half ago. I can’t vote for him so there is no gain for him. Just a poet for a poet. He came here as a poet to soothe the soul of another poet in Paterson. I asked him about being a person in a position of power who is also a poet. Does it separate the two? He said, ‘I am a poet in everything I do.’ His politics is through the lens of a poet. Maybe that’s why he’s such a good politician. He used to read a poem during the debriefings about COVID. He released a spoken word video, which was so gorgeous. When does he sleep? Newark is a good model for Paterson. A blessing? He has a presence about him. It is so great. Truly, there is greatness to him. It feels like it has a kind of magic to it; the poet shining through perhaps. It is whatever that magic is that makes people poets. It’s authentic.”
Authenticity forms the heart of poetry, says Estella.
“It could be about anything but only you could have written it,” she explained. “I need that heartbeat. There is too much narcissism and political pandering. When it becomes didactic or lacks that authentic voice, it loses me. There needs to be something at stake in this poem. at the moment, I write a lot about mice. My aesthetic is very whimsical. I combine things that are impossibly sad with whimsy. I’m also working on a series of poems, a pantheon that includes different celebrities, including one for [former heavyweight champion] Mike Tyson. I love you. It is so poetic. He said, ‘it’s a hard pillow to sleep on.’ He has some of the best. He recorded a little video for me, and told me to get better.”
The fighting poet is understood to be a boxing buff, and sponsored a reading for charity at a local gym. “Boxing and poetry,” she said. “I did it at Ike and Randy’s Boxing Gym. Poets read from the circle. All the money went to Ike and Randy’s Foundation for Youth Boxing.”
If you feel it is a correlative of boxing and poetry you also insist that we need poetry in our politics, to suppress and strengthen the language of partisanship, race, and the table.
“It’s personal, of course; if it’s a poem for one person it’s a poem,” she said. “As humans, we crave art.”
She recommends contemporary poets Ada Limon, Ellen Bass, Ross Gay, Anne Carson, Frank Bidart, Richard Siken, and Wallace Ludel. She also loves E.E Cummings, Pablo Neruda; and of course, Williams and Ginsberg (pictured, below).
“In our public life, yes, we have accepted a certain theater of cruelty; I am very disillusioned with politics in general,” said the poet. “The amount of times I see people who were allies turn and hate in a visceral way, makes me not trust any of it. No one is safe. Everything manipulates each other. Politics turns decent people evil. Maybe that’s why I resist it too. I don’t have that kind of strength. I am actually very fragile. People say, ‘You’re so strong.’ I’m not. I am a delicate fragile human being. For me to make someone feel less than beautiful would be horrible to me.”
Part of what you fight for, perhaps the core of it, is simply the condition of being human, and its depth, the antithesis of a simplified political designation, agenda, or prefabricated slogan. “Writing is a way of saying ‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? I am suffering. i love you You are keeping me alive.’ I love being able to say ‘I had a good blood test.’ My poetry is for lovers. Hopefully, it perfumes people’s lives with love. There are many lonely people. I love people and I’m in this unique place to see the beauty in them at a time when things are frustrating politically and financially.”
Have we accepted anger as intrinsic to our art or to the life of politics, instead of the courage to understand and embody the art of kindness?
“There are moments of anger,” said Estella. “I fought like hell in my last chemotherapy session. It was difficult. I lost my father. I lost my biological mother. I thought, ‘What else are you going to throw at me? How much can one person take?’I have moments where I crumble to the ground and I’m a puddle. But if you let anger go on for too long, it lives there, and I’m not making a home there. You always have to make hope overcome anger. I want my illness to give people hope. It is so easy to be angry at cancer. We all agree it’s the worst. There is no defending it. I started making a to-do list for Stella’s high school graduation. I’m even planning my own funeral. It’s scary. It is beautiful. I also have thoughts like, ‘give my blue ring to my daughter for her wedding.’ I can live in that sadness but it will steal me today. Well, I might get hit by a bus tomorrow. Anything can happen on any given day. I am blessed to see it coming and I can put it into words or find a place to put it. To be angry about it, is not. I just want to be remembered for having grace.
“They’re things we all have to do as people anyway,” she added. “I used to think only of all the beautiful things in the world, from A to Z. Anemone to A; B for bumblebee. I will always find Damen and Stella and along the way, take some stock of what we are thankful for. Please, just say a sincere prayer for me. If enough people put good energy into the world, it certainly can’t hurt. Plan your funeral. It will happen. Tell people the things you mean. ‘I love you.’Don’t hold it. Tell people everything, except for the mean thing. I don’t focus on the fact that I can’t eat. I like to imagine what I might eat on a perfect day. It’s what I love about being a poet. You can create beauty when you need it. You can trigger it. I find so much in flowers. When you’re actually dying, you have this unique perspective. There is no time to be angry and to slack off on the things that are important. I have Chai tea. A beautiful house. An incredible marriage. I really like Damen. Cancer was so romantic for us. We slow danced when my balance was shot. He asked me every day to dance with him. Imagine if we did that when we weren’t sick. Ask your partner to dance. Never take food for granted.
“My goal is to leave things a little more beautiful than I found them.”
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