Everyday Magic in Eve Ewing's 'Electric Arches'

On the poet’s first collection.

Photo: Daniel Barlow

For Eve Ewing, a blank canvas is more than an opportunity, it’s a threat. Calling from her Chicago home, she explains that the hardest part of any project is the beginning. “A blank canvas is like having a rattlesnake in your house, right? You don’t get to look for the rattlesnake while watching 90 Day Fiance. It’s all hands on deck.” The 31-year-old Chicagoan has an almost superhuman range of talents: educator, sociologist, visual artist, essayist, and most recently, poet. Her work ethic has culminated in Electric Arches, her debut collection of poetry out today via Haymarket Books. The book is a reflection on African-American girlhood and womanhood that feels personal and intimate, yet astoundingly precise. Despite the poems’ slippery relationship with time and space, their truth is rooted firmly in the America of 2017. It’s no wonder that Chicago Magazine warns, “Ignore Eve Ewing at your own intellectual, political, and cultural peril.”

It is surprising to learn that her publisher was not initially looking for poetry at all. At the same time that Ewing was submitting a poetry compilation to contests and publishers, a piece about a Chicago school closing published on a site she co-founded led to essays for The New Yorker, The New Republic, and more. Haymarket approached her, hoping to publish a book of essays. “I was like ‘Well, I don’t want to do that, but how about you provide a home for this collection of poetry that needs some love?’” Ewing credits a long conversation with editor Julie Fain for bringing the theme of the collection into focus. “We had one of those iterative conversations,” she says. “It’s kind of like when you ask somebody for advice and then in talking to them you realize you already know what you’re supposed to do. I suddenly realized the book is about this. I reconstructed the book with this theme in my head, ‘This is an Afrofuturist Black feminist book about coming of age and growing up in the city.’”

Ewing’s own youth provided plenty of inspiration. She remembers the first thing she ever wrote during a visit to her mother’s office. “I used to have to go to work with my mom if I had a day off. My mom would say ‘I’m busy, so you can write on this MS-DOS computer.’ When I was 5, I remember writing essentially fan fiction about the characters in the Nickelodeon show ‘Hey Dude.’ It was probably seven lines long,” she laughs.

Her mother is an inspiration throughout Electric Arches. Three poems scattered throughout, each with the parenthetical subtitle [a re-telling], were inspired by Ewing’s childhood remedy for nightmares. “If I woke up in the middle of the night and told my mom I had a bad dream, she would tell me that I had to finish it. ‘Tell me what happens next.’ It would have to be silly or good. It was a way of reclaiming the power.”

She compares the powerlessness of nightmares with the uncertainty that strikes when suddenly confronted with racism. Each re-telling describes a public racist incident. The narrator responds to each offender with supernatural comeuppance as the text transitions from a serif font into Ewing’s own handwriting. In one, a woman shouts a slur at a six-year-old, only to be scooped up by the child on her flying bicycle. The handwritten ending is a way of intervening for oneself. And for others, “I have started being extremely active about intervening because I know it just freezes you. I want to see a world where all of us can take agency to act for each other.”

The extraordinary occurs again and again in Electric Arches. Chicago blues pioneer Koko Taylor twists John Henry’s hammer into a necklace and writes rivers into the plains with a blue pen. Children arrive in ice chests shipped from Mississippi or on the back of a bumblebee. “This book has allowed me to think about how premises that seem farcical or strange or otherworldly are actually just variations on things we experience in everyday life,” Ewing says. “Therefore, our everyday lives are perhaps a lot more magical than we account for.”

The book is almost entirely written in first-person, but each poem represents a distinct character. Ewing explains “I think of it as different versions of one character, perhaps. I think we are quite literally different people at different times in our lives. Different beings.” While the setting within the concrete of Chicago remains solid, the time is always in flux. “Arrival Day” is about the descent of the moon people to Earth, “the promised light, descended to us at last.” The narrator is Ewing as a seventy-five or eighty-year-old. “Some of the voices are people who have come forwards or backwards in time to tell their stories.” She references Junot Diaz’s Yunior and the version Claudia Rankine narrating Citizen as similarly altered selves. Even a poem narrated by LeBron James to LeBron James is a proxy for “aging people who are embedded in the process of trying to encounter our past and future selves, and how little we know about them.”

Musicians with a confident grasp of their own identities inspired two other poems. “Appletree” is about lessons in black womanhood learned from Erykah Badu. “She’s a woman and a mother and an artist and a creator in ways that are so uncompromising and so true. She’s never afraid to ask questions with her art.” Meanwhile, “On Prince” is about a child in the early ‘90s hypnotized by 1999, her “synthesizer heart” pulsing along in her ribcage. Ewing was teaching a university course on the day the musician died. Normally reserved, she recalls warning her students of her fragile emotional state as she processed his passing. “He just seemed like a magical being. I’m so grateful that we don’t have to live without Prince because he’s so omnipresent in our culture. That’s what great art does, it allows us to time travel, it allows us to transcend death.”

The temporal possibilities in Electric Arches are endless, but in the book’s introduction, Ewing conjures up a utopian future with complete certainty. “In the future, every child in Chicago has food and a safe place to sleep,” she writes. “When you go downtown and look up at the sky, the electric arches stretch so far toward heaven that you feel like you might be the smallest and most important thing ever to be born.” Despite this vision, Ewing rejects optimism. “Optimism suggests things generally veer towards positive outcomes. I’m a pragmatist.” She references the aphorism, repeated by Dr. Martin Luther King and President Obama, that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. “I think you have to constantly bend that arc,” she says. “I think it’s creaky and old and doesn’t work that well. You have to put WD-40 on it and roll up your sleeves.”

The future of Ewing’s career is looking brighter and brighter thanks to that elbow grease. Her forthcoming projects show her range beyond poetry. Her first stage script, co-written with Nate Marshall and produced by Manual Cinema, is set to debut in Chicago this November. No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks tells the story of the titular Chicagoan, a poet, educator, and Pulitzer Prize winner. And as Electric Arches hits store shelves, Ewing is putting the finishing touches on When The Bell Stops Ringing, a nonfiction book out in the fall of 2018. The book draws on her background in sociology to tell the story of resistance to public school closures in an African-American Chicago neighborhood. Despite their distinct forms, Ewing does not consider her works separately. “Thematically, they’re all connected. I’m trying to create a city that can be a home worthy of how much we love it.”

Amongst the poems, Electric Arches is also home to Ewing’s first piece of short fiction. “The Device” is built by a near-future “hive mind of black nerds, obsessive types, scientists and inventors but also historians and archaelogists and the odd astrologer here and there.” The machine allows one young girl to speak to an ancestor through time as the world watches. For all her visions of the future, the author herself is unsure that she would want to communicate with her descendants. “I think I would say ‘Don’t tell me anything.’ Unless they have some fantastical adventure to take me on.” She points to the moment inherent in all speculative stories where a character makes the decision to suspend their disbelief. “Any time travel, magic, or superhero requires a moment where somebody has to say ‘What you’re telling me is completely at odds with everything I think I understand about the world around me, and I’m choosing to believe you.’ I want to be the person that believes.”