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September 16, 2014

The night writer: Daughter of former Star journalists wins poetry prize

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Posted: Sunday, March 16, 2014 12:50 am

She likes to writes when everyone else is asleep, during the hour of the wolf — between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. — the time of night when, according to folklore, the most people die and the most babies are born.

It is in that silent darkness where Ansel Elkins finds the inspiration for her hauntingly stark and beautifully desperate poems about loneliness, isolation, violence and hope; poems about the Southern spirit and Southern ghosts.

“I’m more of a night writer,” Elkins said. “I like to write in the wee hours of the morning when it’s really quiet.”

Elkins, 32, who grew up in Talladega, is the recipient of the 2014 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, the longest-running poetry prize in America. Her winning collection, “Blue Yodel,” will be published by Yale University Press in 2015, and she will receive a writing fellowship at the James Merrill House in Stonington, Conn.

To some, Elkins’ name might have a familiar ring, and for good reason. She’s the daughter of two local creative minds — one used a camera, the other used words, but both met and fell in love while working at The Anniston Star.

Elkins’ father was the late Star photographer Ken Elkins, whose pictures of those living and dying, laughing and struggling in the rural South told stories well worth a thousand words. His work was captured in the coffee table book, “Picture Taker.”

Her mother is Scarlett Saavedra, who was a features writer with The Star and also a professor at Talladega College, before moving to Portland, Org.

“I’m so proud of where I came from,” Elkins said as she watched an ice storm take hold of her home in Greensboro, N.C. “I can’t imagine where I’d be without it.”

Elkins learned how to frame the Southern landscape and its people by going along with her father either on assignment or simply riding around the back roads looking for a picture.

“He’d just stop and meet people with such ease,” Elkins said. “Those people taught me such great lessons about human dignity — that no matter how poor you are, everybody has a story to tell. Everybody has survived something.”

Those experiences inspired Elkins' poetry. The Goat Man, aka Ches McCartney, whom her father photographed in 1984, Elkins immortalized years later in her poem “Goat Man”:

“Like a bearded prophet out of the Old Testament

he travels through our county roads on foot

with his iron-wheeled wagon drawn by a herd

of thirty goats, the solitary music of trembling

tinware, beaten pails and kettles ....”

Ever the photographer, Ken often looked to his young daughter as a muse. Two photos of her as a young child are featured in “Picture Taker.” One was taken early in the morning as Ken was leaving for work. She had fallen asleep at the kitchen table rather than eat her vegetables from dinner the night before.

“I must have been on hard-headed kid,” she said, laughing.

Another picture, also featured in the book, is of Elkins and a cousin being attacked by an angry goose near an Anniston lake.

“And Daddy was just a snappin’ away,” she said. “I’m pretty sure that goose got me really good on the butt.”

If Ken gave his daughter the vision, it was her mother who taught her how to put words to those visions.

“Where my dad was so visual, Mom taught me about the importance of education, of literature and made me so aware of the power of race,” said Elkins, whose mother is Puerto Rican and always taught at historically black colleges. “She shaped me in a very profound way and taught me to call out the injustices in the world.”

Elkins’ poems never shy away from the dark reality of the South, or of its past, yet she perpetually strives to find hope and love in even the most grotesque and painful of places. Take her poem, “Reverse: A Lynching,” which begins:

“Return the tree, the moon, the naked man

Hanging from the indifferent branch

Return the blood to his brain; breath to his heart

Reunite the neck with the bridge of his body

Untie the knot, undo the noose ...”

Describing Elkins’ work, Carl Phillips, who judged this year’s competition, said, “Razor-edged in their intelligence, Southern gothic in their sensibility, these poems enter the strangenesses of others and return us to a world at once charged, changed, brutal and luminous.”

The title of Elkins’ book, “Blue Yodel,” is inspired by her love for old country ballads of murder and broken hearts, like the ones Hank Williams sang.

“Because these poems are from so many different viewpoints,” she said, “there’s something about that individual cry that links all these desperate poems together.”

Contact Brett Buckner at brettbuckner@ymail.com.

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