Desire-Based Thinking in Eve L. Ewing's Electric Arches
review & writing prompts by Marlin M. Jenkins
Eve L. Ewing’s Electric Arches (Haymarket Books, 2017) is a book of possibility, a vision of writing as an agent of re-imagination. Full of wonder and affirmation, the project expands the confines of what we consider “real” and provides us a model for the role writing can have in re-shaping our realities.
In an episode of the podcast VS that features Ewing, she discusses “desire-based thinking,” an idea pulled from scholar Eve Tuck’s open letter, “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities.” In Ewing’s paraphrase of Tuck, she encourages writers and researchers to write narratives that aren’t damage-based but rather desire-based, lest the writing be incomplete and re-committing violence.
And this is exactly what Electric Arches achieves; it’s a collection that resists this incompleteness through its focus on desire, in addition to its multi-genre approach and its investment in both the past and the future. To be clear, this book does not shy away from pain, but it redirects that pain into magic and miracle; it shows us how imagination is not escape, but a construction of a new understanding, an assertion of self and our power to shape the ways we tell our experiences—and shape the experiences themselves. In the series of “re-telling” prose poems, as a prime example, Ewing begins to recount experiences of racism, and then the poems shift; they break from type to hand-written script where the bodies spewing “nigger” are carried away on a flying bike or possessed by a ghost-spirit, where black boys float away from police, “only looking at each other and smiling and singing as they fl[y].”
In the same VS podcast episode, Ewing frames the responsibility of teachers in terms of informed consent, reminding us we must be thoughtful with what we ask of our students: “The way we have taught young people to engage with their trauma through poetry is extremely toxic and extremely unethical,” she says.
There’s often a lot of pressure to mine our trauma in our poetry—and to pass on this mode of thinking to young/newer writers—and while writing about trauma is of course important, Ewing reminds us that we must contextualize the pressure to write it, allowing a range of possibility not bound only to pain.
In thinking about how we guide and foster young minds in regards to poetry (and how we think about our orientations to our own work), the writing prompts below are meant to act as ways to use Ewing’s work as a model for accessing imagination, wonder, and positive desire.
How can we get closer to answering the question that Ewing’s work so wonderfully and productively explores: How can we have a critical eye to the past, present, and future that dares to imagine possibility as a core element of its vision?
(These prompts are meant to be flexible for various age groups, from middle school on up through adulthood.)
Model poem: “Arrival Day” (p. 5)
Make a list of identities that describe who you are, anything that you identify with on some level (e.g. Black revolutionary, latchkey kid, musician, etc.).
Pick one that you’re most drawn to, or the one that you have the most questions about (these may be the same one).
Then, for the poem, imagine an origin story. Don’t be confined to explaining the actual, fact-based origins of the identity; allow yourself to be creative. Ewing writes in "Arrival Day," for example: “it happened under the cover of night or early morning / depending who you ask. … / they hit the earth and coiled at the foot of a tree.”
In your version of the story, where did your people come from? How did others react once they got here? What did they do? What did they bring with them? How did things change upon their arrival?
Model poem: “Shea Butter Manifesto” (p. 28)
Make a list of things you use often that are important to you—bonus points if they have an association with your family, culture, or group of friends.
In "Shea Butter Manifesto," Ewing writes, “in this world, grease is a compliment, / no, it’s a weapon, / no, it’s a dream you had.”
Pick one of the things from your list and think about how it is one of these things: a compliment, weapon, or dream. Write about that. Consider questions like: What does it compliment, other than the obvious? What is it a weapon for/against? What are the details of the dream?
Model poem: “what I mean when I say I’m sharpening my oyster knife” (p. 34)
Make a note of one of the following: something you say often, a quote from someone you respect, or something you’ve said that you’ve wanted to clarify.
Based on that quote, write a list of clarifications using “I mean” statements. For example: “I mean I’m here / to eat up all the ocean you thought was yours” or “I mean I never met a dish of horseradish I didn’t like.”
Think of these statements not as having to explain yourself or justify, but as a way to more fully express something important that you have to say, that you want people to know, what’s valuable for you to assert.
Model poem: “Affirmation” (p. 89)
Ewing opens this poem: “Speak this to yourself / until you know it is true.”
Write a poem that is a list of affirmations. This can be a list of affirmations to yourself, or to someone else you care about, or to a group of people. What do you think would be helpful for you/them to hear? Don’t forget to include metaphor and sensory details. Allow the poem to swerve into and out of straight affirmations if it needs. Either during or after the first draft, consider moments when repetition would be useful.
Marlin M. Jenkins was born and raised in Detroit and studied poetry at University of Michigan's MFA program. His writings have been given homes by The Collagist, Four Way Review, The Journal, and Bennington Review, among others. A former teaching artist with Detroit's InsideOut Literary Arts Project and current editor at HEArt Online, you can find him on Twitter @Marlin_Poet.