Sunday, April 10, 2011

How a Poet Became a Mystery Writer by Elizabeth Zelvin

 Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York City psychotherapist whose story, “The Green Cross,” is up for an Agatha Award for Best Short Story, her third nomination in this category. Her mystery series about recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler includes Death Will Get You Sober, Death Will Help You Leave Him, and the forthcoming Death Will Extend Your Vacation.  You can read “The Green Cross” and learn more about Liz and her writing at She blogs on Poe’s Deadly Daughters. 


How a Poet Became a Mystery Writer
Elizabeth Zelvin

I found out my host today, Kaye Barley, liked poetry when she mentioned on Facebook that she’d been reading the work of former poet laureate Billy Collins. She, in turn, didn’t know that I’d been a poet for more than thirty years. I sent her a copy of my second book of poetry, Gifts and Secrets: Poems of the Therapeutic Relationship. And voilà! I knew what I’d write about for my guest appearance on her blog.

Although I became a poet long before getting my first mystery published, I discovered mysteries a decade before I started reading poetry. I was a college English major who chose the field because I loved reading novels. I remember saying, “I don’t have a poetic sensibility,” meaning that I had to study poetry but didn’t get it, probably because my male professors never taught the accessible, deeply felt poetry I could have related to. My conversion to mystery reader came right after college, when someone handed me a copy of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Murder Must Advertise. And I started writing poetry a decade later, eventually having many poems in journals and two books published by a good small press. I wrote three mysteries during the same period, but none of them found a publisher, which is probably a good thing.

For me, poetry and fiction are connected in a number of crucial ways: story telling, voice, and accessibility. I’m proud to say that nobody has ever said, “I didn’t understand your poem.” My poems are about people (myself or others) to whom something happens. So are my novels and short stories. My goal as both poet and fiction writer is to move readers (or listeners) to laughter and tears. On occasion, I’ve achieved that goal, and it means far more to me than financial success—luckily! Many of my poems end with a punch line, often a line taken from real life speech. That’s not too different from the proverbial “twist at the end” of a good short story. When I discovered flash fiction, I was confident that I could meet the challenge of telling a story in less than a thousand words because, as a poet, I’d told stories in a hundred or two hundred words.

I’ve written both poetry and fiction on the themes I feel passionate about, including alcoholism and recovery, relationships, being a woman, and being Jewish. With Passover only a week away, I’ll share two poems that I like to read at our family’s Seder. The first, “Passover,” recounts some of my own family’s history and appeared in my first book of poems, I Am the Daughter. The second, “Miriam,” turns an incident from the Exodus involving the sister of Moses into a character-driven story. It first appeared in the journal Poetica, and I would be delighted for readers to incorporate it into their own Seder.


my father revels in his role of patriarch
in velvet skullcap and white turtleneck
he looks, by some irony, like the pope:
He works for one of our boys, says my father

this is his night in this house of women
who snub patriarchy on all occasions
whose strength overflows the crucible
of faith and family it is his night
to make it sing
we break unleavened bread together
without politics

he is telling it for all of us
the only grandchild
(Do I have to listen to the boring part?)
my mother, the proud Hungarian
with her doctorate and law degree
for whom even the prayer over the candles
—women’s work—remains a mystery
for me, who never went to synagogue
who never suffered as a Jew
for my Irish lover, here for the first time
to whom I am serving up my childhood
on the Pesach plates
for Aunt Hilda, who married out
and Uncle Bud, who was my friend who isn’t Jewish
thirty years ago

at 79 my father has forgotten stories
muffs the accent sometimes the punchline
no longer knows the name of every lawyer in New York
but tonight he is clear as wine fresh as a photograph
confident and plump as the turkey itself
awaiting its turn in the kitchen
tonight he is the raconteur I remember
as cherished and familiar as the books the cloth the china
the Hebrew words I cannot understand
the melody I miss at anybody else’s Seder
that my father and Aunt Anna with her trained soprano
learned in Hebrew school as children
all I have traveled back, back to see and hear

measuring his audience
expanding in the warm room like love
my father pours the wine
skips the prosy rabbis arguing
and tells instead the illustrated Bible story:
Moses in the bulrushes cruel Pharaoh the Red Sea parting
Let my people go
or I’ll give you what for
says my father


the men sit perched on rocks
their faces grimed
furrowed with runnels of sweat
their sandals crusted in Red Sea salt
stunned by their change of fortune
the power in Moses’ staff
the thunder of the sea overrunning Pharoah
the scream of terrified horses
the crack of chariots breaking up
the wall of water at their heels
they stare outward into the desert
will not meet one another’s eyes

Miriam moves among the women
offering one the water skin
another a cloth to wipe her dusty feet
a quiet word here
there a hand pressed gently on a shoulder
crouched where they dropped when Moses called a halt
they have instinctively formed a circle

Miriam completes her round
pours the last few drops of water
on a corner of her shawl
passes it across her face
shaking off weariness like a scratchy cloak
she gathers them with her eyes
her slow smile blossoms
“Ladies,” she says, “we’re free!”
“Who wants to dance?”


Julia Buckley said...

Lovely poetry, Liz! Thanks for sharing such delicate and beautiful lines which capture so much about life, faith and family.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks so much, Julia, and thanks to Kaye for letting me post all this. It's poignant to me to reread the poem about my family here. My parents and Aunt Anna are long gone (having lived well into their 90s), but Aunt Hilda turns 99 today. She's still got all her wits about her, plays tennis, and goes out dancing.

Coco Ihle said...

Beautiful poetry, Elizabeth! I especially liked Miriam's story. Your poetry is truly emotion in written form. I look forward to seeing you again at Malice.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, Coco. Can't wait for Malice!

Kate Gallison said...

I love your poems, Liz. Hey, we all want to dance.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, Kate. Great pic of you in one of your classic hats in the post just before mine.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Hi, Liz - Welcome! And thank you for sharing some of your poetry with us. I'm a HUGE fan, and keep a copy of your GIFTS AND SECRETS on my nightstand.

And welcome to everyone - love seeing you all here.

I did know our Julia was a poetry fan

Vicki Lane said...

Liz, I'm blown away by the beauty of your poetry. I feel like I've had Seder with your family -- now I'm going to dance with Miriam

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Beautiful poetry! And a lovely tribute to your family.