hobart logo
We Are Not Ourselves: Elizabeth Ellen Interviews Noah Cicero photo

In 2012, Noah Cicero interviewed me for HTML GIANT. In the intro to the interview he said, “I met Elizabeth Ellen at AWP only for a second, we shook hands in a hallway. But I could see in those few seconds, her eyes, strangely she reminded me of some Clint Eastwood character. A person with a thousand stories of little miseries, but kept getting up every day trying desperately to get things done, hoping that it is the right thing that she is doing.”

Having recently read Noah’s new poetry collection, Wild Kingdom (House of Vlad Press), I feel I could say the same of him: a person with a thousand stories of little miseries, but keeps getting up every day trying desperately to get things done, hoping that it is the right thing that he is doing. I read Wild Kingdom on my laptop. I never read books on my laptop but Wild Kingdom was easy to read (anywhere) because it reminded me of home (Ohio). It wasn’t a chore, I guess, is what I’m saying. It was as easy as reading an email. But more delightful. More thought-provoking. Nostalgia-invoking. There were poems about hunting and fishing and standing around in garages with men. There were play-like segments in which philosophical thoughts are addressed, Sartre, Camus, Kafka quoted or referred to. The only question left unanswered: what would Noah, the father, be like. Maybe we’ll never know. But Wild Kingdom gives us a pretty good idea what Noah, the boy, Noah, the son was like.

Vida: I thought all people did in small towns was suck on chili dogs in front of the Tastee-Freez?

Tom: [Laughs] Honestly, I’d love to sit at the Dairy Queen on a nice day... eating a chili dog and a Buster Bar. Not as me now, though; I can’t even digest hot dogs anymore... I mean, as a child.

And, for the record, two of my grandmothers – well, one was my great-grandmother- washed their (and my!) hair in the sink (one w Ivory liquid!):

Tom: …I remember her having a picture of Jon Bon Jovi on her wall. She played the clarinet and was nervous about her periods. She also washed her hair in the sink, which I didn’t understand, and still don’t. Do you wash your hair in the sink?

These are the sorts of small details of small town life I found so delightful in Wild Kingdom, that kept me reading on my laptop in 2021, remembering Lexington, Ohio in 1977, 1980, 1986… thinking about young Noah, somewhere else in Ohio, in other years, but experiencing much of the same.

Games of horse and Mississippi.

Egg-smelling well water.

Rusty cars and rusty barrels.

Three-wheelers and deer antlers.

Corn and soybeans.



-why do you keep writing? do you ever think: i'm done writing?

I feel compelled to write at times. I’ve never been the type of writer that just writes all the time. Time passes and I have experiences and some random day, completely unexpected to me, I get an idea in my head and start writing. I always feel happy in those moments, like I’m in a trance, it is a nice feeling, I like to go back to it. I don’t know if I will ever be done writing, but it is hard to know those things, maybe I am done writing now, and I will be standing somewhere 20 years from now, and I will notice, “I haven’t written a book in 20 years, I guess I am done.” I feel at times that I am aging out of writing, that the type of writing I chose to do as an age limit.


-what do you think is more important in your life than writing?

When I reflect upon my life, the last 20 years or so, I couldn’t imagine it without writing. Writing has brought me many friends and experiences, I would not have had otherwise. I also think it provided me with a self-esteem I would not have had if I just lived in my hometown and became a teacher or whatever people do there. No matter how bad things get, I can look at my books and think about the great experiences I’ve had associated with writing, and feel impressed with myself, and this feeling allows me to not become overcome with bitterness and cynicism. Many people who grew like me, have collapsed under the weight of these times, and become bitter and miserable. I couldn’t imagine my life without literature and writing, and all that came with it. Now, I think other things are more important and I’m doing other things with my life. I expect that in a few years writing and literature will have had very little impact on m daily life.


-do you still read? if so, what do you read?

I have been reading Kafka, Woolf and Mario Vargas Llosa on rotation since last year. Fitzgerald was in there, but I read all his novels and like 300 pages of short stories, so I was done there. I’m trying to read everything Kafka and Woolf have available in print, I just read Kafka’s Diaries and Woolf’s Night and Day. I really want to understand the totality of their lives, their careers, what it means to be a writer, how the world changes, etc. I like them because Kafka and Woolf were both huge Dostoevsky fans, and so am I. But, Woolf is an upper class British woman and Kaka is Jewish and has to work in an office. They both have the same hero, but they take that hero in very different directions, understanding that discrepancy I believe will lead to wisdom. Regarding Llosa, I spent a week in Peru a few years ago, so I saw things there and the people, and traveled a little though the countryside, so his books are fun for me. Llosa is also really funny, and he is very blunt about life, he knows people are messy and lets them be messy.


-that's interesting, re the Dostoevsky connection. i'm currently reading a biography of Patricia Highsmith and she was also very much inspired by/thought Dostoevsky a genius. I'm going to read Crime and Punishment (finally) next. (I, too, have been reading Kafka (The Trial), recently.) Have you read anything by Patricia Highsmith?

I do not know Patricia Highsmith, I apologize.


-have you read most of Dostoevsky's works? Have you read much about his life - biographies or diaries or the like?

I have read most of Dostoevsky’s works, I have read “the bigs” several times over, in different translations, The Brothers Karamazov, Devils, The Idiot, Crime and Punishment, and Notes from the Underground. I reread a Dostoevsky book every winter now, it makes for a good life. I have not read diaries and biographies, just some YouTube documentaries. 


-what do you think it is about him/his work so many subsequent writers have related to?

There is a certain personality type that likes Dostoevsky. A kind of person that likes to ruminate, dwells on their own motivations and the motivations of others, has an obsession with lying and what it means to lie. Dostoevsky to me is all about lying. Dostoevsky taught me that we all have 99% in common, if we didn’t, we wouldn’t even be able to talk to each other. But there is this 1% where we are full of crap, and this crap is our ego, and we can’t let this 1% of crap overcome the 99% that knows perfectly well, that everyone is mostly experiencing the same things the same way we are on a daily basis. But also, the Dostoevsky fan knows, that 1% just changes, there is no real 1% of crap, there is no crap that can save us. Someone can always say, “but.” History always disproves our best intentions, which is where I think Dostoevsky finds God. This is not normal theology lol, to find the existence in the fact, that we cannot figure it out, that God has made 99% of reality, very real, simple really, we all agree on so many things, what water is, what doors are, what shelters are, what chairs are, what trees are, what objects are food, what is a fish and what is a tomato, but we can’t agree on what to do with ourselves, with society, we can’t just make it wonderful, we can’t ever make ourselves wonderful, we can hardly ever even agree on ourselves, so we lie and make crap up, and the crap pushes into other crap, making crap festivals, and if we want to or not, we have to attend, because our society has decided to crap it up for a while. There is no easy out, the 1% is profoundly complex and never resolves. This is where Dostoevsky finds God, in this inability of humans to locate the center, that perfectly aligns our struggles for power, our love of family, and our love of ourselves. There is never any resolution to this, it really seems to Dostoevsky and myself included, that something magical refuses to allow it to happen. I feel you can hear this in the works of Chopin and Bach’s “Chaconne Partita No. 2 BWV 1004”, I prefer the Hilary Hahn version. “Stairway to Heaven” gets a glimpse of this, Sam Cooke’s voice could reach this, Coltrane’s A Love Supreme grabs it.


-and what about your own work do you think is most relatable (to other writers or other people in general)?

I think I give non-important people dignity. I still believe there is magic in this world. A lot of people who read my works have run from the atheist academic world, where everything is dead, careerism is a religion, and aesthetics are vital to one’s role in society.  I am assuming from what they are running from, they are running to something I am giving. I don’t care how unattractive you are, your intelligence level, how shitty of a job  you have, I will still listen. I will give dignity to the lawyer and doctor, to the business owner, but not because of their career choices and the tests they passed, but because of who they are. And I don’t see any difference between being a hard-hearted self-deluded bitter idiot, you can be that with no money and with money, you can be that with an IQ of 140 and an IQ of 85, with a Tesla or with a 2002 Chevy with a broken tail light, and you can always be friendly, I have met friendly dishwashers and friendly radiologists. I make assessments on people based on how willing they are to share time with other people, not on their careers. I will still spend time with you. I know you feel strongly, I know you have struggled and made efforts, you have failed, and will fail again. I know everyone wants to feel important, they want to feel to be loved, they want to be loved so bad, they will make themselves incredibly stupid to get love. And oh when we have love, that perfect moment of love, we know when it happens, we remember it for the rest of our lives, and when it is taken away, we cling to it, holding it tightly in our hands, as Eliot said, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” You can see that in everyone, but that 1% messes up our best intentions.


 -and is that ever a conscious goal when writing?

I don’t have a goal when writing, who I am, as a person, generates the sentences and sentiments. Our minds generate the sentences. I am a sentence generator, there is no such thing as a writer just writing, lol. We are all the noise of a given moment in time, in place, in a given moment of society, we are not ourselves, we are like leaves on a plant, grass in a field, trees in a forest, and one tree writes a book. That tree is all the trees. The tree is the forest.