Poetically Speaking with Elizabeth Wein

poeticallyspeaking1Elizabeth Wein is the New York Times Bestselling author of several young adult novels including Code Name Verity which was an honor book for The Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature in 2013 and Rose Under Fire, winner of the Schneider Family Book Award in 2014. Her latest novel Black Dove, White Raven was published in March 2015.

Today Elizabeth is here to discuss the making of “Love Song and Self Portrait” in Rose Under Fire.

Fearful Symmetry – Taking Inspiration from Prisoner Poetry

For a long time I resisted doing the research for Rose Under Fire because I dreaded what I thought I’d find in the personal accounts of the women who survived the Nazi concentration camp at Ravensbrück in northern Germany. I expected horror and despair. When I finally got brave enough to open those pages, I was astonished and humbled by their hope. In retrospect it makes sense that these survivors manage to infuse their harrowing stories with hope: they are survivors. One thing I’ve learned about the camps is that hope was a necessary ingredient to survival—the others being luck and someone to watch your back. Even with all three you might not make it. But without hope, you didn’t stand a chance.

My favorite survivor account is that of Micheline Maurel, a French resistance worker who was imprisoned at Ravensbrück and Neubrandenburg, one of Ravensbrück’s satellite camps, for two years. She writes of a reader’s reaction to a postwar article Maurel wrote about her experiences in the camps, and you’ll recognize the privileged ignorance of her reader as similar to my own:

One respectable lady, commenting… said scornfully, ‘But after all, all you talk about is hunger.’ She had been expecting to learn about torture, execution and rape, and my account was only about bread and wild sorrel.

Of course Maurel is being modest here—one aspect of her account which absolutely amazed me was how she used poetry as a survival tool. Without poetry, there wouldn’t have been any bread or wild sorrel. In fact many of Ravensbrück’s inmates, along with those of other camps, wrote and shared poems to help them through their ordeal; language was one of the few creative outlets which could not be taken away from them, as it’s possible to write poetry in your head and share it in whispers. Maurel found that she was actually able to trade her poems for food, and she felt strongly that her facility for words kept her from starving to death during her imprisonment.

Being a lapsed poet myself, I knew that I wanted my character, Rose, to use poetry during her imprisonment the way Maurel did, and one of the great pleasures of writing Rose Under Fire was reading other prisoners’ poetry and writing Rose’s Ravensbrück poems. Several of them were written during the week I spent at the Eighth Annual European Summer School at Ravensbrück; Rose’s poem “Thanksgiving,” about prison mealtimes, was written while I was sitting on the steps of the original Ravensbrück kitchen block.

An excerpt from one of Maurel’s poems stuck in my mind as being particularly moving, and I couldn’t get it out of my head as I crafted Rose’s verses. Maurel’s poem was written to her fiancé, a Royal Air Force pilot, whose memory also sustained her during her imprisonment, describing her current condition.

Et si j’apparaissais tout à l’heure à ta porte,
Avec ma robe à croix et mes sabots boueux,
Avec mon front de vieille et mon regard le morte…
Que dirions-nous tous deux?

In English it’s something like,

And if all of a sudden I should appear at your door
With my cross-marked dress and my muddy wooden shoes,
With my old woman’s face and my dead gaze,
What would we talk of together?

Elsewhere in her account Maurel mentions that although she would often dream about her sweetheart, over the long months and then years of near-starvation she no longer dreamed of her reunion with him but only of food. If he appeared in her dreams, it was only to offer her bread.

I took this image, and the imagery from Maurel’s poem, and combined it with the rhythm and meter of T.S. Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady” (a poem Rose may have known and consciously parodied), in creating Rose’s “Love Song and Self Portrait.” I wrote the poem in an hour, shedding many tears over it. I wish that all my writing was so inspired and absorbing. The tears are worth it when craft and artistry, inspiration and knowledge, come together so effortlessly.


At first I dreamed that you
offered warm arms of comfort and strength,
pulling me close,
your soft lips brushing and kissing my bare head,
all of you loving me,
the nightmare over and the dream come true—
Now I only dream that you
offer me bread.

My dreams still produce you
out of habit, but the sweet
longing for your touch is gone.
I long for nothing from you anymore
but something to eat.

And if I did come back,
what in return could I offer to you,
who used to make so free
with my softness and kisses and verse
as if it were your due?
Imagine me
on your doorstep—would you laugh in the old way
and greet me lovingly:
Hello, it’s been a long time,
how are you today?

I would offer you myself
in mismatched shoes and blood-soaked rags,
shaved scalp all scabs
and face gone gray,
no old woman but a walking ghost
on a skeleton’s frame—
And you would be forced to look away.

There won’t be anything to say.

All my invented characters are deeply creative, and many of them are writers or poets at heart. In my new book, Black Dove, White Raven, the teen characters often escape into a fantasy world of their own creation. As with the poetry in Rose Under Fire, the greatest pleasure I took in creating Black Dove, White Raven was in writing excerpts from my own characters’ invented stories. Black Dove, White Raven was released in the United States and Canada on 31 March 2015.

Resources for further reading:

This “Teacher’s Guide” on Ravensbrück, produced by the Kennesaw State University Museum of History and Holocaust Education in Georgia, contains a section on prisoner poetry: http://historymuseum.kennesaw.edu/educators/ravensbruck.pdf

“Message in a Bottle from the Concentration Camp” on the Tonworte website contains poems and songs from Ravensbrück; the site also contains other links to poetry, music and art in the camp, notably “The Ravensbrück Song.” Originally written in Russian, it was sung with variations throughout the camp and its satellite camps as a symbol of solidarity. The website is looking for translations from other languages: http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=de&tl=en&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.tonworte.de%2Fbildungsangebote%2Fflaschenpost-aus-dem-kz%2F&sandbox=1

Ravensbrück: Everyday Life in a Women’s Concentration Camp, an ethnology by Jack G. Morrison, contains a chapter on camp poetry: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2434157.Ravensbruck

Quotations are from Ravensbrück by Micheline Maurel, translated from French by Margaret S. Summers; London: Anthony Blond, 1959 (1958).

Thank you again to Elizabeth for this comprehensive and thoughtful post.

If you’d like to learn more about Elizabeth and her books, be sure to visit her website: http://www.elizabethwein.com

You can also find my reviews of Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire (and my interview with Elizabeth) here on the blog.

10 thoughts on “Poetically Speaking with Elizabeth Wein

  1. This was a brilliant post. As we discussed before I admire Elizabeth Wein a ton. It’s so cool to see some of her process. Those glimpses into the children’s fantasy world in Black Dove, White Raven were my favorite parts of the story. It’s so incredible how she can put herself into one of her characters and pour such emotion through herself out into the book. It really comes through in her writing. It is also defiently why she is and will always be one of my favorite authors. Great post Emma!

  2. I just happen to be (re)listening to the RUF audiobook at the moment, so the timing for this post is excellent! I was so struck by not only Rose’s poetry, but Rose’s relationship to poetry. Sometimes I’ll read a book where a character is supposed to be an artist of some kind but where their relationship to that art doesn’t ring true at all. This was absolutely not the case with Rose–I totally accepted the way it permeates her life–and I love it.

    1. I hadn’t thought about that – Rose’s relationship to poetry – as being a feature of the book, but of course it is, very integrally so if not consciously so.

      The epigraph, the Millay “To a Young Poet,” I also quoted on my yearbook page when I graduated from high school (Rose’s teen admiration of Millay is very much based on mine – and on my grandmother’s before me, since she was the one who got to hear her in person). It felt so right to use it as a touchstone for Rose.

      Thank you for the repeated insightful readings, and for the lovely comment!

      1. I think there are some of us for whom that simply IS the way we interact with poetry–I get lines stuck in my head all the time, as a very mild example. So having it be such an important part of Rose’s life makes perfect sense. And “To a Young Poet” is so perfect for Rose! I have a totally impossible headcanon now where Millay writes it with her in mind. Alternate history, if you will.

        At risk of turning into a gushy fangirl, the insightful readings are only possible because your books are so rich and complex. Thank you for writing them. :)

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