"The Small Snake of Language: Reuben Ellis" by Maddison Taylor

One of Reuben Ellis’s recent poems, “Knife Knife,” compares the weapon to a pen, as if the act of getting words down on the page is a “messy” and “botched” job:

This has proven an ineffective
tool for killing a small snake.
The animal’s immaculate and
transparent teeth leave elliptical
bites over my skin and fluid on
my shirtsleeve. This has become
messy, embarrassing. I look
around the yard to see if anyone
has noticed my botched crime,
this hideous attempt. But in the
end, of course, I am alone. At
least when I write I have the use
of my other hand. 

It can’t be too botched, however, because his debut chapbook, Formula, which includes this poem, just came out Friday from Finishing Line Press. In fact, he has been writing for a long time. According to Ellis, he started his writing journey in high school because he was hopelessly in love with the editor of his high-school literary magazine: “I began writing to impress her. It only worked for a little while.

Since pursuing a Ph.D. in literature studies, Ellis’s essays, short stories, and poems have appeared in many places, including Adelaide Literary Magazine, Artvilla, the Journal of Ecocriticism, Western American Literature, North Dakota Quarterly, Colby Library Quarterly, and many more! 

Ellis is a busy man. He has an academic career spanning more than 35 years that has focused on teaching literature and writing—particularly creative writing and journalism. He has been part of Woodbury University since 2010. In 2013, he became the Chair of the Writing Department, and, in January, he was named Interim Dean of the College of Liberal Arts

While being so busy with administrative responsibilities and teaching classes, I asked Ellis how he finds the time to write. His answer seems to position him as a writer first: “You have to make writing the priority. Put it in the center of your world.”

When I asked him where he gets his inspiration for his stories, he told me, “I spend a lot of time looking at old photographs, and I try to mimic them in words. I also read a lot.” To me, that is a fabulous answer. Most time when you ask a writer where they get their inspiration, they say reading other writers’ work. But a picture is worth 1,000 words, right? Sometimes being a writer, then, can be more like killing a snake:

it becomes simply a matter of
forming the letters over and over,
hoping that when it all dries,
enough minerals or other trace
impurities in the water, the
orpiment, cinnabar, the carnalite,
will remain from the knife’s
short lines and curves to be read. 

How you choose to handle “the small snake” of language is up to you. Maybe you can take a knife to it, hope that the trace minerals left behind—“orpiment, cinnabar, the carnalite”—all red like blood—color your words with the experience of living, of dying, of writing.

To learn a little more about Reuben Ellis, check out his interview with Woodbury’s very own Studio 7500 radio show here: https://soundcloud.com/woodburyu/interview-with-reuben-ellis


Maddison (Maddie) Rose Taylor

Maddison is in her second year at Woodbury, and she is majoring in Professional Writing. She was raised in Sunland Tujunga with an older sister. Her astrology sign is a Taurus, which suits her well because she is sweet but extremely hard headed.. She wanted to be a detective when she was younger, so she often binge watches cop shows like Castle, 9-1-1, and The Rookie. If she wasn’t a writer she would definitely be a detective, or maybe she’ll be both like Richard Castle!

Greg Houle