Eve L. Ewing: On Writing, On Lineage, On Home

Wearing thin circle-rimmed glasses, dark-brown curls pulled back into a ponytail and all smiles, a young Eve Ewing walked into a Chicago auditorium with her mother alongside her. She had recently won her middle school’s writing contest, and it was the night of the recognition ceremony. At the end of the evening, she left with her award and another unexpected item gifted to each of the awardees: “Very Young Poet,” a limited-edition writing primer written by Gwendolyn Brooks—a serendipitous memento foreshadowing the years to come.

“Now, I cherish it,” says Ewing of the childhood keepsake, recalling the memory fondly. “I’m so glad I kept it all these years.”

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More than a decade later—and now sporting electric-purple curls—Ewing is a well-known multidisciplinary writer, visual artist and scholar with multiple degrees, including a Ph.D from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

In the last year alone, the Chicago native published her debut book, co-wrote a stage play recently featured in The New Yorker and contributed an essay for The Atlantic’s commemorative Dr. Martin Luther King special issue. More regularly, the established sneakerhead teaches at the University of Chicago, serves as the co-director of Chicago-based arts organization Crescendo Literary and organizes the Chicago Poetry Incubator’s annual multi-day retreat and festival.

When asked about upcoming projects—a presumably short list given her current workload—Ewing sighs lightly, chuckles at the question’s unwitting query and begins listing off a number of other creative projects, forthcoming books and progress on her academic research. Busy is an understatement.

Still, her nearly 150,000 Twitter followers likely know her best for her recently published and widely celebrated book, “Electric Arches.” The collection of poetry, prose and visual art uses science fiction and fantastical elements to explore “regular life stuff, and quotidian things that I try to make into magical things.”

From well-known authors and novelists Roxane Gay and Kiese Laymon, to longtime feminist scholar bell hooks, readers around the country have been enthralled by Ewing’s otherworldly stories of space-traveling Black revolutionaries and floating children.

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Dancing through creative re-imaginings of Ewing’s own universe of experiences, the collection offers an energizing twist on the everyday. “Electric Arches” provides a detailed series of scenes from Ewing’s own childhood memories and inspired narratives about being young and Black in Chicago, replacing the would-be violences with lush, buoyant alternatives.

“Poetry allows me to imagine the world that I want and imagine other ways of being in a way that is unlimited and without restriction and without constraint,” Ewing explains. “And I really like that.”

Still, Ewing admits that she’s equal parts nervous and excited every time she tackles a new idea, or publishes writing in a genre she’s less familiar with. The short story in “Electric Arches” is actually her first published piece of fiction. She’s looking forward to stretching and growing her skills with each new project she attempts, learning to move with dexterity between research writing and fiction, from journalism to poetry.

Ewing’s approach to writing also weaves seamlessly into her sense of community, regularly committing time to connect with young writers in Chicago and uplift local political and community-organizing efforts across her hometown. Even as she writes a new, brighter world into her poems, Ewing uses her visibility to provide critical commentary on Chicago’s political leadership, public-school system, police brutality and more, ultimately encouraging a new, brighter world in real life as well.

Years after first receiving a copy of “Very Young Poet,” it’s easy to see how Ewing’s literary practice and community work have both been deeply influenced by Gwendolyn Brooks’ own legendary career. The first poem Ewing even remembers hearing or learning was Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” arguably the late poet’s most famous and widely taught work.

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While “We Real Cool” was especially memorable for 8-year-old Ewing—and still is to this day—the visually sparse, ten-line piece seems in a separate sphere entirely from another one of Brooks’ poems, “The Anniad,” which Ewing didn’t come across until she was an undergraduate student. She found the sprawling, rigorously structured, 43-stanza-long poem both extraordinarily beautiful and yet a complete mystery; she didn’t understand it at all.

“That was a profoundly spiritual experience for me, because it made me realize for the first time the agony and ecstasy of literature. It was so different from ‘We Real Cool,’ you know?” she remembers. “My whole life, I thought I knew this poet, and then I read this poem and didn’t get it at all. I had zero comprehension of what I was reading. It just made me that much more entranced by her.”

Considering Brooks’ literary versatility, numerous accomplishments and lifelong commitment to mentoring Chicago’s community of young poets, Ewing’s own path isn’t too far off. Hers is an easily traceable track record of communal pride, having spent several years teaching in Chicago public schools and now teaching regularly at Chicago’s Stateville Correctional Center. For Ewing, feeding into the same local avenues and pathways that helped her grow means using her resources to support and inspire the current and next generation of Chicago creatives.

“I’m a big believer in wherever you are, trying to build something. And I don’t mean starting something new or being a founder,” she explains without skipping a beat. “Figure out where the assets already are in a place and fortify those assets. Build bridges and connections between people who are already doing the work. Build recognition, pools of resources, infrastructure and platforms for those people and for the work that still needs to be done.”

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Just the week before, Ewing shares over the phone, she did a book reading and signing for “Electric Arches” with an after-school program for third graders in the same neighborhood she was raised in. Days earlier, she visited a nearby university to talk about poetry with a group of college students taught by the same professor who’d been her writing mentor when she was a teenager.

The cyclical nature of these stories aren’t happenstance, and Ewing has plenty of them to share. In reality, it’s a rather organic consequence of Ewing’s own philosophy of re-investing in the communities she calls home. The Chicago literary lineage is a clear and evident one, sure to last through Ewing’s career for years to come.

This story was originally printed in ALIVE Magazine Issue Three. Purchase a copy and subscribe to ALIVE Magazine at alivemag.com/subscribe. Photos by Attilio D’Agostino.

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