By Dolly R. Sickles | Photo by John Michael Simpson
Elisabeth Lewis Corley is a modern Renaissance woman. She’s a poet, playwright, actor, director, producer, screenwriter, editor and lecturer. Her father, Col. Robert Joseph Corley, was in the Army, so Elizabeth was born in Landstuhl, West Germany. She lived in Greece until she was 9 when the family – including her mother, Eleanor “Kit” Beard Lewis Corley, and her two siblings – relocated to Chatham County so her father could work on his master’s degree at UNC in the 1970s. He fell in love with the 40 acres he found along Highway 64 and Harland’s Creek.
“I ended up going to school at UNC and then when I later moved to New York, I would come back down to my parents’ little log cabin in the woods to write,” Elisabeth says. “It was a kind of refuge during that time.” Twenty years and many apartments later, she took her father up on his offer to move back to North Carolina and finally put down roots. “This is the longest I’ve ever lived in one spot.”
When her parents died, the land was divided between Elisabeth and her two siblings, who live in Asheville and Ohio, respectively. Elisabeth makes her home on a precise and peaceful 14.91 acres with her husband and business partner of the last 27 years, Joseph Megel, an artist in residence and professor at UNC’s Department of Communication and artistic director of StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance.
Elisabeth’s mother often recited and read literature to the Corley children when they were young. Later, Elisabeth attributes her work in the tradition of English romantic poetry through modernism to her undergraduate mentor at UNC, Robert Kirkpatrick. She continues to draw influence from poets like Wallace Stevens and Emily Dickinson.
Elisabeth embodies a life unhurried. She feels deeply, thinks profoundly and bears witness to the world around her. And despite her introverted tendencies, she wears her heart and her observations on her sleeve because, for her, fundamentally everything comes out of poetry.
“I continue to work in poetry because it demands and rewards attention,” she says. “It gives the mind an opportunity to practice a different kind of inquiry. When I’m writing poetry, it’s because I’m trying to build a bridge to something I can’t quite see, not because I want to deliver something.” In 2018, Elisabeth was awarded a North Carolina Arts Council fellowship in poetry and her poems have appeared in Southern Poetry Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Cold Mountain Review and many other publications.
Fans and friends of Elisabeth meet her coming and going, because her work in the arts community is endless. She was the founding artistic director of the Atlanta Shakespeare Company. She’s been on the board of the Chatham Arts Council for the last five years and is entrenched as an arts producer and avid supporter, both of which depend on artists, audiences and funding.
“There are people producing art in this community that is world class, even though everything you see is not at that level,” she says. “It’s crucially important that we have local arts scenes. It’s in these smaller, local areas that people have the opportunity to take big risks and do new things, and I think that every community needs access to the arts.”
Through Harland’s Creek Productions, she works closely with Joseph through collaborations like the Piedmont Performance Factory, StreetSigns New Works Initiative Project and The Process Series, to bring new work to the public. “A lot of the work we do is challenging,” she says. “A lot of it focuses on issues of major pressing, urgent concern, like our most recent production, Jim Grimsley’s “Cascade,” which is on climate change.” Another project, “The Talk” by Sonny Kelly, is about the conversation a Black father has with his son explaining what to do if he encounters police. We’ve taken on issues we believe are important for artists to contend with and for audiences to take in.”
Some say the true value of art is in the eye of its beholder. Elisabeth thinks “it doesn’t matter so much whether you like the same art I like. What matters is that you engage with it, that you wrestle with it, that you allow it to do its work. If pushed to it, most people can find something they love.”
Tiny Universe Is it there, always, when we close our eyes, that miniscule wave, light going out laser? No goodbyes? The hound panting at our feet would bound again wild in the damp woods – the light like that, renewable, astounding. If we could see through, gigantic in the flash, would we see the other world, the dashing one where everything is as near as the devoted dog? There the matter spins a singular thought from one head to another – or an electron. In that world we are close. I cannot lose you.