Interview with poetry contest judge Lynn Emanuel
Passages North's Rebecca Pelky interviews contest judge Lynn Emanuel about reading and empathy and changes in the poetry landscape and "delicious plagiarism." (Go to our submissions page to learn more about this year's poetry and nonfiction contests.)
Besides judging our contest, what are you up to currently (either poetically or non-poetically)?
I’ve just finished a volume of selected and new poems entitled The Nerve of It. The book took me the better part of a summer to shape because I abandoned chronology and placed new poems beside old, mixed middle and early poems with recent work, and liberated all my poems from the restraints of their particular histories, both aesthetic and autobiographical. I circled my own writing the way someone in a museum circles a piece of sculpture. The Nerve of It is, in a sense, a record of that encounter—all those different ways of ways of seeing and putting things together that have nothing to do with chronology.
I have a few books to which I always return when I need a little boost, or inspiration, or reassurance. For me, they include Franz Wright’s Walking to Martha’s Vineyard and Chase Twichell’s The Snow Watcher. Do you have books like that, that are steadfast companions on your poetic (or life) journey? If so, what is it about them, do you think that makes you return to them again and again?
Well, let me begin by congratulating you on your good taste! Those are both marvelous books. Chase is a friend, and her work, in particular, has always helped me realize what it is I can’t do in my own writing! I have a lot of touchstone books, but two surprise me with their persistence. One is William Arrowsmith’s translation of Cesare Pavese’s Hard Labor. The other is Nazim Hikmet’s book length poem, The Human Landscape, an epic about the history of Turkey. Neither of these books is anything like my poetry, and this is why I value them so much. I turn to these books whenever I feel my ambitions for poetry becoming pinched.
Is there one poet that no one knows about that you think everyone should read?
Well, many writers know ofHard Labor and The Human Landscape. I’m not sure people are reading them so much anymore, and I think they should be read.
You’ve been published widely over the years, in publications like Ploughshares, TheAmerican Poetry Review, and Best American Poetry, as well as having several full length collections. What sort of publishing advice would you give poets in the early stages of their careers? Is there anything you wish you’d known starting out?
Actually, I’m not sure that one generation’s experience has much to say to another’s. For instance, when I started sending out my first book manuscript, it was a given that not only did you have to have many of the poems in that book published, you had to have them published in a few choice places, Poetry magazine being one of them. Now, when I read first book manuscripts, I’m always impressed by how few of the poems have been published individually. When they are, many of them have been published in very small or online journals. I think the current generation of poets is more adventurous than we were, or rather, than we were permitted to be.
In a short essay about Noose and Hook (2010), Jim Schley once wrote of your work that, “each of her books has been uniquely challenging, and progressively stranger, in leaping the gap between erudite and streetwise.” Could you tell us about the evolution of your work over time? And also give us a sneak peak at what might be coming next?
Actually, I think I’m the last person who could trace my own evolution. Perhaps, because I write fairly slowly, I am someone different and older with each book, so the work reflects that. When you are in your forties or fifties, it’s not possible to reproduce the kind of poetry you published in your thirties. It’s really not possible, for me at any rate, to step into the same river twice. I’m always amazed by those poets who seem to have sprung, fully grown, like Athena from the head of Zeus, into their poetic careers and who, therefore, change very little throughout those careers.
Right now, I’m allowing myself not to think about a new book. What Iamdoing is writing a long cento based on the work of a young English poet, Anne Blaustein. It’s a voluptuous experience to put on someone else’s words. A cento is an homage, but it also feels like a delicious plagiarism! Something forbidden!
In a 2008 interview you mentioned that you might want to do something that was more directly helpful to people than being a poet is. You also seem to express this inclination in poems. In “Personal experiences are chains and balls” you write, “I hear the call to rise out of the trance of myself / into the surcease of the dying world” and also, “I will never again write from personal experience. / Since the war began I have discovered / (1) My Life Is Unimportant and (2) My Life Is Boring.” Could you talk a little about this shift from the personal to the global? Has this continued to be your focus in writing? Have you found ways to translate this desire from poetry into life?
This is a complicated question to answer. Let me begin by addressing the lines from my poem. I’m often asked whether they are to be read sincerely or ironically. The answer is: both. I sincerely mean that, in the context of the endless wars we all currently live through and with, one’s own “personal experience” does, in fact, seem unimportant. At the same time, I would like readers to hear me saying something like, “Isn’t it dangerous to believe that large historical events render one’s own life unimportant?”
So, in Noose and Hook, the book in which that poem appears, I have a sequence of poems written in the voice of an (under)dog in which the daily cruelty and poverty of its existence is played off against an ongoing war. The dog and its owner live more or less miserable and isolated lives. Arcing over their lives is an unnamed war or series of wars, and I meant to suggest (albeit obliquely) a causal relation between that distant war and their impoverishment.
Recently, I’ve learned about a show at the Carnegie Museum of Contemporary Art in Pittsburgh by the French artist, Antoine Catala. I believe the show will be called “Distant Feel” which is, as Catala describes it, a “rebranding” of the word “empathy.” As I understand it, Catala is trying to address the ways we express feelings through and within the distancing and inevitable context of media. That someone is addressing directly this fact of contemporary experience fascinates and heartens me and gives me ideas for future work. For now, however, because I’ve been intensively reshaping my past for the volume of new and selected poems, I’m not thinking through this work more specifically.