It’s been a privilege to read Emma Bolden’s work for a decade now and a pleasure to be continually surprised by it. On the rare occasions someone asks me about poets they should read or poets from Alabama, she’s likely the first I mention.
I love the frequently haunted personae of her poems, often women stuck in broken buildings, broken relationships, and even broken bodies. That may sound heavy, like all downer, but when there is melancholy, it’s never purely that. The poems reflect multiple emotive qualities, like small, chipped mirrors. There are lights in the darkness, no matter how small or far away.
The following is from a recent online conversation.
The first work I read of yours, How to Recognize a Lady, is influenced by an etiquette guide for women. One of the latest collections, Maleficae, is influenced by some interesting primary source reading about the European witch trials. You’ve also written some found poems using reality television as sources.
My feeling is that there is a through line here and part of it seems to be how we define or have our place in the world defined in some way for us, in general, as humans, and particularly in these works, as women. (And now that I think about it Geography V and medi(t)ations fit into this theme, but seem to have different inspirations.)
Were these projects consciously begun with these organizational principles and influences or were they developed through writing a few poems and then seeing a theme?
I have to confess that I don’t often know what’s going to happen when I head to the blank page; by the same token, I don’t usually realize when I’ve begun a new project. When I do try to intentionally begin a new project, I always seem to stop short — I’ve tried to write a book of poems about Anna O., off-and-on, for the past ten or so years, and I never quite seem to get there. The same has happened with a series of poems in conversation with the works of St. Teresa of Avila. I’ve just had to accept that I write best when I begin by wandering — or, I guess, allowing myself to wander — in a formless wilderness.
The same happens with sources: I’ll find myself working through an obsession in my reading, and then I’ll find it creeping into my writing. You are absolutely right that there’s a through-line, and that through-line has to do with the ways in which we are defined and documented by others. A lot of the time, that “we” is women. I wish I could say that I’ve been conscious of and consciously pursued that, but I haven’t: the through-line shows up in my whims, which often become my obsessions, which often become my work. I started collecting vintage etiquette books after coming across a couple of cast-off textbooks from the 1960’s at a thrift store in Alabaster, Alabama. I actually cut out a lot of the images and made collages on the covers of notebooks I used in college, and then some of the images found their way into drawings I made for a college class, and then, two years later, the language started to appear in my poems in graduate school (which later gathered together to become How to Recognize a Lady). I read obsessively about the witch trials and religicomagical practices in early modern Europe for about a year and a half before I realized I was writing a book; it took another year and a half to get that book on the page. The reality television poems came out of a kind of pop-culture-obsessed desperation: I’d been writing a poem-a-day for months while trying to balance my own writing with an intense workload. At the same time, I’d developed what I would like to call a healthy obsession with two kinds of reality television shows themselves obsessed with portrayals of women: the Real Housewives franchise and true crime series, like Dateline and 48 Hours. I was able to justify taking time to watch television by crafting found poems from the language I heard.
In a lot of ways, my technique, focus, and purpose in these projects is the same — finding my way inside of the kind of language and image used to portray women, breaking it apart and putting it back together to reclaim the point-of-view — but the subjects have been fields into which I luckily wandered.
I initially began by poring over the books and then I decided to look at the last two years on your blog and the publications over that time. I realized I had missed several, including the Barthelme Prize Winner “Gifted.” And then I felt like we could do the whole interview based around this one piece!
There are several wonderful lines here. Some heart-wrenching. I love “We were of an age but never of age.” The wordplay there, while being dark, also makes me laugh. A lot of this work deals in not only opposites, like the ending, but transitions. Like the doors and windows, openings, places of transitions, which mean “danger” in the poem when the traditional view is often of open passages being pleasant. And the girls in the piece, while looking like tough women (“We came to school with our breasts, with our combat boots.”) are also the children sliding in their socks on the tiled floor. Another symbolic antithesis of transformation is the skim milk versus the chocolate milk.
Did this work begin as a poem? Was there any struggle in finding its form? Did the symbolic antithesis develop or was it there at the beginning, since this seems like a threshold work–in the sense of transition and in a Campbellian sense (threshold guardians, caves, etc.).
Though it won a prize for short prose, I’ve always considered it to be a poem. It’s a bit far over on the edge, I think, and I can easily see it tripping and falling into the territory of short fiction (or nonfiction), but I still see it as a poem. This piece was a tremendous gift in that it came along with its form: I used the form of a prose poem along with poetic elements like repetition because the juxtaposition felt right. I wanted to combine the feeling of breathlessness with the pressures of the confines of prose because it felt honest to the subject.
It’s also about the abuses of power. And it’s doubly disturbing since we’re talking about children. Do you want to speak to the subject matter?
I’ve learned since this poem was published that these kinds of dangerous teacher/student relationships are more terrifyingly common than I’d feared. Every time I read it, someone in the audience tells me their own gut-wrenching version of this story. I think this is a pervasive phenomenon, especially in private schools and gifted programs. Some gifted programs get things very right when it comes to protecting students and making sure that they are safe. I went to a gifted camp at Western Kentucky University for two years and was lucky enough to teach in it one year, too, and it was wonderful. We were encouraged to take intellectual risks and grapple with some very grown-up academic ideas; at the same time, we were still kids, and the teachers and counselors reminded us of that by giving us spaces to be silly and creative and act like, well, kids. At other schools, gifted children are treated only like adults, which can lead to the kinds of dangers I describe in “Gifted.”
I recently read “After Auden,” which was a finalist for the Edna St. Vincent Millay Prize. What led you to the hoopoe? It’s wonderfully specific like the bows on the necks of the doves in the Auden poem, but operates differently. The hoopoe’s calls also echo ideas in the poems: “Oop! Oop!” (The Almighty Oops–the deadly serious, yet often cartoonish aspect of life–Maybe the impossibilities of the poems.) “Char!” (I think of this as a kind of burning of the world in the poems.) And “Tii!” the sound of young hunger that seems echoed in the last image of your poem.
I honestly wasn’t aware at all of the sound the bird makes when I wrote the poem, and I am now thrilled to know that it’s relevant and even resonant. I used the hoopoe because of its connection to the underworld in legend, which I first discovered when I was researching religicomagical practices in early modern Europe for Maleficae. They were painted on tombs in ancient Egypt, and, like many birds, considered harbingers of death in parts of Europe.
The Auden poem is dark. The Millay poem reminds me of kensho (enlightenment) experiences I have read about. Your poem seems to start with the Auden, move through the Millay (the natural and ocean images also remind me of Maya Deren’s short film “At Land”), and then end with something that, in the way that Millay’s poem could be seen to unite light and dark or life and death, attempts to resolve the Auden with the Millay.
I suppose that’s not really a question. Did anything in particular draw you to these poems?
I’m intrigued by the connection between my poem and Millay’s, which used to be one of my favorites — so much so that, during graduate school, I kept a print-out of it taped to my refrigerator. I still love the poem, but it doesn’t carry the same kind of resonance for me that it did then. At that point in my life, I felt very much tied to and rushed by my own race against my own fertility. I’ve known since I was very young — thirteen years old, probably — that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for me to have children, and that if I wanted to have them, I had to do it as soon as possible. My attachment to Millay’s poem grew out of my attachment to this idea, to this race against time, which, I felt, echoed the experience of that tree. My reading of it is very different now that I have had a total hysterectomy and I don’t have those same kinds of attachments (and obsessions, and anxiety, and constant preoccupation with the facts of time and my own body). When I read the poem now, I get to the part about the tree and I let out a sigh of relief. “Finally.” That’s the thing I think every time, because I’m thinking not of the tree as a lonely, sad thing but as a beautiful place of peace where so many of the body’s burdens have been lifted and left behind. Finally.
What’s inspiring you lately?
Hopkins! I doubt that I’ll ever understand sprung rhythm (though I also doubt there is a way to understand it completely), but I can’t get enough of the sound of his work.
Can you talk about your own experience and thinking about form in poetry? Have you ever felt like you’ve “figured it out” or finally have a philosophy about it and then watched your own work break all those rules you came to intellectually?
The things I love most about form is that I will never figure it out or fully develop a philosophy about it. I try, from time to time, but it’s kind of like developing a philosophy about breathing. Poetry and form are intertwined in my mind: when I’m writing in free verse, I’m thinking about form, and vice versa. Actually, I think of free verse in terms of form and prosody, so that’s a bit of a misnomer that illustrates how terribly difficult it is for me to even think clearly about what it would mean to separate the two. I was very lucky to have teachers who cared about form early on. One of the most difficult and rewarding classes I ever took was a Prosody class in — 10th grade, I think? It was tremendously hard and I admit that I spent quite a few bathroom breaks crying in the girl’s room (that was basically my sport in high school), but oh my God was it beneficial. I was also lucky to work with several New Formalists at the Sewanee Young Writers Conference, and working inside of form there led me to find ways to live inside form no matter what kind of poetry (or prose!) I’m writing.
I notice in some work you will use an ampersand. Given your sensitivity to form, how do you decide when to use an ampersand?
Ampersands have existed in my drafts for as long as I can remember. I tend to write my first drafts by hand (or in quick bursts on an app on my phone), and I tend to write them very quickly — the words always seem to come to mind faster than I can get them on paper — so I use ampersands. I started using them in later drafts as a way to make the poem feel more intimate. This may perhaps be a trick I play on myself: since it’s closer to the way I make language in my earliest drafts, it puts me in a place that’s more raw, open, intimate, direct. I often use it in poems that follow the process of my mind making meaning. There’s a formal effect, too: I’ve long been fascinated by the prosodic bones of free verse, especially in the work of poets like cummings and Creeley, who often arranged language on the page in such a way as to make it move with great speed down the page. The ampersand facilitates that, and it also created a shorter hop from idea/word/image to idea/word/image.
On the one hand, this makes sense to me. I feel like I get it. On the other hand, I feel maybe similar to the way you do when tackling sprung rhythm!
What are you reading, watching, or listening to just for fun? (If “just for fun” really exists for a writer.)
I’m going through a strange transition at the moment: after a lifetime obsession with reality TV, I find myself turning away from the screen, at least when the Housewives are on it. It’s been happening since the election, and perhaps the problem is that I just can’t celebrate that kind of petty cruelty on TV. I do still have a healthy obsession with Dateline/48 Hours (and Discovery ID, natch). In terms of listening: Beyoncé and Solange are always in the rotation. Lorde’s new album gives me life. I recently read Emma Cline’s The Girls (every sentence is a miracle of craftsmanship), which sent me into a Mamas and the Papas spiral.
I know you’ve had a variety of difficulties to face, but Best American Poetry and a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, within a year of each other, right? How is it going? How does all that feel? Does it make the submission process easier or is there more pressure?
I admit that it took me a long time to answer this one, longer than the others, because I kind of just kept thinking to myself, “Well, how does it feel?” And the only answer I can really come up with is, “Well, it doesn’t feel.” I mean, in a lot of ways it does. Those were two of the most significant, amazing, beautiful, humbling, magnificent, frightening, wonderful events of my life. I look at it as a responsibility: I don’t think I ever really considered the question of readership intensely before because I didn’t imagine people would read what I wrote. Now, I feel like there’s a chance that people might actually see the things I make, so I have a responsibility to make better things, to say things that I feel are most important and vital to say, even if they aren’t comfortable. The part of the process this has affected the most is the process itself. I feel like I have a responsibility to push past my own fears and hang-ups to get to a place where the work may frighten me, but it’s a fear that feels right in the gut. That sense of responsibility is also a gift, and one that helps me to focus on the work itself, not where the work ends up. This may also be due to the fact that I’ve transitioned out of an academic position where frequency of publication stood above all else.
The submission process feels like a separate thing.
I’ve got some poems coming out soon that I’m very excited about. I just finished a radical reconstruction of a manuscript I’ve been sending around for a while — it’s been a finalist a few times, but I think it needed some major work, and I’m hopeful about sending it out again soon. I’m finishing another round of revisions to my memoir and starting a collection about the Deep South.
Thanks to Emma Bolden for taking time for this correspondence.