A conversation with Emma Bolden about poetry, editing, and the house she stumbled into.
ALINA: Dear Emma, I love talking to you. Speaking of talking—and love—what you love about poetry as a form? What do you hate about it?
EMMA: The thing I love most about poetry is its breathtaking mutability. I used to tell my students that poetry was a container, like a pitcher or a vase. Now, I see that container as something so flexible as to take the shape of what's poured into it, or, perhaps, as glass that becomes more beautiful and useful when it is broken. With poetry, there are thousands of ways to work towards tradition and thousands of ways to work against tradition. Every move you make on the page -- an em dash, a line break, a space between words -- carries a thousand intentions along with it. There's something about this plasticity, coupled with the form's concision and concentration, that allows a writer to access and express experience and emotion in a very pure way. As a person, I struggle continuously with figuring out how to express what I feel, and perhaps even more persistently with figuring out exactly what it is that I feel. When I'm writing poetry, however, I'm able to drill down to the core of meaning and feeling.
The thing I hate most about poetry as a form is exactly that: the form. In my non-writing life, I tend to put up blocks against accessing and expressing my own feelings. I do the very same thing in my writing life. I often find myself focusing obsessively on the form of the poem itself, not the experience the poem needs to contain. I trap myself inside my own tricks and turns of language, which can sometimes make writing feel like I'm running in a hamster wheel, expending energy but never really getting to the places where I need to go.
ALINA: It's no secret that I gobbled up your recent poetry collection, House Is An Enigma. Can you share a few links to any of those poems that have been previously published online? Also I'm so curious about how you stumbled into the house metaphor and how this relates to female sexuality or sexualization (sometimes I can't tell the forest from the trees on this one).
EMMA: That is an excellent question! "Stumbled into" is the exact right term of phrase for this one. When I lived in Georgia, I found myself traveling the back roads from Statesboro to Savannah time and time again, and every time, I passed this house that just looked downtrodden and grumpy, sort of like if Oscar the Grouch were a building. On one trip, I started thinking about how I had essentially turned that house into a metaphor. If I were that house, I thought, I'd be angry at every passerby who glanced my way and made me into a metaphor they needed to illustrate their experience. When I got home, I wrote the poem "House Is an Enigma." A few years later, it was chosen for inclusion in Best American Poetry, which meant that I had to write a brief statement explaining the meaning of the poem. There was just one problem: I had no idea how to explain the meaning of the poem because I wasn't entirely sure what the meaning was.
When I sat down to write the statement, I thought about that house and those back roads, all of those trips to Savannah and back. I'd been driving to doctors' offices for appointments and consultations and second opinions. I was trying to decide if, after a twenty-year-long struggle with endometriosis and fibroids, it was time for me to have a total hysterectomy. I remembered that one phrase popped up in every appointment: "we don't think your body could house a fetus." There I was, facing the most difficult decision of my life, and my doctors could only talk about the hardest parts of that decision -- giving up whatever hope I ever had of having children -- by turning my body into a metaphor.
Unlocking the meaning of this metaphor also meant unlocking the passage to completing the book. I'd been working on a manuscript for about five years, and it never felt complete. When I realized what -- or, rather, who -- the house really was, I found a new way into the work and finished the series of poems that now serves as the backbone of the collection.
As for poems…..
“The Museum of the Body” (American Literary Review)
"Under Threat of Eden" (Sinking City Lit Mag)
ALINA: Okay, now to be trivial--three places you love in Alabama.... and why.
EMMA: This is a surprisingly tough one! Three years ago, I moved back to the Birmingham area after about 18 years away, and it has grown and changed in dizzyingly drastic ways. It's been difficult to find my bearings.
Desert Island Supply Company: DISCO is amazing for so many reasons that I could write about it forever. Just walking in the door makes me happy -- and you can tell that other people, especially young students, feel the same way. I deeply admire their dedication to furthering arts education in the Birmingham area. It also provides a perfect gathering place for writers and artists in the area. Plus, there's something new and beautiful and resonant and true to be discovered in literally every inch of the space.
The U.S. Space and Rocket Center: I'm a huge space nerd, and I could spend actual months wandering around the Space and Rocket Center. When Apollo 13 came out, my father and I went to an exhibit about the Apollo program that was absolutely mind-blowing.
Perdido Beach: Perhaps I'm adding this to the list because I just went on my first real vacation since I was in 8th grade? But also because Alabama's beaches are gorgeous. I highly recommend Sea-N-Suds. Try the fried shrimp and the orange amaretto daiquiri.
ALINA: Any special musicians or albums that have influenced your writing that you'd like to share (include links please, esp. to a song or video)?
EMMA: Music has always been an essential source of inspiration and part of my process, and I have my parents to thank for that. My father raised me on Bob Dylan, the Moody Blues, Leonard Cohen, and The Beatles, all of which led me to love the musicality of language and the act of stretching language's possibilities.
I probably learned more about language and the limits to which on can take it from Tori Amos than anyone or anything else. I still remember the flush of excitement I felt when I heard Boys for Pele for the first time. Admittedly, I often wasn't exactly sure what she meant, but the more I listened, the more I learned and loved. "Little Amsterdam" may be the best example from that album -- and in this video, she plays two pianos at once.
Ravel's "Bolero" taught me most of what I know about structure. It's the key through which I unlocked the way to build lyrics essays.
My current work is fueled by Agnes Obel's music. I'm particularly fascinated by her third album, Citizen of Glass. It's a meditation on mass surveillance and how social media has changed the way we see ourselves and others. I'm obsessed with the way she built this album, too; she layers hundreds of tracks of herself singing (see "Familiar") and uses the Trautonium, a kind of synthesizer that can electrocute you.
I used to be obsessed with musicals (okay, I'm probably still obsessed with musicals), which taught me the power of refrain and echo. Sondheim's A Little Night Music showed me how subtle shifts in form can create dramatically different moods. Almost every song is in waltz time, which is amazing when you consider songs as different as "Send in the Clowns" and "The Miller's Son."
ALINA: You mentioned Sondheim and I melted a little. He’s an old obsession of mine. I was as overwrought as his “Passion” in high school—and thrilled when he won a Tony for it.
In addition to writing, you are also an editor. Can you tell us a little bit about that and share a few poems that you've published at TQ recently that you really love?
EMMA: At this point, it feels almost as if my roles as an editor and as a writer are symbiotic. As a writer, I know how tremendously difficult it can be to put the work that carries so much of yourself with it into the world. As an editor, I try to treat every submission as if it were my own and to recognize the amount of trust it takes for a writer to submit. That's a very humbling thing for me. As a writer, I've gathered an extensive collection of rejection slips, but editing has taught me that rejection doesn't necessarily mean that a piece is bad, as there are numerous reasons why a piece might not be a fit for a particular journal at a particular time. I do, however, find that I tend to revisit rejected poems in my revision mindset more often. Most of all, editing serves as a great source of inspiration and encouragement for me. There's something incredible about opening up Submittable and seeing submissions from so many others who walk the same path as I do and love it.
Speaking of love -- to be honest, I love all of the pieces we've published in Tupelo Quarterly. Lately, I've found myself returning to Emily Carr's crossword poems from The Stork Rides Shotgun, which are breathtakingly innovative and powerful.
ALINA: Finally, ultimately, shamelessly, what's the worst piece of advice you've ever gotten about writing/creativity/art?
EMMA: That you'll do your best work before you turn thirty, and after thirty, it's over. This was drilled into my mind as a high school student, so much so that it almost became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I'm not sure how conscious the connection was, but I remember feeling a sense of great panic and dread in my late twenties. I remember feeling like my time as a writer was almost over, and when I entered my thirties, I found myself almost paralyzed when I turned to the page. It's as if I was examining myself with every word I wrote, dissecting each sentence to see if I really had lost "it," whatever fueled my creativity. But with my thirties came a series of life events that added up to a sea-change in my life as a whole: an invisible illness, early menopause, a hysterectomy, a change in career followed by another change in career, the loss of a job and my livelihood. In a very short span of time, I faced all of my greatest fears -- and then found myself on the other side, still standing. I was still living, and in order to keep living, I had to let go of all of the things that I thought about living. That included letting go of the idea that at some arbitrary age, my writing life would let go of me. In a lot of ways, I think my life as a writer began in my thirties because that's when I began to live as a writer. My dedication to the work became stronger, like steel forged in fire, and I was no longer afraid to touch the forms and subjects that frightened me the most. If I could go back and tell my young self one thing, it would be this: "Relax. Live for your work and your work will start living, no matter your age."
ABOUT EMMA BOLDEN
Emma Bolden is the author of three full-length collections of poetry -- House Is An Enigma (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2018), medi(t)ations (Noctuary Press, 2016) and Maleficae (GenPop Books, 2013) – and four chapbooks. She received a 2017 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a 2019 Literary Arts Fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts. A Barthelme Prize and Spoon River Poetry Review Editor’s Prize winner, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Norton Introduction to Literature, The Best American Poetry, The Best Small Fictions, and Poetry Daily as well as such journals as the Mississippi Review, The Rumpus, StoryQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, New Madrid, TriQuarterly, Conduit, the Indiana Review, Shenandoah, the Greensboro Review, Feminist Studies, The Massachusetts Review, Ninth Letter, the Seneca Review, and Crazyhorse. She currently serves as Associate Editor-in-Chief for Tupelo Quarterly.