49 Writers Interview: Emily Wall

Poet Emily Wall lives in Juneau, where she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Alaska Southeast. She will join the faculty at the 2010 Kachemak Bay Writers Conference.

Salmon Poetry, an Irish publisher, has produced Freshly Rooted, an artful collection of your poems. I understand they’re publishing another poet with Alaskan ties next year. How did your book find a home with Salmon, and how would you characterize your experience publishing with them?

I found Salmon and Jessie Lendennie, the publisher, through the poet Tom Sexton. He came to Juneau for a reading and I really liked his work. While browsing his book I noted who had published it. Once I started looking around, I realized Salmon had published a number of Alaskan poets. The press seems to have an affinity for lyric, Alaskan writers. So this felt like a good opening for me.

I feel grateful to have found Jessie and Salmon. It’s not easy to find publishers who will look at unsolicited manuscripts outside of contests. Salmon has a real commitment to new poets. It’s been a good experience getting to know the other Salmon poets, and learning the workings of a small press. Two years ago Jessie set up a reading for a number of Salmon poets at the Bowery Club in New York City; that has been a real highlight for me.

Salmon has also published my poems in an anthology of Salmon work (Salmon: A Journey in Poetry) and an essay I wrote in a book about writing and publishing(Poetry: Reading It, Writing It, Publishing It). I hope to get to Ireland one of these days; Jessie has promised me a little reading tour if I come over. I’d love to visit the press and meet more of the Salmon poets, many of whom live in or near Galway.

The poems in Freshly Rooted construct around a narrative frame of letting go and beginning again: your new marriage, your move to Alaska, your shifting relationship with parents. At what point did you begin to envision the themes and sequencing of the collection?

That’s a really good question. I always try to write with no themes or sense of book in mind — I believe the best lyric poems come from our disorganized, internal selves, so I try not to orchestrate a book while writing new poems.

I worked on these poems for about five years. During those years I sent a number of them out, and many were published in journals. Once I realized I had enough poems for a book, and a number of them had been published, it started to feel like a book.

I remember distinctly the process I went through to organize the poems and shape them into a book. I printed them all out, then sat down one winter day in a chair by the window in my writing studio and began the process of forming them into a book. I started finding themes, and topics, and then started finding the narrative arc. This was surprising, as I hadn’t realized I was writing a story until I saw all the poems together. The book is really a poem-memoir, but I didn’t set out to write one. Once I had the narrative arc and I found a series of themes, it became easier to decide what to keep in the book, and what to let go of. The narrative suggested a natural order for most of the poems.

So that’s how the first draft of the book came together. Since it took a while to publish, I ended up going through this process several more times before the final was published.

Your poetry emerges in a pleasing variety of forms, from haiku to prose poems. How do you discover the form that informs your images and thoughts in a particular piece?

Form and syntax are both intuitive for me. I sometimes will change a poem’s form (especially a sestina), but usually the form I start with stays. The shape of a poem on the page has an organic relationship with the way the poem develops, so form is integral to meaning. For example, I’m working on a poem this week that ended up with a strange 3-line indented stanza form. After drafting it I wondered how I had gotten there until I realized it’s the form we see most often in the Psalms. The poem I’m working on talks about an Old Testament story, so somehow that form came to me, out of some distant memory of seeing forms on the page in the bible. I think prose and haiku happen the same way — the particular poem needs a certain shape to come into existence and I simply trust my intuition.

Your poems read as if you’re fresh to this place, yet you arrived in Alaska thirteen years ago. How important is it for poets – and for all writers – to cultivate the patience to take a long and sometimes distant view of their work?

I can tell these questions are written by a writer! You’ve hit on one of the things I’ve found most difficult about publishing and working with this book. On the one hand, distance is very helpful to revision—some of those poems took me months to complete. I need distance to see how and where to revise. But once a poem is finished, that distance becomes a barrier for me — I don’t really want to work with the poem anymore.

I’ve really struggled at readings of this book — what I really want to do is get out a sheaf of brand-new poems to read, because that’s where my mind is now — those are more exciting to me.

I remember once having N.Scott Momaday visit a class of mine. We were reading House Made of Dawn (of course) and wanted to discuss it. I could tell he really didn’t want to — he kept turning the talk to his new work and the students kept steering him back. At the time I remember being annoyed at him, but now I completely understand.

To answer the last part of your question—how important is it to cultivate patience? It’s necessary. Some poets can write books very quickly, and if a book is published through a contest it can come out very quickly — say a one to two year process. But I don’t think my experience is unusual — it can take five or more years to get a book out with a small, independent press. I recently talked to Ken Waldman about his experience with West End Press and he told me it took his publisher about five years to publish his book too. So although it can be frustrating, it’s a reality for many poets.

What prompted you to start your own blog, and how have you found the experience?

I have a blog and website and I’ve found both experiences interesting. I started the blog because a poet friend of mine and I had been having really interesting poetry conversations via email, and we agreed this conversation would benefit from being in a larger context and joining with other voices.

I also teach creative writing, and I think (I hope) it’s interesting or useful to my students to see my own drafts, writing process, worries, triumphs, failures, etc. as a writer. In the classroom we have a certain kind of relationship to students —regardless of how informal we are as people. Even classrooms are set up to underscore that relationship — writer at the front, students in front or around her or him. But in the online world I can be more of a mentor and help students understand that there is no “there there” with writing—it’s all a process and even published writers have black days.

The toughest part of blogging is not knowing the audience — who am I writing to? I know some of my students read my blog, but beyond that I don’t know who might be reading it. Even writing a book was easier than this, as I could imagine my audience with the book, but with the blog, it’s impossible. At times this make it hard to find a focus, and a voice. So I’m still experimenting, trying new things, seeing what might catch and hold interest.

2 thoughts on “49 Writers Interview: Emily Wall”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Thanks, Emily — I enjoyed your answers and I also got pulled into your blog, reading one poem after another.

  2. I really am not a poetry person. That said, thanks for making me think about poetry and its creative process.

    Maybe I'll soften some of my "rants" and turn them into something poetic?

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