June 2011

Nicholas Sturm


An Interview with Emily Kendal Frey

Emily Kendal Frey of Portland, Oregon is the author of three chapbooks, including Frances (Poor Claudia), and four collaborative chapbooks, most recently with Sarah Bartlett Baby on the Safe Side (Publishing Genius). Her first book, The Grief Performance, was chosen by Rae Armantrout as the winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s First Book Prize, a press that in addition to publishing Emily’s book has made a reputable name for itself as a home for exciting, dangerous young poets.

I met Emily at AWP in Washington, DC earlier this year, and we brought together this conversation via email over the course of a couple months. Emily was committed to this being a conversation and not an interview, so that we actually began with her asking the questions. This is in keeping with Emily’s open demeanor and the belief that what we’re doing is always part of a larger dialogue about poetry, and that that conversation is reciprocal and saturated with all of us.

And the thing about that attitude is, she can’t help it. After a recent reading in Cleveland I was fortunate enough to spend more time with Emily with a group of students and teachers around a long bar table. Towards the end of the night, just as everyone seemed to be tiring out, a gigantic cookie pie with ice cream, covered in whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and cherries, showed up at our table. Emily just shrugged and said she thought it’d be a good idea. Everyone grabbed a spoon and helped out. She’s sweet like that. Her poems are rejuvenating like that. It’s important to have fun like that. Enjoy.

Emily: What are you listening for when you read a poem? What makes you, as a reader, feel like a poem has reached out and grabbed you by the collar?

I like that you included the idea of being grabbed by the collar, which means that a poem has this ability to move and act, to actually come out and do something to me psychically. That there's something threatening about the idea of being grabbed by the collar, I think, is really necessary. When a poem threatens me I'm completely taken in. By threaten I don't mean that I want a poem to intimidate or menace me, at least not all the time, but it's like that. A threat is actually this very honest gesture, a kind of movement towards confronting whatever really needs to be said, and it happens without artifice because in the moment when the poem lunges forward, everything that's been planned, all the emotional force going into that point of action, falls away and is re-translated into a body-wrenching kind of reaction -- there's a loss of control, and I love that.

Yes! This is what art, I believe, aims to do. Art is movement, is it not? Transformation. Transmutation. The making of a thing from other things. A motion, towards or away from. Art, because it moves, is inherently brave. It’s the job of the artist (writer), therefore, to be courageous but humble and to reach in such a way that the reaching is what remains (and not the overblown experience of the act). The reaching has to be about the audience, the seer, and not the force behind it. Otherwise, what are we left with?

Your poems, Emily, have this kind of transcendent movement in them. The first line of "The History of Knives": "When I met you we were the shape of salt shakers," has everything in it that I've mentioned. The imaginative energy of the line is a kind of challenge to my understanding of the world and its logic and its definitions, and so it threatens the stability of what I think I know. That moment is a flash of bewilderment, and unlike being confused, being bewildered results in finding out something new, in being wrapped up in something inescapably sincere.

Oh, wow, thank you. I love that you perceive the emotional threat of a line like that, and yet are willing to enter into it and fight that fight. That’s really the highest compliment: that you’d be willing to stick around, to see what happens next. Lately I think that’s what love is, to simply stay in the conversation, and not leave when things are bewildering.

I was just at the Juniper Literary Festival at the University of Massachusetts and opened Natalie Lyalin’s chapbook Try A Little Time Travel from Ugly Ducking Presse, and read the first line of the first poem, “Two Small Vampires,” which starts “Dear heart, we ate snow today,” and was awed by it, convinced of its necessity in the world. I was kind of startled. Of course the line is very good, but to be so taken by it felt very new. It would be nice to open every book of poems and feel startled and bewildered in that new way each time. What are you hoping for? What is so important about hoping, about literally having hope, when you enter a poem as a reader, as a writer?

Hope is integral to poetry in that there is no poem without the hope that precedes it. When a poem begins (or a poet begins to read) a blueprint is drawn - the first line, softly hewn. A poem is so tenuous! The audience might always, at any moment, leave the room.

When I write or read I'm acutely aware of the hope that ushered me there. It's often quite embarrassing to realize just how desperately I want the "world" to stay with me through the words I've constructed. Please, the poem is asking, be with me, here, now. Of course, I barely know how I got there myself. To ask, then, of another being to stay the course while words make of themselves what they will, it seems so presumptuous! So immense! Such a task! Yet, this is the hope that the poem invites. That we might stick it out, together, to see what's on the other side.

And it's also a risk, both for the writer and the reader. Using the grabbing comparison, if a poem has me by the collar that means it's very close to a vital, vulnerable part of me, and I have to listen, and in that sense there's something quite tender about a threat, with the poem making itself so close to me, allowing itself to be that close. That a poem grabs me by the collar, puts everything I know at risk, and then lets me go, is really an act of compassion. And I think that closeness arises out of sheer imaginative sincerity. I love being able to look through a poem right into someone's imagination, all those locks and fireworks and trees and jars of screws.

I love this phrase, “imaginative sincerity,” because yes, it’s true, isn’t it, that even the imagination is inherently corrupt. Especially nowadays – the information/age we’re in gluts us and tests our imaginative morals.

We, the brave few, who dare to keep imagining! What would Wallace Stevens think?

You’re right about the crushing weight of the information we have access to. I’d like to think that no fewer people are catching tigers in red weather now than they were 80 years ago, but I could be wrong. I do think that Stevens’ famous line that a poem should resist the intelligence almost successfully seems more important now than ever. That there is so much information that purports to be worth our time and for our good leads to a growing need for areas of culture that do not operate under the auspices of being for the objective good. Of course, there is an other kind of news in poetry, but it’s the kind of news that pushes against the mysteries instead of puncturing them.

Indeed. This is partially why I try to stay firmly in the realm of the emotional, as uncomfortable as it may be. I don't know how to synthesize the "stuff" of the world any other way. And, as I grow less and less interested in the mind, insofar as making “sense” (at least along any lines of logic) of my experience, the more willing I become to stay in feelings.

There’s definitely a risk in the choice not to adhere to the obligations of linear logic, to mix the dreamt and the emotional with “the real.” What makes a reader willing to take that risk? What makes you keep reading a poem?

I personally keep reading if I think something will be revealed to me. I am looking for a god moment. I don't want to be handled, mind you. I'm not interested in being coddled or held or buffed up. I also don't need to be thrown into a canyon.  A poem doesn't have to defeat or conquer anything. Rather, it's that collar-grabbing you've mentioned, with exponents. I want to be introduced to the worm part of me, quivering in the corner, and I want to sit down with it, with all of our worm-selves, and glow.

God moments, yes, a kind of massive opening up of exuberance. Last summer some friends and I discovered a blackberry patch on railroad tracks by our house, a moment when this space that was kind of off-limits and in many ways antiquated, forgotten, suddenly became completely alive. But there’s also this danger, of being on these tracks, of the thorns, and having to reach deep in to get at the best fruit, and even then it might be filled with ants. It’s this act, this part of life that poetry so closely imitates. What pieces of the world do this for you?

I suppose breath. Or cooking the perfect egg.

How does one cook the perfect egg?

We best keep listening to the poems to find out, no? (Is that a cop out?)  The egg rises every morning. A graceful unzipping. Did you see it today?

“Graceful unzipping,” that is wonderful. I’m immediately pulled into a very physical, sexual space thinking of that. I guess this idea of closeness is so crucial, of trusting whoever is on the other end of the poem with doing things to you that need done. We all, at times, need to be handled like this. I spend a lot of time being scared or ashamed or anxious about my desires, and isn’t poetry a way to be integrated into those desires, to be part of them in a way that so much of our lives doesn’t allow?

Oh yes, absolutely. This is part of the hope I alluded to earlier. We want so desperately to be undone, don't we? And yet, to be together, while that happens, is so… intimate. To have someone else bear witness to our undoing, through language.

Exactly. What is more important to you in a poem: clarity or comprehension?

What's the difference? I don't feel very interested in either. I'm interested in compression and bravery.

What is a sorrow arrow? The self in your poems is unstable, without borders, something saturated with the world and the people closet to us. Are sorrow arrows a way of reminding one another that we’re still here, still performing?

A sorrow arrow is a missive, first and foremost. They aren't reminders so much as sculptures made of flying trash and gilded in love. They are offerings. I have this road I go to. It's next to a river. In it are the lavender ghosts I hoped to be. The women, too, and the teeth.