Emily Kendal Frey is the author of The Grief Performance (Cleveland State University Poetry Center 2011), winner of the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award (2012), as well as several chapbook and chapbook collaborations, including Airport (Blue Hour 2009), Frances (Poor Claudia 2010), and The New Planet (Mindmade Books 2010). She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Lisa Wells is the author of BEAST (poems, Bedouin Books 2012) and Yeah. No. Totally., a book of essays (Perfect Day Publishing, 2011.) Her work has appeared places like The Nervous Breakdown, Propeller Quarterly, Coldfront, Plazm Magazine, and Ecotone. She’s a regular contributor to The Rumpus and is currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
A poem by Emily Kendal Frey follows the interview.
Lisa Wells: I may have talked to you about this in real life before, but how did you start writing poetry?
Emily Kendal Frey: Do you remember that big chunky paper, the kind you use in kindergarten when you’re learning how to write, with the thick double lines for cursive? I remember a teacher reading “A Dream Deferred” by Langston Hughes and having us draw what that poem felt like. I remember thinking, “This is the highlight of my life … so far.” (laughter) I remember that experience of a stilling memory. The kind of memory where—in the memory—you’re conscious of, “I will remember this and I’m not sure why.” Unfortunately, it often happens with very banal things like, “Here I am walking to the bus.” Some that aren’t as full of epiphany… I didn’t write a poem but that’s my first recollection of thinking, “Word. Word has depth, and that depth has image, and that feels good.”
LW: Did you start to develop a sense that it was something you were good at?
EKF: No. I mean, feels good is different than good at. Fortunately, right? What if we could only do what we were good at? I’m glad I went toward it because it felt good, because that’s endlessly mineable, whereas being good at is determined by someone else.
Growing up, your relationship to language comes from so many different sources. For me a lot of it came from song. Dancing around and singing in the car and singing myself to sleep and more singing, singing, singing. Songs create pictures—you’re imagining the narrative or what’s happening, and poetry is such a natural shift. I was surrounded by language so it was again just dropping into what feels good.
LW: Sure, but was there a point later in life—
EKF: —Where I was like, “I like poems?”
I don’t know. I really didn’t read a lot of poetry. I read a lot of mythology; I read a lot of folk tales. I was a voracious reader of fiction. I read all the time, every day, from when I learned to read to age 25. Constantly, that’s all I did.
Then, I think, in college—
LW: Where did you go to school?
EKF: Colorado College. It’s in Colorado Springs. You take one class at a time, four classes a semester, but one class for a month at a time.
LW: Totally immersive.
EKF: Yeah, it was really great. I thought to myself, You can’t major in English because that’s too easy, language is so normal or average or so like breathing, you should major in psychology or biology or something ‘of the mind.’
LW: So what did you major in?
EKF: English! (laughter)
I tried, I tried. I took a philosophy class, I took a bunch of other classes, but all I wanted to do was write poems. My first class in college was a coordinated studies class—a Math teacher, an English teacher, and an Economics teacher and it was about Myth, about theories of origin and how we establish our origin and how we figure out as a culture or a person who we are and where we come from. It was so cool. All three of them said, ‘You should take a poetry class.’ I remember being like, uhhhhhh. It seemed so foppy to me, so fancy…
LW: Did it feel like a distinct movement to go into an MFA program?
EKF: So, after college, for about five years I worked in publishing and was depressed…
When I went to graduate school I still didn’t know anything about poetry. I knew a little bit but not in any academic or expansive way. So, grad school was horrific at first. Just imagine knowing nothing and going into an MFA program. I didn’t know anything about anybody… which was great.
LW: Did you have one important mentor there?
EKF: Bill Knott.
You know, I was just going to say, I think not having any ideas about what poetry is, was really very useful because I couldn’t attach a lot of expectations to be confirmed or broken down. I really liked Bill Knott because he’s crazy, and I’m crazy. All he cares about is poetry. I think the best teachers are freakishly passionate about their thing.
LW: Your poems seem pretty innovative, and they’re not really attached to one school or another. I wonder if that’s a product of your not having a lot of ideas about Poetry to begin with… but how do you hold onto that now that you are totally enmeshed in that world?
EKF: You mean, “How do you hold onto your freshness?” … that’s a really good question.
LW: I mean, how do you do it?
EKF: I think it’s that initial impulse that draws me to poetry. I see it as an extension of the world. Poetry is a place to manifest, or slow down, or take a snapshot. I feel that to identify too strongly with one kind of writing or one kind of image or one kind of anything would just, I don’t know, that just feels so limiting, and I mean limiting to me as a person. I’m only a nature poet or I’m only a short line poet or I’m only a surrealist poet, or … That’s not my experience of life. I assume that’s not anyone’s. That seems so much more about creating a persona that feels safe—that people will maybe like or not like—than it does about actually opening oneself up to potential. And that would feel like death. I think my job is to give an authentic range of my experience through poetry, to share it. I would feel really awful if I thought I had to choose.
LW: This is a pet grievance, so I appreciate hearing your perspective. I almost have the sense, when I hear it, that the stakes are much higher than I know. Maybe it’s melodramatic to say that.
EKF: Say more, what do you mean about the stakes?
LW: Okay, well, a lot of times I feel slimed … I walk away from my computer or from a reading or a post reading conversation feeling really gross. Like there’s been some petty, small-minded limitation placed on life in service to insecurity … so, it’s heartening to hear that this is something you’re keeping your head about.
EKF: I believe that to write well requires a certain level of fear and vulnerability. I would write bad poems if I decided to stay safe… because then you’ve essentially decided everything there is to decide and the world has a much harder time getting in. Where should I go?? Carefully and curiously. And, how do I direct all of my intellect and capacities toward that next thing, and be there fully? It feels very intentional, but I try to not get in my own way.
I feel very conscious of the insecurity you mention. I’m very intentionally saying I’m going over here to explore now. Not because I’ve closed all those other doors. I trust that I can go back wherever I need to go.
LW: It also feels vaguely spiritual.
EKF: Oh absolutely. I am not the biggest thing. I am small. It’s my job to synthesize the biggest things, you know? Rather than trying to be a writer who traps the world inside and then becomes big themselves.
LW: Boy, you see that don’t you?
EKF: Yeah. I mean, it can be so annoying and so enraging, but I’m learning to just feel … not empathy, but something like empathy, when I see it. It’s like a balloon you want to pop, because it’s too full.
LW: And fragile.
EKF: And fragile. Exactly. It’s unwieldy when people try to hold that much as writers.
LW: So take me back post-Emerson, because part of this interview is learning the genesis of your first book.
EKF: A lot of those poems I wrote in grad school or maybe just after. After grad school I experienced a major shift where I … and we’ve talked about this, how helpful it can be to place yourself in situations that affirm, “It’s okay to be a writer.” That’s the number one way grad school was helpful for me, other than my community. I started to write every day, not because I had to because I wanted to. Why would I stop?
LW: What does writing every day look like?
EKF: I had notebooks in every bag. I would write on the subway, I would write in my bed, I would write at work. I still had my editing job that was tedious. I would write poems all day at work. I was writing all the time.
LW: Do you have tricks? Do you use prompts? Writing constantly every day is not everyone’s process, you know.
EKF: Let me say that a little better. I don’t write constantly, all day, every day. It’s that I think in terms of poems all the time now. It’s a way of seeing. Something shifted and now, when I’m walking around, I’m looking, feeling the sensations … It’s all going through the language part of my brain. I’m directing. How am I going to describe that? It’s almost like I’m living on behalf of my poems. I’m just a vessel, or a sieve basically, so that all the shit that I’m experiencing has somewhere to go. It’s so fucking freeing actually, to every day synthesize your life that way. Whether or not I actually write the poem down is irrelevant because I get to look at that tree and make language out of it. That’s really calming for me.
LW: So, you wrote poems in Boston at your tedious job. When did you start circulating them?
EKF: That’s another way I felt uninformed when I got to grad school, in that everyone was sending out poems, and I was like, are you fucking kidding me? I would never have considered sending out anything. I was just not there. Finally, I think in my third year, I sent out a poem. I sent out a poem because it was part of the class – you had to send out a poem. Everybody was getting acceptances and I wasn’t sending out because I was far too afraid. Then, I had a poem accepted to the Washington Square Review, which is a great, magazine—NYU’s magazine.
The summer before I had taken a one-week workshop with Sharon Olds … it was a poem I’d written in that workshop. The fact that I’d written it during that time and had made this very intentional choice to take this workshop wasn’t lost on me. I felt like, “Oh right, you sought mentorship and you wrote a good poem.” Rather than pounding out something—
LW: —Making a dead thing.
EKF: Making a dead thing, and getting acceptance for some bad, weird reason.
It was a very affirming first publication, a very positive experience. Then you just want to replicate it, right? Like, “fuck, that felt good,” right?
Getting a first work published is so important for all writers. We should have a book of essays about that—how it cements your concept of yourself and going forward. I started keeping a word document … and then I’d send out and send out and get rejected constantly, send and get rejected. But just one publication is so helpful it’s crazy.
What I found is that people took the poems that were the best. If I did the research or sent to a magazine that I actually liked, and sent them poems that I actually liked, they were often accepted. So, that reinforced my idea that to be authentically in myself and do my best work would pay off.
LW: Then, The Grief Performance.
EKF: I was a finalist twice at Cleveland State, for two different manuscripts, then I saw that Rae Armantrout was the Judge … I really appreciate Cleveland because I feel like they have a vision of poetry that is expansive, that they would see the voice in me rather than the kind of poem. I really like that about Cleveland. I thought, maybe third time’s the charm. It was.
LW: Tell us about finding out.
EKF: It was summer two years ago. I was at Crema (a coffee shop in Portland) and I saw on my phone an Ohio number and when I heard the message and it was Michael Dumanis, I just knew… I mean, I’d hoped, but as a poet you have no certainty in any realm. I’d sort of decided that I’d probably never have a book published. I had to ask myself, will you keep writing anyway? My answer was (and is) yes. Was I writing when I was five, ten, or fifteen to be published? No. I was writing because I needed to process the world. To stay connected to that need has always really helped me.
I submitted The Grief Performance in the fall of 2009, so it was the 2010 prize and it came out fast. It came out in early 2011.
LW: Most books have their life in the public sphere and then they start to recede, you’re pretty much okay with it because you’re more or less done, right? But in your case it seemed as soon as The Grief Performance was reaching that point you won the Norma Farber Award. And that’s a whole new life.
EKF: The book had been chugging along steadily. The whole year I had the sense that it was on people’s radar. They were still intending to read it or it was still feeling like there was excitement around it, which is amazing. I don’t know why that is, but I’ll take it.
It’s just more affirmation, more immense gratitude that I get to be a part of this conversation, that I get to experience the world in this way and maybe assist other people in doing that—
LW: —Talk about that. You’re a teacher. Is that primarily how you feel you help people?
EKF: Poetry and language are a way to see and observe, not just using your eyes but all of your senses—to be in the world, and as a writing teacher I assist people in more accurately utilizing language to empower themselves. If you can name your experience you’re in a better situation then if you can’t.
LW: The social worker emerges.
EKF: I’m not trying to adopt benevolence. I try not to have an agenda about what writing means. It’s not for me to say, it’s for me to offer the tools. It’s very practical. It’s not as visionary as maybe I made it sound.
LW: What’s next for you?
EKF: I’ll just win every prize! I’ll just win everything!
I don’t know. I have some good manuscripts that I’d like to be published. But I refuse to be too attached to that. Mainly, I want to keep writing the next poem. I want to live in a way that makes that possible. I’m constantly trying to figure out how to do that. Should I sleep more? Should I drink more coffee? Should I love more people? Should I plant more plants? Should I eat more eggs? I see myself as a vehicle. How can I provide for the poems?
I want to participate. That’s a better way to explain it. I think it’s my best way to participate in the world. So I’d like to assist and not hurt that.
LW: The poet Brit Washburn has this essay where she talks about the virtues of avoiding self-destruction, not just the noble notion that you might use your gifts to help others, but at the very least, please don’t become a liability. That’s probably the more inevitable outcome if you don’t find a way to transmute those feelings.
I don’t think of myself as a religious person, but I realize that when it comes to poems I’m extremely religious because I’m always asking to be used to the benefit of things that are more important than me. I’d be utterly paralyzed if that were not sort of the prayer that I walk into it with.
EKF: Right? To be that big would be so intimidating. I think that’s the perpetual struggle of the writer, being more or less than they are in time or space.
LW: It’s a problem for writers. Then there’s this complicating factor—I mean, I’m not even going to try to succinctly summarize the culture of celebrity—but it’s insidious. It infects everything we do, how we participate in the world.
EKF: You mean our wanting to be stars to each other with these personas and profiles, these likes and dislikes, and these very firm dimensions? Yeah, it’s intimidating.
LW: Your own public persona is intimidating once you begin to have one.
EKF: Well, where did you get it, and do you believe in it, and can you maintain it?
LW: People start to write reviews, they interpret your persona, it’s recapitulated and it evolves and morphs and it’s totally out of your control! It’s terrifying.
EKF: Most writers working prior to the last fifty years had a persona that pretty much came from their work, but now there are all these other sources…
LW: Photos, for example. You’re pretty and young.
EKF: So people feel whatever they feel about that. Then, we get to figure out how much time we want to spend assessing that, or taking it on. Ideally I would just channel all of it into the poems.
LW: Yes. All of it.
EKF: Maybe I’d write 300 crappy poems.
LW: Waste not, want not!
EKF: Yeah. I love this. What about you… how do you write?
LW: I would say I’m a daily writer, but not always poems. I write non-fiction, too. If I want to write a poem, like this morning, I have a stack of new books that I haven’t read yet. So usually there’s a line in someone else’s poem that inspires me to start…
EKF: Should we read each other our poems?
LW: Sure. Let’s do it.
LET A ROOM BE MADE AS DARK AS POSSIBLE
When the city is rotting
Against the west hills
I remember I have not suffered much
Mornings when the river pulsed by
Full of spiders
I woke to a not-dying
The planet won’t die
In my lifetime
I can get over the disappointment
If there are strawberries on the walk to work
All that time on a small couch
The neighborhood not caring at all
You fuck yourself late at night
Thinking of someone
Just beyond imagination
3rd grade teacher minus the smell
Tom Hanks or an equally partially comforting presence
Hair, bottles, infections, healable
The yellow flowers lining the highway
Oh, you think, it doesn’t matter
Knowing that it does
So you take pictures
Sleep almost instantly
Your clothes seem to belong
To a sibling you never had
Walking the river
Defiant as hairstyles
Moving into and next to gender
Looking for the one book
The longest tome
Insect smashed in its pages
Heavy as freedom
Moving just faster than your brain
An endless and difficult horizon
You’ll not reach
From this side
As long as life keeps you
A tiger in its mouth
Emily Kendal Frey
You can read Lisa Wells’ poem “King Adam” in the New Work section of OmniVerse here.