Good Timing: An Interview with Claudia Emerson

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From the Spring 2014 issue of Poictesme

By Hannah Morgan

Illustration by Megan Goldfarb

If there was any doubt before, I know I really like a poet when an image of his or hers gets stuck in my head, like a song will. When I think of Wallace Stevens, I see columns of light reflected on, an otherwise, black sea. With Dickinson, it is that buzzing fly. I think these images stick with me because they are so full of meaning that they form connections over a relatively large part of my brain, and so I am more likely to find myself back there—feeling the spaciousness of the image even after I’ve forgotten its context. I knew I wanted to interview Claudia Emerson for Poictesme because her imagery, for me, is like brain glue. The richness of meaning in her poetry can encircle me in a world of ideas and connection.

Claudia Emerson was Poet Laureate of Virginia from 2008 to 2010. She has published five books of poetry, including Late Wife, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. Her latest book, from 2012, is Secure the Shadows, and she will be publishing her sixth book, The Opposite House, next year. She received her MFA from UNC Greensboro, and has taught at several universities since then. Before joining VCU’s faculty last year, she taught creative writing at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia for fifteen years. For this interview, I met her in her office at the Anderson House.

 

When did you start writing?

I wrote some poetry and some songs when I was a teenager. And I wrote music through college, and I wrote some fiction. But I didn’t write poetry seriously until I was in my late twenties.

 

Why did you start writing poetry?

 I had two jobs at the time. I was a mail carrier, a rural letter carrier. I also ran a used bookstore that no one came in, so I read all the time. Or I was on the mail route, which was eighty-six miles driving a truck, by myself. So it was this weird combination, and then I started to write while I was in the bookstore. I’ve always credited, too—it was one of those deals where if you traded in three books, you got one. And somebody traded in Rainer Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and I had never read it. It changed my life. And then somebody traded in May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude. And it’s like a diary, kind of, autobiography. And I had never heard of her either. Those two things, for some reason, struck me, and I started to write.

 

What do you find that your poems are born out of? Is it an image, or a memory, or a feeling?

 Probably some combination of all those things. I’m a great notebook keeper. I’m curious, too, so I read a lot of stuff, just whatever strikes my fancy. Like right now I have Oliver Sack’s new book on hallucination. Who knows why that would interest me, but it might come to something. And—I don’t know—and then something will just strike me as: Oh, that’s a metaphor; I think I could make a poem out of that. And a lot of things aren’t out of my own life, but sometimes my own life will kick in, some subject. And I’ll write out of autobiography. It tends to go back and forth.

 

I guess where you’re taking a lot of notes, without even thinking about it, you end up with a form.

 Yes, I do.

 

So, do you find that form changes the more you delve into the poem, or does it stay how it came out as you drafted it?

 Sometimes it’s a little of both. Something about the subject will say to me what the form wants to be, but I’m just enough of a book creator that when I write enough poems in a certain form, I start to make all of them like that. I like things to match in the book. That’s not always true, but I have to careful about it because sometimes, I will let the book boss a poem around. You don’t want to do that.

 

One thing I noticed as I was reading your poetry is that it seems to have a certain equilibrium. I want to sit with every line. I don’t feel catapulted through it at any point, or really sped up. So, I read this interview you did with Poetry Daily in 2006 and you were talking about the importance of measure. I was wondering if, as you write, you have a steady measure in mind.

 I do. Between the fourth and the fifth book, I was almost always working what I would call “loose blank verse.” But then I decided to change that a little bit, and I go—still couplets—but it’ll be a five beat line and a three beat line, and a five beat line and a three beat line. I was hoping that it might do something a little bit different from what you’re finding. And instead, there would be a little bit of quickness in that shorter line. You know what, I might be able to show it to you. I write at home, but I’ve been writing here, too. There it is. Some of them are a little bit longer, a little bit stagger-y, to try to say that this is one thing, but this will go a little faster than this. So, just an experiment. There was something appealing—the couplets themselves then were eight beats—because I’m a counter, and I love fours and eights. But I tend to write fives. So…poets are silly people.

 

Have you always been a counter?

 I think it’s a music thing. Growing up, my mother made me take piano lessons. Metronome. The whole nine yards. I even take a metronome into my graduate workshop, to talk about speed and what it means—just set the metronome going really, really quickly and talk about: What does that mean? What does it mean when you go slow? Just put it on, and let people brainstorm. And language is, of course, a whole lot more subtle, but it’s still there. But yeah, I do think about it a lot. Again, I played the guitar. You know? I played with other people—you’re always saying: Okay, what’s the rhythm of this? Speed up or slow down——It’s important.

 

I know you write music with your husband and perform it. Do you write lyrics?

 Yeah, I actually steal from my own poems. And turn them into bad country songs.

 

So how do you take one of your poems and turn it into music?

 Sometimes we’ll do it together. Just sit around and, sort of, knock out an idea. He’s really the musician. I can play a little bit, but he knows everything about it. But, I’ll think: Okay, we could take this line from a poem and turn it into a whole song.

 

And do you sing?

 Yeah, but not very well.

 

You were saying you usually write at home. Have you had different writing rituals over the years?

 I like that questions because I think its important to talk about with anybody interested in writing—that we all have rituals and habits, and then they change. And if you’re not aware that they could change, you can get in a strange pattern of failure. I used to write in a coffee shop and I wrote all of Late Wife in this coffee shop. And so, years go by, and I keep going to the coffee shop, long after it stopped working. By then, I know too many people. I’m chatting the whole… [laughs] So I got a little studio. That’s when I lived in Fredericksburg. But it took probably a year before I realized: this just isn’t working. I used to be a morning writer. Well, when you become a teacher, you tend to need to get up and go to school, and grade your papers and teach your classes, and so I had to kind of remake it so that I was a late afternoon writer. Because that tended to work better for me there.

 

 Do you have a schedule you try to keep?

I write every morning. Something. I get up super early. I like to write in my notebook, write some things down. And I always visit my poetry notes. Then I’ll go for a run or a walk, and think about things. I love the natural world, and I go out in it, but sometimes I’m generating. And then I’ll come home and write some things down. And then, I tend to forget about it until later in the day. And it’s—no matter how disciplined I am or what pattern I keep, it’s still going to come in bursts. I’ll just not get much done for a week, two weeks, a month, and then I’m going to write ten things. But I still do believe in discipline. I’ve always said that if you don’t keep the date with the muse, she gets mad and goes off somewhere else.

 

I guess if you can write in a coffee shop, you don’t necessarily need silence to write. But does noise affect your process?

 It’s funny. The one thing that will throw me, and not always—like, I can write in an airport, when there’s music. I can write with a lot of white noise. But if there’s good music, I won’t be able to write. Because I’ll be listening. Good music will bother me. And if somebody, say—if my husband’s talking on the phone, and I can hear a conversation, I’m going to be curious. But where we live now, here in Richmond, I have a great upstairs sun porch. It’s very small, but a door closes, and I can’t hear anything.

 

You talked about how sometimes you write autobiographical poetry and pull from your personal life. What does distance through time do to a poem, if you’re writing about something that recently happened as opposed to something that happened a long time ago? Do you try to do one or the other?

 That’s a tricky thing because sometimes, I think you should wait. Something happens and you probably should wait, think about it, and let it, sort of, simmer down. And other times, you’re not going to feel about it the way you do now. It’s almost a matter of: Can you do it? Can you make it into the thing you want it to be? So, you try. I always say to my students: Just try; you can always throw it out. But one thing—and this is something I wouldn’t have said some time ago—I think you can wait too long. When I was writing Late Wife, which had to do with my divorce and remarriage, I thought: Maybe I shouldn’t be writing about this so quickly. And I said that to a friend of mine, and she goes: Yeah, but you’re never going to feel this as intensely as you do now. And I was really glad she did that because, for me anyway, to write a book, takes about three years. So just ordinarily, I’m going to move through a subject.

 

Do you ever find yourself, when you’re working on a book for that long, having trouble not changing everything over and over again, and sticking to one version?

 Yeah. I do and I will, and then it will be wrong. I’m a great reviser and I make a lot of mistakes. But I also believe in trying things, and saving things. And hopefully, along the way, you find a good reader or two who will help you out. I have to say though—I do have a sense of what I think a book will be, and in that way, my editor thinks I’m idiosyncratic. He thinks a lot of poets don’t think this way. But I think it comes from wanting to be a fiction writer. So I, sort of, think about poetry books as novels. But I don’t do that with every book.

 

At what point do you think that a book is finished?

 Well, if I think everything in it is pretty good, and it seems to hold together. And it’s about the right size. I’m funny about the size. You can’t make them too thin or they won’t publish it. It’s got to be as big as fifty pages. That’s just the way the presses work. I think my last book my have been seventy pages. I like them coming in around fifty-five, sixty pages. I call it fighting weight. I don’t care for an overlong book. I like for it to hold together, and everything to have some punch, and talk to the poem next to it. But, I will wait on it. The book that’s coming out [next year], I feel good about. It’s been at the press long enough, and now we’re in copyediting. That’s helpful, to look at it at that stage. But the one I was just showing you, I just finished that book. So I’ve got time. It can just, sort of—like a pot of soup. It can sit for a while. And I also have, as part of my process, a big corkboard. This is not very aesthetically pleasing, but it’s in our bedroom because there’s a big wall. And I put my books up on the wall, so I can look at it.

 

All the pages?

 All the pages.

 

When you’re first drafting, do you ever hand write?

I do. But I’ve gotten so I’m also a combination person. I do some handwriting in the morning. I write out notes. Sometimes I’ll write a draft out in my notebook, but then I’m going to type it up. Then I’m going to print it out. Then I’m going to write all over that.

 

In writing a single poem, what do you hope to achieve?

 Well, a couple of things. That it will do what I thought I wanted it to do when I had the idea. But that it will also surprise me. It’ll be better than I thought it could be. That’s one of my favorite things about writing, when something comes out better than I thought it would be. And hopefully there’s something clear about the meaning for some other reader out there. But I want to give them something to mull over, too. I don’t have an ideal reader in mind, and I’m okay with being surprised by my readers, but I do want them. So, at some point, I’ll think about it, but not in the drafting. I’m the reader then.

 

So, you definitely think a lot about the page, but do you every think about reading your work out loud as you write?

 Yeah, that’s part of my process. Not right away, but I think it’s important to hear your work, not in my voice but in someone else’s. So sometimes I’ll coerce someone into reading a book out loud to me. Even in workshop, I have someone else read the students’ work so I can hear it. It disembodies it. And you can often hear what’s going right and what’s not going right.

 

Do you have any advice for aspiring, particularly undergraduate, poets?

 Mostly, I think it’s important to be involved in every way you can, whether it’s a literary journal or a reading series. Go to everything that the MFA program puts on. Take every class you can. Read all you can. Just be involved in it. I’m fortunate that I have a community here. I think many of us go out into the world and will end up without a community of writers. And so, you kind of have to seek it out. The other thing is that you’ll hear some pushback. I don’t know how much I heard from family and friends: You’re going to study what? That’s not practical and blah blah blah. But I think if I hadn’t pursued poetry, which I loved so much and still do, not that it’s a bad thing—I loved working at the post office—but I think I’d be working at the post office. I think I would have stayed at home and that’s what I would have done. And I would have had a good life. It would have been fine. And that’s a good job, and I enjoyed it. I just thought: Okay, I’m going to give this a go. And it worked out. And I was fortunate to be able to keep writing, and that I do love teaching. So, don’t be talked out of it by the naysayers. •

 

 

 

 

 

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