Devil’s Lake


Interview with Lynn Emanuel

Q: You taught the first workshop I took at Pitt, and I remember reading Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook as our first text. That book opens with a dramatic sentence—“everyone knows that poets are born, not made in school”—and I remember you challenging that idea. If I remember correctly, you said that that hadn’t been true for you, that you’d had to work quite hard to become a poet. I’ve thought about that quite a lot since then, in part because it’s so useful to have a sense of how much work truly goes into writing. Could you describe the work you did to become a poet—how you got “made,” to use Oliver’s phrase?

Well, part of my ambition in talking about my own history as a poet was a pedagogical one. I like using Oliver’s handbook because it is such a useful foil. Her views are so uncompromising (and to a degree old-fashioned) that it gives students the opportunity to form their own arguments, to define themselves in relation to something, rather than merely consume a position set forth by the authority figure of the “author.” Oliver’s is a very Presbyterian view: there are those who are among the elect and those who are not. If you accept this view, you of course will never know if you are one of those born to an art. I think the point I was trying to make in discussing my own work was that the sense of being “born” to something sometimes comes after a great deal of hard work and even self doubt. Frankly, I was born to art. My father’s family was one in which the arts were a primary vocation. As I’ve said in a number of interviews, my aunts and uncles were actors, sculptors, choreographers, and even poets. So, in a sense, when I became interested in and started to write poetry I very much had the sense that I was going into the family business. On the other hand, that fact was something of a burden. The more serious I became as a poet the more I realized that I was on my own. One fights for originality and mastery, and it is only so much help that one comes from a long line of ancestors who have had to fight the same fights. Oliver’s formulation makes the making of art sound too simple.

Q: I read on the Poetry Foundation that you see your previous three books—The Dig, Hotel Fiesta, and Then, Suddenly— as “a triptych exploring the convention and flexibility of the book, and the agency of readers and writers.” Do you see that as being true about your work? If so, how does Noose and Hook deviate from, add to, or complicate that exploration?

Noose and Hook is not part of that triptych. I don’t think of it as a deviation so much as the beginning of a new kind of work. I think I have finished exploring the themes and subjects of my first three books. Now, like everyone in America, I’m living in a country fighting a war. I’m living on the home front, and my daily experience is informed by bulletins from the war zone. Noose and Hook is a book written by a civilian living in a country at war. That fact eclipsed the obsessions of earlier books.

Q: In one of the early poems of Noose and Hook you write, “I will never again write from personal experience. / Since the war began I have discovered / (1) My Life is Unimportant and (2) My Life is Boring.” What, for you, is the relationship between personal experience and writing?

I think war is an erasure of personal experience. It is an erasure of the importance of the individual. I meant there to be a kind of terrible irony in that line. War does make the individual unimportant. It is a reduction of individual life to an absurdity. But let me paraphrase the line that follows the one you have quoted: “But now, as a poet, I have an occupation.” I wanted the word “occupation” (in its sense of both military invasion and profession) to spar with the phrase “personal experience,” which I intended to be a phrase that represented both self-absorption as well as the particularities of individual life erased by war. I wanted both the phrase “personal experience” and the word “occupation” to be double-edged, so to speak. So, I was writing about how a war makes one’s personal experience feel silly and fragile and, at the same time, I wanted to say that it is the sense of the possibility of a private selfhood that is the ballast, the antidote to war, as well as being one of war’s first casualties. I also wanted to implicate my own writing in this situation: I wanted to acknowledge the fact that the war has provided “material” for my work, has given me an occupation.

Q: I’m so fascinated by “The Mongrelogues,” part two of Noose and Hook, which takes on this dog voice and an invented sort of dog language. How did you come to that voice? Was it difficult to allow yourself to write in a language that’s so far from standard English? And this section is so melancholy and plaintive, but also quite funny in places. Was that shift in tone something that happened by design as you were writing the book?

Inventing the idiom of the dog was one of the most troublesome, time-consuming, and anxiety-ridden tasks I’ve undertaken as a writer. I needed the idiom to register intelligence, a broad emotional range, and a life of underprivilege. The idiom had to be one that a reader could apprehend on the page without getting stuck trying to puzzle through the (largely) phonetic spelling; at the same time it had to be strange enough to represent a distinct and idiosyncratic character. Yet, in another way, the first draft of the idiom came quite naturally. Noose and Hook is the first book I’ve written in a number of years. There are several reasons the book was so slow in coming, including a burden of family and professional obligations. In any case, when I came to “The Mongrelogues” I was waking up from a dream to my own poems. My voice felt rusty. So, while I was not in a position to emulate the odes of Keats, I could whimper, whine, cry, and bark. And so I did.

Q: You write about teaching writing in the poem “I told my student Kimber Lester if you cannot actually write.“ I’m interested in how your teaching relates to your writing, both having been a student of yours and now as a teacher of writing myself. Do your teaching life and your writing life feel like they’re in tension? Or that they complement each other somehow?

Since you are teaching, I would suspect that you probably know the answer to that question which is that teaching and writing are both in tension with one another and complement one another. I suppose what I find most unsettling about the relationship between writing and teaching is that that relationship is never fixed. There have been times in my life when teaching has been a kind of writing, times when the boundary between what happened on the page and what happened in a seminar grew transparent. What I learned from my writing and what I learned from my teaching bled into each other. And there have been other times when teaching is a struggle and I experience it as an interruption of another kind of work. There are times when there is never enough time.

LYNN EMANUEL is the author of three previous poetry collections: Hotel Fiesta; The Dig; and Then, Suddenly—. Her work has been included in the Pushcart Prize anthology, Best American Poetry, and The Oxford Book of American Poetry. Emanuel is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Eric Matthieu King Award from the Academy of American Poets, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and a National Poetry Series Award. She is professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.