Interview by Jeffrey Peterson
Emily Stokes received her B.A. in English from Dickinson College and her M.F.A. in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has appeared in The Westchester Review, [PANK], The Monongahela Review, and The Dirty Napkin. A selection of her manuscript “What Happens in the End” was published in the 2012 Toadlily Press Quarto Series and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has served as a reader for LUMINA, Philadelphia Stories, and the NYC Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. She is currently teaching at the Community College of Philadelphia. Emily is the Managing Editor and a founding member of Madcap Review.
You recently finished a second degree, moved to Philadelphia, and gained employment teaching at a local college. Why add a literary magazine to your plate?
It’s true that teaching is an art, but my work as a college instructor is nothing like the creative work that I do on my own as both a reader and writer. Being part of the Madcap staff means that I get to maintain my ties with the literary world by promoting and interacting with talented voices. The act of writing is very solitary, which is why it’s so important for me to be part of a writing community; being an editor helps make sense of my own interests as a writer, and I get to take part in the excitement of discovering new work. So I guess it’s fairly equal parts selfish and selfless.
I like that we both came to Madcap for the same reason: to maintain ties to the literary world. I’m curious why you chose to maintain that connection as an editor and not only as a poet.
I’m always looking to expand what I’m capable of by trying new things and approaching an issue from a new vantage point. I also tend to be interested in how things work (How does a plane fly? What is the most perfect sound?), which is why I instinctively turned toward the position of managing editor. I wanted to learn how to get this plane to fly, so I could better understand the mechanics of beauty.
Since I love to hear personal definitions, how would you define beauty when it comes to poetry? What do you look for aesthetically in poetry? Do you want to have a gut reaction, or do you like poetry that makes you think?
I’m not sure what beauty is. I think that it requires some kind of connection, whether it’s a deep communication between people, with the natural world, or through a work that connects us with a part of ourselves. I tend to look for poetry that makes me feel as though there is a profound connection happening. It can be a somber connection or a joyous one; it can be packed with the familiar fractures of life or with all the sonic playfulness of a cocktail party. I know a good poem if I miss it like a friend when it’s over—or when I feel like the roof is suddenly gone and all the stars are out.
What’s your initial reaction upon reading the final line of a poem? Why is that your reaction and what do you think it says about you?
Final lines can do a lot of different things. I suppose there’s some kind of internal rhythmic agreement between the poet and reader that puts a certain degree of pressure on the last line. For example, a disproportionately wordy final line might be disappointing to me. As far as content goes, Roland Barthes wrote that the ending can either have the last word, be silent, or execute a total pirouette. As a reader, I tend to lean more toward silent endings and pirouettes.
Tell me about your influences and how they’ve changed you as a reader, writer, or editor.
Robert Frost and Maxine Kumin were my original doorways into poetry. From there, I found Sharon Olds, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Marie Howe, Yusef Komunyakaa, Matthea Harvey, Phil Levine, Kim Addonizio, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jim Harrison, Dean Young, Major Jackson, Jeff McDaniel, Terrance Hayes, S.E. Smith, Mary Ruefle. At a certain point, it feels almost impossible to be accurate. If we’re really looking for beginnings, I could say Goodnight Moon taught me everything I needed to know about poetry.
At a reading last year, Lorrie Moore joked that “One approaches revision with a cup of coffee, optimism, and a certain amount of dread.” How would you describe your own revision process?
My revision process is probably equal parts dread and excitement. Avoidance has actually worked really well for me. I generate work, and then avoid it for a while. The moment I wonder about a piece I’ve written (“I wonder whatever happened to that…”) is usually the moment that I’m able to look back on it with fresh eyes. My edits after I’ve forgotten about a piece and come back to it are always the strongest, and they tend to require less brain steam. Sometimes a line that I originally struggled with will suddenly snap into place because I’m less emotionally attached to what I think the line “should” be. Revision can feel like the Zen practice of letting go, and your work usually benefits from that idea the more you practice it.
What genre or type of reading affects your writing the most and why do you think that is?
I think writing that straddles genre categories is most interesting to me right now. For example, Eula Biss’ The Balloonists is part memoir, part lyrical essay, part epic poem. It has the overall effect of a quilt or collage that, when viewed as a whole, becomes greater than the sum of its parts. I also love Mary Robison’s work, which has a similar quality. She wrote her novel, Why Did I Ever, on a series of index cards, which resulted in this beautifully connected kaleidoscope of a narrative that felt, in parts, like an epic poem. Madeleine is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum uses a similar technique. In all three instances, these writers have created a work whose structure feels essentially “true to life.” Few things in our lives fit into neat categories; oftentimes, our experiences are fractured or loop back on themselves (like déjà vu), or lack a true sense of an ending.
Do you see your work taking on this collage format or do those works reinforce your current form?
I’ve been working on a longer piece that I’m hoping will have a similar “collage” effect. Right now, I’m not sure whether it’s more fiction or poetry, but it definitely has a narrative and recurring characters. The process of generating work for this particular project feels a bit like Robison’s index card technique (although mine are more often written on napkins, weekly planners, and post-its). It’s a piece that is definitely teaching me the value of writing at a natural pace. In M.F.A. programs or workshops, writers are often subjected to fairly rigorous “production” schedules, which don’t always leave time for the writing to grow more authentically. Of course, these schedules do help speed up the process of learning what works and what doesn’t (kind of like speed dating), but the lasting quality of a piece can’t be forced before it’s ready. In some ways, the authenticity of a piece seems to develop on its own with time.
A year removed from M.F.A. life, do you still believe the degree was right for you as an artist? Why? I agree that the constraint of the classroom creates a certain type of poet and poem, but I can also see the positives of that type of short-term constraint.
Yes, I would absolutely say my M.F.A. was good for me. It was a great way to experience an immediate feedback loop from my audience and from more established writers. It gave me time to understand what I was and what I wasn’t as a writer, and to make all the mistakes that a young clumsy writer might make, but with a community to help me bounce back in a new direction. For the first time, I was fully immersed in something that I loved, and I had the time and space to make writing the central focus in my life, which was priceless. More than anything, it expanded my concept of what a writer can do and be.
What’s your next goal, aside from the project you mentioned? Feel free to respond as a teacher, poet, reader, editor, or person.
Teaching at the college level can be kind of addictive for someone who wants to do his or her best. I’m constantly looking for ways to improve my course design, to find the best readings, and to generate new activities, assignments and discussions. I’m looking to educate beyond the simple rules of grammar, annotation, and essay structure; in some cases, this course is the first time students get the chance to read about issues like nature vs. nurture, the roots of violence, theories of oppression, symbolic annihilation in the media, sexism, and the importance of diversity. When they begin to understand the power and real-world application that ideas and words can have, they commit fully to being better writers, readers, and thinkers. My goal is to keep them interested, even when their lives outside the classroom are distracting, chaotic, and sometimes heartbreaking. I want them to feel secure and hopeful when they come to campus, and I want to be there as a figure of support to applaud them for every little victory. It sounds cheesy, but it really does make a huge difference to know someone’s on your team.
As much as I love teaching, I admit I’m looking forward to the extra time I’ll have this summer to read and work on my creative ventures. Aside from the piece I mentioned earlier, I’ve started a series of non-traditional love poems written in persona. I also sense that there’s a poem buried in some of the correspondences I have with friends, or in the things I overhear at bars, or waiting for me in parts of my master’s thesis. My goal this summer is to keep watering budding poems so that I can come back in the fall with a nice little window box.
Don’t want the interview to be over? Neither do we. Read Emily’s interview with [PANK] here.