“Too hurt by the light not to write about it”: a conversation with Emily Skaja

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The Sillerman First Book Prize closes today! To celebrate, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson talks with emerging writers about the book publication process. This week, award-winning poet (and future winner of the Pulitzer) Emily Skaja talks to her best friend and one-time roommate about Lucie Brock-Broido, how sending out your unsolicited manuscript is almost exactly like sexting, and whether or not the void can be said to GAF.

Dear Emily: Can you tell me about your first book? What's it about? What does it do?

Hello, dear one! Oh, thank you for asking. Brute is the title of my first book. It's largely autobiographical, & it's obsessed with renderings of female history, grief & loss, the surreal unreliability of memory, the effort of reclaiming an independent identity after trauma, & the way power roles gender violence. As a student of feminist thought, I'm interested in how a lived experience gets tangled up with patriarchal patterns of thralldom & control. In my own experience, it was easier to name domestic violence from the other side than to recognize it as it was happening. That's why, in a lot of the poems, the speaker repeats the elements of this history back to herself, to make sense of it & to give it a narrative order.

Do you ever feel uncomfortable about the term "autobiographical"? I only ask because I write largely autobiographical poetry and am wigged out by the way the term feels gendered to me sometimes, though I think I do use poetry the way Frank Bidart says he uses it–to think his life.  

Yes, I do feel like it's taboo to admit you're writing about your own life. Maybe that's what everyone else is doing too, except there's the sense that THEY at least have the decorum not to admit it. As if it's dirty, somehow, or low-brow. It strikes me as just another patriarchal anxiety about how to control what women are allowed to say. When a woman says "autobiography," I have noticed that there is a hard science/soft science stigma about it, as if women should aspire to write about the world not as themselves but only as if they are disembodied eyes & hands tethered to a human self as an afterthought, by a 100-foot string or something. Who cares? What must it be like to assume that what I say is not informed by my experiences? I'll never know, since I'm not an old white dude, & thus have no objective self. (What a tragic loss. Daily, I weep into my hands. I can't even get out of bed for want of a poetry phallus.) Also– & I don't mean to say this is true for everyone– it feels like there is an escape hatch in silence & ambiguity. For me, it feels braver to say, even if I'm telling it slant, this was my fucking life.

Dear Emily: Why do you think you're a poet? (I think I am a poet because of Li-Young Lee, and because you told me I was one)

The stakes have changed a lot over time, but I think it always seemed like a good art form for someone who was obsessive & emotional & had a record to set straight. What is restless in me now is different from what was restless in me at 19, but the people I knew in college (you, for example) made me believe in poetry as transcendent & redemptive & elemental, right at a time when I was figuring out who I was & what kind of community I could belong to. Also probably because Lucie Brock-Broido wrote the poem "Moving On in the Dark Like Loaded Boats at Night, Though There Is No Course, There Is Boundlessness."

I remember you loving that poem really hard, and there's certainly an affinity between your speaker's use of language and LBB's–there's a sense that language serves the world-building of the poem, and of the speaker, as she constructs and deconstructs the self. There's something interesting that happens in "Moving on", when the speaker is confronted by her father's inert body, she turns to her own, and watches it (or makes it?) become inert, too, but covered in images that transform it. And there's this kind of orienting toward the other, that watchfulness, knowing now that death is inevitable, and being bent on being a vessel for another's death–or something. And the book is itself a weird embodiment of Emily Dickinson. I don't actually know that I understand it, but I love, as always, how LBB gets to a new space using that gorgeous language. When I was 19, the line "Every night I am the same brilliant fluke / Rising from my bed like a cut- // Throat trout listening for Trick" — something about that experience of loneliness and embodiment and listening felt distinctly a part of female embodiment to me. What about "Moving on" do you think spoke to you so much?

Same, same! I love it for all of those reasons. Oh, to be 21 in that red apartment we shared where all the doorways came off the same little landing by the stairs & to yell at you from my doorway "Why would died once keep on dying off / over & over like a seam in an old velvet coat" & for you to yell back from your doorway "Didn't we have summer to cross?" I have heavy nostalgia, especially in fall, for coming up with you as heady young things too hurt by the light not to write about it. This poem, & all of The Master Letters also, is steeped in that time for me. There's an intoxicating witchiness in the language that I'm drawn to, & the violent shifts between desire & grief are breathtaking. I love the way the speaker in The Master Letters casts herself in surreal narratives, reordering & retelling her history to position & reposition herself against a shifting occult landscape that's like a gothic swamp pulling her into estrangement. That book is haunting.

Anyone else, besides LBB, who is part of your personal canon? Anyone you return to again and again?

I just read a book for Rebecca Lindenberg's manuscript class at the University of Cincinnati that I think will stay with me a long time: Inger Christensen's Alphabet. If I say "it's a list of things that exist," that doesn't really explain why it's so emotional, so you'll just have to trust me. The book is both uplifting & devastating, & it has such a lilting, elegiac quality to it. Here's an excerpt: 

"where like a bit of fire the insects' wingless
Nike exists, neither victory nor
defeat, just the solace of nothing;
the solace of names, that nothing has
a name, namelessness has a name"


What comes after Brute?

I don't know yet, but I've been walking around all radioactive with the world glowing sharply at me in contrasts so I can tell that there is something new waiting to develop. It's a good feeling. It could be anything.

Do you think our lives are very different or about what we'd thought they'd be when we were 21?

Oh, Schmid. How could we have predicted this? We were such little muffins then. Actually, I'm glad we didn't know, because at the time, if I remember, we didn't have the strength for a lot of bullshit, & we are now entering a high bullshit period. We are the poets of a high bullshit era. Bullshit is raining down on all sides. & at 21 we were like Harry Potter on the brink of wizardhood, wielding a wand with no spells, riding the Hogwarts Express toward our Obama years. We didn't even have a Patronus yet. We didn't know.

Do you have a submissions strategy?

I tend to submit constantly because I believe in maintaining a conversation with the void, even when all evidence might indicate that the void DGAF. I don't believe in waiting for permission & I recommend going for the moon, although I do think it helps to have a poetry friend to whom you can text "The moon is a piece of shit" when the wound is fresh. Recently, I have started to send out my book for the first time, which feels exciting & also a little like sending someone an unsolicited dick pic. Like, does that ever work out for anyone?? Stay tuned for details, I guess.



Emily Skaja grew up next to a cemetery in northern Illinois. Her poems have been published by Best New Poets, Blackbird, Black Warrior Review, Devil's Lake, Gulf Coast, and other journals. She was the winner of The Russell Prize for emerging poets, an Academy of American Poets College Prize, an AWP Intro Award, and the 2015 Gulf Coast Poetry Prize. Emily is the Associate Poetry Editor of Southern Indiana Review. She lives in Ohio, where she is a PhD student in Poetry at the University of Cincinnati.