In this issue, we talk to poet Emily Dauer, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a wearer of many literary and theatrical hats. She tells us about how attention infuses her work as a poet, and gives us some indispensable poetry recommendations.
Hi Emily, thanks for making the time to do this interview!
Are you kidding, it’s my pleasure!
You’re a writer, and more specifically, a poet. Why poetry?
I don’t think one chooses to be a poet when they first start writing poetry. So many people I know, many of whom now don’t consider themselves writers, have written poetry of their own volition at one time or another. One either chooses to keep writing or to stop writing, but the poetic impulse isn’t a decision. It’s a tap on the shoulder of something very human and yet very mysterious.
I started writing when I was in middle school, wrote a lot of bad poetry pretty consistently throughout high school that I never shared with anyone until my senior year, didn’t study poetry in college but kept writing it, and one day realized that it was never just a hobby — I’d been serious about it this whole time. After that I never looked back. The way I see it, experiencing the urge to write poetry at all is a gift, and then it’s up to you whether to act on that impulse or not. I write in other genres as well, and like any other writing, it’s difficult work most of the time. Choosing to continue to practice poetry is my commitment to staying empathetic, staying humble, and staying receptive and curious. It’s an endeavor to be my best self, embrace my mind’s odd tendencies (we have a MIND!) and to listen carefully to others. It’s become essential to the way I interact with and exist in the world.
Our theme this month is attention. What does attention mean to you as a writer, and how does it inform your writing choices?
Attention is crucial to poetry! To me, attention/observation are among the main tasks of a poet. Often people think poetry is mainly about analyzing and expressing emotion. I’ve found emotion is often the byproduct of paying attention. To the world around you, to interactions between others, to the way your body feels in certain circumstances, to the way she looked at you in the bar, to politics and injustices, to all of the actions and reactions of the stuff of the world. Poetry is a way of seeing. It’s not finding the things that have meaning, but revealing the meaning in all things. It’s so similar to math, in a lot of ways. Math was discovered, not invented. There are some ordering principles to the universe which show themselves in many ways. Math is a language, just like Mandarin and French. We’re picking up on the threads that form our perceptible universe and trying to expose them, to share them, to make sense of them, to lean over to our neighbor and say, “Are you seeing this too? Are you feeling this too?”
We find each other in the details (Olivia Gatwood | TEDxABQ) | Source: © TEDx Talks/YouTube
Attention is also critical in learning from the poetry of others, especially in terms of social justice. Writers have to be readers: how else do you see from someone else’s eyes? How else do you learn that you are not the end all be all, that while your poetry may speak to universal experiences, your perspective on those experiences is a very narrow arrow slit in one stairwell of one tower of one castle, and there’s a war going on outside?
What sorts of things catch your attention in your poetry? Are there certain themes you find yourself returning to again and again?
A familiar object or image described in a way I’ve never heard it described before — that freshness of perception makes me make an audible sound when I come across it. Seeing the way someone sees something reveals their inkblots. I think the older I get the more I return to voice as the quality of a poem that I can’t get enough of. Why does one person’s writing have such a distinct texture to it? I took an entire class on Voice in grad school that was absolutely lovely and concluded with no conclusion. The fact that voice is (I’m doing the assuming, here) the summation of everything that author has ever read and experienced and liked and disliked up to the point of utterance, distilled into something so impossible to break down and yet singular as a fingerprint? That’s the real shit.
What constitutes “good” or “bad” poetry for you? Is it that simple?
You’re going to get a horrible answer: yes and no. I think thinking critically about poetry within the binary of “good” and “bad” is unproductive, because when you’re thinking in those terms, the only way to define either is “you just know it when you see it.” Also, “good” and “bad” are inherently value judgments within a moral framework, and you have to ask who’s doing the judging and building the frame. Yet we use this distinction all the time. They are easy terms to use among friends, a kind of conversational shorthand when you think the other person knows what you mean. I already fell into my own trap by saying I wrote a lot of bad poetry in high school! But in a very real way, in any writing, there’s a risk that you’re putting forth a position or a view that does harm, whether that oppresses, advances prejudices, perpetuates stereotypes, etc. The foundations of the Western poetic and literary traditions are built on an extremely narrow band of minds. For centuries, the only people whose poems were legitimized, published, and read were the only people society cared about: cis, straight, white, educated men. While not ignoring that some of these people wrote incredible and important works, that suppression by elimination of the majority of minds throughout history is staggering.
Even in the dynamic poetry landscape we have today, that narrow demographic still constitutes a majority of the voices that are taught when students first encounter poetry, which is disheartening because repeating one note over and over again turns a lot of people off from poetry, even more so if they can’t identify with that note. I think the call of poetry is to ascend bents and biases, even if it can’t be fully answered. That’s why attention is so necessary, especially in our time where more minds are finally getting a stage. Are you watching or are you seeing? Are you hearing or are you listening? Are you speaking where you should be making an opportunity for someone else to speak? Are you avoiding an opportunity to learn because it doesn’t fit into your narrative?
Brave New Voices 2018 – Words Not Walls | Source: Youth Speaks/YouTube
To address badness from a craft perspective for a moment: the reason cliches are cliche aren’t because they lack truth, but they do lack resonance. They’re placeholders for hard work: what did you actually want to say? I think there’s a certain amount of “so what” that echoes when someone encounters a “bad” poem. Even if a poem is technically flawless, it can still be unfelt. Even if a poem has a wild amount of imagination and wordplay, it can still be ungrounded. There tends to be telling instead of showing: an emptiness hidden inside an earnestness. The kicker is, there are always exceptions, especially at this time when poetry is everywhere and flourishing in so many cultures and circles and structures! The big instruments are getting scrambled, which is so exciting because that thing inside us that lights up when we read a good poem still lights up when we read a good poem unlike any poem we’ve ever seen before. Possibilities are opening up. There’s a fair deal of mystery and miracle on top of all the hard work that goes into good poems which someone smarter than me might be able to suss out, but as long as my internal barometer keeps pinging I think I’m okay. Keep writing, keep reading, keep paying attention to what’s going on within you and outside of you.
Do you have certain rules or constraints that you adhere to when you write? I’m thinking about the foundations of rhyme schemes, iambic pentameter, etc. that we get taught in high school. Do these concepts hold any sway in a real life poet’s mind?
Oh, they definitely hold sway, all of them, [though] the degree of which is different for every poet. With really smart poets, they’re using all sorts of poetic devices constantly without thinking about it, sometimes without being taught them. Constraints and forms differ from devices, in that they take understanding how the form works to employ it and then the conscious thought to choose to write within them — I don’t know anyone who wrote an entire, perfect villanelle by accident, for example, but then again I don’t know everyone. Regardless, there are so many poets who write in established forms. Form and inventiveness are in no way mutually exclusive!
The pleasure of poetic pattern – David Silverstein | Source: © TED-Ed/YouTube
I’m actually in the middle of putting more mazes up in my own writing, as I’ve been pretty fast and loose within my imagination for the last few years, dragging form behind me more often than not. Like I said, I have a lot of growing to do. One of my favorite poems I’ve written recently was one where I gave myself three constraints: each line had to be in pentameter (10 syllables), stand alone as a line (don’t just break it to serve the ten-syllable rule, really make sure that that line holds up), and be composed of quatrains (four line stanzas). To my limited knowledge, that’s not a traditional form, but it builds from existing forms, skills, and constraints. When my weirdness had a container, it was as if all the roots grew into each other. It went somewhere I didn’t intend to take it, and it was a joy to follow it.
Do you research your poems?
The open tabs on a poet’s web browser, taken together, are one poem. Poets look up the wildest shit. I’ll be looking up the etymology of the word “have,” find myself in the dictionary definition of “thimblerig” and end up in a Wikipedia hole for sex in space. For some, it’s research in the citation sense, the clear project sense. For others it’s less academic. Some poets are elbows deep in microfilm and physical archives, others are fixated on the language used on street signs. All of it comes from an innate curiosity, a reveling in the existence of these things as much as the why of it. Not all of it ends up in the poem in a recognizable format, but it all ends up in the poet, and it all contributes to what the poem and subsequent poems become.
Make us a short poetry syllabus. What should everyone be reading?
Oh buddy, how much space do I have?
A Timeshare by Margaret Ross Witch Wife by Kiki Petrosino Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay Shore Ordered Ocean by Dora Malech Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair Stay, Illusion by Lucie Brock-Broido Float by Anne Carson alphabet by Inger Christensen The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe (this is a play but it needs to be read)
Final question, and it’s a tough one — favorite poem?
Thank you so much for your time!