Kierstin Bridger came to Lyric Essentials to discuss the work of Lynn Emanuel and really delivered. Here, we see deeply into Emanuel’s work as Bridger highlights her own discovery of Emanuel and the resulting love-affair with her poems. From Emanuel’s uniquely Western aesthetic to Bridger’s dawning understanding of persona, Bridger invites a deep-read and then goes further with an exemplary set of discussion points. And in there too, a 2018 Pandora as Bridger offers “permission to go astray.”
Black: Why did you select Lynn Emanuel? In our earlier emails, you spoke about her inventiveness and her language. Can you elaborate on these, too
Bridger: Lynn Emanuel is magic. She is all mood and slunk. The sound of her “k” is a clunk, a pistol set on a hardwood table. There is something decidedly western about her, an aesthetic she has been known to say evolved from noir, a “light and grime.”
She grew up in the city of my birth, Denver, Colorado which definitely has a grit and blue sky sensibility. Her poems elicit a racy and wry wit that jump starts my imagination, “I am so tired,” she writes in The Dig, “I could lie down among these trees. . . / and let the earth take one slow liberty / After another.” Oh God, don’t these lines just exude a perfectly sex-ragged cool with a subversively American tang?! When I grow up I want to be her.
I first discovered Lynn Emanuel in grad school. I remember reading Hotel Fiesta and The Dig, feeling so aligned with her character but not knowing it was a character. Meaning, I knew poets sometimes employed the use of a poetic mask i.e. “the speaker” but I also knew the persona of “speaker” was usually only inches from the author, an autobiographic self if you will.
I remember I flew through my copy of The Dig like it was some kind of hybrid, a memoir/thriller only to realize that the story was not her story. Lynn Emanuel did not grow up in Ely, Nevada. This was not a memoir disguised as a chapbook, this was invention! It was like a big flash of lightning struck. The thought occurred to me that she was giving me permission. I too could write, not just frame my own narrative with artful cuts and lens changes. She is like the Cindy Sherman of poets. In various collections, she embodies the reader, other humans, versions of herself and even dogs—“The Mongrelogues.” I love these lines from “Homage to Sharon Stone” from her 1999 collection Then Suddenly:
I have always wanted to be a car, even
though most of the time I have to be
the “I,” or the woman hanging wash;
I am a woman, one minute, then I am a man,
I am a carnival of Lynn Emanuels:
Lynn in the red dress; Lynn sulking
behind the big nose of my erection;
then I am the train pulling into the station
when what I would really love to be is
Gertrude Stein spying on Sharon Stone
at six in the morning.
In “Persona” she enters a dead man, makes the embodiment “meta”, then follows up by showing us how she enters “the other.” All the while she balances this without ever forgetting a poem’s musicality, the necessity of sensory details, and her fresh, vibrant language—“I throbbed in the big fog of his shirt.”
But it is her humor, her ability to render a poem, to make it turn the corners of a reader’s mouth in a smile while simultaneously leveling something devastating about death, about liminality or about the cycle of abuse.
She uses her mastery of the language in deft, subtle strokes. There is an intimacy with the reader, like she’s taking us behind the curtain to whisper secrets, secrets of craft, of language of humanity but then we close the book and realize she isn’t really there when only seconds ago she made us skip past time and space—I know I sound crazy, but her poems mesmerize me. She casts a very real spell. I have the distinct feeling she is listening hard to voices that are inaudible to the rest of us mortals. She is a conduit and a witness, and yet … and yet there is a master at work who diligently pushes and crafts her poems into multifaceted gems.
I was especially fascinated with the method she used for her latest book. The Nerve of it, New and Selected Poems. Shunning conventional chronology, she recast the poems and arranged them next to each other in harmony, she allowed one poem to “talk” to the next one. I admire her willingness to see the poems as finished works, objects so removed from her own life, or her publishing timeline that they could be arranged as a painter hangs work in a gallery, related by theme or image. I love how she can let go like that, let the poetic order reassemble into new meaning.
Kierstin Bridger Reads “The Book’s Speech”
Black: I think at one point when trying to decide, you said, “Pivot, Pivot, Pivot!” Tell us about your selection process? Why did you select these three poems?
Bridger: I think I was referring to my “monkey mind” jumping with possible poets to record and talk about. My brain is restless and it can hardly settle on any sort of favorite. Reading one poet leaps to another, one poem to another. Initially, I was worried that if I chose a friend or a former teacher, inevitably someone would feel left out. So I decided to trace all my favorites back to a source, not origin (as in lineage) but a creative source.
When I finally chose Lynn Emanuel I had a hard time choosing poems—I re-read dozens of them. I became transfixed again. She has a long piece called “The Politics of Narrative: Why I Am A Poet,” oh! I love it so. It’s long and funny and prose-like just as it’s dissing the prose form. The inherent irony and fun she must have had making it has made me a devoted reader forever.
Kierstin Bridger Reads “Flying Trout While Drunk”
Black: Let’s talk about Flying Trout while Drunk. What’s your take on this poem? What would you teach about this poem?
Bridger: The possibilities are endless! The swagger and tone of the piece stop my heart.
Here are a few starting points for lessons:
1. Character and Persona (If we read this poem as autobiography the poet would be four years old in 1953 so it must be said that this experience has been rendered with another lens, perhaps a compression or amalgamation that do not make it less “factual” ie. less accurate but, instead, more real and true in a deeper sense—(those buttons falling, can’t you just hear and see them? “buttons ticking like seeds spit on a plate.”)
2. Mood (noir sensibility. “Dark slung across the porch”)
3. Efficiency and spare, and precise language
4. Muscular verbs
5. Ridiculously fresh metaphor and simile—“a man of lechery so solid you could build a table on it” or “the trout with a belly white as my wrist”
6. The camera lens approach i.e. going long and tight in focus
7. Sensory details for beginners as well as practiced poets, (the bacon and the trout!)
8. How to approach mystery, i.e. how to intrigue reader without baffling the reader: We think we know where we are in this poem even though time telescopes and turns mobius because of her startling first line. She puts us smack dab in the middle of the scene. That her mother’s knees glowed in the green light was a memory imparted to the daughter as opposed to direct knowledge—so already the poem’s veracity is purposely off kilter. To ground us, the speaker puts herself in, gives us her first-hand account … suddenly we are dragged into the drama just as the child is drug into a drama which will become her own, a history that repeats, “When I drink I am too much like her.”
9. How to juggle time and space in ways fiction can’t do as well or efficiently.
10. The space a poet gives the reader to bring in our own understanding and experience, the essential work a reader must do to connect. In the last third of the poem, we are asked to find meaning, to fill in the blanks. For example, when I was in high school my drama teacher asked us to pantomime sneaking into the house while drunk. Many people overdid it, big pratfalls, and belches, loud steps, and exaggerated movements but the performance she liked best was the sneaky but slightly sloppy precision of the actor who tiptoed in. That last bit:
I have loved you all my life
she told him and it was true
in the same way that all her life
she drank, dedicated to the act itself,
she stood at this stove
and with the care of the very drunk
handed him the plate.
When I read those lines I am in that class, I am also in my house at seventeen sneaking in, at the same time I am imagining this mother intoxicated not just momentarily but chronically, thereby rendering her decisions clouded by the disease. I think of the people I have known like that, the trout from the first part of the poem, the smell, my own Colorado childhood … it’s incantatory, positively spellbinding.
Kierstin Bridger Reads “Persona”
Black: Do these connect to your own work in some way? And if so, how?
Bridger: My contemporary work often has a dark tone, especially when I write about growing up in the rural west. My poems yearn to be as spare and rich as Emanuel’s but I’m still working!
I’ve had fairly good luck with persona poems. My book, Demimonde, has lead me on many fine adventures since its publication. It has won a few awards and I have been able to reassemble my turn-of-the-century research of contraceptives, suicide, yellow journalism and medicinals into a few historical lectures and tours. The book concerns 19th-century prostitutes in small western mining towns. In researching it, I turned into a history nerd overnight.
When I began the book, I was in the midst of completing my thesis manuscript. I was overwhelmed by talking about myself so much in both my critical essay and in organizing poems that were incredibly personal. I needed a break.
A project about women who really did not have a voice, women who became, over the course of history, caricatures rather than characters became a bit of a side hustle for me. I was grateful for the permission my Pacific advisor Sandra Alcosser gave me. She encouraged me to dive in deep to the humanity and lives of these women. Sometimes we all need a strong dose of encouragement and permission to go astray.
The smaller project had no expectations or personal weight. It seemed to have a life of its own. Doing the research lead me to poets like Natasha Trethewey, and her book Belloq’s Ophelia. Though I deeply admired the way she wrote about prostitutes in Storyville, I knew my take on persona poems would have to look completely different—no letters for one thing.
I wanted to conjure women who were, by and large, illiterate. I began like most writers, writing about them using a narrator’s voice but the poems didn’t have a pulse until I changed perspective. I had to use persona in a first-person voice to make them come alive. I had to listen hard for their voice in the aspen and in the cool rivers near my home. It was a time of deep imagining but also a kind of enchantment. It revived me and turned into a book I love. My publisher, Lithic Press, did a gorgeous job with the presentation. We layered the poems with vellum printed antique photographs.
Black: What are you working on now?
Bridger: I’m excited about reinventing a project I’ve been working on for a while, a historical project that may turn into collaboration. I enjoy working with people. I recently completed a back and forth piece with Irish Poet Clodagh Beresford about a Colorado/Ireland donor eye transplant. We traded stanzas in a see-saw fashion. It was incredible. We did a Skype reading of it not too long ago—she was in Ireland while I was in my car in a parking lot outside of a hospital. Isn’t technology grand?
I’m always working on at least ten different projects at a time. I’m re-designing a house we want to buy, organizing the poets for our reading series, planning a trip, but in terms of my writing life? I feel I am finally at a place I can encounter my biography and push harder on what I once saw as periphery.
Perhaps I used to think “going deeper” meant getting more confessional, more in touch with how I felt as a child or a teen, exploring my culpability, or my adult perspective thrust upon a long ago occurrence, but recently I have discovered I need to ask more questions.
When I was sixteen, I was involved in a fatal car accident. It surfaces in my writing because, thirty years later, I still grapple with it, the survivor’s guilt, the loss of life and innocence, but in the wake of the “me too” movement, I’ve begun to question the circumstances of the life of the girl who died that night.
I want to get beyond my personal stake in the narrative and ask bigger questions. Why was she so estranged from her family? What were the circumstances around the intimate, on-and-off relationship she had with our much older boss? Why did we not question it at the time?
Sometimes I think I have a memoir in me and sometimes I can’t imagine the amount of plot and storyline that would require. Though I flirt and publish short-memoir and flash fiction, I can easily lose hours in a poem with 37 lines.
I ask myself, how would I possibly manage chapter after chapter of a full-blown memoir? Mary Karr did it, Patti Smith did it, Nick Flynn … the list goes on and on I say. In some ways, my full collection All Ember (Urban Farmhouse Press) was a memoir. But if I’ve learned nothing else from Lynn Emanuel, it is that time and practice reframe events with new understanding as well as new levels of artistic design.
Here in Telluride, literary burlesque has been a big annual event for the past 5 years at the Telluride Literary Festival. Every year I swear I’ll never do it again because of the time involved and the difficulty of shepherding extremely busy, really talented women together to rehearse. Every year it’s a different theme. Last year, it was my turn to direct a huge performance we called “Uncorseted.” We made unsung heroines of the world war era come alive. Our point of entry was “where did the suffragettes go? We became Margaret Sanger, Anna Akhmatova, Margaret (Molly) Brown, Inez Milholland Boissevain, Mata Hari, and Marie Marvingt. It was incredible. I may or may not have some ideas brewing about 2019! Wink.
Something brand new: I’ve taught in workshop settings, guest lectured and stoked the fires of a small literary community but I have never taught a full course at the University level. In January, I will begin teaching online poetry at Adams State University. Preparing curriculum, researching poems and poets is a rabbit hole I thoroughly enjoy exploring, even if I get lost sometimes. In fact, as I answer these questions, I am at the same time researching the perfect political poem to read at a talk I’m giving with our Colorado State Laureate, Joseph Hutchison.
I have noticed I rarely tread the same stone twice—endless combinations thrill me. My daughter came home recently and asked us to guess how many combinations existed in her upcoming class trip matrix. She said there were three trip options and twenty-three kids. Each trip needed at least seven kids. This kind of story problem usually gives me a headache and I tap out immediately but what I loved was the idea of calculations which could endeavor to account for all the possibilities, called combinatorics.
I think the continued conversation with my students and peers will open up paths I’ve never tread before. I rarely cook the same meal twice. I know I will never teach a class the same way twice, either. Reinventing the wheel is where it’s at. I’m eager to begin something new.
Lynn Emanuel has twice received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Emanuel also won the 1992 National Poetry Series for her book, The Dig. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, The American Poetry Review, Poetry, The Best American Poetry, Oxford American Poetry, and many more. Emanuel teaches at the University of Pittsburgh where she directs the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers’ Series which she also founded. Emanuel is the author of five books.
The good stuff:
Lynn Emanuel at the Poetry Foundation
Lynn Emanuel’s The Dig in Publisher’s Weekly
Lynn Emanuel’s The Nerve of It at Project MUSE
Lynn Emanuel at Ploughshares
Kierstin Bridger at Colorado Poet’s Center
Kierstin Bridger at Fruita Pulp
Kierstin Bridger’s Demimonde at Lithic Press
Kierstin Bridger is a Colorado writer. She is the author of two books: All Ember (Urban Farmhouse Press) and Demimonde (Lithic Press) which won the Women Writing The West’s 2017 WILLA Award for poetry. She is a winner of the Mark Fischer Poetry Prize, the 2015 ACC Writer’s Studio award, a silver Charter Oak Best Historical Award, and an Anne LaBastille Poetry Residency. Bridger was also short-listed for the Manchester Poetry Competition in the UK. She is editor of Ridgway Alley Poems, co-director of Open Bard Poetry Series, co-creator of the Podcast, Poetry Voice with Kierstin Bridger and Uche Ogbuji and director of the 2018 literary Burlesque at The Telluride Literary Festival. She earned her MFA at Pacific University.
Anna Black received her MFA at Arizona State University and her BA at Western Washington University. She has served as the editor-in-chief of the magazines Hayden’s Ferry Review and Inkspeak, and is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, the American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. Black has taught composition, creative writing, and/or publishing at Arizona State University, Western Washington University, Perryville Women’s Prison, and the National University of Singapore.