The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Emily Abendroth about prison work, political poetry, and research in creative writing in her book ]exclosures[ from Ahsahta Press.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Thelma: Who is Sedakial? I couldn’t find anything online except one guy. A minor Q for sure …
Emily: Sedakial is a real person, who I know, who lives in Philadelphia, but the line that gets attributed to him is a conglomeration—not really his.
Thom Ingram: This is not your normal book of poetry. Not in shape, content, or design. Could you talk about how you built/designed it?
Brian S: I’m interested in the form of these poems as much as the content—the multiple ways we can read the front page and then the shift in tone on the back page. Can you talk a little about how you came to that form, and what it helped you discover as you wrote these poems?
Thelma: All of this, yes.
Rebecca: I don’t have a question yet, but let me say that ]Exclosures[ was the political WTF America book I never knew I needed till I was reading it (I’m still reading it; I have a few poems left). I tweeted that earlier today, and it’s still true.
Thelma: I felt the same way. Keeps good company with The Cloud Corporation and The Network.
Brian S: That’s good company to be in.
Thelma: Nice picks all, Brian!
Emily: I’m gonna combine Thom’s and Brian’s questions a bit. I worked on this piece across about 3-4 years, and the form of the Exclosures changed a good deal across that time. The visual aspect mattered a good deal to me, and the sound structure, and I kept changing their surface to build that density.
Rebecca: By “visual aspect” do you mean the long lines and the brackets, or something else?
Thelma: I wondered if you’re an artist as well as a poet, Emily? I loved the statement from Escobar that “Art is the prolongation of life by other means.”
Emily: To Brian’s question—in earlier phases, the poems weren’t so strongly split across the two pages, but it was like I needed both a simultaneously free-er space and some constraints to try to achieve a certain kind of density.
Rebecca: I love the brackets. There’s an aspect of choose your own adventure, yes, but I think there’s also something even more personal there, too—the words or phrases that are thrown in there seem to personally relate to your struggles. Would you say that’s fair?
Emily: Also wanted to say that Jena Osman’s work has meant a great deal to me across the years and I read it avidly—so The Network comparison is hugely flattering.
Brian S: The first person I saw do that with brackets was Douglas Kearney, whose work I adore. Similar effect—makes multiple readings necessary.
Rebecca: Emily, I really liked that there was such contrast between the pages, but often times I wondered if there was a specific way I should or could read the second page that would help my reading of the poem. Is there anything that you’d say would help?
Ooh. Now I have a huge bunch of new things to read!
Emily: I love what brackets can do in terms of indicating that something is both a concrete detail, and important in its specificity—but also to a certain degree interchangeable across different lives and contexts. That you’re trying to make sense of something in your own surroundings and existence, but also that the obstacle could both easily be and are often otherwise.
Thelma: I meant to add Brenda Hillman’s last book in there, too. Editors are always going on about books needing to be necessary. I think all of those are (though I get tired of hearing that word sometimes).
Rebecca: I like that idea of brackets. There were some that didn’t so much apply to me, but I could understand them. I think the personal aspect that came to mind was in “Exclosure ]21[“–the line about “[those seeking an agent].” I thought oh, yes, I get this—and I’m sure the poet speaks from experience there, too. But in a lot of the poems, the brackets represented the struggling we are all doing as a country, or at least that’s what I was thinking.
Emily: I’ve actually never sought an agent! Though certainly the spectrum and context is familiar of that. What I wanted to show in that list was range.
Brian S: Could you talk some about the decision to make this an overtly political book?
Rebecca: Ooh. Yes. Yes, Brian.
Thelma: Your book reminded me of the ol’ IWW motto—”building a new society within the shell of the old.” Something that allows us to be vulnerable yet wary enough to avoid being imprisoned.
Brian S: Quoting the Wobblies!
Emily: And I guess to speak to Brian’s question within that—to place a politics to that landscape, as much as to those other locations which we more readily and immediately read as political—since much more overtly ‘compromised’ or ‘forced’.
Thelma: Brian, they’re still in existence. I joined in my 20s though I didn’t keep it up. Probably should have, though.
Emily: My own existence outside poetry is deeply meeted in anti-prison work and so often that organizing has to necessarily be directed at immediate response to acute conditions. In some ways for me, working on this piece was a way to think through some of those dynamics and devastations—to actually feel through their consequences—without having to move to coherent action in reply as I would have to in that other context. I hope that makes sense as a more extended response to your question, Brian.
Brian S: Absolutely. How closely did you work with Ahsahta to get the book to look the way you wanted it to?
Emily: Ahsahta was an amazing press to work with on this book. Janet Holmes was really responsive and created a page space broad enough to fit the long lines (which someone else mentioned) and which somehow really matter to me in the look of their breathlessness. A kind of crowded sensation but with enough white space around them to still breathe.
Brian S: I love that press. I make sure to do at least one book a year with them. I have a couple of go-to’s—they’re one.
Emily: They also let me select the cover artist—Amze Emmons—whose prints and artwork I really admire. Which to speak to Thom’s question of far back, I used to do visual art, but don’t so much any more—but paying attention to that world really helps to open up my own thinking frequently. And I love Escobar as much as a writer and thinker as painter.
Thelma: Yes, it was nice to read wide that way. I kept imagining a more conventional presentation and how it would have undermined much of your wordplay, or at least made it less apparent. Which was something I greatly admired.
Rebecca: This is definitely a case of needing space to have these lines—crowding them (and the brackets) into a book that was less of a square would have harmed the poems, I think.
Emily: That’s great to know that it had a reader effect like that. There’s always the thing you have in mind but you’re not totally sure if it translates in the same ways it grounds for you (re: the long lines, etc.)
Rebecca: I love the cover so much—and I’m impressed that you could request artwork. I’ve heard of other presses that are really stubborn and refuse to let the writer have any say.
Thelma: Yes, me too. That fingerprint suggestion in the cover art is perfect.
Brian S: So you said this book took you about 4 years to complete, right? Can you talk a little about the way it evolved over that time?
Thelma: Can you speak a little about your life before this book? How did you come to prison work and writing?
Emily: To speak to Thelma’s question, I think I came to and still come to writing as a sounding board—and I mean that in both senses. As a way not just to record experience, but to be or to have one, to investigate one’s habitus. What’s that Oppen line: “There are things we live among and to see them is to know ourselves.” I think of it as a way of seeing more deeply. And a lot of my writing processes involve extensive research work, even if all of that doesn’t necessarily make it to the page in usual ways.
Thelma: An Elvis Costello lyric comes to mind: “Who put these fingerprints on my imagination?”
Emily: That’s a lovely lyric. In terms of the piece’s evolution, I wrote 3 or 4 of the pieces for a journal that used to exist here in Philadelphia called “Never on Time” But they looked totally different and there was a lot I wasn’t satisfied with about them. And there was something in them that begged for multiplication/series/more, so that each individual one could take on a certain angle or valence or gesture in, but not have any feel of claiming or attempting to be the only take—and something else would occur in the accumulation that resulted in a very different kind of more complex portrait of power dynamics on the most intimate and global scales.
Brian S: Speaking of similar subject matter, have you read Jill McDonough’s Habeas Corpus? It seems more apt than ever with the botched execution in Oklahoma.
Thelma: Thank you for the answer. The research is apparent without seeming at all heavy-handed, which is tough to pull off, I think. Brian, is that a book of poems?
Brian S: It is. It’s a collection of sonnets in the voices of people who’ve been executed in the US (or the colonies—the first one is from 1620 or something) or from people surrounding the event. They often use found language—incredible amount of research went into them, which reminds me of this book in another way.
Emily: I haven’t read it either. I’ll definitely look for it in the coming weeks.
Thelma: Thanks—Imahafta check it out.
Brian S: Are you working on a new project now?
Emily: I am. I’m working on this extended poetic essay that looks at both historical and contemporary examples of surveillance, as well as strategies of resistance to those tactics. It’s currently tentatively titled: Microfiche/Microfilch/Micromanage/Microfeign.
Brian S: That’s a hell of a title.
Emily: Although that new piece is much more prose-like in shape, it always takes a lot of poetic liberties and flights. And I think what I learned from Exclosures—since it was the longest single series I’d ever written before—was something about learning how to maximize cross-resonances and echoes. Which, of course, I’m still trying to learn over and over.
Thelma: I get an image of the eyes and ears on QE1’s dress (re: your next book).
Brian S: Did you have a darling of these poems? A section that you’re the most proud of?
Also, everyone else, feel free to point out your favorite sections of the book here.
Rebecca: My favorite so far is “Exclosure ]14[.” That’s the one about the Wall Street Journal reporting that “many workers are not fully participating in the economy’s gains.” UGH UGH UGH. I had a lot of rage just reading the first two lines of that poem—and thank you for researching and coming across that report in order to write a poem about it—and I felt like the tone of the poem matched my rage. It was a beautiful poem about a disgusting thing in American culture: privilege.
Brian S: Rebecca grabbed it before I could, so my second is Exclosure 12. It’s the way it knocks against the way we distract ourselves with nonsense that disguises itself as information that gets me.
Emily: I don’t know if I have a darling in that sense. I did feel a sense of relief and clarity when I put the final 3 pieces in their sequence—and the one that is last I knew from the outset was the last (that I wanted to punctuate it on what else could be built, what space was nonetheless available and already being attended to in the midst of so much constraint and violence and lack of self-determination.) There are also certain ones that I really like to read aloud because of the tough, chewy work they force the tongue to do.
Brian S: Ah. Which ones are those? That you like to read aloud?
Thelma: The dialogue with your poet friend was great—her questions and your answers to them.
Brian S: And will you be reading anywhere outside of Philly?
Thelma: Yes, she will, Brian. Watch this book win some major awards. (You heard it here first!)
Emily: Thanks so much for all the thoughtful, rich feedback. It means a lot really to know that the piece finds resonance in other bodies—as it was so much written to try to be in collaboration with, and not in isolation from, others. I’m gonna be doing two readings in San Francisco through the Poetry Center, not this weekend, but next Friday and Saturday.
Brian S: I am jealous of the people of San Francisco. I loved living there when I did. But I can afford Des Moines a lot easier.
Thelma: Wonderful. Wish I lived closer to the city. Brian, what are the moines of Des Moines?
Brian S: It means “monks.” Though there’s a local t-shirt shop that’s made a killing off a shirt that reads “Des Moines is French for The Moines.”
Emily: That’s an amazing reality of commerce there! There used to be this T-shirt for Worchester, Massachusetts—that also made a killing (in a small sense)—by labeling Worchester as “the Paris of the 80s”.
Brian S: There’s also a French winery named “Chateau des Moines,” which I only know because the shop where I used to work carries it. It’s a decent enough Bordeaux for $18.
Who are you reading these days?
Thelma: Emily, here’s a last and really tiny question. On p. 28 the final line is “bowling for jowls,” which totally mystified me. What did I miss? But answer Brian first.
Rebecca: Oh, oops. I meant to say I loved #12, too. The lines about being already broken really, really resonated for me. I wrote “yes yes yes” in the margins.
Emily: I’ve been reading Catherine Taylor’s gorgeous book from Ugly Duckling, Apart, on race relations both here and in South Africa and her own complicated (both complicit and resistant) relations in them. And also Amar Ravva’s American Canyon. I highly recommend both of them.
Thelma: “Retinal detonal”—one of the best rhymes ever.
Emily: Thelma, I’m glad those phrasings stood out for you. I was going to say earlier that Exclosure 13 is one of my favorite to read aloud. It’s sparer than most—but I really tried to condense the sound play into these very tight nuggets.
Brian S: Thanks for joining us tonight Emily, and for writing such a fascinating book.
Emily: Thanks for sharing your own feedback and thoughtful questions and for being interested in the work.