The Answers Usually Come from Somewhere Unexpected: An Interview with Emma Winsor Wood

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“By serendipity alone, I am contacting you with a business suggestion,” begins Emma Winsor Wood’s debut poetry collection, The Real World (BlazeVOX Books, 2022). The opening poem, entitled “Cold Call,” is the collection’s only standalone in a set of serial poems, and articulates a wry ars poetica for the remainder of the book: “We are currently looking to fill a vacancy/To go after the emotional jugular.” Named after things seen on TV, the poems in The Real World consider the self a function of what it consumes. As in the eponymous reality show, “authenticity” isn’t a virtue, but a stylistic choice.

Wood’s poems consider the way every “I” is composed of aesthetic devices. “I am a glamorous yet impertinent heroine,” a speaker croons in “Commercial Break,” applying the language of a Hollywood-era film to her life (or the poem of her life). “I am a businesswoman dealing with gold exportation.” The poems in The Real World are not ekphrastic, not derivatives of TV series, but rather poems that churn through a literary, artistic, and ultimately commercial landscape—seeking true sentiment, and coming up with “precious personal effects.” In watching television, the poems learn to watch (and write) themselves. “Do you think I’m a bitch, too?” another poem asks, reassuring its reader: “It’s okay if you do.”

A poet and essayist from New York City, Wood is the translator of A Failed Performance: Short Plays & Scenes by Daniil Kharms (Plays Inverse, 2018). She has an AB in Russian History & Literature from Harvard, an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently a PhD candidate in Literature at the University of California Santa Cruz.

I first met Emma Winsor Wood in graduate school and recently spoke with her via Zoom about her new collection. We talked about life-ruining art, broken metaphors, The Show About The Show, and reading poems as the portals they are.

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The Rumpus: My first question is very generic: How did these emails start? Whoops, I mean poems—how did these poems start?

Emma Winsor Wood: I think it’s funny you called them “emails” at first because some of the language in the book comes from actual spam emails I received. The best spam is such an interesting mix of disarming intimacy and politeness so extreme it’s closer to gallantry. It’s written in English that’s maybe been sent through a translator, so feels just a little bit “off,” a bit foreign—which is just the best thing to encounter when you’re a poet: writing that makes your native language feel foreign to you. In the book, I especially tried to emulate the “spam” model of writing in the sequence “The Real World,” but it’s really at the foundation of what I’m trying to do throughout. Prior to this book, I had been mostly writing lyric poems—mostly confessional ones—from myself and my own experience. But suddenly, I felt like I couldn’t write, or even really read, a contemporary lyric poem anymore. This was when BLM [Black Lives Matter] was really starting to grow, and I’d attended a few demonstrations and been doing more reading, and suddenly, it was, like, well, who cares about my experience? Another part of the problem was that whenever I read contemporary lyric poetry, I was very in my head about it. I’d read a poem and think, Oh, I see so-and-so’s influence here. Or: I see this “move,” this technique. It was like I was looking at a poem and just seeing it as a poem, instead of as a portal, which is what a good poem should be: it should transport you in some way.

Where did all of this leave me? Where could I write from, if not from myself? What could I even write about? I felt like I had reached a dead end, and that I needed to reach outside of myself for language.

The answers to these questions came, as they usually do, from somewhere unexpected. At the time, we were living in a pretty geographically isolated place. We had also been watching a lot of shows, and I was feeling guilty about watching TV instead of writing or reading more. I realized (total lightbulb moment) that here was my language and my subject: I could write from the shows, and about them—within their worlds. That freed me to look elsewhere, too. Some of the language and metaphors in the book are inspired by TV shows, some come from emails and other sources—catalog copy, tourist pamphlets, and the like.

Rumpus: In this collection, these poems seem especially interested in exposing themselves, or exposing everything that goes on behind the scenes of the “I” pronoun: “I am an escapist illusion on a branch.” What are your thoughts about the first-person pronoun in poetry?

Wood: When I was at Harvard as an undergraduate, I was only writing in the first person. When I had Jorie Graham as a teacher [recently interviewed in The Rumpus], she told me to write poems with no “I” in them. I remember thinking, I don’t even know how to do that. But Jorie Graham had told me to do it, so of course, I was going to do it. What came out were these poems about emptiness and about empty objects (empty hands, empty dress, etc.) They were okay poems but, looking back, I think, “Wow, without this ‘I,’ there was just…emptiness. A vacuum.”

After that, I just leaned into the first-person pronoun and to the confessional mode. The more I leaned into the first-person pronoun, the more I saw it was not personal. As I wrote a poem, the “I,” initially “me,” got away from me—the speaker became her own person/a.

I was still writing about and from my experiences, but over time, I started to feel really stuck in the “confessional mode” and the “lyric mode,” and frustrated within the limits of them. I was stuck and frustrated in myself, as a person, too. This book is my attempt to escape—like, get me out of here!

Maybe The Real World is more of a cry for help in this schizophrenic digital age we’re all living in. Like, where am I?

I mean, think of the Zoom room: You can have this perfect-looking background and yet everything “off screen” (often mere inches away from the screen!) is a mess. That’s the perfect metaphor for what the digital world has done to us: online, almost everyone presents this perfect, polished, unified, and (let’s face it) fake image. Offline, we’re these incoherent, fragmented beings—and ironically increasingly incoherent and fragmented because of those online lives, and because of our many devices. As we’re talking, I have in front of me: my phone out just in case I get a call, my laptop where we’re Zooming, my desktop computer where I’ve pulled up a digital version of my book for reference, and the baby monitor. It’s no wonder I often feel “scattered” when I am literally scattering my attention like this!

I guess that’s partly what I mean by the title, The Real World. These poems are real, not built from the fiction of a unified, coherent self, not written in the ivory tower, with, you know, the “top-shelf” language.

The ultimate irony is that this book could have been written in response to Jorie’s directive all those years ago: three of the sequences in the book have no “I,” and the other three are polyvocal. It makes sense. Like the poems I wrote in college, these poems are also about emptiness. At the heart of the book is this notion that there is no heart to this virtual reality we’re living in. There is no “there” there, no “I” there. It’s smoke and mirrors. In the book, like in reality, there’s a confusion between reality and virtual reality—our lives are so influenced by/fragmented by technology at this point—and it asks the question, is there a “there” anywhere? Is there a “me”? Or am I just an avatar? Do I have an actual voice, or am I just text bubbles on a screen?

Rumpus: There’s the actual “real world” we’re in. Then there’s the TV show The Real World. There’s the book The Real World, too. And the book is super skeptical of its own representational apparati. There’s the line: “With its wires cut, a piano is just piano-shaped.” Do you feel like authenticity—particularly authenticity in art—is at stake here?

Wood: Yes! I’m fascinated by authenticity in art and in general. What does it mean to be authentic, particularly when there are fixed tropes and markers of authenticity in language?

I am a huge fan of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-part novel My Struggle. I think of it, in some ways, as The Real World (TV show) of literature. The sixth book was particularly interesting to me because he writes about the writing, editing, and publishing of the first book in the series, and then about the impact it had on his life—most notably the strain it put on his relationship with his now ex-wife, Linda. They got divorced pretty much as a direct result of how he portrayed their relationship in his books. So, the “fiction” (well, autofiction) changed his reality.

A similar example is Caveh Zahedi’s The Show About the Show, which is a show about the making of the very show he’s making: every episode is about the making of the previous episode. But making the show—which entailed filming his wife, his kids, his friends, his employees, etc.—ended up destroying his life: it led to his divorce, he lost friends. And then his wife refused to be in the show, and refused to let him film their kids too, so he had to cast actors to play his family. So, again, the art—which is aimed at being wholly “authentic” and “real”—altered his actual life, and then those changes to his life ended up altering the art—and actually making it less authentic.

It’s a reminder that authenticity in art can be very personally destructive. I’m a very honest and candid person in real life, and I’ve always been the same in my writing, but it’s difficult because you can’t be honest without hurting people. This question of authenticity is really central to my life and to my art: How can I be authentic in my life—and my art—without injuring those around me? That’s partly what I was thinking about with this book: is there another kind of “reality” or authenticity I can access in my writing—one that doesn’t begin from the facts of my life?

I had this discussion with a friend who had some questions about a few lines. She was like, “I really don’t understand what you are getting at when you write that ‘the sky is a nosy librarian’ and ‘feelings are solid gold toilet seats.’” The book is full of these kinds of “broken” metaphors in the book. I see the incoherence of these metaphors as one way the book is “real.” These metaphors actually more closely represent reality because, in their incoherence, they capture the mysterious incommunicability of the actual world. A more traditional poetic metaphor, like “the sky is a blue velvet scarf,” can simplify, or prettify, or reduce reality by making what should be illegible legible and small.

Rumpus: Authenticity is an aesthetic affect that many people go to great lengths to accomplish. Even in The Real World (the TV show), there’s a lot of work behind the scenes to make it look like there isn’t a camera crew there. Is this what made those My Struggle books so addictive to so many? Because many readers recognized themselves and their own emotionally charged daily banality?

Wood: Totally. It makes me think of the “Reality vs. Instagram” trend. It’s like . . . but you’re posting it to Instagram! So, what is the reality behind the “Instagram reality”? And then, is the “Instagram reality” staged? Like, maybe your home actually is always super clean but you messed it up to seem more “relatable” and “real”?

Rumpus: Your title poem contains all these illusions to emotion. But a lot of these references are sort of oblique or clinical. What do you think about emotion in poems and in this book?

Wood: When I started reading poetry, I wanted a poem to evoke an emotion in me, and my measure of a great poem was how strongly it evoked an emotion in me. If a poem could make me cry, stare moodily out of the car window, etc., it was a great poem. But I have a more nuanced relationship with poetry now. I don’t just want to feel things, I also want to think (imagine that, hah!) and then I also want to encounter things that aren’t easily translated into emotion or thought. Emotion is a kind of understanding, and so of simplification as well. I was trying to write a poem that did not allow for that kind of straightforward translation or reduction.

There’s definitely an avoidance of emotion in the book, which dovetails with the slippery speaker. How does one generate emotion, without a stable speaker and a “poetic shorthand”—stable and legible metaphors, language? I think, too, [that] in many ways this is a book about depression, and the emptiness and numbness that comes along with that.

Rumpus: Some of the poems in The Real World are sequenced to invoke seriality, like “The Killing,” which has episodes, and “Saturday Cartoons,” which has seasons. Other poems in this collection are serial in the sense that they’re really episodic. What are your thoughts about long poems and why did you choose to write serially in this collection?

Wood: I’m a serial writer—in the sense that I’ll find a form and stick with it until what I’m writing isn’t good anymore. I have a fear of not knowing where to start, and the serial poem gives me a place to begin. In this manuscript in particular, the serial form also enables a formal openness you don’t find, again, in more conventional lyric poems. When you have a single poem, on the craft level, you often get the kind of ceremonious opening and then the “click shut” ending, both techniques I was trying to slip out of here.

Rumpus: There are very abrupt line breaks, sometimes mid-line. On one hand, there’s a continuity in the seriality, but are there arbitrary breaks mid-line? Wood: Yes, in “Saturday Cartoons” and “Westworld.” In those, with the abrupt mid-line, sometimes mid-word line breaks, I was trying to capture a mechanical sort of feeling—the feeling of someone so depressed and detached from reality that their actual thoughts and speech are breaking down, have broken. At the same time, it’s another example of the breakdown of poetic boundaries that I’m performing across the book.

Rumpus: I had to laugh a lot in this book. Are you trying to be funny?

Wood: Yes, it’s absolutely meant to be funny, and I had way too much fun writing it. Maybe the poems don’t have the “click shut” closed endings, but some definitely have punchlines, so it’s not quite escaping these generic forms. But, yes, like so many of the other elements we’ve already discussed, humor is another way I’m pushing against the “capital-S” Seriousness that’s so prevalent in poetry and can be so draining.

Rumpus: Close to humor is aphorism. There are so many poems that are explicitly aphoristic, or they have the tone of aphorism, as if they’re all-knowing and wise, and yet they’re not. Do you have any thoughts on aphorism and wisdom in poetry?

Wood: I’m having a lot of fun with the aphorism here.

In a way, aphorisms are really central to poetry—so many poems (many I love—this is not a quality judgment!) are built of images and a couple of good aphoristic statements in between. They provide a kind of resting place; they feel formally “legible” and accessible even when they are not easily so, simply because they tend to take the form of simpler declarative sentences. And, of course, they are “quotable.”

If you go to a poetry reading, the aphoristic moments are usually where the audience lets out a collective “hmmm” or “ahhh”—almost before the poet has finished the sentence. They don’t even need to hear or understand what’s been said. It’s like the syntactical cadence is enough.

So, yes, I’m definitely playing with the trope of the all-knowing, wise poet, and with the reader/audience too in doing so. I am a huge fan of Jenny Holzer, and she’s definitely in the background here. At the same time, I’m interested in the wisdom of the serious aphorism, but also the wisdom that can be stumbled upon when you are making “joke” aphorisms. Like, “Feelings are solid gold toilet seats.” On the one hand, it’s like, what the fuck? But then also—the more you think about it, the more it makes sense.

 

 

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Author photo courtesy of author


Patty Nash's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in jubilat, West Branch, DIAGRAM, Sixth Finch, and elsewhere. She lives in Berlin. More from this author →