Interview: Sally Delehant & Emily Pettit
Named after former professional basketball player and humanitarian extraordinaire Dikembe Mutombo, Dikembe Press is a newish micro-press out of Portland, Oregon and Lincoln, Nebraska that publishes things, most recently Matthew Rohrer’s poetry chapbook A Ship Loaded With Sequins Has Gone Down and Emily Pettit’s poetry chapbook Because You Can Have This Idea About Being Afraid Of Something. In celebration of the latter title, the poet Sally Delehant—author of the collection A Real Time of It (The Cultural Society, 2012)—recently conducted an interview with Emily P. to discuss Because You Can Have This Idea About Being Afraid Of Something and Emily’s notions regarding anxiety, the definition of the word “conundrum,” dollhouse furniture and the artwork of Bianca Stone (which is featured throughout Because You Can Have This Idea About Being Afraid Of Something).
Word is bond.
Sally Delehant: The title of the chapbook begins with the word “because” which positions the reader to assume a “why” question floats in the background of the text. I’m wondering what you think that question might be? Does it have to do with why we curl up to a specific person or part of our world? Or is the title perhaps an answer to the big question hanging above all of us — “Why write a poem?” Someone smarter than I am said in a poetry workshop once that on a basic level a poem works out or goes deeper into some kind of anxiety. Something is either resolved or agitated more. Do you agree? Do these poems work like that?
Emily Pettit: I think there are a number of questions that lead to this “because” and two questions in particular. One is — why are we behaving this way? The other is — why are we feeling this way? Two rather general seeming questions, until they are connected to specific ideas and feelings encountered in the poems. The question — why write a poem? — is a question and is a question that I can see these poems pointing people towards thinking about.
In response to your mention of poems being ways that one might work through or with anxiety, I think poems are often working in this way, being asked to work in this way. In regards to my poems, I’m hesitant to use the word “anxiety” because I feel like I use that word all the time in conversations I have with other people and myself and that its meaning is not containing what I want it to communicate. Or various things the word “anxiety” communicates, I worry negate or dim the things in poems that I’m looking for as a reader and looking to make happen as a writer. A friend recently shared with me the following Borges line, “The metaphysicians of Talon are not looking for truth, nor even an approximation of it; they are after a kind of amazement.” In poems I am looking for amazement rather than truth or an approximation of truth. For me amazement might be experienced through encountering two words, the juxtaposition of which make music to my ear or a striking image to my eye. I am looking to be amazed by a feeling that arises when I encounter the ideas, images and music that I encounter in poems. Why I write poems is to find these things that I am also looking for as reader. Anxiety is everywhere, but something I love about poems is that a poem is a place where I do not need to name anxiety, should I not want to. Naming things can give things power or an agency of sorts and the effects of naming things can be good or bad depending on too many factors for me to list here. Poems are a place where I feel I have control over what my brain and heart give agency to. And to a certain extent I have control over the effects this agency has. I have not found many places outside of writing where I get to experience this sort of control. In the poems in this chapbook there are ideas about anxiety and ideas about ideas about anxiety, but they are existing alongside often adamant ideas that anxiety can be controlled and sometimes productively ignored and denied. What it is taking me a long time to say is, I like how my imagination deals with anxiety more than the way other parts of me deal with it.
SD: In the first poem in Because You Can Have This Idea About Being Afraid Of Something you write, “I freak out, freak out, freak out, / with a quiet mouth,” and as I trace the freak out through the poem (and chapbook) there seems to be tension between doing/being what one naturally does/is and what one could/should do and be if that makes sense. You can wear a nametag that says Emily or rabbit and in another sense be the “best refrigerator ever” as well as many other things. What I’m clumsily getting around to on this sleepy, Sunday afternoon is that I think part of our humanity tells us we should should should be a certain way and we fear we might be “the most ridiculous person (we) know” as you write later. The most beautiful and comforting thing we can hear is that we are good dogs. The speaker “wants to be a good animal.” She wants to let us know that we “are exactly where we are supposed to be.”
Are there things that make you think you aren’t where you are supposed to be? Without being intrusive I want to ask you one thing that scares you, and then I promise we can talk about the beautiful drawings in the book which I am curious about too. What is a thing you are afraid of, Emily?
EP: I’m afraid me talking about fear outside of poems is like encountering a black hole. A hall of mirrors. My brain is exhausting in this way. I’m afraid that outside of my poems I fail to be funny about fear in the way that I want to be. I like that in poems I can feel funny about fear. I think anxiety and fear are absolutely linked. I have never encountered a definition of anxiety that does not use the word fear as a part of that definition. I like that when I’m dealing with fear in my poems, while writing poems, I do not feel anxious. Or if I am feeling something that could be defined as anxiety or fear, I’m not aware of it, or not naming it.
I think the thing that both my poems and my answer to your first question point to is a fear of both the presence and absence of control. It’s a conundrum. And I say conundrum, because I don’t think of a conundrum as hopeless. I like how in language with one word, conundrum, you can communicate a subject and a tone. For example, if you had asked me “What is a thing you are afraid of?” versus “What is a thing you are afraid of, Emily?”, to me the first question feels much less scary than the second question. Naming me has given me a louder agency, more loudly bonding me to whatever answer I answer. One word. A word. A name. For me to explore fear or ideas of fear in a poem is a place that I am not as afraid of exploration. Exploration feels not just possible but exciting. In conversation and in prose (like writing this now) I have trouble with this exploration; I feel accountable to ideas leading to resolutions of sorts, resolutions that very possibly do not exist. Resolutions of logic that are not expected in poems. Or are not expected by me in relationship to what I think of as a poem. I’m afraid of many things. I’m very appreciative of a poem being a place where I can have some control over my fears and how they feel to my brain and my heart and my body. I’m very appreciative for getting to write poems and read the poems of others for the ways in which this engagement allows me to escape my fears.
SD: Thank you for talking about these things. The poem does remove the expectation of such controlled language, and the items on the agenda are often play and exploration. I love that. There is no one to call us by name or to name anything that we don’t want to give power. I didn’t mean to frighten you by calling you your name. I mean I did a little — like I hid in that paragraph and jumped out from behind the corner at the end of the hallway, but I was smiling when I did it and hoped it would make us laugh afterward. Interviews are a little scary. I’m glad that you are not asking me questions right now.
I would like to talk about Bianca Stone’s drawings in the book. I think they are great and enhance the experience of the poems. My favorite is the last one — the heart rising with the sun and all the small pieces of furniture. I’m thinking throughout about the incongruity between things that are alive and can feel and things that are objects — things we make. The giraffes cannot sit in those chairs, the birds are perched on the stove taking the cake when no one is home. That fork is too small for anyone except perhaps a doll. I begin to think of the poems as dollhouses where we create the rooms and choose who gets to play inside them or what has agency as you say. Will you say things about the drawings? What do they do?
EP: I love these drawings. I am always eager to encounter Bianca Stone’s work. Her drawings. Her poems. Her poetry comics. I love that Bianca’s drawings carry to my eye a range of emotions and ideas. I see humor in her work. Her work can be dire. There is realism. There is magic. There are investigations of the gruesome. There are celebrations of exploration. There is often an important focus on women. Women as individuals. Women with others. Women at work and play and in love and in conflict. There is a sense of compassion for people in Bianca’s drawings and I think this sense of compassion is possible because of the conflagration of tones that appear in the drawings. A human is not one tone. A human has many tones.
Bianca and I have a shared love of miniatures. I think a number of the drawings in the chapbook began with Bianca sketching dollhouse furniture. A few of the drawings look to be based on miniatures I have had since I was a little girl. I like thinking about the poems as dollhouses. I like poems and dollhouses for the same reason — they are both creative spaces where as you said — we create the rooms and choose who gets to play inside them or what has agency. As a child curating dollhouse rooms was where I felt enormous agency. I would arrange and rearrange the same small rooms that made up the dollhouse I had. I think one of the reasons dollhouses can forever be a valuable object for play and work is a result of all the unusual agency they provide. Average dollhouse scale provides agency to any human old enough to pick up and put down a small object with some sense of purpose. Dollhouse furniture is very useful when wanting to create still lifes that might contain objects that one does not have access to or one does not have the ability to move or arrange. It feels pretty wonderful sometimes to do something as simple as put a chair in a room with a giraffe. One can do that in a poem or a drawing or a dollhouse.
SD: Did you guys work together while you were writing the chapbook, or did you give it to her after you were finished writing and say, “Now draw”? Will you talk about working with an illustrator/visual artist a bit or maybe about artistic collaboration?
EP: The collaboration went something like, “Please draw.” Once I knew the chapbook was going to be published, I asked Dikembe Press if they would be open to the idea of the chapbook containing drawings by Bianca Stone in addition to the poems. Dikembe Press responded with great enthusiasm and encouragement. I then asked Bianca if she would be willing to draw drawings for the chapbook and she responded with great enthusiasm and generosity. I then sent the poems to Bianca. Perhaps I told her a date I would need the drawings by, but I don’t know anymore. All I know is that she sent me back these fantastic drawings and then I sent them to Dikembe Press with some instructions as to which drawing corresponded with which poem. I suppose this collaboration was possible despite relatively little communication because of an enormous amount of trust. Trust that I think probably comes from a combination of my friendship with Bianca and my love, admiration, and understanding of her work. I knew that she knows me and my work well enough to know ways to work with my work. To work with my work without me needing to tell her how to work with my work. At the time that this chapbook was solicited I was feeling very publishing shy. Including Bianca’s drawings in the chapbook made me feel braver about the poems and the idea of the poems being published in a chapbook. I was afraid of many things and Bianca’s drawings made me not afraid. I think this is one of the best things that can happen when we collaborate — working with people can give you the courage to make things and do things and know things.
SD: That’s lovely. Since we began our correspondence, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the poem from which the chapbook takes its title. You write, “Part of our tradition is a fascination with simple systems. Disruptive emotion, it’s disruptive.” I love these lines so much and can’t help but think about how they can apply to poetry. There are simple systems in poems — rhyme, meter, syllables and line breaks — all these ways we try to contain or organize or make some kind of sense of interacting with the world. It seems to me that when I feel things in poems, the simple system was broken in some way. Something happened that I didn’t expect, and now I have to deal with how that makes me feel. The poem ends, “To determine nothing and move forward.” Will you talk about disruption in poems? Or maybe about moving forward in a poem (or in life) without having drawn conclusions?
EP: Encountering disruptions in poems, similar to encountering them in life results in various reactions. Sometimes disruptions are needed to get somewhere good or important. Other times disruptions remove you from where you want to be or prevent you from going where you want to go. In poems and in life, encountering disruptions or moving forward without having drawn conclusions, happens all the time and will continue to happen for the rest of time. Moving gracefully and compassionately in the face of these disruptions and the unknown, can be incredibly difficult. Art is a reminder that we are not alone in these movements and I think art provides courage and good ideas in relationship to these movements.
SD: What is something you’ve read lately that you love?
EP: Bianca Stone’s forthcoming book, Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, from Tin House/Octopus is a book that I have spent time with recently and am in love with. I’ve also been spending time with Luke Bloomfield’s forthcoming book from Factory Hollow Press, Russian Novels, and am so excited for other people to soon know this book. My Life’s Work by Guy Pettit is an extraordinary chapbook that came out earlier this summer and that I couldn’t recommend more highly.
Emily Pettit is the author of Goat in the Snow (Birds LLC, 2012). She is an editor for notnostrums and Factory Hollow Press, as well as the publisher of jubilat. She teaches poetry at Flying Object.
Sally Delehant is a graduate of St. Mary’s College of California’s MFA program. Some of her work can be found in Calaveras, Columbia Poetry Review, Catch Up: Emerging Writers Issue, Phantom Limb, and iO: A Journal of New American Poetry. Her first book of poems, A Real Time of It, was published by The Cultural Society in summer 2012. She lives in Chicago.