Kristina Marie Darling: Your innovative and incisive book of poetry, THE REAL WORLD, just launched from BlazeVOX Books. What would you like readers to know before they delve into the work itself?
Emma Winsor Wood: I wrote this book when I was experiencing a block in my writing. I had always written lyric poems—but suddenly the lyric voice was neither coming naturally to me, nor feeling authentic. I would read a classically “beautiful” contemporary lyric poem, filled with similes and metaphors and those beautiful, traditionally “poetic” words like “lissome” or “velvet,” and I’d immediately start to classify the poem in terms of influences and techniques. The end result was that I wasn’t able to see the poem—much less feel or think through it—at all. So, I was feeling very jaded, I guess, toward the contemporary lyric because, instead of opening me up to the vast mystery that is the universe (or myself), it was actually closing me down, narrowing my focus to craft or technique.
To overcome that block, I needed to look outside of myself (the traditional lyric subject) for material—for language. So, I started thinking about where I could find other language and experiences that were not my own, and the most obvious answer was: television.
More context: at the time, we were living in a very isolated mountain home in California. We were half an hour from town, but really it felt like a world away—in the woods and up a mountain that could be pretty scary to navigate in the wrong conditions. We had friends but in kind of isolated pockets—not a strong or large community—and no kids yet, and so we watched a lot of television. We’d watch one show at a time, maybe one episode a day—or two, if it was a sitcom—then we’d sometimes binge it Friday or Saturday night.
Watching in this way, as part of our daily routine, made me feel impossibly close to the fictional characters and their fictional worlds. And it expanded my world, too. My world was no longer just my world—the trees, the fog, the dogs, the breakfast-lunch-dinner cycle—but their world too, the world of whatever television show we were watching at the time. Like all good art—a Rothko painting, a Tolstoy novel, certain Taylor Swift songs—it made life feel larger.
I think we’ve all experienced this total absorption in and identification with a show and its characters. And when you are watching these shows slowly, over the course of weeks or months, there really is a kind of doubling of your own world with the imaginary one. And a confusion between them, too. I remember once talking to a friend and being reminded of a funny story I wanted to share. I thought it was something another friend had told me recently. But as I started sharing it, I realized it was actually a scene from Friends—it’s that kind of closeness.
Experiences like that emphasize the fact that one’s own “real world” is also partly—perhaps even mostly—imaginary. Or it makes us ask, what is “real”? Is a scene from Friends any less real than an actual experience? Aren’t many of our memories/experiences invented or altered anyway?
The book’s title speaks to these questions as well. The Real World—the popular MTV show that launched in the 90’s—was the first piece of modern reality television. The “cast” of the real world was just a group of regular people, living in an apartment together, their everyday lives being taped 24/7. For them, the line between reality/television had entirely collapsed: their lives became television. And we watch those shows to see them “get real,” while also saying, “It’s not real”—you know, it’s scripted or they’re acting for publicity or, at the very least, they’re acting differently because they know the cameras are there. But, after a certain point, what’s the difference? Or—where else are they living and how is that other existence different and more real or genuine than the one on tv? There’s research to prove we act differently when we think people are watching—but that’s just as true if you’re walking around Target as if you’re being filmed in your own home.
And then, of course, all of this is closely connected to reading and writing—reading, like television, can open portals into other lives, which can seem more real, more important, more substantive, than your own. And to write from one’s life, about one’s life, as I had always done (and still do), is kind of like being on a reality tv show—both real, and not.
The bottom line is that instead of writing from myself, about myself, as I had always done, I began to write from, and about, some recent television shows we’d watched. These provided a starting point, and sometimes even a framework, for most of the poems in the book.
KMD: I admire the way that you apply the unique artistic resources of poetry to the task of cultural criticism. With that in mind, what do experimental poetic forms open up within critical discourses about culture? What can we achieve in poetry that might be more elusive in traditional scholarly forms?
EWW: I see experimental poetry as inherently political, even when it appears apolitical. Experimental works pretty universally subvert linguistic norms. More simply put, the experimental work is nonsense—it makes little “sense.” There are many different ways to make nonsense. One way is to remove words and phrases from their usual contexts, another is to invent language, or to use paradox or broken metaphors or unseeable images. And this “nonsense,” in turn, de-instrumentalizes the word. Words in the experimental work aren’t there to do things—to tell a story, to move you, to convey a clear moral. Maybe you can read a moral into them. Maybe you are sometimes moved. But that is on you, not the words. In short, experimental poetry, unlike more traditional scholarly forms, exist outside of the discourse—and so are inherently better positioned to critique it.
The other thing poetry can do is enact the issues it discusses. So, a book that’s critiquing, say, the fragmentation of time and attention as well as the general alienation new media creates would also create that in the reader. “The medium is the message” (Marshall McLuhan). Or, “Form is never more than an extension of content” (Robert Creeley).
KMD: Your poetry is as witty as it is erudite. In a world where poets tend to view intelligence and humor as mutually exclusive, this approach is refreshing. I’m reminded of my teacher, Paul Harding, and his assertion that in the best writing, the intelligence is in the humor. What advice do you have for writers who struggle to balance wit with seemingly serious subject matter?
EWW: I’ve always been the kind of person who finds herself the only one laughing in a silent room—which either means my sense of humor is unique, or that my prefrontal cortex is. But I think it’s partly that I laugh when I mean to cry—as Joni Mitchell sings, “Laughing and crying, you know it’s the same release” (itself a paraphrase of Montaigne’s phrase—“That we laugh and cry for the same thing”). And I think this idea is really at the heart of humor for me. You’re asking me for advice on how to balance wit or humor with serious subjects and yet I think we only find truly funny that which is also serious. Often, we are only honest when we are joking, or “joking.” My husband will poke fun at me, and I’ll say, “Aha! So that’s what you really think!” And he’ll say, “No, I’m only joking.” And he was. But also—he meant what he said.
Humor enables us to say what we mean and to get to the truth of things, however uncomfortable that truth may be. It’s dangerous to take anything—any idea, any position, any point of view too seriously. Seriousness is deadly to self-awareness. And what is worse than sententious, self-serious type? They aren’t open to anything outside themselves...
Anyway, as for advice—I’d say, read some aphorisms. And then, have fun. That’s maybe the best kept secret—it’s really fun to write funny. So, if you’re having fun, you know you’re going to make someone laugh. Even if that someone is only yourself.
KMD: THE REAL WORLD reads as a carefully crafted book-length sequence. Since the long poem form is traditionally dominated by male poets, and the specters of Pound, Eliot and Zukofsky loom large in the experimental tradition, can you speak to the importance of female voices in longform poetry?
EWW: In my mind, female voices dominate longform poetry—at least since the second half of the 20th century. From the Modernists, there was HD and Gertrude Stein, and then later—Muriel Rukeyser, Lyn Hejinian, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, Anne Carson, Susan Howe, Claudia Rankine, Juliana Spahr, CD Wright, Chelsey Minnis, Rachel Blau DuPlessix, and many others.
For me, however, the big division in the long poem is not so much gender as form: there’s the epic poem and the serial poem. The epic is the one most non-writers are familiar with—the unified work constructed from an ongoing, linear narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end. It aims to be not only whole and complete, but even exhaustive. By contrast, the lesser-known serial poem is a fragmentary work constructed from random, modular pieces, which could be recombined into any number of different configurations. The serial poem builds through accumulation and is at once potentially infinite and purposefully incomplete.
In my academic work, I’m thinking about the diary—another serial form that can also be described as fragmentary, random, modular—and toward your question about gender, I do see the serial poem as inherently feminine (in contrast to the masculine epic) in part because of its formal similarity to the diary.
The diary and the serial poem have another feature in common: they are both often made of “waste”—the diary, of the trivial “waste” of the day (dreams, the weather, fleeting thoughts, minor social interactions, etc), and the serial poem, likewise—linguistic “waste” of the day (snippets of overheard conversation, stolen language) as well as dreams, random memories, ideas, etc. This is exemplified in Susan Howe’s collage poems, which are actually “written”/created out of clippings from historical texts, and Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons—poems written about the trivial things no one before even considered writing about: roast beef, a seltzer bottle, rhubarb. In this way, the serial poem is linked to a poetics of thrift and of domesticity that goes back to Emily Dickinson and her envelope poems.
I think we tend to think of poems as domestic when they explore the quotidian, but they can be formally domestic as well. And I see the poems in The Real World as very much participating in this tradition of thrift and domesticity. After all, they are partially constructed from discarded/disregarded language (some lines are even inspired from actual spam emails I received) and also from the time I “wasted” watching television.
KMD: I’ve long admired your work with Stone Soup. Can you speak to the importance of empowering young writers? What has your work as a gatekeeper opened up within your own creative practice?
EWW: Thank you! It’s a wonderful job. For those who aren’t familiar with the magazine, we publish writing and art by young writers, aged thirteen and under.
There is something really magical about that age range. Once kids hit twelve or thirteen, some kind of switch flips: they become much more self-conscious about their work and much more conventional as a result—they start worrying about making sense! And some kids are just prodigies, and they do write really incredible, really realistic and sensical stories or poems or memoirs. But there’s a certain submission we get, across all genres, that has a uniquely electric energy—it tends to have a kind of gonzo plot, if it’s a story, or be darkly funny, if it’s poem, and it’s incredibly playful and inventive with language and ideas... and it could only be written by a child.
Here are a couple of poems by Benjamin Ding, 9, which we published. They are two of my absolute favorite poems of all time:
I am going to tell you
a really long story . . .
Money money money
Money money money
Money money money
Why don’t we forget
about buying money
with our own money
and live life instead?
I think about “Money” probably twice a week...
When I start feeling cynical about life or poetry or anything really, reading for Stone Soup is always like a cold glass of water in the face—snap out of it!
And to speak the other part of your question—about empowering young writers—I myself didn’t really “own” the title of writer until I was about 23 or 24 even though I’d loved writing and wanted to be a writer my whole life. Getting published in Stone Soup is really validating for young writers and helps them “own” that title much earlier—maybe even as early as eight or nine. And this, we hope, gives them the confidence and affirmation they need to take their work seriously, even though they’re young. As all writers know, you really need that confidence to pursue any kind of art in the face of everything that’s working against you-—parental and cultural expectations, familial obligations, your own desire for a certain standard of living—as you grow up.
KMD: What else are you working on? What can readers look forward to?
EWW: The Real World is actually my third poetry manuscript. The first is for the desk drawer. But the second, “Preferred Internal Landscape,” a book of poems that partly explores the artifice of seemingly natural environments, has been making the rounds at contests, in various forms, for five years now. It’s in kind of “always a bridesmaid” territory—having been named a finalist eleven, or maybe even twelve, times at this point! Even though Real World will always have been published first, I consider “Preferred Internal Landscape” my actual first book, and I’m hopeful it will find its home soon.
Otherwise, I’m working on a hybrid poetry/memoir manuscript that I’ve titled “depressed text” on my computer. Its “North star” text, is one of my favorite books, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, which I read as a simply brilliant, and brilliantly accurate, writing of political depression—that is, a depression that is not personal and private but political and shared. Rankine’s political depression emerges from the anger and anxiety of being Black in the US. In my manuscript, which mostly explores the experience of postpartum depression, this depression comes from being a mother in the US, a country that at once puts the mother on an impossible pedestal (she is everything!) and also totally disregards and ignores her (she is nothing).from-The-Real-World.docx-Emma-Winsor-Wood