When language takes over it is the most incredible relief: A Conversation with Emily Simon about In Many Ways – curated by Tiffany Troy

Emily Simon is a writer and teacher living in New York City. She is the author of In Many Ways (Winter Editions, 2023), and the chapbook Reign is Over (Choo Choo Press, 2021). Her poems have appeared in The Quarterless Review, The Florida Review, Salt Hill, Some Kind of Opening, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Writing Program in poetry.

At once a log of pandemic life in New York City and a meditation on selfhood, memory, and language, Emily Simon’s first book is a lyrical and timely experiment in prose fragments.

In Many Ways describes a self in process, at odds, and enthralled, in search of the origins of her unsatisfiable pursuit of meaning. The writerly drive to fix the fleeting moment comes up against a contradictory impulse to escape—through writing—the binds of formal codes and conventions. Simon’s shifts and disjunctions map the unsteady flow of pandemic time, observing the clash of interior experience with the social world.

Tiffany Troy: How do you set up the beginning to introduce your readers to In Many Ways?

I immediately noticed the flow of time–time then and time now–the idea of the writer as a creative artist with purpose and without aim as setting up the expectations of this as a collection of vignettes/ thoughts that flow.

Emily Simon: The idea of then versus now arrives first in the book, at least to me, as a reference to the pandemic. But after that, as the narrative progresses and starts making a mess, that sense of a “before” or a “then,” of a distinct past, becomes complicated. The past enters so often into the imagination of the speaker, the same way she (Emily, “I”) notices changes in the weather, bits of dialogue, traffic etc in the present tense. So there isn’t exactly a flow, but maybe instead a kind of happily disoriented continuum. I wanted to take up time not only as a subject, but as a kind of tool or plaything.

TT: I am so interested in the idea of time as a tool, especially in the way in which you juxtapose and connect different scenes that introduces us to new insights. Speaking of time, can you describe the process of writing this collection? I, for one, definitely felt the influence of the pandemic—with the masking referenced in the pandemic. You also quote Nuar Alsadir on pages 60-61, “How can the I of a poem–also a chain of metonymic displacements–maintain the same multiplicity as you, resist adopting a fiction of a singular voice, have the intimate quality of a notebook without intimate content, become the position or mouthpiece through which the world, rather than an individual speaks.” Do you think in some ways your collection–which features for me a uniform, singular voice–speaks of the world by looking at the Subway, the shootings through the speaker’s identity as a young woman, a high school teacher, etc.?

ES: Well, I struggle to describe it. You’ve said collection, others have said novella... book works great for me. That struggle to describe what this thing is definitely reflects the writing process, which involved lots of patchworking, meandering, turns of mind, and real, lived experience. Matvei was an incredible editor, who helped this book find its strange cohesion in the end.

I’ve fallen in love with the fragment since I started writing this book, and have grown my appreciation for literature that expands our thinking about genre. I find myself turning more towards diaries, short fiction, spiritual texts, self-help, and poetry that estranges itself from formal conventions.

Can you say more about how for you, the book features a uniform, singular voice? I’m curious about that!

TT: Yes, so for me, I thought the fragments in the book cohere through this brilliant mind called “Emily,” who introduces us to and expands upon ideas like “shame,” for instance, before pivoting to other ideas.

ES: The speaker in this book is definitely a mind at work or in process. In some ways this Emily is me, telling about my real lived experience, those I love, what I’ve seen, what I imagine; it’s also a construction, a suppose an Emily, who takes up different formal strategies and experiments to construct a self. The speaker, I think, is always expanding, and pivoting again and again.

 How did you organize the vignettes into its current order/ iteration in the book? According to a review by Gavin Francis in The Guardian, when Maggie Nelson wrote Bluets, the “fragments are arranged neither chronologically nor thematically, but according to a poetic, bittersweet logic of their own.” Nelson says she has shuffled them around “countless times.” Do you find new insights in associating the different themes of the collection together?

ES: I love the idea that a fragmented text might actually assert a more emotional logic, against conventional narrative sense, chronological, or even automated processes. It disrupts the expectation that a narrative should be productive in a certain way—of story, plot, of a beginning, middle, and end. I also shuffled my fragments around, in printed form on the floor of my apartment.

TT: Definitely! In some ways, your work represent real life more closely, as life doesn’t always break down “neatly.” As a poet, how does the prose form inform your collection? You write mostly using prose blocks. But there are moments too that you deviate from that form, as in page 50-51, when you create a list, (perhaps drawing from your career as a high school teacher). How does the variation in the form allow you to look at syntax/ grammar in a new way?

ES: I want prose to be the most capacious form possible. I studied poetry, and I might be too precious about it as a result. It’s possible that I’m bullying prose now to make room for my mess; for serious play, which I talk about in the book. When I stopped worrying about line breaks and I stopped thinking “poem” altogether, I began having more fun. I entered the work with more confidence, and the sentence felt much more connected to my voice.

TT: Do you have any closing thoughts for your readers of the world?

ES: I’m working on another project now, similarly fragmented, which builds on the idea of “serious play.” It started as a meditation on lying down, but somehow that fell away or folded into this other idea. It feels like I’m writing a fable, in fragments. I’ve always been attracted to aphorism, but hopefully I’m finding a way to engage that mode and loosen it up too.

Tiffany Troy is author of Dominus (BlazeVOX [books]) and co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert /El próximo desierto (forthcoming, Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the 4W International Women Collective Translation Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is Managing Editor at Tupelo Quarterly and Book Review Co-Editor at The Los Angeles Review.