Interview with Claudia Emerson

Susannah Mintz

BPR 40 | 2013

Excerpt (full interview available in Birmingham Poetry Review number 40)

Mintz

Your work is clearly situated in particular places, in a rural way of life that holds fast to traditions even when the tug of that legacy threatens an individual's ability to choose a different course; as Sister says in Pinion, "I was spoken for / long before I was born" (53). What does that cultural geography mean to your sense of yourself as an artist? Do you consider yourself a Southern writer, or is that designation too limiting?

Emerson

I suppose I have represented the southern landscape of my childhood and early adulthood as limiting because it was, for me, extremely limiting in every sense of the word. And perhaps because, as an empathetic person and emerging artist, I felt trapped there in southside Virginia, I became extremely sensitive to the ways others were trapped there as well. Of course, farming, working the land, ties people to it. While that's not a bad thing, it's defining — and people live lives more vulnerable to and dependent on weather — rainfall, hail, drought — conditions most of us see as cause for an umbrella or not.

As for the designation, I accept it because we are all of a place, even when we claim to be living the "life of the mind," as though we might live outside of the influence of a geography and a culture, even when that influence is sometimes negative. I was born in 1957 and came into consciousness in a small town still completely segregated, sexist, with power structures completely uninterested in change. While I might not take on the political tensions and problems head on in my work, I was certainly influenced by those cultural realities — and have been drawn again and again to try and unravel the complicated interweavings of place and consciousness.

Mintz

Much of your work exhibits a tension between disappearance and the enduring presence of the past. The snake in the cutlery drawer in "Natural History Exhibits," for example (from Late Wife), leaves nothing of itself behind, and of course many poems are peopled by those who have left or died. But these same poems are fascinated by the artifacts of those lives: a spearpoint, an old ring, a birth certificate, a quilt. Can you tell us more about your relationship to history?

Emerson

History is always a function of the present, whether a shared, cultural history or a personal one. Museums are filled with objects, artifacts that imply the narrative of a life, give evidence of the work or joy of a life — and most of us collect the stuff of our own museums, in attics and cellars, the objects that become catalysts for memory, for narrative. My attention to such detail probably comes in part because my father absolutely loved old things — and had an acute and accurate sense of what things would be valuable in the future. I spent many Saturdays as a child accompanying my father as he sought out farm auctions; I couldn't have known that I was witnessing the end of the small family farm, but he knew — and was training me to have that kind of eye.

Mintz

Would you say that your poetry tries to resist the passing of time, or is it, particularly when the forms are quite spare on the page, itself a kind of trace, an ephemeral vestige of former experiences and emotions?

Emerson

I am extremely aware of the passing of time, sometimes too aware! I have long thought that the urge people have to photograph and video every experience is borne of that anxiety to stop time and somehow save it, or "capture" it as though it were a wild animal. My lens happens to be language, the highly ordered language of poetry. It's a slow exposure, though, and a poem can take anywhere from days to years for me to bring it to its finest clarity. My forms have indeed been quite spare but can also become quite language-rich, with long dense lines. This could change, I know — but I sometimes find that the more personal and the more extreme the emotional subject or context, the more spare the form I choose, to distill the emotion, perhaps, and certainly to restrain what could so easily be overwritten.

Mintz

Your poems often feature haunting images of the body, especially bodies somehow infiltrated or injured: x-rays, Civil War photographs, daguerreotypes of the dead, Audubon's drawings of dissected birds, tattoo ink, cancer, the jawbone of a deer. Is your fascination with the porousness of bodies, their vulnerability to being scrutinized? Or is it perhaps the peculiar artistry that can be discovered even in sites of violence and decay?

Emerson

I am indeed fascinated by the body and its various beauties and vulnerabilities. As a poet drawn to a variety of forms, the form of the body seems something both set and unreliable, mysterious — and so our methods of understanding the body seem worth scrutiny — from x-rays that attempt to capture the inner workings of the body, to anatomical models designed to educate, to poems.