2016 Poetry Month: An Interview with Emily Skillings

Emily Skillings is the author of two chapbooks: Backchannel (Poor Claudia) and Linnaeus: The 26 Sexual Practices of Plants (No, Dear/ Small Anchor Press). Recent poems can be found/are forthcoming in Brooklyn Rail, BOMB, Hyperallergic, LitHub, Jubilat, Pleiades, Phantom Limb, Philadelphia Review of Books, and Washington Square. She lives in Brooklyn, where she is a member of the Belladonna* Collaborative, a feminist poetry collective and event series. She is an MFA candidate at Columbia University and runs the Earshot reading series with Allyson Paty.

Let's say you happen to overhear two poets talking about poetry. One of them asks the more well-read poet, "What stands out most about Emily Skillings' poetry?" What do you hope the responding poet notices about your work?

In the way many pleasures can also be nightmarish, the idea of overhearing what others are saying about me has always been a kind of horrific fantasy of mine. I learned how to read lips as a child when I became convinced that the other girls in my ballet class were talking about me as I danced, criticizing me. I'd look in the mirror, alternating glances between my own body (in order to correct it) and their mouths. Sometimes I convinced myself I'd made out a fragment of their cruelty and I'd take it around with me for the rest of the day. In this way my early dancing became fueled by criticism.

Your question is actually much nicer! I guess I would almost always be more interested in hearing from the less "well-read" poet in this scenario. A few people who are close to me have said my poems are musical, which surprised me since that's not something I pay attention to when I'm writing. I like the idea that this might happen naturally. I might like to overhear that my poetry melds different registers, or that it feels physical or tactile.

Last year in an interview I asked John Ashbery to name some promising young poets. You were one of five names that he mentioned. Has Mr. Ashbery been an influence on you?

John Ashbery's work is like this supportive mesh or nourishing mist that surrounds my poetry. It's more a way of connecting sensibility to practice than a concrete poem-to-poem influence. Influence feels too direct, too storied a word. His poems have taught me how to connect seemingly disparate art forms, dictions, images and tones but most importantly they have underscored the importance of creating your own logic(s) and allowing others an entryway into them. An Ashbery poem captures this process of the many translations between sensation, thought, connotation and spoken/written language. One thing about poetry that obsesses me is how it creates a space where you are being spoken to, however directly or indirectly, and John's poems have this feeling of direct/indirect address that captivates and opens possibilities. I'm so grateful for his poems. He's also been incredibly generous with younger poets, and that has influenced my desire to support other writers.

What are your primary interests outside of poetry? How do you integrate these interests into your poetry?

I was trained as a dancer and I try to see modern dance performances as much as possible. Some of my favorite contemporary choreographers include: Alexandra Beller, Kathy Westwater, Bebe Miller, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Sarah A.O. Rosner, Miguel Gutierrez and Netta Yerushalmy. The last time I performed it was with The Commons Choir, an interdisciplinary activist group led by choreographer Daria Faïn and architect Robert Kocik. Their work investigates and reinvigorates the idea and space of "the commons" through language, sound, and movement.

I miss dancing a lot, and I haven't been able to keep up with it since I've been in graduate school. When I was an aspiring professional dancer and performing I didn't have the energy to write poems well. Now I feel the opposite is the case. But having been a dancer has made me a better poet, as I feel I am able to access sensation, gravity, gesture and space in a heightened way. I've felt a little unwell since I've stopped dancing, so I plan to start again very soon. It's emotional for me to return to something after a long hiatus, to have to relearn and reconfigure my relationship to a form I once was comfortable and fluent in.

Teaching is new to me and so I've been interested in seeing myself in this new role. I've found it to be generative for my thinking and writing. It's also helping my anxiety, which is something I struggle with. I'm teaching a class on walking right now (another one of my interests) and its connection to writing, from Baudelaire, Benjamin and Walser to more contemporary flâneurs such as Renee Gladman, Lisa Robertson, and Teju Cole.

I love looking at art but I think all poets love looking at art.

Can you describe your writing process?

Not really other than its constant shifting. I have never been able to establish a routine in (in writing or in life--not to artificially separate the two) and so I'm constantly upending my own practices. Last night I wrote a poem in my internet browser bar because I wanted the challenge of not allowing myself to break the line or see much of what I'd already written.

I often give myself arbitrary constraints. I write a lot on my phone using the notes app (or record myself while walking) and then compose in bed. I'm embarrassed to say that I use twitter as a kind of early-stage drafting space.

I revise heavily as I'm writing, and so my revisions after the fact usually consist of very small edits or throwing the poem out entirely. This has been changing recently, though. I think I'm getting better at revising and reimagining work. It's always been the hardest part for me, I think because I'm afraid of losing an improvisatory quality.

What are at least three traits that generally make a great poet?

I don't think traits make a great poet. I don't know what makes a great poet. I think we've leaned away from preoccupations with greatness and this is a relief to me. I often become obsessed with things that are marked by what one might call "badness," that are sloppy or excessive or loud--art with leaks. There are incredible poets everywhere writing interesting work and poets who make work that is not so interesting to me. Some do both! Isn't it better this way? I'm constantly thankful and elated that a lot of poetry exists that I'm not into, it makes the field feel open and active, and also makes me reassess my priorities (unless this work is in any way misogynist, transphobic, racist or homophobic--then I'm both actively disinterested and wanting to work against that work to create spaces where that work can no longer thrive).

I do know that some of the poets I often respond to are some combination of misanthropic and extremely generous. They also might think of themselves as collectors, or perhaps they ask more questions of the world than they provide answers. Oh I think a lot of really great poets, to quote the incredible Dorothea Lasky, "say crazy shit all the time." But after going back to her poem I realize I've quoted her incorrectly, and that she, in her phrasing, suggests we may have stopped: "Poets should get back to saying crazy shit / All of the time." I think we should too.

You have written two chapbooks, Backchannel and Linneaus: the 26 Sexual Practices of Plants. Can your fans expect another chapbook or your first full-length book anytime soon?

I just finished putting together a draft of my first full-length collection of poems. It's called Fort Not.