Sunday, January 24, 2010

Jared White interviews Emily Kendal Frey

Jared White: Often times your poems seem to employ a kind of dream logic, either literally inhabiting a dream or making imaginative leaps between striking images. Right now your facebook status even describes a dream you had last night. Do you think of your poetry as primarily surreal, or dream-based? Do details in your poems come from the “no place” of the imagination more than lived experience, readings, overheard language, etc.?

Emily Kendal Frey:
Lived experience tends to fill in where dreams leave off. Am I asking for too much if I say I'd like to inhabit both? For me they are the same thing. I wouldn't describe my poetry as "surreal," though, because that would imply an interchange or armwrestle with the "real" -- a jig or a dance to one side. A towel snap at the ass of time, moving in one distinct direction. My interior landscape is much more sloth-like; it's filled with base archetypes -- rivers, mountains, an occasional clown. Last night I dreamt there was a revolution and we all had to hide in those puffy, aerated, overmanicured hedges. Not on the ground, but actually insert ourselves within the foamy prickle of the shrubs. Most of the dream was me thinking, breathing, from within my hiding place. That's what poetry feels like.

JW: In poems of yours like “The History of Knives” there’s a quality of continual destabilization, like a game of one-upmanship or leapfrog from shock to shock. I am thinking of poems like your "The History of Knives" a prose piece in which the first five sentences of this poem veer quickly from a surrealistic kitchen rendering bodies as salt shakers to the bottom of the ocean and back. In between, firecracker sentences go off, saying things like “I married my dad and threw him in the ocean” and I opened my legs and a grasshopper was there.” When you were writing this poem were you aiming to excavate a specific landscape? Were you discovering and improvising as you went along? Does collage play an important role in your process?

EKF: That poem started as a 6 or 7 page spew. I'd been reading Lyn Hejinian's The Fatalist and was feeling jazzed by how blocky and inhabited her words left me -- I wanted to find one of my own narratives and kind of choke on it for a while. Unfortunately, the only thing that came to mind was a butter dish. I wrote towards love, and butter -- the essentials -- for a good long time. Then I went back and filled in the rest.

JW: Halfway through this same poem, after a series of descriptive sentences that start to feel like a cracked narrative, a different kind of sentence breaks in: "Let’s talk about the Fibonacci sequence." I wonder whether as you were writing whether you suddenly associated to Fibonacci sequence specifically. Or maybe you always wanted to find a place to mention this in a poem… Or perhaps the Fibonacci sequence is not important in and of itself but rather operates like mad libs word substitution, where it is more a kind of syntax or discourse that you are evoking generally, where it could just as easily be the Third Law of Thermodynamics, or the Battle of Hastings, or matryoshka dolls, or phylloxera… How do you see moments like these in your poems?

EKF: The act of writing is one of great hope. I'm skeptical of the hope that drives me to write, even as I recognize it as viable. Poetry (a.k.a life) so easily strays into aphorism. If or when that happens, I don't want to convince myself that there's a moment there, a life being lived. I think I can work harder than that. The Fibonacci sequence is a series of numbers that make a spiral when expressed physically. Apologies to all mathematicians -- I'm sure I bludgeoned that. But as I write I'm treading carefully, listening for the moments when I stray towards my own ego-shrouded hope and sometimes, a spiral emerges. Those are the necessary images. Moments like the Fibonacci sequence are very scary, in that they come just as I'm starting to feel safe. Within the familiarity of using language is that hard nugget of skepticism. Cracked, it has the potential to be (or at least feel like) bravery. I'm not randomly collaging what I find in the "world," but rather, allowing for the world that has already attached itself to me.

JW: I’m lately very intrigued by the newly proliferating mode of the online chapbook. How did you come to publish AIRPORT in this way, with Blue Hour Press in Tuscaloosa?

Justin Runge, the editor, wrote and asked if I had anything he could publish. I did! Isn't AIRPORT beautiful? I love the inside pages and the tiny planes and the titles set in Frutiger, the airport sign font.

JW: AIRPORT wonderfully mixes a mode of dispatches in motion (like when one poem arises in the instant of spinning in the revolving door entrance to the airport) with poems that feel more like the airport is a metaphor, an “analogy” as you write. They are tiny pieces, organized in little couplets, which lends a feeling of tossed-offness, as if they plausibly could be written on receipts from an airport newsstand or on the back of a ticket while waiting at the gate. How did these poems come about? Were they written on the move? Did they all originally come into existence as a series, or did the title allow you to draw in poems that were initially unrelated?

EKF: Dispatches in motion... I like that. I'm trying to recall if any of the poems in AIRPORT were in fact written while inside an airport and I can't honestly say. There's a good chance. They were written during a period of 4 or 5 months when I was traveling between Portland, Oregon and Lincoln, Nebraska a LOT. I was spending a majority of my time in airports, on public transportation to get to or from an airport, waiting on tarmacs, in a Hudson News, curled up in a ball and writhing on the carpet, spitting into my own hand... no, I'm kidding, I was only doing a few of those things in airports. But I did start to want to inhabit the extreme possibility that an airport is. All that devastation and desire in one place -- it's freaky. One time I was sitting waiting for some gut-destroying ninety-seven dollar burrito in Minneapolis I think it was and I looked over and saw my friend Mathias sitting at the table next to me. I remember what book he was reading. Airports are weird! Anything can happen.

JW: Another series of your poems uses a sort of faux-letter device where different nouns are addressed as if creating a litany of ridiculous pet names, particularly “Dear Jalapeno.” When you first wrote "Dear Jalapeno" into a poem, were you conceiving of this line as a refrain, a way of finding energy to draw on for a whole group of poems? Now it is even the title of a whole manuscript of your poems. Was there a discipline to writing many poems in this same format? I imagine you waking up and writing “Dear Jalapeno” at the top of a blank page, day after day. Was the ñ ever tempting?

EKF: You know, I had a very long back and forth with one of the editors who published a bunch of the DEAR JALAPENO poems about the tilde. I could show it to you, or...? I loved it. I am so grateful when an editor takes the time to engage in conversation about a poem of mine, and we were really at an impasse about it for a bit (he wanted me to include it and I said I wouldn't). We had this fabulous dialogue about "proper" vs. "personal" uses of words and what it does to language to personalize words. But the gist of it is that the "jalapeno" I'm using in my poems is (very intentionally) the one with no tilde. It's the jalapeno of green tortilla chips and soft 7-11 taquitos. It's the bright waxy green dancing cartoon image of a pepper screaming at you. It's neither proper nor zesty enough to balance the delicate considerations or conversations of language that the tilde would imply. It's the jalapeno icon and not a real jalapeno. This is really what calls each poem in the series into being -- an invitation to the "things of the world" to ossify for a minute, stop, and be what they are, for better or worse.

JW: Some of these “Dear Jalapeno" poems are titled in a similar way, Imaginary ____,” with a different noun in that blank space, such as “hate,” or “thought,” or “distance.” Other poems have titles that refer to flowers (“Morning Glory,” “Garden Rose”) and some are tiny declarations like “You Broke My Heart.” Did you have a method behind these various titles?

EKF: Yes! A good portion of the titles are borrowed from song names by the group Lavender Diamond. Do you know them? It's what I was listening to at the time. It seemed to fit, in part because there's a summery explosiveness to many of them and I first started writing the poems in spring and summer. I made up the rest to sound like song titles. And yes, I did write those poems for about a year, maybe more. It was the most fun I've ever had in my whole life.

I was amused and horrified by a meanish blog post by Gary Sullivan a few months ago where he poked fun at a bunch of poetry don’ts, including poems whose title is a dedication to a dead poet. (He particularly called out “To Jack Spicer,” at which I blanched, looking at my own “To Jack Spicer” poem.) Another of his pet peeves is the “dear x.” He writes,

I know poetry is "artifice," but come on. This never fails to make the hair on my neck crawl, largely because the person's voice who reads this sort of poem always, like, "lilts" in that "special" way when they say "Dear,". Bleah.

Does reading “Dear Jalapeno” make your voice lilt?

Oh I totally have a poem voice, so I probably do lilt when reading, but that would apply to any poem. My voice gets even more nasal and husky than usual. To the issue of the "Dear ____" trope, I think it's intriguing to note the patterns in poetry -- to see where everyone falls in line in terms of what we're doing or trying or practicing or espousing in our work. Our tiny toolboxes. It seems to me, though, that there's a bitterness in lists of do's and don't, an attempt to ingratiate us with the fact we're not original and never will be. Poets reminding other poets that their attempts are recognizable (and therefore... frivolous?) is not that interesting to me. I'm glad that people read "Dear Jalapeno" and either recognize patterns or don't. But there's so much more to be said, I hope, about those poems.

Emily Kendal Frey
is the author of AIRPORT (Blue Hour 2009). She teaches at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon.

Jared White
grew up near Boston and is currently living in Brooklyn, New York. His poems have appeared in such journals as Barrow Street, Fugue, Harp and Altar, The Modern Review and Sawbuck; they are forthcoming in Fulcrum, LVNG and elsewhere. A chapbook of his poems, Yellowcake, will appear in the forthcoming debut issue of Narwhal from Cannibal Books. He blogs from time to time about poems and culture at

1 comment:

Splabman said...


Thanks for this intelligent interview. Emily is one of the most striking and original poets I have read in a long time. I get a kick out of the way she inserts images like "in a Hudson News, curled up in a ball and writhing on the carpet, spitting into my own hand..." Such a delight to see such play, er, uh, at work, if one can say that.

I am grateful you took the time to get her thoughts for the record.

Paul Nelson