Emily Wilson is the author of two poetry collections, The Keep (2001) and Micrographia (2009), both from University of Iowa Press. She lives with her husband and two sons in Iowa City. Her poems “Secretive Soil Fauna” and “Exhibition,” can be found here, and appear alongside “Turned Figure,” “Hibernal,” and “Strobilus” in the Spring 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Is there a story behind your KR poems “Secretive Soil Fauna,” “Exhibition,” “Turned Figure,” “Hibernal,” and “Strobilus”? What was the hardest part about writing them?
“Turned Figure” started with an image in a book, an eighteenth-century engraving of “turned figures.” I love the improbable qualities of the figures, very rationally conceived and yet very hard to imagine working in reality. Apparently, they were actual products of the wood turner, but they have a quality of the utterly fanciful, to me. As I wrote the poem, I was aware of a sensation of “turning” the figure, the “you,” whom I could not have identified exactly. I think I wanted the lines of the poem to have the feeling of a kind of turning over and against the original figure, of torquing it somehow and maybe producing new sides and views of it. “Exhibition” is a poem that describes a page from a famous book of calligraphic hands, calligraphic feats, really. I think my impulse was to try to capture something about the way all the disparate elements, the scorpion and millipede, the tulip, the script, the weird shadows, etc., are complicating things there, in that two-dimensional space. I don’t know. “Strobilus” draws on a childhood memory involving roadside plants, as well as some incredible photographs by Karl Blossfeldt of those same plants, horsetails and scouring rushes. These earlier art forms contain so much strangeness and tension. I could look at them all day. The hardest part of writing anything, for me, is getting down to it. You write and write into something, you don’t know what, and then at some point, as someone once described it to me, you have to turn and plow through the wake.
“Secretive Soil Fauna” and “Turned Figure,” have an appealingly abrupt and disorienting quality to the line breaks. Can you tell us a little bit about your strategy for breaking lines and the relationship of that strategy to your subject matter?
I don’t think I have a strategy. The breaks just become a crucial part of the movement as it evolves. It is also important to me that the line, itself, have an integrity apart from its use in the poem. So it is two things, a small self-contained movement or structure, and part of a moving, articulated whole—or at least, that is my hope for it. The two roles do not have to intersect, necessarily. Perhaps that accounts for the disorientation. I don’t know how this physical quality relates to subject matter, except to say that there are many subjects, probably, beyond the ostensible ones. I may not know what they are.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
That it keeps getting harder, not easier, over time. Something about surrendering to temporal realities, and learning to work better within them.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
A lot of things feel writing-related. Even repetitive tasks. Busywork. Tedium. It gives you something to apply force against and from within. Constraint. Walking in the woods is a reservoir-filler, an opening. Looking at art. Browsing some strange seemingly unremarkable inventory. I am trying to get back to printing and designing books right now, and that feels very connected to what I do as a poet.
Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?
It has never been a real question for me. Nor does writing fulfill all of the various needs. I have gone for long stretches without it, but it always re-emerges as the keenest activity.