Conversations with Contributors: Emily Skaja

Kaitlyn Stoddard Photography

Emily Skaja was born and raised in rural Illinois. Her first book, Brute, won the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets and will be published by Graywolf in April of 2019. Emily holds an MFA in Poetry from Purdue University, and she will graduate in Spring 2019 from the PhD program in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati, where she was a Taft Summer Research Fellow and also earned a certificate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Emily’s poems have been published in Best New PoetsBlackbirdCrazyhorseFIELD, and Gulf Coast, among other journals. She is the Poetry Co-Editor of Southern Indiana Review. Her website is emilyskaja.net.

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Ross Nervig: To whom or what is the title of your book, Brute, referring?

Emily Skaja: The word “brute” is used pejoratively to describe the abusive behavior of the men in the book, but it is also a word the speaker uses critically against herself, in examining the way she responded to violence with violence. As the word reappears in poems, it can function as well as a marker of lawlessness or of things spinning out of control, a signal of descent into a kind of manic underworld. The book is interested in exploring the way that women are set up to be victims of patriarchal, violent behavior while at the same time using those same tactics to defend themselves.

RN: Birds make appearances throughout. There seems to be an element of ornithomancy in this collection. What purpose do birds serve the poet? And in your poems in particular? In other words, what power do birds hold as poetic images?

ES: Themes of captivity and escape come up a lot in Brute, and those are ideas that lend themselves easily to bird imagery. As obsessions go, maybe it seems sort of twee to have this thing about birds, but I’m drawn to birds because I’m afraid of them—I like that they are both beautiful and menacing. In the abusive relationships described in the book, the speaker expresses dread to leave and dread to stay almost in equal measure, so she avoids making the choice at all, waiting for something so dramatic to happen that the way forward will be indisputable. The birds, to me, represent that dilemma, the urge to leave as well as the urge to stay safe (“safe”) in the trap. Birds also have a kind of creepy, ubiquitous presence in the poems. In crisis, the speaker often tries to defer to some future self who will be able to take action when the facts are clearer, and as a result, she is always looking for omens. The problem with looking for omens everywhere is that they will show up.

RN: A number of these poems seem to me to be the speaker girding herself for battle. I noticed elements of the pep talk or rallying cry, especially in the first half of the book. But for whom? The writer or the reader?

ES: I like that observation very much. I guess if you boil it down, a pep talk is just a story you tell yourself about yourself in order to keep going. I wrote these poems as a means of working through trauma to make sense of it for myself. I wanted to take back some of the agency of that story in the telling, and so in a lot of the poems I am talking to myself, or talking to a friend who helped me learn to see the past in a different way. I have a very close group of female friends, and their pep talks have gotten me through some of the worst parts of my life. If you’re really hard on yourself, like I tend to be, sometimes the most reassuring thing to hear is your own story repeated back to you in a more compassionate light. To have a friend tell you, you were not a squashed little bug, this was your story, you had a dormant power you didn’t know was part of you until you did. It can be very empowering.

RN: In an essay accompanying the publication of Brute you ask the question: “Ultimately, what is the suffering of women FOR?” Did the writing of Brute help you answer that question and how?

ES: No, this is a question that still bothers me. I’m interested in the relationship between empathy and imagination. I used to think that if someone could be made to witness and truly feel the suffering of another person, they would have to stop being deliberately hurtful. And now I’m less sure. Watching the Kavanaugh hearings, for example, I saw how differently people reacted to the same set of testimonies, how swiftly one woman’s painful trauma could be reduced to public spectacle. I saw that for this woman, not even the vulnerability of hashing through the worst trauma of her life on public television would make her completely, believably real in someone else’s eyes, and that was a profound moment of disillusionment for me.

RN: Brute is an exploration of gender. In the aforementioned essay, you make mention of the Kavanaugh hearings and the “total despair” you felt watching that calamitous display of white male privilege. What do you hope men glean from reading this collection of poems? What do you hope women glean from reading it?

ES: I hope the book will be read both as a processing of trauma and as a gesture of solidarity with anyone who has ever had to work through a similar experience. For me, writing it was painful and cathartic. It’s hard to anticipate how other people will take it. I guess one of my worries is that it will seem like it’s a book about men rather than a book about myself.

RN: I’m going to recommend that anybody going through a break up read your poem “March is March”! Are there any other break-up poetry collections you’d recommend to the heartbroken reader? Do you consider Brute operating in a certain lineage of poetry collections? If so, which authors, titles?   

ES: Oh, thank you! I love a good heartbreak poem. One of my ultimate favorites is Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay.” I would also recommend “Epithalament” by Brenda Shaughnessy, “I’ll Open the Window” by Anna Swir, and Tracy K. Smith’s “I Don’t Miss It.”

RN: Joy Harjo said of Brute in her judge’s citation for the Walt Whitman Award: “Brute, though, a collection of singular poems, is essentially one long, elegiac howl for the end of a relationship.” I would amend that statement to read “shitty relationship” or “abusive relationship.” Was the writing process also a healing process?

ES: It has been a healing process, though I think mostly it has been a process of becoming a different person, someone who could process the experiences of the younger, more naïve self. Initially, I thought I was just writing sad love poems. I couldn’t figure out why I was still so unsettled by these events from the deep past. After all, lots of people get their heart broken and they don’t feel that their identity and sense of self have been utterly erased from the world. I did feel that way, because I had been in a controlling relationship where my sense of self was diminished bit by bit to the point where I devalued myself completely and would have done anything for the approval of the other person. None of that really made sense to me until years later when I began to study systems of power and control, and I realized that what was upsetting to me about it was the total indifference I had felt to the idea of protecting and caring for myself and my own needs. I had to do something with all that sadness and regret and rage.

RN: Rage and editing seem almost diametrically opposed to one another. Use a wrathful poem such as “Brute Force” to tell me how you sculpted your poems. Do certain poetic forms act as better vessels for sadness, regret and rage than others?

ES: In order to write Brute, I felt like I had to construct a glittering, all-powerful, 50-foot glamorous monster self, ruthless, majestic and terrible in her suffering, who could tell the story from that height and with the power of all that formidable beauty. I wanted even the debris that rolled off that monster self to be glorious and devastating and worthy of close study. And after writing a number of poems as that glittering self, I found I could also write poems making fun of her, making fun of my own need, my own desperation and self-loathing. So you get a poem like “Brute Force,” which reads almost like a parody of previous poems. “In Indiana, I walked for 40 days—I stayed polite, I dirged / with appropriate pomp.” This speaker is someone who realizes there is power in admitting earlier defeat, in gesturing to a prior weakness. Putting distance between the recent past and the present can be healing, in my experience—it can restore a certain amount of dignity, grace, and autonomy of self. Where the previous speaker had been cowed and felt destroyed, this speaker is able to crack jokes at her own expense, lash out, send a text that says, “Please stop colonizing all of our mutual friends with your dick.” I mean, that was a real text! Haha. I do think despair is like flint. Bother it enough and it’ll spark into rage.

RN: A real snarky, vitriolic humor rises up in the last ¼ of the Brute. I’m thinking of the above-mentioned “March is March,” “No, I Do Not Want to Connect With You on LinkedIn,” and “Brute Force.” These poems seem to have been written with a little more distance from the break-up, but maybe I’m totally wrong and it’s the other way around. Tell me about the process of ordering these poems and wrangling them into the four chapters that comprise the book.

ES: The book went through a lot of reordering. It started as a different book, and slowly turned into this one. The first time I thought it was done, it still had two and a half years of revision to go. I had two major breakthroughs in the process of revising, throwing out poems, writing new poems, and reordering. One breakthrough was putting the book into four parts instead of three (you know, poets love threes, so this felt really transgressive to me). That helped me isolate the poems that were noticeably different from the others. I wanted the tone of that final section to be more distant from the drama of the others, more reflective, but also more sarcastic and biting. I think of that as the “wiser now and fuck you” section of the book. The other major breakthrough I had in finishing the book was the title. As soon as I had the word Brute, I was able to write a new series of poems around that word, and as a unifying concept, it helped me conceive of the book as a whole.

RN: The collection ends with a prose poem addressed to Eurydice. I had this notion that “Eurydice” might be a stand-in for a previous incarnation of the poet herself. Are you saying farewell to a former self? What attracted you to this particular myth when there are so many myths of doomed love to choose from?

ES: Yes, I like that reading. I think of the ending as hopeful, reaching out to help another woman with solidarity and strength. I’ve always rooted for Eurydice because of all the gaslighting. Orpheus is constantly upstaging her—she doesn’t even get to be the lead role in her own death scene. She dies and we immediately pan to Orpheus for his reaction. I’m from the lineage of feminist poets asking, Who cares what Orpheus thinks?! And before his error kills her, some painters and poets actually render her beseeching Orpheus as some kind of temptress figure: “Look at me!” so that her death is her own fault and Orpheus gets to remain pure of heart. I don’t buy it. Why would she do that? She wouldn’t. That just sounds made up, like something Orpheus’ friends told him later to make him feel better about it. Even Ovid says something like, when Eurydice died, she didn’t complain about it, “for how could she complain to be so beloved?” You know, if somebody loved me to death, personally, I’d have a lot to say, Ovid. You can bet my parting phrases would be very colorful. One thing I would not say is, “That’s all right, Orpheus! Good hustle!” Haha. Can you think of any real woman, not a woman made up for a male fantasy, who would be like, “That’s cool, I’ll just go back to my hellscape then?” My favorite Eurydice wrath is H.D.’s, which is ice cold. She’s like, “It’s sweet that you thought you could ruin my life, Orpheus, but actually you are literally nothing to me, and you always were, even your atoms are boring to me, goodbye.” I may be paraphrasing. But anyway, I liked the idea of Eurydice having a female ally, a friend who would help her find her own agency.

RN: Thanks so much, Emily!

ES: No, thank you, and thank you to The Adroit Journal! I’m so grateful for this opportunity.

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Ross Nervig
Ross Nervig

Ross Nervig is a writer living in New Orleans and a founding editor of Revolver—a literary arts collective based in St. Paul, MN. His work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, Bluestem Journal, Bayou Magazine, Southwest Review and Huffington Post. He is currently a MFA candidate in Fiction at the University of New Orleans. In 2018, he received the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop's Ernest and Shirley Svenson Award for Fiction.

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