Emily O’Neill teaches writing and tends bar in Cambridge, MA. Her debut poetry collection, Pelican (2015), won YesYes Books’ inaugural Pamet River Prize for women and nonbinary writers, as well as the 2016 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Series in Poetry. Her second collection with YesYes, a falling knife has no handle (2018), was named one of the ten most anticipated poetry titles of fall by Publishers Weekly and was recently long-listed for the 2018 Julie Suk Award from Jacar Press. She is the author of five chapbooks and her recent work appears in Bennington Review, Catapult, Hypertrophic Literary, Little Fiction, Redivider, and Salt Hill, among many others.
Lauren R. Korn: I want this interview to be one in which we talk about women. I’m a woman. You’re a woman. Our bodies are important to our poetry(-ies) and our understanding of poetry. And because a falling knife has no handle is so much about food, I want to talk about women in the food and beverage service industry. I worked in a pizza kitchen for a short time in my mid-twenties, having been somewhat promoted from working on the “front end”—from slinging slices and engaging directly with customers—to doing prep work and baking. In my experience, the professional kitchen is a masculine space; the restaurant dining room seems more of a space wherein there may be not only more women, but femininity is put on display, especially towards a financial advantage (tips). Do you see falling knife as being a representation or a refusal of this industry as a binary space?
Emily O’Neill: I think the poems started as a refusal of that binary. Being a woman who tends bar, or a woman doing restaurant work at all, is pretty fraught. People sexualize my role in their night almost constantly, while also belittling my knowledge of how to pilot their drink experience. In the worst of my guest interactions, I get to be a stupid sex object who couldn’t possibly know what I’m talking about. Men, especially a certain kind of business bro, get upset when I know more about whiskey than they do. Men, or at least the large majority of the men who order cocktails from a list without quite knowing what they’re ordering, get embarrassed when their drink is pink or fruity or in a martini glass, even if they end up enjoying the drink, because they find it emasculating to enjoy something in public that isn’t served “down & brown” like an old fashioned or scotch on the rocks. I find all of those interactions hilarious and have to try not delight in the frustration of those kinds of men, who are used to being seen as authorities on anything they choose to engage with, regardless of their actual level of knowledge. A bar menu truly undoes them.
You’re right about the “maker” position in a restaurant or bar being coded as masculine. No matter how many women open bars or restaurants or dominate on the most recent season of Top Chef, no matter how many non-cis-men are actively and even visibly making your food and drinks, women in restaurants are seen as the flight attendant of the experience, whereas men are assumed to be flying the plane. The assumption that women don’t have the power to fabricate the stuff of an amazing hospitality experience, the very products being consumed, has always bothered me. It’s also the place where I started writing this book from. I was a barista when drafting the earliest poems in the collection and I met my partner in that coffee shop. He was a regular before I even started, and became my friend because we both care really deeply about the pleasure of a beautiful meal, and also the level of effort it takes to make a stranger feel good in a room they have no personal attachment to. Dining out is immersive theater. Even in a dive bar, there’s a dance between expectation and experience. A lot of it is certainly gendered, but I care a lot about unpacking why that is. We were out for drinks, just as friends, celebrating the Publishers Weekly review of my first book, and we were talking about how delightful the language of a drink menu can be. It planted the seed for the book—that conversation, and also our private joke that everyone around us assumed we were on a date. What you observe is rarely the whole story, and I think the poems try to explode what’s observable into many smaller shards that show how complex both restaurants and the relationships they facilitate can be.
I also think it’s worth mentioning that I don’t always feel like a woman, especially not like the kind of woman people expect me to be, and my relationship to my work and the way I write about bodily experiences hopefully reflects that.
LRK: How do you see this collection fitting into food and beverage literature? Are you a reader of such literature yourself?
EO: Oh, definitely! I read food and beverage literature a lot and I hope that my book lives well in that world. I was really excited when this book was coming together because it felt like something I could share with my friends in the industry, and not just people who already loved poetry. That’s turned out to be delightfully true. My regulars have bought my book from across my bar. My friends who also work or have worked in restaurants identify with the stories I’m telling. It’s been really cool to get to talk about literature with people I generally talk cocktails with, and to use conversations about my book to get them to tell me what they love to read. I’m always excited to know what non-writers read, and restaurant folks have so many wild interests that I’m honored to be on any of their reading lists. There’s a pretty famous bartender, Joaquin Simo, who I remember saying somewhere that he reads for hours a day, every day, so that he always has something to talk to his bar guests about. I try to do the same, and I think falling knife absolutely benefitted from that kind of omnivorous approach to books.
I wish I could share a picture of the wall of books I’m facing as I answer this. More than half the books in my apartment are about food and drink—recipe books, histories, memoirs, theory—and I feel constantly surrounded by that kind of reading. My engagement with it is more of a kind of grazing than deep research, but I dip into those books every day to make me better at my job and also answer questions about how the things I consume came to be. My partner has been in the industry even longer than I have, and he is an encyclopedia of this information. We both have pretty strong memories as far as compelling narratives go, and there are few narratives more compelling than how the human relationship to food has grown and refined itself over thousands of years. It’s pretty amazing how many different communities are connected via methods of food preparation or combinations of flavor. There is so much complexity to stories about food, because food stories include the people who get left out of traditional histories. Food and drink are languages of home and community and connection, and I feel drawn to that as a replacement for the academic histories that focus primarily on conflict, conquest, and the maintenance of false borders.
LRK: In “It Belongs In a Museum,” you write, “most people / here, parading their taste violently / drinks should exist / with the same forceful perfection / of a tongue // caked in gold leaf.” What do you believe one’s drink preferences say about them, versus what their food preferences say about them? Is there a difference in the way you might choose to analyze those tastes?
EO: People’s taste in drinks is often a indicator of class and personal history more than anything else. That line in the poem is more about how sure people are of what their taste telegraphs, when the picture they provide of themselves is way different to a stranger than it is in their own mind. I always tell people who are anxious about ordering the wrong thing to just drink what they enjoy. If you want a vodka soda, good for you. Vodka sodas are delicious and refreshing. If you want a Naked & Famous, awesome! It’s one of my favorite cocktails of all time. If you want an IPA, you’re lucky to be in agreement with plenty of other people and you’ll probably have several acceptable options at any bar you walk into. There’s no wrong answer when someone asks what you’d like, but there is a lot of posturing that can happen at a bar. It’s clear to me when someone’s ordering a drink to impress someone else, and that happens so frequently that it’s almost a non-event. Ditto with food. Ordering a steak or martini can be a power move. Ordering a burger or beer feels more casual. Ordering a shot means you’re celebrating or upset or feeling too sober for the moment you’re in—it can go in so many directions.
Preferences are driven by familiarity and also optics. People ask for certain brand names because of the status associated with those brands via their ad campaigns. Alcohol as a business is mostly marketing. If all you care about is getting drunk as cheaply as possible, you ask fewer questions about what’s going to end up in your glass. Inspiring trust in a bar guest when you have none of what they cold call is one of the most difficult recoveries to make, but if you can win someone over when you have nothing familiar to provide, it’s one of the biggest wins available.
LRK: I recently stumbled across a piece you wrote in Drunk in a Midnight Choir called “Permission to Fail.” In it, you thread your experiences with grief and success with an examination of the mid-nineties TV show, Ally McBeal, as well as with Sex and the City. In this piece you write, “There’s no way to be a woman in the current moment that doesn’t require a revision of the rules imposed upon us.” How do you see poetry written by women—specifically your poetry, and more specifically falling knife—being a revision of the rules?
EO: I have a lot of anxiety about not having formal training in making poems. A lot of my peers have MFAs. A lot of people have made nasty comments to me about my rejection of academia as the only place that can make me a better writer, but I just don’t find that to be accurate information. The MFA works for some people, but for others, it’s a space of violent erasure. Official classrooms can be really scary, growth-stunting places when you already feel other somehow. I’m not a traditional student. I went to college, but my school had no grades, no majors, and no exams. I wrote so much in school, but even without having to adhere to a traditional academic structure, I struggled a lot. I was working full time. I was dealing with mental illness and self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. School made me feel like I was failing myself or my professors by not doing things the way I was expected to. Almost all of my narrative evaluations from that time read something like a lot of potential, doesn’t try hard enough. But I was trying so hard! School, even a very non-traditional school, was not the best place for me to learn, but it did make me understand how to structure my life in order to accomplish what’s important to me, regardless of whether that turns out to be important to anyone else.
I’ve gotten this far by reading as much as I possibly can, by going to as many readings as possible, by trial and error. I think everything that I write is proof that there’s no one successful path to a poem you’re proud of. Falling Knife is a remix of language from being part of a world I’m told makes me less than other people. There’s a pretty insurmountable narrative that service work is somehow unserious or at the very least temporary, something I should be striving to escape, but I don’t ever want to leave the job I have. I love my bar. I love my coworkers and I love my regulars and I love having the power to change someone’s day for the better. I love making things with my hands that people take into themselves and then piss out and ask for more of. I love being an instrument in how other people alter their consciousness.
People have very classist ideas of how smart you have to be or not be to want to work serving other people. People also have very classist ideas of who deserves to be an artist and also what being an artist needs to look like. There are all kinds of artificial barriers that exist to keep people from telling the truth about themselves. My book was something I had to write to show that the language of food isn’t low or stupid or utilitarian, or, if it is all of those things, that low/stupid/utilitarian language is also beautiful and worth examining. The poems are an act of pride in how I spend the majority of my life. I wanted very much to show that I don’t have to abhor service work in order to be a “real” artist. I don’t have to be an academic to write lyrically about my own life. I don’t have to hate myself to say something worthwhile. I don’t have to be trained to see the connections between the mundane and the sublime. Nobody needs to be taught to delight in the world they inhabit, in spite of all the awful parts. Delighting in the world is not a lesson, it’s a choice. In every page of my book, I’m choosing joy. Joy sustains me. Joy is transgressive. Joy is terrifying because it’s temporary, and poems are the same way.
LRK: In “Preparing My Own Death,” you write, “don’t make me explain / why my mouth remembers.” Food, for me, is tied to memory, and, though I like to think that my palette has refined as I’ve aged and matured, I still crave the foods I grew up eating and those foods that are inextricably tied to certain moments in my life: Hamburger Helper, ketchup on cheddar cheese… I want to avoid the phrase “guilty pleasure,” but I’d like to know which foods or drinks you turn to in the solace and the aloneness of your own kitchen and living spaces.
EO: I love Funyuns more than maybe any salt snack available. I love Extra Toasty Cheez-Its because they’re bitter, and I love bitter things. I love Jaegermeister and ginger beer. I drink a lot of beaujolais and goses when I’m just hanging around the house, and also gin and pomegranate seltzer, which is delicious and perfect no matter what season. I like Steigl Radlers, especially when I’m drinking mezcal. I still eat Top Ramen a lot, which is mostly about the salt. I love salt so fucking much. Garlic bagel chips are the jam. So are cinnamon raisin ones, but I can never find them in grocery stores in New England and have to bring them back for myself when I visit family in New Jersey. Salt and vinegar chips, always. Peanut butter pretzels. Ruffles dipped in plain sour cream or dragged through a brick of cream cheese. Bagel Bites! Ranch rice cakes! I order mozzarella sticks from the pizzeria near my house more than I care to admit.
LRK: In that same poem, you write, “I threw up oysters for two days as punishment.” I see something like synaesthesia happening in falling knife. I see you making these connections between certain meals and the way they made or make you feel [ ] and certain people who have made you feel [ ] or certain situations that have made you feel [ ]—which, as I read them, means that hunger, craving, indulgence, etc., are ultimately and intimately tied to interpersonal emotions and affect. In “Are You in the Weeds,” you write, “I bake potatoes twice & they taste / like your mother is still alive.” Bodies, too, become food: “every rotten part of me,” “could I arrive // …the correct garnish” (“Old Fashioned”). Were these ties you sought while drafting and compiling your manuscript, or did they happen naturally?
EO: I definitely experience some synaesthesia in life, so this makes sense. I have migraines with aura, so sounds make certain colors happen for me. I think the connection between emotionality and the body feels really natural to me in all my writing, foremost because I suffer from extreme and chronic anxiety, so my feelings manifest in my body in very measurable ways. My stomach is especially sensitive to emotional stress. I also have a pretty disordered relationship with food. I used to starve myself in times of extreme stress. I used to binge eat and them vomit to keep from feeling guilty for my own indulgence in the pleasure of food. I had a long period of problematic drinking that tied into both my starvation tactics and binge/purge cycles.
Beyond my atypical food/stress histories, I grew up in a family of type 1 diabetics. My dad, my older sister, and my younger brother all have type 1. There’s a gene mutation in our family that makes us prone to endocrine and autoimmune disorders, so I could get type 1 at any time for the rest of my life. I watched and continue to watch the way the disease responds to and manipulates their emotional experiences. My dad was on so many medications when I was growing up that he had a harder time recognizing when his blood sugar was too low or too high until it was too late to even himself out easily, and I had to help him with this many times, forcing him to eat Lifesavers or cookies or drink orange juice, loading syringes of insulin for him when he was too shaky to do so himself, and on and on. My sister has described being in diabetic shock as having a drunk body and a sober brain, your mind yelling at your body to behave a certain way and your body disregarding what you’re asking of it entirely. My dad was also a big drinker, and drinking as a diabetic magnifies blood sugar issues when they occur. My dad was also legally blind, a dual BTK amputee, a transplant patient, a lymphoma patient, a heart patient. When I start to list it all off the chronic health issues he dealt with, I feel like I should just say “all of them” and that makes me hyper-aware of the privilege of approaching food without so many barriers in the way that might keep me from truly feeling indulgent.
When he was on dialysis, my dad wasn’t allowed to drink liquids unless absolutely necessary. After radiation therapy for his lymphoma, his salivary glands barely worked anymore, and he drank water almost constantly, choking on food when he couldn’t keep his mouth wet enough to swallow. I guess I’m telling you all of this because I feel latently obsessed with all the obstacles that could arise when seeking satisfaction. I’ve watched my dad pour orange juice on his cereal and curse the whole house for putting it back in the wrong place in the fridge. I’ve made him meals when he was too exhausted from just being in his body to feed himself. And I’ve also spent huge amounts of time listening to him describe cooking and eating the things he loved, his oldest memories of buying groceries with bottle deposit change and the government cheese in the freezer and trying to make that taste good and also last the month. His relationship with his own senses, no matter how much pain they delivered, was truly romantic. He was in love with the things he knew he’d never experience the same way again. He was also the person who made me unafraid of raw meat. He taught me to cook it. He also was so scarred and blistered and opened and stitched back together, that he was very direct proof of how our bodies are dioramas of the ways in which we manipulate them.
I hope my poems can be proof of my body. I want to map what I’ve lived both emotionally and viscerally. I think my body can be proof of what I’m consumed until my body gets consumed by something else. I’m not my dad, but I did have to consume what I did of his life to end up here. I eat the things he loves and hope that keeps us close. I want nothing more than to be able to cook for him. He was dead before I ever made a meal I was truly proud of. He was dead for my first book and for this one. He’ll be dead for all of the books. But I remember what it tasted like to read drafts to him. My mouth would get so dry. He’s in the poems, listening from inside. I use them to invite him to the meal. I hope he enjoys that.
LRK: You wrote an article for VIDA titled “Report from the Field: Holding Your Now-Defunct Publisher Accountable When They Refuse To Honor Your Contract or Return Your Emails: A Memoir.” In it, you write, “all the evidence outlines a systematic victimization of the very people who looked to Justin [Daugherty, of Jellyfish Highway] for proof that what they made was worth someone’s focused attention.” There are many ways I could take this particular reference, but I actually want to illuminate the idea of worth. Poetry’s readership, though climbing, is still inherently small. As a poet, how do you manage your expectations of the publishing industry and its consumers? How do you maintain your pride in work that may or may be received on a scale you expect or want?
EO: What happened with Justin was such a huge disappointment for me. I loved the poems I published with his press, and what he did to me and the other authors was exploit our desire to communicate with the larger world. Publishing can be really hopeful and affirming, like hey, somebody finally cares what I have to say and to rely on someone’s desire for validation so that you can get away with behaving badly, never paying people their promised royalties, never being accountable to contracts, not promoting the work you claim to want to help promote, is just gross. There’s this idea that seems pretty pervasive that we’re all lucky to be published at all when it happens, but I don’t think that’s accurate. It has to be collaborative. You did the work to make something and your publisher should work to help that something make its way in the world. Justin wanted the title of publisher but none of the responsibility.
Beyond my publisher doing what they’ve promised to in my contract, I don’t know that I have specific expectations of what will happen when I publish a book. Someone told me a long time ago that most small press titles are lucky if they sell even 100 copies, and my contracts have always promised me first print runs of 1000. I know I’ve hand-sold, between the two collections and several chapbooks, at least 1000 individual books of things I’ve written. I don’t know off the top of my head how many my publishers have sold through various channels. I count myself incredibly lucky that the hard work I put into writing translates to something people not only want to spend time with but physically own.
I try to only write things that feel urgent to me. If a project doesn’t feel urgent, I walk away from it, sometimes abandoning it altogether. I had a really wonderful advisor in undergrad, Deb Gorlin, who was delightfully harsh when I’d bring her a poem. She always wanted to know why I wrote a thing, why it mattered to me, what meaningful choices had brought me to the draft in front of us. When I didn’t have satisfactory answers for her, I went home and looked at whatever poem it was that felt unimportant for a very long time trying to figure out what was off about it and realized that just because I can write about a thing doesn’t mean I have to do it. Just because I have an opinion doesn’t mean it’s worth sharing. Just because I had a thought doesn’t mean it’s worthy of other people’s time. I was so defensive about it at the time, but I feel like she made me a much better self-editor by teaching me that lesson about urgency.
My pride in my work comes from tracing the path from initial thought to finished piece. So many of the things I make take me years and years to be fully formed. I know the time and growth writing something I love begs of me, and I’m proud that I’m able to follow through. Anyone else falling in love with or even reading one of those finished pieces is amazing and obviously desirable for all kinds of reasons, but I never started writing to be rich or even recognized for it. I started writing to know myself better, to express who I am accurately. I know there are things urgent for me to write that may never find their market. Capitalism was built as a way to monetize creativity, so I try not to let it guide my feelings about what I create. I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this in public somewhere before, but if I have so be it—there’s this excellent dance movie from the early 2000s called Center Stage that I’ve always loved. I was a ballerina for 14 years, so that’s probably part of it. Anyway, in that movie, a very young Zoe Saldana is pissed off that she didn’t get a role in the end of workshop performance, meaning she probably won’t be hired by a dance company in spite of the fact that she might be the most talented dancer in the workshop. Her teacher walks over to the barre and puts her hand on it and makes a speech about how nothing in dance matters except what’s between you and your own practice. I play this scene in my head whenever I get discouraged, because my journey as an artist is really just between me and what I make. If other people get windows into that journey from time to time and encourage me to continue for whatever reason, wonderful. But if they don’t, I’m going to keep writing for me.
LRK: I’ve found myself an avid, albeit accidental, reader of Investopedia (I recently returned to Sarah Vap’s Viability and found myself curious and enamored by the site). The title of your book has a relevant entry in Investopedia, as well; and though I would hazard a guess to say that the market or economics played little to no role in your writing of these poems (save, perhaps, your need to make a living), I want you to play a little game: I’d like you to use proximity as a way to draw meaning between the two. If a falling knife, according to Investopedia, is “a rapid drop in the price or value of a security,” how do your poems speak to that idea?
EO: It’s funny, because that’s one of the many meanings I was thinking of when I chose my working title ages ago. The book is about food, but it’s also about falling in love with someone and trying to manage the anxiety that occurs when revealing yourself to someone you want to want you. Vulnerability is a management of scarcity. Being vulnerable to someone you care about provides them with information/access, and for me, I always feel most attractive to others when I’m scarce. But a need for connection can override the impulse to at least appear inaccessible. The book is very much about how the price of admission changes depending on how much you want someone around. We barter in relationships. We offer time and intimacy and, if we’re on the well-adjusted side of things, hope for as close to an even exchange as possible. So the title of the book means, in some ways, that you can’t control what you’re worth to someone, or what they’re worth to you. Over the course of your time together, you also can’t control how that worth fluctuates.
LRK: What do you want people to know upon entering these pages?
EO: I want people to know that there is no right way to approach food. Eating when I’m hungry, eating what I enjoy, eating with people who make me happy, has been a long, hard road out of hell for me. Sensory experiences can be fun. Mindfulness isn’t just a brand of meditation, but a practice worth engaging in as you consume the world in all its forms. I love meals because they’re meditations. I love meals because they celebrate. I love trying to eat or drink new things because they bring up all kinds of memories. Also, poems don’t have to be narrative to make sense. Poems don’t have to make sense to communicate. Play is important. It helps us discover so much.
LRK: If Pelican is a book of grief centered around your father, how do you see falling knife? And what’s next?
EO: falling knife is about aftermath. About trying to feel worthy of joy after experiencing so much trauma. I’ve been working on this in therapy for years, but I still have trouble convincing myself that I’m worthy of more than the bare minimum from the people I engage with or the experiences I have. These poems are reaching towards a joy that acknowledges what I’ve lived through without burying it. I want to live an integrated life. I don’t want to set aside the bad as if it doesn’t coexist with the good. I am a product of both extremes. Grief is absolutely present in this collection, but it doesn’t obliterate everything it touches.
I just finished an early draft of what I hope will be my third collection of poems. It’s a project that was difficult to start because it didn’t have a person I was trying to talk directly to in the writing. I wrote Pelican to and for my dad, and he helped focus my effort. I wrote falling knife to and for my partner, quite literally as letters about what we ate and drank as I made the early drafts. This third book is to and for myself. The poems aren’t quite poems. They lean more towards lyric essay. They time-travel. They deal a lot with gender and queerness and parts of myself I tamp down (rage, hurt) in order to make other people more comfortable. They chew up books and movies and TV and museums and grocery stores and hair salons and spit them back tangled in interrogation. I’m kind of obsessed with using poems to ask questions that just hang there, making space for me and for the reader to answer differently every time we engage. I’m several years into writing a book about Andy Warhol, but it’s going to take me at least a few more years of research and refinement to say what I want to say there. I’ve also got a few prose projects that my agent and I are working on. I’ve been writing a lot of essays, and I feel really excited to keep expanding my skills in prose.
LRK: You just returned from AWP in Portland, Oregon. What is something that you learned about yourself in that space?
EO: I’m much better at knowing my limits than I used to be. My last AWP was in Minneapolis. I was a lot poorer and a lot less self-assured then. I said yes to too much and really burnt myself out and felt guilty about everything I missed and went home feeling sad and weird and like I didn’t fit in that world because I didn’t want an MFA or read the same things everyone else was reading. This time I went to maybe two panels at all and a handful of really excellent readings and spent time with a few friends, but mostly let myself do things alone. I had the best eggs benedict I’ve ever eaten at a breakfast by myself on my first full day in town. I got a tattoo I love after much logistical finagling. I got extremely overwhelmed the final night when I showed up to an offsite where there were plenty of friends but also just too many people for me to deal with when I hadn’t yet had dinner and was a little woozy from hours of being tattooed. So I hugged the people I wanted to hug, threw some money in the donation bowl, and went and got tiki drinks with my conference buddy and we told stories and cackled until we both had to go to bed in order to wake up for early flights. I love people, but I love being alone more, and I think this year I felt a lot less guilt about that. I built in a lot of alone time and while I saw a lot of things went on that I was sad to have missed, I felt very secure in the fact that I’d had the best possible time without betraying my own needs.
LRK: What question do you want me to ask that I (or others) haven’t asked you?
EO: I never get asked about what I’d do if I won the lottery. After paying my debt off, I’d buy this old motel I’ve driven past a bunch on the North Shore and make it a writer’s retreat. And get a big wooly dog to sleep on my feet by the fire in the front office while I read and wait for people to come ask me to help fix their coffee maker or get them more towels.
LRK: How do these questions taste? What cocktail(s) would you pair them with?
EO: These questions taste astringent and floral at once, so they make me want a Vesper, which is a martini variation that I’m very partial to. It’s traditionally gin, vodka, and Lillet, but I usually swap the Lillet for Cocchi Americano. Lemon twist, and you’re good to go. Or, just a dirty gin martini, but the brine has to be better than just adding some salt. When I was in Honolulu recently, I had the best dirty martini of my life. It had whole caper berries and olives and actual chunks of bleu cheese in it. I love a drink with snacks. I’m always a little more honest after a martini, for better or worse.