Emily Hunt’s works include the chapbook Company (The Song Cave, 2019); the photography book Cousins (Cold Cube Press, 2019); and the full-length poetry collection Dark Green (The Song Cave, 2015), named a “standout debut” by Publishers Weekly. She teaches poetry workshops and works as a freelance editor in New York. More info at emilyrhunt.org and on Instagram @its_ehu.
Lauren R. Korn: As you’ve said in an interview with Brooklyn Poets (and as you’ve written in the Notes of your chapbook), Company is a response to your time working for a flower delivery start-up in San Francisco. And while much of the chapbook gives space to the daily labors and odd nuances of the job, your life in and around it, there is a tender balance between these moments and the closeness with which you view and write about the plants, their “sturdy thick stems,” their “thorns and knobs.” How is a poem by Emily Hunt like and not-like a plant?
Emily Hunt: I am frequently mesmerized by plants. I learn a lot by describing them. They strike me as maybe more evolved and true to themselves than people; they are incredibly good at living, expressing themselves, collaborating. We need them. Like people and poems, plants start from nothing! Or from air. And in conducive circumstances, they grow into vulnerable, powerful individuals with specific energies, characteristics, features, and skills. Then there they are, real and whole. This will always amaze me, maybe in part because I often feel amazed to be alive myself.
To write a poem that feels as strong and touchable as a plant growing out of dirt or a flower in the hand is rare, but it’s something to aim for. A poem that’s bound to become whole does have a way of growing on its own once you plant the seed; I’ve felt this happen with my writing. After I’ve started a poem, sometimes the best thing I can do for it is leave it alone, go outside, talk to people, let it develop free from pressure, and return to the page later to record how it’s changed.
LRK: Your chapbook begins, “It’s rare to pull a bad bloom / straight from the mass,” and at about the halfway point, you acknowledge that “I read that this company’s / three founders copied / a similar, smaller company / launched years earlier / by one woman / who had the idea. / They were sued but settled it […] Farmgirl’s Motion is DENIED. / IT IS SO ORDERED. / PRAYER FOR RELIEF: / Farmgirl Flowers prays / for judgment / against BloomThat.” It’s easy to see how these moments speak to one another—from the start, you establish the dichotomous nature of the start-up and of your experience. Can you speak to the ways writing Company changed (or didn’t change) your relationship to that experience?
EH: Yes, my relationship to it is still in motion, in ways. Working at this start-up (a company run by people whose values clashed with mine) for minimum wage was a dissonant, stimulating, emotionally complex experience. As a new resident of the city, I urgently needed income, and this was the first job I could get, via word of mouth. I was navigating the feelings that arose as I took small actions on the clock that served this company’s disturbing (but also prevalent) attitudes and goals. I felt like a spy, which is a powerful feeling, but I also felt like my body was in the wrong place; I was broke, tired, angry, disembodied, hungry for a different daily reality. At the same time, I found pleasure in looking at and interacting with the flowers, which became like characters (or even a kind of community) to me. I’d never spent hours on end with flowers. There was something so uncanny about seeing them in this context, participating in their movement through the warehouse as products (in part because flowers are living creatures before they’re cut). The more I wrote about them, the more I identified with them, but I also felt the distance between us. I sensed and saw their power, their individuality. I was also complicit in their objectification and commodification.
Writing about this experience was a way to access and take ownership of my version of the story, the life of my mind in that space, which was different from my employers.’ I chose to be interested in this world I had entered through this job, and the longer I looked, the more there was to see and respond to. During downtime at the other job I held at the time (nannying), I Googled the company and the story expanded. Online, I found paperwork from a lawsuit that had been filed against them by a flower delivery company they had blatantly copied. Some of the language from that paperwork ended up in the poem.
I’ve thought about how, had I not worked at this place, I may have just heard about the app in passing and used it to order flowers—I love flowers, I’ve used apps created by companies with harmful policies (e.g. Uber). I like to think I wouldn’t have used it, because the name was so bad—BloomThat!
Editing the notes I accumulated during this time from a distance, over a couple of years, allowed for the writing to move beyond the limits of documentation into reflection and description. From there, it developed into a poem that is also a story full of facts.
LRK: Company reminded me of a poem in Dark Green, your 2015 full-length collection. “I Was the Giant Factory” similarly places the speaker in a job space that is both dreaded and appreciated: “I did care about my job, its feeling wrong and endless.” How do you integrate your writing practice into your daily grind(s), re: time, content, etc.?
EH: Thank you for making this connection. I’ve thought about how this poem is in conversation with the poems in the manuscript I’m finishing now, many of which respond to or speak through various forms of labor. Labor can be a drag, and labor can also draw me deeper into the textures of the world, if I’m awake to the small actions I’m taking as I shape my days and move through time.
“I Was the Giant Factory” came from a dream I had, which in certain ways reflected the environment I grew up in and the interior work (a kind of “job”) I was doing at the time (about 10 years ago). This work felt sometimes daunting, hard, cold, and “endless,” and it also felt kind of magical, like writing. The words, scenes, and sensations I was paying attention to in my mind and body (thanks to therapy) were inextricable from the writing I was doing.
Any job I have, any work I’m doing, is going to affect my daily thinking—how I receive the visual material I come across, how I navigate conversations with others and myself. This can’t be separated from the forms, voices, scenes, and interests of the poems I’m writing. So I never think, I’ll go to work and then when I get home, I’ll write. I’m always inside my writing as it’s growing, and as I change—when I’m at a job, at home, walking around, riding the subway, sleeping, eating. It is of course not always possible to write, edit, or take notes at a job, and jobs are maddening when they take up most of your time and you’re still not making enough to meet the basic costs of living, but if I feel awake to what’s around me, this feeds my poems. While working at the start-up featured in Company, I took notes on my phone on lunch breaks and in the bathroom. These notes were the seeds that grew into a draft that grew into a very different draft that turned into a poem.
A kind of daily grind I took on this past year was facing the death of my brother, and this has shaped my engagement with language, my loss of language at times. It has required travel to many known and previously unknown places in my mind, travel into and out of new poems and sentences.
Currently, I teach poetry workshops and work as a freelance editor. Teaching nourishes me and my poems and is, by nature, integrated with my writing. When I worked full-time at the Poetry Society of America, my writing/editing brain was most alive and receptive during my morning commutes. I would read poems or listen to recordings of myself reading drafts of my own poems and email myself edits. Listening to drafts out in the world helps me understand what the language is doing, what changes I need or want to make. I can also hear in my voice when I fully believe in or care about a line, and when I don’t; this helps me refine, expand, or delete parts of poems.
LRK: You begin Company with an epigraph, a line from Elena Vakalo’s “Plant Upbringing” (collected in Before Lyricism); and after the chapbook’s long poem, “Company,” you introduce “Stranger.” In “Stranger,” the speaker cares for a baby. You write, “I struggle for a while / to arrange her limbs / in the tangled cloth carrier,” which seems to directly mirror the lines in “Company” that precede it, e.g., “I fill / fifty-five budget cans / to which I’ve glued gold / floral paper / with dangling kumquats / and flowers.”
First, how do you see “Stranger” operating in the chapbook, sandwiched between the “Company” poems?
Second, I’m currently working on my own examination between “plant babies” and their human “counterparts,” so I’m curious: how do you think about these two ideas of parenthood—caring for plant babies, caring for human babies—in relation to one another? How does your personal eco-poetic(s) strengthen or undermine this idea?
EH: The same year I worked at the flower start-up, I worked as a nanny in the Mission District in San Francisco. “Stranger” is a poem that responds to time spent caring for an infant; it’s a poem rooted in the interiority and reflections of an individual alive at work, working with and alongside living beings. I spent so many hours alone with this infant and on walks with her (a different experience than working shifts alongside other women arranging flowers on an assembly line, but one that feels connected in many ways). Being with the baby was intimate, lonely, boring, mesmerizing. I thought frequently about how her life was just beginning, and how what happened to and around her every minute mattered. I felt close to her, and also like we were strangers. Infants seem to emit a deep knowledge, to have access to something adults don’t; they seem to have been formed from stars, arrived from a black hole . . . because they have! Though I was in awe of the baby, I also felt erased, like I was a machine repeating tasks (e.g., microwaving water and resting a cold bottle of milk in it, feeding her with this bottle, washing the bottle with a little brush made especially for this task, etc.).
I think a lot about how small decisions and actions (in speech, gesture, writing, labor, love) matter, how they accumulate and ripple out to have public impact. I’m interested in zooming in on and recording these small movements that make the world alive and flawed, in trying to understand my roles in all the beauty and mess.
Re: your question about parenting babies and plants, I don’t have babies, though I’ve cared for children at different times in my life since I was 12. I am the mother of two cats. My twin sister and I have been parents to each other. It turns out house plants can be hard to keep alive, but I’m trying my best. I think the same basics apply in any kind of caregiving, though it’s far from easy or simple to achieve them: it’s important that you take the steps necessary to understand what the being needs to not just survive, but thrive, and take the steps necessary to meet those needs while also meeting your own.
LRK: How do you define a long poem? In what tradition(s) are you taking part by writing a long poem? What draws you to slender poems, with (mostly) short lines, rare stanza breaks? Which poets or poetries do you look to for formal inspiration?
EH: It’s hard for me to define a long poem, because I feel like the definition is so open, but I’m grateful for a chance to discuss this. Poems are records of having looked for something, or at something. For me, long poems emerge when some environment or developing story/universe requires my attention over a long period of time, as it reveals its shape and voice to me slowly . . . as it ultimately reveals to me that there is actually no end to what it might show me. In starting, there’s a feeling that writing a bit of it takes me farther from, rather than closer to, an ending. Among other impulses (e.g., to speak to the dead, or with the dead in mind), I sometimes write in search of clarity, and the poems are what’s left as I arrive over and over again at acceptance—a sometimes pleasurable feeling—that the truth is always changing. What’s at the end of all this writing and speaking and breathing and imagining is death, but even that is not an end, it’s another transformation, another opening and merging. I guess all of my writing lives inside a long poem, in this way.
This line Flannery O’Connor wrote in her journal when she was 20 comes to mind: “I realize I don’t know what I realize.” Maybe a long poem is a vessel for this kind of opening. Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day feels like a whole life.
Company is a long poem because it took a long time for me to arrive at this form (a chapbook-length lyric in sections). I’ve realized, looking back, that Company is actually influenced by a period when I had overdosed on poetry and was reading mostly prose (a lot of Lydia Davis, Creature by Amina Cain stands out in my mind right now, essays by Eula Biss and others, Clarice Lispector . . .). After spending 5 years on a book of poems, it felt so good to remember the sentence. I do think I was reading The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa at the time I started writing this, though; I love that book and it made a huge impression. Also Dolores Dorantes’s work. Company started as random notes, then turned into sentences, and then through lots of drafting and editing, it sort of slowly walked its way back to my core inclination, which is to write lyric poems. Ultimately, I’m drawn to writing mostly short lines because every word feels so deep and rich, and I want to give the phrases room to reveal all they contain. I can be obsessive, though, and it’s also important for me to zoom back out and apply a lighter touch, a longer line, or a wilder form, to give the phrases some air, to allow the voice to move, breathe, let go of the physical world and just speak.
In terms of inspiration, I look to an always-growing list of poets. Lucille Clifton is a poet I return to often; her lines talk to each other in a few directions to create something simultaneously deep and light. The poems feel woven in this way, but also spacious. Intricate and bold at once. I’ve read her poems “The Death of Fred Clifton” and “won’t you celebrate with me” over and over and over. Over the past year, I’ve spent time with Sharon Olds’s work. It’s amazing and inspiring.
LRK: You are a prolific photographer. How do your artistic processes for poem- and photo-making compare?
EH: For me, taking a photo is a touching down, a checking in with scale. It helps me understand where my body lives, where my energy comes from or might go. I take photos to mark my ongoing conversations with objects, plants, buildings, strangers, light, animals—my environment. Sometimes these exchanges feel warm, spiritual or even medicinal. Other times, I’m flatly noticing and recording, just kind of breathing through the phone in my hand. I like going back to visit characters I meet and photograph (a plant duct-taped to the wall, a concrete turtle). Depending on the day, they exude different moods or absorb new projections of mine. They change and age as the light and weather shift, or as the city grows and erodes around them.
Though writing can also be grounding and/or spiritual, it is hard work. Taking photos is a pleasure practice for me (and I have limited technical skills—I usually just use my phone). Writing is usually not fun . . . but walking around and taking photos can make me feel elated. It can be hard to make myself sit down and write; I take photos every day without hesitation or even the slightest bit of dread. The two practices are inevitably intertwined, but they serve me in different ways.
LRK: While perusing your website, I recognized one of your featured drawings as the cover image for Hannah Brooks-Motl’s The New Years. I’m a chapbook designer myself, so I’m always curious about an author’s relationship to images and design, particularly those accompanying her textual work. Just for kicks, choose one of your photographs or drawings to grace the cover of another author’s book or chapbook—or, choose an image (a photograph or not) to accompany one of your own works-in-progress.
EH: Yes, it’s such a good feeling to offer a drawing or photo to a poet/friend and see the image out in the world, in conversation with their work. At one point I was hoping to use a painting by Wanda Pimentel as the cover of Company, but we couldn’t get a reply, re: permission, so I ended up using a photo of mine from Oakland. There are so many other artists that help me look at my writing in new ways. Here are a few whose work I love to imagine on a future collection of mine: Matthew Wong (his painting “Somewhere” is one of my favorites); this painting I saw by Joe Light; Mary Manning; Milton Avery; Gretta Johnson; and Forrest Bess.