The way that I write is like I’m fuckin’ Sylvia Plath, an interview with: Emily Simon

In which the poet performs herself

When I transcribe, I try my best to preserve the idiosyncratic way my interview subject speaks. There is, however, a large gulf between written and spoken communication. Trying to capture poet Emily Simon’s voice in words is to castrate a cartoon character. It’s like assigning the role of the straight man to the ghost of Robin Williams. 

Emily shines bright in so many colors when she speaks—drawing words out, a frenetic pace of ideas abandoned halfway through articulation, silly voices—that you’ll have to accept my apology in advance. 

Anyway, a standard interview is a facsimile of what was said; whereas, poetry allows for a capacious understanding of language. In this arena, Emily can best represent herself, and she does in her debut chapbook, Reign is Over, which came out mid-February on Choo Choo Press

In it she “sing[s] her words,” to quote one poem. The collection is personal and political, though beyond the “personal is political” ascription. The titular poem, “Reign is Over,” is the longest and most critical of the ways the world around us is failing (and failing us). I want to be honest and say I don’t think my words can stand in place of Emily’s so I suggest you simply read her yourself.

Our interview begins in medias res after Emily points to a synagogue seen from the window of her Midtown apartment.


Me: Do you think Judaism informs your poetry practice at all?

Emily: As far as I identify as a New York poet, yes. My New York City identity is the same as my Jewish identity, and I think my voice is pretty strong in that regard. 

Me: What do you mean by New York City? Do you mean the New York School of poets? Is that what you’re referring to?

Emily: I’ve been avoiding saying that because there are so many New York School poets who I love and then there’s different generations of New York School poets. I admire them so much. I love Eileen Myles, I love more contemporary poets, too. I’m not even sure who exactly counts. I love James Schuyler. There are poets who I would definitely consider New York School poets just because they have that talkey voice that’s a little bit conspiratorial and it’s sort of easy-going and it’s funny and it’s surprising. It’s not didactic, but it’s also not afraid of making really bold claims. It’s maybe a little argumentative, but then, just as fast, it’ll snap back and do something recursive or contradict itself. Have you heard of Alli Warren

Me: No, I don’t know who that is

Emily: Alli Warren. Little Hill is her most recent book published with City Lights. I also love Ali Leibegott. So good. Ariana Reines is great. There are a lot of contemporary poets that I read. In the last two years, I’ve been reading more poetry. Sorry, that was a tangent. I don’t want to say I’m a New York School poet but I’m a very social person and I talk a lot and I love people and I don’t think that my persona on the page...I’m performing for sure, but I’m really interested in, idk, performing myself, too, and myself is Jewish and from New York City. 

Me: That all makes sense to me. 

Emily: The person who I am is reading all these people all the time. And these voices are filtering through me all of the time. Even if it’s not explicitly intertextual work, it is. I have a lot of influences for sure. 

Me: Do you read more contemporary poets than you do Classical or whatever? 

Emily: I do. I do. Maybe I should be embarrassed by that, but I’m not. 

Me: Is there any point in reading Tennyson today? I think Rimbaud has something to teach us, but as far as John Keats…

Emily: For sure, for sure, 100 percent because those poets have a lot to tell us about the music of poetry. The sonic things that we can achieve in poetry. Meter. Those things are important to me, too, you know? So it’s not like I never read those poets. I love Keats. I highly recommend Pindar’s odes. They feel a little contemporary. And I got to study these odes in a course with Tim Donnelly at school. In the past, when my hand has been forced, and I have to read the classics and I’m like “oh brother” I always appreciate it, ultimately. 

Me: The reason I ask is because I’m reading this book right now. It’s called New Poets of England and America. It was apparently an important anthology back in the day. Everyone’s doing the rhyming poetry thing, which is nice, but sometimes I feel that it’s passé. 

Emily: Sometimes, I’m of the mind that you can’t break the rules if they don’t exist in the first place; Or, at least that it’s not so exciting to break the rules if they don’t exist in the first place. I’m not positive that I’d be so excited by these New York School poets that I’m talking about, I’m not sure they’d have the same impact on me, if I hadn’t read really regular poems with stanzaic symmetry before that. If I hadn’t read blank verse. I had a pretty traditional academic education where I had to memorize poems and I read poems that had like quatrains, you know what I’m saying? 

Me: Mhm 

Emily: And then I was introduced to the Modernist poets. The Modernist poets were rebellious. I had to come to contemporary poetry on my own. No one was going to show me really contemporary stuff. I was like, “No, this is crazy. This is really crazy.” Renee Gladman’s Prose Architectures. She is drawing language. It’s really exciting. It’s really cool. 

Me: Do you find that at school contemporary poetry is just not discussed?

Emily: Oh no, it is. It is. Definitely discussed. I think there’s been a really healthy range of material in my program for sure. Before I started this program, I can’t say that I had academic exposure to a lot of contemporary literature. So it was super exciting. 

Me: What was your background before you started the program at Columbia? 

Emily: Like, what was I doing? 

Me: What was your poetry portfolio like? Had you already been performing, writing? 

Emily: I was always into writing. When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a writer. I was writing fiction when I was in college. I remember being in a workshop and just hating plot development and character development. I hated story arcs. I hated all the constraints and expectations of conventional narrative. So once I turned a story and we did peer editing in class. I remember getting all the copies of the story back from students in the class and they were all like normal: underlining, notes, whatever. And the last one in the stack was like covered in, “fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.” It was like, “Fuck this, fuck this, fuck this,” but more specifically it was like, “this is too poetic.” By process of elimination, I realized it was a friend of mine and I was like, “Hey Ben. What’s up?” It was actually kind of helpful because I was like, “Yeah, I don’t think this is my form.” He picked up on the fact that I was not really having a good time trying to write a story with a beginning, middle, and end. 

After I graduated college, I just started writing poems. I was trying to work in politics. Trump had been elected. I had an internship working for Senator [Kirsten] Gillibrand. I had a really good time working in her Constituent Affairs office. That was an experience. I was talking to people all over New York State. These people were calling with serious housing emergencies. Issues with their pensions, their benefits. It was a lot. I was just hearing all of these very, very intense personal stories every day. I started writing poems and I realized I could go to social work school. Then I was like, “OK, well, if I’m gonna go to grad school, I actually just want to be a poet.” I applied to a lot of programs. I actually tumbled into a Harper’s internship. I had an internship at Harper’s Magazine

Me: Whoah. How does one tumble into a Harper’s internship?

Emily: One tumbles into a Harper’s internship when one’s friend gets a Harper’s internship and then someone else quits in the middle of a term and then they need someone to fill in. So I filled in and they kept me on so I really, truly tumbled in. 

Then I got into school at Columbia and I couldn’t believe it. I really wanted to stay in New York. I’m so addicted to living in New York it’s kind of embarrassing. I’m from New York, I went to college in Maine, and I loved it but then I was like I want to come home now. 

Me: What school was it? 

Emily: I went to Bowdoin

Me: I don’t know what that is

Emily: Bowdoin College, it’s like 30 minutes from Portland, Maine. I wasn’t expecting how boarding school vibes it would be, which was not really for me, but I really loved being in Maine. That was the best part. 

Me: I’ve never been to Maine 

Emily: It’s so beautiful. … I realized I had always been writing poetry. I was intimidated by the genre. I was very nervous about the idea of the difference between nonsense and sense. I thought that good poetry made less sense and I was afraid that I was someone who tended towards making sense and who tended towards order and organization and clarity and concision. I was afraid that that meant I couldn’t be a poet. I thought that poetry was more unwieldy. I was really nervous about going into a program because of that anxiety about sense and nonsense. It turns out a lot of people are nervous about that. It’s an interesting thing to be nervous about. 

Me: And with your new chapbook, do you think that you’re closer to sense or nonsense? 

Emily: Sense. And I’m fine with that. I think that poetry for me is a way of making sense. The process of writing poetry for me is like conceiving an argument down the page. It feels like a very methodical process for me---not that I am trying to persuade anybody. It’s not propaganda. I don’t really have a goal. It starts with something inarticulate and then it literally ends articulated so isn’t that what making sense is? You could look at the Language poets and say that that’s nonsense. But I’m not an expert. 

At the same time, I’ve spent so much time with these poems that they make a lot of sense to me. I know exactly what I was thinking about. I wish I could experience them fresh the way that you might but I have so many associations. The collage of associations and the collage of memories, that is all sense making. 

Me: I was telling my friend the other day that when I write an essay, my goal is to be understandable. When I write poetry, there’s absolutely no obligation to be understandable. Does that ring true to you? 

Emily: I think that question implies a certain audience or the reader. Like, “Will they understand?” and I agree that I don’t really want to be too self-conscious about someone’s experience of reading because I think that’s going to inhibit me completely. I think that writing is really private, at least in the very beginning. I don’t write in drafts, though, to be honest. I feel like editing and writing happen simultaneously. If I’m being honest, I don’t think I think about the reader very much. At the same time, I respect and I trust the reader. I just sort of respect and trust if I’m doing a good job, if I write a good poem, they’ll meet me there. And it will work and we’ll understand each other. And there’s gonna be a kind of empathic understanding and there’s a contract between us. I think if you pander to a reader, that’s kind of disrespect and nobody wins. 

Me: I totally agree. I had a roommate who used to say she didn’t enjoy films when she thought that they thought she was stupid. That they were talking down to her. And you can tell the difference. Michael Bay doesn’t make films that you have to rise to the occasion of. 

Emily: That reminds me of the conversation about poetry being inaccessible or obscure. It’s a pretty niche art form. It’s at the back of the book store in most bookstores. I’m also pretty confident that it’s becoming a more popular genre. 

If we really care about democracy then we should allow these really radical art forms to open our minds. I think these forms of refusal and resistance in poetry are exactly what make possible a liberated society. We don’t have a liberated society. I can fantasize about a liberated society through poetry 

Me: That makes sense. What is your goal with your poetry? 

Emily: What’s my goal? What’s my goal? Well, what’s my goal? Wow. Can you narrow that down?

Me: Well, you know, self-expression? Ok, how about why do you write poetry? 

Emily: OK, well, first of all, I think that if I lived in a box on a desert island I would be writing it with my fingernails in the side of...I really don’t remember ever not writing. I have journals from when I was a little kid and I was always writing. I saw a Tik-Tok the other day about someone saying remember when you thought that your diary was gonna be published and you were gonna be famous because you wrote in your diary? That was ME! That was me! I have a lot of journals because I am just too scatterbrained to have just one. They’re all over the place and I can’t just write, “Today, I had a sandwich.” The way that I write is like I’m fuckin’ Sylvia Plath or something. I also think that I’m very interested in...I don’t know how not to get personal about this. My writing isn’t explicitly autobiographical. I know when it is autobiographical. But I grew up with my mother telling me lots of stories about her childhood and about her mother. I think humans are interested in telling the stories of themselves. I think storytelling has everything to do with being human and I think it has everything to do with human nature, human progress. And when I feel like the climate is under such duress. It’s dying. The world is literally dying. I’m asking myself if I can ever have children. If I would want to bring children into this world. Well, I can at least bring words into this world. I can write myself down. And I can write down my mother and her mother and that feels like some kind of futurity. I’m interested in futurity. And my friends. My friends and all the people I love. I love strangers. And my friends. I’m interested in a positive futurity. You can be honest about the very dismal reality that we are contending with right now while making space for a more positive, imaginary. Did that make sense? 

Me: In a way, yes.