A Self Out of the Ashes: A Conversation with Emily Skaja

A Self Out of the Ashes: A Conversation with Emily Skaja
EMILY SKAJA’S Brute, winner of the 2018 Walt Whitman Prize, explores the ways trauma disconnects us from what is essential about ourselves, and how recovery is a search to find these lost selves again. In one of the opening poems, “Brute Strength,” Skaja writes, “where is that witch girl / unafraid of anything, flea-spangled little yard rat, runt / of no litter, queen, girl who wouldn’t let a boy hit her.” Brute attempts from various angles to revisit and break through the moments that separated the speaker from this girl. The collection is at once harrowing and healing, not only working in ways that are delightfully self-referential — revisiting images in new ways — but also allusive, acknowledging female poets who have addressed similar problems in their work.

Skaja’s collection is timely and poignant in its exploration of domestic abuse and gendered power dynamics. Recognizing the pervasive nature of memory, Skaja creates a world that is both universally relatable and touchingly particular. The speaker suggests that one can return to experience prior to the moment of the trauma’s inception through images culled from childhood and ancient mythology, in a way that productively unlocks the paralytic psyche wrought through abuse.

We sat down with Skaja as part of the River City Writer’s Series at the University of Memphis, shortly before the release of her collection. At times we felt more like three friends sitting around a kitchen table than three participants at a university-sanctioned event, in large part due to Skaja’s warmth and vulnerability, which comes through in her work as well as in this conversation. We touched on the therapeutic benefits of pets, the special challenges of being a working poet in the 21st century, and the healing power of poetry for both the poet and the reader.


CHRISTINE GUARANO: What was your intention using the word “brute,” and were there “brute” poems that didn’t make it into the final manuscript?

EMILY SKAJA: For a long time, I felt that there was something missing from my manuscript, and once I had the word “brute,” the rest of it came together. I remember I became fixated on the word “brute” after standing in a really long Kroger line to go to a girls’ night, staring at the words, “Brut Rosé.” I started thinking about how those words are gendered: brute means “lack of tenderness” in men. That made me start thinking about the idea of tenderness and how tenderness is always the attractor for an abusive relationship. Abusive relationships are equals parts: tenderness/caretaking and, also, manipulation/violence. The idea of the word became really powerful to me. I wrote a series of new poems using that word, and then I wrote my way back into a few older poems as well using “brute” as a kind of key. It came to me in a silly, unremarkable moment, but it made me think of my collection in a different way, and I had been looking for a title. It seemed like a sign from the universe.

SARAH COZORT: You talk about that moment where you found inspiration even though you weren’t looking for it.

I usually write poems in a fugue state. I go for long periods without writing and take in things. Then, I’ll feel a state come over me, and I’ll write through it. It’s hard to teach that. You tell your students, “Just wait for a mood to strike you and walk around in it.” That’s not very helpful. One thing the MFA taught me was how to condition yourself to trigger that mood. I think of myself as going out on field trips in the world looking for messages from the universe that tell me how to proceed. If I think of the world as full of omens that I’m meant to receive, it makes everything feel charged with meaning; the more you look at the world this way, the more it shows up in your writing.

It’s sort of like how a service dog is trained that when it wears a particular coat or vest, it knows it’s working. That’s what I tell my students: you’re going out into the world wearing your poet vest, and, therefore, you’re on the job, and you are in charge of noticing things.

CG: Twenty-first-century markers are dropped throughout the collection.

SC: Yet, your work feels immediate and connected to something ancient and timeless. How do you strike that balance?

Thank you. It was a challenge and a negotiation. When I started my MFA, I was writing poems that were incredibly vague. My poems were full of old-world images, but it was hard for me to move from the figural/archetypal into the literal — and into the current century. I was writing about things that only metaphorically had any relationship to my own life. The mundane was something I never thought I’d bring into a poem. I remember reading a poem with the word “Google” in it in my first year of the MFA and thinking to myself how Google didn’t belong in the sacred space of poetry. I felt scandalized by the appearance of the actual world in poems.

I had to knock that out of myself, because at the same time people would say [about my own work], “This is a really competent, beautiful description of a leaf, but what is going on underneath this leaf? Why are you so emotional about a leaf?” I would respond, No, it has all this subtext! Finally, it occurred to me that no one would experience the subtext unless I explained it. All it would take is one sentence: “I feel really sad about this today,” followed by: competent description of a leaf.

CG: Place features prominently in your collection — Philadelphia, the Midwest, the side of the road, graveyards, and domestic spaces, like the kitchen. You’ve said before that so many of your images are your dirty dishes.

I feel haunted by particular landscapes. There’s something about the emotional pull of certain places I’ve lived that puts me into a brute state of mind. It makes me feel vulnerable or nervous or full of dread. So, I think about those landscapes when I’m writing, and that mood seeps into the poem.

I grew up in a house between two cemeteries, and the house was later replaced with more cemetery. That spot of land features heavily in my poems because it’s so emotionally fraught for me, and it resonates with a lot of other themes of my work. I’m very worried about death and the destruction of safety/home. Of course, the mundane has to make it in, too — hence the dirty-dishes poems, many of which I wrote from my kitchen table with a view of the sink.

SC: Who is the artist, and how was the cover art chosen?

The artist is Walton Ford. His work has been on the cover of other poetry books, and I thought those covers were really arresting. He has an image of some birds that are flying in the shape of a tree trunk that I was obsessed with.

The person who did the cover design is Mary Austin Speaker, who has done cover designs for Milkweed, as well. She’s incredible. When I saw this cover, I felt really seen. I love the cover, and in the original painting, you can see the whole wolf. The part where the wolf is being baited by the hand [which we see on the cover] is only one piece. In the other part of the image, there’s a hand tying a ribbon around the back paw. What we see is the bait, and what we don’t see is the trap. When I saw that image I thought, “Wow, that really speaks to a lot of these themes of captivity, baiting, the push and pull of an abusive relationship.”

CG: Is the wolf on the cover related to your dog, Valor, who appears in the book?

It does look like my dog! I have a large black dog who I adopted during a time in my life when a lot of things were going wrong. I adopted her as my grief dog, which I highly recommend. I wanted someone with me that I could put all of my energy into because, at the time, I was really unable to take care of myself, and taking care of someone else was much easier. I named her Valor because that was a quality I needed to see in myself.

She ends up in a lot of these poems because she came into my life at a time when I had been triggered into writing through the trauma of my past, and it was painful for me to see my own vulnerability reflected in her. I could be tender to Valor, but I couldn’t be tender to myself.

SC: There are several epistolary poems to female friends in the book. Can you talk about how they work in terms of the collection?

When I began writing these poems, I was writing to the people who had hurt me, and after a while, I found I didn’t have a lot left to say to those people. I found — when I started speaking to a friend rather than the perpetrator — about the situation, the work really opened up. It felt like a safer space, and writing from a place of intimacy was a new and necessary condition of those poems. There were things I would say to a girlfriend that I would never say to the person who had hurt me. So, in those poems, I’m able to discover things about myself or think about the situation differently because I’m talking to a friend.

One thing about my particular friend group is that they’re really good at making you feel empowered in your own memory. Having someone repeat your story back to you in a more forgiving way is one of the best qualities, in my experience, of having female friends. So many of these poems are addressed to them because they were so helpful in helping me think about my younger self more tenderly.

CG: This book is a smattering of form — there are epistolary poems, prose poems, sonnets, elegies. You also talk about cannibalizing your own work. When you sit down to draft, do you start with an intention of form?

I tend to hear a rhythmic line in my head, and then I try to match it up with something else. So, that’s the first stage, and form is something I figure out later. I used to be really good about keeping an image journal. So, I would start with a single line or phrase and then try to find an image that clarified it in some way, and from there, I would have the emotional center of the poem.

For me, revising a poem is like mediating a conflict: “I can see that the speaker is upset, but what is this poem actually even about?” That knowledge comes really late in the process for me, so I spend almost all of my time revising, trying to figure it out. When I was an MFA student, I used to go through 60 drafts of a poem before turning it in. That was a lot, especially for poems that I would later scrap. There were poems that didn’t work and didn’t work, but then, years later, I would realize, “Oh, I think these two lines might actually belong to this other poem.” That’s something marvelous and strange about the subconscious, that it can create images for one poem that clarify the context of a totally different poem.

SC: So, all of the elegies are prose poems, except for one.

The prose poems were written during a stage in my life when I felt like I didn’t have anything else to say about the subjects I had introduced, but that wasn’t true. I felt that way because I was at the end of my MFA, and I was really burned out. Don Platt, my thesis advisor, said, “Your book is really interested in transformation, so, I’d like you to read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and I’d like you to write prose poems about the idea of metamorphosis.” So, with that assignment in mind, I came up with a series of prose elegies. I had written a whole series of failed elegies similar in structure to “Elegy for R,” the one that’s in lines, but they didn’t really work. So I wound up scrapping those poems and pulling out some of the best lines and images to use in new prose poems. I gave myself formal obstacles for constructing those poems. For each one, I decided to include water, movement, and a transformation. The prose poems take place in a surreal landscape, and the speaker is a slant version of myself, not a literal version of myself, as in the other poems. So, not speaking as myself but as someone adjacent to myself helped, too.

SC: Trees come into play throughout the book, but in “Elegy with Rabbits,” you write, “I am paranoid about how much grief a tree can witness. That these woods grow older & never break their silence seems unfeeling.” Can you talk about your relationship to trees?

I was raised by very outdoorsy nature people. One of my earliest memories was watching my dad put medicine on a tree in our front yard that had been struck by lightning. This idea that it was important to be a caretaker of trees was something that was instilled in me really early. Also, my grandparents lived in this house in Wisconsin that was completely surrounded by trees. Before I was born, there was a massive forest fire around their house, so years later, you could see where the ditches had been dug [to stop the spread of fire] — blackened trees on one side of the ditch and green, healthy trees on the other. Those images really stayed with me. Where I was raised was cemetery, house, cemetery, swamp, woods. So, I’ve been surrounded by trees my whole life, and I have very religious feelings about trees. They have a holiness in them.

SC: There are a number of compound words made up by the poet in this book, like “ham-faced” and “plank-mouthed.” Your use of these compounds is refreshing and sparing.

Thank you. I try to create phrases that fit the rhythm I’m hearing in my head for the whole line. I hear a double-word rhythm very frequently when I’m drafting, and sometimes it leads me to write compound images that don’t make sense that I have to smooth out later. It can be hard to imagine something if there are too many images in the same line. In the example of “plank-mouthed,” which is in “Dear Ruth,” the line is: “Anyone can be a plank-mouthed bird or anyone can be the sky hallelujah.” My impulse was to iron out “plank-mouthed” to make it easier to picture and my thesis advisor, Don, intervened and said, “No, I love that and I need you to leave it in. It’s so violent to think of a bird being fused with a plank. The idea that the bird would have something in its mouth that’s so heavy and painful is really disturbing.” I was like, “Yeah, but is it too weird?” and that’s when he said, “Don’t be afraid of weird. Go hard into the weird and stay there,” which is my favorite advice ever for writing.

SC: The epigraphs that come at the beginning of each section of the book are all by female poets — Sylvia Plath, H.D., Anne Carson, and also some nods to others’ work within the poems themselves. I thought I detected a nod to Margaret Atwood’s Power Politics.

CG: Also, Brock-Broido.

These are a few of my favorite poetry heroes. Also, because this is a book about learning to rebuild a self out of the ashes of an old self, I think Brute owes a major debt to Plath’s Ariel. The thing I love about Anne Carson — well, besides everything — are her run-on sentences. She has this quality of linking really disparate things in a way that feels natural, almost incidental. And both of those women are writing into myth from perspectives of female empowerment.

CG: The use of mythology is most up front in “Eurydice.” How did that poem come about?

I’m obsessed with the Orpheus and Eurydice story. Usually, it’s told as the Orpheus story, and there have been a number of feminist reinterpretations of this tale from her point of view. I’m interested in writing into that tradition. There are some really sexist versions of the myth where Eurydice says, “Look at me!” which I find really disingenuous. I don’t believe she would ever really say that. “I would love to be destroyed right on the brink of my salvation!” Seems unlikely.

Immediately after she’s sucked back into the underworld, we switch to Orpheus as the center of the story, and he’s so devastated that he writes the most beautiful, heartbreaking song about it, but my feeling is, “Who cares?” Sure, he’s sad, but not sadder than she is. So, I decided I was going to write this poem to Eurydice in which I try to convince her that Orpheus sucks, and it sort of has a connection to this other poem in the book, “Letter to S, Hospital,” in which the speaker has a friend who’s tried to explain to her that she was in a bad, abusive relationship, but the speaker wasn’t ready to hear that yet. So, this poem is a kind of fusing of the speaker with Eurydice, saying, “You didn’t have this knowledge at the time, but there are ways you can rescue yourself or be helped out of this situation by other women.”

The book ends on a note of hopefulness in solidarity with other women, but also with the knowledge that recovery is a long process. The healing is incomplete. It’s not one-and-done, as if I wrote these poems and now I don’t have these feelings anymore. That’s not how it works.

SC: Did the final form of the book surprise you?

Yes. My friend, the poet Sarah Rose Nordgren, told me something really helpful as I was trying to order these poems, which is that some collections are shaped like a diamond, some collections are shaped like a circle, and other collections are shaped like a spiral. She said, “I think your book is a spiral because you leave a point, making this journey away from it, but you keep coming back to it over and over.” I think the spiral is also a natural structure for traumatic thinking. It was really hard for me to figure out how to end this book because it does feel like all of those ideas are ongoing and have no natural end.

I resolved it by placing poems in the last section that have a lot of narrative distance from the speaker in the first part of the book. In the first section, the traumatic events are constantly happening and things are out of control, whereas, near the end, there’s more humor and a sense of resolution. I placed those poems toward the end to show the contrast between the manic self from the first section and the self who has fought to gain a position of recovery.


Sarah Cozort holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Memphis, where she currently teaches. She is the winner of the 2018 Deborah L Talbot Award from the Academy of American Poets, and her work can be found in the most recent issue of Barely South.

Christine Guaragno is a poet and bookseller living in Memphis, Tennessee.

LARB Contributors

Sarah Cozort’s work has appeared in Barely South, The Nashville Scene, LARB, and the Academy of American Poets (online), among other publications. Her scholarly work focuses on the use of creative-writing pedagogy in the first-year composition classroom, writing studies’ labor, and narratology of birth work.
Christine Guaragno is a poet and bookseller living in Memphis, Tennessee. You can find her work online at Seventh Wave Magazine, the Pittsburgh Poetry Review, and Pidgeonholes Magazine


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!