Interview with Emily Perez
Emily Pérez is a published poet born and raised in southern Texas. Cal McCarthy and Em Nelson sat down with Pérez in a local Thai restaurant to discuss identity, motherhood, and elements of classic fairytales in respects to her 2016 poetry collection House of Sugar, House of Stone.
Cal & Em: What’s your writing process like when you write a new poem?
Emily: I have a journal that I write in, and the process that I’ve come to rely on most often is I’ll spend time just free writing, and I think of it as dumping garbage. Years ago an instructor described it as, “We’ve got to get the spiders out of the hose before the water can flow.” I try to release myself from any expectations that anything good is going to come out of it, and I just write. I’ll do that for a page or two or three, and then what I do is I go back to one of those previous dumps from maybe weeks or even months before, look through it, and try to pick out things that are interesting that I can work with. The initial free write is like a deposit for later, so I don’t try to pull anything from it that day, and by going back to one I did previously, I can look at it or understand it in a new way and use that to form something that’s maybe the beginning of a poem. Then, if I’m really ambitious and have the time, I go back to another “poem beginning” and work on that in more of a revision piece. It’s a three part process: two things that are laying the groundwork for later, and the other that’s a revision.
C/E: A lot of your poems [in the full-length collection House of Sugar, House of Stone] feel very reflective in their nature, so does that writing process tie into that feeling?
Emily: That’s a good question. I was writing a lot of persona poems in that book, like using the story of Hansel and Gretel as a springboard.
I think that with those poems in particular, because I’m writing after that story has happened, all the characters are looking back at it. And so I think that could lend to the tone of reflection, whereas the pieces that I’m writing more from an “I” that is more plainly myself about early motherhood… those to me feel more present tense, like I’m in this experience and trying to make sense of it as it’s happening. I’d say the third strand in that book are pieces about my family of origin, and since those are again poems dealing with the past, they also have that reflective quality. Maybe two thirds reflective and one third present tense.
C/E: What would you say is the most challenging part of your process?
Emily: I mean, just writing something that I think is worth it—[laughs]—it’s challenging to be interesting. I think it’s challenging not to be judgmental while you’re writing, to let go of that inner voice that says, “This is stupid, you should just give up right now.” Letting go of that and giving myself permission to just write something that doesn’t feel interesting is hard to do. I also think, at every point in my writing life, I’ve always wanted to be somewhere that I’m not quite at as a writer. It’s also challenging to live with that, to accept that maybe someday I’ll get to that place and that I’m not quite there, but I have to just keep being where I am to get there. I think just dealing with my own inner aspirations and critic are the most challenging parts of the process.
C/E: Did publishing your poetry collection in any way change how your process worked, or is is still very much the same?
Emily: My master’s thesis for my MFA was a book of poems, and about a third of the material in the book I have now is from that original master’s thesis. About two-thirds I wrote after my MFA, and wrote in relative isolation. While I did have friends who were writers and a writing group, we were more like an accountability group; we met up just to write, we didn’t share our work with each other. I think the thing that changed for me about the book being published was my confidence in my own ability to judge my work, and to know that I was on a good track. Maybe before the book came out, I wondered if I needed more outside voices weighing in and telling me is this good enough, is this not good enough. But then I saw this thing that I produced based on my own judgement was ready. It just increased my confidence.
C/E: Did it quiet that little voice of self doubt?
Emily: A little bit, yeah. I don’t know if you experience this in your writing program, but when I was in grad school I actually had a particular classmate’s voice in my head as the voice of my inner critic. Everything that criticized me was in his voice, which is really messed up. He’s definitely no longer in my head. I still have my inner critic, but I think I was able to reject some of the outer critics that had been there.
C/E: Regarding House of Sugar, House of Stone, did growing up as the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants influence your work at all?
Emily: It did. It didn’t influence that book as much as it influenced my first book, which is a chapbook called Backyard Migration Route. That was actually my very first publication, and that book is a lot more about my growing up on the border in a blended family—half Mexican, half white—and being the grandchild of immigrants, and leaving that area and realizing how much of my identity depended on being recognized by people. My identity depended on people knowing who my family was in order to recognize who I was, why I looked the way I did, why I have the last name I have. When I left that area, people could no longer make sense of that, and I had to start explaining myself all the time. I’d say that that chapbook deals more with that experience and the work I’m writing now in my—knock on wood—next full-length collection [laughs] has more pieces that deal with that now. Also, now that I have children of my own, thinking about their ethnicity and their heritage is coming into my work. House of Sugar, House of Stone is far more than my ethnic and racial culture: it’s more a book about being a mother, and that was the primary point of my identity coming through that book.
C/E: You mentioned that a whole bunch of these poems were taken from different parts of your life. When organizing the collection, how did you go through that process of choosing the specific order these are going to be in?
Emily: I love this question because I think my experience can be really instructional to other people. The truth is, I had no idea and I did it badly. I was very, very rigid about how I saw those poems. I saw them as being in these three very separate categories: there were the fairy tale poems, there were the here-and-now poems, and there were the poems about the past. I could not get them to talk to each other. It was like, “You’re in this group, this group, or this group.” And I knew what I needed to do, I knew I needed to mix them together. I would literally title these files on my computer “Radical Revision,” and what I would do is move one poem from one section to another section. [Laughs] I couldn’t get out of my own way.
The best thing that I ever did was send my manuscript to an editor. She put all the poems in my book in order and sent it back to me, and then it got picked up. Before, it was getting placements, but I knew it wasn’t right. Once she did this reordering, all was well. My advice to people is to know when you are your own worst enemy and to ask for help, because I needed a lot of help. I think that in the book I’m working on now, I have a more intuitive sense of how things can come together, and not such a rigid idea of what belongs where. Because I did not order my manuscript myself, it’s still hard for me to find poems in my book. I don’t understand what she did. I know it works but I can’t say, “Oh! Here’s the logic of section one and section two.”
C/E: Maybe that kind of distance from the work is needed for readers like us to understand.
Emily: Yeah, exactly! It’s great to ask someone else to help.
C/E: Speaking of the order of certain poems, was there a deliberate connection between “Creator, I Try” and “Dear Creation, I Confess”?
Emily:: No. [Laughs] I mean, the fact that those two poems exist is intentional. The whole book is grappling with this idea of being an artist and a mother, and how can you be a creator of art and of human beings, how can those two things coexist? Is it possible to simultaneously nurture both, or do they cannibalize you? Do they interfere with one another? I think that in the book, the speaker is grappling with being a creator but also being a creation, and just those different roles.
C/E: Many of your poems regarding love tie into concepts of something unexpected, like feelings of cold or wariness. What are your inspirations behind that sort of theme
Emily: That’s a great question. When I was in grad school, my brother was getting married and he had asked me to write an epithalamion and it nearly killed me. I can’t remember if it was when I was writing that poem or before, but a peer gave me the key to unlock it. He said, “You can’t tell a love poem without darkness in it.” And I realized that the love poems that I love are complicated love ones, they’re love poems that have darkness in them. That was also my lived experience that there was no “happily ever after” perfect marriage or even perfect parent-child love. I wanted to tell what was true to my experience in bringing both the warmth and the cold into it.
C/E: Another theme we noticed in your poems is that poems like “The Flood” or “Mother Love” had heavy imagery of animals and insects that tied back into human behavior. Was there a certain experience behind that?
Emily: You know, that is something that I hadn’t noticed but other people have pointed out to me. I had noticed the animals from fairy tales and bringing in things that were already part of the fairy tale mythology. It was actually a student who pointed out all the animals. It’s just in the way that animals are a great metaphor, and a way of defamiliarizing human dynamics so that you can see them more clearly. In both of those [poems mentioned], those were things that really happen. The penguins kill baby penguins in their effort to mother that baby, and the ant thing happened with my grandmother. Both of those were resonant moments for me, where I felt like the animal world was teaching me something about my real life. But I definitely didn’t set out to have this examination of “kingdom animalia” or anything in my book.
C/E: That could be another implication of structure, too, because they were pretty close together.
Emily: Maybe that’s what she was up to. [Laughs]
C/E: Just because I’m always intrigued by book dedications, you dedicated this collection to Wylan, Felix, and Matt. Who are they and why dedicate this book specifically to them?
Emily: So Matt is my husband, and Wylan and Felix are my kids. I felt so much that—especially with Wylan and Felix—the book is about me being terrified of being a mother, then becoming a mother. They are in the book in utero and as infants, so they are so much a part of it. And Matt is in the book as well, and getting back to the question you asked about why is there so much cold in these love poems, I think it fits the idea of even our love as a family as we go into the woods and out of the woods. When I first started writing, long before I had children, I was thinking about my own childhood in ways that as a child I felt abandoned. Something that opened up the book for me was realizing that I had sympathy also for the adults who did the abandoning, realizing that tendency within myself. What are the ways in which I am both protective of and want total space from my children? That idea of going into the woods and coming out again is emblematic of the journey through the book and also my journey with them.
C/E: What was your experience with getting your book actually edited and published? Were there any surprises for you?
Emily: It was really fantastic. I had entered the Colorado Prize for Poetry and I got a phone call saying that I was a finalist for the prize. The editor said, “If you don’t win, we’d like to publish your book.” And I was like, “Let me get this straight—”
Emily: “If I win, you publish my book, and if I don’t win, you publish my book. I’ll take it!” So I didn’t win—
C/E: —But also, you won!
Emily: But also I won! It was really fantastic! From the start I was like, “What a deal, this is awesome!” And then, just by a stroke of luck because I had just moved to Denver that year, I could meet the editorial staff. That was really nice because I was able to get to know them personally, not just over email. I have a good friend from undergrad who’s an artist, and she had made the cover for my chapbook, so I asked if she could make the cover for this book as well. That was also wonderful: I got to work with a close friend of mine on developing the artwork. The other fantastic thing is the book has been out since 2016, and I have not found a single typo in that book. I no longer stress about it, but when I was first reading from it I was like, “At some point I’m going to find something.” No! The editors did a fantastic job, and that has been a delight.
C/E: It sounds like it certainly didn’t happen with this collection, but what is the nicest and/or meanest rejection you’ve ever gotten from a publisher? Clearly it wasn’t, “Hey we’ll publish either way.”
Emily: Oh right, but it was rejected many times before that. [Laughs] That was not my first rodeo with this collection. It only has to happen once—it’s like falling in love. The nicest [rejections] have been people that actually take the time to describe what they see happening, because then you know that they’ve invested in it. I would say one of the most heart-breaking rejections I received was at a major magazine I still haven’t been published in. Their editorial board accepted one of my favorite poems from my collection, and they said, “We just have to wait and see if our guest editor for this issue will approve it.” The guest editor did not. Then they said, “We’d like to hang on to it and run it by our next guest editor to see if it will come up in the next issue,” and that guest editor also rejected it! [Laughs] So, they had it for a really long time and I was hopeful that it would be published because they were supportive of it. That was a really hard one.
C/E: You mentioned the importance of knowing your own worst enemy, and when you have to get external advice. Do you have any other advice to poets trying to publish their work?
Emily: Well, yes. This is advice that I stole from someone else that was really useful to me: to make rejection a regular part of your job. Not to say I always live by this, but I think it’s really good advice, and I aspire to it. You should always have ten things out at once. You should have so many things out that you get rejected once a week, and that rejection is just another thing that happens in your daily life as a writer, so that when rejection happens it’s not such a big deal. I also think that working on a literary magazine is a useful exercise for writers, because you see how not personal it is. I think it helps you deal with rejection. Other advice I would say is read your work out loud so that you hear how it sounds. Also, just give it time. In the moment I write something I think it’s the most awesome thing ever written, and then a few days later I think it’s terrible, and then a few days later... I guess that will continue to happen, that there are times that I look back at even my published work and I think, “Oh, wow, this is so embarrassing,” and other times where I think, “This is genius, I should be so widely recognized.” Your own feelings about your work are going to fluctuate and that’s just normal.
C/E: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? Was there any experience that pushed you towards that career?
Emily: I was always a reader, and being a reader made me want to be a writer. I always love to tell stories. I thought I would be a fiction writer because that’s what I read, and then I had a few really encouraging teachers along the way. I think the first time I started writing poetry and thinking it was exciting was in fourth grade, and I just continued as a closet poet like everyone is. I’ve learned this: everyone’s a closet poet. I kept writing poetry through high school, and then got involved in my high school literary journal.
The thing that really changed my life was when I left home when I went to boarding school tenth through twelfth grade, and at my boarding school I got to hear Carolyn Forché read, and it was the first time that it had really occurred to me that you could be a poet and alive. I thought that all poets were dead; I didn’t think anyone was publishing poetry anymore. It was just this thing that had happened at one point and it was over. But, to meet someone who was alive and a poet was a revelation to me, and I thought, “Oh, this is something you can do!” I remember leaving that reading and thinking, “Oh, I want to be her. I want to live her life. I want all of that.” So that was a real turning point for me in thinking that being a poet was a possibility. [Laughs]
C/E: When you read something, what do you want to experience from it, or what do you want to get from that reading?
Emily: I’m reading quite a lot right now because I’ve started writing book reviews regularly. I write once a month for RHINO Reviews, and I’m also writing for The Rumpus, The Georgia Review, and Borderlands, so I’m flooded with books right now. So that is a question that I’ve been asking myself! “What am I looking for and what do I admire?” I’m really drawn to a story. That’s not to say a narrative poem, but that the book as a whole has a story to it that I can put together. I’m also drawn to musicality in language. I would even include deliberate anitimusicality as a kind of musicality, like making musical choices that align with the approach to a poem, or the desired effect of the poem. I really admire people who can use association effectively and bring in surprise without it being derailing. I also really admire people who can use surrealism in an effective way; that’s not something that I do or I have done, but I admire it when it’s done well.
C/E: The rest of the questions we have are fun little questions like “What’s your favorite piece of media?” or “What’s the kind of music that you like to listen to?”
Emily: I like a lot of different kinds of music, different music for different things. I grew up in a family of musicians so I listened to a lot of classical music, but both of my brothers are jazz musicians, and my dad plays the mandolin so we listen to a lot of bluegrass. So I grew up with classical, jazz, bluegrass and then top forty. The radio was one of my lifelines. To this day my husband is still like, “How do you know the words to every single song made between 1982 and 1990?” It’s because I listened to the radio all the time. Journey, Foreigner, just try me! Right now I’m listening to this all female mariachi group that is really awesome called Flor de Toloache, they’re based in New York. My sort of default if I’m just getting work done is often singer/songwriter types like Patty Griffin and Emmylou Harris.
C/E: Who’s your favorite author or poet that you like to read?
Emily: Right now? I don’t know. I like so many different people for so many different reasons, but a poet who I really love to read and teach is a poet named Atsuro Riley. He’s so incredibly musical and yet writes these pieces that are rooted in place and culture. I believe he is half Japanese and he grew up in South Carolina. His poems are this portrait of boyhood and living as a racialized being in a racist place. What he does musically is just mind blowing, so I really admire his work. But that said, there are so many people that I admire right now. I’m reviewing a debut book by Sara Borjas that should be out by the time this interview gets published called Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff. The more I read that book, the more I’m like, “I’m so envious of this book!” But you know, whatever I read next will be my next favorite book. The book that I loved that I reviewed from 2018 was Rachel Mckibbens’ blud.
C/E: What’s your favorite kind of theme to write, or what kinds of things do you like to implement in your writing?
Emily: In terms of themes, like I said earlier, my first book was dealing with motherhood. Now I think motherhood is still a part of what I’m doing, but it’s a lot about gender. In some cosmic irony, I have two sons and a husband and even our dog is a boy, and I’m a gender studies teacher. My sons both confirm and deny everything I’ve ever believed about everything. I’m thinking a lot about how we learn gender as children and how we teach gender, as adults, to children. Another thing I’m trying to think about and write about more is race. I also really like to bring spoken language into a poem, I like to quote people and just see what their particular syntax and inflection does to a poem.
C/E: That’s really interesting! One of the pieces of advice that we got in writing class was, “Go out and eavesdrop on a conversation and try to write the different dialects.”
Emily: Yeah! That’s real language, and with raising kids, they have these phrasings that are entirely their own. There are things that are straight out of your mouth, and then there are these other things that are like, “Where does that come from?” My younger son still uses the word ‘ever’ instead of ‘if’! He’ll say, “Ever you want the rice, you know, come have some,” or, “Ever this,” “Ever that.” I love writing down what they say because I find that it helps me enter something in a new way.
C/E: Alright, here’s a question that I like: if life as we know it ended and only one piece of writing could survive-
Emily: Oh, God! [Laughs] This is horrible.
C/E: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s an end-of-the-world scenario and only one piece of writing can live, which one would you want it to be?
Emily: I really don’t know… [Laughs] This is a terrible question, I don’t know. I think I would opt for some ancient text, and I’m not totally sure what. Something that occurs to me is the Bible. Though I was raised religious, I’m not particularly religious right now, but it’s a book that has poetry and prose and history and interesting cadences. It’s a book by many different authors that’s all been collected together, so there’s variety in it while still telling this one big story. A lot of it functions as metaphor, so in addition to the story it’s telling, there’s a lot that you can gain from it that you can apply to whatever situation you’re living in now. This is not to say that I would want in the afterworld to promote a Judeo-Christian view of whatever is to come next, it’s just to say that I would want a text that captures something about a people and the voices that make it.
C/E: That’s such a good way to look at it, like an amalgamation.
Emily: Yeah, sometimes you’re in the mood for the psalms and sometimes you’re in the mood for Revelations.
C/E: Yeah! That was not an easy question to answer so I congratulate you on that.
Emily: It’s a tough one! And I do love Shakespeare; again there’s poetry, there’s prose, there’s story. All these things in one text, so that might make it a somewhat satisfying post-apocalyptic read. [Laughs]
C/E: It just shows what we can make as humans.