Interviews / Poets

Interview with Emma Bolden: “My process always starts with rock tumbling.”

Emma Bolden is a poet and author from Alabama. She is the recipient of a 2017 Creative Writing Fellowship in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts and a 2019 Literary Arts Fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts.

Her debut memoir, The Tiger and the Cage: A Memoir of a Body in Crisis, was published by Soft Skull Press in 2022. Her poetry collections include House Is An Enigma, which won the 2017 Cowles Poetry Book Prize, medi(t)ations, and Maleficae, which was a finalist for several awards.

She has also published several chapbooks of poetry and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals and she has won various awards for her writing. Emma currently serves as an editor of the Screen Door Review and has previously served as an editor at Tupelo Quarterly. She received her BLA from Sarah Lawrence College and her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

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Hi Emma! We’re delighted to have you as a guest on Famous Writing Routines. For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, could you please give us a brief introduction to yourself? 

It’s such an honor to be a guest on Famous Writing Routines! Most recently, I’m the author of The Tiger and the Cage: A Memoir of a Body in Crisis, which came out in October of 2022 from Soft Skull Press. I’m also the author of the full-length poetry collections House Is an Enigma (Southeast Missouri State University Press), medi(t)ations (Noctuary Press) and Maleficae (GenPop Books) as well as four chapbooks.

I’m currently putting together a new poetry collection about girlhood, particularly in the Deep South, and working on a novel. Outside of writing, I’m the director of a company that works with entrepreneurs, especially in the life sciences and tech, in Birmingham, Alabama.

How does your background and upbringing in Alabama influence your writing?

When I was in middle and high school and talked with teachers and mentors about wanting to be a writer, they all gave the same advice: I needed to be prepared to work hard—extremely hard, and then harder—because of where I’m from.

I’m not necessarily convinced that that’s true, especially now that Zoom and electronic communication has, in many ways, dissolved many of our previous ideas about distance. Nonetheless, that idea (or myth) had a huge impact on me as a younger writer, and I think it deeply influenced me as I developed a writing schedule and routine. 

What does a typical writing day look like for you? 

Over the past six years, I moved from working on poetry to long prose projects, which felt a bit like moving from running sprints to marathons. I work full-time, so in order to make things work, I had to make my writing routine much more rigid and more fluid at the same time.

I set aside time to write after work every day; I wish I could be one of those get-up-at-four-to-write-before-work people, but sadly, my brain is fuzz that early in the morning. I’ve also learned to take advantage of lunch breaks and downtime and to write on the fly.

I’ve developed a close relationship with the notes app on my phone. I invested in a refillable planner that can also fit three slim notebooks, so I always have notebooks for separate projects or genres with me.

Can you walk us through your creative process, from idea to finished product?

My process always starts with rock tumbling: I tend to tumble a scene (or a poem, or a line, or a passage of dialogue) over in my mind until it’s smooth enough for me to make sense of it. If it’s prose, I jot down a few spare notes during a break so that I don’t forget and then use those notes as the basis of my writing sessions.

Sometimes things actually do fit this linear form, but most of the time, something pops up that surprises me and completely, joyfully derails my plans. That’s honestly my favorite thing about writing, particularly about writing fiction.

My friend Chantel Acevedo compares it to lucid dreaming: you have control, but not entirely. That’s incredibly exciting for me. And that happens even more often when I write poetry, which I tend to draft by hand. I’ll start out thinking I know exactly where the poem is going and then the poem shows me that it knows better – and the poem is always right, so I’ve learned to listen and to trust it.

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Can you speak to the unique hybrid form of your book medi(t)ations and how you came to explore that style?

I’ve always been interested in liminal spaces, especially between genres and between poetry and prose. It’s something I began exploring in the essays that later became my memoir, The Tiger and the Cage: A Memoir of a Body in Crisis, which blends personal and historical narratives to examine how women are (in my case) and have been (in the case of, for instance, Charcot’s patients at the Salpêtrière) treated by the medical community.

I wrote medi(t)ations as I was writing the first parts of my memoir, so in many ways it’s a precursor and a companion to Tiger. medit(a)tions is largely about my experience with medical issues that went diagnosed and unnamed for years, but were severe enough to impact my daily life – by which I mean difficulty walking and an inability to feel my legs.

It was a strange experience, dealing with such serious symptoms without the language to name their cause. For that reason, it took me a long time to write directly about what I was experiencing: how do you talk about a thing with no name, a medical problem with no diagnosis? It felt like I was stuck in an in-between, an indescribable, unnamable place.

The only way that I could really begin to write about and convey that in language was to inhabit an in-between on the page as well. medi(t)ations exists in a space between poetry and essay, and this kind of liminality exists within the work as well through the frequent use of white space that transforms the meaning of sentences.

What was your experience being a recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Alabama State Council on the Arts and how it has impacted your writing career?

I don’t think I can fully verbalize just how very much both of these grants meant to me. I was shocked when I received both grants—I actually thought that the NEA grant was some kind of prank for a while.

There is, of course, the financial aspect: the ASCA grant allowed me to do research that has been absolutely invaluable, and the NEA grant offered financial security at a time when I desperately needed it. But more than that, both grants came at times when my confidence in myself was extremely low.

The thing I especially can’t verbalize is how much it meant to receive this kind of encouragement, this kind of statement of faith in me and my writing at a time when I couldn’t feel it myself. It helped me to push myself further and faster, and it gave me the bravery to take bigger risks in my work.

Though both grants were for poetry, they led me to take leaps of faith in other genres, too. Without these grants, my memoir wouldn’t exist, and I don’t know that I would’ve had the guts to try to write the novel I’m now revising. 

It feels important for me to say that I’d applied for both grants before—I think this was the seventh or eighth time I applied for the NEA grant. Sticking with it is the key!

How do you approach the editing process, both for your own work and as an editor for the Screen Door Review?

Though I learn a lot from the talented writers who trust us with their work for the Screen Door Review, they’re very different processes for me. When editing for a journal, I put my personal preferences and tastes aside in order to look at the piece in and of itself.

For instance, when I’m reading poetry for pleasure, I tend towards more experimental, lyric work. When I’m reading poetry for a journal, I’m thinking about the needs of the journal. If a good, solid, traditional narrative poem comes our way and it fits the needs of the magazine, I’m going to see the value in it (and the skill it takes to build that kind of poem) and I’m definitely going to vote to accept it.

I also consider representation. With Screen Door Review, we want to create a space where voices that have long been silenced can speak. That includes the full spectrum of queer writers working in or from the South as well as BIPOC writers, writers with disabilities, and other historically underrepresented groups.

When it comes to editing my own work, I’m as harsh as possible. I tend to take whatever I’m writing apart and put it back together again – and I mean that literally. Scissors are an important part of my process. I started physically cutting up and rearranging (and, often, throwing away) pieces of a work when I was in college, and I’ve never turned back. And a lot of my personal editorial process involves cutting: I’m one of those writers who writes way too much in a first draft, so revision is a long process of cutting away.

With prose, I ask myself what the purpose of a passage is and how it fits in with the work as a whole. If I can’t give myself a satisfactory answer, the passage gets cut – though, I admit, there are some darlings I just can’t bring myself to kill.

What does your writing workspace look like? 

I try to fill my workspace with things that inspire me and make me happy: my favorite books, a dumpster fire nightlight, my collection of The Dark Crystal Funko Pops, a display of Star Wars figurines, an ever-growing group of Yodas and Baby Yodas. In other words, it’s Nerd Central and I’m super proud of it.

Photo courtesy of the author

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