Comfort Food: Poet Emily Wall Feeds a Hunger for the Voices of Women
“This is the voice I need right now. This woman teaching me,” said poet Emily Wall about her pastor, Karen Dammann. “She is a really powerful woman who has gone through incredible discrimination as a gay pastor.” Wall is a creative writing professor at the University of Alaska Southeast and the mother of three girls. To refill the well of energy that she drains to feed herself creatively as a poet, to feed her students intellectually, and to feed her family quite literally, she wants to be taught. One place she finds those teachings is in her faith community. The way her Methodist pastor leads and preaches to the women in the church — especially the young girls — inspires Wall. “I feel empowered learning from women like Karen.”
Wall’s search for women teachers, both living and dead, led her to her current poetry project. “In the wake of the most recent election . . . in despair and hearing all the ‘me too’ stories . . . I was filled with rage.” Wall says she was also angry hearing that her 12-year-old daughter got two destructive comments from random men in one week. She transformed her rage into poetry by channeling three important women.
“I decided to do a trilogy of chapbooks containing persona poems. And I chose the Virgin Mary, Alice Waters, and Georgia O’Keefe.” A persona poem is a first-person poem whose speaker is not the poet. The poet has created or embodied another character in order to tell a story.
She says sometimes upon describing the project, people comment about the seemingly random group of women. To Wall, it’s not random at all. “Spirituality, food and art are three of the most important things in my life, touchstones for me. And I felt hungry to hear from powerful women, all three of whom have survived serious tragedy in their lives, like outright sexism, attempted rape, traumatic things. So I wanted to write; I wanted to hear from them.”
Wall is no stranger to capturing the stories of women and translating them into poetry. She calls herself a “story catcher,” a play on the phrase “baby catcher” that midwives often use. And in fact, her book “Breaking into Air”, forthcoming from Red Hen Press, contains poems inspired by the birth stories of people she knows. After the birth of her daughter Lucy, Wall realized that although women love exchanging birth stories, “we never really treat them as art.” In “Breaking into Air,” she weaves birth poems she created from stories she received into a prose poem narrating the births of her own children.
Wall began her persona trilogy with Mary. The chapbook, called “Flame”, was released this year. Wall got a lot of pushback on the idea of writing poems in the voice of Mary from fellow writers. She said friends would tell her, “Nobody wants to hear about her.” Finally, “One night in a bar,” she says, “some writers I admire a lot were pushing back, telling me this project wasn’t a good idea — that we should not be allowing any religious figure to talk, even if it is a woman. And I was so mad. I went upstairs to my hotel room and submitted it to every chapbook contest I could find.” Minerva Rising Press with judge Maggie Smith selected her book. Smith says the poems are “equal parts body and spirit, experience and myth,” and calls the book “feminist, timely and classic.”
Fast forward a couple millennia from Mary for the second book in the trilogy, which looks at the life of chef Alice Waters. Since Waters is Wall’s only living persona, she worried that she might not get to do the project at all. Not knowing how to contact Waters directly, she sent a letter to her restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California. Wall included three sample poems and asked for Waters’ blessing on the project. Eventually, she heard back from an assistant who communicated Waters’ enthusiastic encouragement to continue. She read everything she could about Waters and Chez Panisse, watched recorded interviews, and listened to the chef speak. But then, she had to put the real Alice Waters aside. She didn’t want to imagine what the actual person might think of her persona, so she didn’t.
During her Rasmuson Foundation award year, Wall worked on the final book in the trilogy, adopting the persona of painter Georgia O’Keeffe. She says that while there’s more source material about O’Keeffe than Waters or even Mary, it’s been the biggest creative stretch of the project. Wall says that typically, “I have no patience for abstract poetry.” But the persona of O’Keeffe pushed her in new directions. “They’re not in a form except the form I’ve created for the book that every poem matches,” Wall explains. “But they’re definitely stepping stones with white spaces and they use a sort of visual sense of the page, because I think our first reaction to poetry is visual.”
For the moment, Wall says, parts two and three of the trilogy are resting. “It’s been in the drawer for six months. And my plan for the fall is to go back to it and start revising.” But the women of these poems won’t stay quiet. Wall will submit pieces for publication and seek places for the chapbooks to emerge. She hopes eventually all three will end up together, in conversation with one another, in a collection.
What happened to the rage that inspired Wall’s persona poems? Wall says she’s satisfied for now with the work her poems continue to do in the world. She says, “I hope that art will inspire conversation,” and notes that “Flame” has already done that. “We’re talking about how silenced and harmed women are.” Breaking silence with poetry, Wall envisions increasing conversation with writers, artists and readers about the world where her daughters are growing into women.