“That’s the skill, I think: to allow yourself to fail and learn how to keep going”: An Interview with Emilie Menzel

As much as I am someone who appreciates the mysteries that lie in the unknown, I’ve found that one of my greatest pleasures as a reader is happening upon a truth or aphorism that reveals something about our world. That combination of mystery and truth-telling occurs in Emilie Menzel’s poetry.

Although not quite autobiographical, Menzel’s writing is populated with emotional truths—lines that can’t be unheard, or unseen, or unfelt. But perhaps what I admire most about Emilie’s writing is that it holds space and time for stillness and reflection, all the while ceasing to be stagnant. Rather, she pulls you into the current of her lyricism and then leaves you on a distant shore, miles from where you began. In her bio, Menzel describes herself as “a poet, writer, and finder,”a description that fits the probing nature of her work. Menzel’s award-winning “poetry and prose hybridities” have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Southern Humanities Review, The Offing, and Passages North.

In our interview, conducted over a shared Google Doc, we discuss failure, rabbit doodles, fairy tales, and much more. 

Something I greatly admire about your work is your range of subject matter, from the natural world in “I Pull my Leaf Leg Stockings Off My Body” to loneliness in “I Approach and Notice.” In “Here is the Logic I Have Maintained in Observing My Home,” you address topics such as desire, malevolence, and transformation: 

It is important to be able to make something beautiful, to shape it
into a form even when horrifically right. There is malevolence in
misarranging information, in intentionally throwing thoughts
into wells without listening for echo. We are built together so we break
together but we must build back together, too.

Is there any particular subject you have not yet explored but are hoping to in the future? 

I’m often finding that I become fixated on a single image, movement, subject, color, or tone, something small but significant, for months at a time. When living in Northampton, Massachusetts, for example, I found myself writing constantly about this deep blue light that tilted in through my apartment windows in winter. Or years ago I kept writing about tangled string and claws. Rabbits, too, have continually appeared rather unintentionally in my poems, though they mean different things to me, I think, at different times—their personification, gender, and myth balances shifting about over the years. And then living now in North Carolina, gardens and a particularly sharp green keep flashing up. This is to say that often when in the middle of one of these subject fixations, I feel as if I should be writing about another subject, that my stories and language ought to be more varied, or I worry that the subject seems old to others. 

I am learning, though, to really let the fixation run its course, that part of my process is these ruminations, and allowing the image to combine and juxtapose and turn and accrue language. Also I am learning that I will be able to write about different things at different times in my life. While when in the middle of a fixation, it may seem all-consuming, but it will not always be this way and will some day disappear. I think it’s important to write within these fixations when they are there, even if writing imperfectly (which, how can that be avoided anyway), because otherwise the language and story will be lost.

You’ve mentioned on your website that your work seeks to engage both the creative and analytical properties of language. So often we are taught that analytical and creative practices should exist in their own separate realms. How do you approach intersecting both analytical and creative elements in your writing?    

To label the writing processes into these categories, I might call drafting the creative impetus: a gathering, accruing, generating, imagining of language. Here in the writing I want the language as wild as possible, and I’m often more interested in being guided by sound and association than concrete logic at this point. I might then call editing a more analytical impetus: combing through the language, organizing, ordering, selecting. And, really, I think both the drafting and editing processes can be both creative and analytical, that it’s more about the movement between levels of creation and control. 

Maybe it’s more helpful to think about it as moving through a cycle of pushing and pulling, loosening and tightening, oscillating in search of balance. In my own writing, I frequently struggle with allowing myself to create, to enter the wild and creative. I can have quite a difficult time allowing myself to write without judgment, to accept that language cannot be fully precise or fully controlled or ever perfectly placed to craft the same experience for all, and why would we want it to be? And I so want to be wilder. I find that writing in prose poems, where the narrative is implied and the line’s tempo clips, I can access that wildness. 

Part of this conversation is that I can grow frustrated at people’s generalizations that some fields (e.g., art) are solely creative and others (e.g., scientific research) are solely analytical. Both require invention, both require precision, both require use of all the thinking tools available to us. Each field might define and label such skills differently, but the range of skills are nonetheless required. 

So when I’m talking about the “creative” and “analytical,” I’m also talking about definitions of fields, that confining ourselves to one corner or another is limiting to ourselves and the wellbeing of our communities. I want to talk about creating as a form of research, how to develop and hone observation skills as a writer in a way similar to the way such a skill is a focus for naturalists, what genres of writing we poets are exploring when seeking inspiration, what gets to count as poetic. I’m thinking Emily Dickinson the naturalist and her love of botany, Layli Long Soldier’s adoption of legal language in Whereas, Borges’ fake biographies, Robin Coste Lewis’s arrangement of museum plaques into poems.

In “The Animals I Have Lived in the Span of My Adolescence,” you reveal to your reader various aspects of your childhood and upbringing. The poem opens with the lines: 

Slowly, you are learning this grey dulling April. You are learning 
patience for cold. You are learning that snails may sleep in snow 
mounds to maintain solid interiority. You practice your snail pose
for weeks under your bed covers, now musty from all your night 

As a young adult myself, I was wondering at what age you realized that writing was something that interested you? Is writing something you had to “learn” and “practice” or did it come more innately to you?    

I want to quickly note that while my writing pulls from my own life, it’s a fabled rendition—the silhouettes, iconography, sounds, settings of my experiences, but recombined and bent. Like if the memory were folded, or one corner pulled wide. 

I started writing in second grade with a leprechaun poem for my sister and apparently that went well enough for me to quite grasp onto “poet” as an identity and run with it. Sure, there are some people I think whose attentions are more naturally tuned to picking up poetry. I know I am hyper aware of my body’s positioning and movement, am easily sensorially stimulated, am happy spending hours alone, unintentionally fixate on feelings and images, have an easily leaping heart—I find this way of experiencing the world does seem to lend itself, for me, to poetry. But oh my goodness yes I have to practice practice practice, and practice practicing. Our community is so fixated on the idea of the prodigy and being a “natural,” or being “successful” by a certain age else the whole game’s pointless. And we lose so many poems and artists with this mentality—both in who we support and who we see. I have lost so many poems to this mentality. 

A few summers ago I was trying to get a bit better at drawing, and so I decided to draw the same rabbit doodle 100 times. The ears got flopped, fur scribbled on, back straightened then over curved and—it was a mess. But it did get better. I was able to try different things freely, and it got better. I got better at anticipating what would be needed and how to move. And I kept thinking: how many times do I actually let myself fail at a poem? I don’t. How many times can I let myself fail at a poem? That’s the skill, I think: to allow yourself to fail and learn how to keep going.

You’ve discussed that a lot of your writing is based on themes found in fables and fairy tales, as well as metamorphoses. Can you speak more about the role these themes play for you as a writer? Are there any past literary works you find yourself returning to when you are tackling these themes and are in need of inspiration? 

I am fascinated by the way in which fables and fairy tales begin with an understanding between the writer and reader that what follows is fictional. It feels like a very honest form to me in this way—no false pretense or promise of metaphor. There’s also a simplification of characters that happens in fairy tales, something fairy tale master Kate Bernheimer calls flatness, that I find very interesting. Fairy tale and fable syntax is also distinctive in a way that I love—a “here it is” presentation with a little distance from the characters. And, fairy tales and fables have a very accepting relationship with oddity and are a bit unpredictable in what they deem odd.

Now I don’t know that my writing fully follows these genre definitions, but I certainly like to play with such lines. To me, fairy tales and fables offer possibilities for reconnecting our world in ways that are more equal for more people. The ways in which we are taught to logically connect cause and effect in our world can be tremendously harmful. I want to work within a framework of fairy tales and fables because it allows the creation of new relationships to the world, new approaches to survival and connection. 

I think this is particularly important when thinking about our relationships to our bodies. Fairy tales and fables allow a metamorphosis of the body, hybridity, transformation, claiming of a new relationship with the body or a new body, and they do so through a frame of acceptance. I’m thinking of Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl particularly here, as well as Katie Farris’s Boysgirls, Jennifer S. Cheng’s Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems, and Christina Rivera Garza’s Taiga Syndrome, amongst so many others.

You seem to have it all. Not only is your poetry exquisite, but your short stories are equally as gripping. In particular, I am mesmerized by your short story, “You Believe You are Building an Order You Resemble,” and am somewhat ashamed to reveal the number of times I have returned to it. As a predominantly non-fiction writer myself, I was wondering if you would consider your stories to be complete fiction, or are there aspects of non-fiction woven throughout? 

This is very kind of you to say! The secret is that the fiction and poetry are one and the same, only that sometimes I submit the work with wide margins and sometimes with thin. I am fascinated, though, by how differently the work seems to be read when presented as fiction versus when presented as poetry. People assume narrative with paragraphs in a way they don’t with stanzas, and that’s fun to play with.

But to answer your question on the level of fiction in the writing. As far as if I were holding up events in the writing to events in my life, no I would not submit this as an accurate autobiography. That said, I feel there are truths I reveal through the bending mirror of story that I would not otherwise share. And my poetry worlds feel more fully true as myself than any other way I am able to be. So there is emotional truth. And atmosphere. And a language of symbols and images and feelings pulled from my life. But the order is jumbled, the characters characters, the lens a little jostling. It’s the truth of being able to place emotions and events beside one another as they make sense rather than as they happened. 

When you do use those narrow margins in your poetry, I can’t help but notice the way you shape your stanzas—do you have a rationale for stanza length, or is it some unconscious process?

I used to try to fit my writing into lineation. These writings you’re discussing—they were all once broken into lines, deeply and uncomfortably pushed into lines. And then I threw my hands up and let it run, and it finally made sense. What had felt too tight and controlled now could move and twist and repeat and play in a way of creating that writing in lines for me didn’t allow.

For the length of the stanzas—I used to be a pretty active pianist and violinist, and I tend to pull on that developed instinct for timing when breaking stanzas. Commas, periods, stanza breaks, and section breaks I think of a little bit like notation systems for breath. Though the thing is you can’t fully predict how somebody will read that notation, so best let it fly. But essentially, where does a thought or sound need space, where do I breathe, where does the tempo need to take a beat? That’s the stanza break.

Although you seem to be quite experimental with your writing, especially in your “poetry and prose hybridities,” as you describe it, is there a particular type of poem you are drawn to or one that you refuse to write? 

I would like to try writing stories with active plot, but cannot for the life of me figure out how this is done in any well executed way. Interestingly a lot of my reading background and pull to poetry is from novels, but I think I must have mostly been paying attention to how the authors were playing with lyricism, not how they were building plot. So I need to go back and do some reading through that lens. 

Writing plot often to me feels deceitful, like I’m trying to pull a thorough trick on the reader. Or I’ll think that it all feels so predictable, that everything’s been done and already become a trope. That’s not at all how I think of fiction writers’ work when I’m reading it, but when I’m trying to write plot, I feel absolutely ridiculous. 

You are pursuing a master’s in library studies in order to research how, in your words, “creative practices can be used to build literacy and community.” Has your knowledge in library studies influenced your writing in any way? 

This is a really good question, and I don’t know that I have an answer for you yet. I’ve thought a lot about how being a writer has affected my approach to librarianship. For example, I’m especially interested in the library as a center for information creation versus the stereotype of the library as a stagnant center for information storage. I’m interested in sites of creativity in the library, such as makerspaces. I’m interested in ways that creators and creatives use the library and how the library can support their work. I’ve also played with library organization structures like taxonomies and descriptive schemas as creative frameworks. And there are elements of my writing process that I might call librarian-esque (how I gather a lot of language before ordering it into poems; my fascination with categories and ambiguous labels; my collecting of objects for my writing workspaces). But I don’t know that I have been immersed in the library field long enough at this point to yet see how it has shaped my writing.

As an incoming college freshman, I was struck by your thoughts on the purpose of college writing—how writing does not only serve the purpose of fulfilling academic assignments but how it can help us grow in our “personal, professional, and civic lives.” How has teaching changed your relationship to your own written work? Did you always know that you wanted to go into education?  

Teaching writing requires reading a lot of other people’s writing—your students’ and readings given for class—and through this you learn a lot about what repeatedly pulls you in language and people and stories. In giving students feedback on their work, I’ve developed greater awareness of how I approach editing, namely how much I pay attention to sentence-level details like syntax and pronouns. I’ve become able to verbalize, or at least offer verbalized versions, of writing decisions I previously only understood as intuition, and such verbalizing makes the decisions more conscious and intentional. Teaching composition especially, I’ve had to learn how to explain to others the importance of writing in our lives, to clarify what I before knew viscerally—that practicing writing is practicing connecting ideas and thinking critically about how we connect with others, and, further, that poetry offers us a way to gather words for experiences that do not yet have language, and that naming, we know, holds power.

I have been thinking about what falls within the scope of teaching and educating a little differently recently while studying for the library science masters. Within a librarian framework, I have been thinking of teaching more as connecting, as connecting people to the informational resources that allow them to build to where they want to go. And so in this way the teacher is a bridge, a facilitator, translator, navigator, collaborator, but not the knowledged superior, not working in a classic master-student power dynamic. 

So, to answer your question, no, I have not always known I wanted to be an educator, but I have always loved connecting people with that just right book or article or subject link they didn’t quite realize they were searching for.

Regina Rosenfeld (assistant editor) is an 18-year-old writer living in New York City. She attends Barnard College of Columbia University.

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