NGQ: If you were a character in a poem, how might you introduce yourself?
EMILY PINKERTON: Daughter of a sonofabitch. That’s a description that actually keeps occuring in my poems.
All the characters I bring into poems (“Weathered Man” and “Olivia” being the most prominent at the moment) are exaggerations of one particular slice of a personality I’ve encountered out in the wild – I try to take the jagged edge of someone and sharpen it. So what I end up with is a personality that exists in more of a vacuum than it would in real life. I focus on one point of conflict and expand around it, rather than including the many conflicting ideas/values that often end up tempering such personalities.
NGQ: What is your general approach when building a chapbook? Do you have a prior idea for how it’ll all come together and write poems to fit, or do you find that you’re inadvertently following the same imagery and themes in multiple pieces and find them drawing together as if by sheer accident?
PINKERTON: It depends. With “Natural Disasters” I had the idea ahead of time and started to structure things around that idea, but many of those poems ended up not making it even to the first draft of the chapbook. Its aims and themes changed over time – it started with its center being very emotionally resonant, almost nostalgic, with the landscapes and weather playing auxiliary roles. Over time the settings took on greater importance and developed their own narrative, one that was stronger than what I’d originally set out to write. I ended up with a visceral narrative of grief and healing set in very tenuous, catastrophic scenes and moments. I shifted focus away from an emotional landscape and toward a physical one, which ended up driving a hybrid narrative that was more malleable than the one I’d initially imagined.
Presently I find myself taking the latter approach to chapbooks: I find myself exploring particular themes and images over and over again. After I’ve written a couple dozen poems on a theme, I start thinking “hey, this could be a chapbook.” Sometimes I’ll put them together, and sometimes I don’t think the theme is interesting enough to warrant a chapbook and I shelve it and just submit the poems as one-offs.
If I do decide a chapbook is warranted, I throw everything into a google doc and try to make sure pieces transition and “flow” from one to the next. Transitions are important to me – during this part of the process I think of my days as a college radio DJ (ha), and how important it was to me to make sure all the songs in a particular segment flowed. Something that ends softly should be followed by something else with a soft beginning. I wouldn’t follow acoustic guitar with synths unless there were a melodic or percussive link. I think of analogous elements in my poetry when I try to link poems together into a larger work.
These days, I don’t usually go in with a preordained narrative – the poems will usually show me something better than I ever would have consciously thought of. I print the first draft and flip through the pages. Having everything on paper helps me physically re-sort the poems into a better narrative. I see thematic links more clearly. It also helps me discard anything that’s not working (sometimes whole chapters) and get a better handle on line edits. I’ll go back into the google doc and make all my rearrangements and edits, then repeat the process. I usually end up doing this several times, though I try not to waste too much paper.
NGQ: Your chapbook “Natural Disasters” came out from Hermeneutic Chaos Press this summer; writer and fellow 203.4 contributor Fisayo Adeyeye (author of “blackfish” and “Cradles”) described your poetry as that which understands that “startling beauty can be found in the starkest, most desolate of places at the starkest, most desolate of times”. I think many would agree this quality to be prescient in nature; that with the current civic turmoil in the US, we will both fight but also look to the light and beauty around us for strength. What are your own thoughts on the intersection of art and hope, of beauty and grim darkness?
PINKERTON: It’s a survival mechanism. The easy thing to do would be to look only at the beautiful things and make art about that – but creative types aren’t often drawn to this kind of low-hanging fruit, and there’s a good reason why: it overlooks so much of life. Life is all of it: suffering and loss, joy and comfort, death and destruction, love and tenderness. And it’s naive to say that only part of that is beautiful – it’s all beautiful, even the hard parts. To be clear: glorifying sorrow or death or misery is also naive, I’m not talking about that, I’m talking about the inextricable links between these experiences – everything that makes up our fragile, finite lives. That’s what I’m hoping to explore – the connective tissue. There’s a magic in it, in the complexity and depth of each human life. I think exploring any facet of this is astonishing and I feel lucky to be able to devote time to it.
NGQ: Can you identify one or two particularly important lines from “Natural Disasters” that speak directly back to you on rediscovering them? Why do you think these lines have such a hold over you?
PINKERTON: I think the poems “The morning of” and “Aftershock” can be read as particularly relevant in the wake of the 2016 election. Each deals with losing one’s sense of safety, the ways in which that makes one question the very fabric of one’s reality and survival. I’ll offer these lines from “The morning of”:
Land that seemed stable, ground we took for granted
Eased our roots into and built a home on – our dream manifest –
Shuddered open beneath our feet, threw our house over and down, left it
Split at its core – the foundation cracked, irreparable.

NGQ: I understand you are currently tackling an MFA in San Francisco; how has the MFA process affected or influenced your writing? Do you find it has affected the way you write or kinds of themes and ideas you’re drawn to?
PINKERTON: I read a lot more, and my writing has become more routine and disciplined. These things are absolutely possible outside of an MFA, and I tried to implement them on my own before I decided to go the MFA route, but for me, the MFA gave me the extra structure I needed to really dedicate myself to my work. Prior to the MFA, my writing sort of plateaued at a less experienced level and I was really frustrated with it. I couldn’t seem to get past that plateau, no matter how many hours per day I spent reading and writing. (With the gift of hindsight I will say that I needed to augment my hour or two per day spent writing with an equivalent amount of reading, which I was not doing. For those of you considering an MFA, try that first!)
In terms of affecting my writing: I think it’s made me more attuned to matters of craft. I was always attuned to tone, voice, rhythm, and meter in my poetry, but I think in reading more poetry, I started to notice ways in which my work was thematically underdeveloped. I guess I’d look at it like building a house: before I was building simple structures – very modular units, square shapes, one-story buildings. Now I’m more able to build something complex, with more layers, like a Victorian. I don’t necessarily think any one style is better than another, but I appreciate the newfound skill and versatility I have learned in the MFA.
NGQ: What gets your writer-brain ticking when you need an extra boost of help? Who are your great influences, those you turn to in your hour of need?
PINKERTON: I often go back to my old journals when I’m feeling uninspired. Usually it’s less to find something to write about and more to solve some larger existential problem – I go looking for clues I might have subconsciously left myself in the past in order to understand the present. Along the way I usually discover little fragments of writing that have some spark for me, so I dust them off and rewrite them, which has the added benefit of distracting me from whatever existential ache I’m feeling.
A piece I published here earlier, “Flight Patterns (II)” actually came out of this process – I stumbled across a paragraph of text I’d written ten or eleven years ago that I really loved: I’d loved it when I first wrote it, but shelved it because it wasn’t quite “there”, and I didn’t know what it needed to feel complete. Reading it again, ten years on, I still felt that spark. I’d been reading Kathleen Fraser’s “Wing” and her sequence “Five Letters from One Window”, and I decided to shape the paragraph of text I’d found in my journal to be a sort of homage to these texts, both in terms of form and language.
In terms of authors I turn to, Adrienne Rich, Mary Oliver, Jennifer S. Cheng and Lisa Robertson are perennial favorites. Ocean Vuong always has a way of acknowledging beauty, fragility, violence and rage all at once.
I also read a lot of prose: Rebecca Solnit and Maggie Nelson are two authors whose work I can visit repeatedly and learn something new from each time.
NGQ: And finally, and possibly a far easier question than all the rest, can you tell me who you’re reading of late?
PINKERTON: I just finished my second pass of Mary Ruefle’s “Trances of the Blast”, which is kind of brain-breaking. The poems seem deceptively simple, but each one contains a whole universe, so I end up spending a lot of time reading each one over and over, turning it around in my mind to see what I might’ve missed earlier.
I’m also reading Jennifer S. Cheng’s “House A” which is just astonishing. I need more time to speak broadly on it, but generally what has always struck me about her work is the depth of her insight. Jennifer sees more deeply into the human psyche than most people ever will, and it gives her poetry a haunting vulnerability. For anyone new to her work, I recommend starting with “Dear Blank Space: A Literary Narrative” over at Entropy.