Sirenia / An interview with poet Emily Holland


by Emily Holland

I fucked a girl with a mermaid
tattooed on her back and felt
something like an ocean move
under me, a falling tide just out

of reach. I melted an ice cube
down her stomach, said here,
I know you’re out of water, said
here, I know you miss the sea.

first appeared in Impossible Archetype 2018.

Processed with VSCO with s5 preset

Emily Holland is 23 years old and a recent graduate of the George Washington University, where she received a BA in Creative Writing and English. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her girlfriend and her cat and is currently a manager at a coffee shop. She plans on beginning graduate school in the fall of 2019.

Emily describes her style as contemporary. She says,  “Lately, I’ve drawn inspiration from Loiuse Glück, Danez Smith, Meg Day, Aracelis Girmay, Terrance Hayes, Kay Ryan, and Richard Siken. I think we can see each of them as contemporary in their own way— some using their poems to draw attention to our most painful current events, others writing about identity in its many forms. My hope is that my writing also falls into a similar category. I don’t tend to follow traditional forms, and if I am writing in form, I always try to subvert it in some way. It feels almost like our job now to do anything we can to acknowledge the poetry of the past while transforming it into something very present.”

Bekah and Emily’s work—including the poem above—both recently appeared in Issue 3 of Impossible Archetype, a Dublin-based journal of LGBTQ+ poetry. We wanted to know more about Emily and her writing, so here is our interview with her.

Q~Tell us a little about your poem, “Sirenia.” Is there a backstory you want to share?

A~This poem originally appeared in my undergraduate thesis. At the time, I was newly “out” as a queer woman, and I was struggling to grapple with that newfound liberation/identity in my writing. This poem does have some truthfulness to it, in terms of subject matter—though I’ve always defined “truthfulness” in my writing as more of an honesty in theme rather than events. We all embellish and create for our poems, but without some essence of poetic truth behind those literary devices, the poem would read hollow. For now, I’ll leave the so-called truthfulness up for my readers’ interpretation.

Q~What themes or subjects do you find yourself returning to in your work?

A~I tend to write a lot of poems about queerness and the South, having grown up in North Carolina. I find that the two are so often in conflict with each other and that juxtaposition works well in poetic form. I dwell a lot on childhood, not necessarily my specific childhood, but I do draw from certain instances and then expand or elaborate to fit the poem’s needs. When thinking of poetry, it’s always been connected to identity—my personal identity can’t help but permeate everything I write, even if my writing isn’t outwardly “queer.”

Q~What’s your writing process like?

A~Sometimes, I just have a line or a few words pop into my head—I’ll add them to a Google doc of lines that will hopefully end up in a poem someday but maybe don’t fit anywhere yet. Other times, I have a concept/theme/idea in mind, something like a new interpretation of the pantoum (which I’m working on) or maybe just an image like catching fireflies in summer. Those poems tend to take form more quickly, but the workshop process is still quite long for me. I’m always hesitant to call something “finished.”

Q~What draws you to poetry?

A~I had always written poetry as a kid, albeit not very good poetry. Having a poem accepted to a small publication was encouraging in my last year of high school. Where it really resonated with me was my first year of college—I had signed up for a poetry class on a whim, though I always knew that I wanted to study English. My professor was Jane Shore, who would later become one of my closest mentors throughout my writing career. Her insight changed the way I looked at poems. We were studying Lowell’s “Imitations” and learning to craft our own poems by borrowing certain aspects of already published works (such as style, imagery, or tone). And, while many of my classmates were merely using the class as an elective course, I was fully invested. And, I’ve been fully invested ever since.

Q~Who was your poetry first love?

A~ee cummings was the first poet whose work I committed to memory—I suppose his poetry “looks” the most like poetry (or what I thought poetry should look like) on the page, with its crazy line breaks and spacing. There’s something about the sparseness in his poems that really resonated with me, the way he seems to say more in what he’s leaving off the page than what he includes on it. I still remember each line of my favorite poem of his, a short one starting “no time ago” and ending with two simple, devastating lines: “made of nothing / except loneliness.”

Q~What do you feel is the poet’s role in society?

A~As poets, we are recorders of our time. Poetry gives us the ability to transform what we see or experience into something with a greater meaning, a universality. The history of poetry is one deeply ingrained in the social customs of our world. Spoken word poetry, which I admit is not my forte, is taking on social justice issues and greater social awareness as its larger project. Printed poetry can sometimes occupy a similar space, but it seems more timeless, more lasting, in a sense. Not all poetry on the page goes viral, but it does stand the test of time—our role as poets is to determine which space we want to occupy and what our larger project should be or will become.

Q~What’s one piece of advice you want to share?

A~Write, always. If you can’t write, read read read! Sometimes the inspiration just isn’t there for me, bur reading always helps me get back into the poetry state of mind.

Q~Who are you reading now?

 A~I’m working through Saeed Jones’s “Prelude to Bruise” and Sharon Olds’ s“The Dead and the Living” right now. I’m also almost finished with Louise Glück’s “Proofs and Theories,” which isn’t necessarily poetry, but appeals to my interest in literary theory.

Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?

A~Send me a message on Instagram if you want to workshop! I’m always looking for new sets of eyes, and Google docs make it so easy to workshop new poems with other writers. Also, if you’re in the D.C./DMV area, I’m trying to get a queer poetry night started to provide a safe space for poets to come read their work, so be on the lookout for that.


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