Sweat on the side of a breast
like a slight, silver necklace.
Alone on the carpet,
holding the moon on my chest.
No sex is the new sex: what your
face might look like desperate, heat
moving through it like a fear,
a speeding. Taking want notes.
“Hung up on my baby,” as they say
in popular song. Hung up, caught
on a hook, a screw,
got caught with a hook in my mouth,
finger-burnished like a loose tooth,
ready to pull. Had a dream
about you with a rung eye,
watched the tawny bruise spread
over: shiner, hunger, blue and ochre.
Emma Goldhammer is a graduate of Marlboro College. She lives and works in Boston, MA.
How does a poem begin for you? Do you sit down to write with a specific image or topic in mind? Does inspiration factor into your writing?
For me a poem often begins with an attempt to describe something I find to be indescribable– a sensation, a smell, a color, or whatever else. I never end up describing the thing successfully, but the frustration that comes from orbiting around the unattainable is usually a good impetus for generating writing. Sometimes a phrase– usually just a few words– will get stuck in my head as some bit of a song would, and I will base a poem around that little shred of sound.
When you first set an idea down on paper, how do you go about pruning it and making it into something beyond that initial poetic impulse?
Reading a poem out loud is an important method of editing for me. Figuring out what sort of rhythm a poem should have usually helps me understand what sort of poem it is and what it should and should not contain.
Have any poets or artists inspired you to examine this aspect of your life, or is there something in your experience that brought you here?
I think Virginia Woolf shows us so much about writing and gender– that writing is an important space to explore gender roles, to explore normative and non-normative voices. Although she wrote from a society in which female writers of her level of prestige were uncommon, her advice– that one should seek to be expansive and multifaceted (rather than narrow and angry) when exploring gender in writing– still remains relevant in my mind. She writes that it is important to fuse the “rational-masculine” and the “emotional-feminine” in writing to create a truly “androgynous” prose. (Of course, she does not refer to the gender of the writers– for example, she calls Proust a feminine writer and Shakespeare an androgynous one– but rather what she perceived as “gendered” writing.) I think of the passage in To the Lighthouse in which the young James sees his mother Mrs. Ramsay as a fragrant fruit tree and her husband as a beaked brass scimitar digging into the fruit for emotional nourishment after his arduous philosophical pursuits. To conserve her energy, Mrs. Ramsay “shrinks” herself into a “wedge of darkness” when she is alone– a being with no identity outside of her nurturing capacities, yet in total peace. This image is a complex and morally ambiguous depiction of Mrs. Ramsay’s mother role. Woolf’s use of metaphor encourages her reader to consider the way gender and its attendant societal expectations affects the emotional life of her characters. In this sense, I think she is the most effective writer on gender that I know. I can’t say that I set out purposefully to undertake a project similar to hers, however.
Are there any other authors writing about sexuality whose work you admire?
I don’t admire any authors for their writing about sexuality in particular, but I think most writers who write well can write well about that subject. Recently Leo Tolstoy’s “antisexual” writing about the benefits of abstinence have interested me as an example of the power sexuality has to inspire fear.
What is you definition of gendered writing? Do you think writing can be genderless?
Writing about sexuality is something I actually tend to shy away from; or, at the least, it is a subject I don’t allow to exert too much magnetism. I think it is one of the most difficult things to write about because it seems that most people have a double consciousness of it– as something that is so fundamental to being that it is almost inarticulable; and at the same time as a product, something that is sold, bought, polished to the point of distortion, and generally alienated from its humanness.
Emily O’Neill got so smiley when Emma name-dropped Tolstoy and Woolf in this interview. She edits poetry for Side B Magazine.