Poet Of The Week

Emily Hunt

     August 12–18, 2019

Emily Hunt is a poet, artist, educator and arts professional. She holds an MFA from the University of Massachusetts–Amherst and is the author of the poetry collection Dark Green (The Song Cave, 2015), named a “Must-Read Poetry Debut” by Lit Hub. Her most recent works are Company (The Song Cave, 2019), a poetry chapbook, and Cousins (Cold Cube Press, 2019), a book of photographs. Hunt has been a visiting writer at the University of Richmond, Reed College and UC Santa Cruz, and has taught writing at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, Westfield State University, Juniper Summer Writing Institute, Omnidawn Publishing, Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop and elsewhere. She has worked for a variety of museums and arts nonprofits, including the Poetry Society of America, the Poetry Foundation, the Contemporary Jewish Museum and Action Books.

from Company

I was told on the first day
standing with women
I had met moments before
I could rise, if I worked
hard on the flowers
to be “the cream at the top.”
This was said not directly to me
but to all of us
gathered loosely around
a clean, silver table.
One woman
could be promoted 
like Leigh, our Manager,
said the Head of Production,
Sarah, the wife of one owner.

Holding out
a dewy bouquet
for an Instagram,
standing straight alongside
seven or so women
angling their arrangements
toward Sarah’s
suited, centered husband,
some of them blowing
kisses or sticking their asses
out, bending down,
posing for an investor
visiting the warehouse,
beaming as I stiffened,
surrounded by scattered cool green
pieces of plants,
red clouded whiteboards,
and trash cans with wheels,
I’m aware of my role,
the other, sitting and sliding
within it, the friction
hotly melding the two,
the two turning
to six, the many million
bodies making this true.

I keep shifting the stems around
until the flowers face forward
and lie flat.
The thorns and knobs
bump into each other
and throw it all off.
The worst are
the kumquats,
which fall to the floor
as soon as I add them.
It isn’t natural
for a thin stem
with fruits
to sprout up—
they’re heavy,
they’re supposed to
just hang.
They scatter,
get smashed
and stick to my shoes.
I have one and
taste the chemicals.
It’s fine to eat the skin.
At the end of the shift,
my broom sticks then skids
across the places they’ve been.
Before my interview
I signed an agreement
swearing apparently
to never disclose
procedural information,
policies, formulas,
any free detail
that could be caught
and then twisted,
repeated, construed,
when language came to be used
by competitors, customers,
dark horses, employees
let go or eager
newcomers to the game.

An iPad captured my photo
as I leaned in to decipher
the contract, barely caring
wanting income and lunch.
I never saw it, but surely it’s blurry,
my teeth or pupils streaks.
I’d probably like taking
a photo of this picture
of my face at work
and texting it to someone
who knows me.

—From Company, The Song Cave, 2019.

Tell us about the making of this poem.
This is a small section of a much longer poem called “Company,” which was published as a chapbook by the Song Cave in March. The poem responds in part to working for minimum wage at a flower delivery startup in San Francisco in 2015. I had just moved to the Bay Area, and I was starting completely from scratch, with only enough money to pay my first month’s rent, and only a couple of acquaintances as contacts. I needed a job, and I heard from someone at a party that this company was hiring for the “Valentine’s Day rush.” I worked on an assembly line arranging and attending to outsourced bouquets with many other women (all in their twenties and early thirties), and one man (who worked a second minimum-wage job each night). The company was owned by three young men; my supervisor, the Head of Production, was married to one of them. On the first day, she spoke to us like we were children, like we wanted to be there—to work for a degrading rate, to be hushed when we talked to each other while working, to be lied to about the rate increase we would receive after training and then gaslit when we asked for this rate to go into effect. Throughout my time there, I was struck and disturbed by many policies, attitudes, stray bits of overheard speech (e.g., “We are going to be the Chipotle of flowers”). It was essential that I start taking notes, to write my own version of the story, to give the experience my own title and form, to register myself—my body and my thoughts—in this strange new landscape.

This section of the poem explores the situation’s absurd optics—an assembly line of young women doing minimum-wage labor (making bouquets, of all things) in support of the profit-based goals of three men who never learned their names.

The flowers became characters to me, and a kind of reflective “company,” in their way. I wrote notes on my phone on the bus to and from work, in the bathroom, on lunch breaks, and at another job I held at a bookstore. I edited the poem over the course of a few years after accumulating all of these notes, and when I was able to look back at it from afar in Brooklyn, I had enough distance from the experience to finish it.

What are you working on right now? 

I’m finishing a second manuscript of poems, which consists mostly of long poems, including “Company.”
What’s a good day for you? 

A day that includes reading, walking / running, writing, taking photos, eating good food, and spending time with my partner, my sister, or a friend.

What brought you to Brooklyn? 

I’m reading Severance, a novel by Ling Ma, and there’s a line in it that comes to mind: “I was thinking about how New York is possibly the only place in which most people have already lived, in some sense, in the public imagination, before they ever arrive.” I started picturing my life in New York when I was a teenager, in daydreams here and there. When I finished college, I moved here to see what could happen, to escape the first chapter of my life and to try to be an artist like so many others. I moved away for grad school after a couple of years, and I lived a few other places before I circled back in 2017.
Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived? 

I moved from East Flatbush, Brooklyn, to Hudson Heights in Manhattan this past March. I love being so close to Fort Tryon Park. It’s more hilly and less exposed-feeling than Prospect Park, which is fairly close to where I used to live. The gardens are beautiful. It feels calm up here. There’s a great pupusa place on my block, and a good coffee shop nearby. I’m close to the 1 and A trains, so it’s easy to go south and hang out in other parts of the city.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between. 

Running out of money and hustling to make more is honestly the first thing I think of! I’m very good at living off of little money, because I’ve had to be. Even when I worked full-time at a nonprofit, my salary was not enough to cover basic expenses, given the cost of living here. But in moments of stress or vulnerability, I’m buoyed by the presence of so many strangers taking on their own challenges around me. One thing I love about living in New York is that no matter what state you’re in, you can access the feeling that you’re participating in something larger than yourself, that you’re part of an ecosystem. This is so immediately apparent every time you leave your apartment. It can be tiring to take in so much human energy, but it’s often restorative for me. I love noticing so much evidence of people’s minor decisions: the font they chose for the sign outside their small business, the plants they chose to put by their stoop, what kind of dog they’re walking or dress they’re wearing.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not? 

My poetry community is not based in one place; we are all dispersed, but I certainly feel the presence of poet friends and peers who don’t live in New York as I write here, as I walk around taking in the details of my environment, and as I read. I’m in touch with an amazing community of artists and writers in NY, and I love the feeling that there are so many more people out there that I might meet and exchange ideas or experiences with.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you. 

Reading George Oppen’s collected poems in grad school opened something in me. Dorothea Lasky’s work is brilliant and gives me so much energy. Ben Estes and Alan Felsenthal have been important to me; they are both talented writers / artists and smart editors. These are just a few!

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you? 

Peter Gizzi, Dara Wier and James Tate were my teachers and mentors at UMass–Amherst, where I got my MFA. Brian Henry was my poetry and creative writing professor in undergrad. I was influenced by their distinct expressions of pure passion for language as a tool for acknowledging mystery, reaching for clarity, revealing complicated truths, encountering and shaping the self, and understanding others. I’m grateful for the ways they shared their palpable love for poetry; their hundreds of recommendations of other writers and specific poems; and their unique ways of responding to my work with care, honesty and intelligence. As I’m writing, I sometimes feel their voices supporting or giving energy to stronger lines, and seeing through the bad ones I end up deleting. I consider all of the voices I seek out and encounter in books my mentors, too.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why. 

I’ve been moving through Toni Morrison’s The Source of Self-Regard in awe. A couple pieces that have stood out to me so far are “The Individual Artist” and the Sarah Lawrence commencement address she gave in 1988, in which she writes, “My memory is as necessary to yours as your memory is to mine.”

The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang is a brilliant, candid and clear book that struck me this year. It is deeply relevant to me because my brother was schizophrenic, but it’s a text relevant to any human life, given the many doors Wang opens via her inquiries into health, identity, the body, relationships, the function of diagnosis and other kinds of labels.

I was very moved and thrilled by Before Lyricism by Eleni Vakalo, translated by Karen Emmerich, in particular the sequence “Plant Upbringing,” which is full of amazing lines like “Plants are perpetual revolutionaries / Just think how they grow during the hour of the moon.”

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to? 

Hmm … maybe Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker? 

I dip in and out of many books at once, and then certain ones will lock me in and rise above the rest, and I’ll end up spending much more time with them than the others. This happened with Eleni Vakalo recently, whom I mention above. I dog-ear pages in books and transfer quotes from them before returning them to the library or my shelves. I definitely prefer physical books. I really don’t like reading on screens!
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

Right now, I feel pulled toward writing prose. My poems have been inching toward prose, and I’d like to take this natural motion a step further by writing either prose poems or short essays / reflections. But when I start writing sentences, I eventually miss the line, and the way a poem leaves room for each word to take up as much space as it needs to reveal what it contains, so I end up turning those sentences into poems, and then they change entirely …

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)? 

I usually have a book in my bag so that I can read on the train, on benches in the park, while waiting for an appointment. When I’m working on a poem, I’ll record myself reading it on my phone, so that I can listen to it while I’m walking around or on the subway. It allows me to feel and see what the poem is doing or failing to do in a context beyond my apartment, beyond enclosed spaces. This listening often turns into editing or writing.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why? 

The first space that comes to mind is the amorphous and borderless space I move through as I walk. I love wandering the city’s sidewalks, streets and parks, dipping in and out of various stores and small businesses, taking photos of things as I go. Seeing as much of my visual environment as I can, at a slow pace. It feels like pleasurable research.

I love all of the libraries, especially the small branches.
Why Brooklyn?

It’s endless and deep. It feels like you can start an entirely new life every year in NY.