May 4–10, 2020
Emily Wallis Hughes is a poet and editor who grew up in Agua Caliente, California, a small town in the Sonoma Valley. She is the author of Sugar Factory, her first full-length book of poems, which includes a series of twelve paintings by Sarah Riggs in conversation with the poetry (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019). Hughes’s poems have been published in the Berkeley Poetry Review, Cordella, Elderly, Gigantic, Luna Luna, Painted Bride Quarterly, Prelude, A Women’s Thing, ZAUM and other literary journals. She coedited Slovene avant-garde poet Jure Detela’s Moss & Silver, translated by Raymond Miller with Tatjana Jamnik (Ugly Duckling Presse). In 2010, she earned an MA in English literature and creative writing–poetry from the University of California, Davis, and in 2017 earned an MFA in poetry from New York University, where she was a Writers in the Public Schools Fellow. She currently teaches undergraduate creative writing at Rutgers–New Brunswick as an adjunct instructor and is an editor at Fence, where she edits Elecment and coedits Constant Critic for Fence Digital. She lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Author photo by Paul Salitsky
The Black Forest
Could I follow these worn cobblestones into the Black Forest?
Your Oma’s brother is there.
Disabled, crippled they once said.
Degenerate they would call him.
Go into the Black Forest.
Be lost there forever.
Once you were called degenerate too, hidden
away in a bleached room, marked with
the letters of your odd affliction.
The letters are gone. You are not
as you once were, no—
Go into the Black Forest.
Be lost there forever.
You are happy among
the silver trees
You will find him. I know.
I’ve brought a blueberry pie.
—From Sugar Factory, Spuyten Duyvil, 2019.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I composed the first draft of this poem deep in the winter of 2015 or 2016, I think it was January. I was walking on one of the paths in Prospect Park and the first line came to me, like a line in a song I had heard before, long ago. The lines “Go into the Black Forest / Be lost there forever” came seconds after this, and I whispered them out loud to myself. I felt the next line coming on, thought of stopping to write it down, but the coming forth of each line felt dependent upon my walking, so I took out my phone and used the voice memo app to speak them out loud and record the lines as I walked. Most of the time I hand-write drafts of my poems, but I could feel the unfolding of this one was different, more urgent, in need of voice right away. The lines may have been bouncing around in my unconscious for a while—and perhaps in my ancestors’ unconscious minds as well. They finally bubbled up, like hot water out of a natural spring.
In the weeks before this walk, I had been thinking about my Oma’s brother, and the varying stories I had heard told about him. There are always multiple versions of familial stories, of course, and they all have a kind of truth to them. I’m a poet, not a nonfiction writer, so I’m less interested in truth, and more interested in variance and the deeper, honest feelings and resonances connected to the images in these stories passed down over generations. In this case, there is also the fragmentation and trauma of WWII and the Holocaust in Germany, which brings with it the difficulty of telling, a loss of coherence, of certainty. Yet like many in my generation, I have a desire to connect with these souls, to know them somehow. I wish I could talk to my Oma’s brother, who died years before I was born. And in some way, while I was composing and revising this poem, I felt connected to him, through our shared experiences with health trauma and disability. I don’t know what exactly he suffered from, but that doesn’t matter in this poem. Just like the letters defining my former disability and current condition don’t define who I am, and whatever letters you have been assigned don’t need to define who you are, right now. I don’t want to give my diagnoses power over me, over what I do, over how I live my life. I will make blueberry pies as long as I can, and I will bake one for you too.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, at 10:46 PM, I am working on sipping a glass of red wine from Yolo County, California. It’s Saturday, April 25th, and we’re in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re in some kind of quarantine. Earlier this evening I put on plastic gloves and a fabric mask to deliver four Funfetti cupcakes I made to give to the poet Madeleine Barnes, who lives on my street in Crown Heights. We outlined hearts in the air with our fingers, from six feet away, instead of hugging each other.
I’ve started writing in the mornings more—after my friend in poetry Cort Day encouraged me to try it out—almost first thing in the morning, right after I make coffee. This hasn’t been happening every morning since I’m also in the midst of teaching online right now, but it feels lovely to have a page or two of new poetry notes and lines I can use later. It grounds me for the rest of the day. Some of this material might make its way into my second book, and some of it might end up in my third. I don’t worry about what it will become when the language is first arriving. I welcome it, and wait until later, until it has a chance to rest, to ask what it wants to become.
What’s a good day for you?
I’m tempted to write about what I miss from before the pandemic, but I’d also like to resist that. There is so much that needs changing, and for that matter, needed to be changed much sooner about the ways we go about our lives. Today I felt good about contributing and participating in direct actions with my labor union at Rutgers, and the coalition of unions. I felt good about cooperating with others to make a better community for everyone where I work and teach as an underpaid adjunct instructor, while the Rutgers football coach makes over $4 million per year. It felt good to come together with dedicated educators, healthcare workers and student workers to raise our voices. It felt good to say it’s time for us to reclaim higher education from those who have proven they are primarily interested in putting money in their own pockets. I’m fed up with the state of higher education in this country, but I still see teaching college-aged students the art of writing poetry as part of my life’s work and vocation, so I’m trying to do my part to make higher education just, accessible and revolutionary. Later in the afternoon, I wrote poetry with fellow poets and friends over Zoom as part of Geoffrey Nutter’s Wallson Glass writing sessions. He’s been holding them weekly over group video calls since we started staying at home. After that, I took a nap. Then went outside to deliver cupcakes to a friend. Made dinner. Ate two cupcakes. Poured myself a glass of red wine. Chatted with my roommate. This is a pretty good day, considering the situation, I’d say. And it’s Saturday, my favorite day.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
Poetry, with its origins and ripples. My Oma and Opa met in Brooklyn, both new immigrants, leaving their families in Germany. My mother was born in New York City in the early 1940s, and her family lived at different times in Jackson Heights, Queens, and in the Bronx. Her father, my Opa, worked as a waiter for a nice restaurant in Manhattan, and he kept a place in Jackson Heights after the family moved to rural Pennsylvania. He came home when he could. He worked as a waiter for the rest of his working life. My mom returned to New York in the early 1960s and worked as a sort of secretary at Tiffany’s, while living and commuting from Jackson Heights. So I grew up hearing stories about New York and developed a desire to connect with it. Fast forward to 2013. I was working as an underpaid adjunct at two Sacramento community colleges, loving teaching, but feeling stuck in my writing practice. I started applying for fellowships and figured I’d apply to MFA programs too. I found I could study with Matthew Rohrer at NYU, and I was offered full funding and a Writers in the Public Schools Fellowship, so I decided to make the leap and do a cross-country move from Davis, California, to Brooklyn, and recommit myself to a life in poetry.
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’ve been in the same apartment in Crown Heights, by New York Ave, since August of 2014 when I moved to New York. There is so much that I love about this neighborhood—the tall trees, the people, the birds, the flowers, the benches on Eastern Parkway, the dogs large and small, the bagels, the pizza, the Caribbean food, the smells of incense, the donuts, the children walking to school, the families walking together on weekends, the bodegas … I could keep going! However, as many readers know too well, though, rents keep going up in Crown Heights, and gentrification continues to spread. Some of my favorite spots have closed. It doesn’t look like I’ll be able to afford to live here much longer.
I haven’t lived anywhere else in Brooklyn, and as for other cities I’ve lived in—Berkeley and Sacramento in California—I’d say Midtown Sacramento feels somewhat like Crown Heights … though that still feels like a bit of a stretch. Midtown Sacramento, when I was there at least, felt friendly, diverse, easily walkable, and here’s where it gets further from Crown Heights: that word “affordable” … gentrification is happening there too, in a different way, though it still seems like Midtown Sac is affordable for more people than much of Crown Heights is. Of course Sacramento isn’t New York, but too many people in power have forgotten (or have chosen to ignore) the fact that affordability for artists and writers is what creates the conditions for a thriving culture.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Sunday. My long-distance partner, Paul Salitsky, is here visiting. Brunch at Café Rue Dix, an awesome Black-owned, French-Senegalese restaurant in Crown Heights. After that, a walk along Eastern Parkway to Prospect Park. Spring blossoms. Walking through Grand Army Plaza. Browsing Unnameable Books in Prospect Heights, buying a new book of poems I’ve been looking forward to reading. Chatting with the Unnameable booksellers. Walking back through Prospect Heights and Crown Heights. Dogs. A bit of grocery shopping. Saying hello to my neighbor as she tends to the little garden around our building. Back in my place, doing some editing for Fence. Tea. Time for dinner.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
Poetry community is simple and complicated at the same time. I feel I am part of several poetry circles that overlap together in waves, that swing back and forth with time. We love each other and we have also hurt each other, but forgiveness is possible, and necessary. Poets are not saints! If you are new to Brooklyn and reading this, please listen to your gut, protect yourself, and listen to warnings from poets who have experience navigating the many communities here. Remember that poets are capable of exploitation too. I learned this the hard way. But I am so grateful to have found close poetry friends here—and I mean “here” as in the New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania region—whom I can trust. Some of them lived in Brooklyn years ago.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Marianne Moore, Matthew Rohrer, Holly Mitchell, Susie Timmons, Deborah Landau, Joshua Beckman, Cort Day (he lives in Philly now), Regan Good, Sarah Riggs, Geoffrey Nutter (he’s in Inwood, but spends enough spiritual time in Brooklyn, so he counts), Rachel Zucker, Dorothea Lasky, Anna Gurton-Wachter, MC Hyland, Ian Dreiblatt, Tony Iantosca, Daniel Owen, Janice Lowe, Joanna Fuhrman, Madeleine Barnes, Hannah Aizenman, Edmund Berrigan, Zoe Goldstein … and yes, Walt Whitman. I keep adding to this list, and I’m sorry if I’ve missed anyone!
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Living and dead, each in their own deep way, and their generous influence continues: Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Kobayashi Issa, Du Fu, Wallace Stevens, Joe Wenderoth, Alan Williamson, Matthew Rohrer, Joanne Kyger, Rebecca Wolff, Tomaž Šalamun, Charles Simic, Larry Eigner, Eileen Myles, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Celan, Ingeborg Bachmann, Frank O’Hara, Matthew Zapruder, Sylvia Plath, Lucille Clifton, Jane Mead, Jean Valentine, Linda Hogan, Dana Levin, Lorine Niedecker, Wisława Szymborska, Marina Tsvetaeva and the coyotes and peacocks in the field by the house where I grew up … and there are also the poets who influenced these poets! Again, I could keep going, but I’ll stop there for now …
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I recently finished By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño. I am currently reading In Praise of Fragments by Meena Alexander, and Country/Harbor/Quiet/Act/Around, a selection of fractal prose by Larry Eigner—I found the book at Moe’s in Berkeley around this past New Year’s, when I was back there cat-sitting for Alan Williamson. Kathleen Fraser wanted some books from her library to go there after she died. And I am rereading Figment by Rebecca Wolff. Why: conversation, comfort, embodiment, vitality, elders.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Now that I have been working so much trying to make ends meet, I have less time to read, but I still find time for it, since it’s essential. I can’t live without reading and writing. Before the pandemic, I would read on my long commutes while riding the subway and NJ Transit. Now I can use that time to read at home. I want to finish reading all of Roberto Bolaño’s books (thanks to Jeffrey Lawrence for reminding me about this). Sometime, sooner rather than later, I’d like to read more ancient Greek poetry, and more of everything pre-sixteenth century. I enjoy reading a book written in the twentieth or twenty-first century while also reading poetry from another century—doing so within the same day adds to that richness and pleasure. I’ve also been meaning to spend more time in the NYPL Rose Reading Room, and I will certainly be doing that once it is safe to do so again.
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?
All of the above, depending on my mood! I do prefer print. I get headaches from too many hours of screen reading. I read for long stretches of time and reading on paper is more suited for that habit.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’d like to write collaboratively a multilingual poem with someone! And then collaboratively translate that poem, using different colors we associate with each language.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
A bench on Eastern Parkway, under a big tree. On the subway. On NJ Transit. With my Rutgers students in class, while they are writing. At Lula Bagel on Nostrand Ave. On the Long Island Rail Road. On a couch in Rebecca Wolff’s house in Hudson, New York, when I go there to visit. Any library. My parents’ backyard in Agua Caliente, California. Point Reyes. My long distance partner’s house in Davis, California. Arcata. Montauk. Mono Lake.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
In addition to those I’ve already mentioned: Babydudes, the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Weinstein’s Hardware & Houseware, Mount Prospect Park (the little park overlooking the botanic garden), Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop, Community Bookstore, the Brooklyn Public Library, the Saturday farmers’ market in Grand Army Plaza, Coney Island, Brighton Beach, Polonia Bookstore in Greenpoint, Taqueria Milear. You’ve probably noticed the local food, books, community and nature themes here!
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the indigo grasshoppers,
And what I drink among the nettles with them you too shall drink among the nettles
For every leaf and drop to me as good blues the you in you.
All of the complicated history, all of the love, all of the poetry communities, all of the passion, all of the diversity, all of the languages you can hear walking through just a couple neighborhoods. And then there’s my Oma and Opa, who met at my Oma’s delicatessen in Brooklyn … that is at the heart of the “why” in the why am I still here, despite all of the challenges.