10 Questions for Emily Schulten
- By Edward Clifford
At seventeen, he didn't have permission
like his friends to go under the ice,
to dive down and see
what the river held secret in winter
So he sat on the bank instead, bundled
and waiting for the two divers
to come up from the jagged manhole
—from "Ice Diving," Volume 61, Issue 3 (Fall 2020)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I sent a poem in to an anthology competition I found in the back of Seventeen Magazine. It rhymed – it was a little box of exact rhymes. I remember that one of the lines was “Peace will unite us through all the lands.” Real good stuff. Like everyone who submitted, my poem was accepted and published. I was giddy. My folks bought a copy of the heavy volume that is my poetry Achilles heel now, weighing me down for 25 years as I lug it from apartment to apartment, bookshelf to bookshelf, unable to let it go.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
It’s hard to narrow this down, of course. I am constantly falling for poets. Some who were early and have stood the test of time are Cavafy, Tess Gallagher, Rilke, and Roethke. My most recent manuscript was influenced a great deal by Marquez, whose work I was reading and rereading as I wrote. While set in very different places, there are glimpses in Marquez’s novels of the landscape of the place I have been writing in and about.
What did you want to be when you were young?
Everything. Like a lot of writers, I wanted to be a writer, kept the Lisa Frank notebook of poetry and all. Later, this transitioned into wanting to be a journalist, a Lois-Lane investigative reporter. Writing for The Purple Gem in high school was the highlight of those years. I initially set out on this path in college, but it was short-lived.
What inspired you to write this piece?
“Ice Diving” is one of those family stories that most of us know: the ones that are alluded to here and there when you’re a child and that you wonder about and imagine through the years because something about it sticks with you. Here, it was the horror. Narrative has this inherent power to illuminate an event. My father never reflected on that day, he never said much at all, really, but the sense of loneliness, of the out-of-place scuba gear in winter in Kentucky, of a time when a teenage adventure ended in tragedy such as this—those things were all apparent in the details of the narrative. Even what was expanded upon was vivid.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Place has always influenced my writing, but not one specific place. I’ve written quite a bit about where I am from, Kentucky. More recently, I have been influenced by South Florida, where I live. The thing, though, that allows me to find magic in where I am now is that it is unfamiliar. There is this small window of time when a place is still new but you have gleaned enough about it to use it as a character or setting in the writing. There is still enough mystery that there is suspense, and the day-to-day responsibilities have not yet come to outweigh the exploring. The suspense draws me in, and the exploring leads to a larger look at the tensions, and hopefully this is something that can be shared with the reader in a meaningful way. This works, too, in seeing somewhere old as somewhere new again.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I learned at a summer writing workshop some years ago that I do have a trick for when I can’t get started. It will sound stupidly simple, but it works like magic for me. I had trekked across the country, you see, and brought—as we do—far too many books along. The workshop was generative, so we were expected to produce new work at a pretty quick clip. I realized early in the week that opening one of those books and reading a poem or two could work me from an idea into language fairly fast.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
This is a good question. I am thinking lately, because of a paper I’m fidgeting with, about the confessional aspect of writing. There is a part of me that is more comfortable sending work into the faceless world before I share it with people whom I know. That is because of the personal nature of so much of my writing. I focus on craft so intently—this makes it scientific somehow, it gives the exposed nature of the subject the clout of the well-wrought. Nonetheless, that faceless reader might be more likely to accept that than those for whom the work could be construed foremost as learning something about its author. That said, there will always be part of me that misses the workshop communities of my graduate school experiences. And if I need a set of eyes, I have a few go-to poets and a fiction writer from those days whom I respect a great deal and can turn to. Another quandary, though, might be that the fear of sharing work with people you admire (and after all, why seek out a first reader you don’t admire) is that you know how good they are but are still uncertain about your work.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
All of them. There is not a single artistic talent that I don’t covet. In particular, I suppose I would want to be a visual artist. I see the mediums that sculptors and painters work in and I have ideas (or think I do) and I want to bring them to fruition, but there is always a wall up between the idea and the ability—I can’t get much further than buying supplies. I tried out an art minor in college, and I think I took a basic drawing and a basic painting course, just enough to show me that I needed to switch my minor. I did take away one thing from that drawing class that sticks with me in my writing, and that was the tip the professor gave us not to draw the subject of our piece to best render it, but instead to draw around it. There is a place for that in poetry, too.
What are you working on currently?
Recently I have been working on a thread of flash nonfiction pieces that will stand as a cohesive longer essay. I like the fragmented feeling of this, which echoes much of the voice of the piece, and I find that flash nonfiction unfolds naturally from poetry, allowing me—at least in my own mind—more freedom for the poetic techniques that help me to best get close to the center meaning. To return to the confessional, these pieces are really raw, mostly about infertility, and it is a struggle, one made more complex as I am writing now at eight months pregnant. The short pieces help with this, too, to be able to tackle the material in way that is palatable for me. (Watch, this will end up just being a series of poems.)
What are you reading right now?
I just finished rereading Jazz, by Toni Morrison. I took a Faulkner/Morrison course years ago. It was after that when I fell into my love affair with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose body of work is among my favorites. Morrison’s work has so many similar moments of magic. The opening of Jazz, in particular, has that Marqeuzian power of knocking me to the floor. I mentioned liking the fragmented nature of piecing together short prose into a longer essay before; Jazz uses the fragmented in its perspective shifts, in a way that is (unsurprisingly) brilliant. What revisiting novels from old classes has proven to me time and time again is that I would appreciate those courses so much more now, and of course would appreciate them even more in another ten years’ time and reading. We should always be studying.
EMILY SCHULTEN is the author of Rest in Black Haw. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review, Missouri Review, and Tin House, among others. She is a professor of English and creative writing at The College of the Florida Keys.