Q&A: Emma Healey
The first instalment of The Anansi Poetry Project is here! We chatted with Toronto poet and author of Stereoblind, Emma Healey, to learn more about her creative process, the poets who inspire her work, and, of course, what she’s up to next.
The title of your collection is very intriguing: Stereoblind. What’s the meaning behind it?
Okay so: “stereoblind” is just a fancy word for “no depth perception.” Most people with normal vision have stereopsis, which means “seeing the world in 3D.” Your brain takes in a separate image from each eye and then puts them together to form a single picture that has depth. But when you’re stereoblind, your brain doesn’t know how to put the two things together, so your perception’s always a little off-kilter — doubled or set against itself in small, strange ways. The world you see sometimes overlaps with itself, but it never exactly coheres.
I’ve been stereoblind my whole life, but I only learned the word for it while I was working on this book. I fell in love with the term immediately — I like how it feels vaguely synesthetic, and I thought it gestured neatly toward some of the themes in the book. Plus it sounds more like an album than a book of poetry, which I’m into.
You write prose poems. Is there a reason you’ve chosen that form?
Nope!! JUST KIDDING — there are many. I love what a prose poem lets you do with language, punctuation, line, and expectation. As a young writer I always wanted to be a novelist, but my fiction was abstract and weird and mostly very, very bad; I’d get so focused on a single image that things like plot and character would just totally fall away. On the other hand I loved reading poetry, but I never felt like I understood how to write it; the lyric form just never really tapped open for me like it does for a lot of people. When I found prose poetry it was like learning to see a new colour. Or really, I guess, it was like finally being able to see a colour that had been present in the world this whole time, but which I hadn’t been able to properly perceive. It taught me how to use words like I’d always wanted to; it taught me I could.
You’re both a poet and an accomplished nonfiction writer. How does your writing process differ when writing nonfiction and writing poetry?
It takes me FOREVER to write a poem! My methodology is so deeply ass-backwards, it suuuuucks. Basically I just write 500 slightly different versions of the exact same thing, get incredibly frustrated that I can’t quite grasp the centre of what I’m trying to say, put the whole thing away for six months, come back, do the exact same thing again, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. The whole process just feels so ungainly and frantic, like falling down an endless flight of stairs. Also it’s very expensive to just sit around failing all day.
Nonfiction just feels way more straightforward. I fuss and fret over essays too, but that stress is usually just about structure, nothing too metaphysical. You can almost always solve an essay by just pouring some more time into it. With poetry I feel like there’s this extra dimension that’s way more difficult to access, constantly shifting out of reach. You can’t (just) (always) force your way into a poem with focus or plain effort; it’s more like you spend weeks trying to learn the password, then once you find it and get to spend a second inside the poem, someone changes it and you’re shut out again. The whole process just feels way more murky and elliptical, at least to me. If anyone has a more efficient method of writing poetry they’d like to send my way, I’d consider it a personal favour.
With something as personal and sensitive as poetry what’s the editing process like?
I think it’s the same as it is for any kind of writing — you just need an editor who’s patient and who trusts you, and who in turn feels like you can trust. Someone you can really fuck up in front of. I have this dumb childish thing where I hate letting people look at my early drafts, but once I get over that initial embarrassment I really love being edited. Like a lot of writers, my self-image lists back and forth between extremes: either I’m the smartest person in the world, or else I feel, like, criminally dumb. In that sense, being read carefully by someone who cares about what you’re doing feels amazing because it confirms both feelings at once. When something actually connects you’re a genius, and when it doesn’t you finally know for sure that you’re the earth’s biggest chump. It’s healthy, I think! Like hanging out in a sauna and then jumping into a freezing cold pool, but for your ego.
Your poems refer to your parents, friends, and roommates, even a mysterious character also named Emma. To what degree do you write directly from your experience and does it create any sense of responsibility to be “accurate” when including others in your work?
This is a really complicated question disguised as a pretty simple one! I think I kinda have the same questions as you, and they’re what a lot of this book is about.
As you mentioned earlier, I write a lot of nonfiction, which is something I started doing between my first book of poems and now. I came up as a poet around a lot of men who were kind of snobbish about the first person, especially when it was used by women or marginalized people of any kind. This sounds so goofy now, people being dicks about an entire mode of address, but it’s true! I kinda caught it from them, this disease where anything shaped like confession seemed automatically narcissistic, and narcissism seemed automatically bad. It made you unserious. I wanted desperately to be a “good writer,” so I got very diligent about dissolving any traces of “me” inside my poems.
Something I didn’t understand back then, but which seems very obvious now, is that there are only two reasons you might want to stop people from writing work with an “I” in it. Either you are deeply unimaginative, or else you have a vested interest in preventing people who are not you from speaking publicly about what their lives are like. It’s a dumb, small way to think about art, but it’s also actively aggressive — it’s about centring and preserving masculinity and whiteness and cis-ness, etc. I am not saying anything particularly groundbreaking here, but writing nonfiction (and reading better poetry) helped me figure all of this out, and figuring it out was a big deal for me. Better late than never!
All that said, once I got comfortable inhabiting the first person, I became really interested in its boundaries — the way the expectation of “truth” or “accuracy” can be used to limit you in a different way. I mean, I walk around in the same body all the time, but aside from that I barely ever feel like I’m just one human being with a single way of seeing the world. Does anyone? The voice I wear when I’m writing essays is fun to put on, but it can feel a bit like a costume — not altogether false, but a little incomplete and illusory. I think the expectation of consistent, coherent selfhood is something we impose on other people so they can seem easier to understand — or ignore. Wanting someone to be one kind of person all the time robs them of depth, and your world of dimension. It turns other people into background actors, and it makes it harder for you to understand yourself.
But there’s this problem with writing, which is that even when it helps you understand certain parts of the world, it also thins things out a little. There’s no totally lossless way of representing yourself, or other people, on the page; the second you put a person in a poem, you are bound to flatten them out a little bit, to fail at representing them fully. So to (finally) answer your question, I have the same questions as you! I am also very curious about how much of my work comes from my lived experience, and what it means to try and write about “myself.” I am VERY interested in what an artist’s responsibilities might be when they decide to fold people from their own lives into their work, or when they put people in their poems who seem to share some DNA with actual living breathing humans. The tl;dr of all this is that I am still figuring it out and probably will be for the rest of my life. But it’s cool to think about, right?
Do you find inspiration in other poets’ work while writing?
Of course! It’s crazy how much art by other people I need to consume in order to make a single thing of my own — it’s like melting down a whole car to make a single nail. I need to read a lot of poetry when I’m writing poetry so I can remember all the different things a poem is allowed do to you. Some poets I returned to a lot while working on Stereoblind are Billy-Ray Belcourt, Aisha Sasha John, Sara Peters, Claudia Rankine, Anne Boyer, Zani Showler, Vivek Shraya, Richard Siken, Maggie Nelson, Alice Notley, Yanyi, Patricia Lockwood, Frank Bidart, and Anne Carson. I listened to Rachel Zucker’s lecture on the “Poetics of Wrongness” a lot — it gave me comfort on hard days.
I get a lot of inspiration from things that aren’t poetry too. I’m kind of a magpie for structure, and I get feverishly obsessed with certain pieces of art for really brief, intense periods of time. There’s a really strange, sprawling constellation of source materials that taught me how to write Stereoblind, but it might be hard for anyone except me to see the connection between those things and the thing I made. I watched the movie Inherent Vice like 800 times while I was writing this book.
Where and when do you find you write best?
When I’m doing other stuff! Again: deeply inefficient. I have a desk and I spend a lot of time sitting there, trying to force myself to be brilliant. I think that type of grinding is a crucial part of the process — but most of my actually good work comes way later when I’ve given up on writing for the day. I usually trip over the point of whatever I’m working on while I’m walking around the city, or talking to someone at a party, or at the gym, or falling asleep. I think maybe it has something to do with letting my guard down.
Now that Stereoblind is published, what’s next?
First and most importantly, I have to watch the “Nice For What” video 80,000,000 more times. After that, I’m working on an essay collection! It’s very fun and challenging and stressful and exciting to write, and I think that’s all I’m allowed to say about it for now.
Interview by Laura Chapnick and Kevin Connolly
In Stereoblind, no single thing is ever perceived in just one way. Shot through with asymmetry and misconception, the prose poems in Emma Healey’s second collection describe a world that’s anxious and skewed, but still somehow familiar— where the past, present, and future overlap, facts are not always true, borders are not always solid, and events seem to write themselves into being. An on-again, off-again real estate sale nudges a quartet of millennial renters into an alternate universe of multiplying signs and wonders; an art show at Ontario Place may or may not be as strange and complex (or even as “real”) as described; the collusion of a hangover and a blizzard carry our narrator on a trancelike odyssey through Bed Bath & Beyond. Using a diverse range of subjects — from pharmaceutical research testing to Tinder — to form an inventory of ontological disturbance, Healey delves moments when the differences between things disappear, and life exceeds its limits.