Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with Emily Vizzo
The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: The natural world seems to play a large thematic role in your work. How do nature and humanity’s relationship with nature influence your writing?
Emily Vizzo: I am often terrified by the natural world, which is so beautiful and so dangerous and perfectly capable of moving on without me. In that sense nature is something that I think about when I think about coming undone. Bees, sharks, landslides, earthquakes, wildfires, rattlesnakes, drought, mudslides, coyotes, riptides, stingrays, fish of any kind—when I think of these wild things, I am reminded that I will die someday. This is helpful. When I can begin with the fact that my body is meat, part of the food chain, something making its way to the ground, I can get places faster. Places like astonishment, grace, humility, gratitude, physical recklessness, defiance, muteness. These are interesting places but maybe hard to remain there naturally for very long.
RR: In addition to teaching, you volunteer your time with Poetry International and have worked with VIDA on their annual VIDA Count. Could you tell us a little more about the work you’ve done for those organizations, and why you find it important to contribute to the larger poetic community?
EV: I’ve been working with Poetry International’s community outreach program for about a year. The program, called Poetic Youth, operates out of San Diego State University to provide free poetry workshops for underserved communities—students impacted by homelessness, kids at Title I schools, first generation immigrant or refugee families. The program currently provides poetry workshops to over 100 kids every week in San Diego.
I’m pretty new to VIDA, although I’ve enthusiastically followed the Count for years. VIDA counters read through designated journals and publications, tallying the number of men and women published in each issue. The goal is to increase transparency related to gender parity issues. I’m a feminist, and I have six younger sisters. The youngest is a high school freshman. She’s smart as hell and an active organizer for her school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. I want her to become an adult in a more equitable society.
There’s a yogic concept that the right amount of food for your body is the amount that you can cup in your two hands. Any more than that becomes a literal burden for you. When I can work in service to language, it feels like my hands become bigger. I give more, I get more, I am better moved outside myself. And I’m particularly attracted to volunteer work that empowers other people to examine what they might be cupping in their own two hands.
RR: We’ve noticed that you’re pretty active on Twitter and use it to share lines from poetry or prose that sticks out to you. Some names make frequent appearances, like Margaret Atwood, Jean Valentine, Carol Muske-Dukes, Joseph O. Legaspi, and George Herbert. Would you consider any of these poets influences? What draws you to their work?
EV: I created a Twitter account about a year ago. I decided to use it mainly to share my favorite lines of poetry from books that I’m currently reading or rereading. It feels a little weird to call anyone in particular an “influence,” but yes, I do love these poets. Margaret Atwood has a petrifying knack for the line. I made a special trip to the LA Times Book Festival two years ago to hear her speak, and I was crushing hard from the back row. The snake poems from her Selected Poems are some of the freakiest poems I have ever read.
Jean Valentine, yes. I was a huge fan when I first read Door in the Mountain and then had the chance to meet her when she visited Vermont College, where I completed my MFA. She gave me some great advice about my poems. She said, “You’re making this much harder than it needs to be.” After our meeting I just sat down on the sidewalk, feeling like a failure. But this motivated me to write more clearly and with more courage. Valentine’s Lucy poems in Break the Glass are incredible
Carol Muske-Dukes was California’s Poet Laureate, and An Octave Above Thunder is so, so good. I found it at one of my favorite bookstores, Bart’s Books in Ojai, California, and I brought it with me to Stout’s Island in Wisconsin when I was helping teach poetry and yoga workshops last summer. It was so wonderful to read her direct, powerful poems about Los Angeles and California while listening to big Midwest thunderstorms cracking into the trees.
I hadn’t been previously familiar with Joseph O. Legaspi, but I wanted to check out Organic Weapon Arts, the chapbook press run by Tarfia Faizullah and Jamaal May. I bought Legaspi’s wonderful Aviary, Bestiary, and also this great letter-poem collaboration between Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatathil called Lace & Pyrite.
George Herbert I started reading during my MFA program, when I was researching different ways to think about ecstatic experiences. Herbert took me by surprise. Who was this guy? This preacher in the Church of England writing with a modern hand in the 1600s, sometimes radically so, about metaphysics, generosity, and the body. His control and sense of felt adventure reminded me so much of Emily Dickinson, and then he’d have these little preachy spasms of Sunday School morality in the mix that were so prim and reproachful.
RR: In doing some background research for this interview, we saw that you taught a class called “Poetry and the Body” that focused on, among other things, breath and music in writing. Did the concept for that class come out of your experience teaching and practicing yoga? How harmonious are those activities in your life?
EV: I’ve been practicing yoga for fourteen years and teaching yoga for five years. Studying yogic philosophy and reading the texts deeply informs how I think about engaging with the natural world, with other people, and with my own body. So, harmonious in that sense, definitely.
One of my teachers has talked about this casual way that people sometimes say a painting is a poem, or a dance performance is a poem. So although I am tempted to talk about all the ways that the body, breath, and the spaces surrounding these things are poems, I think another way to think about it is that the body, breath, and the spaces interrupting these things can build poems and that should be enough. Poems are poems, but bodies are bodies. It’s big work to live with and within the body.
The physicist Dr. Leonard Mlodinow has made a beautiful argument for allowing things to be what they are, to hold the “special courage” necessary to participate in the science of our bodies without false poetries. But he also said that the universe is “heading toward a simple and lifeless end.” So that’s cheerful.
RR: In your poetry, structure seems to be very important to the overall reception of the poem. When you are writing, how organically does the structure develop?
EV: You know, although I think about those kinds of things when I read poems written by other people, and learn from that kind of inquiry, I don’t really think about them as I write or revise. So maybe organically is the best answer to that question, although that doesn’t feel totally correct either, maybe a little mushy. I work on a poem until it feels right. When it looks, feels, and sounds right, that’s the structure. And I would hope that it’s a good, strong structure. If the poem seems coltish and unstable, though, maybe it knows something I don’t know about yet, or maybe it is a practice poem, in the way that all poems are practice poems.
Emily Vizzo’s work in Issue 2.1: