Meet Emily Skillings '17, Poet and Teacher

BY Corinne Lestch, November 3, 2017

The Writing Spotlight series highlights the work of alumni, faculty and current MFA students, asking them to share thoughts on their craft and practice through a question-and-answer interview.


Emily Skillings '17 believes that being a poet is more than writing poetry — it's about embracing different genres, pushing one's own limits and, most importantly, supporting other writers and artists. Skillings is the author of the recently published poetry collection, Fort Not (The Song Cave, 2017), which John Ashbery called a "staggeringly beautiful, wildly off-kilter account of daily life." She has also written two chapbooks, Backchannel (Poor Claudia) and Linnaeus: The 26 Sexual Practices of Plants (No, Dear/ Small Anchor Press). Skillings, also a dancer, is a member of the Belladonna*, a feminist poetry collective, small press and event series. She is currently a visiting lecturer at Yale University, where she teaches a class called "Reading Poetry for Craft." Below, she discusses her next projects and her many influences at Columbia.



How did your time at Columbia influence your writing and your process? What is one thing you still vividly remember from your time there?


My time at Columbia was instrumental to not only finishing my manuscript (and book) but to continuing and opening my life as a writer, teacher, and reader. The thing I most appreciated about the program was the ability and encouragement to take seminars with incredible faculty. It was the reason I chose Columbia, as so many MFA programs focus solely on the workshop model as the way through which to improve and strengthen “craft.” I have come to believe almost exactly the opposite, that reading widely (and outside my genre) and having conversations about texts, practice, and history were the most important aspects of my MFA experience, and led me towards new spaces and registers in my poetry. I am so grateful to Columbia for this space to read and write and be.


I am unable to choose one moment. Here are four: Dorothea Lasky had us visualize our books as both maps and necklaces in our thesis workshop.


I remember a class I took on Jorge Luis Borges with the incredible Alberto Manguel, and reading, line by line, “Tlön Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” The ability to work that slowly through a text is something I’d never experienced as a student. Reading as slow as composition, I thought.


Richard Howard introduced me to the work of A.R. Ammons, for which I am forever grateful. He also inserted the word “heavy” in front of the word “body” in one of my poems, an essential intervention.


Timothy Donnelly gave us a prompt to write an ode to an “everyday but idiosyncratic act” (based on a terrific poem by Ross Gay called “Ode to Sleeping in My Clothes”). It was the most delightful prompt I’d ever been invited to complete, and resulted in a poem called “I Love Wiping My Dirty Hands on Other People’s Things.” In another prompt, he asked us to listen to Donna Summer’s “MacArthur Park” on repeat.



What is the relationship between art and dance and your writing? How does each inform the other?


I think being a dancer before I was a writer helped me to think about space as malleable and in conversation with the body and voice of the artist. There is the space that is inside words and their sounds, the space of the page, the spaces created by images, the poem’s landscape, and the space of the context in which you are writing. I think if I get some of these spaces to interact inside a poem I have written something worth sharing with others. I see poems as little dances in this way—collisions and encounters of images and sounds, all immersed in their own music and atmosphere/mood. As a dancer, I was trained to think about “kinesphere,” the space the body takes up at any given moment (a kind of physical volume), and I think I’ve translated this concept in writing as scope. What is the scope of the voice in this poem? How am I tuning the aperture of this poem? Training in improvisatory dance helped me, to some extent, to make dynamic, on-the-spot language choices.


In dance, especially with ballet, you learn through repetition. I often repeat phrases in my poems or get caught up in anaphora, which often has the effect of both engraining and destabilizing the repeated word or phrase. There is a kind of exhaustive action you can do to language that I learned through performance. My father, in reference to repeated wear on household objects, called this “the durability test.”



Is there any advice you can share for students or young poets pursuing the craft in our current times?


I think being a poet is so much more than writing poetry. A big part of it is helping other writers and artists, so my biggest piece of advice would be to support other writers as much as you are able, by reading and teaching their work, hosting them for readings, reviewing their books, forming collectives or presses, providing comments on their work, telling them their work is important to you. Doing this labor, for me, is an integral part of poetry, the ethos of it. Allow yourself the time and space to cultivate obsessions. Choose very carefully what outside pressures and expectations determine and form aspects of your work and process.



Your first full-length collection of poems, Fort Not, recently came out. What was the process of working on this, and when did you know it was ready?


The book was my thesis, and it was (for the most part) entirely written at Columbia, save for a few poems. Many poems came out of prompts given to me directly by Lucie Brock-Broido (whose course reader for the first-year poetry seminar is one of the most wonderful and mysterious anthologies ever assembled—it’s kind of a legendary document!) as well as Cathy Park Hong, Timothy Donnelly, and Dorothea Lasky.


When I submitted it to The Song Cave (with zero expectations that they would publish it) the manuscript wasn’t yet ready to be published. The editors, Alan Felsenthal and Ben Estes, really guided me through editing and ordering the manuscript. It was a gentle and intuitive process, and I took about 6 months to revise the manuscript into a book. It felt ready when I couldn’t physically look at it any longer.



What are you currently working on? How do you balance teaching and writing?


As a student, I always found it so exciting to study with writers who taught the things they were currently interested in and working through themselves—there was a feeling of being on a journey together. In this way, I see teaching writing as so much an extension of my own process of learning.


I’m currently working on a book-length poem sequence called Mother of Pearl about the state of the environment, the “necropastoral” (to borrow a term from Joyelle McSweeney), and whether or not I want to eventually have children. It uses fragments of language from the anonymous 14th-century Middle English poem “Pearl,” Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, lyrics from Roxy Music’s song “Mother of Pearl,” and probably eventually a few more sources. It is a very different experience than writing Fort Not, both because it is more of a “project” than a collection, and because it relies on/is building itself around found language. I recently described its current state as a word document I open once in a while and “panic into.” I also want to start writing a novel but don’t quite know how!