In the Spotlight
Associate Editor-in-Chief, Tupelo Quarterly; Associate Director of Marketing, First Avenue Ventures
Alabaster, Alabama Member Since: 2006
About: Emma Bolden is a poet and the author of House Is an Enigma (Southeast Missouri State University Press), medi(t)ations (Noctuary Press), and Maleficae (GenPop Books). The recipient of an NEA Fellowship, her work has appeared in The Norton Introduction to Literature, The Best American Poetry, and such journals as the Mississippi Review, The Rumpus, StoryQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, New Madrid, TriQuarterly, Shenandoah, and the Greensboro Review. She serves as associate editor-in-chief for Tupelo Quarterly.
What are some of the greatest challenges facing small press publishers and editors today?
I realize that this is a roundabout way of answering this question, but I think that the most important issue facing publishers and editors themselves isn't so much a challenge as it is the absolute necessity of challenging themselves to strive for greater representation of a spectrum of voices, both in the works that they publish and on their editorial boards. Now more than ever, it is crucial to support, celebrate, and promote works written, edited, and compiled by underrepresented and marginalized identities. Literature is, in my opinion, the clearest, most intimate representation of the human experience. I feel that it is the responsibility of the publishing industry in general—and small presses in particular—to uplift the voices of the full spectrum of human experience.
How do you balance your work as a writer and as an editor of others writing?
I admit that this can sometimes be a difficult task, especially when I'm facing deadlines as an editor and as a writer. I try to follow the same kinds of lessons I learned as a student. My parents always urged me to start on assignments early and work on them in small installments. I wasn't always the best at following this very good advice, and I found myself in some very stressful academic situations as a result. I learned very quickly that my parents were right, and I also, thankfully, learned from my mistakes (for the most part, at least). I try to take time every day to work on my writing and on my editorial assignments. That's become important to me, as I find that one fuels the other. I can easily become discouraged when it comes to my own writing: it can feel like such a brutally solitary task. When I log into Submittable and see all of the amazing work with which I have been trusted, it reminds me that I am not alone and that the work of making language is important, communal work.
Who encouraged you to be a writer?
My parents encouraged me to be a writer and, just as importantly, to be an engaged and curious reader. My father took me to the library every weekend. Those trips were so important to me that instead of threatening to ground me, my parents threatened to take away a library trip. It always worked.
What book would you read again and again? Why?
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, which, I recognize, might be cheating. My mother bought my first copy of it (yes, I have two) at the mall when I was in 5th grade, and I remember reading it in complete absorption through lunch at the food court. I feel the same thrilling awe of discovery every time I open it. There’s always a new image, a new angle, a new moment in which it seems I’m participating in an intense conversation with a brilliant mind.
What is your favorite line from a book?
“The words are purposes. / The words are maps” from Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck.” Those lines serve as a map back to what I feel my purpose is when I have lost my way.
When do you find time to write?
I have a marketing job with a commute that lasts anywhere from thirty-five to ninety minutes, so time is precious. I take advantage of any spare moment I have, from lunch breaks to those hushed moments while everyone’s filing in and waiting for a meeting to begin. When my commute does stretch to the ninety-minute mark, my cell phone’s voice-to-text feature is my best friend.
What is your favorite thing to do when you should be writing, but just can’t find the motivation?
My high school creative writing teacher always said that if you’re stuck with a poem or story, it’s time to take a break and do anything but writing. I often turn to crochet, as I’ve found that doing this kind of work with my hands helps me to find my way in my writing. Plus, there’s a particularly satisfying kind of relief that comes with seeing a physical result of your work—and that’s especially important when it feels like my words aren’t going anywhere.
Would you like to share a project you are currently working on?
I’m currently working on a collection of poems about my (extremely complicated) relationship with the Deep South. It’s the place where I feel most at home and a place that seems to insist on reminding me that I don’t belong. That tension has fed my work since I moved back to my hometown in Alabama three years ago. I’m also working on a memoir about my struggle with women’s medicine, from my twenty-year-long battle with endometriosis to my hysterectomy to my asexuality, which my physicians treated as a medical problem for most of my adult life.
What persons in or aspects of your life’s journey have most profoundly influenced your work?
I was tremendously lucky to have excellent creative writing teachers all the way through my education, from my time as a high school student at the Alabama School of Fine Arts to my undergraduate years at Sarah Lawrence and my graduate study at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Every time I turn to the page to write and revise, my teachers are there. I hear their voices, their encouragement, and their advice. I'm also lucky to have tremendously supportive parents, who've talked me through more crises of faith and confidence than I can count, and celebrated even the smallest successes with me.
Why did you decide to join AWP?
I confess: I initially joined AWP for the job list. However, I soon found that’s just the very tip of what AWP has to offer. Now that I’m no longer an academic, my AWP membership is every bit as—and perhaps more—important. It’s a way for me to maintain connections with the writing community and to continue the conversations about craft, community, and inclusion that are absolutely vital to the continuity of the art.
What is your favorite AWP Conference memory?
Hearing Anne Carson and Lucie Brock-Broido read together at AWP 2013 was life-changing and awe-inspiring. They were also extremely funny, which was life-changing in its own way. I remember Brock-Broido saying that when strangers asked what her poems were about, she’d say “pets,” which continues to seem like the best possible answer to that particular question.