SLANT Feature Poet

SLANT – Featured Poet Profile : Emily Hockaday

Emily Hockaday

Earlier this year, Slant contributor Emily Hockaday saw the release of her first full-length collection of poems, Naming the Ghost, from Cornerstone Press. Included in that collection is the poem “The Electric Air,” which appeared in our Spring 2022 issue. Emily is also the author of the poetry chapbooks Beach Vocabulary, Starting a Life, What We Love & Will Not Give Up, Ophelia: A Botanist’s Guide, and Space on Earth. Her poems have appeared in print and online journals, as well as in the Poets of Queens and Parks & Points’ Wayfinding anthologies. She is the recipient of a New York City Artists Corps grant, a Café Royal Cultural Foundation grant, and the winner of the Middle House Review Editors’ Prize. Slant editor Michael Blanchard visited with Emily for this interview.

MB: Emily, congratulations on the publication of your first book, Naming the Ghost. How does it feel to have that first one completed and out in the world?

EH: Thank you! It is really exciting to have Naming the Ghost out in the world, but it is nerve-wracking, too. This one is very personal for me, so that adds an extra level to its release. Sometimes I can step further back from my poetry, but these poems are (besides the ghost, sort of) pretty firmly autobiographical.

MB: When was the official release date?

EHNaming the Ghost officially came out with Cornerstone Press on September 22, 2022.

MB: That’s just about two months. I hope you have already received plenty of positive feedback.

EH: A handful of the poems in the book had already been published in journals, so that was encouraging, and the book has had some positive reviews too!

MB: And I’m proud to say that one of those poems, “The Electric Air,” first appeared in Slant. I want to return to talk more about the book and the events in your life that occasioned the poems in it, but would first like to know more about you. Tell me a little about your background.

EH: I’m a poet located in Queens, New York. You’ll see a lot of Queens and New York City show up throughout the book. I was raised in the suburbs, though, out in Connecticut in the Hartford area. After moving to Queens to attend grad school at NYU, where I got my MFA, I never left. While Naming the Ghost is my first full-length collection, I do have five prior chapbooks—the most recent one came out this year, actually, in April. It’s titled Beach Vocabulary and has ecological themes. It was published with Red Bird Chaps. My day job is literary in nature too, but it’s quite different than my writing life. I’m the Senior Managing Editor of two science fiction publications — Analog Science Fiction and Fact and Asimov’s Science Fiction. It’s a lot of fun. I’ve always been a big science fiction reader, so I feel really lucky to be working in the field.

MB: So, double congratulations, then, on having two books come out this year. The most recent chapbook and your day job give me even more subjects to circle back to, but first, let’s talk about your interest in writing poetry. At what point in your life did that interest arise?

EH: I have been writing poetry for as long as I could write. I remember making poetry “books” out of stationery and a stapler as a kid. The poems were, of course, rhyming, and just as cheesy as you might imagine. My mom writes poetry and essays, and she studied literature in college, so our house was always full of books — thus as I got older I could explore her shelves, which held the likes of Margaret Atwood, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Nikki Giovanni, and other really great feminist poets.

MB: You are indeed lucky to work as an editor of two science fiction magazines, since you have always been a sci-fi fan. Have any of your earlier poems drawn on that interest? Or, have you ever tried your hand at writing science fiction stories?

EH: Most of my poetry is totally mundane, but Naming the Ghost does have a genre element to it, although it is pretty obviously a metaphor. The speaker of the poems that Naming the Ghost follows is being haunted by a ghost. While I haven’t written science fiction poetry per se, I do really enjoy writing poems that incorporate real world science in them, including astronomy discoveries and images we get back from probe missions. I haven’t written any science fiction stories (since high school), but it’s not off the table for the future. I did co-write a mystery/crime story with author Jackie Sherbow for a crime anthology based on Joni Mitchell songs (The Beat of Black Wings).

MB: You mentioned that your chapbook Beach Vocabulary addresses ecological themes. Is concern for the environment another long-standing interest in your life?

EH: I’ve become more environmentally aware as I’ve aged. I was raised with a strong focus on the interdependent web of life and on humanity’s responsibility to caretake, but as a child and young adult I didn’t realize that passively participating in American society was so actively harmful to the Earth. And that is definitely something that I came to in the past ten years or so. It’s tricky, of course, because consumers are beholden to those systems that are so environmentally damaging. I’d also like to add that my poems around the natural world look less at the negative human impact on the environment and more at ecosystems, plants, animals, etc., and how they function in the world as-is, and what those communities and lives can tell us. In most of my ecological poems I aim to raise awareness of the natural world so that readers can feel the same awe and — in some ways — smallness that I feel when I try to consider the universe and its inhabitants.

MB: All of that should provide you with subject matter for future poems. But let’s return now to the book that initially captured my attention, Naming the Ghost. This is a tightly focused collection because every one of the 57 poems here is inhabited by what you referred to earlier as a metaphorical ghost and because each one deals with the highly emotional intersection of two events in your life. Can you share with me more about those events?

EH: In October 2017, my dad died of ALS after his diagnosis earlier that year. Four months before his death, I gave birth to my daughter. About a year after he died, I started experiencing the symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as Fibromyalgia, which is a kind of tricky disease to pin down. My symptoms were mainly widespread pain and fatigue. Over a period of seven months, I saw a number of doctors and did all sorts of blood and neurological tests on my quest for a diagnosis. There were so many things to rule out, and with each clean bill of health I felt more unsafe. Because I had just seen the worst-case scenario with my father, and also because I had a child to now care for and stick around for, I became extremely anxious about my health. At some point my amygdala basically took over. I was running purely on adrenaline, convinced I was seriously ill, but with doctors unable to give me answers. I think the only way I could write about this time was through metaphor. It was too much otherwise.

MB: Physically, mentally, and emotionally, that is a lot for one person to deal with in such a short period of time. And that brings me to two aspects of your book I want to talk about: a sense of immediacy and of compression. Because nearly all of the poems are written in the present tense, a reader might get the feeling that you were writing them as the events unfolded. One might also get the feeling that you wrote them all within that span of four emotionally-charged months. Was that the case? If not, is that the feeling you were trying to convey in your book?

EH: I actually was writing these in the moment! I was engaged in a poem-a-day practice that stretched over this time in my life. The ghost appeared in one of my poems and then continued to appear….writing the ghost allowed me to distance myself from what was happening. While ultimately getting diagnosed and treated provided me relief, writing these poems helped tremendously during the worst times. There are some poems that were written after the fact to fill in gaps and add more dimension to the book, but those are few. Most of them came in more of a torrent. And yes, I want the reader to experience this as though they are viewing the crisis (and beautiful moments too) day by day.

Emily Hockaday

MB: You definitely succeeded in achieving your desired effect, then. I also get the feeling of compression — and by that I mean the sense of so much emotional content packed into such atight space — in your book by the length and setting of the poems. All of them are less than one page long. If I’m not mistaken, the longest one is 28 lines; and most are considerably shorter. And most are set within the speaker’s apartment. I guess there are two questions here. Are you at your best in short lyrical poems? And, were you intentional about limiting the setting to such a confined space?

EH: I think my natural, go-to poem length is quite short—a sonnet or slightly longer. When I push myself to create something longer I’m often happy with the result, but longer poems are definitely outside my comfort zone. Additionally, I was writing these as sort of snapshots during my poem-a-day practice, and because of the serial nature of that these ended up being pretty consistent in length. Two of the poems on the longer side are ones I wrote later and moved into the manuscript. I was not intentionally limiting the setting to a confined space — but it makes sense that it ended up that way. During this time I felt somewhat claustrophobic in my own life and in my body. I definitely felt trapped by the symptoms of the chronic illness, and I also felt trapped by my own anxious response to those symptoms, so it feels appropriate that the poems are trapped inside…with the ghost.

MB: Emily, that captures my experience of reading your book precisely…the feeling of claustrophobia and of being trapped. Whether consciously or not, you have succeeded in conveying that part of your experience. Earlier, you revealed that the only way you could cope with this period in your life was through metaphor. Is that a witness to the healing power of poetry?

EH: In a way it is. I think being able to write about the fear I was feeling — albeit slant — was necessary for my sanity. I definitely needed my diagnosis and treatment to fully heal, but writing kept me as grounded as it could. It gave me moments where I could step outside the crisis and feel removed from it.

MB: So, fear in its many guises and fibromyalgia were some of the names you gave the ghost that inhabited your living and working spaces and, quite literally, your body and that will forever inhabit the poems of your book. I am glad you were able to come through this experience and that you had poetry as a way to cope. You mentioned that the diagnosis and treatment were necessary for you to heal. I hope that means you are now doing much better physically.

EH: Yes, that’s a good way of looking at the ghost. I often tell people that if I had to pin the ghost down, I would say it is an analog for the amygdala: trying to keep you safe, while also flooding your body with fear. I am doing much better. The treatment has worked really well for me, and I have almost no pain these days. I’m very lucky!

MB: I am glad to hear that. And I am glad we had this chance to visit. Thank you for taking the time to help me get to know you better and to gain some new insights into your book Naming the Ghost. Best of luck with it. I understand you have another book scheduled for publication next year. Perhaps we can visit again then and talk about that one.

EH: Thank you so much, Michael! I really appreciate this thoughtful dialogue. I’ll be sure to get in touch when In a Body releases. (As of now, it’s scheduled for October 2023.)

You can follow Emily at www.emilyhockaday.com and you can

order your copy of Naming the Ghost online from Barnes & Noble.