Interview With Greg Emilio

author photo 2018A PhD candidate in English at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Gregory Emilio’s poetry and essays appear or are forthcoming in Best New Poets, Crab Orchard Review, Duende, North American Review, Nashville Review, [PANK], Tahoma Literary Review, and The Southeast Review. He’s the Nonfiction Editor at New South, and recently won White Oak Kitchen’s 2020 Prize in Southern Poetry. His IG handle is @emilioepicure.

Bon Vivants Hereafter won the 2015 Pangaea Prize.

Robert Evory: You are studying for your PhD in Creative Writing at Georgia State University. I am finishing my PhD at Western Michigan University and I have been really surprised at how much my focus was geared toward fiction and how I fell in love with literary theory. What new experiences have you found most interesting in your studies?

Greg Emilio: One of the biggest developments for me in my PhD program is falling in love with form. Our comprehensive exams at GSU are pretty grueling (two days on-site, closed book!), and a significant portion of the test is geared toward the knowledge of received forms. As I was preparing for the exam, it occurred to me that while I could recognize a sonnet, a villanelle, ottava rima, etc., I had very little hands-on knowledge of formal poetry. I realized that I had to practice these forms (write them) in order to truly understand them. For the past couple years, I’ve been writing mostly formal poems, even if it’s just blank verse, and for the first time in my life as a poet, I’m embracing rhyme. Poetic constraints like meter and rhyme push me toward surprise, and compel me to get more intimate with the numinous nature of language.

RE: You have a stanza in “Another Eucharist” that says, “All these passing things / minor poets love to praise, / two-stepping in socks.” Sometimes I read that as tongue-in-cheek but sometimes when I read the poem I remember looking through my old poetry and I think the stanza might be addressing what subjects are new, worthy, or, maybe, sophisticated. Do you feel minor poets take on different subject matter from major poets? And how do you distinguish between the different level of poets?

GE: I must confess, I lifted the idea of “minor poets” straight from Charles Simic. In a poem from The World Doesn’t End, he writes, “The time of minor poets is coming. Good-by Whitman, Dickinson, Frost. Welcome you whose fame will never reach beyond your closest family, and perhaps one or two good friends gathered after dinner over a jug of fierce red wine…” Though I wrote “Another Eucharist” over five years ago, I still wear my badge as a minor poet proudly. It’s a way of remaining humble, not getting too carried away with yourself, of seeing the common events, objects, and ideas of your own life as the stuff of poetry. I think every poet must feel this way. Specifically in that poem, I see the act of cooking between two fading lovers as a minor subject. The poem isn’t about war, politics, mythology–it’s just about two people breaking up and breaking bread. In this way, I’m quite certain I’ll always be a minor poet.

RE: Your poems feel so intimate, I think, in part, because how plainly you talk about personal relationship and the specific details that enter the poem. I feel at times your poems capture me in in a tight radius around them, like I am inch from the page, leaning in, much like the faces at the beginning of the poem “A Lesson in Hunger” caught in the glow of candlelight listening to a man’s story. Is there a way you prepare yourself to write such an intimate poem? I guess this is a question about your writing process?

GE: I tend to favor poetry which risks intimacy and sincerity. It’s easier to be aloof or sarcastic than it is to be vulnerable. I suppose “A Lesson in Hunger” feels intimate because it takes place in a restaurant, the speaker and characters hemmed in by the tight radius of the table. We were at an Ethiopian restaurant in Los Angeles, celebrating the end of workshop, treated to dinner by our professor, the Nigerian poet and novelist Chris Abani, for whom that poem is dedicated. That night he told us about his time on death row in a Nigerian prison, being tortured, watching his friends die. It was an incredibly moving experience. I’ve always found communion, the simple act of eating with people, to be one of the most meaningful ways people come together. That night I felt I had been gifted a vision of a nightmare I was lucky not to endure. We were his apostles that night, and it was indeed a kind of last supper all together.

RE: How does being nonfiction editor for New South influence your poetry? What connections do you see between poetry and nonfiction? Would you say your poetry is true? And do you have any thoughts on poetry that is, for lack of a better word, fiction or maybe poetry that takes on a persona?

GE: Yeah, I’m currently the nonfiction editor for New South, Georgia State’s graduate-run literary journal. Beyond having to write in two genres just to get a tenure track job now, I think poets find a second home in nonfiction because many forms of creative nonfiction (lyric essay, micro CNF) encourage a way of thinking lyrically. The narrative matters, of course, when it’s your life, but far more important is a kind of poetic conception, making sense of something through language itself. As an editor, memoir is far less interesting to me because it often doesn’t make full use of language, the meaning generated by rhythm, the sound-sense of words. I take my prose as poetic as possible.

RE: The series of poems “Bon Vivants Hereafter” uses food, beverages, and cigarettes—the act of consumption—and intertwines them with memories that are mostly about grief.  I love the line “…we’d open our throats to starlight and wander through endless tunnels of wine” and “Maybe we were falling / from love: fruit overripe, / the branches swooning.” What role do these things we consume play in your life and what role does it play in your poetry?

GE: As far as all the food and drink in my poems, I think that comes from an abiding reverence for the act of communion. Not necessarily in the biblical sense (though that interests me a great deal too), but in the deep animal need to eat: hunger as a condition of life. Five years ago, when y’all published Bon Vivants Hereafter, I think I was just beginning to see food as my pet project. Now, I’m pretty much all in. If we don’t eat and drink, we die. Even in our modern world of culinary convenience, I still think the stakes for food-poetry are pretty high. If you think deeply enough about food, you’ll see that you’re being led to consider your own mortality and your place in the great chain of being. It connects everything. I also notice that a lot of poets like writing about food, but few have taken it on as their lifelong subject. I want to be the (minor) poet laureate of the cutting board, the Sappho of the stove, the bard of barbecue.

RE: It has been about four years since we published “Bon Vivants Hereafter.” What are you working on now?

GE: Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of Greek tragedy, and I want to do a loose re-telling of Euripides’ The Bacchae, his play about Dionysus. I’m thinking of setting the poem in a dive bar called, Hades, where the regulars are all washed-up heroes, gods, and tragic figures from mythology.

RE: You say you are a good bartender and alcohol seems to come up often in “Bon Vivants Hereafter.” Let’s say you are going make a cocktail called “The Poet” or one called “Bon Vivants Hereafter” that reflects this group of poem (your choice) what would the recipe be and why would you choose these ingredients?

GE: It should come as no surprise that I’ve worked in restaurants for over a decade and continue to do so as a bartender. I’m drawn to the work because it gives you a very tangible sense of impacting someone else’s life. Compared to the airy, abstract nature of poetry, crafting a guest a good cocktail, or serving them thoughtfully cooked food, can offer more direct paths toward human connection. If I were to make a cocktail called “The Poet,” it’d probably just end up being a riff on a Negroni (gin, sweet vermouth, Campari) because poets are experts of seeing the beauty in bitterness (and vice versa).