January 19, 2023 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Please join BookWoman for a “conversation in poetry” celebrating the publication of Emily Hockaday’s inaugural poetry collection, Naming the Ghost (Cornerstone Press, 2022). Reading with Emily will be Matthew Zapruder and Diana Marie Delgado.
Emily Hockaday is the author of five chapbooks and another full-length forthcoming in 2023. Her work has also been featured in NPR’s RadioLab. In NAMING THE GHOST, a woman who loses her father and becomes a new mother now has to deal with a ghost that haunts her home. As the speaker learns more about the ghost, she realizes that it is something more—it is her grief and chronic illness manifested in another form. Heartfelt and forthright, this collection navigates important questions of health, life, and new parenthood, giving way to “otherworldly, yet grounded” (Jared Harél) poems.
CH: What is your first memory of poetry? What drew you to it as a means of expression?
EH: My first memory of writing poetry is a book of poems I created on stapled-together stationery in the second grade. I inflicted these upon my family and a good friend who contributed a poem herself.
Unfortunately I can’t pinpoint my first memory of hearing poetry, but now that I have a kid I recognize that much of the children’s book genre is poetry. Goodnight Moon and A Child’s Good Night Book, both by Margaret Wise Brown, were books that have stuck with me and many others too I’m sure.
I think what drew me to poetry is that it is a deceptively small form while containing huge drama. I’ve always been attracted to the dramatic! The potential for quick catharsis of angst is very compelling.
CH: I understand you earned an MFA from New York University. How did that experience help shape you as a writer?
EH: Getting my MFA helped me take my writing seriously. I realized that while I wouldn’t get rich writing poetry, I could still consider it a career or vocation. It was incredible to be among other writers who were prioritizing and committing to their craft.
I also had the fortune to learn from wonderful teachers—Sharon Olds, Kimiko Hahn, Matthew Rohrer, Phillis Levin, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Matthew Zapruder (who will be reading with me). Studying with them was such a privilege.
CH: Congratulations on the publication of your debut full-length collection, Naming the Ghost. Please tell us a little about how the book came about.
EH: Thank you! This book is very close to me, because it chronicles a really wild time in my life. About a year after my father died of ALS, I started experiencing unsettling symptoms—which would later be diagnosed as fibromyalgia. It was extremely hard to get this diagnosis. I saw specialists who did nerve tests, blood tests, exams, etc, and kept hearing that I was healthy. At this time I was also caring for my toddler. I became obsessed with the symptoms that were plaguing me, and this turned into acute, clinical anxiety. I was basically running on adrenaline 24/7. It really felt like I was haunted! At this time, I was committed to a poem-a-day practice, and at some point the poems became lyrical diaries with this ghost!
CH: The speaker of Naming the Ghost inhabits a complicated landscape of life: new parenthood suffused with the grief of a parent’s death. How was it to work with this material in the context of our culture’s tendency to minimize or dismiss grief?
EH: I think a big part of Naming the Ghost is this fight for speaking about what is taboo. There is the taboo aspect of grief—the feeling that after a point it should be over, or at least should no longer be talked about—and then the taboo aspect of mental health. I was essentially having a nervous breakdown while I wrote these poems, but I felt I had to hide it. Go to work as normal, socialize as normal, except at those times when the fatigue, pain, and anxiety literally took me down.
CH: There’s a pivotal moment late in the collection when the speaker is at last able to name the ghost. Tell us about that place from your standpoint as a writer.
EH: Because Naming the Ghost is a narrative, I wanted it to have resolution. Not as neat a resolution as we might like, but I did want the story of the poems to have a beginning, middle, and end. It was important to me that the poems not only showcase the illness and grief in the speaker’s life, but also the healing. That’s what this moment is for me: the speaker sees the ghost and really recognizes it, sees what its purpose has been, and this kind of allows her to get better.
CH: Over the last decade you’ve had a rich publishing life, with the publication of your five chapbooks Starting a Life (Finishing Line Press, 2012), What We Love and Will Not Give Up (Dancing Girl Press, 2014), Ophelia: A Botanist’s Guide (Zoo Cake Press, 2015), Space on Earth (Grey Book Press, 2019), and Beach Vocabulary (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2020). Looking back over the last decade, how would you say your writing has evolved? What’s remained consistent?
EH: One thing that I can see having remained consistent (except for Ophelia, which is an outlier) is that most of my poems are inspired by my own life. They are fictionalized and sensationalized for the sake of drama (of course!), but most, at their core, are my own experiences and musings. Even the surreal or fantastical poems.
I’d like to imagine that my writing has evolved for the better—the craft stronger and the voice wiser—but I can’t honestly say that. The voice has gotten … more experienced, but there are poems in What We Love and Space on Earth that are very angsty and youthful that I still love. I’m not that speaker anymore, but I have tenderness for her, and I think her voice can still speak to readers.
As the years progress, I’ve turned more and more to ecopoetry. When I started out, I wrestled with internalized misogyny keeping me from writing poems about nature. Even though I loved Mary Oliver and other poets who wrote nature, I felt that if I myself wrote poems about the natural world I’d be pigeonholed or sidelined as so many women have been. My next book (In a Body, Small Harbor Publishing 2023) is ecopoetry, and the two manuscripts I’m working on assembling now have strong themes of nature and ecology as well.
CH: I understand you work for Analog Science Fiction & Fact, and Asimov’s Science Fiction, and co-edited the horror anthology Terror at the Crossroads with Jackie Sherbow. Do you see an influence of these experiences on your own writing?
EH: Yes, I’m senior managing editor for the two science fiction magazines, and Jackie and I coedited Terror at the Crossroads, which pulls horror stories from the two SF magazines I work for and the two mystery/crime magazines they work for (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine). It was really fun working on that collection with them. I don’t write horror usually, but I love horror fiction—as does Jackie—so that project was a labor of love for both of us.
Even though I work in science fiction and am a huge SF fan, I still typically write mundane poetry (to the extant that any poetry can be considered mundane). I have done a little speculative writing, though, which is probably influenced by the magazines. I consider Naming the Ghost speculative in its own way. Even though the ghost is a metaphor, it’s also there—and doing some serious haunting!
CH: I understand you have a second full-length collection forthcoming from Small Harbor Publishing in 2023. Please tell us a little about it.
EH: In a Body is in some ways a thematic companion to Naming the Ghost, in that it still deals with chronic illness, parenting, and grief. But in subject and style it is completely different. In a Body tackles these themes with an ecological bent. The book looks to plant, animal, fungal, and geological bodies—and how they fit into the Earth’s ecosystems—as a way of understanding the human body both as its own little ecosystem and as a part of nature. There is a sense of acceptance of the chronic illness in this collection. And each poem is basically standalone—there’s no obvious narrative like in Naming the Ghost.
CH: What words of advice or encouragement would you share with a writer who’s starting out?
EH: The best advice I can give is to find a community! Without my writing group and workshop (who both meet over Zoom these days), I would be lost. It is invaluable to have folks to hold you accountable, support your writing, and offer honest feedback. I’m also part of a peer circle where we share goals and support. It’s easy to see yourself as one person writing into the void—but that is not the case. People are out there doing the same grind, and having peers to cheer you on is so helpful.
CH: What do you read for pleasure?
EH: I mostly read fiction and poetry for pleasure. I’d love to read more nonfiction, though! Some books that I read this year that I loved are Night Bitch by Rachel Yoder, The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler, the third Finder book (all three are great) by Suzanne Palmer, Banana by Paul Hlava, The Girls in Queens by Christine Kandic Torres, Life on Mars by Tracy K Smith (I was late to this one!) & Fevered Star by Rebecca Roanhorse. I also gleefully keep up with the Gamache series by Louise Penny and the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch. As I have a five-year-old, I also have a pretty constant stream of kiddo chapter books that we read together. (If you’re looking for middle grade, the Haunted Library series is tops. Also Megabat!)