“I Was Told Not to Write About the Body”: About the Poem

29884447682_92e543cce3_hOn Tuesday morning, a deer ran in front of my car as I drove to work. I was struck, as I always am, by her fleeting, fragile beauty, by what a gift it was, to see her and to have that vision, if only for a moment in time. It’s a feeling I connect very much with the way I feel about the body: how it is a gift, a rare and beautiful and fragile one, to have a body at all.

It seemed fitting, then, that the poem featured on Sundress Press’ The Wardrobe on Tuesday was a poem that uses a deer as a central image. It’s one of two poems in the book that began in perhaps the place least conducive to writing poetry: an over-crowded departure terminal during an extended layover at Dulles airport in DC. I was on my way home after one of those beautiful gifts that happen rarely in a lifetime: I’d been in New York to read in the Best American Poetry reading.

The poem I read was actually the title poem of my forthcoming collection, House Is An Enigma. The experience was amazing but also humbling. I felt as though there was some kind of mistake, as though I didn’t belong there, for a lot of reasons, but the main reason haunted me all through the night and through the first leg of my flight and through my airport walks. I’d had the absolute honor to stand on that stage and read with these extraordinarily talented, brilliant, inventive writers. The main thing that stuck with me, though, was their bravery, their willingness to Say The Thing, to be honest and to confront and explore and love into language the deepest, darkest, most beautiful parts of themselves and their experiences and our shared experience, here, on this shared earth, as creatures who share the experience of being human. My poem felt like code. It was about my deepest, darkest, most intense experience — having a hysterectomy at age 33 — but you’d never know that. In fact, I didn’t even know it, when I read the poem. It was only when I had to write a note for the anthology that I realized what it was about. I’d been ashamed of the experience, I confess, and I confess that I’d been ashamed about my lumbering, dysfunctional body, which so rarely felt like a gift. This shame had led to silence, and I knew, after that night, that I owed it to my work to give it all language.

The first draft of this poem was indeed a rare gift: it arrived nearly whole, in that crowded airport, as I waited for the plane to take me into the sky and away to my home, which felt like a new place, ringing and ringing with news words.


House Is An Enigma featured on Sundress Publications’ The Wardobe


We’ve still got a few months before my third full-length collection, House Is an Enigma, is published by Southeast Missouri State University Press in October.

Interested in a preview? Then I have good news for you.

I’m humbled to say that House Is an Enigma was selected for this week’s Best Dressed feature on The Wardrobe, from Sundress Publications. Stop by every day this week to spend some time with one of the poems from the collection.

First up is “Alma,” which is one of my favorite poems in the collection. I’ve probably been writing it since I studied with Kate Knapp Johnson, my mentor, teacher, and all-around life-saver at Sarah Lawrence College.

Kate taught me more than I could ever begin to express about poetry and about the restless, endless, insatiable and ever-unsatisfied curiosity necessary to keep one’s art and craft alive. I learned much about the latter from her example, especially from her passion about the work of Carl Jung. In fact, Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections served as a textbook in her poetry class, and it was life-changing for me.

Though I’m not sure if I can entirely explain how, I know (and really, isn’t that the best tribute to Jung — not being able to explain entirely but still, nonetheless, knowing) that “Alma” comes from my time with Kate and, via Kate, from Jung.

Kate mentioned one day that in many languages, the word “alma” means “soul.” In many ways, that’s exactly what this poem is: an expression of and from the part of my soul that was built in those long, deep, and deeply treasured conversations between a master teacher and me, an eager student who had so, so much to learn.


Memphis. This Weekend. Me. You, Maybe?

IMG_1532This weekend, I’m heading up to Memphis to read in the Impossible Language Reading Series. Here’s the thing about reading series: sometimes, being a poet is a sad and isolated thing, but readings give us the rare opportunity to gather and listen and love what others do with their work. Readings become the place where we meet each other, fall in love with each other, remind each other of what we do with language and why it’s so damn important. Readings become the place where we carry our love of language to meet our love of others who love language like we do. And if any reading series has brought this experience to me, it’s the Impossible Language Reading Series.

I’m grateful-beyond-grateful to my friend, soul sister, collaborator, and poetry compatriot Ashley Roach-Freiman for inviting me to read this weekend, in the last ever edition of the Series. And I’m also unbelievably grateful (NOTE: I just accidentally typed “great-ful,” which is appropriate for the information I’m about to drop) to be sharing the stage with Christian Anton Gerard and Heather Dobbins, two phenomenal poets who are also phenomenal and positive pillars in the poetry community. So often, the literary community can feel snarky and competitive and generally just kind of dark. Ashley, Christian, Heather, and all of the other beautiful people I’ve met through this beautiful series have shown me what this community can be at its absolute best: a group of people supporting each other and carrying each other as we do this difficult work in this difficult world. It’s such an honor to know them.

The reading will take place at 7 pm on Saturday, December 15th. It’s at story booth, one of my favorite places in Memphis and, well, anywhere. Here are two things you need to know about my reading:

  1. By 7 pm on Saturday, December 15th, I will not have had time to go see a Star War, so PLEASE PLEASE DO NOT SPOIL THE NEW STAR WAR FOR ME. If you’d like to discuss a Star War once I see it, I will totally give you my e-mail address because I am going to be SO READY TO DISCUSS. I am, however, already ready to talk about porgs.
  2. I’m traveling to Memphis from Alabama. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but some stuff has been going on here lately. I moved back to Alabama about a year and a half ago, and it’s been wonderful and terrifying and lovely and terrible and wonderful again. This week has given me the kind of hope for and deep pride that I’ve never felt for my state. This weekend, I’m going to be reading some poems from my forthcoming collection, House Is An Enigma (it is still so exciting to type those words). I’m also going to read some brand new work about living in the Deep South because this is the first time I’ve felt safe enough to read it. So fasten your seat belts and make sure your tray table is in the upright and locked position, Memphis. We’ve got a lot to talk about.*


*Just as a reminder, that does not include The Last Jedi. Yet. But it does include porgs.

House Is An Enigma has found a home!

(Dear Internets: a pre-script.

It has taken me twelve thousand years to post this information on my blog (actually it’s just taken me like three months, but I am not going to let facts deter me from an exaggeration this morning apparently). Honestly, though, the news still feels just as new as when I first got the phone call back in July. It also feels just as joyous and still kind of unbelievable, which makes it even more joyous. And I’m going to — perhaps unwisely — be honest about one of the reasons why.

The book involves two of the most difficult decisions that I have ever made: having a total hysterectomy and leaving academia. Though the first was, clearly, life-altering and terrifying and freeing and sad in ways that I will probably mourn for the rest of my life (though I’m getting to the point of being okay with that, the mourning, because it reminds me of my humanity, and because it reminds me of hope), the second was also intensely terrifying — and freeing in ways I’d never expected. Doing so, however, meant facing a tremendous fear: I thought that I would never publish again, if I wasn’t in academia, if I wasn’t teaching, if I left the only work and world I’d known behind. It was especially wonderful, then, that I got the call about this contest on the Friday of my first week of working a new job in a new field that I absolutely love. Don’t get me wrong: I also loved being in the classroom, and I loved my students, too. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. But I wasn’t happy, and it was time for me to find a way to be happy. It scares me a little to speak openly about that, but I feel like I owe it to my students. I feel it’s crucial, now more than ever, to talk openly to young writers and scholars about other options, other fields, other ways to live and work and grow that can sustain us while we keep doing these wonderful strange things with language. 

Now, onto the news …)

Gertrude Stein and her house

This is a photograph of Gertrude Stein (feline) standing on top of her own house (I know, it’s a giant dog crate, but she loves the space and also somehow crate-trained herself, which is the only way any cat of mine has ever been trained). May we all similarly triumph and lord over our own houses. Amen.

I am proud, humbled, honored, and humbled again to share the news that my third full-length collection, House Is An Enigma, was chosen as the winner of the Cowles Poetry Book Prize and will be published by Southeast Missouri State University Press.

This book’s been a long time coming. It’s wandered from contest to contest, hopeful, under different titles and incarnations. It’s taken until now, though, for me to take the book to a place that feels right — and now, the book has found the right place in this press.

House has found a home.

Theses poems were born out of great pain, and it’s a great honor to see this good news come of them. I own a depth of gratitude to Susan Swartwout, James Brubaker, and all of the editors and readers at SEMO Press — not to mention my own dear readers, family, and friends.

You can read the full announcement — including a list of incredible finalists, with whom I am blushingly proud to share this space — here.

Here’s the press release part, if you’d like to take a look and see what this book is all about:

“Southeast Missouri State University Press is pleased to announce that Emma Bolden’s manuscript House is an Enigma is the winner of the 2017 Cowles Poetry Prize, judged by Susan Swartwout. The prize includes $2,000 and publication of the winning manuscript by the University Press. Ms. Bolden’s book will be published in October 2018.

House is an Enigma is an investigation of the language used to house descriptions of the body, which so often seek to define and determine the boundaries and behaviors of the spirit that lives within. Written after Bolden’s radical hysterectomy, during which she noted her doctors’ use of house metaphors to describe her body and discuss her inability to have children, these stunning poems set out to expose the fissures in the foundations of the language we use to define human bodies and their behaviors, using these cracks as a lens through which she can see her own body, at last, as her own flawed but beautiful home.

Emma Bolden is the author of two books, Malificae and medi(t)ations, and several chapbooks. Her poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in Colorado Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Salamander, National Poetry Review, Nimrod, Triquarterly, Fairy Tale Review, Prairie Schooner, Cimarron Review, StoryQuarterly, Bellingham Review, DIAGRAM, Monkeybicycle, and Gulf Coast among other venues. Bolden received a 2017 Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment of the Arts.”



Catch Me in Charleston This Weekend (10/13-10/14)!

I’m thrilled to say that I’ll be in Charleston, SC this weekend. On Friday, I have the honor of talking lyric essays, poetry, and cats (let’s be honest, cats are always going to be part of the conversation) at the Charleston School of the Arts.

Friday night (10/13 — SPOOPY), I’ll be giving a reading sponsored by the Poetry Society of South Carolina at the Charleston Library Society (164 King Street) at 7:00 p.m. The reading is free and open to the public. I have the great fortune of sharing the stage (or podium) with Miho Kinnas, a phenomenal poet.

On Saturday (10/14), I’ll return to the Charleston Library Society to give a seminar called “Breaking the Block: How Playing By the Rules Can Get You Back in the Game.” We’ll talk about how language games (especially OuLiPo!) can strengthen the writing process from the blank page to the revision stage and back again. The seminar runs from 10:00 – 12:00. It’s free to students at the College of Charleston, $10 for PSSC members, and $15 for others.

You can find out more about the reading and seminar here.

A thousand million thanks to Danielle DeTiberus for working so hard to put this together, and thanks to the good people at the School of the Arts and the PSSC as well!