-interview by Olivia Olson
E. Kristin Anderson’s newest chapbook is full of epistolary poems written to Prince. How could we not want to know more?
Pray, Pray, Pray: Poems I Wrote to Prince In The Middle Of The Night, published by Porkbelly Press earlier this month, features “Hiding is the only thing that matters this summer,” a concise and insightful poem published in Hermeneutic Chaos and subsequently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Anderson, in addition to being a prolific and widely-published poet, is also an avid blogger, an editor at both NonBinary Review and The Found Poetry Review, and the co-founder of the Dear Teen Me anthology.
Here at The Booth, we asked Emily about all the things PRINCE, poetry and the propensity of music artists to inspire the best writing in us.
What is it about Prince?
You know, I wish I knew. Or maybe it’s kind of nice not knowing. I’ve always liked him, but I didn’t become full-on crazy obsessed until the summer of 2014. It hit like a fever. And somehow the fever still hasn’t broken. I think though that there’s something beautiful about a man who doesn’t give a fuck. He makes art, puts it out there or doesn’t. He’s made so many different types of music, challenged race and sexuality barriers from very early on. The man is 5’2”, wears heels and lace, and not only has made himself very powerful but continues to pass that power on to young artists—particularly female artists, which is a big deal in the music industry, which is notorious for screwing over women.
And, I don’t know, listen to “Purple Rain.” The single. Then realize that it was recorded live, in front of an audience, with a brand new guitarist. A few bells and whistles (mostly strings, from what I understand) were added and they ended up cutting a verse in the studio, but when you listen to that, the rawness of the voice and the guitar solos, the band’s cohesion, and you know that this was recorded live, it will make your hair stand on end. That’s a certain kind of creative power that I want to communicate with and adore and be but never be but maybe know, just a little.
What are the challenges/benefits inherent in writing poems addressed to a famous person?
Well, I have had at least one person mention that Prince is particularly litigious (as if I don’t know—I know more things about Prince than most people know about their own mothers) and that could be a problem—if I were quoting lyrics or misrepresenting him, you know, being slandery. Which I haven’t. I also wanted to be very careful both for political and moral reasons not to objectify him. I mean, obviously I have a huuuuuge crush on Prince, but that’s not what my work is about. Really, my poems aren’t so much about Prince as they are little weird notes to Prince. Or phone calls. Or whatever. Of course, there are lots of allusions to the music and the man. Easter eggs. Some are easy to spot, like doves or purple or lace. Others, maybe tougher. A ladder (a less-than-celebrated track from Around the World in a Day). A black butterfly (you’ve gotta know 3rdEyeGirl to pick up that one). There’s also the discussion of prayer, and God was something I really wanted to explore, and maybe not everyone knows that Prince is a deeply religious man (even before his affiliation with the Jehovah’s Witnesses) and somehow he manages to explore Christian themes in songs like “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” which I won’t quote because I know my grandmother is going to read this…but you can look it up. Or listen to it. It’s a great song.
So I guess I didn’t find too many issues in writing about a famous person other than making sure that my allusions worked whether you knew the hits or the B-sides. Or the hits and the B-sides and everything in between. Other writers, of course, might have a completely different experience and that would actually be fun to talk about, like, at a roundtable or something.
As someone who has a number of chapbooks under her belt, how do you go about compiling your poems into a collection?
Funny, I was talking about this with some other writers earlier today. Sometimes I don’t realize I’m building a collection. PRAY, PRAY, PRAY is one of those cases. I just sort of starting writing these poems to Prince while listening to his music at night to calm my nerves and ease a really tough depression. And it built on itself, like a sparkly, violet snowball. But most of my chapbooks have been more intentional—I write twice as many poems as I need and cut between a third and a half of the draft in revision. I think this is especially useful for me in my found poetry manuscripts where the approach is sometimes so experimental that I’m definitely not always going to get a result I like. But still writing the shitty drafts makes me feel like I got something accomplished, and so I put them in the initial manuscript anyway, even though they’re going to get dumped. Or sometimes not. Sometimes a poem looks a lot better in the light of day than you imagined it might.
Did you have a poem that surprised you particularly in the collection? Or, did you have one that was especially challenging for you?
I think the most surprising thing about PRAY, PRAY, PRAY is that I didn’t run out of material. I did run out of dove references, but that’s to be expected. I think the poem that surprised me the most is the last in the chap, “Every salted breath.” Because the poem knew it was the end of the book even though I didn’t. And I thought it was crap when I was writing it. I felt like it was more like journal writing, something to keep my mind busy, rather than creating a piece of art. But when I typed it up, it took shape, and it was so definitive feeling. It had a definite sense of closure. And I knew I was done with writing poems for the chap. I did hack and slash the manuscript—lines, stanzas, entire poems—but this is one poem that never moved an inch from its place at the back of the book. Note the ladder. I was listening to Around the World in a Day a lot that week, I’m guessing.
Not that I actually stopped writing Prince poems. I took it up again a few months later, after selling PRAY, PRAY, PRAY. So…there’s more. I have a problem
It seems you have a Lana Del Rey-inspired chapbook coming early next year. She’s a personal favorite of mine—what did you learn about her when going over her lyrics closely?
Mostly that she’s fucked up like everyone else. She has daddy issues. She’s sexy and sexual but desires strength and isn’t willing to compromise her femininity for it. I guess I relate. The LDR chapbook—forthcoming with Grey Book Press—is actually three long poems, each created by first scrambling the lyrics of one of her albums (I used an online text randomizer) and then applying erasure technique to the scrambled pages. It was really bizarre what I found there. I had no control over where the words were, where they repeated or how they were strung together. But I did have control of what words I chose. And I chose a lot of swear words. Whoops.
Have you ever written anything that made someone angry?
I’m thinking the LDR chapbook is going to piss off a large portion of my family, with the swearing and the sexy talk (we all know about Lana Del Rey and Pepsi Cola). Which isn’t to say things I’ve written haven’t already. I write openly about my struggle with mental health (I have bipolar disorder and panic disorder) because I think when we talk about these issues it reduces stigma. Some people in my family would rather I keep it under wraps. But I’m not ashamed of it. It’s part of who I am. And if one person sees my words and feels better today or tomorrow or whenever, then I’m okay with any scrutiny I get, from anyone.
I do have a (currently strangely secret) life as a young adult author, and I do occasionally worry that my poetry—which has become increasingly adult—could get me disinvited from school visits or festivals, or that it could possibly ward off potential agents (currently seeking an agent, hi there) or editors. But ultimately I feel like words have power, and if my words have that kind of power, well, maybe I’m doing something right. Then again, the villain always thinks she’s the hero of her own story, so I could be completely off base. In any case, I promise not to swear in your sixth grade classroom. (Even though I totally pre-launched PRAY, PRAY, PRAY in a sixth grade classroom last week, not even kidding. Kids are awesome.)
Do you have any books/journals/poets that you’d like to recommend?
God yes. One of my favorite novels that I read this year is The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, which the publisher aptly describes as “orange is the new black swan.” Beautiful writing and an absolutely compelling mystery. I also love anything that Allie Marini and Sonja Johanson put to print. And I have to say my publisher Porkbelly Press has amazing taste. The Insomniac Circus by Amorak Huey floored me. I highly recommend My Heart in Aspic by Sonya Vatomsky and the latest from Ariana D. Den Bleyker, The Peace of the Wild Things. King Me by Roger Reeves. So good. For journals, I will never get over Barrelhouse. Please can I be in you, Barrelhouse? I think they’re innovative and fun and strong. Also, one of my new heroes is Patricia Smith. I think I took all of her books out of the library this year. And then hoarded them until, you know, like, fees. I could go on for a while. So I’ll just stop right here.
P.S : Lisa Cheby is awesome–she has Buffy poems.
In addition to all your poetic endeavors, you co-founded the Dear Teen Me website, where authors write letters to their teenage selves. Which author would you have wanted to write to you when you were a teen?
Dear Teen Me is a passion project I started in 2010 or something and then it became a book and now I still maintain the website with some helpers. And of course, all the letters from authors. It’s hard to say who I would have liked to hear from most as a teen. In high school I didn’t read much, since I was chronically behind on school reading and felt weird reading for pleasure. In middle school I so very much adored Piers Anthony, so I think it would have been lovely to hear from him. But, let’s be real, if Taylor Hanson or Dave Grohl had written to me as a teen, that would have been like, the end of the world party like it’s 1999 style. (And it probably would have been 1999. For the record I did not party—my mom wanted the whole family home that night and man was I pissed.)