Emily Pulfer-Terino is a poet and writer whose work has appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, Hunger Mountain, The Southeast Review, Poetry Northwest, Stone Canoe, The Louisville Review, Juked, and other journals and anthologies. Her poetry chapbook, Stays The Heart, is published by Finishing Line Press. She has been a Tennessee Williams Poetry Scholar at the Sewanee Writer's Conference and has been granted a fellowship for creative non-fiction at the Vermont Studio Center. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Syracuse University, and she lives in Western Massachusetts.
Her poem, "North Street," appeared in Issue Eighty-One of The Collagist.
Here, she speaks with interviewer Angela Redmond-Theodore about Joni Mitchell and the musicality of literature.
I am moved by the quiet and relentless sensuality of "North Street." Touch, smell, hearing, sight, and memory each take a turn leading the reader through the poem. How did the poem come to be—was it triggered by one sense or another, or did the moment described in the poem awaken your senses?
This poem came to be as a response to both the very circumstances the poem describes and to Joni Mitchell's "Song for Sharon." For years I have been sort of a student of Mitchell's lyrics, and I was thinking a lot about how that song evolves and turns over and over, how it covers the distances it does. I was also considering what marriage is or could be, feeling both a yearning and a cool detachment from the enterprise. These were not competing but complementary impulses, and that song was often on my mind. It was during a time when I wrote in a studio in an old bank building where artists and writers rented space. Late afternoons and evenings after work, that scene of a busy downtown street, a cinema, and a bridal dress store informed my imagination and much of the writing I did.
This isn't exactly stream of consciousness, but the line breaks and lack of stanza breaks create a connection, or a string of connections—between images, between lines, between phrases—where otherwise there might not be any. How did you come to order the lines of this poem?
I write all of my poems aloud, speaking them while writing or typing, and I reread and revise aloud too. Sound and syntax dictate much of the order of ideas in all my poems, and my ear sometimes leads me towards a logic that I may not have otherwise found. With this particular poem considering issues around marriage, the act of wedding, the notion of being a bride, I was working to perform both longing and a critical, cerebral relationship to that longing. Here, it resulted in locating the speaker in the evocative setting that spring in my studio provided, musing on the evolution of ideas in the song and my speaker's own emotional situation, and a return to the setting informed by that reflection.
I am fascinated by the sudden introduction of the first-person pronoun toward the end of the poem. This move anchors the theme of marriage, which runs throughout the poem, in the reader's mind: I start to make some vows: to get more sleep, / head south again, play guitar, get outside more, / not to die alone.Can you talk about self-reflection, generally speaking, and about the particular decision not to start the poem with these lines?
In this case, the set of "vows" is so emotionally and psychologically located in the situation that I didn't think to place them anywhere else in the poem. When I was first drafting the poem, that list itself surprised me. In revision, my main concern was that the scene include enough of the right details for those lines to feel surprising and also built towards.
Beyond the literal references to music in the poem, "North Street" is remarkably lyrical. My favorite lines are petals falling, gathering about them, beige / as aged lace.What music do you listen to/what do you read to help you refine the musicality of your own voice?
I've mentioned Joni Mitchell, so obviously I love her sense of rhyme as much as anything else in her verse—the inventive ways her rhymes draw connections between words and concepts that surprise a listener. I listen to a broad variety of music, but I write without music playing. In addition to writing aloud, I read prose and poetry aloud, so I absorb a lot from what I am reading at a given time and from what I have engraved in my memory through rereading. For example, I find that when I am teaching Shakespeare, my poems become iambic by accident. Recently, I was reading a contemporary collection that is in blank verse but nods to the epic or Homeric, and my writing tended towards dactylic hexameter phrasing. I either leave my drafts kind of metric or, more often than not, I go through and interrupt the meter depending on what a given poem needs.
What are you working on now that you can't wait to see the light of day?
I've recently completed the manuscript that "North Street" is part of, and I am excited for that to see the light of day. Meanwhile, I am having fun discovering what my next big project will be. I'm seeing new thematic and stylistic patterns, and I am curious how they will develop. I have an evolving sequence of poems that I'm sort of thinking of as short folk songs. These are certainly inspired by the agrarian landscape I grew up in, but they also have a dreamlike quality that comes, I think, from memory having turned what it knows to archetype. In another evolving set of poems, I am thinking about myriad forms of beauty—poetic and visual, cultural—alongside nostalgia, coming of age in the nineties, fashion, glitter and the grit of grunge. These two groups of poems seem to be working as counterpoints to one another.