Emily Skillings

Emily Skillings is a Brooklyn-based poet. She graduated from The New School with a degree in both dance and writing, and received an MFA in poetry from Columbia. She is a member of the Belladonna Collaborative, a feminist press and events series, and teaches at both Yale and Columbia. She has also choreographed and performed dance across New York City, and is the author of two chapbooks and a full-length manuscript that was published this fall by The Song Cave.

Q: How did you first begin writing?

A: It happened in a couple stages. I wrote in high school and started to love poetry, and my gateway poet was Emily Dickinson, which I feel like is a lot of American people’s first exposure to poetry, and I loved the way that her poems were very small on the page but expanded out into the universe. They’re very huge poems, and you could talk about them and think about them forever, even though they were the size of a postage stamp. I never journaled or kept a notebook or anything, but I did have this hatbox — I would write little poems on pieces of paper and put them in the hatbox and I kept it in my closet, and that was a weird kind of space where I first started storing writing, but they weren’t good poems by any means. Then I was a dancer for many years, and I went to undergrad for dance at The New School, and there I started taking poetry workshops. That’s when I first started thinking, “Oh, I might be a writer.” I danced for many years, but now I’ve transitioned over to writing.

Q: You received an MFA at Columbia. Do you think that graduate school is worthwhile for writers? Do you think it’s necessary?

A: I don’t think it’s necessary at all as far as the writing is concerned. If you’re a self-driven person, I think you can develop your own methods of keeping your writing practice and getting feedback from peers, and this idea that you need an MFA or a Ph.D. to be a writer is a little silly. But I do think that what MFA programs do and what they did for me is — I wanted time to focus on my writing and to be reading again. I was reading, but I loved being in class and I missed it. I think a good MFA program will have you reading and being in seminars and lectures as much as in workshop. It becomes imbalanced when you’re stuck in this zone of your own work, it becomes an echo chamber. What I loved about my program is I was really encouraged to take classes outside of my genre and study outside of the workshop model, which works for a lot of people but doesn’t work for some people. It’s all about figuring out what you like. I like being in workshops, but I also like talking about texts more, so that’s why I chose that particular program.

Q: Did you go right after college?

A: No. I know a lot of people get [a] Ph.D. straight out of college. [After college] I spent a lot of time working for different arts organizations. I was a personal assistant to some poets — I still am, and I think it’s really wonderful to try to, if you can and if you feel drawn towards [it], to do work that supports other writers, so I took those four years after undergrad to work with Belladonna, which is this feminist press and events series I still work for. I started as an intern there when I was an undergrad, and now I’m a board member and editor. I did lots of events, I worked, I didn’t take any classes or workshops, really. Then I was asked to teach a couple of one-off workshops and decided that I wanted to pursue teaching more and that I better get my MFA if that was something that I wanted to do. I also wanted that dedicated time to write. Some people don’t need that structure, but I loved it.

Q: I’ve heard you should wait a few years post-college to get some life experience under your belt before entering an MFA program. What do you think?

A: I don’t know if it’s about getting experience to write about because it’s not like an MFA is an experience-free or life-free zone, it’s still your life. I do agree that I think it’s great to take time to figure out what you want to do and to let your voice grow outside of influence for a little bit — we’re so shaped, and rightfully so, by the people we study with, but I think that you have to think about creating your own practice. I felt really great having my own practice as a writer and my own community as a writer. [For] a lot of people, their MFA is like their writing community, and I had an established writing community in New York prior to starting my MFA program, which I liked in that I had this great cohort of really talented poets, but then I also had other friends and trusted readers and collaborators.

Q: You’re a member of the Belladonna Collaborative. Can you tell me a little about that?

A: It was founded in 1999, by the feminist poet and activist Rachel Levitsky and also by Erica Kaufmann. When I joined, it was in a moment of restructuring, and then it became a collaborative a little after. I did things like host reading series. It’s basically a collaboratively run feminist press and event series. We have a studio in Brooklyn. We publish avant-garde–leaning work by female-identifying, nonbinary, men, and trans writers. It’s been an important community here. I do feel that part of the kind of ethos of poetry is doing poet work for other poets. Whether that means teaching other poets’ work, whether that means writing book reviews, hosting readings, all things like that, I really feel like I’m a better poet because of doing that for other poets. I kind of grew up doing that work.

Q: Your first full-length collection was published this October by The Song Cave. What was the process of publication like?

A: The Song Cave was always my dream press for my first book. I wasn’t working on a project book in grad school, I just had a bunch of poems that were all written in my voice, but I thought at the time [that] there [was] an overarching feel. Then I did some work thinking about sequence — thinking about what space, what voice are these poems coming from? I put them together, I cut some out, I showed it to some people, I sent it to Song Cave’s open reading period, and they took it. And I was very surprised. It was the first time I had sent my book out, which is a very unique experience — I felt a little guilty, but I’m just so grateful because the poets and writers and artists that Song Cave publishes are some of the writers that are most important to me. They both really helped me through editing the manuscript — it was not anywhere near done — both [editors] sent me edits separately, [and it] was interesting to see what they [each] focus[ed] on. The editors are Ben Estes and Alan Felsenthal, and their input was so crucial. At one point, they told me to cut a few poems, and I felt this immediate sense of relief, like these poems don’t belong in this book, they can go in another book. Through them helping me edit the book, some sort of narrative started to appear, and I was able to put them in an order that felt meaningful for me and to start to think about creating an experience for a reader, so I feel very grateful for that.

Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

A: You have to find a delicate balance between being open, which I think is so much a part of seeing and absorbing and being curious, and also protecting what you’re doing. So I think a lot of the time people are either very open, and they’re like, “I want to experience all this and write about all this,” and that kind of allows them to get over-influenced by people. I think of my life as a writer as a kind of navigation between states of openness and states of saying okay. I’m going to cultivate what I’ve been seeking outside. I think to do that, you need to — there’s a certain element of closing. It’s kind of like an aperture. Periods of openness and just thinking about that balance — maybe you want to be open all the time, and that’s fine. Just finding that balance that works for you. You can always retreat — and retreating isn’t bad, it’s just taking some time alone to figure out what you’re doing, and you can’t do that if you’re out at poetry readings all the time. There’s research time and there’s making-the-work time, and those can switch on and off, so it’s fine if there are periods when you’re not writing. I think that people who say that you have to write every day, that might be their practice, but I think it’s weird to say that you have to write every day. I think it’s fine to go through periods of not writing and periods of writing. Reading is so important to being a writer, and you can tell when a poet isn’t reading by reading their work. It’s not about being directly influenced by what you’re reading, but again, that has something to do with that aperture, being open to other people’s work. And just reiterating what I said earlier, to use your life as a writer to also take care of other writers is important and leads to an ethics of generosity that feeds the work too.

Carrie Mannino carrie.mannino@yale.edu