I met Emma Trelles more than twenty years ago, a fact that simultaneously amazes and depresses me. We were both members of an informal workshop run by the wonderful writer John DuFresne. Every Friday afternoon, Emma and I would ditch our day jobs and drive up to Florida International University and sit on a patio with a bunch of other wannabes and try to figure out how to make our bad decisions go away.
Emma must have been writing prose back then. But she was clearly another species -– an observer of the hidden signs, impractical and heartbroken, prone to brief bouts of song. A poet, I mean.
I had no idea how good a poet she was, though, until a few weeks ago, when her debut, Tropicalia arrived in my life. I’m on record as a bad poet, but I happen to be a good judge of the stuff, by which I mean that I recognize its essential mission, which is to reintroduce us to ourselves by reintroducing us to the English language.
Emma does this over and over in Tropicalia.
I spent about a happy week trying to figure out which lines to quote. I finally settled on these three, for no other reason than their devastating simplicity:
I keep asking if he’ll try and find me
after we leave this world, in the next place
whatever shining white nothing that entails
I’m sorry, but no one who’s ever been in love hasn’t hankered after this same mystery.
Emma generally works double shifts during National Poetry Month, but she was kind enough to answer a few questions for an old friend, on behalf of The Nervous Breakdown.
Let me start with the mushy stuff: Tropicalia blew me away. I knew you’d gotten better as a poet, but reading the book I got that strange I’ve come to think of as awenvy –- half awe, half envy. The thing that impresses me the most, though, is your patience. The poems here took a long time to reach. Was there ever a point where you were like: Ugh, this is taking too long. I give up.
I definitely felt like it was taking too long. Writing poetry, by its very amalgamating nature, is an art that requires as much dreaming as doing. But I went to work as a journalist right out of grad school. And that’s a devouring job. The only time you’re not working is when you’re sleeping. But I never considered giving up on writing poems. When I wasn’t, I was reading or thinking about them. I made little random notes, sometimes in the margins of my reporter’s notebook, which was the idea behind one of the poems in the book. Even just one beautiful word or a lyrical phrase reminded me that I was also a creative writer, that I was once an artist and that I would be again.
I love that the book has an overt morality. One of my favorites was “Letter to the Right,” in which you write:
America, I don’t remember who you belong to
Even when I’ve smiled and said thanks, I’ve really meant shut up.
What I admire so much is the sense of sorrow and bewilderment you’re able to put across. It’s not a sermon, so much as a lamentation.
I wrote that around the time the health care debates were raging, and all that incredible bullshit about death panels was playing on right-wing television as if it was actually real. Alleged news outlets and commentators just pimping their lies with no remorse. It made me sick. I literally couldn’t sleep. One morning I got up feeling helpless and I remembered that I could always write a poem and that act might be my only weapon against demagoguery. Except for a word choice or line break, the poem pretty much appears as I first wrote it. I think I had been collecting some of its images in my mind for quite a while.
So you’re a first generation Cuban-American, and the book has several gorgeous poems about Cuban culture. But what interests me the most is how your family feels about your work. Do they get what you’re up to?
My family rules. My husband is a musician and a bookstore manager and my brother is an art director. Both of them support me in myriad ways, from reading my work to designing event flyers to simply cheering me on at my readings. And my mother is my crazy number one fan. She has a file stashed somewhere with newspaper cuttings, or even printouts, of everything I’ve ever written. I hope she’s not passing that thing around at parties.
You’ve got some amazing poems about what it’s like to be a reporter, the crushing artifice of seeing the world in that way. I’m thinking specifically about “Reporter’s Notebook,” which is written as a kind of news story gone awry. Please tell me you turned it in to some unsuspecting city editor.
Steve, that makes me laugh because I have no doubt you brought all kinds of little surprises to your own editors over the years. There is a part of that poem that was indeed the lede to a feature story I wrote when I was the art critic at a newspaper. My editor at that time, the blessedly cultured Robin Berkowitz, emailed me saying the beginning reminded her of a Tennyson poem. Can you imagine that? At a daily! Of course, it stayed with me, and a few years later when I wrote the poem, I worked in some of his lines from “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal.”
You write about music a lot, so I think you need to talk about your own work as a musician. Also, for bonus points, please explain what “noise music” is to the John Mayer fans.
Does anyone listen to John Mayer? I have been a big music fan (and snob) for many years now and I used to write a lot about local music. Eventually I wrote about Ed Artigas, a guy who ran an indie label down here and played music in great bands like Bling Bling and Map of the Universe. Ed convinced me to start a band with two other women. Even though I didn’t know how to play, I thought, why not? So I played a rather shitty bass, sang, and wrote songs. We performed at all the music holes in town, at a few festivals, and even in Austin. When our guitar player left the band, we asked another musician we adored to play with us. I wound up marrying him.
Noise music may be defined as a collaboration of instruments and players without any rehearsal, predetermined composition, or any inclination at blending sound or melody. A driving principle might include chaotic assaults on the inner ear, which, in turn, can cause auditory kinds of hallucination. Noise music is freaking loud and it hurts and the only people that can abide listening are the ones playing it.
The poem “Lorca Is Green” astonished me. Was he the poet who made you want to be a poet?
Lorca is one of the poets who keeps me writing and learning my craft. I read “Poem of the Deep Song” at least once a year. There’s always someone I come across at just the right time who rescues me from my own thinning language or subject matter; when I first started writing seriously, I was bowled over by Denis Johnson, Toni Morrison, James Wright, and Lorna Dee Cervantes. But there are a lot of factors that went into me wanting to be a poet: my friendships with musicians and artists, my evergrowing obsession with birds and the natural world. I grew up in South Florida, and as a girl, I drafted poems in my head whenever we visited the beach. I wanted to describe the ocean, the light, the sound of gulls and water slapping the bow of our boat. It was my way of remembering.
When I first met you, too many years ago, you were working for an insurance company (I think). As a poet, how do you make ends meet?
I forgot about that. I had a lot of dispiriting business jobs before I started writing. It literally changed my life. I pretty much make a living the same way I have for years now: writing articles, features, and reviews, editing, teaching, really whatever is tied to language. Juggling all these jobs takes effort and a sort of patchwork, faith-based approach to money, which is not an easy thing for a daughter of immigrants, or for anyone. But if you want the freedom to make art, you have to give up some security. And, I might add, that this kind of toil all goes back into the same well from which my creative work comes. I’m pretty much living and breathing letters.
Another book of poems, a book of non-fiction. More writing and reading. As I type this I see it sounds monotonous, but it so isn’t. Writing is all about discovery, and in this way, it reminds me of hiking, especially through unfamiliar trails and woods. I love wondering what comes next.
Emma Trelles is the author of Tropicalia, winner of the 2010 Andres Montoya Poetry Prize (University of Notre Dame Press, February 2011). She is also the author of the chapbook Little Spells (GOSS183) and the editor of OCHO: The Travel Issue and MiPOesias Magazine’s American Cuban Issue. She has been a featured author at the Palabra Pura reading series at the Guild Literary Complex in Chicago and at the Miami Book Fair International. Her work has appeared in publications such as Verse Daily, Gulf Stream, 3 AM Magazine, Poets and Artists, Newsday, the Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel, and Organica. She is a regular contributor to the Best American Poetry blog; read her rambles here.