Interview with Wendy Mnookin, Author of Dinner with Emerson

Photograph of poet Wendy Mnookin
Poet Wendy Mnookin, author of Dinner with Emerson

Poet Wendy Mnookin and I travel in similar orbits in the Boston poetry scene, but our paths have never intersected in person. I was happy to be able to speak with her via email about her most recent book Dinner with EmersonA veteran poet with five books to her name, Mnookin has taught poetry at Emerson College, Boston College, Grub Street, and at workshops around the country. Her honors include an NEA Fellowship, a book prize from the New England Poetry Club, and several Pushcart Prize nominations. Her work has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac and Poetry Daily. We spoke about the difference between tone and voice, the choices she made while compiling each of her manuscripts, and the relationship between her teaching and her writing practice.

What first brought you to poetry?

I have always been a reader, and, in my own way, a writer, mostly scribbling in journals. By the time my third child started kindergarten and I could see blocks of free time appearing in my life, I took a plunge into more dedicated writing and signed up for a poetry course at the Radcliffe Seminars Program. Ruth Whitman was teaching the course and I fell in love–with the reading, the discussion, and most of all, with the regular writing. I took courses there for several years and then attended the low-residency program at Vermont College, where I got my MFA. Although I don’t think courses are necessary for someone starting out in poetry, the structure helped me explore, build confidence, and establish a network of other writers who were serious about their work.

Cover photo for the poetry collection Dinner with Emerson by Wendy MnookinDinner with Emerson has a wonderfully consistent voice. As you’ve grown as a poet, do you find that your poems generally speak with one voice, or did you compile this collection because of the cohesiveness of the voice?

I recognize a cohesiveness in the voice–present day woman talking in mostly accessible, often conversational, language. My own perception of the poems is that they move between poems that are narrative, often conversational in tone, and those that are more metaphoric and elliptical. “Woolen Hat” and “In the Small Rotary” are examples of the more narrative poems, while “Midsummer Opera” and “Dream of Snow” are examples of the more elliptical. For me, it’s important to have the welcoming accessibility of the narrative poems and at the same time to include poems that ask the reader to enter a dream space. So I guess the answer would be that I compiled the collection more with an eye to thematic concerns than to voice.

Many of the poems in this book have to do with family dynamics, but the book itself is arranged in a cycle of seasons. I’m assuming the chronology is metaphorical rather than literal. Some of the poems, such as “In the Small Rotary” or “Woolen Hat,” quite obviously belong to a certain season. But some of the poems’ placements are more metaphorical. What was the journey that you wanted to take your reader on, and why did you organize the book the way that you did?

In addition to organizing the poems around seasons, they are also (roughly) organized within each section from morning to night, so there are those two cycles operating within the book. Whether or not the reader recognizes this consciously, I hope that the recurring cycles suggest the way we experience life, with the past looping into the present and the present pressing up against the future. I am more interested in that complication than in books that proceed with a straightforward chronology.

You’re the author of several books of poetry. Has your process for creating and ordering manuscripts changed over time?

My first three books tell specific stories. Guenever Speaks tells my version of the life of Guenever in the legend of Camelot. To Get Here chronicles our family’s experience with my son’s drug addiction, and What He Took looks at my father’s early death in a car accident and the experience of loss in my life. So the structure of these books is at least somewhat dictated by the order of events. My last two books are less focused on a central incident, so I had more freedom in coming up with structure. But I think writing those first books made me attentive to creating some kind of story line that weaves the poems together, and I have worked toward that in putting my manuscripts together.

Your book doesn’t deal explicitly with politics or gender issues, but I ask all my guests this question:  Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not?

I think that women telling their stories is a feminist act. Although women’s stories are more accepted than they used to be, there are still many ways in which these stories are pushed to the side–sometimes by the writer herself. Daily life is an important subject for art, and the more women tell their own stories, the more these stories will be counted as worthy of attention.

You’ve taught in a number of different venues, including at colleges, Grub Street, elementary and high schools, and various workshops. What has it been like for you to work with so many different kinds of students?

For me, each type of teaching has its appeal. I loved semester-length teaching, because it gave me a chance to get to know my students and the time to explore topics in more depth. On the other hand, I loved the intensity of one-day workshops, and, of course, the lack of grading! The elementary and high school students were often less hampered than older students by a conception of what poetry “should” be, and so were more willing to experiment.

How do you think teaching affects your own writing?

On the best days I would be energized by the reading, by having to think more formally about poetry, and of course by the students’ own writing. Then there were the days I was exhausted and
couldn’t find time for my own writing.

What does your writing practice look like today?

I write best when I write every day, preferably in the morning, before the day’s tasks and concerns take over. Right now I am on a break from writing, something that often happens after I have a book published. I don’t like it, but I have come to live with the understanding that I need time to fill up again after the work of writing and assembling a manuscript.

What would you tell poets seeking a publisher for their first manuscript?

I started out sending my manuscript to contests, but that was expensive–and I wasn’t getting to the final cut. So what I did was figure out which were my five favorite poetry presses, and then I wrote to each with a paragraph on why I liked their press, ten poems and the table of contents, as well as a brief bio. That’s how I got to BOA Editions. It seems that might still be a good way. I’d also explore cooperatives if I were starting out now. Some seem very appealing.

Dinner with Emerson is available for sale at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA; Newtonville Books in Newton, MA; at the publisher’s website; and on Amazon.com.

Visit Wendy’s website at WendyMnookin.com