Emily Pittinos is a Great Lakes poet and essayist currently teaching in Boise, ID. Pittinos has received support from Vermont Studio Center, the Alexa Rose Foundation, and Washington University in St. Louis, where she served as the Senior Fellow in Poetry. Her recent work appears, or will soon appear, in The Adroit Journal, Denver Quarterly, Mississippi Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. Her debut collection, The Last Unkillable Thing (University of Iowa Press, April 2021), is a winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize.
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Grace Tobin. Of the process, she said, The Last Unkillable Thing by Emily Pittinos is an awe-inspiring poetry collection about how the loss of a loved one can deeply alter everything inside of you as well as everything in your natural surroundings. During this interview, her stunning work with written word is matched with her equally stunning thoughtful process.” In this interview, Emily Pittinos talks about how her teaching experience influences her writing, the woods in which she wrote most of the collection, and the notion of bravery in writing about love and loss.
Superstition Review: This is your debut book and, rightfully so, a winner of the prestigious 2020 Iowa poetry prize. Can you describe what has surprised you about the publishing process?
Emily Pittinos: After years of submitting and waiting and submitting and waiting and on and on, the shock was winning the prize at all, and then how quickly the publishing process began. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but a part of me believed that the manuscript would someday be chosen and then a year later a box of beautiful, finished books would magically appear on my doorstep, confetti erupting as I pierced the packing tape. This is not the case!
The moment I picked up the phone with the press director, production had begun. Fortunately, I have some generous and brilliant friends who helped me think through each stage of the process, and the University of Iowa Press staff is equally generous and brilliant (and patient!). And, in the press’s hands, the book did turn out beautifully. I cried and cried when I opened the box, even without the confetti. Seeing The Last Unkillable Thing in person, and it looking and feeling just as I’d imagined, was incredible. I can now appreciate how lucky I’ve been to be so involved in making the book from start to finish.
SR: These poems are layered with rich and evocative depictions of the natural world. Carl Phillips, the author of Pale Colors in a Tall Field, said through these poems you found, “not resolution but resolve, to make room for the self’s wilderness, to trust the wilderness.” How did you prepare for writing work that is so intrinsically tied to nature?
EP: I don’t know that I’ve prepared for it actively so much as I can’t help myself! I grew up in the woods, close to Lake Michigan, and I spent a lot of time alone in that landscape as a kid, especially in winter, which is the dominant season of the book. During those winters, there was often windchill in the negative degrees, snowdrifts up to the hip, and no sun between November and April of each year. But there was a beauty to that deciduous landscape that I didn’t know I loved until I left it after my dad died.
In January of 2017, I received a residency in that landscape—probably in part because there are so few people who want to be alone in a cabin in the woods in the middle of a Michigan winter—from the Cross Hatch Hill House Program. It was two weeks in isolation with a fridge full of groceries, a pair of snowshoes, and a river nearby. It snowed so much that my car couldn’t get out of the driveway, and the power kept browning out; I remember I tried to start a fire but didn’t know how to work the flue, so the cabin filled with smoke, and I had to open all the doors and windows while it was well below freezing outside. Anyway, it was wonderful. And one of the most productive times of my writing life. I swear I wrote half the seeds of this book while I was there, including the long poem “Subnivean,” which is the scientific name for the network of tunnels that small animals build under snowpacks to traverse the winter.
It just so happens that landscape inspires me as much as human relationships do. These feel like the two largest pillars of my work—the natural landscape and the human projection upon it. I am consistently interested in how the perception of the exterior world is dependent on the interiority of the onlooker, and how much of what we see is actually a projection of what we feel. This is such a useful device for storytelling in poetry. Once the outer world becomes synonymous with the interior world, the intangible is made tangible and then becomes so much easier to describe. It is sunny. Or, it is cold. Each of these become emotional temperatures as much as environmental ones.
SR: The rhythm of these poems ebbed and flowed so gracefully within the collection. Could you explain the process of how you decided to order these poems?
EP: Kind words! I spent so long considering the order of these poems—in fact, over the course of the submission process, the sequencing is what probably changed the most. When the poems finally found this arrangement, I knew the manuscript was truly finished.
It was difficult, in part, to arrange the poems because the book is largely about grief, which is not a linear experience. It was important to me that the order did not have too much of an artificial arc or resolution; while I wanted there to be some hope for the speaker’s future, I didn’t want it to feel like she was “cured” of grief by the end of the book. The countering difficulty is that time does run linearly, as does narrative, which has a place in the book as well. The Last Unkillable Thing is largely about the aftermath of my father’s death in 2014. His death, I believe, changed the very fiber of who I am—and therefore the fiber of the poems’ speaker. That part is linear—he was alive, and then he wasn’t, and then we grieved, and we were changed. It’s the feelings themselves, and their effects, that are not so tidy.
In short, I had to establish the arc of the narrative while also honoring the unpredictability of the grief itself. It felt as though one of the long poems I had written, “After,” did the work of telling the underlying story, so I broke it up into pieces and scattered it throughout the manuscript as a touchstone. The book, then, diverges in every emotional direction, but we repeatedly come back to sections of “After” that help establish the backstory, what happened to our speaker before she ran off into the woods.
SR: You have an extensive and impressive teaching background at schools like Washington University in St. Louis, The College of Idaho, and Boise State University. What are some of your priorities in the classroom? Can you recall some of the most important lessons you learned in your own schooling?
EP: The classroom, as I see it, is a community that has the potential to become radically intimate in a short period of time. If together you can establish a place where people quickly grow comfortable with one another, they begin to feel more willing to experiment with writing weird things, giving less obvious interpretations of poems, and opening themselves up to different kinds of work that could ultimately affect their own writing in exciting ways. I don’t think the feeling in a room can be overvalued, and I try to make sure every person is heard from each day, that the room feels balanced, and that people know their opinions and experiences—the selves they are filtering the work and the world through—matter as much as any published piece we read together.
I have been lucky to have incredible teachers all through my life, and it would be difficult to point to any one person or experience and say that it was the most influential, but that might be the lesson itself. I believe strongly that any success I’ve had is owed to the many, many people who put time into my education and who respected my point of view. I hope that, ultimately, I will be only one of many to affect any particular student, but I do give as much as I can while I have them in my classroom; this is a way to pay forward what I have received from my own mentors.
SR: Your use of form throughout the collection is thought-provoking and strikingly unique. Could you talk about your technique for formatting your work? How does the use of the entire page influence your composition process?
EP: Form moves me. Like with the shape/order of the manuscript overall, an individual poem does not feel complete to me until it finds its inevitable form. I definitely have a love for the dropped line, which is a technique that breaks the line partway through and indents that broken piece to align with where the previous one left off, such as (if I can be so bold as to reference my own poem!):
cedar fronds dipped into water like wicks into wax—
bright bulbs of ice
I want to shatter.
The dropped line creates an opportunity to read the entire phrase horizontally, as one continuous thought, *and* to let the reader search for meaning in the isolation of each part. It’s a technique that I certainly owe to reading Carl Phillips, Lucie Brock-Broido, and many others. This is just one of the ways form and prosody can become a game, something to fiddle with for a lifetime.
SR: Keith Taylor, the author of The Bird-while, said, “This is a brave and ambitious collection, perhaps one of the best first books I’ve ever read.” What is your response to this characterization of your work as brave? Could you discuss the notion of courage as it applies to poets and poetry?
EP: I’m not sure what it was that Keith Taylor found brave in particular, as that word can mean so many different things to each person. But I do think that many believe it is brave to write about family, which is a subject of this book, even if it is a version of reality augmented by poetry and revision and time. It also might be risky to write a quiet manuscript that is largely about being sad in the woods. It’s honestly a book that I often thought no one would ever read, but there is nothing else I could have written at the time. Though I had my doubts, I’m happy I carried on. Maybe that’s courage, in which case most writers are just as brave.
SR: Throughout your years of teaching, have you developed any new writing skills or techniques you acquired from your students and fellow staff?
EP: Another hard one! There are so many things that appear as if through osmosis and then it is difficult to assign that debt to any one person or experience.
I do constantly try to shape my courses and prompts around what my students are interested in. Each semester, I leave a slot open called “Writers' Choice” where the students decide what’s missing from the class so far, and then we do a day on that subject. Dialogue in Poetry, Poetry Comics, and a bunch of other topics have come from these choices, and it has the dual effect of satisfying student curiosities while forcing me to consider new areas. I try to do all prompts along with my students, too; this, in turn, has led to work I never expected. There are certainly poems, especially in my new project, that I wouldn’t have written without that student energy.
SR: The way you traverse loss and mourning throughout the book is gorgeous. Regarding your poems, Brenda Shaughnessy, the judge of the Iowa Poetry Prize, said, “To be alive in the natural world means to live with death, riding the wheel as it turns joy to sorrow to hope to pain to love and over again.” Could you talk about the challenges that come with writing about loss? Are there any poets who inspired you to write eloquently about death and the natural world?
EP: The book is largely about the real-life loss of my father, and I started my MFA just a year after that death. I hadn’t originally planned on going to grad school so soon, but it felt urgent to write, with guidance, about my grief, which was astronomical. My dad and I were very close—as he was to many people, and I would venture to say that the vastness of his absence shifted every relationship in our family—and I believe that losing him changed me fundamentally, perhaps even on a chemical level. The majority of what I’ve written since then has been related to that loss—which is a difficulty within itself, really.
I often give my students who are writing about grief the same advice I received from my own teacher, Mary Jo Bang, which is that the poem is not an even exchange for one’s mental health. I dove headfirst into this project and much of it was written during the peak of my bad feeling, but I don’t think that is the right approach for everyone. It can be too easy to tempt depression and knowing when the writing is not too great a risk may be a skill that comes with time. It’s never too late to put a project down and step away for a while; distance might even improve the work.
A few of the books I read while writing this collection include -- Please Bury Me in This by Allison Benis White; Elegy by Mary Jo Bang; Reconnaissance by Carl Phillips; do not rise by Beth Bachmann; Stay, Illusion by Lucie Brock-Broido; Ghost of by Diana Khoi Nguyen.
SR: How is this collection influencing your current projects?
EP: As I was obsessively honing and rearranging The Last Unkillable Thing, I became interested in taking that process to a new level. My obsession with form and loss continues with a book-length poetic sequence, which is just another way of saying a book-length poem split into many parts. The result, so far, feels like a pretty natural evolution from this debut. This first book has a longish sequence in the third person, and the new project pushes that impulse to a farther, weirder place. The speaker is faced with the rise of cyclical depression and, in order to escape that state, she invents a character who becomes her proxy and inhabits a pseudo-surreal world where she can function more heartily than she can in her own dirty kitchen.
It has been quite a project to wrestle with; it feels super ambitious and constantly pulls toward failure. But, again, I’m lucky to have some trusted readers in my life who will say when the project is going too far off the rails. And I’ve certainly learned a great deal about the process of putting together a book-length piece by writing The Last Unkillable Thing, which I view as another cohesive project, and at times even as one poem in many parts.