The Privilege and Responsibility of Disagreeing for Eternity: Alina Stefanescu Speaks to Lynn Emanuel

Lynn Emanuel
Lynn Emanuel by Heather Kresge

In late August of 2023, as late summer heat pooled mirages over the asphalt, I spoke to poet Lynn Emanuel over Zoom about her recent collection Transcript of the Disappearance: Exact and Diminishing (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2023). Across numerous poetry collections, publications, and anthologies, Emanuel's lifework has been literature. She served as judge for the National Book Awards, instructor for the Warren Wilson Program and the Bread Loaf Conference, and professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, where she founded and directed the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers’ Series. Reading her words, I was reminded of the Hungarian writer László F. Földényi, who described the radical correspondences between the literary and the real in that moment when "sitting in a street car, reading a book, we find a reality weightier than anything we would see looking out the window."

Although Emanuel retired from academia in 2018, she hasn't retired from writing, teaching, traveling, and navigating her relationship to language. It was a privilege to spend time with the poet's generous mind, and to be mesmerized by her ebullient spirit. Part of the labor of writing is imagining each other. Not even my wild imagination could have imagined a lovelier human than Lynn Emanuel.

—A. S., May 2024

ALINA STEFANESCU: It's a gift to finally meet you, Lynn. I feel as though I've been wandering through your head quite a bit.

LYNN EMANUEL: And reading your marvelous book, Dor, I feel like I've been in yours.

STEFANESCU: Transcript of the Disappearance: Exact and Diminishing is like poetry cinema, as if the ekphrastic eye is being turned back on itself to spectate the self in various phases. The prose poem, "Plague's Monologue," also ends with a line that refers to the title: "But I know you—and you have kept a transcript of the disappearance." I'm fascinated by the title, and curious about the art that inspired it.

EMANUEL: The book is about disappearance, specifically the disappearance created by COVID. It is also about memory, what memory becomes in the face of loss, what it cannot do in the face of loss.

Even during COVID there were a series of small art shows scattered around New York City to celebrate the Metropolitan Museum’s 150th anniversary. I went to one dedicated to conceptual women artists of the early or mid-2000s. Sylvia Plimack Mangold had a part of the gallery which was entitled "Exact and Diminishing"; there were rulers on the floor measuring the exact dimension of a canvas. This emphasis on exactness was conceptualist, although the effect was a sense of diminishment. The pieces precisely measured the act or fact of disappearing—just as the New York Times published the statistics of death during the pandemic.

In the same gallery, there was a piece by Rachel Whiteread called "Plaster Table." Whiteread makes casts of the negative space around everyday objects. The one I saw was a cast of the space beneath her dining table. It was large, unadorned, made of plaster, a white monolith sitting in the middle of the Gallery floor. Someone had called them "ghostly pieces." That didn’t seem accurate, because a ghost is an entity that haunts you, and therefore it is a way of continuing a relationship with that which is gone. A ghost is a present absence. But this table had disappeared. And the sculpture portraying and representing the memory of the table was a blank, white block of plaster. To be haunted by the memory of loss is one thing. In this piece, it seemed even memory had become totally diminished and featureless. That interested me—the idea that memory becomes featureless. And it seemed especially right at the moment of the pandemic.

STEFANESCU: More than a decade ago, you described yourself as "someone who carves things out of a larger block" and then feels uncomfortable with having done so. "Maybe I've taken too much out," you said, "Or maybe I've diminished things." There is a sense in which a poem, like what we know of a person, is never quite finished. This courtship with the possibility of infinitude recurs throughout your work; the poems open into each other rather than close. And there's a continuous resistance to closure in your syntax and use of repetition so that even the ending is actually an opening, a re-opening, a re-visiting.

EMANUEL: Thank you. I very much appreciate that insight.

STEFANESCU: It reminds me of Rosmarie Waldrop's engagement of the elegy as a continuing conversation through invocation. And of Edmond Jabes' writing on the presence of absence. I'm thinking about your previous book, Then–Suddenly, and how you enact rupture within the text. There you are, writing a book on rupture, when your father dies unexpectedly, ripping open the difference between imagining and experiencing. Your new book is also filled with elegies.

EMANUEL: That's true. The poet Deborah Bogen has written a review of my books up to Then, Suddenly, and she entitled it "Emanuel's Elegies: Art and Its Opportunities." Oddly, until that title, I wasn't aware of how many elegies I'd written.

My poems often move between the stage and the screen, drama, and film. In this poem I invent a rather theatrical character, my father, with whom I can have a dispute. I have some monologues in my poetry, but mostly, I think of my poems as being—sometimes antic, sometimes earnest—a call and response. The poem that you're quoting, about my father in his grave, is one in which he and I discuss (or argue about) whether he is dead. I suppose in this discussion I enact the rupture you describe between imagining and experiencing. I create visitation with him to hear what he has to say about death. I am Hamlet. He is a ghost with whom I converse.

STEFANESCU: Is the elegy doing things differently in Transcript? I'm thinking of the "Pandemia Elegies" in particular, and whether the pandemic changed the tone or shape of the elegy for you?

EMANUEL: Yes, I think I did. I grieved in two cities. I grieved in Pittsburgh. I grieved in New York. And yet, the last third of the book, where I enter the daily work of the pandemic, the poems are quite funny. I have a quotation somewhere—"a city will survive a nation," and I have taken comfort in that. Then my cities started to be killed by COVID. When the twin towers fell, an anthology of poems was published to memorialize the event. For the most part, the poems were lyrical, full of sympathy, and naive. When I read the anthology, I thought, no—it doesn't mean to be—but in a strange, quirky way, it’s almost, well, almost a celebration. I knew I couldn’t write with earnestness and sincerity. The pandemic was a global event. I think we all had to change the very idea of what an elegy was.

STEFANESCU: Late capitalist culture commodifies "closure," whether through funerary practices, stages of grief, planned obsolescence, etc., but your dogged return to the same scenes and images resists closure. Maybe sincerity is part of poetic process: part of thinking about what the poem can do? Even now, I don't know what I intend to mean until the thought is committed to paper.

EMANUEL: The self on reel reminds me that embodiment's relation to the nowness of things isn't a whole picture. We're not seeing each other completely. We aren't permitted to appear in our complicated fullness to one another.

STEFANESCU: "Our complicated fullness"—perfect. The poem, "Plague’s Monologue," ends with the line: "But I know you and you have kept a transcript of the disappearance." The poem's speaker addresses the self in relation to its absence?

EMANUEL: Yes. A friend read the book and said: "The transcript of the disappearance. That's what I'm holding in my hands."

STEFANESCU: And there is a poetics of quotation that reaches into lines from B-movies, as in the magnificent "Hard-Boiled Elegy…," that heightened my awareness of how the American performance of happiness is scripted into affective norms, harnessed to the belief that one must "fake it to make it"—as if performing happiness leads to experiencing happiness. How is it that you are so proficient in the elegy, that ancient poetic form that horrifies the industry of positivity?

EMANUEL: No one has asked me that before. Partly, I think it was due to the time in which I grew up. World War II ended in 1946, and I was born in 1949, inches from the Holocaust. And then suddenly, it was the '50s. White middle-class America was flush with optimism. The GI bill was sending soldiers to college. The wealth manufactured by the war was making family housing available as never before. But my father was the son of a Lithuanian Jewish family which had been extinguished by the war. He had none of that American self-satisfaction with the self or the world. He had, in fact, this phrase for the gulf between post-war Europeans and the optimism of America. He would say, "Oh, those people are the alright-niks, everything is alright with them."

STEFANESCU: The structure and techniques employed in "Transcript" felt cinematic. The three sections, for example, positioned the epigraphs as an arret—that camera technique where the camera stops and then an object is placed in the frame and then the camera restarts, creating the illusion that it magically appeared. There are very sharp turns in subject and form; the poems engage their epigraphs dramatically, not subtly. The first section, titled "One," opens with a beautiful injunction from Brenda Shaughnessy: "Remember: write down to not-document it." The sections of this book feel as if they respond to the epigraphs, as if they embody a sort of visual and expressive dialogue with them? Maybe they even embody the formal suggestions of the epigraphs, as in writing to "not-document" etc.? Writing to "not-document" is almost like a negative theology of documentation.

EMANUEL: Marilyn Chin wrote an endorsement for the book that describes it as "both a diary and an anti-diary." Obviously, the tension between diary versus anti-diary is the tension between saying and not wanting to say. I chose the word “transcript” for my title carefully. A transcript is not a journal, a diary, or even a report. It is a very specific document, a legal record of what happened—what was said, what was done. It is made by a stenographer, not a reporter. It is the facts, not opinion, not affect.

STEFANESCU: This book argues with its own constraints: it uses a form that implies a single space, time, and speaker but then goes on to create an expansive temporality populated with voices and flashbacks. Did you write into the epigraphs? Or did you write and then go back to find epigraphs?

EMANUEL: The epigraph from Shaughnessy was there from the beginning. The epigraphs for many of the poems weren't there until just before the press said no more revisions. I don’t remember actively looking for them. But I had the feeling at the time that they were waiting for my poems.

STEFANESCU: The friskiness of your subversive spirit is a delight. Didn't you say that all your homages were "arguments with poets"?

EMANUEL: Ha. One of my graduate students once said to me: "I disagree. That's what they're going to write on your tombstone." I thought that was wonderful.

STEFANESCU: You would have the privilege and responsibility of disagreeing for eternity...

EMANUEL: Exactly.

STEFANESCU: Your poems take pleasure in thinking; they challenge what seems to exist. There is something in the energy and temporality of them which resists being pinned and keeps moving—an unsettledness that resists its own specific locations and continues moving back and forth across time. Collage v. montage?

EMANUEL:  Yes. I think my poems are restless—closer to montage.

STEFANESCU: In "my life in noir films," the speaker returns to the same scene (as in noir). The eye revisits the scene in a different light, with different lighting. The texture is "erotic, strange, ambivalent"—to quote your poem.

EMANUEL: I'm thinking of a quotation from Catherine Gammon—"This wasn't film noir, it was childhood." That's perfect. I grew up for part of my life in a small-town hotel in Nevada, run by my grandparents in the middle of nowhere, right on Route I-80, which was described as “the loneliest road in America.” I lived inside the iconography of noir. To me that iconography was not representation but actual. I knew everything about many of the rooms in the film noir. I would sit and watch and say, I know how that smells. I know the smell of that room.

What I love about film noir is its repetition: the manner in which a limited number of images and plot elements are circulated and recirculated through those films, through the genre as a whole. Watching film noir is like being in the presence of a miraculous sestina in which the lush presence of repetition is felt subliminally. I love the way formal repetition is content in these films. I love noir because it is the most stylish and stylized of American film forms. These films feel poetic in their valorizing of style. In them, style is more significant than mere event. Repetition is incredibly interesting to me. If you feel a very intimate connection with the idea of repetition, nothing ever ends.

STEFANESCU: Like the allegory of Plato's cave, or the way one can never see the totality: every time you look, you might get a different light on it, but you'll see something else. It's not the same. Even if it is "the same," it is not the same. Two siblings will watch the same childhood scene on a family video and read the silences as punctuated differently.

EMANUEL: Exactly. But I must mention one other thing that draws me to noir. I don't know whether I would have been as interested in film noir or written about it if I hadn't had to move to Pittsburgh. I moved from New York City to Pittsburgh and had to rethink class, particularly blue-collar, working class. The steel mills were closing. The writer Diane Ackerman was in town at that time and got permission to enter the mills. Afterwards she said—this is what it must have been like when the whaling industry was disappearing in New England. I mean, it was that intimate, the connection between people and work. I just wanted to mention that. And it’s one of the reasons film noir is also so interesting to me.

For me, film noir is always about class. For instance, in the opening scene of The Killers, Burt Lancaster is in a gas station in his white undershirt: it's dirty, his arms are exposed, his throat and much of his chest are bare. He's bent over, fixing a car. He is exposed and vulnerable. In front of him, a too-fragile expanse of road separates him and what is on the other side: a diner brightly lit, and his killers, sitting in the diner windows in big black suits and hats—armored with clothing. In their own way, they are also working class. They have been hired to kill him. However, their thick, dark hats and coats protect them. They are proxies for a man of wealth and power, the power to murder.

Transcript of the Disappearance by Lynn Emanuel

STEFANESCU: In the third section of the book, you welcome Frank O'Hara's ghost to serve as the presiding epigraph with his "I do this, I do that." I love how the poem opens in a cinematic flashback mode that takes us from the laundromat to the memory of a poetry reading in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The poem juxtaposes quotations, as in the laundromat, when Jade says "I'm through with collage"—and the multiple quotations make the poem feel like a prefatory collage for this section. You make a collage and you bring her into it, which is a very—I don't know if it's fair to say—but a very Emanuel-move in my book, that playful "I disagree."

EMANUEL: I appreciate your reading of that poem, which I have felt is a bit of an odd introduction to a group of pieces about the pandemic. And thank you for the word “playfulness:” it is quite different from “funniness” or “wittiness.” Playing” is a kind of manipulation. The player is the puppet master, and so I can insert my friend who hates collage into a poem that is a collage.

STEFANESCU: I'm just thinking about that "you" in "the body that you take off its leash" when you go for a walk in this beautiful poem titled "Once A Day" that got "buried in the ashes of my breath." And "the thick eczema of fallen leaves." These phrases describe illness matter-of-factly? Depression is there, but not in a lachrymose key.

EMANUEL: It's complicated. I think I'm fighting with my own resistance to reveal. I want to abrade the surface of poetry, but I do that by inserting myself. As in the poem about my father in his grave, this poem, too, is a dialogue, a call and response between confession and silence.

STEFANESCU: Abrasion, self-insertion, resisting the aesthetics of the great American temptation to picture the self as innocent?

EMANUEL: Right, absolutely right. As for depression, part of it is very matter of fact. The pandemic felt like the end of the world. Would the illness ever end? Would I die? Strangely, those questions empowered people, not only me, but other writers and artists who (since the world was ending) made moves in their work that they would never have made otherwise. Apart from some poems in my first and some of my second books, I've resisted autobiography. I've resisted the whole idea of autobiography and its “true” confessions—its naïve sincerity and, yes, its innocence. Readers have said about my work “I never know if I am getting the real Lynn Emanuel.” That is exactly the point.

And yet, writing this book, written during the pandemic, I was hopelessly depressed. My mother had died three years before, and suddenly, I had too much time and quiet. I began grieving for her in a way I was never able to when I was working and traveling. I couldn't write around it anymore; I couldn't avoid grief, and I wasn’t able to manipulate the factual. That's why it is fragmented. The fragments are greater than the whole. For me, during the pandemic, there was no whole.

STEFANESCU: Depression tints what touches, whether a memory or a song, there's nothing that remains outside it. The juxtapositions of this anti-diary diary in "Pandemia Elegy" delighted me. I love how the Word of the Day becomes part of the daily. I imagined you emailing your friends with prompts: "Okay, today let's do this exercise!" You said you resist certain kinds of engaged poetry, but your poems are so very engaged. Engaged by vastness. Frisky before the numinous. Wryly metaphysical. Your second-person reminds me of the broad "You" in Paul Celan and Joanna Klink, a You of address so vast that it vacates the possibility of narrowing the poem's speaker into a single particular. Like Emily Dickinson's capacity to make the reader feel close to the speaker, the ravishing address of your poems caught me off-guard. So, how do you think about your interlocutors?

EMANUEL: I couldn't write poetry without interlocutors. My poetic influences are often my interlocutors—Dickinson, O’Hara, Gwendolyn Brooks. Sometimes, they don't get to say anything in my poems, but I am always talking to them about their power, their assumptions. The first poem in Transcript, “Nativity,” ends with a kind of rebuttal to the end of Gwendolyn Brooks’ astonishing poem “The Mother.” So many of my poems are both homages and arguments. I think of my parents entertaining relatives, sculptors, a painter who was a close family friend, people who knew my father from the School of Visual Arts etc. Everyone would sit in our living room and argue with one another about Mark Rothko, Chaucer, and, at some point, Adelaide Stevenson, Hegel, Marx. Discourse was at the center of conversation. It was at the center of thinking. And it was a great pleasure. The conversations went on for hours. That is how my family would spend a sunny Saturday afternoon.

STEFANESCU: That's what I miss about my family, too. How to convey the way my mother would turn around suddenly and say, in her Alabama-Eastern-European accent, "Sweetie, did I tell you how I read Rilke after so-and-so left me?" After her death, I went back to the albums and found these beautiful photos taken by an ex-boyfriend. Who was this woman? Who is the man for whom she smiled like this? I wanted to meet her. Your interlocutors include the absent, and I wonder, perhaps, which of us is going to be talking to you, dear Lynn Emanuel, or who would you want to be writing in dialogue with you?

EMANUEL: It's a wonderful question, and I can't answer it. Could you say this has been a dialogue as well as an interview? But one more example just came to mind. Let me start by saying that, while my father was Jewish, my mother was Episcopalian. At Christmas we celebrated with a Christmas tree and a Star of David on top. Therefore, because the visit was so unusual, I recall vividly the first time I saw prayer books in synagogue. As I remember, most of the page consisted of two vertical lines of Hebrew side by side and, at the bottom, were what looked like footnotes, also in Hebrew. I was told that the two vertical lines side by side—most of the page—was God’s. The “footnotes” belonged to different rabbis giving their various interpretation of the scripture, various interpretations of what God meant. I don’t know if the rabbis argued with each other, but I love the way not even God escaped comment and interpretation.

STEFANESCU: It's monstrous to say so but arguing is quite lovely. When my partner and I disagree, these disagreements take place in language, excitedly, at varying levels of intensity. I take pleasure from passionate conversations the way some people savor hollering about college football. My way of being involves caring deeply about ideas, and how we use them. A good argument is a dance: it circles the tension of separation; you watch each other, you respond. There are particular structural formations and shapes that inform an argument as it moves between two people who are close, and there are different kinds of arguments. I treasure your description of argument as something that occurs in the presence of the Jewish ancestors and thought. The ancestors are not just "gone;" the curse would be if they're forgotten.

EMANUEL: Yes. The table in the art installation was not a “Jewish“ table. It is a very powerful piece of art, and it demonstrates that you can forget. Memory becomes memory in its diminishing, in its disappearing.

For just a moment, I’d like to return to Gwendolyn Brooks. This year at AWP, I was on a panel of poets, all women, about abortion and writing. It took place on International Women's Day. The poem that starts this book is about miscarriage. It is a poem of triumphing over motherhood. I only became aware after the fact that the armature for my poem was, as I said, Brooks’ famous poem, "The Mother." My poem is in conversation, love, and disagreement with Brooks’—especially the final lines in which the narrator says: "But I loved you. Believe me, I loved you all."

STEFANESCU: (Quoting from Emanuel's poem, "Nativity") "And I was no longer a ghost's ghost. I was myself again. I was flesh and living."

EMANUEL: Yes. It's interesting to me that, like the poems about depression, I didn't publish that poem about the miscarriage for years. And then it showed up at the beginning of this book.

STEFANESCU: Is the bookending intentional? I'm thinking of bookends in cinematography, where the opening and end scenes of a film complement one another. The final line of the final poem "Four Sighs from an Epidemic" felt as if it led us back to the beginning, or opened up the book again as a noir, in which section is a shoe.

Open anywhere where something happened,
grew up, imagined, went to visit.

Open with three mismatched shoes at the mouth of a dark alley.

Isn't the speaker directing the eye here by shining a light on this final image—and light means so much in noir composition—more than it means in any other cinematic form, I think?

EMANUEL: Yes, it is. This was a great pleasure. I loved talking with you. Thank you. I throw you a kiss.

STEFANESCU: And I want to imagine a poem clever enough to carry it. Thank you so much, Lynn, for poetry and the pleasure of your company.

More About Lynn Emanuel

Lynn Emanuel is the author of Noose and Hook, Hotel Fiesta, The Dig, Then Suddenly, The Nerve of It, which received the Lenore Marshall Award from the Academy of American Poets, and most recently, Transcript of the Disappearance—Exact and Diminishing. Her work has been collected numerous times in Best American Poetry and included in The Oxford Book of American Poetry. She has been published and reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, LA Review of Books, BOMB Magazine, Poetry, and Publisher’s Weekly. She has been a judge for the National Book Awards and has taught at many venues including the Warren Wilson Program and the Bread Loaf Conference.

Scroll to Top