Emily Simon’s debut full-length book, In Many Ways (Winter Editions, May 2023), is alive with contradictions. Deftly dreamlike, anxiously playful, absurdly intelligent, this book is composed of lyric fragments that flow with the complexity of a river into which the reader may dip a toe, slip in and out of, or float along. Simon’s language is relational and self-aware, offering observations on the stuff of daily life such as politics, literature, romance, religion, mental health, family, reality T.V., and what it means to be an artist. She writes, “I live in my mind, not in my house” and, yes, this book communicates an individual’s experience of the world, but it is also concerned with the very idea of selfhood. It enacts fluidity and dissolves boundaries, asking if it is possible to be free of the “repulsive articulation of ‘I’ and ‘you,’” without pretending to come to a conclusion. In Many Ways is about being in-progress, and the search for elusive truths.
Emily Simon is a writer and teacher living in New York City. She is the author of the chapbook Reign is Over (Choo Choo Press, 2021). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Florida Review, Salt Hill, and Some Kind of Opening. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Writing Program in poetry.
from In Many Ways by Emily Simon
“Shame involves thinking about what others think of you,” writes Gillian White in her introduction to Lyric Shame. Shame, she says, has a great deal to do with “knowing that ‘you’ are a ‘you.’” It involves a “complex self-awareness” of the self enmeshed in context. We infer here the social, political, historical, and other- wise—contexts that make the self legible. Where the self becomes legible, where the self is in- scribed or coded in the language of convention and formality, shame becomes possible, becomes real. Julian and his friend Becca tell me they worry about tak- ing up too much space. This is embarrassment for Julian and Becca, in significantly different ways, and for me too, admittedly: taking up so much space with the body. Being a coded body in coded space. Being a body in space. Embarrassment is exhausting. * When I was a teenager who didn’t sleep or eat enough, and didn’t have time to deviate from the high school syllabus, I went to the shelf where my parents kept their old books and picked up Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre. I didn’t read it (there was no time), and I had no idea what it argued, suggested, etc., but I kept this book next to my bed: Nausea. * If I am the self that organizes around thinking of you, then are you the self that organizes around thinking of me? Are we the collapse of pretenses? In we-ness, do we escape the problem of you and me? Are we desire or its opposite?
Rhoni Blankenhorn: In Many Ways opens with an epigraph — a quote by Paul Bindrim that reads, “[s]ometimes I would have a hard time telling whether your face was your face or whether I was there[.]” How does this set the tone for the rest of the book?
Emily Simon: I’m so glad you appreciate the Paul Bindrim quotation. I found it before I knew anything about him in a very rainbow book called Passages that I picked up on a trip to LA. It’s funny that the epigraph invokes a 1970s, pretty out-there, West Coast philosophy, when the rest of the book is really in and of New York City. But I love how it reflects and refracts the “I” and “you” stuff I play with. I’m interested in the proximity between “I” and “you,” the possibility that “I” and “you” might not be so far apart. I wrote this book during the pandemic, so I was thinking about how to insinuate closeness, intimacy, etc between “I” and “you,” this and that, here and there—those proximities that were otherwise impossible at the time.
RB: The speaker in the book, the “I,” is constantly in conversation with themselves, the “you,” romantic partners, family, therapists, celebrities, and literary figures in a way that feels as though they are throwing paint against the proverbial wall to see what sticks. Do you see the self as an accumulation over time, something that can be understood through such acts of echolocation?
ES: I love that you said echolocation. That’s how I’d like to describe myself in “time,” or how I might explain what happens between “you” and “I”… echolocation!
I want to take up the self as a problem, not a person. I am an example, I am evidence. In my writing, I exploit my own resources, throw myself around or even against the wall, as you suggest, like I’m doing research.
I’d always rather think in terms of accumulation or aggregation, porousness, inquiry, than fixity.
RB: With a first person speaker, a conversational tone, and such intimate subject matters as romance, mental health, and trauma, a reader might experience the book as a form of diary. In what ways does this collection act as a diary, and in what ways is it a work of fiction?
ES: I have to admit that I’ve only realized my self-exposure very recently. I was preparing for my first reading of the book, making my selections, and I thought, “This is really exposing…” Not that I have reported my life like a journalist, but I’ve been emotionally truthful. It’s something about how loyal I’ve been to my own voice. But I think that writing transforms any lived experience into a kind of fiction—poetry, even better.
I’m thinking about a question I answered at a reading last week. This person asked if poetry could be a space for “unmitigated despair.” There was mention of entrails, maggots, violence. I repeated the words back—despair and its graphic counterparts… My recommendation for this poet was to mitigate the despair, and take up poetry’s invitation to concision and containment, to structure. I mimed vomiting on the table, like, that’s what you don’t want to do. A diary is a place for unmitigated despair; a diary is ultimately private; It isn’t supposed to address an audience outside the self, and it doesn’t involve the same kind of refinement process.
RB: You write, “Time had a frisky personality before all this.” How did time function for you as you were writing?
ES: I wrote the book, or started it, during the pandemic. I was writing inside what I call “pandemic time,” and looking for liberatory possibilities there. I more or less gave up the discrete container of the poem and discovered the lyric prose fragment. I kept going and going, writing forwards and backwards. It was exciting, ping-ponging around. And I’m still writing and thinking this way.
RB: The book is primarily composed of prose fragments, but also includes instances of more “poetic” placement on the page, as well as experiments in translation. Can form be an act of rebellion, a way to reject closure and maintain possibility?
ES: I used to think of closure, particularly narrative closure, as the ultimate proof of a writer’s skill and experience… probably because closure was always so elusive to me. In college, I wrote fiction, but I didn’t care at all about plot or character development. I didn’t know what to do about this disinterest, because I loved writing sentences, and I loved thinking about voice and style. It didn’t occur to me then that I might also consider alternative structures. I think the answer about how I came to write poetry and later, to write this book—which isn’t exactly poetry or fiction—is that I found permission to break the rules in other experimental texts. At least, they were experimental to me. It was both frustrating and exciting.
RB: That makes me think about your line, “closure is a myth about the body,” and another, “I live in my mind, not in my house.” I’m also thinking about your right hand/left hand writing experiments in which you ask questions by writing with one hand and answer them by writing with the other. What is your experience of body and language?
ES: I’ve been allergic to romantic or exalted notions of “the body” and what it can do for a long time, perhaps because I’m not a dancer or an athlete. But that right hand/left hand experiment was very exciting. I gave authorial control over to my body and its wiring–with the right hand talking to the left brain, and the left hand talking to the right brain. I found that my body has its own command after all.
RB: Why did you choose to place the Henry Miller excerpt and your equally full frontal “translation” of it in the middle of the book?
ES: I had to bury it like… a precious rock.
RB: What’s up with the wind tunnels?
ES: Weather is a character in the book; so are the wind tunnels. The elements, the climate, assert themselves when I least expect an interruption, especially when I am deep in thought or lost in language. The wind tunnel (the one that occurs on Delancey/Essex, for example) rearranges me and snaps me back to my body. It’s not so different from the right hand/left hand experiment.
RB: While the book is fragmentary and wandering, there is a loose romantic narrative and a certain logic throughout. Then there is the postscript, which reads like a collection of accelerated thoughts such as “Heaven: I’m greedy,” “The porch overlooks the golf course,” and “Sensation: follows sensation.” Why did you choose to include this postscript, and how does it relate to the main text?
ES: The postscript is like a wink at narrative closure. But it also feels like a dream that the book might have.
RB: Would you give this book to your therapist?
ES: She wants to put it out on the table in her office… we’ll see.