THINGS WE’RE DYING TO KNOW…
Let’s start with the book’s title and your cover image. How did you choose each? And, if I asked you to describe or sum up your book, what three words immediately come to mind?
The choosing of the title is a funny story. A couple of years ago I was having some winter writer’s block, and during this time I dreamed that I had written a book of poems titled Ophelia and that each poem was about a plant or flower symbol in Hamlet. I woke up and thought: why not! I wasn’t writing anything else at the time and this seemed like a fortuitous series of writing prompts. So I actually started with the title and went from there.
The cover image was born out of collaborating with the artist Sam Hockaday—who also happens to be my brother—and our process together. I always had an idea that I wanted the book to be like a field or botany guide with botanical sketches accompanying the poems, and happily my publisher, Zoo Cake Press, was also excited about this premise. My brother graciously agreed to this project with me, and the cover being a mash-up of these images in the style of a field guide was a stroke of genius on his part.
The three words that come to mind for the book would be: feminist, dramatic, and dire.
What were you trying to achieve with your chapbook? Tell us about the world you were trying to create, and who lives in it.
I really wanted this book to tell the story of Ophelia and her extremely limited options. She’s really such a victim of this rigidly patriarchal society (as is Gertrude), and she doesn’t get the attention from Shakespeare that she deserves. Here I try to get the reader in her head and show how the men in her life (who have all the power) have chosen revenge over her, with no thought, or at least no care, to how she and her safety might be affected by their actions.
The book does stay fairly literally in Shakespeare’s world, with a few modern sensibilities and moments. Throughout the series of ghost sonnets, Ophelia speaks to Gertrude, Hamlet, Laertes, and Claudius, who inhabit the book with her.
Can you describe your writing practice or process for this collection? Do you have a favorite revision strategy?
My process, as I touched on a bit before, was really to treat each instance of plant symbolism in Hamlet as a writing prompt. It was a lot of fun and offered the opportunity for some heavy flower and herb research that helped open the narrative up. In terms of revision, I belong to a writing group who was invaluable in workshopping these.
How did you order the poems in the collection? Do you have a specific method for arranging your poems or is it sort of haphazard, like you lay the pages out on the floor and see what order you pick them back up in?
I obsessed a little bit over the order of these. In a way, the order doesn’t matter because everyone knows the story of Hamlet. Despite this, I still wanted that moment of surprise or “aha” at the end, and I still wanted there to be a turn midway through. Because of this the ordering of the poems felt very important to me. I worked and reworked these many times before settling on it as is.
What do you love to find in a poem you read, or love to craft into a poem you’re writing?
I love surprise in the poems I read, and it is something I reach to achieve in my own writing. I love a bizarre juxtaposition or imaginative leaps.
Can you share an excerpt from your book? And tell us why you chose this poem for us to read – did it galvanize the writing of the rest of the collection? Is it your book’s heart? Is it the first or last poem you wrote for the book?
This is the first poem in the book and gets the narrative rolling:
Given to Claudius
Who is my king? Everyone has a different idea.
My king husband, my king father, the All-father.
There are a number of things that would rule me,
and do, but I have not bowed down, though
from certain angles I am bowed. From here
I cannot see the delicate inner flower
facing up to the sun. Only the dark outer petals,
a warning wreath. I lick the root and wait for my heart
to beat as fast as you dreamed. What is king is what waits
in the ground: roots taking hold, many secrets
germinating. And that which would
clean up this mess over time.
The columbine is a hardy perennial, which propagates quickly by seed;
Short-lived, it prefers partial shadow and is ruled only by need.
If you had to convince someone walking by you in the park to read your book right then and there, what would you say?
“Shakespeare, feminism, art, and drama all in one book!”
For you, what is it to be a poet? What scares you most about being a writer? Gives you the most pleasure?
One particularly attractive yet also scary aspect of poetry, I find, is being able to confront both my fears and my fantasies—and in a way, live them out—within the writing. Hopefully in doing that I can also speak to the fantasies and fears living inside the reader. This kind of role-playing can deliver emotional closure or exploration in a way that is never actually achieved in the real world.
Are there other types of writing (dictionaries, romance novels, comics, science textbooks, etc.) that help you to write poetry?
Lately I've been finding a lot of inspiration in science news—be it new biological discoveries, environmental changes, or astronomy. But really almost everything I read informs my poetry.
What are you working on now?
At the moment I’m working on putting together a full-length manuscript that I’m very excited about. I’m also working on a piece of fiction and another chapbook of poetry.
What book are you reading that we should also be reading?
Straight Man by Richard Russo. This is actually my second time reading it, and it’s just as hilarious as the first. I also just ran through a bunch of Octavia Butler novels and short stories, and I really recommend anything she produced. Her characters and plot lines are compelling with biology and science very elegantly incorporated.
Without stopping to think, write a list of five poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least write in permanent marker on your clothing, to take with you at all times.
Richard Siken, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Franz Wright, Bruce Weigl, Anne Carson
Purchase Ophelia: A Botanist’s Guide from Zoo Cake Press.
Emily Hockaday is the author of three chapbooks: Ophelia: A Botanist’s Guide (Zoo Cake Press), What We Love and Will Not Give Up (Dancing Girl Press), and Starting a Life (Finishing Line Press). Her work has appeared in journals including the North American Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Newtown Literary, and Day One. Her poetry has also appeared on NPR in the hit show Radio Lab. You can find her online at www.emilyhockaday.com or @E_Hockaday.
Nicole Rollender is a poet, editor and seeker.