Emily Luan now (left) and as a student at Middlebury College (right)
NER intern Cristina Farfan ’21 talks to Emily Luan ’15, about choosing poetry and finding a place in the larger literary world. During her time at Middlebury College, Luan was an English major with a focus on Creative Writing and a minor in Chinese, and she worked for NER in the summer of 2014.
Cristina Farfan: Where are you now, both geographically and professionally?
Emily Luan: I live in Brooklyn, New York, teaching undergraduate poetry at Rutgers-Newark from my apartment, writing reviews of upcoming poetry collections, and working in fundraising for small arts nonprofits. I’m also working toward completing my first full-length poetry manuscript.
CF: What were some highlights from your internship with NER?
EL: I worked at NER in the summer of 2014. At the time, I was also working at the Proctor Bake Shop and bussing tables at Storm Cafe (a little restaurant in town by Otter Creek that has since closed), and the magazine office was a quiet reprieve from the heat where I could stamp envelopes, read back issues, or file through mailed submissions. I was beginning to think about a future in writing, and these small tasks helped to normalize that big unknown. I remember e-mailing writers I admired and seeing my name listed in the final printed issues and feeling like a very small piece of a larger literary world.
CF: Are there any particular skills you developed as an undergraduate, either in school or in an internship, that you believe have most benefited you in your professional work?
EL: A lot of little things followed me the years after my internship with NER. I gained a solid literacy of the ins and outs of nonprofit magazine publishing, which I carried to my first job out of college. Learning the names of different journals and what they publish, understanding how Submittable works, poring through archives, and sorting through subscriptions was an invaluable introduction into basic magazine workflows. Seeing the back end of submissions—what a bio and cover letter should look like, how to format a manuscript—took a lot of guesswork out of the process when I too began submitting my own work.
Most importantly, I read so much writing of all genres that summer, which exposed me to more contemporary writing than is typical in an undergrad English degree. Carolyn really stressed how important it was for me to form my own opinions on the pieces that were sent up or down the submission queue. The ability to articulate what draws you to a work (a skill I think I will never stop learning) is now the basis of all my work. Carolyn and Marcy made the publishing process really transparent to me and allowed me space to make my own judgments, which I will always be grateful for.
CF: How do your two occupations, poet and a part-time lecturer, interact with each other?
EL: I’m a verbal processor, so getting to talk poems and craft with my students is a real privilege. The greatest challenge of teaching poetry, I think, is undoing a preconceived notion of poetry. I often ask my students to observe the poem as a visual object and then begin to name the emotional effect it has on them. I try to get them out of the immediate mode of analysis so that when they themselves turn to the page, they can write with less judgment and more heart and sound and image.
It’s taken some time for me to land on this process, mostly because teaching poetry requires you to articulate what a poem is or does in its most essential form. It’s a deeply complex and exciting project that has forced me to navigate my own murky conceptions of where the power of a poem lies. I’m not yet sure what impact working through these questions has had on my writing process. Perhaps less judgement of my own writing, or a bit more clarity about how I hope my poems will move others upon a first read.
CF: Did you see yourself as a poet back when you were an intern at NER, or did you have an equal interest in all the creative writing genres?
EL: I think by that point I’d settled on poetry. It never felt like it was a choice to be made because I “knew” poetry was it for me, which is romantic and unlike me but also feels true. In my undergrad fiction and nonfiction workshops, my classmates would also sometimes tell me my essays or short stories read like long prose poems—I took the hint.
CF: How do you choose which pieces of writing to teach in your classes?
EL: There are certain poems I always teach at the beginning of the semester. Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” and Li-Young Lee’s “I Ask My Mother to Sing” are two notable examples. Depending on the theme of the class, I try to meld the “classics” of the last few decades and pre–twentieth century with poems that are being published right now—last week, this year—so that my students always have a sense that the world of poetry is happening right now, all around us, and is also tied to a long poetic lineage that is filled with political and historical questions. I crowd-source recommendations a lot too. As you can imagine, my syllabi are always changing depending on what I’m reading any given month! I’m also intentional about assigning poets of color, poets from outside of the US, and poets who are working with multiple languages on the page. It helps me and my students explore how our interactions with poetry predate our literary educations, perhaps through our families, oral traditions, or cultural backgrounds.
CF: Are there any particular poems you would recommend? Or texts beyond poetry?
EL: I recently revisited Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Song,” a poem I wish I’d read when I was in college. This year, Don Mee Choi’s DMZ Colony and Hardly War have been really important to me in the way they enact the empathy of translation on the page. I try to incorporate translation into my practice and reading whenever I can—books from Zephyr Press and the Chinese translations in NER’s Vol. 36 No. 2 (2015) are great places to start.
CF: Thanks for your time, Emily, and best of luck with your teaching and writing.