Breaking Into Air: A Conversation with Emily Wall
By Audrey Fong
Emily Wall’s latest poetry collection, Breaking Into Air, explores the experience of childbirth from stories of deep loss to tales of gratitude for those who help and surprise at one’s own body. In conducting research for this collection, Wall discussed the process of giving birth with couples of all backgrounds.
Wall is a professor of English at the University of Alaska. Her poems have been published in journals across the U.S. and Canada, most recently in Prairie Schooner and Alaska Quarterly Review. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and her book, Flame, won the Minerva Rising chapbook prize. Her poem “This Forest” was chosen to be placed in Totem Bight State Park in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Below, we discuss the catalyst for the collection, motherhood, and her writing process.
Audrey Fong: You started to collect stories about giving birth after the birth of your third child, Lucy. What was it about this moment in your life that led you to research birth stories?
Emily Wall: The project started for me out of grief: the sadness that I was leaving this powerful time of birth and intimacy with other mothers. I joined a mother’s group at Bartlett Hospital after my first daughter was born. It’s a year-long group meant to support new mothers. Sitting in a circle on the floor, with our newborns cradled in our laps and talking, was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve gone through. We really talked in a way that’s not always easy to do. I heard everyone’s birth stories there, but at some point, realized I was hearing them everywhere: in the grocery store, at dinner parties, at the library during story time. We were sharing our stories, but in a very private, hushed way. These stories, and conversations, began to feel like art to me, and I wanted to remove that sense of “hush” to the stories and celebrate the way every woman around me was bringing life into the world.
AF: What was the research process like for this collection? How did you go about collecting birth stories?
EW: Once I decided to try for a book, I contacted friends and women I knew. It was a fairly casual process to begin with: I asked mothers at my daughters’ preschool, or friends I spent time with. I contacted one former student who had recently posted pictures on social media of her new baby. She and her wife used a sperm bank, and I was eager to hear their story, and they generously shared. After a year of working on the project, I gave a reading in town of some of the new poems and then other women — mothers and grandmothers! — approached me with stories and ideas. One of the first stories I collected was from a doula I know, and her story became the poem “Henry’s Birth,” which was the first poem I wrote, and it’s the first one now in the collection. After I wrote that poem, I shared it with her and got her blessing and that felt significant to me. Since this is a collaborative process, I was nervous, but she loved the poem. After that, I shared the finished poems with each parent and got their approval before I published it. One mother, my pastor actually, framed her birth poem and hung it in her daughter’s room. That meant a lot to me: it showed me this was a project worth pursuing.
AF: I love that you shared the poems with each mother that inspired a poem and got their approval. Out of all of the stories you heard, is there a particular birth story that stood out to you?
EW: They all feel so unique to me! Perhaps one that feels especially powerful is the one called “Shaawatke’é’s Birth.” My friend and colleague at the university, X’unei Lance Twitchell is a poet too, and he also has 3 children. One day I was in his office and we were comparing newborn notes (both of us were exhausted) and I realized I didn’t have any stories from a father. X’unei is a poet as well, so I told him about my project, and he enthusiastically agreed to share his birth story. What he sent me was a little different than the other stories. Most of the mothers had sent me emails, or texts with their story; one mama had photocopied pages of her journal. But X’unei sent me his “birth speech,” a very beautiful, song-story in Tlingit, the indigenous language of the first peoples on this land. I studied this piece for a few months, wondering how best to use it; it was already a poem in my mind, so it sparked a different process. I didn’t want to take his words and change them into a poem. I decided to instead use it as the poem’s core, and then weave story details around it. I began studying Tlingit oral tradition structures and I used those to weave the details of the story around that core. Thankfully X’unei liked this approach and he and I worked on that poem together, revising and refining it. Eventually it was published in Alaska Quarterly Review and then the editor wrote a grant and produced a short film of the poem, which can be viewed below.
AF: This collection is largely about the miracle of childbirth. How has giving birth and motherhood changed you as an artist?
EW: I have three girls and given the political events of the last 5 years it has given an intensity to my work. We know we are raising children in a world that is fundamentally misogynist and racist, but seeing the impact on your own children, is so painful. It’s created a kind of urgency. Like all mothers, I think, I feel that double pull of wanting to be with them all the time, fully engaged in their lives, preparing them for the world — but as an artist I also feel that urge to try and do the work that will help make the world a safer place for them. I hope in some small way these poems that lift up women and ask all of us to consider how powerful women’s bodies and women’s work are.
AF: You’ve been writing poetry for over 30 years now. What inspires you to keep writing? And what advice do you have for poets to help them continue writing?
EW: After 30 years I still find this difficult, but I think it’s key to trust yourself as a writer. Trust that your stories have value, and that you have the skill to care for those stories. Even if others don’t always see it, there will be those who love and need your work and those are the readers you are writing for. Don’t let anyone stand in your way of the important work you do.
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