The Writing University hosts the 5Q Interview series with authors from the University of Iowa Press. We sit down with UI Press authors to ask about their work, their process, their reading lists and events.
Today we are speaking with Emily Pérez, author of What Flies Want, from the University of Iowa Press. Emily Pérez is author of House of Sugar, House of Stone and coedited The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood.She works as a high school teacher and dean, and lives in Denver, Colorado.
1. Can you tell us a little bit about your new book What Flies Want?
This book grew out of a really difficult time in my family life. We had relocated to Denver with two young kids and did not have great support networks in place. My husband left his job and was trying to find a new direction. My oldest child was starting to show signs of mental health issues that we did not yet understand. Basically, we were all struggling. Around us, the world was struggling, too. Ugly inequities that had always existed were hyper-exposed through national narratives including the 2016 election, the #MeToo movement, and the continued inaction on gun violence. I had been a high school teacher for many years in California and Texas, but suddenly as a teacher in Denver with young kids in the school system, all of us just miles from the sites of many mass shootings, lockdown drills felt deeply personal. Meanwhile, my children were growing up and learning about systems of gendered and racial power, and it made me scrutinize what I’d learned as a child and what my husband and I were teaching them. What Flies Want interrogates the connections between the public and private, and it speaks of a mother’s fear about who her children will become in a deeply flawed world.
2. Did you do any work on this book during the pandemic?
I started writing this book in 2015 and sending out versions in late 2018, so it was largely in place pre-pandemic. The most significant work I did on it during the pandemic happened in mid 2020. I’d reconnected with David Campos at AWP in March 2020, just before the world closed down, and he said he could help me with re-ordering. We met on Zoom several months later and his advice was invaluable. He helped me establish the new title and a new order.
As for individual poems in the collection, only a few were written during the pandemic. Like many people, I had a very hard time writing in the first six or seven months after March 2020. I have a lot of messy pages from that time, but whatever emerges from that will be in my next book. While reading the proofs for What Flies Want, I realized I have one poem with a “virus” in it, but that was a pre-pandemic piece.
3. Do you have any plans for readings or events for this book, either in person or virtual?
Yes! I will have a reading and panel appearance at the Gaithersburg Book Festival on May 21st. I have a book launch scheduled at Counterpath in Denver (come if you can!) with Carolina Ebeid and Wayne Miller on June 4. I will read with the Fourth Monday series at the Denver BookBar on June 27th, and then I have some things lined up in the fall outside of Denver. Speaking of, for anyone who is reading this…I’m happy to come read at your school or for your local reading series. I applied for and won a local grant specifically for book-related travel between now and May 2023, so help me use that funding!
4. What are you reading right now? Any books from other university or independent presses?
This weekend I’m reading and loving Nancy Reddy’s Pocket Universe from Louisiana State University Press, as well as Erika Meitner’s Useful Junk from BOA. I’m a regular book reviewer for RHINO Reviews, and I prioritize books from university and independent presses. For March I reviewed Camille Guthrie’s Diamonds, also from BOA (you can see I am a BOA fan). For April I reviewed Teri Ellen Cross Davis’s a more perfect Union from Mad Creek Books, an imprint of The Ohio State University Press. I came back from AWP with many books that I’m looking forward to reading, including The Wet Hex, by Sun Yung Shin and Coffee House Press; Omma: Sea of Joy and Other Astrological Signs, by Bo Schwabacher and Tinderbox Editions; and What Pecan Light by Han VanderHart and Bull City Press.
5. What is your writing routine? Do you have a daily routine?
When my routine is going well, I spend some time free associating and scrawling nonsense in my journal; some time returning to old journal entries and shaping them into poems; and some time doing the “business” of writing, like submitting work. Usually I do one of those things in a session, and in general I manage to do much more scrawling than shaping or submitting.
At the onset of the pandemic I stopped writing poetry. My brain felt frozen, and I limped my way through the monthly poetry reviews I wrote for RHINO. Then I joined a poem-a-day group for May 2020. The deadlines for both projects compelled me to keep writing, and I’m grateful for them. In January 2021 I decided I needed to start writing my own work again. I committed to write for 11 minutes every day in my journal because 11 minutes felt doable. I kept that up faithfully until September when the 2021 school year started.
This academic year has been such a challenge that I forgot about writing for a while, then I remembered and felt guilty, and then I decided I needed to forgive myself and admit that I can only do a finite number of things a day. I just returned to my 11 minutes at the start of April. I’ve already missed a few days, forgiven myself, and then picked up the journal again. I’m hoping that when the school year is over I can harvest some poems from those pandemic notebooks, submit work again, and maybe even start thinking about a shape for a new book.
Thank you Emily!