Emily Kaczmarek in Conversation with David Lawton
Emily Kaczmarek is a playwright, screenwriter, librettist, and apparent poet. Her work has been developed and produced at the Village Theater, SPACE on Ryder Farm, Prospect Theatre, Eugene O'Neill Theatre Institute, New York Film Academy, Musical Theatre Factory, New York Musical Festival, and others. By day, she is an English teacher with the college access program SEO Scholars, and, whenever possible, she sings. Find Emily's poetry in the great weather for MEDIA anthology, The Other Side of Violet, and visit her website for latest news.
David Lawton: Emily, I know you through our participation in a theatre company we belong to. So I was surprised when you submitted poetry for our anthology, and so delighted when it was chosen for the book. I'd like to start by asking you for the writers who you go back to for inspiration in your work. And if your top choices are not poets, then I'd ask you to include a couple of poets who inform your work as well.
Emily Kaczmarek: I have so many heroes! Poets who inform my work include Stephen Dunn (in particular, "Juarez," "The Vanishings," and "The Answers"), Marie Howe ("Practicing," "What the Living Do"), Adrienne Rich, Marilyn Hacker, and Nathalie Handal. My favorite definition of poetry is Auden's "the clear expression of mixed feelings"; I think that's what causes me to dog-ear a page. Other favorite writers include Maggie Nelson, Rebecca Solnit, Ta-Nehisi Coates—and, once we get into dialogists, the list becomes truly unwieldy: Amy Herzog, Annie Baker, Dominique Morisseau, Sarah Treem, Beau Willimon, Aaron Sorkin, Tony Kushner, Paddy Chayefsky...
DL: You have been very busy lately as a librettist in the development in new musical works. Can you tell us about the collaborative process involved with your creative partners?
EK: I primarily write musicals with composer/lyricist Zoe Sarnak, who happens to be my partner too, so our collaboration is sort of unusual and all-encompassing. We're gearing up for a production of our show AFTERWORDS at the Village Theatre in Seattle this February, and we will have been working on it together for roughly two years when it opens. We tend to generate ideas and talk through story extensively as a team, but when it's time to actually write, I go into my own little cave. We're about to start maybe our sixth or seventh round of rewrites, incorporating new feedback from our director and our commercial producer, trying to sculpt and hone the best show we can. On another musical, I'm building a story around a band's existing catalogue of songs, so that's a totally different process—but in both cases, I find that book writing is about finding inspiration within strict parameters. It's equal parts left- and right-brain work, and to me, there's nothing more satisfying. Musicals at their best just transcend ordinary life.
DL: I happen to know that you are also an outstanding actress and dynamite singer. How do you plan to make time to satisfy that part of your creative self?
EK: Oh man, I appreciate that so much, David. This question lands veeeery close to the bone; I've been wrestling with how to satisfy my performer self for awhile now, and I think it will be a lifelong process. Until college, performing (and singing especially) was really my whole identity, and now it's become like this secret party trick hobby thing, which is very surreal, a bit dissociative. And as an MT writer, I'm literally surrounded by amazing people who are living what Cheryl Strayed would call "the ghost ship that didn't carry me"—my childhood dream of a Broadway career. That hurts some days. But I know the ache is just a call to find creative ways to feed that part of myself. As we've discussed a bit, I'm in the early stages of developing a cabaret show, one that fuses my writer and singer selves. I want to start intentionally writing roles for myself. But I'm also learning to quiet my ego about the whole thing—to perform because I want to, not because I feel this need to prove something, like, "See, I'm this too! I CONTAIN MULTITUDES!!!!" Because of course we all do.
DL: "Convergent Evolution" - the poem that you have contributed to our latest anthology The Other Side of Violet - covers a painful incident in your teaching career. But I know that teaching brings you a lot of fulfillment. Can you share some thoughts about that with us?
EK: I've written so, so many poems about teaching. Taylor Mali's book What Learning Leaves really spoke to me when I read it, our friend Kristen Tomanocy's poems about her students are some of my favorites ever. Teaching feels poetic to me. Classrooms are these insane ecosystems packed with so much genius and drama and dysfunction; I work mostly with teenagers and they're just like, bursting with life at all times. "Convergent Evolution" came from the cognitive dissonance of learning that this sweet-faced kid I'd coaxed into doing worksheets had committed this horrible act of sexual violence, and I felt like, okay, I don't know what's what anymore. How do we know what's inside someone? How do we tell good from bad, nature from nurture? And how can we teach against pervasive cultural evils like misogyny and racism so they don't keep recruiting? I think that, like a lot of teachers, I try to create classrooms that are these safe, warm, progressive havens from the world. That day, I felt like the world had gotten in. And it was a reminder that I don't teach in a vacuum.
DL: This is a time of great turmoil in our country. Would you mind telling us how this emerging generation who you are teaching is reacting to this turmoil, and what we can do to support them?
EK: The students I work with through SEO Scholars are unbelievably thoughtful, resilient, and tuned in to what's happening in the world. Most of them are much more directly impacted by this administration's draconian sociopathy than I am: many are Dreamers, many have family in Puerto Rico (one SEO graduate jumped rope for 100 minutes straight to raise money to send his family bottled water), many have had terrifying encounters with police. They have every right to be angry and fearful, but continue to choose hope and determination instead. This past summer I taught an Exploratory Essay unit, and the students had free reign to select their topics, and I'd say 90% of them were related to social justice. They're not in denial about the state of the world the way some adults are; they're wide-eyed and engaged. I think my responsibilities are to amplify their voices, to give them the tools to lead, and to be staunch in letting them see my own truths: I condemn—and benefit from—white supremacy; I'm a feminist; I'm queer. And broadly, we all need to mobilize to—among other things—protect DACA, pass common sense gun control legislation, hold police accountable, and combat climate change. The high schoolers shall inherit the earth, and we owe them something eons saner and more compassionate than this.
DL: Emily, thank you so much for sharing a bit of your life with us. And of course, the poetry. We look forward to hearing from you again!
Emily Kaczmarek's poem "Convergent Evolution" can be found in The Other Side of Violet (great weather for MEDIA, 2017).
Poetry and prose submissions for great weather for MEDIA anthologies are open October 15 to January 15.