Queers Fail Better – Q / A with Chris Emslie

Queers Fail Better – Q / A with Chris Emslie

Think back to when you started writing. What’s an earlier influence you outgrew, abandoned, or turned against?

I used to read a lot of young adult fantasy, Marvel comics—anything that gave its characters extraordinary abilities. As a child I was (and still am) fascinated with magic, divinity and power beyond the ordinary. That’s what I think turned me onto poems. They offered a medium that probes beneath the surface images of the world and enters a state of heightened possibility. In her book, Meat Heart, Melissa Broder writes, “Somewhere I stopped looking for magic”.  After a few abortive attempts at a first chapter, I turned away from fantasy novels, but I’m still looking for magic (and of course I went to see The Avengers movie too).

When a piece of writing doesn’t work out, what do you do with it? Discard? Fold it into another project? Salvage parts?

That depends on how spectacularly it fails! I try to at least save a line or two. A lot of the poems that don’t work out are the result of trying to force a poem to stand up around one or two images that have been rattling around in my head for days. The failed poems are usually just not suitable homes for them. In which case I put the focal line(s) aside until they find their right place.

What do you do with your rejection letters?

I’d love to pretend I do something creative with them, like a collage / erasure / paper sculpture (actually that’s not a bad idea—shotgun?). But in all honesty I keep them in my inbox until I’m done being bummed about them and then they get trashed. The acceptance letters I keep in a special folder. For my ego.

Do you plan out the piece beforehand or find your way as you go along? A combination of both?

The pieces I try to plan are generally the most likely to fail. An idea or two might lodge in my head for a while, but I try not to investigate it too closely until I’m ready to actually write something around it. My recent experiences/reading/conversations tend to inform whatever I’m working on, so most of the time the finished piece is a mish-mash of one solid conceit and whatever else gravitated towards it as it gained mass.

When a project is finished, how do you start the next one? Or do your projects overlap?

Often I’m keeping a lot of plates in the air at once, but I try to focus on one thing at any given time. For me the initial drafting process is the briefest part. I’ll get something down then put it in a (figurative) drawer for a while and get onto the next draft. It’s when I go back with my editor’s hat on that I tend to realize whether or not a piece is going to work out. Of course all this drafting /editing is ongoing, so I guess that counts as ‘overlap’.

Have you ever not sent a piece of writing somewhere because it seemed “too gay/queer” for that publication?

I actually used to be really scared of writing directly about [my] queerness. It’s only in the last year or so that I’ve felt really able to be an explicitly gay/queer poet. I would write abstracted love poems and teenage angst but almost never made them overtly homosexual. So when I realized that doing so was not only okay, but important, I admit I looked out for publication opportunities that targeted queer writing. That said, I recently sent a poem with the terms “twink” and “size queen” in it to a ‘straight’ submissions call, with a degree of hesitation beforehand.

What do you do to procrastinate?

Like many others, I am a big believer in staring open-mouthed into the Internet for hours on end. I read a few webcomics and comedy Tumblrs (Gunnerkrigg Court and Text from Dog are two of my favorites), and I watch a lot of bad TV—currently Awkward and True Blood, though my allegiance to the latter suffered serious wounds in the last season.

Has anyone ever said something completely discouraging to you as an artist? Did it take the wind out of your sails or did it drive you forward? Or both?

A tutor told me quite recently that I’m a better critic than I am a poet. She meant it as a compliment but it did crush me a little. I enjoy writing criticism and think it’s a vital thing but I don’t see it as my vocation. After a while of being gloomy about it I decided to keep writing both and see where it takes me. Hers is only one opinion and if writing poems all day doesn’t pan out, I could do a lot worse than writing about poems all day.

Can a piece of writing fail, or is that a bullshit notion?

To an extent, I think the act of writing itself is failure. Writing is what we do because we can’t realize what’s in our heads. This links back to my previous comments about power—if people could create their own realities and render them in exact duplicate of what they imagine then there’d be no artists. The creative impulse stems from that desire to put our own visions out into the world, or to put our own worlds into vision. Writing is a failed expression of what Louise Glück called the “need to perfect”. When success is an impossibility all we can do is keep failing better.


Chris Emslie is assistant editor at ILK. His poems have appeared / are forthcoming in PANK> kill author andArtifice, among others. He put half of himself in a mountain and forgot the mountain's name. It was safer that way.