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Q&A with Emily Hockaday, author of Naming the Ghost

Emily Hockaday's debut full-length collection of poetry, Naming the Ghost, was published by Cornerstone Press in 2022. Her second collection, In a Body, is forthcoming in 2023 from Small Harbor Publishing, and she is the author of five chapbooks, most recently Beach Vocabulary, from Red Bird Chaps. Her poetry is also featured in issue #19 of Newtown Literary. For more from Emily, you can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and read more on her website.

The titular ghost in your poetry collection Naming the Ghost comes to represent different things: fear, anxiety, grief, physical pain, chronic illness, etc. There are 136 mentions of the ghost in the text, yet only one reference to the ghost's name—in that the speaker yearns to know what it is. Can you write a little about how you decided upon the title of the collection?

Naming the Ghost is the third title I submitted this collection under. The first was Ghost Signals, then Erasing the Ghost (which I thought was clever because it was right after I had done a dive through the text to remove mentions of the ghost—can you believe there were at one point more than 136 instances?!), and then ultimately after my final edit it became Naming the Ghost.

This title felt right to me because a major theme in the book is the search for meaning. And in many ways humans feel they understand something best once they have a name for it. This search for the ghost’s name also parallel’s the speaker’s search for a diagnosis of the chronic pain/illness that they are experiencing.

What was your inspiration for the book, and what was your process like while writing these poems? When did you realize you might have a cohesive collection on your hands?

I started writing these poems during a month-long poem-a-day I participated in. One day I was pushing my kid home from daycare in her stroller and dictating to my phone to get my required poem in, and the ghost just appeared. One thing about dictating poems, which I hadn’t done before, is that the poems can write themselves much faster than when typing, potentially leading to bigger imaginative leaps. A few days later, the ghost appeared in a poem again, and then almost every day after that. Once I had about a month’s worth of poems, I thought: why not keep going?

The emotional inspiration is that the poems are semiautobiographical—my father died of ALS just a few months after my daughter was born. Around the first anniversary of his death I began experiencing the symptoms of a chronic illness that would take around 9 months to diagnose. Writing about the ghost was a way to exorcise the fears and anxiety associated with the unknown illness and around my father’s decline and death.

Motherhood and the life cycle are also significant themes in the book. In “The Ghost is My Own,” you write: “I stroke the long fur of her cat/while trying to sort out this seed/of paralyzing fear that’s choking/the healthy vegetation. My daughter sees/food turn to sand in my mouth./Please don’t remember.” The very next poem is “The Baby Reaches for the Spoils,” which acknowledges panic, disordered thought, insomnia, and to a degree, hopelessness. “My thoughts defy gravity and yet/they are heavy with dark substance./There are rules here. How do I reach/into the past in a productive way?”

This portion of the book feels so viscerally like postpartum depression to me, and I related to it on that level. Did you consciously write toward capturing that specific experience of motherhood? In what ways has the transition to parenthood influenced you as a writer?

This is such an interesting question! A lot of people have seen postpartum depression in these poems, and while I didn’t intend to write that in, it is definitely there. At this time when I was trying to get my symptoms (pain and extreme fatigue) diagnosed, I was paralyzed with fear. I had just seen my father die from a devastating neurological illness—ALS—that began with very innocuous-seeming symptoms. So when my symptoms began, my mind flew to the worst-case scenarios. I was convinced I was dying. My child raised the stakes a huge amount. Suddenly it mattered to someone else that I live. I was terrified that I wouldn’t survive, and my daughter would grow up without me there to guide her, and support her, and love her.

At the same time, this constant anxiety was making parenting extremely difficult. I would work so hard to appear normal; I didn’t want my daughter to see the mental—and physical—health crisis I was in. Before becoming a parent, if I was feeling anxious or depressed and needed to lie in bed for hours, I could! I could nap if I needed to; I could tend to my health more completely and express the feelings I was having without worrying how it would affect my daughter and our family. And while my anxiety and depression were caused by grief and chronic illness, anxiety and depression caused by postpartum hormonal disorders are similar—there’s this balance of, how can I tend to my own physical and mental health while also being the best parent I can be?

Throughout the collection there is a sense of movement despite the static emotional weight the speaker is experiencing—many references to both circling and moving straight ahead, as on a subway track. The word and image of a “curl” also appears quite often, in the hair of the speaker’s child, in the child’s practiced Cs drawn in purple crayon, in the curve of a spine, the orbit of stars; in “The Ghost Finds My Sewing Table,” you write “Inside of us is the movement/of a star system." It feels as though the speaker is reaching for her past, or at least anything but the present she finds herself in. And yet there is a pragmatic hope, as the seasons change, and the cycle shifts, both internally and externally: movement. What would you like readers to take away from Naming the Ghost most?

Yes! This curl was subconscious, but I love that you saw the connection there. I think a big part of that was how to balance the past and the future and how to feel at peace knowing that maybe my dad was dead, and maybe I would die, but at the same time all matter in the universe came from, and is fated to end up in, the same place together. There’s also the idea that the universe is large and in the grand scheme, we don’t really matter. (However comforting that is, ha!)

What I most want readers to get from this collection is validation. I want people who have struggled with chronic illness, grief, anxiety, mental health, and parenting to see themselves here. And to recognize that a lot of the grief and anxiety might be your brain’s way of trying to keep you safe. I had to come to peace with my overactive amygdala when writing this and becoming healthy. And that brings me to the last thing I want folks to take away: that no matter how impossible it seems, you can become healthy again.

How, if at all, did Queens influence the collection? How does Queens influence you as a writer?

Queens was a huge influence! At the time I wrote this, I lived right next to Forest Park. I used to wander the trails there and dictate the poems on my phone. You’ll see the raccoons and bats of Forest Park show up in these pages, as well as Woodhaven Boulevard and the J train. I find so much inspiration here. I write a lot of ecopoetry, and Queens has so much to offer in terms of interesting ecology and quite natural places. I already mentioned Forest Park, but I also love communing with nature at Alley Pond Park and Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. There’s a lot of urban ecology to uncover and metaphor to draw here.

What inspires you in general?

I find a lot of inspiration in the news. I love following NASA and NOAA and ecological organizations to see if I can grab a cool new metaphor. I hold onto physical copies of the Science Times and keep them in a basket for when I need a good writing prompt. There is so much fascinating scientific discovery and reporting going on that really lends itself to the human condition and poetry.

What writing project(s) are you currently working on?

Right now I’m working on my next book, which is titled In a Body and will be out in October 2023 with Small Harbor Publishing. This book also ruminates on chronic illness, but it has an ecological bent. The book looks to plant, animal, fungal, and geological bodies and how they fit into the Earth’s ecosystems and how that parallels the human body as it’s own little ecosystem. This book definitely has more acceptance of chronic illness in it than Naming the Ghost. It’s also a collection of completely stand-alone poems, without the narrative quality of Naming the Ghost.

Thank you, Emily!

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