On a Thursday night in northern Michigan, Emily Pittinos and I drove to a local ice cream shop on a farm. There, I would interview her about her stunning debut book, The Last Unkillable Thing—notably, the winner of the 2020 Iowa Poetry Prize. The Last Unkillable Thing spans a bewildering and relentless grief, yet it somehow made perfect sense to sit with my old friend and Interlochen Arts Camp co-teacher on top of a picnic table as we talked about loss and beauty—eating ice cream and watching cows amble up the hill, closer to us, to eat from a trough.
Some of our more serious asides—personal divulgences adjacent to our interview, as well as her astute question, “What doesn’t my grief touch?”—were punctuated by children beholding the cows (one boy yelled, “It’s peeing!”) and, later, those same children wandering into a field of sunflowers only to exclaim, “It’s a maze!” We wondered what we’d keep in this interview space, what we’d omit.
Which is to say: this is an interview, but it also echoes our friendship. This is an interview, but it comes from the site I sought in my citational poetics series—one of safety and connection. I’m honored that this interview-as-conversation—this interview-as-connection, enacted citation—was catalyzed by Emily Pittinos’ The Last Unkillable Thing—a tireless yet prismatic text, a force yielding spaciousness in the face of death.
The answer to her question: her grief touches everything.
From The Last Unkillable Thing
ankle-deep : riverbed of rose : quartz caught :
pool of heat : earth a furnace : subcutaneous
molten shift : I finger the rock’s pelt of algae :
geode entombed by bloom : to think :
not long ago : I wanted to kill my loneliness :
downstream : a heron drying its wings : mites
dying there : to think : sunlight a killer too :
a person can get used to anything
Emily Pittinos [in mock-interviewer voice]: Just to set the scene here, we are looking out at hilly farmland with cows in dappled sunlight. [Emily is] munching on a waffle cone as we discuss the poetics of this land.
AM Ringwalt: The cows are thinking about poetry. I wish I could speak the way that I write, but I can’t.
EP: I don’t think anyone can. That might be why we do it.
AMR: That’s so true. All of the cows are standing up like hell yeah.
EP: They get it.
AMR: I think of you as a very formally aware poet. You seem to be aware of the poem as a form of construction—of memory or of grief—but not in any way that suggests inauthenticity. The form of the poem is a medium for your personal life. And I would only say this because you’ve contextualized your book as personal at your reading [at Ironfish Distillery], otherwise I would really hesitate to put that label on it. If it would feel more useful for me to not put that label on it, I can also keep it away.
EP: I don’t know. I feel like there is still a veil here, even though the overarching situation and the moments that exist in the poems are real—or actual, autobiographical. In many ways, they still have the subjectivity that comes with writing poems, while it feels like that distance from the self is also there. Sometimes, you write something and you say something and think: did I really mean that? I don’t know if I full-meant it, but it is an interesting thought, and let’s see where that goes.
AMR: Absolutely. I feel that way with some of my poetry, too, thinking of the different selves that I’ve put on the page—selves that were maybe-me or part-me at one time, but certainly not now (or half-now, or whenever).
EP: Yeah, I feel like not only that is a thing in the subjectivity of the “I,” where the poem-self is still [only a version of] the person talking, but also I do have people in the book who are—like the mother character—[only] versions of people from real life. The world of the book is distorted or augmented by the fact that it is poetry—and if I approached it in a nonfictional way, it would be different, which is something to keep in mind.
AMR: Of course. The poems seem aware of that [distinction]; insofar as the mother figure goes, the repeated line is “my mother is not always my mother.” The “my” of the book is, of course, not your “my,” but the speaker’s “my”—owning that identity but also recognizing moments when [the mother] can’t be [a mother]. I found those moments really bracing—they spoke to the different layers of self vs. construct of self vs. echo of self on the page. Could you talk more about what it was like to consciously render some version of your mother on the page?
EP: I think there’s a trickiness to it, and part of [the trick] is what’s in the book and how I put it together. I mean, talk about formal construction. I think the whole book is one poem in many ways, [a poem] that I calibrated to give off certain impressions based on the order in which everything is read.
There is this overarching poem, with the mother character in it explicitly, called “After.” “After” is actually a long sequence poem, but I broke it into parts and scattered it throughout the book to give the book a sense of an arc, I suppose, or a narrative thread. My mom—or the version of my mom in the book—isn’t actually in many of the poems directly. She is just in that one, but because she’s scattered throughout, it feels like she’s a lot more present—or at least that’s something I’m coming to realize as I hear from people who have read it.
I get a lot more questions, just in Q+As and things, about the mother character than I ever would have expected to get, and I think that’s also because of (something I know you wanted to talk about, too) how the she pronoun ends up being assigned to her by proxy—
EP: —which I think is something that makes the book feel cohesive, but isn’t something that I fully realized as I was putting it together.
AMR: That’s so interesting—how the shape of the book reveals these different selves. I’m thinking—there’s some line, you talk about mapping—
EP: “I’ve mapped myself in the house of women / flitting from room to room.”
AMR: Exactly! It seems like, by spreading out the mom, it sort of feels like a map in some way: placing oneself in grief—and, of course, in landscape too. The mother figure feels so emblematic of the speaker’s journey, maybe just by nature of the dispersal you were talking about.
EP: With this idea of “my mother is not always my mother” and calling her “my father’s widow”—that’s something that I thought a lot about as I was first grieving my father. There was a moment when I realized that the loss affected us all so deeply that it became the center of our identities, and so rather than being solely my mother, she became a widow—which is in and of itself a kind of identity that no one wants to have, but [one] that took precedent in that moment. Just like perhaps my identity as a daughter who had lost her father took precedence over my identity as a daughter who has a mother.
[Cows begin ascending the hill to eat from a trough.]
AMR: Recognizing what identities are essential, and what can be felt but maybe not prioritized or in the foreground, by nature of writing “my mother is not always my mother”—I feel like it creates space for that figure on the page to move. So, the “I” of the book maybe isn’t as actively afforded these valences by way of naming, but it still feels like there’s space being made for the speaker of your book to process and be many different things at once. What is voice important for? I was going to say that voice is so important for connecting with a reader, but I’m not sure I believe that.
[Cow moos loudly.]
AMR: Let me reference my notes.
EP: Let me spill ice cream on myself.
AMR: Well, like you brought up, there’s the she that folks sometimes affiliate with the mother figure in “She Must Have a Bit of Green to Look At.” When I read that, I read that as a valence of the “I” that was coming out—that could only come out—by way of third person, and thinking of the title as like: well, there must be something non-tragic to look at. You know? I wonder if you were ever aware of your subjectivity coming through the other figures of the poems—the she. Maybe it’s in “She Must Have a Bit of Green to Look At,” or maybe it’s in the mother, or the other lovers. Can you tell me more about that?
EP: Firstly, I did write that poem as a third-person version of myself, and didn’t really intend for it to be my mom. But then, looking back at that poem and realizing that there are bits of her by virtue of [her being] a woman who lives in the house that we lived in and in the place that we did—and losing the same person—I think the overlaps of those things make even me read it as if it were her. Which is also interesting, especially because I’ve been thinking about what it would be to become a widow myself some day. That is one of the fears that I think is underneath the book, too. I think that that’s one thing, and another thing is—
EP: —the permutations of self, I don’t know. I feel like it’s very much a B plot of the book that there is a lover involved, because they don’t really make as big of a splash.
AMR: Certainly not.
EP: There are some poems that were written as explorations of romantic relationships that, because of their proximity to everything else, appear to be grief poems. It’s all muddled in there.
AMR: It is—and there’s one that feels rather explicitly about gendered violence.
EP: “It is Not Animal to Forgive,” probably.
AMR: Yes. The final line just kills me: “Am I, too, at fault?” I wanted to yell, “NO!” I was so angry.
EP: [Laughs as the cow makes an aggressive sound.]
AMR: So is the cow.
[Cow continues to make an aggressive sound.]
AMR: I guess that’s a moo, right?
EP: I guess so. It was very intense, though.
AMR: In a weird way—the “wasn’t I, too, at fault?” feels like such a distillation of what it’s like to be in the thick of the grief, how different situations map onto each other or infect each other. I’m thinking about how possible clarity ever is. Did you feel like you were trying to better understand grief when you wrote this book? What guiding questions did you have for your poetry as you were writing?
[Emily and AM are forced away from the cow-watching gazebo as more families descend. They relocate to a picnic table surrounded by a sunflower field.]
EP: Well, I feel like I’m hearing in what you’ve been saying that it feels as though, when I say that the romantic poems and the grief poems all kind of mix together, and become indistinguishable from one another—or, because I say the overarching theme is grief, the turbulent romantic side becomes harder to recognize—that’s all part of the grief experience. If I had any active questions—which I don’t know that I did—but something I was just obsessing over, as a person at the time, was: what does the grief not touch?
I think I realized that it felt like it touched everything, and that grief sends (to use a cliche) a ripple effect, or casts a shadow on all else, and so that can fundamentally change your perception of what you thought was true. Especially, if you lose someone who you never thought it would be possible to lose—that in and of itself kind of rewrites the whole world for you. I was wondering: what will this not touch? And I think I realized that every poem I wrote was exploring that, whether I knew it or not, and coming back to say: nothing. It touches everything. Which is depressing—
AMR: —but real.
EP: —and also kind of an inconclusive thing, [and] why maybe the ending of the book itself is not very… Like I was talking to someone who is a family friend about it and he said, “I kept waiting for the major chord at the end.”
AMR: That’s a very family friend thing to ask.
EP: Yeah. He was like, “Where’s the major chord in this book?” And I was like, well, I’m not sure that there is one in this book. He was like, “Well, you’ll have to write another book that has one.” We’ll see, I hope so, I genuinely do—because that will mean that things are shifting.
AMR: It’s tragic, and I don’t want to undercut that, but in saying that grief touches everything, that feels very gracious. It feels to me like nothing will be the same because of this person or their absence or the memory of their presence. I don’t know. I feel like there’s the possibility for some beauty there, beauty that’s not the same as life, but… I don’t think the minor chords—and I know you would never be like well now I have to write my happy book—
AMR: —I feel like there’s grace in just acknowledging it. How do you heal or how do you live if you don’t listen to that? Even if there’s no resolution. I feel like… people need to read your book.
EP: That’s making me think about—you said beauty. I think, too, what it is is: we think about grief as sadness, fundamentally. I think that ultimately what happened was: I experienced an extremity of feeling that I never knew was possible prior [to the loss]. And I think that that can go both ways, and that the beauty of the lonely feeling of being in the woods when it’s snowing… all of those things that are parts of the book’s quiet, are made more…. Are made more. By this idea that you can go through something and have feelings that you never even knew were a thing, and that just gives more (to use another cliche, maybe)—it adds more color to the spectrum of possibility. I think sometimes about the mantis shrimp who can see all these colors that we can’t see, and I think that sometimes it’s possible to go through something and you start to see more of the colors.
AMR: And the poems are beautiful! I guess to circle far back to my first question, which has kind of been embedded in every question, is just—the poem as a construction, the form of your poems. I’m thinking of shaping these beautiful pieces of language. One of my favorite lines—“all of this made”—feels like such a nuanced recognition of poems [themselves] as made. So, I guess I’m just curious about what felt formally important to you [as you wrote]. You talked about dispersing the “After” poem throughout, which is what perhaps lends the mother figure so much weight in the book, but what other formal moves felt necessary to “make” something—to echo “all of this made”? What formal moves did you have to make, and what formal moves surprised you?
EP: I was really obsessed with concision when I was writing this, and I think that was just my aesthetic at my time. That’s what I was reading; I was reading Beth Bachmann, for example, whose Do Not Rise and Temper are so slight and so powerful. I was interested in taking this feeling of desolation and seeing how scant you can go and still preserve the things that matter the most, and still have beauty but not—you know—dripping with it, or whatever. When the book was in a Word document, none of the poems were longer than a page. Although, there were sequences that were longer than a page, but even those were slight. I was obsessed with space. At first, I tried to shove all of the sequences like two-to-a-page, and I realized during the submission process that that wasn’t doing [the book] any favors. I was also obsessed with the sequence, so there are several in there. I was obsessed with this idea of like, if the subject of the poem is a diamond, you pick up the diamond and every section is a facet of that diamond.
AMR: I love sequences.
EP: They’re just endless. They’re essayistic.
AMR: Well, and “what does the grief not touch?” It feels like a performance of that: the whole damn poem, the whole damn book.
EP: What surprised me the most was the very last poem I wrote for that book—it was one actually written a year or two after the others. It’s called “I Remember How Cold I Will Be.” It has very long lines and it’s very comparatively—word count, [etc.]—much longer than the others. I don’t know why that really happened. I was just starting to be interested in elongating the breath. It’s just another poem about taking a walk, really—
AMR: —and so interesting that [this poem] found its place in the manuscript. Do you feel that the tension between longer, sprawling lines and concision affects the way you reencounter the poems [now]?
EP: I feel like I put it in there because the voice feels similar, and because I did have one other long-lined poem at the end of the book that felt like it was kind of lonely.
AMR and EP, simultaneously: It needed a friend.
EP: The voice is so similar but there are things about it that feel like what I’m writing now, which—and it still has a stern hand, I guess—is a little more interested in decadence or embellishing than I was then.
AMR: Oh, that is a great segue to what would be my concluding question, but I want to put a pin in decadence…
[About the book’s title,] I laughed to myself—I think you were talking about a succulent [in “The Days Shorter, and Yet”], when you were writing like of course, the last ‘unkillable’ thing, like I can’t keep anything alive, you know? But the “unkillable” appears in quotes which feels so ironic, a really interesting layer of the text—again, with the sort of showing your hand as the author, as the maker of all of this ‘grief’. Yes, it’s so many things, but here there’s irony, here there’s this possible succulent you killed.
I was really surprised when I encountered that phrase in the poem because I didn’t know the title [of the book] came from one of your poems. I thought it was maybe a title you came up with separate from the manuscript itself, and so when I encountered the title in the manuscript and with this particular layer of irony, I found it really interesting that you chose to title the book without the quotes. I don’t know, which came first? Could you talk about that process? What did it mean to you to remove the quotation marks?
EP: Honestly, it’s just that I can’t help myself—
EP: —when it comes to phrases of double meaning, and just the slightest bit of humor. I have a poem in [the book] called “Loss Becomes Me,” and it’s like, ha ha. I did write [“The Days Shorter, and Yet”] first, with the quotation marks, and when I was combing the manuscript for potential titles [it stood out]. It was actually the title of my thesis, too, and it didn’t actually play that well in the thesis committee for that reason. They were like, “So, it’s a succulent? What?” But I realized that it’s both—the last unkillable thing is the grief, too, so that’s the title that works. And you can see that [on the cover] and then have an experience like you did when you get to that poem—which is toward the middle or end—and be like, Oh, that’s kind of funny and weird.
AMR: And it’s funny, too, because it feels familiar. We’ve seen the title. It all seems, to quote my grandfather… “You’ve got it together.” You’re aware of all these layers.
EP: Because it is serious, as the title of the book. And it is dark. But then, to be able to think about it this other way… There also is humor in the world of grief. The laugh to keep from crying thing is real, you know, whistling in the graveyard a little bit. I didn’t have many other opportunities to be funny in the book, so it felt like—
AMR: —it’s a moment!
[Children nearby realize that the sunflower field is in fact a sunflower maze.]
EP: Cows and children and sunflowers.
AMR: I was going to ask you, because I know you’re actively teaching and writing and also doing fiber arts. I’m just curious, post-book—which is such a weird state to begin with—what are you excited about creatively? Looking forward isn’t right… Like, right now. Post-book is now, right? Or, book is now.
EP: Book is now.
AMR: Book is now.
EP: Title of interview.
[Children yell to their parents about ice cream.]
AMR: Oh, I love all of these natural interruptions. You brought up decadence as something that you’re spending more time with lately. So, I guess I wonder, what excites you creatively? We’ve been deep in pedagogy [at Interlochen], so I’d love to hear more about what’s thrilling your interior. What are you thinking about?
EP: I’ve been working on the same manuscript which you read a version of—
AMR: The Orphan!
EP: —for a few years now, and I think I’m interested, speaking of sprawl and grief, in the sequence as the sprawling thing. Thinking of the sequence as the thing that shows you all that grief has touched, I’ve been working on a book-length sequence, which… I just for some reason can’t decide that it’s finished. I don’t know if I’m excited about it anymore, to answer your question.
EP: But I did get more excited recently because I started incorporating more playwriting elements into it, and that felt like a fun new thing—and five act structure. I still wish that it was done so that I could work on something new. I have a feeling that the thing I’m going to end up moving to has a lot to do with the poem that you mentioned, “It is Not Animal to Forgive.” I think there’s going to be a lot more exploration of this kind of intimate betrayal, violence, fault-ness.
AMR: It’s fraught.
EP: Fraught fault.
AMR: It’s exciting to picture your brain-map of all that you’re hoping to move towards—just as the kids move in the sunflower maze. [Laughs.]
EP: Mapping. They’re mapping themselves in that sunflower maze.
Emily Pittinos is a Great Lakes poet and essayist currently teaching at Boise State University. The recipient of a 2022 Literature Fellowship from the Idaho Commission on the Arts, her recent work appears, or will soon appear, in Bennington Review, The Iowa Review, Mississippi Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. Her debut collection, The Last Unkillable Thing (University of Iowa Press, Spring 2021), is a winner of the 2020 Iowa Poetry Prize.
AM Ringwalt is a writer and musician. The author of The Wheel (Spuyten Duyvil), her work appears or is forthcoming in Annulet, Music & Literature, Black Warrior Review and La Vague. She teaches creative writing at Belmont University and is a contributing blogger for Action Books.