Awards: Public Poetry Project, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Pushcart Prize, Pennsylvania Council for the Arts Fellowship, Eric Matthieu King Award, Civatella Ranieri Writing Fellowship, Elliston Distinguished Poet-in-Residence
Lynn Emanuel is a poet and, at the time of this writing, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. She grew up in Denver, Colorado, in a working class family. Art and literature influenced Emanuel from a very young age, and this impression is present in her work today. She received three degrees: a Bachelor of Arts degree from Bennington College, a Master of Arts from City College of New York, and a Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa. Emanuel’s poetry has received national attention. She has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship as well a Pushcart Prize for her collection of poetry, The Dig, among other honors.
Lynn Emanuel was born on March 14, 1949, in Mt. Kisco, New York. Her family moved to Denver, Colorado, when she was young and lived in a working class neighborhood. Emanuel always wrote when she was a child and has said that her life was “saturated with language.” Her father, an artist, and her mother, a business woman, were great influences in her life. Emanuel was also surrounded by aunts and uncles who were painters, sculptors, dancers, and choreographers.
After high school, she attended Bennington College and received a Bachelor of Arts in 1972 and later went to the City College of New York where she earned a Masters of Arts in 1975. That same year, on October 4, she married Jeffery Hugh Schwartz, and later pursued a Masters of Fine Arts at the University in Iowa. While there, Emanuel was required to write more than she ever had before and has said she turned to reading noir poets, e.g. Raymond Chandler, for inspiration. She earned her degree from the University of Iowa in 1983.
When her book of poetry The Dig (1992) was selected for the National Poetry Series, Emanuel acknowledged her own poetry as noir. In an interview with Mathias Svalina for Blackbird: An Online Journal of Literature and Arts, Emanuel says that the noir “seeped up like ground water,” and was not “a notion I consciously appropriated.” Noir poetry, as defined by The Poetry Foundation, includes recycled iconic images, stark color palettes, and tension between stillness and movement, light and grime.
Of Emanuel’s book, Then, Suddenly— (1999), Gerald Stern says, “Emanuel carries self-consciousness to the shrieking edge—and almost falls in. Well, she does fall in. She is a master of the negative, but she doesn’t sigh in boredom; she yells in pain. Her vision is original; so is her language.” As Emanuel evolved as a poet, she also began to encounter loss in her life, including losing her father during the composition of Then, Suddenly, which caused her to abandon the lyric form because “with so many dead, it feels grotesque to sing.”
In addition to studying celebrated poets, Emanuel had the experiences of living, working, and traveling throughout North Africa, Europe, and the Near East to influence her noir poetry. Issues of class, gender, and power have a presence in her work, and she tells Rebecca Morton and Shira Richman of Willow Springs, “I always felt that The Dig was really about class and work and impoverishment and how those things impinge on women. That continues to be something I’m interested in. It comes from my own background. When I was growing up, there was a time when my mother and I lived on our own; we had few resources and little money. That kind of hardship is very very moving to me—to live in this culture just barely above the line that says you are really poor. Just kind of making it moment to moment. A lot of people in America live that way, and I think they always have.”
Emanuel’s poetry has earned her many honors and awards, including two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Pennsylvania Council for the Arts Fellowship (1981), and an Eric Matthieu King Award from The Academy of American Poets. Her work has been included in the Pushcart Prize Anthology numerous times, and she has since been a poetry editor for the prestigious collection. In 1994, 1995, and 1998, her poetry appeared in Best American Poetry, and her work has also appeared in The Oxford Book of American Poetry. She has served as a judge for the National Book Awards and the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American, and is a member of both the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Society of America. Emanuel has also served on the Literature Panel of the National Endowment of the Arts.
Her book, Noose and Hook (2010), battles with identity and includes two acts of “The Mongrelogues,” told from a dog’s point of view. In a 2010 conversation with poet Terrance Hayes and Sampsonia Way writer Elizabeth Hoover, Emanuel describes the origin of the dog monologues. “Dogs started in Alabama where I was a visiting writer at the university there—the same position Terrance has now. I had never lived in the South before. The heat was like God. I felt like I was in another country. Southern speech has a kind of playfulness and metaphorical quality. …”
“I was living in the house for visiting writers, and there was a weird library of stuff people left there. One was a book of poems by this old newspaper columnist Don Marquis in the voices of an alley cat and a cockroach. I thought, I can’t talk but I can yelp and I can woof and I can moan. So that’s what I am going to do. I started writing the dog in Alabama, where I felt like a dog.”
Publishers Weekly describes Emanuel's 2015 collected works, The Nerve Of It: Poems New and Selected, as displaying "all the qualities of an outgoing personality: direct, confident, vivacious, and generous to the reader."
Lynn Emanuel has taught at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Bennington Writers’ Conference, The Warren Wilson Program in Creative Writing, and The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has also served as an Elliston Distinguished Poet-in-Residence in the PhD program at University of Cincinnati and been a recipient of the Civatella Ranieri Writing Fellowship (2014), a six-week, international residency in a 15th-century castle in Umbria, Italy.
“[Her] poems are like the shutter of a camera:” says The California Journal of Poetics writer Monika Zobel, “quick-witted metaphors and similes flash on the page and surprise the reader with sharp images inside a darkroom.”
At the time of this writing, Lynn Emanuel lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she has been an English Professor at the University of Pittsburgh for over 35 years and directs the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers’ Series, which she founded in 1993.
“I never feel that a poem actually does reach the right form,” Emanuel tells Morton and Richman. “It just reaches the form where I cannot bear any longer to change it.”