Writer’s Block: Emily Osborne


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Do you have a book that you’ve gone back and read several times?There are many books of poetry that I return to, but fewer fiction titles I have reread more than twice. Two I have reread many times are A. S. Byatt’s novella The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye and Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping. The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye is a stunning and unusual combination of lyricism, horror, humour, and intellectual rigour. On each reread I’m astonished at how every line and image connects, moving like a snake’s coordinated muscularity towards a piercing conclusion. Housekeeping I first read along with my sister in our early teen years. We were drawn to this story of two lonely, orphaned sisters struggling to find their place in a conservative society and with a non-conforming parental figure. Now that I’m in my mid-30s I can safely admit that Housekeeping inspired us to many episodes of skipping school, of wandering along train tracks looking for unusual spots to hang out. The small town of Fingerbone in Housekeeping treats the sisters differently as one moves towards a conformist lifestyle and the other towards non-conformity. My sister and I noticed echoes of this differing treatment in our own experience: our school always phoned home to report the absences of my sister (who dressed counter-culturally) yet never phoned home to report mine (I had a preppy fashion sense). Rereading Housekeeping always draws me closer to my sister, who now lives an ocean away from me.Have you ever experienced writer’s block? What did you do about it?Definitely! When I have writer’s block, I try to get beyond myself and spend time reading up on subjects about which I’m curious. For example, one time when I had writer’s block and felt like I had written a string of poems on similar subjects, I researched the history of meteorology. Every morning I check the weather but had never bothered to learn about the history of weather forecasting and reporting. It took only a few minutes of reading on this subject to discover rich veins of raw materials. Another tool which helps free me from writer’s block is to temporarily avoid reading great works in the genre in which I’m struggling. Doing so can be too daunting and make my own work look all the more pitiful! Instead, reading in other genres fills the creative well without making the dregs I’ve got sloshing around in my brain seem unsalvageable. Why does your forthcoming book include translations alongside “original” poetry?My forthcoming book Safety Razor interweaves some translations of skaldic poetry – a verse-form composed in medieval Scandinavia and which I studied during my PhD at the University of Cambridge – with my original poems. Combining translations with so-called “original” compositions is unfashionable now. This is true even though forms of poetry such as erasure poetry are more readily combined with “original” compositions. Much interesting work is being done in the field of translation. For example, new translations by women and non-binary writers are providing alternatives to decades-old translations of ancient texts that remain canonical reading material in academia. Even in this culture of embracing new translations, discussions of verse translation repeatedly focus on questions of “faithfulness,” “creativity,” and “license.” Perhaps this obsession is part of why translations remain largely separated from a poet’s “original” works as though they are unrelated content.My publisher, Gordon Hill (shout out to Shane Neilson and Jeremy Luke Hill here!!), is publishing innovative material, including exciting new translations. It was Shane who first suggested I add translations into Safety Razor, and when I mulled over the book’s content, I knew this was an excellent suggestion. I wrote the poems for Safety Razor from 2017 up until the birth of my second son in 2021. This was a period when too many people I knew died tragically, from a 9-month-old baby to my 99-year-old grandmother. My father had a quadruple bypass surgery in the same hours that I was having an emergency C-section with my first child. In these four years I thought a lot about how the ends and the beginnings of life meet, and how poetry pays tribute to the human spirit and gives it a kind of longevity. These themes are explored in much of my poetry, and they are themes that the medieval Scandinavian poets return to again and again. For example, one poet I translate, Egill Skallagrímsson, composed a powerful elegy for his two sons who died from fever and drowning; Egill’s consolation comes partly from his belief that his words about his sons will live on. I can only imagine Egill’s grief as I look at my two healthy sons (who would not be living without modern medicine). It is, I hope, thought-provoking to mingle 1000-year-old words of sorrow with my own and give testimony to the fact that poets’ works are reborn in new and surprising contexts.  What are you working on now?There are two main projects I’m chipping away at, “chip” being a key verb here because my two kids are under 3 years old. One project is a full-length manuscript of verse translations of skaldic poetry; I’m so excited about this manuscript because there is currently no published book like it in the English language. These are lyrical translations from several poets who lived in the ninth to fourteenth centuries, which together provide a panoptic view of the genre. Many of the poems I translate have up to now only been translated in academic editions, which aren’t very readable for the general public.I’m also working on a short story collection. Recently I had a story published in an anthology called Althingi: The Crescent and the Northern Star (Outland Entertainment); it was the first story I had written in years and reminded me how much I enjoy crafting fiction. Since writing for this anthology I’ve had several ideas for short stories and realized that they all involved the manipulation of time and space. For example, one story is about a woman who has the disability Developmental Topographical Disorientation, and another follows a teenage boy who is at that fragile stage of uncertainty about how much physical or verbal space society wants him to occupy. Who is your favourite fictional character?Seriously, and not-so-seriously: Susie Derkins from Calvin and Hobbes. She always makes me smile. She’s incredibly cheerful, smart, fun, conscientious, and unapologetic for who she is and what she likes. When I was a child, I wish I’d possessed Susie’s bravery and quick wit as she stands up to Calvin or brushes off his immaturity. Also, she voiced a sentiment many writers will probably remember having: “Sometimes I think books are the only friends worth having.” 

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