Power & Nostalgia:
Délani Valin interviews Em Dial

Em Dial

Poetry Editorial Board member Délani Valin talks with Em Dial, whose poems “Nostalgia, Ultra—Lovecrimes” and “Lincoln Middle School, Gym Class” appear in our winter issue #225. They discuss Em’s upcoming debut collection In the Key of Decay, the boundary between desire and subjugation, and how growing food can mirror a writing practice.


Em Dial is a queer, Black, Taiwanese, Japanese, and White, chronically ill poet, grower, and educator born and raised in the Bay Area of California, currently living in Toronto. They are a Kundiman Fellow and recipient of the 2020 PEN Canada New Voices Award and the 2019 Mary C. Mohr Poetry Award.

These poems approach a narrator’s memories from middle and high school with deftness and subtlety. In “Nostalgia, Ultra—Lovecrimes,” a dinner party conversation alludes to high school teachers’ sexual misconduct, and in “Lincoln Middle School, Gym Class,” there is an ambiguous sense that an instructor may be inappropriate based on locker room rumours. Both of these poems express layered manifestations of power. Can you speak to the ways in which these poems complement and differ from each other in their approach to this theme?

I’ve been spending a lot of time sitting with nostalgia recently, both on a personal level—trying to bring myself back to childhood and adolescence through music, food, media—and on a more conceptual level. I’ve been thinking about who is allowed the privilege of nostalgia, what comprises an individual sense of nostalgia versus a collective one, and in what ways the slippery question of power morphs and changes over time due to a tendency to look at the past through rose-colored glasses.

Both of these poems are contending with a sense of powerlessness and vulnerability that accompanies being an adolescent girl. I wanted them both to invoke nostalgia through more universal entry points, like discomfort with one’s body in gym class or reminiscence about high school over a dinner table. In “Lincoln Middle School, Gym Class,” I also wanted to add a layer of complication over the power binary between students and teachers when things like queerness and desirability come into play.

In “Nostalgia, Ultra—Lovecrimes,” there is a tension around the serious turn of the dinner party conversation. There is a sense that the topic of teachers’ sexual misconduct must be tacitly spoken about with levity and indirectness. Yet, the form of this poem expresses directness through its technique of making an assertion and using a column to expand on the idea, for instance, “Presumption: this can’t be happening in every school across America.”

Can you talk a bit about how you came to this technique and what it means for the poem?

The title for this poem comes from the Frank Ocean song, “Lovecrimes,” on the mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. In the song, he sings “Talk to me and I better not hear a word / Do me baby, I better not feel it girl / Baby, I still got one bullet left in my nine.” I listened to this mixtape incessantly through high school, so revisiting it brought me back to that setting, places like math class, and how it felt to be growing into a young adult, learning that older adults, even those in positions of power, can’t always be trusted. I think throughout the mixtape there’s this dance between the illicit, the explicit, the boundary between desire and subjugation. I think that dance definitely inspired the play between levity and gravity in the poem.

The poem, “Lincoln Middle School, Gym Class,” plays with the theme of surveillance. The narrator recalls “quarter-heartedly” wearing thin gym shorts and feeling “shorn” in the middle school locker room. A teacher who is the subject of gossip keeps her eyes on the floor as she makes her way through this environment—she herself also watched. Can you say more about the role of the different “gazes” in this poem?

One thing that has jumped out as I’ve been contemplating nostalgia is how much of an almighty ruler shame and embarrassment are at that age, only amplified if you are a kid who is othered in any kind of way. I wanted to move the poem in accordance with that obsession, starting with a collective gaze, moving to the gaze of others’ gossip, hovering on the embarrassed gaze of the speaker reflected in a teacher, ending in no gaze at all, hidden beneath a t-shirt.

In your bio, you mention that you are a grower, and you have experience working with agriculture. This kind of work is cyclical and rhythmic—has that work or that rhythm influenced your writing?

Definitely! Growing food is all about patterns, cycles, tedious attention to detail, while relenting to and trying to wade through that which you can’t control—pests, seasons, changing weather due to climate change. I think undertaking a writing practice as a nearly identical endeavor.

Can you talk a bit about the projects that are lighting you up right now? What are you working on lately?

I’ve got a few things in the works right now. Musings on nostalgia and chronic illness have mostly been what is keeping me busy lately. I'm also very excited about my debut collection, In the Key of Decay, coming out this spring with Anstruther Press, and to be starting an MFA program in the fall!


Délani Valin

Délani Valin