Microsoft Poet Emily Warn Rouses a Following
Call it poetic injustice. Emily Warn has worked on two books in the past two years. One of them, The Windows 95 Resource Kit, which she co-wrote as a contract writer for Microsoft, sold a half-million copies. The other is her second book of poetry The Novice Insomniac (Copper Canyon Press). Recently released, it is doing very well-by poetry standards. According to John W. Marshall of Seattle's Open Books Poetry Emporium, the book has been one of his recent best sellers. That means it has sold 15-20 copies in a month. Still, the 43-year-old poet has ended 1996 with a bang by anyone's measure. Insomniac gathers 14 years of her work-some of which was previously published in chapbooks-and spans themes ranging from the jittery, jazzy plight of the insomniac to abandoned King County farms. It's received overwhelmingly favorable reviews, including a rave from The Seattle Times' Anthony Flinn. On the strength of the poems, Copper Canyon Press printed 3,000 copies of the book-a large number for a poet who is not nationally famous-and sent her on a well-attended reading tour of her native Midwest. Warn feels twice-blessed because the attention has been so unexpected. "I was kind of dreading it, coming out, because usually a book of poetry has the impact of a rose petal falling down the Grand Canyon," she says. "That was kind of what happened with my first book [The Leaf Path, published in 1982 by Copper Canyon Press]. And it isn't happening this time." As for the Microsoft book, it snagged her something most poets need to survive, a decent day job. In November, she was hired as the producer of the firm's Internet Explorer site. We talked recently in Warn's new office in Microsoft's Building 5, where she gamely fielded phone calls in between answering questions.I am interviewing Warn on a partly selfish mission: The title poem of The Novice Insomniac landed on my desk more than a year ago when she was to give a reading for the Bellevue Community College "Poets After Dark" series. As a rookie non-sleeper myself, I was entranced by how perfectly she captured the late-night insanity of sleeplessness. While "sleepers scurry into cupboards," the insomniacs serve as resentful keepers of the watch. They count hours. They "tidy streets/under shaggy pines." They "wrap string, sweep up/ clipped moans, sighs" and "glance up/ from winding thoughts into small boxes/ from piling the boxes by the curb." Warn, a short-haired woman in a practical outfit of khakis and a denim shirt, seems the antithesis of one of her sleep-desperate insomniacs. She laughs when I tell her I identified with the poems. "Sometimes at readings I'll feel like I've written a how-to book because people will come up to me after and tell me about their insomnia," she says in a compelling Midwestern twang. The poems were her attempt to capture the "sense of your consciousness being the only thing in the world. It's a state of anxiety and exaggerated reality."She first turned to poetry as an intense Michigan teenager. Favorites were Theodore Roethke's "Moss Gathering" and T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets." She discovered Gary Snyder and the Northwest during a summer spent working in the North Cascades. She moved here in the late '70s to work with the Young Adult Conservation Corps (a program sponsored by the US Forestry Service and the North Cascades National Park), and earned an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Washington in 1981."I was afraid of people. Nature was much easier to deal with. God was much easier to deal with, so poetry became my means to express my emotions, because it was too terrifying to express them any other way," she says. These days, Warn says, she writes as much to pose questions as to express. "You start out and it's a reflection of yourself, and once you work through that . . . that isn't what you're obsessed with anymore. It's not because you grow out of it, it's because you feel the links between you and other things. It's really a profound place to be." Part of the reason why the publication of Insomniac has been so satisfying is that its seven sections pull together many of the threads of Warn's time in the Northwest. The section called "Highway Suite" includes poems written while she worked as a poet and teacher in rural schools in Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming in the 1980s. Several others are from two years spent as a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University from 1992 to 1994. "The House of Esther" poems, which give an earthy reinvention of Queen Esther, were originally published in chapbook form. They were written in response to a personal tragedy, but also stem from a longtime obsession with Orthodox Judaism, the religion of her grandparents, which she adopted as a child. The Northwest landscape is well-represented. Yellow-headed blackbirds, apple orchards, blackberries, and "egrets that shone like opals/ against blue water and knuckles of small green islands" all play cameo roles in her poems. So is the change the landscape is undergoing. One section, "Starvation Hill," includes poems written from 1993 to 1994 as part of a King County Arts Commission project. Warn worked with photographer Mary Peck to document historic sites in danger of being developed. The Eastside is featured in a number of the 17 poems. (The poems and the photos are now a traveling exhibit on display at sites throughout King County.) "Old Barn" is about an abandoned farm in Bothell. "Stump House" uses a site in Duvall to tell the story of the small back-to-the-land movement of the '20s and '30s, during which men would carve houses out of large tree stumps to stake a quick claim. Warn takes on the present as well as the past in this project. "Suburban Scrawl" was inspired by a "non-site," a typically developed landscape. The poem (which is not included in Insomniac) ricochets between franchises ("BP Oil Arco QFC") and the nature-happy names of housing developments ("La Forest Homes, Swiftwater, Amber View, Wilderness Rim"). It ends with 18 lines of Warn "playing Yahtzee," mixing up letter combinations from one word-"subdivision." She comes up with everything from "is boss in void" to "is sob" to "is nub of unvision."This poem gets a hell of a response at readings. "People really flinch in their seats. They laugh. It's taking what's really cold and abstract, signs from franchises and subdivisions, and breathing life into them with the reading aloud. I don't know why it works, but it really strikes a chord in people."The way life is changing in the 1990s comes up in other poems from Insomniac as well. "It is America breathing/it is our driven selves, our clenched teeth,/the fast clip of radio news," she says in one poem. "Would the world blossom/if everyone paused/to decipher the thin veil of morning?" she asks elsewhere.I wonder how this worry fits in with the hectic life at Microsoft. Warn laughs again, noting that in spite of the intense work environment, the company is an excellent place for creative people. "You're given a task and you have to solve it. They make it really easy to focus on the work." And while she's not good for writing at the end of the day, she squeezes it in by getting up at 5 a.m. She adds, summing up, "Microsoft is like meat and potatoes, and poetry is chocolate."That said, Warn admits that the shape poetry will take in an increasingly time-crunched world is uncertain. "It's frightening," she says. "It takes time to write and it takes time to read. Wallace Stevens talked about poetry creating a force equal to the force that the mainstream culture puts on the individual."She thinks for a moment, sitting next to her computer screen, which registers that she has received 37 e-mails since we've been talking, and reconsiders. "Maybe without any time we'll have no poetry, but on the other hand we may turn to it more."