Emily Stoddard spent her 20s running, running, running. She graduated from college, built a rewarding yet hectic career, married and divorced, and remarried. Poetry took a back seat to all the activity going on in her life.
“I had to be so polished in my work with clients, but I had forgotten that I had to be crappy for a while to get back into the writing process,” she said. “I was moving so quickly, but I realize now that I couldn’t have written then. Writing is the slowest thing I’ve done.”
Ten years ago, the now 39-year-old received the gift of a lifetime. Her husband gave her a writing retreat for Christmas. She attended Poets on the Coast, several days on the coast of Washington State, immersed in the world of poets, writing and reading poetry.
“That weekend restarted the process,” said Stoddard, who lives in the Cannonsburg area. Now, a decade after letting herself begin to write poetry, she has had her debut book of poetry published. Divination with a Human Heart Attached released in February with Game Over Books, endorsed by the very poets who taught at Poets on the Coast that first year she attended.
Poet Susan Rich says the “important and elegant debut collection holds my attention from the first poem and does not let go.” Fellow poet Kelli Russell Agodon calls it a “stunning debut collection” and Stoddard’s poems, “graceful and fierce.”
Close to forty poems comprise Divination with a Human Heart Attached. Many are steeped in Stoddard’s Catholic faith tradition, including several based on Petronilla, Saint Peter’s daughter about whom he prayed that God would paralyze on one side because of her beauty, according to the apocryphal book Acts of Philip. Other poems hint at the biblical parable of the prodigal son, the crucifixion, communion and more.
“The book officially released on Fat Tuesday, which is perfect for a book that is a lot about Lent, Passion Plays, Ash Wednesday,” said Stoddard. “Aspects of this book wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been married to a lapsed Baptist. We walked into St. Peter’s Basilica and he asked, ‘What’s with the flaming bird?’ I had to explain it was the Holy Spirit.”
Her poem “Five for Silver, Six for Gold” expands on that experience, ending with “I’m a good daughter, but I’d rather be a heart bursting into flames.”
Stoddard’s poems often begin with an image, perhaps in a dream, or a sound or phrase “falling in my ear.” Actually, she said, “I didn’t want to write this book and resisted it completely. I wanted to write a book of nature poetry but those phrases and images were pointing me right back to my Catholic faith.”
She recalls dreams and seeing things that had a lot of symbolism related to Petronilla including sets of keys, which is her emblem, and the number 531, which marks her feast day of May 31. “I wrote them down for a future book, but realized that if I resisted writing this book, I wouldn’t be honoring my instinct and what was showing up in my life. I wanted to say that I had listened well,” Stoddard said.
Stoddard submitted the manuscript for Divination with a Human Heart Attached to about a dozen contests in which she was a finalist or semifinalist. Finally, Game Over Books, an indie publisher in Boston, offered an open reading period to which she submitted her manuscript. This time, in 2021, she was chosen for publication.
The book, she said, has an overarching theme of inheritance. “I looked at what we inherit through our traditions and belief systems, what we may want to disinherit, and how we reconcile all this with our spiritual inheritance,” Stoddard said.
Her poems also connect to genealogy, nature, infertility, women’s places in the church and more. Stoddard comes from a long line of Methodist ministers and missionaries, including a minister who served here in Grand Rapids and one who became the first Methodist missionary to Australia.
“I was always fascinated with my strange intensity about religion—I wanted to be a nun—but in my 20s I discovered that so many others in my past were equally as intense,” she said.
Stoddard points again to Petronilla. Peter’s prayer that she be paralyzed could be a prayer for infertility, an issue Stoddard herself has faced. And the saint also symbolizes, to Stoddard, what is happening even today to so many women in the church.
“Peter’s prayer was that Petronilla not be allowed to carry on her name, that her character be hidden, which is chilling because that is still happening to so many women when the church covers up abuse,” said Stoddard. “She is sort of a missing piece to the conversation we’re having about women in the church. I hope I let her have her space. I love having Petronilla as a different kind of witness from Mary Magdalene or Mary, Jesus’ mother.”
Stoddard continues to write poetry and essays, with a new project dealing with neurodivergence, a topic close to her heart.
“I was diagnosed in my 30s as ADHD. I was one of those kids who was very intense, interested in a lot of things, had to go go go. It’s interesting how so many of my ancestors had to go, go go as well,” she said. “My dad and I visited New Zealand where many of my extended family live, and one of them said, ‘I always want to know what’s over that next hill.’ I too have that driven curiosity.”
Date: Wednesday, March 29
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Schuler Books, 2660 28th Street, Grand Rapids
Emily Stoddard will read from her poetry debut Divination with a Human Heart Attached. Books will be available for purchase and for the author to sign.
Contest Data for Poets
“Contests are really the door into publication for poetry,” said Emily Stoddard. Yet that entry is often denied to poets who face barriers related to time, access, or energy. Stoddard created the Poetry Bulletin to offer easy access to information on the wide variety of publishers, submission guidelines, fees and compensation.
“If you’re a single mom with only two hours to write, you shouldn’t waste your time and money figuring out where to submit,” she said.
She offers information on which publishers offer royalties and/or advances and which ones promise only author copies of the finished book as payment, yet still charge $30 to read a manuscript. She provides contest names, dates and lists of publishers dedicated to fair and inclusive publishing.
“I want equity, transparency and access for all poets. You’re not going to get a diversity of voices when you can’t even knock on, much less get inside, the front door,” she said of a poetry ecosystem that has no agents submitting manuscripts on authors’ behalf and no querying process.
She’s started suggesting ways to make publications more equitable, as well as opened a way that donors can provide funds to help poets pay for contest entry fees.
For more information, visit poetrybulletin.com.