I Like Amy King A Lot
Amy King is the author of I’m the Man Who Loves You, Antidotes for an Alibi, and Slaves to Do These Things (Blazevox Books), The People Instruments (Pavement Saw Press), Kiss Me With the Mouth of Your Country (Dusie Press), and I Want to Make You Safe (forthcoming, Litmus Press).
She was kind enough to take some time to answer some question about her work in an epic interview that is, if I may say so, well worth the read.
You’re very involved in participating in the poetry community. What motivates you to be involved with so many projects? What do you get from all your projects?
When I attended high school in Baltimore City, I used to stand on the bus stop and freeze my ass off every morning with my friends. I’d see all of these people riding by in mostly empty cars, sometimes stop right beside us at the red light, and presumably not notice us. I swore if and when I ever got a car, I would pull over and offer bus stop occupants a ride. While I have done so (& creeped a few folks out), the point of that story is to note that I developed (or innately harbored & nurtured?) this sense that we’re all part of the great big group called, “Society,” even when we’re passively ignoring each other. And to do the latter comes at a cost, however indeterminate the bill.
So the practical answer lies within the notion of community – if everyone really just did their own separate things and didn’t find ways, small or great, of supporting each other, enabling folks to hear individual’s words, we’d all be clamoring to get to some pointlessly solitary position on top of a hill built on each other’s efforts, but not in relation to them. So I guess I want to do my part to advance the discussion instead of just sitting in my home, working quietly alone – how boring would that be? I’m a social creature and people inspire me.
Ultimately, I’m not so altruistic; a lot of what I do I do because I want to see certain kinds of poetries in the world, I want to see them proliferate, and I want to be in dialogue, somewhat, with those poetries. I try to get some of it out there as best as I can. We are a small pond, poets; helping each other out isn’t that difficult. And it’s mostly fun and stimulating, despite the issues that might arise from a community.
What is your best coping mechanism for the AWP experience? Do you enjoy participating in the conference?
I like attending AWP. So much to see, a few challenging panels and readings – all packed into a couple of days? That plus free books if you hold out long enough. Good deal if you can afford the hotel or find someone who will share their room!
My coping mechanism is a very guilty pleasure that only a select few enjoy: I make fun of a handful of people, especially the obvious folks who act entitled or treat me as one of the lesser gods for teaching at a community college. Revealing that (mostly via my badge) when I meet folks has become something of a litmus test to discern who I will enjoy a drink and conversation with later and who deserves my totally-informed mockery on the down-low. I probably shouldn’t reveal that, huh?
Plus I’m not there to kiss any ass for a book deal or whatever else folks hope to gain at such a conference. I’m there to socialize, kick back a bit, do my own panel and readings, and enjoy the ones that seem to offer the most. I feel badly for anyone who is there in any kind of “business” capacity. It just makes for a bad, bad recipe.
There is a lot of criticism of the poetry scene in New York. I recently read Daniel Nester’s essay “Goodbye to All of Them” in The Morning News where he reflects on his experience as a poet in NYC and that reflection is not a positive one. What has your experience been like as a poet in the city? Does living in NYC influence your identity as a poet and does the urban experience ever show up in your work?
I also read Daniel’s essay and agreed with some of his impressions of the scene. I mean, after all, it is a “scene.” Every scene has scenesters who position themselves as someone-to-contend-with or deserving-of-your-utter-awe. But by no means do they comprise the entire population of poets and poetry-supporters in NYC.
Also I think Nester conflates some of the hard living that comes with inhabiting one of the most expensive cities in the world with his own impressions of that scene. I hate to invoke Sinatra’s “If you can make it here …” sentiment but that’s the gist of it, simplified. Unless you are a trust-fund baby, you need to work longer hours than you would in Buffalo or St. Louis to survive; combine that loss of time via soul-killing work with the drive to create and participate in a scene where many are also desperate to be heard above the plethora of readings and you encounter a very hard row to hoe. I mean, out-of-towners who don’t know often turn up for their readings in NYC with stars in their eyes as though they’ve arrived and are surprised when there are only forty people in attendance because there are three other readings happening simultaneously in Brooklyn alone. In Raleigh or Cincinnati, you’ve got maybe one reading a week, so everyone comes out to hear, lingers after, enjoys the poet, etc. But in NYC, you’ve got nothing but options on any given night! So if you have aspirations of being a star, you are bound to be let down. And many people do. Not that Daniel did. But if you run a series, you’re likely often hit up by those seeking what glitz they imagine the city’s scene will provide, and you can end up feeling like you’re letting them down, not able to do that thing they so desperately want you to do for them, etc.
Honestly, I avoided the poetry scene for at least two straight years when I first moved here. I knew I was wet behind the ears; I needed to get a sense of myself in this city and the city itself before I could enter the NYC poetry world in any firm way. I didn’t even know what I wanted out of it, so what was I asking of it? So I waited. And then I dipped a few toes in and started figuring out what I wanted from the scene, instead of trying to determine what exactly the scene could do for me. Maybe that seemingly-circular observation would be my advice to arriving poets. If you do that, give yourself some time, you’re bound to relax and enjoy the scene for reasons not initially obvious. I did.
You host the Stain of Poetry reading series. Are poetry readings important for the writing community? What do you do, as host and curator, to keep your audience coming back?
Well, Ana Božičević has taken over a number of the tasks involved as co-curator, so one of the things I did to prevent myself from burning out was learn to share. She’s done an absolutely stupendous job of reinvigorating me and the series by inviting poets I might not have come across as well as sharing the duties of hosting. She rocks for saving Stain when I, at one point, could have easily drifted away from it.
We keep our audience coming back by consistently showcasing stellar poets, be they “known” or not. Our history and upcoming readers at http://stainofpoetry.com speak for themselves. Check out the videos while you’re there.
Poetry readings are integral to the community for reasons likely not so obvious or much acknowledged: they enable us to leave our Facebook accounts and actually meet and greet a person, and then another, until we really do begin to grasp this notion of community. We *do* exist off the screen! As mentioned earlier, that’s another reason I like AWP; I get to finally meet people I’ve developed virtual relationships with, a feat that no screen can replicate. Ever.
Of course, hearing the work aloud, thinking about notions of performance in relation to poetry, etc – these are all added benefits of hearing the work from the horse’s mouth.
As the author of several poetry collections have you noticed an evolution (or perhaps revolution) in your writing from book to book to book to book?
Yes, I have. But I’ll leave such discernments to reviewers and those invested in engaging my work.
When I write, I often feel like I’m telling the same story over and over and I’ve become quite comfortable with that because there are a few things that interest me so much that I always want to write about them. Do you feel like there are principal themes you continue to revisit in your poetry?
Hmm. I guess you could call them themes. I’m often invested in the “larger” political picture. But I’m also similarly engaged with my circle of intimate friends, my students, what it means to teach, how one should evolve, be in relation to others, and on and on. I have a very broad palate; so much intrigues me and provides fodder for my work. Pop culture. Science. Social taxonomies. How we smooth out personal hypocrisies for sanity’s sake. Etc.
I mean, I’ve heard John Ashbery say that he is always saying the same thing over in every poem. I aim not to do that. I aim to do a variety of things in different poems. I don’t want to throw out a list like “inspire, thrill, upset, undo, grow, scintillate, etc” because I then begin to limit what poetry can do. If anything, overall, I want to broaden just what people believe poetry does. You want to write theory? Explore that theory in the open field of Poetry. Need to celebrate an occasion or challenge the historical accounts of Obama’s election? Poetry. Want to expound on Camus’ optimistic existentialism? Your poem unfolds.
I noted a Judith Butler quote on my blog the other day, “As a Jew, I was taught it was ethically imperative to speak up.” I love that quote. One need not be a specific anything to speak up, nor need one be an MFA graduate or a Billy Collins to realize that poetry is the one genre still as yet barely tapped as a medium of contemporary cultural investigation. It has so much potential; we own the potential to explore it. I know that sounds utterly naïve and optimistic, but I don’t care. There’s enough naysaying to go around for everyone — I’m not here to be cool or agreeable when it comes to noting the potential of the poem. Fuck it: embrace it or be compliant. Every individual’s choice.
I’ve seen more than one reference to your writing as masculine and I’m always fascinated by writing that is discussed in heavily gendered ways. Do you think of your poetry as masculine and/or feminine? Why are we so eager to define writing as one or the other? Can writing ever be interpreted beyond the lens of gender?
Damn, you’re rocking the tough questions. In short (bc my head is starting to hurt!), one cannot escape gender yet. You don’t need to label it; someone else will do it for you. I think there are gendered modes of discussion, rhetoric, subjects, etc just as content and behavior are gendered. A skirt in America is feminine; a skirt in Sri Lanka or Scotland can be masculine. The assignment is context-dependent, historically and traditionally established. There’s no true biology to it in the end as we all know. A woman can kill just as a man can nurture. My desire is to confound the hell out of those categories and see if we can get beyond the notions that these are fixed and natural categories. We are much more complex and becoming. Check out my essay, “The What Else of Queer Poetry” if you want to read further. I’ve also written an essay for a new group I’m part of: WILLA that should be forthcoming. I’m totally excited about learning to articulate these things. Feedback and joining the discussion is not only welcome; it’s hankered for. Some of the gist is noting that the feminine has not been given space or distribution in writing yet, though more men and women are thirsting to read it. So it is coming to be, slowly, but most certainly. And poetry is one of the primary means.
My poetry is gendered all over the place, but likely not always correctly and that is specific and intentional. Liberation, baby – if I may be so blunt.
In many of your poems, I noticed really interesting gender juxtapositions like “female brothers” and the “maestro’s womb,” and I really like the almost-jarring effect those choices have. Would you mind talking about how this poetic device works across your poetry?
The first obvious is that a maestro need not be a man. We only associate the term as such. Beyond that, poetry meets a reader halfway. The reader makes “sense” of what she encounters using her own experiences and ideas. So a lot of poetry is associational. A female brother to one reader might be a eunuch, to another she might be a fellow drag queen or effeminate pal, to yet another the female brother could be an intersexed sibling and to even another something my own experiences have not led me to yet. What I mean to say is that there is no way these supposedly-confounding twists will not mean something to the reader. The reader might not like where his or her mind leaps to and, in turn, might scream, “This makes no sense,” but that’s one rejection that says something about the reader’s own resistance. If he or she doesn’t want the poem to enter, he can reject engagement and slam the book shut. But yes, on the surface, my syntax, oxymorons, and odd juxtapositions disrupt notions, expectations, and even hopes, in some cases. I didn’t paint the pretty picture that made someone’s world feel oh-so-right. But maybe I opened a door or blew the hinges off a box and let something crawl out that the reader has been longing to see since she flew her parents’ nest.
I’ve read two of your poetry collections now and find that you demonstrate a great deal of range as a poet. How do you sustain that level of creativity?
It takes an effort. I keep reading, looking around, trying to broaden my concepts of just what art is, and more. The Leo part of me wants to lounge and be lazy. I’m so good at that. I could just let things flow: do my job, get my paycheck, chill with friends and a good bottle of wine, but then something in me feels guilty, realizes that there’s more to be done and that I should probably get back to it if I want to feel okay about myself when the body threatens dust.
So yes, I look around, and lately, I’ve been trying to connect the lives with the art and writing that captures my attention. I want to know what compelled Lorca to descend on New York and write his poem. Why did Claude Cahun do those challenging self-portraits? I mean, I’m finally at the age where I’m connecting the dots and grasping the concept that circumstance and context can compel and necessitate something into being. So I try to grow and understand more and more, and as I go, I really see that I know so little. And that fact is also compelling.
In your poem “Found Foundational Poem” you write:
I agree art can offend with intent, sometimes I’m
really into art’s intent to make people
uncomfortable, and of course, it’s one of the pleasures
of art without intent, simply put but that’s not a pat
explanation for anything, like some things
are art without a random inspection or comfortable
lead-ins—don’t you think?
I’d love for you to answer that question. What is your favorite art that offends with intent? Do you strive to make people uncomfortable with your poetry? How?
First, let me offer a caveat about that poem. It originated from someone else’s pen, in a way, via a note to a listserv describing what art should and shouldn’t be. I read it as a diatribe, and most people respond to diatribes that aren’t their own with closed ears. Instead of ignoring it, I decided to take tools to and revamp the thing into my own little pontificating poem. Because poetry is not limited to poetry, as earlier noted – poetry can embrace theory, rants, history, etc.
So. We arrive at “Found Foundational Poem.” I can no longer recall where the aforementioned listserver member’s sentiment ends and my own begins. And that bodes well for my own poetics, which you are querying. I steal because I do not believe in true theft (& that has nothing to do with Eliot), despite the railing I’ve rec’d for saying as much. I favor the poetry that disturbs what I generically refer to as status quo mentality, tyranny of the norm, mainstream think, etc. The social aspect of language means we have a “norm” or agreed-upon way of speaking. If we veer from that norm and the forms/formats required, we (society in the form of individuals) descend and police the offender for breaking the “sacred” laws of language, usually without ever recognizing or acknowledging that these means, methods, and ideas are as arbitrarily assigned as any “marginal,” unpopular, or supposedly-nonsensical way of communicating. So I am bothered by this general acceptance/inheritance/tradition that carries on, even as we perpetuate and teach those modes to our own children. Blegh, I say.
Any art that manages to horrify me, but not in the usual obvious horror-film way, while simultaneously intriguing me is aces. Off the top of my head, I only come up with a few examples (the wine is kicking in) like Kahlo’s self portraits, the candid work Diane Arbus did, the rawness of Cesar Vallejo’s poetry, some of di Chirico’s earlier less aesthetically-pleasing work (that tops Dali’s attempts), Laura Riding Jackson’s incredible fiction (yes, fiction) … oh god, who else. Roger Ballen’s jaw-dropping photographs, and a bunch more. All of this art offends in that these people, from my humble estimation, are not out intentionally attempting to please me. Some of them seem selfish, some appear to manipulate their subjects (& even use them), some want to celebrate the misery that can come to be (or its possibilities), some don’t seem to care about doing any obvious thing, and more. I am not under the delusion that all artists are out for the greater good in clear-cut ways. By showing what they show, they also might show their disdain or disgruntledness with what is or what is allowed, and in doing so, they might do more good than expected. It’s all much more complicated than I’m leading into here, but yes, that speaks to the teensy tip of the iceberg, even before it comes crashing into our little boat.
Is there a stone mountain in Stone Mountain, GA? I’ve always wondered about that.
I used to go to Stone Mountain park as a child with my grandfather. The park surrounds the mountain, which is the largest piece of exposed granite in North America. The guy who did those presidents on Mt. Rushmore carved the relief of the southern generals on the side of the mountain beforehand. I guess that’s where he practiced. They show a laser light show on the relief on weekend evenings and play rock music. You can go there with a six pack and your honey and immerse yourself in a veritable mecca of redneck culture. I used to walk up that mountain and fly my kite. I also loved the petting zoo there. The demanding goats and othere assorted friendly creatures were stupendous. My grandpa took me fishing there many a day. Stone Mountain is real.
What are the responsibilities of the Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere?
Um, to exist without dying.
Your most recent collection is Slaves to Do These Things, which was published in December 2009 by BlazeVox Books. The first thing I noticed about this collection is how it was divided into five acts. Why did you take that structural approach to the collection?
Because there is a movement, and I wanted to signify that. Note I did not say there was a progression.
As an editor, I have often noticed that poets are almost apologetic when they submit long poems and are surprised when we are interested in that kind of work. Many of the poems in Slaves to Do These Things are quite long and I really like that you don’t allow yourself to be constrained by the notion that less is always more. Are poets being discouraged from writing in longer forms? Why do you choose to give your poetry so much room?
You know, I actually wondered this not very long ago. I write long poems now and then with even longer lines than you see in Slaves. Two damn good ones were rejected that day I began to wonder. Both Ana and I were very surprised. These poems are hearty and do a lot more than the two poems that replaced them. But that did open the door to the question: are long poems frowned upon? I can’t imagine why, except the belittling notion that children don’t have long attention spans has crept into the repertoire of how we describe adults who read poetry. Because that’s just stupid. If a poem is good, if it has energy, it will carry a reader through, regardless of the measure. That’s it. If people, be they publishers or teachers or fellow writers, are saying no to long poems, then they are saying no to so much. Not everything can be worked out in a short poem, and intent, purpose, and ability determine what form a poem takes. Not attention span or whatever the hell the basis for rejecting an entire form is.
Now to ask if a long poem needs editing, that’s as fair as asking if a shorter one needs “unpacking.” Perhaps something has been included that shouldn’t be or something needs to be developed or whatever. But that’s mechanics, not a sweeping generalization related to scope.
Anyway, you know what they say about a woman and the size of her poems…
I loved the lines that preceded each act in Slaves to Do These Things because they really gave me an interesting lens through which to read each act. How did you come up with them?
If they felt right, they fit. I needed “titles” for the acts and that’s what I whittled each act down to. I’m glad they set a tone or provided you with a lens; they were supposed to, in a way.
Ending the collection with “We Are Great Songs” was a really smart choice. The poem has a real epic quality, and the sweeping title is followed by a sweeping poem. As I read this poem aloud, each stanza felt like a world unto itself, felt… not to get too repetitive, epic. Do you see your work as such? What was the genesis of the poem and why did you choose it to close your fine collection?
It’s funny. I wrote that poem, pretty much, in one fell swoop. I can be really “accessible” when I want to be. That is, make more conventional sense. And I needed to close the book in a way that helped the reader to feel some sort of resolution, however wacky. Plus I wanted to end on a note of optimism. So I quickly wrote the poem on the heels of a dinner with friends, when I had retuned after enjoying their company, and landed in the arms of my own beloved. I embraced that sentiment of ‘so much can happen’ and ran with it, especially to lift the reader and make you enjoy the multitude and bounty of life. That was, literally, the last poem written.
What do you love most about your writing?
I love how smart it is, how I’m not afraid to go everywhere, embrace so much with and without fear, and how I really am seeking and finding and seeking throughout and continuously. I also love that I’m finally at an age where I don’t have to feign false modesty and present as the humble woman poet who wants to write quietly about nature or in relation, solely, to men. My work wants to usurp those notions and be more than ever and enable others to be more than their assigned stations. Men can be more than men, and vice versa for women and others. I don’t want to just be, I want to continue becoming with everyone else who is becoming… no end, until then. Can I get an amen plus some?