Reading Amorak Huey’s Boom Box brought me back to my adolescence in the late 1980s, listening to hair metal bands and hanging out in disreputable locations. His experience, which includes an early, traumatic house fire and growing up in rural Alabama, doesn’t mirror mine exactly (which includes an early, traumatic move across the country and growing up in urban Connecticut), but the poems made me feel in touch with a kindred spirit – not just the disaffection and nihilism of the teenage years, but the yearning for something greater.
Huey spent 15 years as a reporter and editor before making the switch to academia – he teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan now. He’s written three books of poetry and two chapbooks, including one from Porkbelly Press, whose handmade books are works of art in their own right. He is co-author, with W. Todd Kaneko, of the textbook Poetry: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology. His poems have appeared in many prestigious journals, including The Southern Review, Poet Lore, and Crab Orchard Review. In 2017 he received an NEA fellowship in Creative Writing. He was kind enough to speak with me via email about his work and his writing life.
Frances Donovan: What first brought you to poetry?
Amorak Huey: Reading. For sure, reading is what brought me to writing. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house full of books. My parents gave me a love for storytelling and language. I have this vivid sense of the feeling that reading something amazing does in my body: that ache in the back of the throat, the quickening of the pulse. At some point, I decided: I want to be able to do that. To write something that makes someone else feel something. Emily Dickinson’s line about poetry making her feel the top of her head had been taken off — like that.
Donovan: Tell me a little about your development as a poet. Did you pursue formal training or are you self-taught? Do you belong to a workshop or writing community?
Huey: Formal training is such an official-sounding phrase, but very clearly it applies to me. I was an English major in college; after I graduated I went straight to graduate school in creative writing, but it didn’t take and I dropped out after three semesters. I ended up working as a journalist for many years before going back for an MFA, which I did at Western Michigan University, where I studied with Nancy Eimers, William Olsen, Daneen Wardrop, Bob Hicok, and Mary Ruefle. The MFA took me six years because I was working full-time in Grand Rapids and commuting to Kalamazoo for a class or two a semester. My current writing community consists of my colleagues in the Writing Department at Grand Valley State University, an online poem-writing group of friends assembled by the poet and fiction writer Chris Haven, and the writers I’m connected to via social media, Twitter in particular.
Donovan: What poets do you keep returning to again and again?
Huey: Traci Brimhall, Layli Long Soldier, Catie Rosemurgy, Adrienne Rich, Gwendolyn Brooks, Natalie Diaz, Matthew Olzmann, David Kirby, Emily Dickinson. There are others. It’s a long list.
Donovan: What are you reading right now?
Huey: I recently read Sam Hawke’s City of Lies, and I’m finishing up the novel Seven Blades in Black by Sam Sykes; I’m saving John Sandford’s latest, Masked Prey, to be a reward for the end of the semester. Sandford is my favorite cop/thriller/mystery writer. I admire the impeccable cleanness of his prose, and the pacing of his storytelling. Poetry wise, I am savoring my way through Traci Brimhall’s newest, Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod; it’s so, so incredibly good. Other recent/current reads include Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem, KC Trommer’s We Call Them Beautiful, and Marianne Chan’s All Heathens. I just finished teaching Franny Choi’s Soft Science and Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas.
Donovan: Very few poets can make their living solely through book sales or reading fees. What’s your day job?
Huey: I teach writing at Grand Valley State University.
Donovan: Tell me about Boom Box.
Huey: Boom Box came into existence as a collection in 2015, when I realized that my current manuscript was really two projects. I took all the poems that were linked by high school, heavy metal, pop culture, and Alabama and created the first draft of the collection. After three-plus years, two significant revisions, an editorial consultation with Maggie Smith, and 20 rejections, Sundress Publications accepted the manuscript. Working with Sundress editor Erin Elizabeth Smith, I revised the collection one more time into the shape it now is, and it was published in March 2019.
Donovan: Your descriptions of adolescence in the age of heavy metal really resonated with me. How did you come to write about this part of your life? Is it something you’ve explored in your previous work, or is this a new topic for you?
Huey: Nostalgia has always been one of the driving forces of my writing, as I assume it probably is for many people. And I’ve definitely always been interested in using the language of pop culture — whether it’s movies, music, literature, television, sports, whatever — in my poetry. My first collection has a lot of that in it. At some point, I realized that I had been mining this territory (high school, hair metal) a lot, and that’s when I assembled this group of poems into Boom Box. I tend to work in poems, not in projects, which causes problems for me when it’s time to shape what I’ve written into a book, so the threads and links between these poems are something that I discovered after I written them.
Donovan: What do you do to be a good literary citizen?
Huey: Oh, man. I fear that anything I say here sounds like bragging. I have no idea if I’m a good literary citizen. I try to be. How about I talk instead about what I see others doing that makes me think of them as valuable members of the community? I appreciate people who celebrate other writers, sharing their poems and successes. I appreciate people who come to the community as readers first. When I give my students advice about navigating the community, I talk about the need to be sincere, to participate in the conversations out of generosity and support and a sincere interest in what others are doing — not because you think you’ll get something out of it. You can’t have this mercenary approach: I’ll follow these writers on Twitter, and post links to these poems and journals, and in return I will gain X amount of social capital, or Y editor will solicit my work. I don’t know. Be a real person. Be kind.
Donovan: What does your writing practice look like now? Has it changed?
Huey: The only thing stable about my writing practice is its inconsistency. I fit my writing around my family and my job, and that looks different every day, every season, every year. I go through long productive periods, but also lots of dry spells. Sometimes I write in front of the television. Sometimes I write after everyone else goes to bed. I think maybe I’ve gotten up early to write once or twice? That sounds so good, but mostly it’s not me. Sometimes I write between loads of laundry, or while dinner simmers on the stove. Often I just don’t write. I’m a mess.
Donovan: How do you make sure that writing-adjacent work doesn’t take the place of actual writing?
Huey: You have to do both. I don’t have a magical answer to how you make room for them both — you just have to decide that they are both important enough to fit into your life. And that it’s okay to have periods where one takes precedence over the other.
Donovan: Artists often talk about the importance of refilling the creative well. What do you do to replenish yourself?
Huey: Reading. Listening to music. Taking care of my body. Actually that last one is a problem. Writing and running sort of occupy the same space in my life, and so I’m not very good at making time for both of them. I’ve been running regularly this spring (I’m ridiculously slow, but at least I’m out there moving), which means I’m writing less than I’d like to be. I remain a work in progress. Anyway, reading is the real answer to this question.
Donovan: What do you wish someone had told you when you were just starting out in your poetry career?
Huey: That it’s okay to be ambitious. That no one knows what they’re doing; we are all just doing the best we can to figure this stuff out. That impostor syndrome never goes away. That the “career” of a writer is a continual push and pull between nothing ever being enough and being entirely fulfilled when one reader is moved by one thing you have written.
Donovan: What’s next for you?
Huey: My next poetry collection, Dad Jokes from Late in the Patriarchy, comes out in 2021, again from Sundress. I’m working on my second, or second and a half, draft of a novel: historical fiction, set in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Donovan: How can people find you?