Nostalgia as a Driving Force: A Conversation with Poet Amorak Huey

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.

Photograph of poet Amorak Huey
Amorak Huey, author of the poetry collection Boom Box

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.

Cover image for Amorak Huey's poetry collection Boom Box
Boom Box: Poems, by Amorak Huey (Sundress Publications, 2019)

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?

Huey: I’m on Twitter away more than anyone reasonable should be: @amorak. I’m on Instagram occasionally: @amorakhuey. And I have a website that’s mostly updated: http://amorakhuey.net.

Order Boom Book from Sundress Publications

Read a review of Boom Box at Glass: A Journal of Poetry

Read a review of Boom Box at Lammergeier

When the Horse Begins to Neigh on the Page: An Interview with Poet Eileen Cleary

Photograph of poet Eileen Cleary

Eileen Cleary seems to have found a way to clone herself. In addition to holding two MFAs from two different Boston institutions, she manages the Lily Poetry Salon and publishes the Lily Poetry Review. Her Lily Poetry Review Press will be publishing its first titles soon. She has studied with teachers near and far and seems to know everyone in the Boston poetry scene — and many on the national scene as well.

Eileen is a nurse and poet who earned an MFA at Lesley University and second at Solstice of Pine Manor College. She is twice a Pushcart nominee and has work published or upcoming in journals such as Naugatuck River Review, J Journal, The American Journal of Poetry, Solstice, and Sugar House Review. Her work has appeared as a Rainworks Installation in Newton, Massachusetts.

Her debut poetry collection, Child Ward of the Commonwealth was published by Main Street Rag Press in June 2019

Frances Donovan: What first brought you to poetry?

Eileen Cleary: I’ve always loved to read poetry. I had a sense that I could write it from an early age. But, I never wrote it seriously until I wrote a poem in response to unethical research on human subjects. I was a different person when I reached the end of that poem, and I could never go back to being a person who didn’t write poetry. 

Donovan: How were you a different person?
Continue reading “When the Horse Begins to Neigh on the Page: An Interview with Poet Eileen Cleary”

Unearthing Surprising Moments: A Conversation with Poet Sarah Dickenson Snyder

Photograph of poet Sarah Dickenson Snyder

Sarah Dickenson Snyder has written poetry since she knew there was a form with conscious line breaks. She has three poetry collections: The Human Contract, Notes from a Nomad (nominated for the Massachusetts Book Awards 2018), and With a Polaroid Camera (2019). Recently, poems have appeared in Artemis, The Sewanee Review, and RHINO. She has been a 30/30 Poet for Tupelo Press and was accepted both times she applied to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. One poem was selected by Mass Poetry Festival Migration Contest to be stenciled on the sidewalk in Salem, MA. Another was nominated for Best of Net 2017.

Sarah took some time to speak with me via email.

Frances Donovan: What first brought you to poetry?

Sarah Dickenson Snyder: The first time I saw a poem in a book and its intentional line breaks, I was hooked—I just loved how it looked. I was probably in 1st grade. I wrote and wrote even more when I realized that poems didn’t have to rhyme and that I could pour out a seemingly endless fountain of thoughts and memories. I ended up sending a stack of twenty poems to Bowdoin College as my college essay. 

Donovan: Did you study poetry at Bowdoin?

Dickenson Snyder: I took a few classes—there were only just a few in the English Department, certainly no writing classes at that time; I was a Religion major.

Donovan: Was there a particular poet whose work was really meaningful to you in those early years?
Continue reading “Unearthing Surprising Moments: A Conversation with Poet Sarah Dickenson Snyder”

A Vivid, Wild, and Free-Flowing Interview with Diane Seuss

Diane Seuss was kind enough to speak with me about keeping poetry wild, freaking form, and her latest book, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl.  It went up at The Rumpus today.

“I think of my work as punk-rural,” she says, “in that it emerges from rural spaces, but looks for the toughness, the strangeness, the absurdity, the taut stringiness, the rage and pain of it all as opposed to the homespun. The rural is no less punk than the urban. Roadkill. That’s my aesthetic. Naked dancing on the water tower. Cheez Doodles and a Coke. Cigar-smoking ghosts on the riverbank.”

Read the entire interview here.

Read some of Diane Seuss’s poetry online here:

Photo of Diane Seuss by Gabe Montesanti.

Interview with Sarah Nichols, Author of Dreamland for Keeps

Cover image for the chapbook Dreamland for Keeps

The latest chapbook from poet Sarah Nichols, Dreamland for Keeps (Porkbelly Press, 2018), uses found poetry to reclaim a voice for Elizabeth Short, victim of a brutal murder in 1947. The gruesome details of Short’s death led to sensationalized media coverage and the nickname “The Black Dahlia.”  Nichols lifts words from a novel inspired by the case and remixes them into a pointillist narrative–Elizabeth’s own story, rather than the story told about her. The resulting poems are spare, bold, and utterly riveting. Nicci Mechler of Porkbelly Press enhances the manuscript’s artistry with a beautifully designed, handmade chapbook.

Sarah Nichols took some time to discuss the book, her writing process, and the political implications of her work with me via email.

Continue reading “Interview with Sarah Nichols, Author of Dreamland for Keeps”

The Martha Collins Race Trilogy

Cover art for three books of poems by Martha Collins: Admit One (in red), White Papers, and Blue Front

I first met Martha Collins at a seminar on taboo at the Mass Poetry Festival. Sharon Olds read a poem about testicles. Jill McDonough read a poem that included a line about a stripper’s “perfect pink asshole.” And Martha Collins read a poem about race. It was the Collins poem that made me the most uncomfortable. I’ve spoken about race plenty in conversation with people of color, but for a white person to initialize the discussion seemed uncouth in a way that frank talk about sex is not.

Collins read from White Papers, the second in a trilogy about race in the United States. White Papers focuses on the poet’s own recollections of race growing up in the Midwest and living in New England. Blue Front is a book-length poem that spirals around a brutal lynching that her father witnessed in 1909 in Cairo, Illinois. Admit One uses the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis (which her grandparents attended) as a jumping-off point to speak about “scientific racism,” the eugenics movement of the 20th century, and the continuing legacy of racism in the United States. Continue reading “The Martha Collins Race Trilogy”

Interview with Wendy Mnookin, Author of Dinner with Emerson

Close-up from the cover of Wendy Mnookin's Dinner with Emerson

Photograph of poet Wendy Mnookin
Poet Wendy Mnookin

Poet Wendy Mnookin and I travel in similar orbits in the Boston poetry scene, but our paths have never intersected in person. I was happy to be able to speak with her via email about her most recent book Dinner with EmersonA veteran poet with five books to her name, Mnookin has taught poetry at Emerson College, Boston College, Grub Street, and at workshops around the country. Her honors include an NEA Fellowship, a book prize from the New England Poetry Club, and several Pushcart Prize nominations. Her work has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac and Poetry Daily. We spoke about the difference between tone and voice, the choices she made while compiling each of her manuscripts, and the relationship between her teaching and her writing practice.

What first brought you to poetry?

I have always been a reader, and, in my own way, a writer, mostly scribbling in journals. By the time my third child started kindergarten and I could see blocks of free time appearing in my life, I took a plunge into more dedicated writing and signed up for a poetry course at the Radcliffe Seminars Program. Ruth Whitman was teaching the course and I fell in love–with the reading, the discussion, and most of all, with the regular writing. I took courses there for several years and then attended the low-residency program at Vermont College, where I got my MFA. Although I don’t think courses are necessary for someone starting out in poetry, the structure helped me explore, build confidence, and establish a network of other writers who were serious about their work.

Continue reading “Interview with Wendy Mnookin, Author of Dinner with Emerson”

Interview with Poet Carla Drysdale, Author of Little Venus and Inheritance

Cover of Little Venus by Carla Drysdale

Carla Drysdale’s work explores difficult subjects such as childhood abuse and sexual exploitation with tight, lyrical nuance. Little Venus, Drysdale’s first book of poetry, came out in 2009 from Canadian publisher Tightrope Books. As often happens when poets create a persona, Drysdale’s Little Venus tells truths and makes assertions far bolder than another speaker might be able to.

Poet Carla Drysdale, author of Little Venus and Inheritance
Poet Carla Drysdale, author of Little Venus and Inheritance

Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Paris Press, Cleaver Magazine, and PRISM. Her poem, “New Year’s Eve” was set to music by American Pulitzer-prize winning composer David Del Tredici. Her many accolades include writing residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and La Porte Peinte in Noyers-Sur-Serein, France, as well as PRISM International’s Earle Birney poetry prize for her poem “Inheritance.” Finishing Line Press released her chapbook of the same name in early 2016.

A statuesque woman with a mass of curly auburn hair, she took some time out from her busy schedule as a communications consultant and mother of two to speak with me about her poetry.

What first brought you to poetry?

Poetry first came to me, I suspect, in my pre-verbal state, in lullabies sung by my mother, grandmother, and babysitters, as well as radio jingles and birdsong. My maternal grandmother was fond of reciting everything from Shakespeare to her own variation on Fuzzy-Wuzzy –- I learned from her how to play with language as a toddler. The King James version of the Holy Bible was tremendously important to me as a pre-teen and younger teen. The first time poetry actually stabbed me Continue reading “Interview with Poet Carla Drysdale, Author of Little Venus and Inheritance”

How I Became an Historian: Review and Interview with Poet Penelope Schott

Veteran poet Penelope Schott’s latest offering,  How I Became an Historian, traces a spiral from innocence into an abusive marriage, and out again into wisdom and forgiveness. Three slug poems serve as markers on this switchback trail. In “Pestering the Slug,” the first poem of the book, she recounts something almost all of us remember: the small child’s delight in harassing bugs. “I briefly understood / the unblameable charm of evil,” she writes.

That evil coalesces but also turns to remorse in “Glory is Reached by Many Routes,” when the speaker spends “a whole morning trying / to press a brown slug through a wire sieve / and all afternoon apologizing to the slug.” That remorse turns to redemption in “Keeper.” Here, the speaker keeps the slug for a week, feeding it

Continue reading “How I Became an Historian: Review and Interview with Poet Penelope Schott”