I find it difficult to separate James Wright the poet from James Wright’s poetry. I wonder if such a thing is truly possible. A poet’s body informs their work. It certainly informs whether their work gets read. Wright reminds me of Hemingway: stoic, deceptively simple, un-self-consciously macho. When I first discovered Hemingway, I fell in love with his style and emulated it. But once my eyes opened to the dynamics of gender, I wasn’t able to experience his work with the same unconscious enjoyment that I had before. I discovered James Wright’s work after that awakening. And, as with Hemingway, cognitive dissonance arose. Wright’s race and gender no doubt eased the way for his success. And yet the work itself merits that success. Wright says with confidence and simplicity what I would like to say. His spirituality is rooted in silence and the natural world, as is mine. He thinks and sees in metaphors, as do I. He uses surprising language, as I strive to. “The Jewel” embodies perfectly our shared world-view:
This is part of a series called Dispatches from an MFA, which details my experiences in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University. In the second semester, I studied with poet Kevin Prufer. We spent the semester looking at narrative versus lyric poetry. This is the cover letter to the final packet of the semester.
I feel like I’ve learned a lot working with you this past semester. Arranging the packets around narrative and lyric poetry was helpful. I’d never really thought deeply about the distinction between the two modes. My research also shed some new light for me about literary trends that have been developing since my days as an undergrad. The whole notion of “confessional lyric narrative” poetry and the reactions against it made me think about my own work and about the kinds of work toward which I’m drawn. I also learned that a lot of people don’t like Sharon Olds.
This is part of a series called Dispatches from an MFA, which details my experiences in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University. In the second semester, I studied with poet Kevin Prufer. We spent the semester looking at narrative versus lyric poetry.
[NOTE: The original version of this paper was set to landscape orientation to accommodate D.A. Powell’s long lines. Viewing this article on a large monitor will preserve the longer lines]
D.A. Powell’s work teaches me about the power of taking risks and trusting one’s own voice. Reading him reminds me of reading C.K. Williams, a poet who helped me break out of tightly controlled lines and hyperfocused subject matter and made it possible for me to write something sprawling like “Pastoral, Pougkeepsie” – a poem that is far from finished, but one that is much more ambitious than anything I would have attempted before I started at Lesley. But where Williams’s vignettes carry within them a consistent narrative, Powell’s move much more at the speed of thought – a phrase I’ve heard used to describe lyric poetry more than once. That’s not to say that Powell’s work doesn’t carry a narrative, but it’s one told via strobe light: short bursts of language, associated by sound or image or seemingly random leaps of intuition that make sense after the fact. I respond to it because it’s the way my own mind works.
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.
Wherever you are, I hope that you are weathering well and staying safe and healthy during this pandemic. I’ve found it quite stressful, especially as my partner works in an emergency room. He takes precautions when he comes home, but I worry about him every day. For myself, I work from home regularly but I miss the days when I do go in to see my colleagues.
On the bright side, I’ve been getting outside for more walks than ever before (staying six feet away from everyone, of course) and have been especially grateful for Zoom, which helps me feel more connected to friends and colleagues than the phone alone does. In some ways, this physical distancing has meant that I reach out and connect with good friends even more than before.
If you are looking for some additional connection, please consider joining me for an online generative writing workshop. A new creative space called Create Art in Community just opened in Roslindale Square in February. I was delighted to connect with Gena Mavuli and to offer this course in her studio. As with many small businesses, closing has created some real difficulties for her–especially since it’s such a new business. She asked me to take the class online. We will use the five senses and other prompts to grow new seedlings in our very own garden of words. Feedback for these new first drafts will be exclusively positive. A few spots remain. Please consider signing up, to support your own writing practice and also a small, local business.
The two-hour workshop meets for four sessions in April: April 1, 8, 15, and 29. Cost is $165. Sign up here.
Some folks are intimidated by trying this new technology. If you’d like to learn how to use Zoom, I’m happy to give you a tutorial, whether or not you sign up for the class. It’s a great way to stay connected in this time of social distancing. Just comment on this message below, use my contact form, or send me a DM on Twitter.
As of this evening, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announced a ban on all gatherings of more than 25 people and has restricted bars and restaurants to takeout and delivery service only. Even without these new restrictions in place, the strong recommendations over the last few days to practice social distancing (avoiding gathering places, keeping six feet between yourself and others in public) have caused the cancellation of most events in Massachusetts and environs. The situation is evolving rapidly and I’m sure people are getting their news from more current sources than this website. I hope it won’t be too long before we flatten the curve of this pandemic. Stay safe and healthy.
In the wake of the spread of coronavirus, public events are being cancelled left and right. Poetry readings do not tend to draw large crowds, so some events may go on as planned. It’s best to call ahead to make sure that a reading has not been cancelled.
If you are sick, please stay home. The best way to prevent the spread of the virus is to wash your hands thoroughly and often (as long as it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice), to avoid touching your face, and to avoid contact with people who may have been exposed to the virus. The CDC has a list of precautions you should be taking.
These listings are current as of March 12, 2020.
Among the CANCELLED readings:
Mary Buchinger, Jennifer Markell, and J.D. Scrimgeour (3/13) in JP
A celebration of Stephen Jonas’s Arcana (3/14) at MIT Press Bookstore
Charles North (3/16) at MIT
Katherine Hollander and Angela Voras-Hills (3/16) at Blacksmith House
David Ferry at Suffolk (3/17)
Christian Wiman (3/23) at Blacksmith House
Sara London and Nathan McClain (3/31) at Smith College (All Smith College Poetry Center readings are cancelled through the end of the semester)
Anne Carson (4/1) Harvard Divinity School’s Ingersoll Lecture – “will take place in fall 2020 on a date to be determined”
Joy Harjo (4/9) at Harvard
Paisley Rekdal (4/14) at Smith College
Daniel Bouchard writes the following in his latest email update:
Remember: colleges do not lose revenue when a poetry reading is cancelled but bookstores do. Keep MIT Press Bookstore, Brookline Booksmith, Grolier, Harvard Bookstore, Porter Square Books, Bedlam Book Café in Worcester, I AM Books in the North End, and so on healthy – drop by and buy some books or order something online.
Roslindale just welcomed a new creative space called Create Art in Community, and I’m excited to be offering a generative writing workshop there this April. Please join me for some exercises designed to get the creative juices flowing and encourage play with words. Both new and experienced writers should enjoy the class. All forms of writing welcome: poetry, fiction, memoir, or any combination.
Wednesday evenings, 7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.
Four dates in April 2020: April 1, 8, 15, 29
Create Art in Community, 11A Corinth Street, Roslindale MA
In the heart of Rozzie Square. Roslindale Village stop on the Needham Line Commuter Rail, multiple bus lines from Forest Hills. Municipal parking lot close by and free on-street parking.
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.
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.
I don’t know about you, but I’m aching for spring already. Here are poetry readings that will bring us in March, which is almost spring in New England. Thanks as always to Daniel Bouchard for publishing these listings. Follow him on Twitter. I’ve also discovered Lori Desrosier’s site, which posts poetry news in Western Mass. And a series in Shelburne Falls not listed below called Collected Poets.
Of special note below:
Tamiko Beyer at home.stead in Dorcester
Carla Schwartz at the Old Manse and home.stead
Martha Collins at Arts at the Armory Somerville and the Brookline Public Library