I overheard someone say to you after reading your first book, Hints and Allegations, “Wow, Amanda. You’re really angry.” Is that a fair assessment?
My first collection contains poems written mainly in my twenties, and I do think I was an angrier person then. Writing was my means of surviving some serious difficulties life presented me. I was probably angrier on paper than in my daily life, though.
How does your second collection, Oz at Night, differ from your first?
In general, I think it’s funnier and more philosophical. It’s still dark, but there are episodes readers are encouraged to laugh at or with. Some of the poems were written in response to reading philosophy, and I think it shows.
Why do you write poetry?
I know it’s a cliché, but I do feel I have little choice in the matter. From a very young age, I put pen to paper to get to know myself better, to negotiate the world better, to try to gain understanding about things I can’t make sense of about sentient existence. Flannery O’Connor said, “I write to discover what I know,” and that’s very true for me too. Until I start expressing what’s going on inside my head in an ordered way, I don’t really fully “get” what I know on a deep level. I don’t feel it fully. I think art gets at truth better than attempts to baldly state the truth can, and that’s one of my favorite things about writing. Metaphors, narratives – the trappings of writing tell the truth more effectively than just saying it outright. Tell all the truth, but tell it slant, as Emily Dickinson wrote. Of course, I appreciate the aesthetic beauty of a well crafted poem, too, but most of the beauty of a poem for me inheres in its ability to make me feel and think something true.
How do you write poems? What does your process look like?
My process varies pretty widely, but a poem usually starts with what feels like a very small germ of an idea. Then as I write, I realize that I had more to say on the subject of the poem than I realized. My process – both of writing first drafts and revising – is very unconscious. Many poems seem to just fall out of me. Some poems go in a completely different direction than I think they will when I start them, though, and some poems I struggle with extensively. I tried to write one free verse poem for years and years about an experience I had at a creek in the woods in Texas, and the idea finally became two lines in the poem “Courage,” which appears in Oz at Night. I finally had to accept that the idea was not an entire poem but a few lines.
What is the most important element of a good poem?
In my opinion, it’s extremely important for a poem to be fresh. You need to say something the reader doesn’t expect you to say or say something in an unusual, original way. Hackneyed poetry is painful.
You’ve been teaching for over a decade now. Do you enjoy it?
I do enjoy it. Transferring knowledge and ability to the next generation is a big responsibility, and I take it seriously. There are so many ways that it’s good for me to stand in front of a captive audience and discuss literature and writing. For one, it breaks me out of my shell. For another, it lets me do something other than write with the world of ideas I live in. I also think it’s good to be in touch with what young people are dealing with these days. What are their struggles? What are their strengths and weaknesses? It’s interesting to me to try to understand the demands on them in this brave new world. Teaching keeps my mind lively. The classroom is a dynamic place.
Is poetry the only genre in which you feel you have to write?
I experience more internal pressure to write poetry than any other form of writing, but I do write autobiographical and scholarly prose as well. I’m working on a memoir and a collection of essays, and I have written several critical analyses of twentieth century female poets such as Mina Loy, the subject of my dissertation, and Sylvia Plath, Edna St. Vincent Millay. I’m looking to publish more prose in upcoming years than I have so far, but I have no doubt that the need to write poetry will remain.