How did you first fall in love with poetry?
I think for most of us, for far more of us than become poets, childhood is particularly rich in poetry — from lullabies to nursery rhymes to jump rope chants, meter, rhyme, and song keep us company. I remember memorizing poems to recite for school competitions and because I liked them and thought they were funny — I remember especially enjoying Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and Hilaire Belloc’s poems about unruly children meeting gruesome ends.
I think it was enormously shaping for me that my life was awash in literature of all stripes, high and low; that my family read out loud to each other; and that (crucially!) reading was encouraged, but there wasn’t a lot of expectation or pressure around it. Sure, I could get a personal pan pizza from the library if I read a certain number of books each summer, but what I mostly remember was people reading to me, and my enjoying it, and delighting in the play and fun of poems, way before it was the kind of thing I knew I could do too.
I do vividly remember the first poem I wrote, I want to say in the sixth grade. I had been reading Madeleine L’Engle, who is one of those wonderful gateway writers — writers who consistently refer outward to work that came before, offering a lineage for the reader to trace. One of her books referenced The World by Henry Vaughn, which inspired me to write my first bit of doggerel. I recall the last couplet was
Do we walk the narrow way, filled with love and light?
Or do we wander blindly, replete with hate and spite?
I had just learned the word “replete,” which says pretty much all you need to know about that poem.
Which influences have shaped you most as a writer?
Gerard Manley Hopkins is my lodestar, someone whose work took the top of my head off, and whom I continue to aspire toward and marvel over — but the whole lyric tradition is littered with inspiration. Elizabeth Bishop, Jane Kenyon, The Wrights (James, Charles, Franz), Robert Hayden, Li-Young Lee. Ross Gay and Solmaz Sharif and Ocean Vuong and so many others continue to carry the lyric tradition forward. I am drawn to play with language on the page, rich sound, but fairly plain and direct ideas, I think.
I have been very influenced by creative nonfiction as well — Annie Dillard, Maggie Nelson, Eula Biss — and I can devour that in a way I can’t devour poetry. When prose is honed and crafted like poetry is, it’s a true delight and a teacher.
It’s clear from the Resources page in The Interior Desert that the Christian monastic tradition heavily influenced these poems. Tell us about how and why you chose to tackle this tradition as a subject.
I was first drawn to the Christian mystics in college — I probably encountered Julian of Norwich first through T.S. Eliot and fell in love with her Shewings, and worked backward from there, ending up at the desert fathers and mothers. My mentor in college, Dr. Greg Peters, happens to be a scholar of Christian monasticism, and he pointed me to the handbooks and received wisdom of these religious communities — The Rule of St. Benedict, the Ancrene Wisse, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. I became totally fascinated by religious instructions, by what moderation looks like to an ascetic, for instance, or how you schedule a day that starts at 3 a.m. and is mostly fasting and prayer.
I think I’ve always been drawn toward the apparently impersonal second person. Wisdom literature, and even instruction manuals, can have such a tranquil and apparently untroubled voice of authority. But, of course, however much our words attempt to be impassive, balanced, or neutral, we reveal ourselves. I can’t get over how monks are instructed to flagellate themselves — moderately! Don’t severely whip yourself! Just a little self-mortification. I’m fascinated by how almost unrecognizable these expressions of Christianity might seem today, how offensive in some ways. And yet, and yet. What is it that drew people in such droves to try this ascetic desert life, so that these desert caves got downright crowded? These were some of the fascinations that motivated this chapbook, and the larger manuscript it was drawn from.
At Californios we care a lot about form, and the formal structures of the poems in The Interior Desert are unique and often surprising. What principles informed your shaping of the caesuras, lines, and stanzas?
My temptation on the page has often been to edit my poems away into nothing. I do not tend toward lavishness. There’s always a weaker word that can be cut, an extraneous bit of gristle to be trimmed. I don’t think it’s entirely wrong to say that the blank page is the perfect poem.
Even given my love of paring back, these poems seemed especially to need a lot of space, a lot of spaciousness. The caesuras allowed for a call and response as well, since many of these pieces integrate language from the tradition of desert monasticism or from nature writing around the desert of California. So I think partly I wanted to let the words of others woven into my poems still have their own say, have a little breathing room.
Perhaps most importantly, these poems were written in the desert, and are situated in a desert landscape. The thing about deserts is that they appear sparse — there is nothing evidently lush about them. But the closer you get, the more life you find there. It’s life that has adapted by becoming hard, thorny, tough, parsimonious. But if you get out in it, if you’re really there and not just passing by on a highway, there are so many flowers, so many insects and birds. It’s teeming with a thousand little lives who’ve found a way to flourish in harshness. There is hidden abundance in the desert, and I wanted my work to honor that.
What role can poetry play in 21st century America? Why do poets and poetry matter in the age of social media and global awareness?
I think my poems couldn’t be less directly engaged with our political moment if they tried. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not of and for it. Robert Haas once made the point that Emily Dickinson’s most productive year was smack in the middle of the Civil War, and her poetry functionally ignored it. I think we live and write in fraught and momentous days, but the things that lyric poetry has traditionally attended to — the interior life, the I-Thou relationship, the heart and its discontents — still have a place.
I think poetry is as robust as it has ever been, and, to bastardize Twain, reports of its waning have been greatly exaggerated. I can’t even name the number of wonderful poets working now whom I adore and envy in equal measure. I love that poetry has become more accessible and more inviting in a time of greater and more direct connection — if people find poems they love on Instagram, how is that different from the tradition of broadsides? And spoken word YouTube artists are our balladeers! As long as there’s breath and heartbeat, there will be meter. As long as there are mothers singing babies to sleep, there will be rhyme. And as long as there’s language, people will keep making poems from it. I’m glad I get to take part in this very human enterprise.
To purchase Amy’s new chapbook, click here: https://californiospress.com/chapbook-series/