January 2010

Elizabeth Hildreth


An Interview with Amy King

Amy King is the author of Slaves to Do These Things, I知 The Man Who Loves You and Antidotes for an Alibi, all from BlazeVOX [books], The People Instruments (Pavement Saw Chapbook award), and forthcoming, I Want to Make You Safe (Litmus Press). She teaches English and Creative Writing at SUNY Nassau Community College and, with Ana Bozicevic, curates the Brooklyn-based reading series, The Stain of Poetry. In November and December of 2009, she was interviewed via email by Bookslut's Elizabeth Hildreth. They discuss, among other things, Israeli autodidact art, being a bad sick person, insane secret Santas, Internet bullies, The Ugly Americans, Ron Padgett, and fighting the Good Fight.

Happy day, Amy. I just got your books in the mail: I知 the Man Who Loves You and Slaves to Do These Things. The first thing that struck me was, maybe not surprisingly, their sheer physical size. I was pulling them out of the envelope and just kept pulling and pulling and pulling. A half an hour later, I had them in my hands. It seems the skeleton on the front of I知 the Man is only slightly smaller than my actual skeleton. Was the size a choice of yours, or is that just how BlazeVOX works it?

G壇ay, Elizabeth! BlazeVOX gives each author the option of making thimble-sized books all the way up to art books. In my case, I liked the feel of the 田omic book size, as the publisher refers to it. A friend, someone in the biz, once told me how unfortunate it is that my book is an 砥nconventional size and how that makes the book awkward. But au contraire, comic book size permits one to butter croissants and eat them with jam and coffee and juice while lying the book flat to read through I知 the Man Who Loves You at the breakfast table. Comic book size enables the reader to drive her car with one hand and hold Slaves to Do These Things out, big as the dashboard, for all members of the driving expedition to dive into! My books go anywhere comic books go, can do more than they do, and are too large to be shelved and randomly ignored. It takes a special effort to ignore these books, especially when the covers are art themselves, thanks to comic book size and the generous artists who have shared their work with me, and now you.

Au contraire is right. I ate my meager dinner of rice and tomatoes tonight with Slaves to Do These Things open so nicely flat next to me. It suits my sensibility. And the artwork. It reminds me of Hieronymous Bosch痴 triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights -- the middle panel specifically, with the nudes and fruit and birds. I showed my husband (David Abed, a painter) the cover and said, 展hat do you think痴 going on here? And he said, 的t looks like they池e building (or rebuilding) nature. I said, 的 see the birds and horses made from wood. But the man and woman also have wooden planks strapped to their heads. And he said, 溺aybe they池e rebuilding themselves, too. Upon opening the book, the first poem is, appropriately (based on my reference to Bosch痴 painting) called 典he Psalms Called 腺reath.樗 And indeed it does seem to be about a spiritual rebuilding, after losing a life of one kind or another. Specifically the lines:

I came out twice
sobered and married,
Then aimless and pregnant


I hold to confusion
that this space is blank, though
not intentionally so. It is so
because you are not yet in it,
though you are here []

Did you intentionally so closely tie (to my mind at least) the cover art to the themes in the first poem in the book? And who did the artwork? I didn稚 find a citation, though I知 terrible at looking for such things.

Funny you should ask:I spent a bit of time arranging and rearranging the poems order using mostly my intellectual mind. But poetry, especially for me, is an intuitive art, and the decision to use that poem as the first came near the end of the process and was a feeling one. It felt right and sets the tone, I think. In the past, my 登bjective mind would have looked for the strongest poem, but I can稚 tell what that is exactly in this pile of poetry. 典he Psalms Called 腺reath樗 really does just gel with what痴 going on in Orna Ben-Shoshan痴 painting, 典wo Carpenters (credit inside front cover). Not so incidentally, Shoshan is an Israeli autodidact artist, who must also work intuitively. At least, that痴 my suspicion, and that痴 the unspoken element I like about her work.

As for the spiritual rebuilding and other themes you note, they were certainly considerations in the making of this book. I was pretty sick for a solid year after 36 years of very good health. My encounter with mortality was finally real (no longer the 20-something who wasn稚 afraid to discuss death in the abstract), unexpected and difficult for me. I am not a good sick person though. I didn稚 even think I was writing during this period, but somehow, two books appeared at the end of the tunnel, and Slaves is the first to come out of that period. The body, the material being, and the literal soul, among other considerations, worked their prominent way through this book as I sat up night after night in pain, trying to make my own way through how 澱eing was metamorphosing each night and day. So even during what felt like the deterioration of my existence -- and I was literally deteriorating due to malnourishment -- I was all the time rebuilding too. One hand holds the other; one eye inward with the other seeking elsewhere. I suppose the only ultimate way I had to work through that transformation was with words -- poetry is as material and spiritual symbiotically as we are; what else do we have in the middle of the night when we池e each alone?

There is so much of the body in this book. So many throats. So many torsos. It痴 striking to compare this book to your last. The last seems denser and more consciously crafted. This one is so loose and free and, yet, seems to go right at the heart of things. There are so many points at which you bring the reader in really, really close. To my mind, the reader perceives this "closeness" all the more because you have this absurd, beautifully illogical, woman-made language. And then you butt that up against these simple passages that detail these quiet scenes that are almost pedestrian. For instance, In "Just To Mind Fuck," you start out with the unreasonably bobble-y:

People are ample, and they take
so long through the torso
to bleed another mouth
where you too take
the trombone shot

And by the end, you get to this:

You were lying beside me
on a hotel bed
with strange people
in another room
watching remotely.
You kept massaging
my feet, you threw your legs
over mine and fell

Was this a conscious choice? To be closer, to be looser, to contrast different types of language as a way of abruptly yanking the reader against you?

Interesting that you find this language looser! In fact, this is much more edited and 努orked over than my longer, more narrative pieces. I usually dislike spending a long time editing after something flows out, but I consciously decided to craft these word sculptures, more so than usual. I suppose I was successful at something if they appear to be freer! As far as being illogical, I certainly was working towards confounding logic-as-usual. To do so calls more attention to artifice; it makes one pause at the oddities they encounter and notice how things get put together: ideas, language, concepts, even 途eal perceptions. If we can communally look at one thing that ends up meaning very different things to each of us separately, how does meaning bode for the world then? Or meaning-making?

Just went back to compare I知 the Man Who Loves You to Slaves to Do These Things. Yep, sticking with the original story. Seems less crafted and more free. Funny -- the powers of this 兎diting you speak of. I love your idea of calling attention to artifice and the illogical and in so doing making people sort of slow down and take note. But let me present you with this idea: Imagine I am Insane Secret Santa. My only job in life: To fill strangers houses with oddities. For example, a twenty-foot tall dinosaur chiseled out of frozen beer. A king痴 crown made of pretzel sticks. A small wading pool of applesauce. How long before my beloved strangers stop saying, 徹h my god, look at that thing. Cool. How痴 she MAKE that? And start saying, 摘nough with the twenty-foot dinosaur bullshit. Where痴 my beer and pretzels? It痴 something I think of a lot -- the merits of beautiful confoundedness versus friendly straightshooterness. I never come up with any answers, any aesthetic map. Maybe you can speak to this. I would argue that in addition to 妬llogic functioning as a yield sign for your readers, it functions as a way of expressing love. I just read Kathleen Rooney痴 Live Nude Girl: My Life as An Object in which she talks about how artists make sense of the world by disregarding sense -- by ignoring all physical constraints and realities: 的 have heard that Ingres added an extra vertebra to the neck of his Odalisque. Picasso scrambled his loved ones features. Modigliani made their faces in almond shapes. Giacometti melted his people into metallic wires. Such are the things we do for our visions. Such are the things we do for love. That痴 you, your work, a little, right?

Hmm, it痴 a good question, this sometimes-call for temperance or moderation. I mean, we fear extremes, especially when they are unfamiliar and feel too 妬n your face. I知 not sure I壇 want my neighbor to tout butterscotch ponds and wax figures on their lawn, but then again, I知 saying this to ease anyone痴 fear of the odd or my desire for it. In actuality, I would sooo welcome a blip on the radar in my hood that breaks from the rows of wooden box molds that look the same! I壇 also welcome a few more than just one instance of it all, more variation and dissimilarity, I say!

Let me give an example of how this 努eirdness began to call me. I started writing short stories during my senior year of high school. I won an award for one, selected by Lucille Clifton, and was presented with cash in a ceremony conducted by the mayor of Baltimore. I was the shit and felt on my way in the fiction world. I knew how to do narrative in a pleasing way. But what happened? One day later, early college and randomly, I acquired a Black Sparrow collection of Gertrude Stein痴 interviews, poems, and portraits. They were too bizarre for words, pun intended, so I started to read them aloud to college friends on the phone to annoy them. I did this for awhile for I was a jokester and wanna-be comedian. Eventually, the joke became tired, and I finally had to admit that the phone was an excuse that permitted me to say the weird words aloud and revel in them. I loved the odd concepts, the new ways of picturing people, lathering up linguistic structures and expectations, confounding and locating new ideas, etc. Such bizarre feats were nearly orgasmic. I felt lucky that I had stumbled across this work because it gave me a permission to put into practice that part of my brain I always repressed and never shared because I knew it would not make the usual sense.

So one needs the occasional odd houses made of clay and graffiti to break us out of our insistent searches for security and certainties via the steady and familiar structures. Because none of it is true in the immortal ways and a house made of bricks is as arbitrary as a house built underground, complete with Mediterranean gardens and fishpond. In fact, we need more of the unusual because that is the fecund ground of invention.Without the unusual, thinking becomes stale, repetitive, and we can no longer imagine what has yet to be conceived. I致e said this elsewhere, but thinking 登utside of the box -- to use a usual metaphor -- is how Einstein, a trained scientist, arrived at the theory of relativity. If he had stuck with what all of the other mathematicians before had, straight logic, we may still be waiting to bend space and time.

Anyway, there is no real escape from sense-making as the brain, conditioned by society to speak in a shared-usually-narrative way, begins to put in order clues and infers the story of most 渡onsense. Of course, some give up if the nonsense seems too confounding and disorderly. But my work does follow more closely than some other poets the patterns of narrative and usual syntax, though I do try to open syntax so that more than the usual/acceptable/ordinary epiphanies can be gleaned, more meanings grow available, depending on the level of engagement the reader attends the poems with.

I love this sentence and if I can use it in all its earnestness, just once, before I die, I will be happy: I was the shit and felt on my way in the [insert, quite seriously, anything] world. But more that that sentence, I love that you phone-tied your friends with Gertrude Stein. I equate hours of turning the pages/reading the poems to touching prayer beads/reciting chants. I have to think it had to affect you metaphysically/psychologically, and, as a result, your writing. Did you know that there are electronic prayer beads? You can get one for your cell or Blackberry, and then they池e customizable; you can program different meditations or prayers, based on your preferences -- seven Hail Marys and eight Aums, what have you. Speaking of electronic, can we veer off the road a little? You池e a total force in the e-world. You池e everywhere. You池e on every listserv and you post a billion times a day. Are there actually hundreds of Amy Kings? In your mind, as well as your goals for poetry, have you kind of made it a priority, or maybe priority is too strong... is it an interest of yours to be really present in the day-to-day conversations about poetry? To completely loop yourself into the scarf that is contemporary poetry as it痴 being knitted? Also, I want to tell you now what I think I have cowardly backchanneled you in the past: I really like how you call people on their racist/sexist/whatever-ist stupidness in front of hundreds of electronic people. I would never do that. I don稚 like to make people uncomfortable. I mean, I DO make people uncomfortable because I知 sort of chronically awkward/uncomfortable, but I try to avoid it where I can. But, as a spectator, let me go on the record: I enjoy it.

I did not know about the e-beads, but I知 not surprised. If you can have 登nline sex, order pizza online, watch old Miss Cleo commercials online, why not pray to Mother Mary electronically? I知 a fan of the online extension. As many have noted, especially via Facebook, the virtual world allows people to 田atch up and reconnect and just become and explore in new ways and so much more. I致e been on listservs since I was a grad student at SUNY Buffalo. My then-teacher, Charles Bernstein, required his students to join class listservs, and though I lurked a lot at first, I quickly fell in with the medium. I felt privy to discussions that I may not have been invited to had they been taking place at real-world parties or salons of yore a la Mabel Dodge and Gertrude Stein. Of course, I also learned, especially on the public Buffalo Poetics listserv, that downsides sometimes prevailed. Online discussions are encouraging because you can move in circles you might not find as readily inviting in person, but hand-in-hand with this access and somewhat-anonymity comes a lot of bullying, ad hominem attacks and just plain old nastiness. This phenomenon, in my book, is referred to as 吐inding your balls online. I discovered how this works the hard way many years ago. A dude was bullying me on said listserv and, despite backchannels that the bully was 途eally a nice guy in person, I held him accountable for his online behavior in person and told him I wasn稚 interested in being friends when we finally met. Of course, this led to his obsession with me for years, but that痴 another story for another time.

The point is that many people, like yourself, are afraid or just can稚 be bothered with putting one痴 thoughts out there on that screen and in that public space, so to speak, because a handful of idiots take the opportunity to attack, as though they will look cool or powerful somehow for being aggressive and putting an end to constructive exchange. What I finally determined was that I could do one of two things: I could retreat and shut up or I could declare public internet space territory I too was entitled to and shout back at key moments. I致e done the latter, as you note, and am still learning to pick and choose my battles wisely. One thing I can say, there aren稚 as many asses online as there are thinking individuals; the assholes just scream louder and are persistent, so they can distract and set a tone -- I try not to let that happen when I知 interested in a conversation. I don稚 know how wise I致e been in terms of engaging with the asses and wasting time, but I love these discussions enough to keep at it. Because really, the internet permits such a wonderful space for exploration of opinions and art and poetry and political inquiry and change that I really am an addict.

It has been worthwhile. I致e met so many smart people through various sites and discussions that I致e gotten a second education. If my standing up to bullies and ignorant declarations now and then can put a foot in such antics, then I知 happy to call people on their rudeness. I just want those who are afraid to join in to ignore such impotent behaviors and start talking despite them. Because the bullies will shut up. Ultimately, I find that once people start talking, unencumbered, I get to learn and that doesn稚 happen so much from watching TV or going to the movies -- people come together and talk about a worthwhile subject who might never meet in person.

I致e graduated from blogging to moderating WOMPO, and just recently, was invited to join the new organization, WILLA, that will shortly have its first conference at the New School next year, though we致e organized online -- how cool is that? I was just reading an interview with Alice Notley in The Poker #9, in which she states, 套most Americans don稚 feel very empowered, I don稚 think. I really feel that, no matter how much time I volunteer or classes I teach, it痴 not enough. I want to say something and be heard.Talking about political issues on the Internet, which keeps public records of these discussions if so desired, is an important way to disseminate information; and in reality, poets of all people should be politically engaged in using language in public ways -- if there ever was a definition of a poet, in my book at least. Freedom of speech is one thing, but that freedom requires dissemination if it is to have any impact or influence, so unless you own a television or radio station, your protest on your local street corner isn稚 going to be picked up by Channel 2 News. But the Internet is something of a leveler; if you can get folks talking about an issue you feel strongly about, you can advance understanding and cause a ripple in the status quo tides that want to wash over and drown us out. You can throw your oars into the Internet sea and make those metaphorical waves and change minds if you池e persuasive and determined enough. You can be heard, at the very least, and also change your own mind. As I noted on my blog recently, oppressions need silence to thrive; I won稚 enable all of those 吠sms by letting the bullies shut me up.

Thanks, Amy. Like I said, it doesn稚 go unnoticed or unappreciated. It seems I have yet to 吐ind my balls online -- or anywhere for that matter. Isn稚 it odd when people are jackasses and yet other people can compartmentalize that behavior. My mom痴 always like, 哲eighbor A is so racist. Still... nicest person you値l ever wanna meet! I知 always like, 添eah, I知 sure. Just don稚 let it slip that you池e Lebanese, or she値l set your evil-doing Arab spawn on fire when you池e not looking. I知 always sort of amazed at how unrepentant people are, too. No matter how many times other listservers respond to their offensive/uninformed comments -- Um, that痴 not cool -- they come back out into the room blazing, ripping their virtual shirts off, chests puffed out, like, 典hat痴 right. I said it! Aren稚 writers supposed to have a great capacity for checking themselves/reflection -- I thought that痴 what the job, in large part, was. Thinking thoughts and then thinking about those thoughts and reforming them? I can稚 think of a graceful transition. How about The End? What痴 next on the agenda? Any books or projects on deck?

You池e Lebanese? See, those are the limitations of the Internet. We池e nearly done, and I致e just found that out about you! Not sure what I would ask online but maybe in person I壇 follow up with a question about common Lebanese cuisine or something. I don稚 know exactly since we池e not in the flesh here, but I try to figure out and practice something that goes beyond 鍍olerance -- i.e., what does it mean to co-exist and benefit from difference? Thank god, I don稚 eat just Dutch, Italian, and Hungarian with a tiny side of Cherokee cuisine, as my own ethnic background would dictate, whatever that would consist of. As for the labels and the way people separate/segregate, I don稚 even think we know what these divisions really do to us as a people. It痴 not like all lawyers or lesbians or Lebanese are alike once we池e off in our own enclaves -- we figure out other ways to rank apart, and so on and on. I think it all comes back to something much more complex, but for lack of a better way to state this quickly, the default is that we think in hierarchies, rather than in something more symbiotic where we can retain our identities while morphing them, absorbing, being porous and expelling what we no longer use (but not in a violent way), to put things abstractly.

As for the role of writers, I agree:the writer needs to go beyond such stiff-minded limited ways of thinking. Again, for lack of a better way to put this:I believe writers, of all people, should feel some sort of moral imperative (lower case) to put things right in the world, among people. Figuring out how we can do that is up to the individual, but it痴 no accident that poets of yore were so involved with politics and public pronouncements of the state of their nation痴 conscience and actions. We are in a position, even now, to point out injustices, to celebrate wonders and kindnesses, to invent and explore unusual (& healthy) ways of thinking and co-existing, etc. I値l get off this soapbox now, but I do wonder how many of our writers aren稚 just perfecting their writing skills without having a greater agenda, however amorphous and unpinned, in mind as they go at it. When I say politically-minded things straight in prose and listen to the silence echo, I really speculate, mostly to myself or to Ana Bozicevic (my lady), why so many writers are happy to applaud cool surreal lines (without understanding the political inspiration/history to that use, as in the case of Daniil Kharms痴 life of persecution and death by starvation) but are either wary or indifferent about putting their political toes into the worldly waters -- because aren稚 we, after all, on this big green rock together? Don稚 we all want to participate in improving? Is that an archaic notion now?

My latest reindeer games involve a manuscript tentatively titled, The Ugly Americans, which is a deceptive title. It comes from Gertrude Stein in her book, Picasso, and really entails only some condemnation of a few American concepts but will be more of a celebration of the best aspects of being American: the innovative, inspiring, exploratory, optimistic aspects of our histories here and the authors that also advanced them, even those investments in attitude that haven稚 worked out so far, because our idealism still inspires and surely is worth further work. I知 afraid that the ongoing failings of our late-capitalism will only advance the trend towards a bleak and selfish 堵ive-up view of how we are to be as a nation. So I知 combating that, and that is the good kind of war sans blood and fleshly fatalities.

I知 also about to go at something of a memoir-living-biographical-portrait-sketch of Ron Padgett. Here痴 a poet, translator, teacher, collaborator, editor, art connoisseur, etc, who has not received enough critical attention to date and is a friend of mine. We will commence a series of interviews over the next six months that hopefully captures many of the nuggets of wisdom I get from him every time we speak. He痴 just a great, inspiring person to be around, and I知 humbled and honored to be able to work with him on this project!

As for the rest, I plan to continue what seems to be the unpopular path of thinking about political engagement on big and personal levels (correct me if I知 assuming the worst of my fellow poets!), grow my family bigger, and keep plugging away at my teaching life. Thanks for this engagement, Elizabeth! And one last thought, if I may: to anyone reading this missive, the rules of engagement are fluid, so take advantage and speak up: even if you are not in the habit of doing so, instead of putting aside the arguments that condense in your head when you come into contact with a controversial subject, speak up at least once, and report back on how it feels.

I am Euro-mutt and Lebanese, partly, my grandma was, and Arabic was her first language. As a result, here is the vast and useful Arabic I know:

Oh my god
You池e like your father
Look at Jealous over there
The Devil!
I知 afraid
Ooooh, are you Lebanese?
Ooooh, money, money.
What a slut
Don稚 like it? Eat shit.

Funny how 11 words really paint a portrait -- pretty much sums up good old Gram. She was super fun -- and fearful, cheap, neurotic, and racist. I adored her -- and her food. See, I CAN compartmentalize: delete above statement. Your Ugly Americans and Ron project sound amazing. Keep us, posted, Amy. And keep fighting the Good Fight.

Elizabeth Hildreth works as a writer and instructional designer in Chicago where she lives with her husband and daughters.