Amy Lawless is the author of two collections of poems, most recently My Dead (Octopus Books, 2013). An audio chapbook, from BROADAX is just out from Black Cake Records. Some prose has recently appeared in Poor Claudia's Ten Sources and Literary Mothers. She grew up in Boston, and lives in Manhattan where she teaches writing.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I always like my own newest work better than my older work. My most recent work and manuscript causes more agony, more than ever before, because it is more personal. This manuscript, BROADAX, is killing me. My last book, My Dead, brought up sad feelings when I wrote it, but I felt invigorated by the process of writing it and its concerns. Its arrival and existence as an object in the world was a symbol for my own continued living and survival, its author. This new work is eating me, and it tastes like me.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My personal journey is not unique. My lovely mother encouraged my writing when I was a girl and read poems aloud to me from an anthology of poems geared toward the youth. I write prose as well, but writing prose requires the kind of patience that I associate with the superhuman.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I take notes on trains and during conversations with friends and people I meet. These notes usually remain as notes.
I write a lot because it staves off feelings of dying and loneliness. Things happen extremely quickly, tumultuously, emotionally, and aggressively. Then nothing happens. Then something happens. Then, if I’m lucky, I will allow time to pass and the document is again opened and investigated and altered. My editing process consists of grumpiness, anger, indecision, laziness, avoidance, staring off into space nowhere near my manuscript, going to the beach, followed by a few adult decisions. Then disgust. Then mute adoration. The more I spend on a piece of writing, the better. That is all. I have written many poems that do not fit into manuscripts.
I think it depends on the project. My Dead took like three years. My new manuscript took about fourteen or sixteen months, or many years as it is on certain pages about being the little girl Amy Lawless who I used to be and sometimes still am.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I have no idea where it begins. I am not a neurologist or a deity or a mind scientist. However, once some poems exist in a document using a copy/paste function in Microsoft Word, I call the document a name or will think that the poems are in the same family as one another. Suddenly it will be 80 pages and live as an untamed family of children who want what they want, and one must feed them. One’s time is no longer one’s own.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love attention and find it hard to say no to opportunities to stand in front of an audience who will listen to my words. I don’t think that they are part of my creative process as much as part of the role of poet/writer that I am living in New York City and the United States. It is a chance to share my work, and I like sharing my work because I live in the world and I am not writing for myself. I need to intersect with others, but as a poet there are other ways to do that: friendships with poets. I have many of those.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I am really interested in myself (there-I said it). Concerns at present include but are not limited to the following questions: What is the point? How can I be a good person? What’s funny? What is death? Why is it so hard to be a person? Why is it so alienating? How do I reconcile the weird things that I experienced as a child with the present person that I am today? What’s the deal with sibling rivalry? What kinds of violence (social, physical, emotional, spiritual, etc.) do people inflict upon one another? How do myths and media and tales intersect with history (both personal and geographical) in a meaningful way? How can the stories drawn from my own phenomenological experiences of being a woman and its shaming be included in my poems in a way that is not the same ol’ way? What does it mean to be a poet?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The role of the writer is not limited. There is room for everyone at this sick party. However, not all of these roles are interesting to me.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I am in some ways an extremely disciplined writer and in other ways I am not—that’s how it is with Amy Lawless. So, I have found it helpful to work with really brilliant editors. I think every writer is different, but given the fact that writing is a form of communication, it is extremely helpful to have at least one other person intersect with one’s work at some pre-publication stage in order to experience a person human’s reaction and poetic and editorial expertise to one’s words. If your deodorant doesn’t work you need someone to tell you or you’ll keep smelling for a long time.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Don’t be an asshole.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Often I like to write in a way in which my intended meaning remains intact. And more often than not, my poems are written in a form that does not verbally obfuscate; therefore, the transition itself is not challenging. It is guileless in that sense, and it is possible to obfuscate in other ways like with the description of complicated ideas and images. An appeal of writing critical prose is to be part of the rich conversation about poetry and writing. It’s also possible to wage war on the conversation in one’s own poems. There are always new things to write about. I just need more time during which to do so, and that is in no way unique to my experience as a writer. One sometimes can be strangled by the time spent working in order to pay rent.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
A typical day begins in bed. First, I wake up. I will leave my bed and start to think about coffee. I build in energy. If I write prose, I must begin in the morning and I work three hours. When I write poems, I am unable to dictate how and when I will begin work. I need to be doing something at all times or I fall asleep from boredom. I write on subways, offices, home, couches, bed, on my phone walking down the sidewalk. I do many things that are not categorized as ‘writing.’ I find when my physical setting shifts to a trusted and familiar place, I am often overwhelmed with memories or ideas. When I occasionally visit my parents in Boston, I can write a great deal and sleep a great deal due to the womb-like safety feelings that accompany being in my childhood home. I find that Sundays are great for writing as I am not concerned with obligations or a schedule. I teach at two colleges so I must either teach each day, or at least have it in my mind that I must read or grade something. Over a few years, I have attempted to train my mind to ease and relax regardless of my schedule in order to open up to the idea of being receptive to writing words at the end of a day – if not to actually write. However, this whole paragraph is kind of bullshit—when ideas come they flood and receptivity is just a mindset.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I just live my life.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
The poem “Elephants in Mourning,” which appeared in My Dead sourced National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, the film Dude Where’s My Car?, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Chandra Levy’s body in the news in my memory, my uncle’s coffin, and three deaths. I am often secretly and not secretly an ekphrastic poet. Recently I wrote an ekphrastic poem while watching the film Dazed and Confused. Life is a source.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Unfortunately, I can’t find it within myself this morning to make a list of all my friends and all the books I’ve read that live in my mind—there are so many! A cognitive mapping of that sort would have such a wide emotional and creatively sweat-inducing breadth it would completely spend me and some names would be left off accidentally and that would lead to emotional distress. I assure you I have friends whose work I love and am inspired by and I also read diversely throughout history to the present moment and the internet, both prose and poetry, criticism and philosophy, and I am also inspired by non-writers and their friendships and conversations both virtual and in person.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I want to write a book of essays. Someday I will write a memoir. But more than either of those things I would like to fall in love.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I enjoy the water, so something involving that.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
There was something to be expressed, so I tried it.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Book: How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti.
Film: I tend to return to the same films over and over again. Yesterday I re-watched Idiocracy.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I just kind of finished writing my latest manuscript of poems, BROADAX. An audio chapbook from it was just released from Black Cake Records and you can listen to it on Bandcamp. Go to www.blackcake.org to listen to it. I had so much fun working with Kelly Schirmann on the recording of it. Black Cake is everything. I’m also working on an essay about The Incredible Hulk.
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