Amorak Huey’s fourth book of poems is Dad Jokes from Late in the Patriarchy (Sundress Publications, 2021). Co-author with W. Todd Kaneko of the textbook Poetry: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury, 2018) and the chapbook Slash/Slash (Diode, 2021), Huey teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His previous books are Boom Box (Sundress, 2019), Seducing the Asparagus Queen (Cloudbank, 2018), and Ha Ha Ha Thump (Sundress, 2015), as well as two chapbooks.
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 feel like writers are supposed to say that the first book doesn’t change anything. Like, that’s the pure response. In some respects, certainly, it’s true. Having a book doesn’t make the next poem any easier to write. It doesn’t get rid of impostor syndrome. For me, at least, and for most poets, it didn’t come with life-changing money, or, like, any money at all. But still, publishing that first chapbook — The Insomniac Circus from Hyacinth Girl in 2014 — and then the next year my first full-length collection, Ha Ha Ha Thump from Sundress Publications — well, it was a huge personal achievement. The fulfillment of a lifelong dream. I was 44 when that first chapbook came out, and I remain super gratified by its publication. The ability to say yes when someone asks if I’ve published a book? It means something to me. It matters. My fourth full-length collection — Dad Jokes from Late in the Patriarchy — came out in May. I think it’s the best thing I’ve written, but I don’t know that it’s hugely different from my first books. It’s just the next step.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I went to fiction first. Thought I was going to write the Great American Novel (I kind of still think that). But a poetry workshop in college, and a couple of workshops in my first, failed attempt at grad school changed things. One fiction professor used my piece in class as an example of a story that wasn’t actually a story. Another writing professor asked me how serious I was about being a fiction writer instead of a poet; I think maybe she meant to praise my poems, but her tone definitely implied something not so great about my fiction. Anyway, I got more praise for my poems than for my prose, and as an approval-seeking older child, that was probably what did it. I also try to watch my tone with my students, because I know how long they might remember even the most unintended dismissiveness.
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 tend to write either rapidly or not at all. Periods of getting nothing done followed by periods of getting lots done. Some drafts come out near their final form; others require numerous and extensive revisions. All of which is to say I’m all over the place. I envy writers who have a regular routine or process.
4 - Where does a poem or work of prose 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’m definitely a one-poem-at-a-time kind of writer, which of course leads to challenges when it’s time to assemble a manuscript. Poems start all sorts of places for me: with fragments of language, with images, with experiences I want to make sense of, sometimes with a title. My chapbooks have been projects where I’m circling the same concept or topic, but in general I’m writing only the poem in front of me. How it might fit into a collection is a question for later.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I am very much not a performance poet, but I love reading my work to an audience, and I love hearing other poets read their work. At least, when it’s a poet who understands how to read their work and who understands which of their poems work well when read aloud. Reading my poems aloud to myself, over and over, is a huge part of my composing process, so by the time they’re done, I think I have a sense of how or whether they work aurally as well as on the page.
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?
My new book explores fatherhood and masculinity and mortality. I think all poetry is about mortality. I don’t know if I read this somewhere or if I made it up, but I think one of the defining characteristics of a poem is that it knows it’s going to end, while prose is in denial about that. Every poem is an elegy.
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?
Let me quote Jen Benka here: “We know the secret to survival. It is saying. It is naming. It is telling. It is recording. It is singing. To soothe our fears. To fuel our inner fire. To remember all those who came before on whose shoulders we stand. To illuminate and ignite new guiding lights.”
That’s the role of the writer.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Working with a good editor is an amazing, inspiring experience. The best editors know how to help you unlock what’s possible in your writing. I worked with Maggie Smith on both Boom Box and Dad Jokes from Late in the Patriarchy before they were accepted for publication, and her care and thoughtful response made both books better. my experience with the editors at Sundress has been similarly excellent. Erin Elizabeth Smith worked with me on Ha Ha Ha Thump and Boom Box; Jeremy Michael Reed was the editor for Dad Jokes from Late in the Patriarchy. Again, the books are so much better for their attention.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
My friend, colleague, and collaborator W. Todd Kaneko talks about the need for writers to keep the “life of art” distinct from the “life of commerce.” One is about writing poems, the other about getting them in front of an audience. Both are work. Both are important. But they are not the same.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I have this kind of half-baked theory. All writing is, at its core, about the human experience: how we live, love, grieve, and die on this planet. But each genre brings different forces to bear on that experience. Poetry centers language: the search for words to describe what cannot be described. Fiction centers narrative: the cause-and-effect relationships between events in a character’s life. Essays center memory’s flawed relationship to truth: the leaky vessel that holds all of our experiences. There’s overlap, of course, and you can’t always draw a bright line between genres, but for me, as I approach a piece of writing, the questions that interest me most in relationship to the topic determine what genre I work in.
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?
My days begin by getting teenagers out of bed, fed, off to school. They end with soccer-practice carpools, choir concerts, nagging about homework, laundry, what’s for dinner, what’s for dinner, what’s for dinner. I’m not complaining, it’s all good stuff. But as for writing? I have no routine. I fit the words in around the edges of my life the best I can. Some seasons are better than others.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Sometimes I just let it stay stalled. We need breaks. But the answer is reading. I always go back to the page. Find the poems that make me feel something. Those are the ones that make me, like, “I want to make something like that.” Reading refills the water trough, even when the season is dry.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Kudzu blossoms in spring.
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?
Music, for sure. I almost always listen to music while I’m writing. Many of the poems in Boom Box, my 2019 book, are explicitly engaged with music, specifically the metal I listened to in high school. Plug here for Jason Isbell, probably my current favorite artist.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Wow, that’s a long list. My favorite poet is Traci Brimhall. My favorite book is Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas. My favorite poem is Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Song.” And if we’re looking at poets who were early, formative influences on my writing, the list includes David Kirby, Bob Hicok, Jorie Graham, Adrienne Rich, Larry Levis, Sharon Olds, Rita Dove, Robert Lowell, and Emily Dickinson. I could go on. More recent influences include Matthew Olzmann, Natalie Diaz, Rebecca Hazelton, Jericho Brown, Catie Rosemurgy, Karyna McGlynn, Franny Choi, Natalie Shapero, Danez Smith, Solmaz Sharif, Jamaal May, and Leila Chatti. There are others. Like I said, it’s a long list. Not that I think anyone would necessarily see those poets’ work in my own, but still, their poems have arranged my brain, changed how I see the world and the possibilities of poetry. I read a lot, and read like a sponge soaking up pieces of pretty much every poet I read and wringing their language back out into my own.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Visit Paris. Watch a game in Dodger Stadium. Attend the Manchester Derby at Old Trafford. Writing-wise, so many of my ambitions are the usual foolish ones involving fancy kinds of recognition that are beyond my control. Maybe finish and publish my novel. That one is at least partly within my control.
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 mean, the honest answer is playing first base for the Dodgers, though I guess the window has closed on that. I was a newspaper journalist for a lot of years, and sadly, the window has kind of closed on that, too.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing has just always been there. I can’t imagine not doing it.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Presently re-reading the amazing book of poems 1919 by Eve L. Ewing. I read it last year and knew immediately I was assigning it in class someday, and so this spring I put it on the list for my advanced poetry section. I recently finished The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones and can’t stop thinking about it. As for last great film, I’m not sure. I saw Knives Out and Emma right before the pandemic shut everything down, and both were super fun. Does that count?
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m making my way through a third draft of the novel I mentioned above. It’s historical fiction, set in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Writing a novel is a trip. 98,000 words, multiple drafts, and I still don’t know if it’s going to turn out to be anything worth reading.