Wednesday, July 03, 2024

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Amanda Merpaw

Amanda Merpaw (she/her) is the author of Most of All the Wanting (2024) and Put the Ghosts Down Between Us (2021). Her poetry, playwriting, and nonfiction have appeared in Arc Poetry Magazine, carte blanche, CV2, Grain, Prairie Fire, Plenitude, with Playwrights Canada Press, and elsewhere. Amanda was a finalist for Arc Poetry Magazine’s 2022 Poem of the Year Contest. She is currently a contributing editor at Arc Poetry Magazine and a member of the editorial board at Anstruther Press.

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?

In the years before I published my first chapbook, Put the Ghosts Down Between Us, I was feeling especially insecure about my writing. Finishing the chapbook helped me realize that I was capable of doing the work that I wanted to do. I felt more grounded in my work, and I started to trust myself more. Working on my debut collection, Most of All the Wanting, was an amplification of that, a real internal validation of myself for myself, regardless of what happens next with its readership or reception.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

As a kid, I was drawn to fiction first. My earliest memory of writing is a series of short stories about a superhero who was pretty obviously just an extension of me. As a teenager, I started to read more poetry, and that’s when I started writing poems pretty obsessively. Poems were more aligned with how I processed the world and language—I felt more myself in the writing of poems and in the alchemy of reading them. I’ve only recently returned to writing fiction, after a long time believing that it wasn’t “for me” anymore (whatever that means!), and it’s been fun to play in that world again. I also write nonfiction and plays, but I don’t have the executive functioning (or the time!) to be working in all of these forms at once, so these are not currently as central to my practice. I’m sure I’ll reconnect with them when they’re the right form for a story or question I want to explore.

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’m a slow writer. Sometimes a first draft will arrive quickly and then sit in my notebook for weeks or months or longer. My mind moves slowly through those drafts, and while a poem’s final shape is sometimes similar to its first draft, I only arrive at knowing that something is done by spending a long time considering the words, the lines, the turns, the breath, the form. I type up my draft, play around with those things, and often have many variations of a poem living in one document. Often many notes, too—my own questions and potential edits, research about relevant topics, thoughts on including arts and culture references, etc. Larger writing projects sometimes feel clear to me early on, especially if I have particular themes or preoccupations in mind—that’s how it felt with Most of All the Wanting. And sometimes the larger projects aren’t apparent to me until I’ve done more writing and can consider how all the writing might exist in relation. Regardless of what I’m working on, part of my slowness also comes from managing some chronic health issues and the impact of my anxiety on my writing/thinking process. Producing work quickly and frequently isn’t possible for me, and I don’t aspire for it to be.

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?

My poems begin all over the place: a line that I can’t stop turning over, an image (real or imagined) that persists, overheard dialogue, a moment of connection with art, a question I can’t easily answer. With Most of All the Wanting, I was working on a book from the beginning, and I knew that I wanted to explore my relationship to a specific set of experiences: my divorce, dating in Toronto as a bisexual woman, finding my way to a relationship again. I knew I wanted the book to go there because the work I did in my chapbook helped me to figure that out. I’m working on poems for my second collection now, and I don’t have a sense of any central “aboutness” or connectedness quite yet, if it ever arrives. I have some ongoing preoccupations and questions, and I’m just writing towards those in each individual poem until I see how they come together.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I really enjoy reading my work aloud. I read it aloud to myself constantly while writing—it’s a central part of my process in achieving rhythm, musicality, and finding the right words. So it’s a joy when I finally get to read them to others, when I get to consider how poems might come together to build a sort of set list and an experience for the audience. I desperately do not want readings to be boring, so I think a lot about anecdotes to share alongside the poems—the events within them, my relationship to them. I think about how I can make the audience laugh. Making the audience laugh between poems or during a poem—reminding them poetry doesn’t have to take itself so seriously all the time—is sometimes the best part.

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?

In this collection, I’m working through questions about intimacy and how we exist in relation to one another and ourselves. How do we make and remake ourselves in our relationships (and in their endings)? How do our relationships impact our experiences of time? What is relational grief? How do I experience my queerness in private and in public space, with and without others? How does my queerness shape my desires, how do my desires shape my queerness? I’m also interested in questions of the conversational and of dialogue, how voice and form and content meet, and how they can make space for, represent, or make strange how we speak to one another and how we speak to ourselves.

As someone with lived experiences of disability and madness, I’m always thinking about how I can use language and form to communicate that, too—what it is like to have a disabled body, a doubting and anxious mind. These concerns are more present in the poems I’m working on now, towards a second collection.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about James Baldwin, who said “a writer is by definition a disturber of the peace…he has to make you ask yourself, make you realize that you are always asking yourself, questions that you don’t know how to face.” Be they questions about ourselves, our close intimate relationships, our relationship to the world and the systems that we maintain or that we work to dismantle—the questions and their disruptions are central to my understanding of what writers do. I do not see writing as apolitical, even when I’m writing a poem about love. Even when I’m focused on aesthetics. Isn’t love political? And its absence? What about aesthetics? Audre Lorde told us that poetry is not a luxury, it is “a vital necessity of our existence”—a place for our feelings, our dreams, our hopes to survive and to change, “first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible thought.” Naming something helps us imagine the possibilities of that thing in the world.

I believe, too, that writers are historians—our work creates a robust archive of our questions, emotions, experiences, and of the emotional, cultural, relational, political, linguistic, etc., experiences of our times.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I’ve had the opportunity to work with Jim Johnstone on both my chapbook and full-length collection, and it’s been essential. I can get caught in a lot of doubt—these spirals of overthinking in the editing phase. I get stuck for a really long time on a question of a single line break or word choice. That’s when I know I’m too far into a conversation with myself about my work and am in need of an outside perspective. Jim is a perceptive and thoughtful editor, and generous with his energy and time. I always appreciate his suggestions. Even when we’re making difficult choices—cutting entire poems from the collection, changing language I’ve become attached to—I know it’s bettering the work, the project, for us to consider these choices, and for me to figure out my relationship to them. Jim gets my intentions, my voice, my aspirations for the projects, which builds a lot of trust. And the process also helps me be less precious about holding on to anything too tight, becoming too deeply embedded in my own stuff.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

One of the best pieces of advice about writing I’ve heard recently is from Kirby, in a fantastic workshop they ran earlier this year based on their book, Poetry Is Queer. I mean, the whole collection feels like you’re being wrapped up in good advice about living and writing and finding joy as a queer person. Something I’ve carried from that workshop is Kirby’s reminder to arrive at the page considering the poem we don’t know how to write yet. To practice the non-habitual. What kind of writing does that lead to?

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to theatre productions)? What do you see as the appeal?

I love moving between poetry and theatre—they ask different things of me, and I appreciate that. I like that theatre begins from a place of imagining the liveness of the experience, the energy exchange between performers and audience. You’re creating something that feels both intimate and shared, public. Something that requires extensive collaboration with many artists and technicians performing, directing, costuming, lighting, designing, etc. You have tools beyond language at your disposal! So many perspectives beyond your own! Sometimes that feels like a relief. When producing theatre, I like that the project management/event coordination aspects are organized and concrete—it’s so satisfying. And I really love that poetry isn’t satisfying in that way. It’s more nebulous and quiet and interior. I like imagining a singular reader having a private experience with the work. I like the relief of sitting with a single stanza or poem for as long as I want, and that nobody (hopefully) is counting on me to finish it so they can also do their jobs. I’m grateful to be alone when I’m working, and that the tool at my disposal is language (or the absence of language, the space of silence)—that’s probably where I feel most at home as an artist.

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?

It really depends on my health and associated energy and focus levels. I go through periods where I’m able to wake up and write for an hour or two before moving on to my full-time job, and other periods where that’s impossible. During the latter periods, I focus on jotting down ideas when I can, reading as much as I can, and editing existing material rather than generating new drafts. I’ve been lucky to take part in really wonderful online writing workshops over the last few years, and I try to participate in those regularly so that I have ongoing writing dates with myself where I’m engaged with craft and actively drafting. I sometimes go long periods without touching my notebook or laptop, periods when the work is the living and observing and thinking and feeling. The rest and the taking care. I try to give myself grace. Regardless of my relationship to writing at any given time, I always start my day by walking my dog and then eating some breakfast.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

If I’m feeling stalled with my writing, it means I need to take a break to do literally anything else. I go for a walk or put on a record or watch some good or very, very bad TV. Reading helps a lot—sometimes something new, or returning to an old favourite. Like, oh yeah, that’s how Sharon Olds opens a poem. Good to know. If I still can’t get unstuck, I skip over what’s not working and just keep writing beyond it, or into another piece entirely, and I make a note to come back later.

13 - What was your last Hallowe'en costume?

Wednesday Addams. I was a middle school teacher for a long time, so I have Halloweened far too close to the sun. Wednesday is a great sustainable/repeat costume because it’s just a cute dress with some Mary Janes that otherwise live in my closet anyway. Add some braids and you’re giving macabre girl energy.

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?

This collection is definitely attuned to and in conversation with nature—weather patterns, the climate crisis, landscapes, non-human animals, etc., they’re all there throughout, they’re on my mind all the time. As someone who grew up in a musical home, music has a deep impact on my sense of rhythm, movement, word choice, sound, etc., in a poem. There are musical references throughout the collection. Film, TV, and theatre influence my work too, the content and the language of it, especially where narrative or dialogue or the epistolary comes in. I’m also currently working on a series of ekphrastic poems for my second collection in response to visual art by and about women, specifically portraiture.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

In addition to the writers I named in previous answers, I’ll add: Hanif Abdurraqib, Nicole Brossard, Sophie Calle, Emily Dickinson, Mark Fisher, Louise Glück, Donna Haraway, bell hooks, June Jordan, Ada Limón, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Lee Maracle, Wajdi Mouawad, Frank O’Hara, Sharon Olds, Erin Shields, Mark Strand, Virginia Woolf, Kate Zambreno.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I’d like to write for TV. Something funny, like Baroness Von Sketch. I’d like to travel the country by train in all directions—a kind of writing residency, maybe.

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 spent nearly a decade working as a classroom teacher, and I still work in education now, outside of a school setting. I could see myself being a therapist too. Maybe that’s cliché and all the millennial queers see themselves as potentially good therapists.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Ever since I had the realization as a kid that people wrote the books I was reading and maybe I could be a person who writes books too, I’ve been writing. I’m sure it had something to do with being a sensitive, anxious, highly communicative kid who was always taking shelter in books or talking to myself or writing in diaries, etc. I just can’t imagine not doing it.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Earlier this year, I devoured Olga Ravn’s My Work (trans. Jennifer Russell and Sophia Hersi Smith). I recently watched and loved The Holdovers. These days I watch more TV, though—I just binged Killing Eve, which finally became available to stream. Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer? A dream!

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on poems towards a second collection. And I’m slowly working on my first novel.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

No comments: