Shine Louder: Amanda Nadelberg
Interview by Nick Sturm
Amanda Nadelberg is the author of Bright Brave Phenomena (Coffee House Press, 2012), Isa the Truck Named Isadore (Slope Editions, 2006), and a chapbook, Building Castles in Spain, Getting Married, (The Song Cave, 2009). She lives in Oakland. Bright Brave Phenomena was included in Coldfront’s Top 40 Poetry Books of 2012.
I first encountered Amanda’s poems on Wendy Xu’s couch in Northampton, MA. Their staggering belief was immediately absorbed into my experience of that trip. It was a pleasure to review Bright Brave Phenomena here and it is a pleasure now to present this interview, which came together over email from late 2012 through early 2013. A new poem, “Symphony of Leaves,” appears at the end of the interview.
What are you listening for when you read a poem? What implicates you, grabs hold of you, transforms you?
A lot of what I listen for is some moment of familiarity, and maybe that’s (no quotes needed here) truth but lately I’ve found that I might just need it to sound like it could be true—who cares whether or not it is. I like the idea of the confession as a thing in the world—and for these purposes let’s strip it of its connotations in our little hamlet—but what’s most interesting to me about the confessional mode isn’t however much that poem is or isn’t about your (or, “a”) mother/brother/neighbor/husband/backyard, it’s the fact that the space of those things is made near and intimate. And that tenor of space can be created “about” anything. And I guess here About really means Around, because I don’t believe in the about in poems, or at least, I’m not listening for it. (In college I remember not knowing what Frost’s poems were about but I would write an essay on his use of prepositions and punctuation.) So I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of the imaginary confessional poem. I should say too that lately I’ve been reading novels, giving myself a teeny poems break, so I’m fetching memory at the moment, but often what I listen for in poems is a sense that the writer is a little lost, not deliberately withholding information or turning on the heavy mystery machines, but honestly confounded (by the world? isn’t it so?) and letting others listen in on that figuring. Also, forever: Creeley.
I love the idea of talking about what a poem is Around opposed to what a poem is About – an aroudness that enables a confirmation of uncertainty. What novels have you been reading? What urged you to set aside reading poems for a little while?
It started when I finished grad school, in 2010—some sort of minor cleansing from the wonderful but über-focused experience of grad school. I moved home to Massachusetts for surgery and read Swan’s Way while recovering. It was an apt book for that kind of lying down time in life. I read Leaving the Atocha Station, which I loved (my mom and dad loved it, too, they took it on vacation) and I’ve begun Infinite Jest though at present writing I find that I’m on a small hiatus, circa page 109, and I read Sheila Heti’s new novel, which I’ve recommended to several friends so that I might be able to talk to them about it, I guess because I found while I was reading it that I wanted to be talking with people about it, her book talks and inspires talk. I’ve been reading some friends’ manuscripts. (So I have been reading poetry!) And The New Yorker which does, I’m sad to say, take away from other time spent reading, but I read it for the articles. I started re-reading My Life after hearing Lyn Hejinian read here, recently. I’m a big re-reader. I never remember what happens in a story or a poem, so everything is endlessly renewable. Also, when I’m feeling lost or like I need to push the restart button I go back to J.M. Barrie’s The Little White Bird and Salinger. I recently reread Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour. (“John Keats / John Keats / John / Please put your scarf on.”)
What happens when you write a poem? How does it show up? Are there plants you talk to during or after? Does it feel different than it did two years ago? Does it feel different when you’re reading a lot of prose?
It changes. (I’m not so good with plants.) With Bright Brave Phenomena I stumbled into a newer method that involved writing discrete poems by stitching stored notes to real-time writing and that mode still suits me most of the time. For the past two years I’ve also been working on homophonic (English to English) translations, which have completely altered my thinking—what words I reach for, and certainly my ear in editing. I waver between project and not-project and these days I like putting eggs in both baskets. There are poems I’ve been mucking with for a few years now and some of them are finished and some continue to bother me, redundancies of themselves on various pages. Late last year, I carried around a jumbo ziplock bag with those bothered poems, alongside cut up pieces of paper, sometimes news headlines, old notebooks I’d already scavenged through, and this winter it came together as a long poem that I feel like I’ve been waiting two years to write. I’ve also been trying to write short poems again; they had gone missing from me for a while. I don’t register much of a difference in poems written while reading novels but I do when I listen to new kinds of music. When I moved to California I was ready for new tunes and my friend made a small pile of things he curated while we were on our way. Michael Hurley and the soundtrack to “Werewolves on Wheels.” “Emotional Rescue” and that Trish Keenan mix-tape. I started listening to the classical station more, too, and relying on the radio in general. I love the radio. Playlists atrophy time, but the radio is free and without decision save for whether or not to push the seek button which is like having a pulse, it’s just happens.
I’m interested in how your correspondence with other poets influences your work, what you’re thinking about, and what you’re reading. Because of the nature of our work and lives, contemporary poetry seems to facilitate and require long-distance conversations and continual sharing. I know so few of my poems would exist without the friends I know I’ll be sending them to later. I ask because of your and Brandon Shimoda’s “interview” with Andy Fitch at The Conversant, which is such a monument of friendship and poetry. It filled me up.
(Some of my best friends are poets.) I know it isn’t, but I feel like the trap door answer to this question is a neon sign flashing The Internet, because we’re not speaking in the 1970’s and there are very few people I send real live letters to anymore. But then too my first answer is a picture in my mind of me watching the community of the Internet, circa 2004, it was blog-heaven, I didn’t have one but I loved to read other people’s and I loved thinking about community not having to be merely a showing up of the people in your city. It was just after college and I’d moved to Minneapolis, which has an incredible community. But it’s true that some of my most important friendships have sprung from correspondence. Or continued because of it, for instance, now that I don’t live by some of my favorite people and best readers. We can still be besties thanks to le Internet. I’m not saying anything new here but I feel compelled to say it again. And Brandon and I only met last year when I was in Tucson for a while, but I’d admired his work for years and then we were able to keep up our good talk-talks thanks to the Internet. This answer brought to you by the Internet. Have you tried the Internet? It’s available in new colors this summer. But consequently, all the articles about the Internet making us even lonelier. This answer brought to you by that, too. Or how we are held captive now, and by we I guess I’m speaking for myself. Will I never know about poetry events in my city if I quit the FB? How has it come to that, but also what if it has. This moment brought to you by the version of my father in my head saying “Everything in moderation” and “Life’s a balance” which also means thank god I can write to the dear friends who live far away and still see the dear ones who are close enough to meet me in ten minutes, their faces and feet walking. But this message is also brought to you by Skype. I think my favorite part of the Internet is that, an actual and palpably connective tissue. Good job everybody on Skype. But in the actual writing of poems I need to place myself in a galaxy far from the Internets. I plug my 1996 discman into speakers and close the whirring machine.
There is a balance in Bright Brave Phenomena between shorter poems and longer poems in sections, the latter of which seem to be talking to each other over the length of the book. What pushes you towards the longer poems? Do you think of them as a different kind of machine? What kind of machines are you building now?
My gut response is that longer poems have more room for generative mistakes, and I mean this in the best way possible, that mistakes or loss of control (length) can sometimes lead to accidental dimensions, emotional and otherwise. I write and read in order not to be in charge, to not know everything. Long poems are living more easily in that space for me lately. And new long poems feel different from the ones in my second book. I’ve been employing minorly-imaginary forms and sometimes I wonder if form is just another word for propulsion. The first long poem I ever wrote was “Powerage,” and after I had the first 5 stanzas (and felt like quitting, and/or that I was plain finished) a friend said keep going and I did. Maybe I used to have an idea of a fixed poem-stamina, like some people think they can only run eleven inches in sneakers. But I’m also writing super short poems these days because it’s good to do things in different directions, to see if we can go on and also not go on at the same time. Eggs in all the baskets.
How is a poem a brave thing?
I’m not sure if it is. Poems can become public acts of bravery but the actual writing of them often feels like private cowardice. Shutting the world out or up to be left alone with thoughts and feelings, so as to be able to make announcements to the tub and shower curtain, etc., or in traffic to the passenger seat. Though I guess by admitting this I realize I do a bang-up job of convincing myself still that poems I write are (especially now that I’m again outside the context of temporary-school where audience is weekly and a given) mainly for myself and the walls of my house. And there is then a latent, minor (but appropriate) embarrassment upon actually publishing them, when some do get further into the world. I think poetry is braver than a poem, if only for the collective feeling of a room of people waiting to hear it (i.e. readings, see also: community) or the moment when you tell your airplane seatmate, if you respond when they ask, that you write poetry/are a poet. Poetry is everyone’s and a poem is often just some good or bad attempt at saying anything. But too I don’t believe in publishing everything, so that might be why I just felt the need to take the singular unit of poem down a few pegs. Maybe it’s even supposed to be the other way around, but this is how I feel about it today.
Are you not announcing your thoughts and feelings to the shower curtain with enthusiasm though? Your poems so adamantly refuse defeat and cynicism, not simply in favor of joy and belief, but at least in hope of something more dynamic, with more potential. I’m teaching a class called the Poetics of Joy this fall, and I’m not sure what that means, but I know your poems belong in that discussion.
Being a writer requires that you take yourself seriously enough (we could call that a kind of enthusiasm) to ensure that you do indeed write things down from time to time. But the absolute and terrifying uncertainty in which poetry exists (I mistyped exits, that could work, too) feels married to defeat and cynicism. I mean the world is terrible lots of days. What am I doing here, in this America? I’m just another weirdo without a TV! The poems in Bright Brave Phenomena kept trying and they said so; they are adamant, I agree. And I’m glad you think some of those poems belong in a class called that, but if there is a joy in them, if there is joy in me (sure there is) it comes from a pot of gold rainbows also containing failure that’s been marinating in fog. Actual feelings are highly complicated and have the ability to sever and spawn and anyone with emotional intelligence understands that. Which feels a little to me like the dichotomy a few sentences back. I mean, defeat (there have been a lot of kinds, I didn’t learn to blow my nose until I was like, 16, I was on an airplane) begets trying again, which surely begets more defeat sometimes. Poetry is the production of communicative attempts from accumulations of feelings, and some of those feelings are awful and some are completely winning, and the charged difference is where I feel like I come from when I get up in the morning. Each part makes the other shine louder. And I believe that poems made from or during hard times can still sound like joy to other people because humor, or because accident, or because lately my definition of poetry has been that it’s any escape route from one potential meaning to another more enjoyable meaning (which is why I think there is poetry in Stephen Colbert). And even if, in my mind, these poems come into the world from a place that feels without joy I can also believe that with the advent and inclusion of wonder they come across a lot more like joy. Wonder and sliced bread never made so much sense. My dad used to work for them.
Symphony of Leaves
Someone had bread pudding;
the end. Set rules of
no dancing, modal waves
of notes listing to the east.
Gutter then the stars. The
one to the left, let that be
mine, between the jukebox
and the door I loved you then
there will be more seasons
at the Gap, come back later.
Behind my stereo army acute
I stage a wondering; that’s
what the coasts become,
someone is calling, blue light
blue asking for a green
light on a screen. Oh, you’ve
been to Sweden? Yellow hair
window she looks like shit
in a dress. Hey, your heart is a
fucking liar bleeding in the snow.
A personal hole, in a hole in the ground
if that’s a place to live then I’m dead
If the earth opens on other shores
if I believe that music decides
the selection or if a man is
chasing a woman or if she is plain
faster than the man. Other
people’s benders are good for
the economy just as defensive
sound strategies involve a lot
of NPR. They made me believe
that god was listening. How
young when a temple was the
tarmac; my mother has bones.
If you do a thing well enough
it doesn’t matter whatever you
look like, this is America
and especially if you’re a man
in your country (I’ll run outside
you are love without thinking).
Gray fashioned car, sky feigning
rooms, waiting. I use spoons.
Décor as an industrious time
idle afternoons into any others
we can’t pick or choose
time like planted light
beside itself with color
To the desert again to the
forest when I collapse I see.
Owned some amount of death
they looked like accordion
hearts, countered hands, those
are swans, he says to the fixture.
You can’t see what happens between
the skies; pocket full of doldrums
or maybe I just came back from
the country, Lilliputian lite.
O say more they’re beautiful
(a road to the sea to feel sing)
the refrigerator’s small war.
A day named for daughters
or a man running tenuously, half
marm half monster a wild thing
in the woods. We’ve been chalking
fixes between one house and others,
portioned middling hellos, reason to
nod at disaster riding his bike at night.
As it transcribed, months planted
the faculties of simple affection
in a field of dresses and principled
men unencumbered on the
beach. This area was desert
twenty liens ago, the moon
like canopy discussed
selfishly. Do you believe
that still life could catch itself
at odds with the law? I suggest
we end all scenes of winter lots
parked yelling, that you keep your
hands dithering, count to twelve,
close your mouth or swallow up
the traditions of all things, mistakes
in the tally the ocean, for example
with no intention but something
of a seam ripping into the sky.
Witnesses will see twice the
effect it has on day. The canopy.
Nive birds singing
Against sleep talking spells
a man, I don’t know Hell. Filling
the heavenly sprite, we throw
continuums under sound trains.
In honor of day people garner
accounts of time: moon stains
on the eddies, unnamed colors
in perceptible blight. Family
is a concept without regard
for story, when I ask, say
apples invented the sun and that
bronze is your uncle. Minorly
maybe more is what we’re missing.
I found tunnels and only in Boston,
and only on the way to an airport.
Or what I wonder, what you can get
for $500,000, what Oliver Stone
looks like on a summer night. A town
seizing last orders in the manic brigade
counting ourselves to be thimbles.
A bridge goes into me, publicly, the
front room of an old house, seventeenth
century shade, the only way I know to save
money is to stay in
If all broke free o mordant earth,
if the rings of Saturday were on our lips
or there are sleeping people no place
in the sanctuary, the dew knotted
horses agreeing to meet at seven
by the sea. I repeat. Beer is
not a woman though clearly part
of an American conscience,
we think about the moon and
then none of us go outside.
Lo, in actuality there are two fences.
Patience, forms of uncertainty
peddling lack from one end to another
mistaking sun for a teeming precaution
forging hues of prevalence toward a
goddamn llama falling from the
sky. I want to see the one about
dissenting horses waking from sleep
confounding the arches of story while
drumming snaps into the wind.
Wired eaves dropping hands of stars
the house goes back, the moon is
taking a break, she needs a break
While opening a winter light
the body profanes some song instead
a boon in which everything already
happened, the pins beneath a thrush,
unsold language breakers lift my legs,
listen to me. In lilac, what idiom, the
body caulking modesties of influence
a prolonged sense-making for he was
adept at ink paintings of plum blossoms
the blue green landscapes in the middle
there is nothing, her expression pulls
wonder, like birds. The pots copper
surprised. We ate waves for hours
should have known better but having
had lunch for ten years…the house
came with green gold wallpaper, a sloped
backyard. O to have born in Parkchester,
the secret little sister of Italian lakes…
Dear Loretta from Reno: if the people
ask for contrast give them my braid.
Flowers/wind/moon/meadow was a love affair
In hindsight sea gates were the
only exception, my family traveled
to me. The carpool to which
I belonged in the eighties,
nominally someone’s father, a
temperament in route to
archery and clay. The part of me
that isn’t natural a picture
of a parachute, a ceiling, until it
turns into a view of the north seam
a white dwarf fed by a red light
(what will happen when I’m 44)
the bald, the dumb, the unencumbered
the great seal of the state of California
being lettuce quietly, diffident grooming
in the unknown but entire section.
The heaven of a grove or a story in the yard.
I’ve got a lavender dress on and I’m working
on an essay sounding the advantages of
living alone compared to everything else.
O imagine life under a tree; hair
against the headrest of any day, still
the less I know the more beautiful it is,
tote-bag kisses under bridges there
are birds outside windows. What earth.
A colloquial ridge of western light
women in the so-called sun. Or
I throw flour under the door for
hours because America is full of sleeping
people we will never meet. The map
comes simple through small mending
birds or a machine of extraordinary calls
to some sea. If I saw the sun I was happy.