I first met Amy Lawless in 2005. She had recently moved to New York City from Boston and I from Portland. We were both entering the MFA program at The New School. It was exciting and terrifying in all the best ways. Post-graduation we eventually found ourselves living in the same Brooklyn neighborhood. There were brunches, late nights, and a seemingly endless amount of readings all over the city. Amy now lives in the East Village and I in Miami. Time passes; things change. Earlier this year, Amy’s second collection of poetry, My Dead was published by Octopus Books. I decided it was time to catch-up with Amy via email to chat with her about the transition between first and second books, working with Paul Violi, where her poems originate, and a host of other things. Enjoy.
“See The World For What It Is”*
SK: Hi Amy, sometimes it seems like it was only yesterday that we were sitting in Paul Violi’s workshop. Other times, it feels like that was a lifetime ago, you know what I mean? So much has happened since then, like the unfortunate passing away of Paul, as well as the publication of not one, but two poetry collections by you. Thanks for agreeing to take the time out to answer some of my questions.
AL: Thanks Steven! I am delighted that you asked me. Yes, I think you were one of the first people I met in NYC. You may not know this, but Paul’s wonderful workshop was the first poetry class I’d ever taken in my entire life. I had moved to New York one week beforehand from Boston. I was very scared. I didn’t know how to act in a workshop. You, however, didn’t seem scared.** You seemed chill. Yes, so much has happened since then….
AL: They were two somewhat different experiences. I wrote about half of the poems in Noctis Licentia while in graduate school. The poems took shape during those two years and the year that followed. I had that built-in community of readers (like you!) in classes and informal friendships. I cared A LOT about what people would think. I thought I was a funny poet. That I had to write funny poems. But life was funnier then.
Writing My Dead occurred from 2009/2010 – 2012. I certainly showed my poems to a lot of friends, curious what they would think and say and react, really curious, but this time the fire came from within and not without, that is without a formal structure of being in a school setting. I had to write these poems, this was not school, this was survival.
SK: Since your book is titled, My Dead let’s talk about death for a bit. The first section of your book “Elephants in Mourning” was written after the passing of some of your relatives. Can you talk a little bit about the creative process of dealing with the grief and sadness that comes with losing family, that is an extension of your blood?
AL: Sure. Between 2007 and 2009, my uncle Ed died of emphysema at an age too young, my grandmother Evelyn (my mother’s mother) passed away, and my step-grandfather Marty died (Evelyn’s husband).
I eulogized each of three family members in the churches attended by family members. I was the “writer” in the family. I felt I did a good job, I wanted my family members to be honored with my words. I worked really hard on these eulogies despite the short period of time one has to do these things (like 48 hours).
Of those three family members, only my grandmother Evelyn was related to me by “blood.” However, Marty was my grandfather – he married my grandmother, my Nana, before I was born. I always thought he was so damned cool for insisting we (my sisters and cousins and I) call him Marty. Felt adult. He was really smart, kind, and had great stories about World War II, monkeys, the radio, Mohammed Ali, the U.S. Government, where he worked for a long time. I respected him, and loved visiting him and my grandmother in both their house in Jamaica Plain (Boston), and their house in Cape Cod. My very image of the beach has been formed and informed by these summer trips.
After Marty died, after the third of these three deaths, the third of these three eulogies, I cried a lot. I couldn’t sleep. I went to my doctor and said I wasn’t sleeping. She asked what was going on. I told her the third of three deaths. She put me on a low dose anti-depressant.
I didn’t write a poem for a whole year. Or more specifically, I wrote two poems. I was totally blissed out, checked out. I read, attended poetry readings, I covered my sorrow with a pill every day.
After a year, I went off of the drug. I was happy to do so. I wanted to know what feelings felt like again.
A few weeks after I went off the drug in the summer of 2010, I was just sitting home watching nature documentaries and Youtube videos. I watched elephants mourning other elephants and I came to feel an overwhelming feeling of empathy and sorrow. I wrote the whole poem in that one day. (However, I edited it for a full year.)
I’m glad to have my feelings back.
SK: Paul Violi was a special poet who cared about his students and the poems they wrote. What was it like having Violi as a mentor and what has he meant for you as a poet?
AL: Paul was the most generous of mentors. He was kind, wry, hilarious, and we got along famously. A kindred spirit. We would meet every other week at the New School in the courtyard where people would smoke cigarettes. I don’t smoke cigarettes, but we’d usually just shoot the shit and catch up for a while. He would tell the most amazing stories. I’ve written on Paul and his impact on me before. Then we’d wander over to Murray’s Bagels on 6th Avenue. Drink espresso, talk about poems, laugh our asses off. Well that’s how I remember it. After Paul died I went through some old emails. You know, almost afraid to let the tips of my fingers find them. And guess what? He was far more critical than I remembered. He wanted me to be reading more poetry, and he was totally right! He didn’t think I should use any pop culture references in my poems, and wasn’t afraid to raise his eyebrows at a poem that had no business existing. He was able to say so much without saying anything.
So basically, it was the best mentor experience possible: inspiring and generous. I still sometimes have conversations with him about poems in my head.
SK: Those of who have been lucky enough to know you are quick to realize that your poems really do feel like Lawless children ushered into the world: they are witty, quirky, funny, smart as hell, mischievous, do not shy away from uncomfortable “truths”, and are aware the world is a messy and often awful place, yet remain cautiously optimistic. So tell us, where does a poem begin for you? Do you set out to write “funny poems”, or do the poems take on a life of their own?
AL: This is a really wonderful question, Steven, and I’m humbled to be characterized as in any kind of close proximity to my poems. I never set out to do anything. My chest opens up and the alien babies come forth. I am only a shell for some monsters.
I have a little nephew named Freddie. He’s 17 months old and he does this amazing thing where he points to things that are out of place: a flower without half its petals, an owl picture absent of its head, a lamp not in use, a book not being read, a star not in the sky. I sometimes do that too, but my pointing might be sitting down and writing a poem.
SK: Since the release of your book you’ve managed to hit the road and do some readings. Where did you go? Do you have any upcoming readings?
AL: Oh holy shit I did. I had two readings at AWP Boston. Then I went to Portland, Maine with James Gendron, whose amazing and hilarious book Sexual Boat (Sex Boats) came out from Octopus Books the same day as My Dead, and Zachary Schomburg. Mathias Svalina also came with but he didn’t read poems. Mathias and Zach made me laugh so hard I almost wet my pants in Maine. They’re a real comedy duo. Then all four of us read for the Triptych Reading Series with Brandon Shimoda and Dot Devota. Dot read the most amazing poem I think about rather often. Then James Gendron and I drove to a bunch of places in a rental car. We read at Librarie Drawn and Quarterly in Montreal, Flying Object, in Hadley, Massachusetts with Ish Klein. Then we came back to Brooklyn and read at the Stain of Poetry Series hosted by the lovely Jenny Zhang with Nadxi Nieto and Leopoldine Core. Then we drove to Providence and read for the Kate Shiapara’s Publicly Complex series. Then we read in Philadelphia, hosted by Daron Mueller at Molly’s Books. Finally, we read with Matthew Zapruder and Sarah Rose Etter at Three Tents in Washington, DC. It was really fun going on tour with James. I feel like he’s the brother I never had, and he’s a damn amazing poet. Since then I’ve had some readings in NYC that were really great. All told, I sold some books and met some really interesting characters and I slept on some couches.
Upcoming: I am going to North Carolina to read for the So & So Reading Series hosted by Chris Tonelli on Saturday June 15 with Lauren Hunter, Christine Kanownik, and Alina Gregorian. I’m also reading for something Book Camp somewhere in either Oregon or Washington from August 16-18, also with James Gendron. After that? I’ll be reading a collaborative poem with Angela Veronica Wong at the Best American Poetry gala launch on September 19.
SK: What’s next or what are you currently working on?
AL: I have been writing prose poems with the same title, “The Secret Lives of Deer.” I also have a manuscript called “EMPIRE” that’s not so much about Roman Emperors as it is about me. I should probably send it to some friends to have them read it. I am writing some book reviews and essays. Oh, I am also collaborating with the amazing Angela Veronica Wong. I recently reviewed Ben Fama’s Mall Witch for BOMBLOG, which was an interesting intellectual exercise. It’s fun and sweat-inducing to write essays and reviews, so I’m doing more of that. I want to sweat more.
Snapshot with Amy Lawless pt. 2
“I Refuse To Be The Joey Tribbiani Of Anything”
SK: Would you rather be in the cast of Friends, Gossip Girl, or Cheers?
AL: That’s a trick question. You know I’m from Boston so I’d say Cheers. However, the idea of living or constantly inhabiting a BAR is icky. Having everyone know your name is lovely but too intimate. Therefore, I’d like to say Friends because everyone falls in love in the water fountain during the opening credits, and I want to fall in love. Oh wait. Joey Tribbiani, voiced by Matt LeBlanc, doesn’t find love. I refuse to be the Joey Tribbiani of anything.
SK: Amy, you caught me! It was totally a trick question. I thought for sure, you’d say Cheers- haha!
SK: Who or what were you in your past life?
AL: I have no idea.
SK: What is your spirit animal?
AL: Crow. Read about it and find your spirit animal here.
SK: Would you rather be a puma or snow leopard?
AL: Snow leopards are prettier.
SK: If you were in a band would you be the lead singer/rhythm guitarist, lead guitarist, bass player, or the drummer?
AL: All the instruments.
SK: Ideal vacation? Cabin in the mountains or luxury hotel with beach-front access?
AL: Can it be a cabin on the beach instead? I’m always at a luxury resort in my own thoughts.
SK: Would you rather be Wonder Women, Supergirl, or She-ra?
SK: Would you rather be a famous unicorn or salty old dragon?
AL: Dragons know a lot.
SK: Romantic lead in a comedy, crazy killer in a Tarantino-type flick, or that “one” in a sci-fi feature who inspires hope by swearing earth is out there and you’re going to lead them to it?
AL: You must come with me. The meteor is going to hit. This is your last chance. Don’t you see? Don’t you see? ….[heaving heaving breaths] Tell me. Tell me when was the last time you saw the sun with your own eyes? [Slaps giant steel goggles off of the head of Krinld] THE EYES IN YOUR HEAD! You’ve all been under the thought-blasts of Gzianz for too long. We have to get out of here. USE YOUR EYES. We have two hours to get to the ship. After that it’s over. You can kiss your sweet leach stars good bye!
SK: Astrological sign?
AL: Pisces, the astrological sign closely associated with death. It is the last sign.
SK: Final question, if you were a tree would you be a deciduous or a coniferous?
AL: I don’t believe in coniferous trees. I would have to be a deciduous tree because I believe very much in the changing of the seasons, in leaves falling. These leaves turn red and yellow and orange and brown and express their death in ways I can’t deal with—it’s too beautiful and poignant. When leaves fall we can look at them on ground and know that the passage of time exists and is real, and oh look you have a grey hair. Oh look your time is limited. Oh look, the water in the glass I’ve left on the counter is lighter because the water has evaporated. Oh look. Coniferous trees don’t provide ME this kind of opportunity for selfreflection. After all, it’s all about me.
* The title comes from a line in Amy’s second book, My Dead (formatting mine).
** I had taken some poetry workshops at Portland State University, thanks to the kindness of Michele Glazer, but was also very scared, just better at faking it (ego and all that stupidity!).
Amy Lawless is the author of the poetry collections Noctis Licentia and My Dead. She has been named a 2011 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow. She teaches writing in New York City and blogs at amylawless.blogspot.com.
Steven Karl is an editor for Coldfront Magazine. His first book, Dork Swagger, is forthcoming from Coconut Books in the fall of 2013. He lives in Miami, FL.