Poetry Around Us with James Ballowe

An interview series with featured poets of Fifth Wednesday Journal

Becoming a Poet: An Interview with Amy Newman


Fifth Wednesday Journal: When did you decide that poetry would be the art you wanted to pursue? And did you have any other art interest that you had to relinquish when you began to concentrate on poetry full time? I notice, for example, your many references to painting and the fact that your poems use visual description for metaphorical purposes.

Amy Newman: There was a specific moment when I thought I’d like to pursue poetry, but it was always more of a pursuit in the study of poetry rather than the writing, at least for a long time. I’d enjoyed my classes at the college level, reading poetry, but when I’d left school and was working in New York City as a stylist for television commercials, I was in a high-paced field and there was a lot to do. One day I was sitting in a studio, waiting for the models to try on their outfits for whatever commercial we were filming that day, and there was a pile of New Yorkers on the table. I picked one up and turned to a poem. I just wanted to read something quiet and wonderful in all that craziness. It happened to be “In Passing,” a poem by Stanley Plumly.

As I read the poem, there was something that happened in those few lines. All of the people who were running around the studio, all the nonsense and loudness, kind of faded away, and I just let the poem in. It was like stepping into a painting. Plumly’s poem begins “On the Canadian side, we’re standing far enough away / the Falls look like photography . . .” and ends “I will never love you / more than at this moment, here in October, / the new rain rising slowly from the river.” As I read it, everything just slid away. I loved how I could enter the poem, as if I were moving into a different dimension. I looked up at all the people racing around, clicking on their heels. I looked back down at the poem again. I thought: that was really a beautiful feeling; I have to go back to school and study poetry again.

So I applied to grad school intending to read and write poetry. I didn’t plan on being a poet, though; I was going to do my dissertation on Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I’m as interested in the study of literature, and I think reading about literature is as intense as writing it, maybe even more so.

The references to painting: well, Camera Lyrica was originally titled Realism/Naturalism. How do Realist painters represent the world? And even more intense to me, what about Naturalism? How to represent the awareness of terror in the midst of that beauty with pigments and oils? I’m very interested in the paradox of representation of reality. An easier way to say that is: I’m interested in how an artist might be able to capture reality in her chosen medium (paint, language, etc.) without killing it. How does a painter paint what looks like a real landscape and create it in such a way that we don’t think oh, that’s a bunch of paint on a flat canvas? And how would I do such a thing with words, which are in reality just sound blocks, represented by ink on paper?

FWJ: You work within several modes of poetry, from the traditional sonnet form to prose poems. Does the subject choose the mode, as it seems to do in The Sin Sonnets (2009) where you write this in “Cordelia”?

The father hoped, like sonnets, to confine
the family’s love. Within this guided fence,
he measured words to figure innocence,
though my sisters fit lies to his design.
But I made all my truths as one makes wine,
to clarify his palate, or incense,
which permeates the air as a fragrance
and softens with its sweetness truth unkind.

Or does the idea emerge from the form?

AN: Form and content are certainly linked in my mind, but it’s not always the same method. For example, in The Sin Sonnets, I was intrigued by the idea of a sonnet redouble; this form was so intricate, melodic and flowing as sonnets are but so otherwise restraining (in the redouble, the final sonnet is comprised of the first lines of the previous fourteen sonnets). I tried to think of a subject that would work with these formal qualities. It seemed to me that the sonnet redouble was like sin in the body, the body being a kind of form that has sin, the person needing always to restrain. Does it even work? So that’s when I came up with exploring the idea of sin and the utility of the sonnet form. The flexible act of maintaining the subject — sin’s delicious tendency to trespass boundaries — within form operates as a metaphor for the body’s struggle to collect its abounding, lively passions within the constraints of reason. (One hopes.)

I think form and content, subject, are always linked. Form — whichever form one finds — adds something bittersweet to a poem. The absence of traditional form, what is characteristically referred to as free verse, offers a different kind of feeling, a closeness to freedom, but not real freedom there; the responsibilities are similarly difficult, because you have to find the shape that poem requires to exist, too. I like what Alan Shapiro says, something along the lines of: The poet writing in meter is writing from that history, a bearer of other lives, while the poet writing in free verse is kind of like Adam, seeing the world on the first day.

What I like about traditional form is that it offers a kind of dotted line, a boundary, but it demands flexibility within that boundary, and that’s where all the dancing is. You can’t just fill it out as if it’s a formula because that leads to a slack-sounding verse. You have to compromise your ideas and work with what the poem wants you to do. In any case, working in form helps you understand what kind of writer you are. My students don’t like the formal assignments at first. I tell them they can think of themselves either like horses who see a gate at the end of the field and think: I’m trapped! Or they can see that gate and think: I have all this space to gallop around in. It’s a choice. Or maybe it’s an instinct. Form, any form, even the absence of traditional form, demands certain attentiveness on the part of a writer.

FWJ: The poems in fall (2004) — in which you elaborate on the various meanings the word fall has taken on — give you a platform to further explore subjects that pervade your earlier books, Order, or Disorder (1995), Camera Lyrica (1997). You use classical, Biblical, and natural history references to provide analogies and metaphors that tell the story of the struggles (religious, natural, etc.) that characterize the human condition. And you do this with a subtle mix of philosophical meditation and humor, as you also do in your chapbooks BirdGirl Handbook (2006) and The Sin Sonnets. My question is whether or not you have a definite theme in mind for a book when you compose the first poem and whether each poem is dedicated to that theme.

AN: I don’t have a definite theme in mind at the beginning. I’m usually just trying to draft as part of that exercise of drafting, that near-daily (if we are lucky) sitting down and scratching away at paper for something, anything. But I am a fan of large project works, of theme and variation. I like, for example, Bach’s The Goldberg Variations, and then of course Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould; The Ring Cycle astounds me. Monet’s Haystacks, I love this kind of thing for some reason.

newman-fallBut I don’t start the day’s writing by looking for it; it’s never been that I seek it out. With fall I was looking up the word “fall” in the dictionary because I was trying to see what the definition was. I’d been trying to write about grief, which some suggest came to us after the fall of Eden; I figured, let’s see how that’s defined. But then! The dictionary definition of the word is stunning. I was really surprised, for some reason, just looking at it. There are seventy-two definitions for the word, and it seemed that the definitions were telling a story of how language came into being, and how it was saturated with a kind of inability to express. The idea — that the definition for the word “fall” was suggesting that after the fall of Eden words came into being as a part of the sign of loss — that is catnip to a writer who’s interested in the extent to which her tools are able to do their job (the inadequacy of paint, of language to represent reality). I thought, what if I take each definition and try to write a poem about it? Though I didn’t know whether anything would come of it, I did like the idea that now I had a concept, like a small kingdom, in my head. And I didn’t know the narrative direction, but only writing every day would show me if there was a direction.

FWJ: When you approach the poem, do you have a particular audience in mind? Do you ever write poetry that you trust is going to be appreciated by a reader that has little experience with the art, or, in fact, may even distrust it?

AN: I don’t think I have an audience in mind when I begin writing. Or I would say if I do, I have to work hard to forget about that for a while, because that voice we have — I tell my students that for the beginning of drafting you’ve got to put that voice to sleep, that voice that says: oh this is silly, this is a ridiculous idea, that line is terrible

The full interview with Amy Newman is available in the Spring 2015 Issue 16 of Fifth Wednesday Journal.  To purchase a copy, please visit our store.
James Ballowe, an FWJ founding editor, is Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Bradley University.  His A Man of Salt and Trees: The Life of Joy Morton, was published in 2009.  In 2010, he edited the anthology Christmas in Illinois (2010).  He has also published a book of poetry, a history of The Morton Arboretum, an edition of George Santayana’s essays, an edition of Welsh poetry with Tony Curtis and Raymond Garlick, and more than 100 essays, poems, and reviews.  He is currently working on a book of essays and a book of poetry.  This is his eleventh interview of an Illinois poet for FWJ. Learn more about him at:

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