Amy King was raised in what she described as a “backwoods” town in Georgia, as well as in Baltimore, until she moved to New York 11 years ago. On her blog and website she describes herself as a “poet, teacher, and Activist.” The term is quite fitting since many of her poems are unmistakably political (e.g. “This Opera of Peace”). Many of the poems from I Want to Make You Safe, such as “Follow the Leader” and “The People of Things,” are rewarding upon a second read, while others still remain locked in King’s own imagination. Stanzas like, “We are all snow birds atop / the cherry blossoms of August / Springtime in Washington D.C. / passed too fast, nearly in the flash of Rose / brushing her teeth over the bedpan” make use of those imaginative leaps to make our emotional connection to the poem stronger (“Some Pink in Your Color”). King is also an English and Creative Writing Teacher at SUNY Nassau Community College. She also edits Esque Magazine with Ana Božičević.
Gigi Augsbach When you write, is a lot of it inspired by the classes you teach—by class exercises, students, etcetera?
Amy King More often, class assignments are born of my writing, and what I’m thinking about on any given day of the week. The students influence what I write insofar as any humans might, as well as what their presence says about how others construct “Amy King.”
That is, since I spend a chunk of time in classrooms (the hat makes the man) talking with people, aka students, and primarily querying how language works, from the minute to larger societal scales, resistance, it turns out, is futile (so said the Borg). I yam what I yam, or as Gertrude Stein wrote, “I am I because my little dog knows me.”
GA When I read your poetry, I feel like they are words sitting on clouds. That’s a feeling I get from its floating-between-the-concrete-and -the-metaphorical, between what is imagined and what is real. It almost feels like you are free-writing your imagination. Do a lot of your compositions begin in free-writing?
AK Some of my more popular poems come from a burst of free-writing, mostly because we are born into conventional narrative, conditioned to it, and when I let loose in one go (usually after a glass of wine), the narrator enjoys the brain that isn’t as aware of how she’s constructing and gets to pen things “naturally,” unhindered by the analyst.
The editor sometimes gets to work later, turning poems into more constructed, less free-flowy pieces that discomfit folks. My hope is that their curiosity will win out (i.e. She seems normal; why’d she write that?), and folks will think into—and through—what it means to make sense.
In terms of my work being weighted towards the metaphorical, imagined, or real, language itself is metaphorical; the words, nouns in motion that they are, stand in for other worldly things and notions and complex equations. I’m often surprised at how many very smart people simply inherit and embrace the conventional frames society-at-large limits us to. Oh how we love to police each other’s speech. Anyway, I think the imaginary is real, and metaphor’s as concrete as language.
Ever notice when someone is trying to explain a difficult concept, their language becomes increasingly metaphorical? For example: What’s poetry? Poetry is a very big house with many rooms … Or as you put it in this question, “they are words sitting on clouds.” As with language, some prefer not to see the little man behind the curtain working the levers of Oz and only want to mutely enjoy the show, while others want to grab on, find out what this and that lever does and what the fabric of the curtain can be turned into, etc.
GA “We have always been the first fruit and the first to rot / We are the ones that read the signs after we bury them.” (“Follow the Leader of my Silken Teeth”). Could you talk more about what you’ve written here?
AK At 40, I’ve decided to embrace the notion that I’m part educator, among other titles (person/pocket-rocket/puppy, etc). I talk with people in classrooms, and while I worry about being found out (a phony because I enjoy many of these conversations), I find they often respond with a variety of reactions, an array of ideas, and even one up what I thought was the apex of a particular idea now and then. These exchanges feel meaningful and are not, of course, limited to the classroom. Poems can facilitate them too.
You’ve likely heard that poets read poetry, which (hopefully) reflects the seriousness of those engaged in looking at how language means, even at how language can possibly construct and advance humanity better than, say, a bomb can, which is oddly where most governments invest their currencies in the name of “defense”—against, not Martians, but other humans! So if the investment of much of our resources (in the name of protecting resources!) is geared towards “defense” instead of education, which is really about communication, interaction and exchange, then the connective tissue within our species is overlooked in favor of that which separates, even obliterates, our species.
And by “connective tissue,” I am resorting to more overt metaphor to make sense, which echoes my sentiment above. Listen in on a mathematician or a theoretical physicist sometime. Note the poetry their science devolves to. So if language is this very real, but ethereal gauze that has been known to alleviate tensions, that give us ways to explore our consciousness and consciences, and calm us and get us to work together, then shouldn’t the use value of language be more overtly explored, more widely, in lieu of actual bomb (not BOMB!) and fence building? Or at least, in equal measure? It is the only tangible tissue between us (along with music, etc) that we have to work with. We are the fruit, we bear, and we rot ourselves.
GA In “Some Pink in Your Color,” you write about “stars in a jar” and “fireflies” and in “Butterfly the Gnarled” you write “into my stomach an explosion of stars.” What significance do fireflies have for you?
AK I grew up in Georgia watching them while lying in the grass. Mostly, I like the way they contrast with the dark, all over the place. Don’t they resemble dying stars on repeat in a vast outer space that we can walk around in?
GA I am really interested in posing the question you asked in “Lidija Dimkovska has made A Bomb of My Eyes.” You wrote, “Language speaks our very tender selves / into birth but / do words look human?”
AK While other species may use language in some capacity, I’ve only heard humans speak in this one. Words look human in so far as language itself is a human enterprise. Without it, I’m not sure how we would conceptualize each other.
Have you ever heard of the myths that Native Americans couldn’t see the European ships on the horizon because they couldn’t conceive of them? Or that some peoples thought that a man on a horse was one single creature? These myths function as conundrums, not truths, to query how else we would perceive, and interact without the engine of words to convey histories, break things down and understand how things function, describe, relay experiences we ourselves have not had, empathize, etcetera
GA Your poems always have these interesting, sometimes long titles that Sufjan Stevenswould be jealous of. How do you title your poetry?
AK I always ask my students if a title gives them a way into the poem. Sometimes titles act as signposts; at others, they set the mood or extend an invitation or explode a concept, etc. But that doesn’t tell you much. I title my poems in much the same way I write poems, and there is no one method.
Related: I ask my students if they have not studied physics, are they permitted to discuss an article they’ve recently read on the Hadron Collider? I ask them if they are not politicians, are they forbidden from talking about how campaigns hire linguists to construct their campaign copy? I ask them if poetry, which also employs language, must avoid any type of subject matter. The answer is usually and resolutely no. Just like the poem, the title can do whatever language can do.
Some of Stevens’s titles, especially from the Illinois album, would eat mine alive. I’m glad he found his way to the BQE.
Amy King’s latest book, I Want to Make You Safe, was just released by Litmus Press at the end of 2011. She is currently preparing a book of interviews with the poet, Ron Padgett, co-edited Poets for Living Waters with Heidi Lynn Staples, and currently edits Esque Magazine with Ana Božičević. She also teaches English and Creative Writing at SUNY Nassau Community College. Amy founded and curated, from 2006, the Brooklyn-based reading series, The Stain of Poetry, until 2010. Visit her current site at amyking.org.