An Interview with Amy Lawless
Amy Lawless is the author of two collections of poetry: My Dead (Octopus Books, 2013) and Noctis Licentia (Black Maze Books, 2008). Her third book Broadax will be published by Octopus Books in 2016. She was a 2011 New York Foundation for the Arts poetry fellow. Amy grew up in Boston and lives in New York.
We're fascinated by process and workspace and how important or inconsequential they may be to a writer.
Can you tell us about your own methods and routines?
I have many routines. And I guess that’s a way of saying that I have no strict routine. In order for me to write, I must be comfortable. However, sometimes I feel comfortable on a commuter train writing in the Google Docs app or Notes app on my phone. And sometimes I am in a quiet room in my home. Comfort could be emotional or intellectual or even emptiness.
I don’t believe in making excuses for not writing. I don't worry about not writing or about writer’s block. Sometimes, I have to live life or work, and sometimes I am writing. It comes when it has to.
If I am writing prose, I must awaken early and sit at my desk and write for two or three hours absent of distraction. If I am writing poems, I have no rules. A poem comes by when it wants to come by, and one must be receptive open. I usually write on my laptop.
Regarding process: My writing impulses are untamed and selfish. My editing process is bratty and lazy. I have no apologies for this. What comes is itself. What is not good, I delete or lay to languish in documents never returned to again. Sometimes I share with friends who I trust and ask what they think or for a better title or for human affirmation. Sometimes I don’t.
When I write prose, it’s like I have to give the untamed girl a talking to. Sit in your chair! Be good! Drink your coffee! Sit down!
I also collaborate with Chris Cheney. We have a good thing happening as writing co-conspirators, and our stuff is shortly being published. We use Google Docs and meet up in Brooklyn cafes and open it up on the open road of a fresh Google Doc all the time.
You read at the Whitney this year as part of the Moby Dick Marathon NYC - how did you get involved with this series? What was the experience like?
This year’s Moby Dick Marathon was organized by the lovely Molly Rose Quinn and the Whitney Museum. Molly is a poet and friend I occasionally brunch with in Brooklyn. She asked me to participate, and I did. This is the second time I have participated in a marathon reading on this book. This year, the reading used some Frank Stella pieces inspired by Moby Dick as a landscape. It was a two day event of many writers each reading a selection of around 15-20 minutes (couple chapters) of the book each. It was so fun. I’m a Pisces, so I love being around water even if virtually or textually. I love how hilarious this book is. But I have to admit: I wasn’t there for the whole thing or even for a whole day!
We've had the pleasure of seeing you read at various events in New York and have noticed that humor is central to your work and the way people receive it. During the writing process, are you consciously aware of humor within a poem or does that come later? How would you describe your humor?
Modern life is horrifying, surveilled, humiliating, and warped, and if you don’t laugh at it you won’t get out of bed. Laughing is not the same thing as not taking something seriously.
I love laughing and am very aware of what I think is funny and why I think something is funny. A laugh can also be derisive or a work of resistance created by the epiglottis and the larynx. When people read you as a “funny poet,” they will be predisposed to laughing. This often leads to lines being unintentionally funny. However, sometimes my poems are incredibly sad and lonely, which I think also helps things to get more laughs somehow. But I’m not sitting around writing poems like jokes. I sit around writing poems. And one thing I love doing is to entertain myself; therefore, what entertains me can often entertain a person reading/hearing my work.
I write a lot of poems to convey genuine experiences. This is often not funny at all. The experience of being a woman in the 21st century is often humiliating as it is beautiful. However, people still laugh because the poem was so funny.
With regard to putting a reading together: there are plenty of poems I will never read to an audience in a bar at a reading. When I read poems to humans, I’m not going to scintillate them with my line breaks. They won’t hear how a poem looks on a page. I’ll get to them with content, humor, emotion. I want to connect. And if people are laughing – someone has said this before, not me – they’re paying attention. I dunno, I’ve watched a lot of stand up and comedic movies and television. It’s all about WHO is saying WHAT. Louis CK’s jokes are so, so extra funny because he’s the one saying them. That body delivering what he says gives weight to what he says. The ethical appeal.
That said, do you think the humor within each poem translates analogously from the page to a live reading? Are the two experiences the same, and for that matter, should they be?
Sometimes. I mean, I’ve written poems that I love that don’t even work within my manuscripts but kill in readings. Sometimes I find that the less I care about what people think when they hear my poems, the better the reading is, and I’m getting high fived by the dishwashers and free drinks from the bartender who admits to hating poetry.
The experience of writing a poem and reading live are totally different, but both involve the communication of one human with hopefully more than one human.
We're interested in your exploration of death and mourning in your second collection, My Dead. How personal were these poems and how did real life grief (if any) impact your creative process?
My uncle died. My grandmother died. My grandfather died. I wrote the poem Elephants in Mourning following their deaths, which occurred within a year and a half. I wrote the poem in a fit of two days following (randomly) finding and watching a National Geographic episode on elephant mourning rituals. I was connected to these elephants as I saw analogues between the behavior of the elephants and the behavior of myself and my family members. What was the fucking difference between these elephants and my family? Crying, tossing and turning, poking, helping, looking, returning to things geographically, physically, and emotionally. The return. The memory. The symbolism. Loud noises of crying, lashing out at other family members. Watching the elephants tethered my mourning to something. Seeing the elephants normalized my grief in a way that watching humans (reading about humans) did not. The elephants did more for me than any religion, prayer, or poem. So I wrote my poem.
Can you recommend any bang-on poets coming out of New York these days?
I am really into the work of the following New York City based poets: Christine Kanownik, Ali Power, Paige Taggart, Jackie Clark, Bridget Talone, Brandon Kreitler, Chris Cheney, Morgan Parker, and Tommy Pico.
What is your next project?
More like projects.
I am editing my next poetry collection Broadax, which Octopus Books is publishing in 2016.
A collaborative book written with poet Chris Cheney I Cry: The Desire to Be Rejected is coming really soon (like January or February 2016) from Pioneer Works. We’ve been working really hard with the team to get it out. If you’ve never checked out what Pioneer Works and Dustin Yellin are up to in Red Hook, you’re missing out. Cheney and I have a few new pieces in progress: a long book length poem called Y’All Ready for This? and also we’re writing a sequel to I Cry.
Got a favorite cocktail to add to The Mackinac Liquor List? How about a song for our official playlist?
In the warm months I just love an Aperol Spritz. Can we all just pretend it’s still summer? Song: “Blank Space” by either Taylor Swift or Ryan Adams!