What is the poem preparing for? | An Interview With Amorak Huey
Yesterday, we took a look at Amorak Huey's newest collection, Boom Box. In addition to also previewing two poems from the collection, we had a chance to talk with Huey about the urgency of youth, pop culture in poems, and his Boom Box playlist.
Jacqueline Boucher: The voices that are at play in this collection are so unique. At times, the narrative blusters with the bravado of the speaker at seventeen, while others look back with the temperance of adulthood. Can you talk a little about the process of balancing and blending those two voices?
Amorak Huey: I had fun playing with voice in these poems. For one thing, not every speaker is me, and there’s more than one persona. Some are versions of my younger self, of course, but many are invented, and others are versions of friends and neighbors. I think my attention to this comes in part from something I learned through writing and teaching nonfiction: the importance of being always aware of both the remembered I — that is, the self in the moment, in the past, in the depicted event, the active self; and the reflective I—that is, the writer at the desk, the one looking back with different eyes on the other self, the thinking self who brings a different perspective to the depicted narrative, though not always a wiser one. The interplay between these two versions of the self is where a narrative takes on a larger meaning. Any narrative, not just in these poems, though I hope it happens here as well.
JB: So much of the 80s is woven into the DNA of this book: film, music, even world events are utilized as anything from self-portraits to referents for specific strains of excitement or longing. With nostalgia being the driving force behind so much art and literature right now, how did you weave those elements into the narrative in a way that felt genuine to this collection?
AH: I hope the pop culture elements in the collection feel organic to the poems, to the world being explored. It was never about forcing in references as some kind of billboard announcing time or place. The music and movies and other cultural touchstones, they were and are important to me in life, outside of the poems. They are part of the air I breathed as an adolescent, part of the language in the world I inhabit. These poems are about our perpetual quest to define ourselves, to figure out our place in the world, and for me and I assume most of us, pop culture is a big part of that. We turn to celebrities and stories and songs, and they offer examples, for better or worse, of what it means to be alive, of how to be human. I’m not saying it’s exactly smart or healthy to base your self-perception on, say, how you stack up against the speaker from “Welcome to the Jungle” or Luke Skywalker or the detectives in Miami Vice, but it’s what I did. Still do, probably, if I’m being honest.
JB: Similarly, the collection seems to touch on recurring seasonal disasters such as floods and tornadoes. How does continually having to prepare for, and recover from, disaster shape a person? How does it shape a poet?
AH: Isn’t that life? You’re either preparing for a disaster or recovering from one? I hadn’t thought of this until you asked this question, but it seems to me that you can probably examine any poem through the lens of these two questions: What is being prepared for? What is being recovered from? I have said before, and I sincerely believe this, that one of the defining characteristics of a poem is that a poem is always aware of its own mortality. That is, a poem knows it will end. This affects every decision the poem makes along the way. I think it’s probably why poems so often prize concision. To bring this idea back to Boom Box, part of the reason I’m interested in natural disasters is simply because they were part of the landscape of my childhood, but also they make danger and mortality explicit in our lives in a way we cannot ignore.
JB: So much of this book seems to be about appetites and longing. At times, the speaker’s greatest gift is his ability to make readers believe that everything he wants is the most important thing he’s ever wanted, which feels quintessential to adolescence. How do you maintain the momentum of that urgency across an entire collection?
AH: Uh, yeah, adolescence, that’s it. Definitely don’t still feel that way about my desires and longings, nope, no way. … Ahem. … Anyway, it’s interesting to me to think about whether that momentum is sustained across the collection. I am not generally a poet who thinks in terms of collections or projects. I tend to work a poem at a time, and then begin thinking about a collection once I have a big enough pile of poems. This creates problems for me when it comes time to assemble a manuscript. Because a book needs some kind of through-line, right? That sense of urgency across a collection, as you say. Trying to find that thread after all the poems are written is a challenge. I was fortunate to work with two excellent editors on this collection: Maggie Smith helped me make sense of the pile of poems I had assembled, and then Erin Elizabeth Smith at Sundress challenged me to make it better. They both helped me see connections between poems, holes that needed to be filled, ways of implying a narrative but also challenging the notion that the book is one story, one narrative, one voice. I was revising poems and titles up until the end, including really mucking about in some poems that had already been published, and I wrote a handful of new poems right before the book went to press.
JB: Throughout the collection, particularly in the Kristi poems in the second half, the speaker engages with different kinds of faith and holiness, some more earnest than others. As a poet, what do you find yourself placing faith in, or what do you find holy? What does the speaker find holy, if not what he finds in church?
AH: What I find holy is human connection. The way we find each other in this brief window we have. Love is the word we use most often for this experience, but there are other words for it. The speakers of these poems think their desires are holy, and they might not be wrong.
JB: Something I loved in this book was the fact that the speaker establishes himself as both earnest and not-so-trustworthy in almost the same breath (there are instances of him supposing something in one poem and unmaking it in the next). As a reader, I never totally knew where I stood with him, which was exciting. Can you speak to that a little?
AH: For me, as I mentioned, these poems do not have a single speaker. In the writing process, I basically invented the speaker anew with every poem I started. However, that’s a bit of a copout for me to rely on, right? Because now that these poems live in a book together, of course a reader is going to look for narrative threads, is going to read the speaker as a single voice. That’s how we read. It’s like when Richard Hugo says it’s impossible to write meaningless sequences; as soon as we put words together on a page and hand that page to a reader, a reader is going to find a way to make sense of them. They belong together because they are together. Same for the speakers in these poems, which are obviously all exploring similar themes and times and places from similar perspectives. That said, I appreciate that you said you never know where you stand with the speakers. I don’t want reading the book to be a single unfractured narrative experience. I don’t want you to have to read it in order. If there is a single story here, I like the idea of each poem feeling like a kind of kaleidoscopic view on that story: that is, while the brightly colored glass shards of the narrative might be the same, each poem arranges them differently and the light source changes.
JB: If you were to make a Boom Box playlist, which would be the most important songs to make the cut?
AH: Here’s the album:
· “Welcome to the Jungle,” Guns ’n Roses
· “Wild Side,” Motley Crue
· “Red Dirt Girl,” Emmylou Harris
· “Ode to Billie Joe,” Bobbie Gentry
· “Talk Dirty to Me,” Poison
· “Nobody’s Fool,” Cinderella
· “Still of the Night,” Whitesnake
· “Smuggler’s Blues,” Glenn Frey
· “You Give Love a Bad Name,” Bon Jovi
· “18 and Life,” Skid Row
· “Girls Girls Girls,” Motley Crue
· “Body Talk,” Ratt
· “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” Guns ’n Roses
· “With or Without You,” U2
· “Alabama Pines,” Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
JB: Who are you reading that excites you right now?
AH: I just finished Lauren Wilkinson’s novel American Spy, which was lots of fun. I’m working my way through Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey. Poetry-wise, recent and current reads include Franny Choi’s Soft Science, Deborah Landau’s Soft Targets, Leah Silvieus’ Arabilis, and Oliver Baez Bendorf’s The Spectral Wilderness. Oh, and Elisa Gabbert’s The Word Pretty is a terrific book of essays about writing and reading.
JB: What is your favorite bone?
AH: The femur.
If you like what you read this weekend, you can pick up a copy of Boom Box from Sundress Publications. But for now, grab your Aqua Net and get ready to feel some feelings, courtesy of Amorak Huey's Boom Box playlist.
Amorak Huey is author of two previous poetry collections: Seducing the As- paragus Queen (Cloudbank Books, 2018), winner of the Vern Rutsala Prize; and Ha Ha Ha Thump (Sundress Publications, 2015). Co-author of the text- book Poetry: A Writers' Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), he teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.