What do you feel is important in the act of writing and reading poetry compared to other forms of writing?
I think every genre of writing offers unique gifts to the writers who engage with them; some of these gifts are challenging — not what we’d pick out for ourselves — while others seem tailor-made for our sensibilities. For me, poetry offers a way to blend experience and imagination in ways that I think are not always as available in other genres, though genre lines continue to blur and evolve. I love the freedom to shape a life moment in a poem for greater effect: to turn a third kiss into a first one, to move it from a sidewalk to a field, etc. However, this freedom comes with challenges as well and I ask myself frequently, what truth am I after in a poem and how is it served by experience and imagination?
The gifts of reading poetry are many, from finding poems that offer solace in times of grief, to finding poems that speak to a truth/feeling/moment we can’t articulate for ourselves. Plus, poems just taste good, are such fun to read aloud and feel in the mouth.
How do you inspire yourself and keep yourself writing, especially in times of writer’s block? How has that changed in recent months?
I think, for the most part, if you want to take writing seriously, you have to create a routine that encourages you to write even when you don’t feel like it. So that is my first move: to respect the time I set aside each week for writing; if you create space for the muse, she is more likely to visit.
That said, sometimes time isn’t enough. This is why I also have writing prompts/exercises I return to when I feel stuck. Often it’s a form. For instance, an abecedarian or ghazal are both modes I find generative when I feel stuck. Sometimes I write in the voice of a fairytale character, which also helps get me going. I also spend a lot of time revising, so if I don’t feel like starting something new, I’ll work on older poems.
Finally, something that has certainly become clearer in the last few months, I try to be kind to myself when I just can’t write. When I need to go for a walk or read or hang out with my cats instead. Writing takes energy, and we all need to refuel sometimes, let things incubate. The pandemic has taught me to be a tiny bit more patient, to take things a tiny bit more slowly.
What have you learned from your students, and what do you hope your students take away from your classes?
My students give me so many things, it is hard to pick just one! But, I think one of the best things they can give me is their passion: when I see them writing in a new genre or pushing themselves to write a stranger, wilder poem/story/essay, I get excited too, I am reminded of why I write and teach writing.
Oddly, or appropriately, I hope my students get the same thing from me — that same contagious excitement. I know not everyone wants to be a professional writer, not everyone likes to read: but if I can give students a text that surprises them, if I can encourage them to be a little braver in their writing, to take more risks, if I see their own enthusiasm growing about their projects, the work at hand, to me, that is it. To experience anything in life, be it a college class or a first love or ballet or a perfect milkshake, requires being present and engaged. To bring your full self to the moment. If I can help students do that in my class once in a while, that’s a skill that transfers well and broadly to so much of life.
When delving into a writing form or genre that you’re unfamiliar with, what is the most exciting part of it, and what is the most terrifying?
I think the most exciting part of stepping into an unfamiliar form or genre is the way it shifts you away from your comfort zone. I often start poems in the same way — a phrase or idea comes to me and I just follow it until I’ve reached a dead end or a finish line (sometimes they are the same thing). When writing in a new poetic form, that sort of momentum-driven approach is disrupted; it is more like a waltz rather than free-styling on the dance floor.
When working in fiction or creative nonfiction, I am more often terrified rather than excited. I love fiction as a reader, and probably read more of it than I do poetry, so it is incredibly hard for me to turn off the editor part of my brain when writing a story. I can’t achieve that magical flow state I hear fiction writers sometimes comment on. With CNF, I am terrified about the subject matter, which is either myself (terrifying) or requires research (daunting), or worse, both!
This isn’t to say that I don’t often write poetry about myself or that I don’t conduct research for poems, but somehow these matters feel more approachable to me in poetic rather than essay form.
Do you actively push yourself to explore new places in your writing or do you find that there’s more to be discovered in the already familiar?
As with too many things in my life, the answer to this question is “both.” I am always going to be interested in writing about relationships — between people and between people and the nonhumans with which we share the earth, from animals to plants to landscape. I think there’s much to be learned by writing about the same thing at different points in your life: a poem I’d write about getting divorced now is going to be very different from the poems I wrote while going through a divorce.
That said, I often push myself, through writing prompts as mentioned earlier, to move beyond my comfort zone. Sometimes this is a push toward new subject matter, sometimes it’s a push toward a different approach: to turn a narrative poem into a lyric, for instance, or visa versa.
How has being named Murfreesboro’s Poet Laureate impacted your life and writing?
Honestly, becoming Murfreesboro’s Poet Laureate has changed my life radically. It led me to being named an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow, which is one of the most incredible honors I’ve ever experienced. I still can barely believe it’s real! Through this fellowship, I am going to be able to support Poetry in the Boro and offer LGBT+ writing workshops for youth in partnership with Southern Word and The Porch. The laureateship also has helped me connect with other writers and artists in Rutherford County through my Dream Geographies project.
As a writer, it has encouraged me to be even more attuned to place in my writing and how my work is shaped by Murfreesboro — be it my walks to Oaklands Mansion or exploring other parts of town and the middle Tennessee region.
It has been a few years since your book of poetry was published. What have you learned about publishing that you’d like to pass on to those who are seeking publication?
Publishing poetry is very different from publishing in other genres; most poetry collections are published through a prize (though, that’s not how Glass Harvest got published. I had submitted to Autumn House Press’s chapbook contest twice and was a finalist twice; after that my amazing editor Christine Stroud reached out to me to see if I had a full-length and, thus, Glass Harvest was born).
My advice is to treat these prizes like the lottery, because they are largely just that — yes, it’s important to submit your best work, but it’s a matter of luck and timing for that work to find the right reader. So, like the lottery, don’t spend too much money on this enterprise: give yourself a budget and see how many contests you can enter within your budget. Only submit to contests with presses with which you’d love working. Winning a poetry prize should make you feel delighted, not disappointed that you didn’t set your aims higher.
Finally, you’re going to need some grit; you’re going to need to learn to at least tolerate rejection if not revel in it. You’re going to have to nourish your faith in your own work — not an easy task, and not one easily accomplished alone. I highly recommend finding a writing buddy with whom you can exchange work and bemoan prize fees and cheer each other on.
What is your current major project, and what would you like to say about it?
Oh to have just one “current major project!” I am a little incapable of that. I have a finished manuscript that is making the prize rounds; at least, I think/hope it’s finished — if it doesn’t win a prize soon, I might have to go back and tinker with it again.
Right now, I am editing the poems I’ve written over the last couple years and trying to figure out what the next manuscript is going to be about. So far, it appears to be about dreams — literal dreams, as some of the poems are inspired by dreams I’ve had — as well as the concept of “The American Dream,” and how we internalize and excavate various cultural myths. I also have poems about mandrakes and the moon and creeks and family. In other words, it’s about everything as far as I can tell.
Amie Whittemore is the author of the poetry collection Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press), the 2020 Poet Laureate of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow. Her poems have won multiple awards, including a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and her poems and prose have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Nashville Review, Smartish Pace, Pleiades, and elsewhere. She is the Reviews Editor for Southern Indiana Review and teaches English at Middle Tennessee State University.
Sophia Maas is a student at Middle Tennessee State University.