Amanda Williams is the latest addition to the Unsolicited Press family. Her chapbook Little Human Relics is available on May 10, 2016. You can preorder on our site or get it from your favorite retailer. But before you do, check out this interview. The audio is available at the end of the interview!
JP: You don’t have a German accent. So, you moved here from there or your family is from there?
AW: Yeah, so, my grandmother is from a small village in Bavaria about an hour south of Munich. She met my grandfather when he was stationed over there with the US Air Force. So they fell in love and got married, and he of course after some time got transferred back to the United States and she moved back to the United States with him. So, she didn’t speak any English. She had never been out of Germany before, but they were already expecting their first child, my mom, so they moved back to the United States and then she moved with him from Air Force base to Air Force base as an Air Force wife and had four kids- my mom and her three siblings- and so I am technically one fourth German. My mom is half, but my father was also in the Army. So when my dad was on active duty, I was born in Texas, but when I was six weeks, my dad got stationed in Germany because he asked to be stationed there as often as possible so that my mom could be near her extended family. So, we were stationed in Germany twice. The first time, I was about 6 weeks old to maybe 4 or 5 and then we came to Alabama. We got stationed back in the United States- to Alabama. And after that, we got transferred to a tour in for a couple of years, and then we did one more tour in Germany after that, until I was probably starting the sixth grade, I think, and then we got transferred back to the United States permanently, and then my dad ended up retiring at Scott Air Force Base which is just outside of St. Louis. So, that’s where we ended up.
JP: How did you get involved with poetry?
AW: Oh Lord. Oh. Well, I think I always liked poetry. I was always a very strong reader. I mean, I was reading chapter books by the time I was 3 and 4. Like, I just loved to read. And my mom read me lots of, like, Shel Silverstein, and lots of nursery rhymes and stuff until I think that I became attuned to the sounds of poetic language- rhyme and meter and things like that. I think that I just had those sounds in my head from a very young age. I was always a strong writer. I loved to write. I always kept journals. I wrote like little books for young author’s contests in school. I loved telling stories. And then when I was in High School, I just started focussing more specifically on poetry as a means of self expression- kind of the way that everyone gets started with poetry, I guess. And I was obsessed with the Renaissance- I was an _______ player in high school and then we performed in full historical costume and we had British accents, and it was all really intense and really fun, but I just became obsessed with the Renaissance. So I read, like every Renaissance poet- John Donne, Shakespeare (obviously), Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Wyatt- I just kind of became obsessed with Renaissance poets and specifically the sonnet form. And so all of my journals from high school are filled with metrically perfect Elizabethan sonnets.
JP: Wow! In high school. That’s-
AW: Yeah! In high school. I like the fact that it was a predetermined form and so I knew what the rules were, and all I had to do was make what I wanted to say fit into that beautiful little package, so I was like ‘well, I’m writing in a form, so I must be a real poet.’ Like, ‘this is what real poets do.’
So, I think it just gave me a lot of confidence and I just loved the way that Elizabethan language sounded. It was so strange and beautiful, and super romantic, and so when I got to college, of course I became an English major- English and theater double major- so, I got to perform and kind of do that side of things which was really nice, but I also got to take lots of poetry classes. And in my first creative writing workshop in college, actually my teacher from that first semester forbade me from turning in any more poems in Renaissance English, and was like, ‘Amanda, you have to try and write in the common vernacular,’ and I was like, ‘no! It’s not as good!’
JP: I know! I remember at that point in high school thinking, ‘why doesn’t everybody speak like this?’
AW: I know. I was very upset that not everyone was saying, like ‘thee’ and ‘thou,’ but it was good that she did that because obviously like there’s not a big market for people like, writing Elizabethan copycat poems nowadays. So that was great, and just throughout college, I started writing in free verse, which is primarily what I work in now, I started exploring the thematic concerns that are in Little Human Relics. The main concerns are kinda like family and tradition and then when we moved back to the Saint Louis area and retired, we bought a small farm. My parents had always wanted to own property. We bought the farm and then we got a couple horses and cows, and I loved living in a rural environment- that’s another really big inspiration for me. Just, like, the work ethic of people who live in a small town- just little idiosyncrasies of just these little towns in southern Illinois. Kind of where I grew up and went to high school. And then just love and relationships is another thing that really fascinates me
JP: And belonging, which is another theme in the book.
AW: Yeah. Poetry just lends itself better to representing human interaction better than many other mediums because
JP: There’s so much more emotion in it, yeah,
AW: Yeah, there’s emotion, but also the reading of a poem is an interaction between the poet and the reader of the poem. You know, and even if the reader is reading about a scenario that doesn’t necessarily directly involve them, they are participating in that relationship by reading the poem to begin with. So, that’s one of the reasons that I think poetry is great for talking about interpersonal relationships.
JP: Was there any part of writing these poems that became difficult for you? Any of the poems that was a particular thorn in your side? Because I know that happens.
AW: I think that one thing I struggle with is with some of the rural poems like Pasture Requiem, On Rural Marriage, Bedtime Story- I’m looking at the list- An Alhambrian Idyll- I think that one thing I struggle with, because I’m from a military family, and while my dad is from rural Louisiana, he grew up very much like a country person tied to the land. But I really didn’t have that experience myself firsthand until we moved onto this property and, you know, we got to have our horses and our own land, and we took care of them and we kind of went through the process ourselves. So, it’s hard, I think, to write about a world that you are and are not a part of. Because we’re kind of like farm transplant people. You know, I mean, the piece of land that we live on has not been in our family for 500 years. I mean, the people I went to highschool with, their family owned half of the county from the 1800’s. We just don’t have that kind of lineage. So, it was hard for me when I was writing kind of my farm-y poems to make sure that I wasn’t presenting like caricatures of these rural people because in some ways, they are very much what you would expect them to be. I mean, if you walk into our rural diner- we have like this one building in our town that’s like the gas station, the laundromat, the diner, and the video rental store, all wrapped in one building. It’s like kind of the local watering hole. It’s so funny. But when you walk in there and walk around, you see the people you would expect to see in a town of 600 people on a Saturday afternoon. In a way, they are the farmers, and the people who work with their hands- the laborers- are the people you would expect them to be in your imagination. It’s hard, you know, when I was writing these poems… some of these poems are from many many years ago- like when I was still an undergrad and I started writing them and my professors were not people who had grown up in a rural environment, and so to them if I were to write a poem about a cowboy, it’s almost a little bit fetishist (sexy cowboy), but to me I’m describing someone that I know to be a multi-layered and faceted individual. But it’s hard because someone who didn’t come from that environment can very easily read these poems as caricatures or stereotypes. So, I think that one thing I struggled with in terms of revising these poems is just making sure that they come off as organic and true representations of those people and places that they can be and focussing on the details and the specific things that make them special and make them worthy of writing about- which in the end are very significant part of making sure they don’t come across as a farm or a tractor or a… yeah. So that was a struggle, I think.
JP: Great. One of the most organic characters I came across, I think, was the grandmother in The Art of Alterations. Just beautiful. Where did that come from?
AW: Well, that’s a completely factual story that happened. So, my Oma, my grandmother- we call her Oma in German- so, her mother, my great grandmother, we called her- in Germany we call our grandmothers by their last name, and her last name was Singer, so she was Singer Oma- she was just a character. Oh my god, I could write an entire book about her. She was just very traditional. And very… well, if you think about it, she had to deal with her daughter, you know, meeting this American guy and having children with him, so my mom and her siblings were half German and half American… and one time, my grandmother brought my mom and her sister back to visit her mother- Singer Oma- so their grandmother, and they had brought these American nightgowns with them because they had been living in the United States and so had bought their clothes and everything there, and the girls were probably in the third or fourth grade, and they had these little night gowns that had these little spaghetti straps on them, but in rural Germany, which is pretty much still living in the middle ages at this point, that was just completely an affront, I mean, she was like ‘You guys are naked,’ and ‘Why would you buy them those?’ And so she just completely lost it, so one day the girls and my grandmother were out playing, so she snuck in and took their nightgowns and literally did exactly what the poem said- cut the ruffle off the bottoms of the nightgowns and made sleeves out of it, and then put them right back under there and thought they weren’t going to notice. And she just thought that she was doing them a favor- because like the epigraph says, “Du Wirst Krank!” Which means ‘You’re going to get sick.” She thought that they were going to get too cold because the thing didn’t have any sleeves on it.
JP: That’s adorable.
AW: So, in a way… I mean, that’s another thing about me is that a lot of people have a lot of distance between the poet and the speaker of the poem, and for me, I write primarily about my life and the people in my life, and the places in my life, so it’s not important to me that my poems be…
JP: separate from yourself
AW: not autobiographical. Exactly. I mean, I don’t want- I don’t need them to be manufactured or constructed to an extent because I believe that things happen- that people’s everyday lives are completely worthy of poetry without any manipulation whatsoever. So, that was just one of those stories that was told to me as I was growing up that I always remembered and thought ‘isn’t that so funny’ because it really encapsulates German women. That poem, by itself, is just- German women are kind of in your face and very opinionated and will tell you how it is, and if they think that something needs to be done, they usually just do it. They don’t really ask anyone’s permission. So, I thought it was an important poem to be in the collection because it really, I hope it will really give readers a sense of kind of women I have in my life- who are just wonderfully obstinate and think that they are just as helpful as can be- or are very resourceful.
JP: Cool. So, which of these poems was your favorite to write?
AW: If I had to pick a favorite, well I really like the poem Earl, because that was like once again based off an actual relationship that I had, and it was the first poem that I wrote before I came to graduate school when I really felt like, ‘ok, I’m really moving out of my juvenilia writing’ and this poem feels like an Amanda poem. Because, before, when you’re an undergrad, your professors are giving you so much constructive criticism and you’re in workshop with other undergrads and you just kind of feel all over the place, and even though I did an undergraduate thesis and wrote a collection of poems, I didn’t feel like, ‘this is what my first book’s going to look like.’ I knew that it would change a lot, but I had really been yearning to know ‘what kind of poet am I going to be?’ If you opened a book of mine 10 years from now, what would the poems look like? Would they have long lines… short lines… things as simple as that, and that poem, I think, really represents the turning point from me moving from the writing I was doing while figuring out what poetry is and what function it serves for me to really taking authorial ownership over the way I wanted my poems to look and the way I wanted them to communicate. So, it’s special to me for that reason. But, I also love the poem Culpa because it’s just so different from anything else in the chapbook. I’m in my MFA thesis writing now, and it’s the only poem in my 69 page thesis that looks like that- that has those long ranging lines, and is narrative but not with a beginning, middle, and end- because I am a narrative poet, and I do like to tell stories through my poems, but I like it because it enacts the anxiety that it’s describing. To me, that’s hard, it’s really hard to produce a feeling on the page before a person even starts reading it. The look of it creates a feeling. So, I think those two probably.
JP: You got your title from “What I Need From You”, what struck you about ‘Little Human Relics?’ Because I think that it’s just wonderful. I love that little phrase, little clip. But what struck it for you that you wanted to make that the title of your book?
AW: Well, titles are really hard and they suck.
JP: Oh, totally. Yeah.
AW: Very professional answer. Huh. No. Titles are just really difficult. And I think that some people I know write the title first and then write the poem. I definitely am not like that. I write the poem and then I bang my head against the table repeatedly until something comes out to put at the beginning of the poem. But I think that, especially for a chapbook, I didn’t want to pick something that was too grand or too all-encompassing. Because a chapbook is a little, small, succinct snapshot of what kind of a poet a person is, so the fact that it had ‘little’ kind of made me feel like small and contained- just the word ‘little.’ And then ‘human relics’ just… I don’t know- the poems to me feel like little relics. I know that that’s not very astute, but they all feel like these little short glimpses of moments in my life that have been worthy of record. They were things that happened to me that I felt were worthy to sit down and write out, and then revise and edit and beautify and perfect because I wanted to have that moment represented on a piece of paper that I could have. So in a way this collection, I hope, functions as a mini museum of who I am and the things that are important to me. So, the word ‘relics’ to me implies that something is special and ancient and that it represents a culture. You know, if you think of a relic in a museum, it teaches you something about the culture of the person it was made by. That, to me, is my ultimate goal with anything that I write- that a person will know me better after they have read a poem of mine. So, it just seemed that out of all the phrases in the poems seemed like the best one to represent a collection of little glimpses of me that I hope will be able to communicate on their own.
JP: Sure, and you’re talking about someone reading these and knowing a little bit more about you. Who were you picturing?
AW: Just anybody. I mean, readership is difficult. Depending on where you publish things and if you publish in journals a lot, or if you just print things out and distribute them to your family. It depends on what everybody’s objective is. I hope that as many people read these as they can. It’s great to have it picked up by a press and you guys have national distribution through Amazon which means anyone could go on and buy it, which is amazing. So, really- just anybody. I hope that some of these poems would resonate with women because I think that a lot of the things I write about are issues of women and female psychology and the way that women interact with themselves and their families, but also just- I don’t know- I mean anybody for whom family is important, anyone who comes from a rural environment, but I hope that they lend themselves to a wide range of audiences and I hope that they are accessible for people who maybe don’t think that poetry is something that they enjoy reading. Because that’s one thing we talk about a lot in the MFA program- are you writing for the academic community, or for the person who walks into Barnes and Noble and while browsing the poetry section, picks up a book who may not have a PhD in poetry and poetics from Stanford. And some people are writing for an academic audience, and they are writing to get in those top journals and are doing the newest most cutting edge thing- technique wise, but my objective is to communicate with other people and especially people for whom poetry is not this exalted academic thing. I mean, my favorite poems are not those that were written and turned into part of someone’s PhD thesis. So, I hope to answer your question- I hope everybody who enjoys imagery, who enjoys connection, and who’s fascinated by the way that people interact with each other and anyone for whom these little kinds of moments are precious- the kind of person who values little unique experiences that happen in everyday life and that you may not give a second glance to, but that you look back on and think, ‘hey, that was a really important thing that happened and I didn’t even realize it.’ Because that’s what a lot of these poems are.
JP: Great! Well, shift in pace-
JP: In “Self Portraits in Tempera,” you’re in a sanitorium. Why were you there and where was it?
AW: Well, I was in Roanoke, and right down the road from us- about an hour, is the town of Radford, Virginia and in Radford they have this old abandoned mental hospital that’s called Saint Alban’s Mental Hospital and it was in operation some time in the 1800’s and was originally a boy’s school. Legend has it that a boy was beaten to death by some older classmates and after that, a series of more unfortunate events happened and eventually it was closed down, and when it reopened, it was a state mental hospital. And so stories abound about all the creepy weird things that happened there, but it was in operation through the 1980’s and then it was finally shut down by the state of Virginia because it was in disrepair, they couldn’t staff it, and there were questionable medical practices going on, and so they shut it down. And now it’s been bought by this private owner who has turned it into a kind of museum. I mean, it’s not a museum- it’s really been left the way that it was, and I’m sure parts of it are not structurally sound, but you can go there and get tours. They have regular daytime tours. They have a haunted night time tour where you can go in with flashlights. Of course, we didn’t do that because I would like wet my pants, but it’s really cool. I mean, it’s just massive. It’s just this massive labyrinth. There’s this whole underground section where you literally feel like you’re in the tunnels of hell. We were in broad daylight and we went down in that basement and I mean it was pitch black. Anyway, to answer your question- my boyfriend and I are obsessed with creepy things and he’s like a huge horror movie fan and so am I, and we just love weird creepy things. So, one day as a date because we’re weird, I got us tickets to go one afternoon. We just went there, just went on one of their regular tours and it was last fall, maybe in October, and we did their regular tour- about 2 hours and we went through it. I knew it would be like creepy and weird, but I didn’t expect to be so emotionally affected by it- I mean the stories about some of the individual patients that were there- they had historical documentation on, and we were walking through like the pregnancy ward and they told us stories about these women where were just really mentally ill and pregnant at the same time, and didn’t know what was happening to their bodies and got freaked out and some of them committed suicide. I mean it was just like really emotionally harrowing and so when we got back, I had taken all of these pictures of course throughout the tour, and I had taken this picture of the wall in the Recreation Room downstairs which was basically this giant concrete basement. There were no windows- concrete walls, the floor looked like linoleum or something, but there were all these wall murals and they said that one of the rewards for good behavior is that they would let patients come down and they would let them fingerpaint on the walls as part of “art therapy” whatever that means.
JP: In a windowless basement. That’s cheerful.
AW: I know, right. How nice of you to let them out in this concrete cellar to play. Oh my gosh. Anyway, I had taken these pictures of these wall paintings and it was this very rudimentary drawings of what looked like a woman. I mean, it was a little triangle with a circle on top- like a head and a dress and next to it was another painting and then the paintings progressively got more and more detailed and more and more colorful. So I asked them- the tour guide- how come some of them are just in one color and some of them are in a lot and she said they all started out with one color of paint, and if they were good, they got added multiple colors based on what their behavior was like. So I was just so fascinated about that that I just had to write a poem about it. I was just like, oh my gosh, this is crazy. I just imagine- in my imagination, it was a woman who painted it. But I just tried to invite myself into what her experience might have been like and what might have caused her to paint those particular images and like, they just spoke so much for being so simplistic about what her life might have been like. So, that’s where the poem came from.
JP: And on the same kind of visceral track, one of my favorites in your collection is ‘I Will Perform the Rite Until.’ It was just so fiery. Oh… you know. Ha. Ok, that was a terrible adjective, but yeah- just wonderful. Where did that come from?
AW: So, I have been working with the writings of this Bavarian poet named Emerenz Meier and she was a woman who lived in the Bavarian forest in the 1800’s, and she was not a prominent literary figure at the time because women were not really respected as valid members of literary society in the 1800’s and she was raised in this tiny little village in the forest and her family were all farmers and her father owned the local guest house, and she just really always felt passionately about writing and always wanted to pursue a career as a writer but because of the social structure she was in, she was just never taken seriously. But she wrote prolifically throughout her entire life. But none of her work has ever been translated into English. So, I came across her in an article in German Life Magazine a couple years ago and became fascinated with her, so I have been working on translating some of her poems into English. So this poem is one of those translations. And I say translations hesitantly because they are not word-for-word-verbatim translations. I’m calling them ‘versions’ because she wrote in this very archaic Bavarian dialect which is very difficult to translate and because what she writes about feels so relevant to a modern audience and are things that I’ve experienced in 2016, you know, things that were happening in 1887. So I’ve been working to create a series of poems that are based off of her. So this poem, her poem, is called “Summer Night” and it describes the festival of Johannes-Foyer which is Saint John’s night in Germany and it is an annual summer solstice celebration- like some cultures have like the wicker man and they burn like a big wood effigy, well it’s their version of the celebration, they make a wooden figure of Saint John and they burn it and the tradition is if you are in love with someone and you grab their hand and you take a running leap and you jump over the fire, that if you are able to do that successfully that you will have a fertile marriage and will produce many children. So that’s the tradition behind the poem. Mine is a modern take on that where the lover in the poem, the ‘you’, is the burning- is both the lover and love interest, but also the thing that’s being sacrificed. And so the speaker in the poem metaphorically constructs him throughout the course of their relationship and builds him- like, you know, where “the neighbors watched as I drug table legs and whiskey crates up the front stairs” shows that she’s been working on this relationship really hard, like to put together this ideal partner but in the end, the only way for them to be together and to have a successful, fertile relationship is that he has to be destroyed in this process of lovemaking. So, in a way I kind of combined the lover and the sacrificial object together because having sexual iintercourse is as hysterical and as heated as a religious ritual to me. I mean, they have so many similarities in terms of the way you participate in them, and the idea of voyeurism and watching, and so it seemed to me like a perfectly fitting--- and her poem has erotic elements, but is not nearly as erotic as this poem is, but I just took that sort of suggestion and capitalized on it and took the action of burning the effigy with me like into the bed. And then what she’s left with is a pile of ashes and she just has to pray for a son and like let him go. So it’s just kind of like a weird modern fertility ritual and I hope that people don’t read it like she actually burned him to death, but yeah.
JP: I get it. I thought it was very powerful. [[if someone thinks she actually burned him to death, they have no business reading poetry]] In the process of writing things, I’m sure there were a lot of emotions that came up. Was it cathartic or was it like digging into the muck.
AW: I think it’s a little bit of everything. I mean, writing a poem- writing anything really- you go through such an emotional rollercoaster. From the very inception of the poem- that initial idea that you are like ‘ok, I have to stop what I’m doing and sit down and write this.’ I mean, I feel like an almost automatic compulsion when I have an idea and I have to stop what I’m doing and record, even just a title or jot down the main thing I want to say, or else I forget about it. So, I think that writing the very first draft- when you first kind of bash the poem out into a word document or a piece of paper- is very cathartic because you’re like ‘yeah, yeah, ok, yeah, yeah, yeah’ and you get this kind of energy propelling you forward and haste, and you really want to write it down because you really don’t want to forget it. But then the revision process is really kind of frustrating because sometimes you get to a point in revision where you realize the poem you started out wanting to write is not the poem that is going to best serve the subject matter that you’re trying to write about. Or you say, in my dreams, this poem was in four stanzas, but now I’m realizing that that’s not the right thing. That’s not the right shape for this poem to take- not the right shape for the story I’m telling. So as you revise, you have to make some tough decisions and sometimes you say ok, I’m just going to muffle through it and cut off this entire half of the poem because it’s all crap and this is the only part that’s worth saving and I’m going to work with that. And that’s hard because you have to remind yourself that it’s not a bad idea, it’s just what you ended up with- your purpose evolves as the draft of the poem evolves. So, I think there’s really just a lot of highs and lows, but I think you have got to sit with that discomfort of either not having a clue what you’re doing, and not knowing how to revise or what direction to go in, or knowing where you need to go but being unwilling to go there. I think you have to sit in those two scenarios in order to really appreciate that final draft that comes out and say ‘this. This is what is right. This is the right way to tell it, the right words, the right form on the page- and in order to have that satisfaction, you have to have gone through all that other stuff. It’s definitely a cycle that goes around.
JP: Sure, like grieving, almost.
AW: Yeah! It kind of is. I mean, I don’t know. Some people might not feel that dramatically, but if I had been slaving over a draft for months and I realize that ¾ of the poem is a farce and I’ve been dithering around and wasting time and the only I can save from this draft is that first sentence, the rest of it’s crap. It’s really hard to admit that to yourself. Sometimes, you’re like, ‘well, I don’t want to deal with that, so I’m just going to put that draft away and maybe if I look at it a couple months from now, I’ll change my mind,’ but often if you have an instinct about something that it’s not any good, then it’s probably not any good and you just have to be committed enough to your work to just cut it or start over from square 1.
JP: There’s this really interesting relationship between the German and American cultures in “Letter to Santa.” I remember learning about that Santa when I was younger and being terrified, but I didn’t grow up with that looming over me. What was it like to have those two opposing ideas in your head as you grew up?
AW: Well that… the German culture… This is really funny because Germans have a very different approach in terms of raising children anyway. In my experience growing up with my German cousins, and we lived over there when I was in my formative years I guess- but Germans, a lot of their life lessons and storytelling- oral didactic storytelling- is based around fear. So they’re like, you know, you don’t do this, this is what will happen, and it’s going to be very unpleasant. And it’s never, like, coming from the parents. It’s always some supernatural force so parents don’t have to take credit for scaring the crap out of their children. The German culture is very rich in folklore and different mythical characters- especially in the church. I mean the Germans have the ‘fear of God’ thing down pat. Like, God will strike you over the head with a lightning bolt if you don’t do this. And in American culture, in my experience at least, is very concerned about the individual- like as a child, their individual psyche compared [can’t understand here] and in German culture, they don’t have participation trophies. They just don’t have that because they believe that if there is no competition to get first, no one is going to try as hard as they could. If everyone gets a prize, then no one will ever feel compelled to reach their potential and distinguish themselves among the other people that are around them. And so, in America, it seems like our culture rewards even the most minimal effort. Especially if you think about college- I mean, I went to college, got a bachelor’s degree, worked my butt off, worked while I was in college- and a lot of people have done that, they work two jobs and get an undergraduate degree, and raise a family and do all this stuff. But other people go to college and get drunk for four years and still come out with a bachelor’s degree. I mean, they come out with the same thing. And it’s hard. And our culture seems to be more results driven as opposed to process driven. And so when I was little and lived in Germany, we heard about the Krampus, and if we were not good around Christmas, it wasn’t like we’re not going to get any presents, it was like this demon is going to come get you out of your bed and wrap you up in chains and drag you to hell where you’re going to burn for eternity. I mean, they didn’t say that- but we knew. We saw, you know, people dressed up like this guy and we didn’t know if it was the real one or not. We saw pictures of him, and we were told stories about him and a lot of us were just scared shitless. I don’t know that I felt unsafe, I mean, I think I knew in the back of my head that it probably wasn’t going to happen, but the point was that it was a very accepted part of life that in order to get a child to behave, fear was the most successful method of getting them to do that. And in the United States, the main threat is you’re not going to get any stuff. You know what I mean? They’re like, if you’re not good, you’re not going to get an iPad. Whereas in Germany, they’re like if you’re good then you get to stay on planet Earth and remain living. It’s not like if you’re good you get all these rewards. There’s just a different rewards system, basically is what it comes down to. But when I moved back to the States permanently, like I said, I was in the 5th or 6th grade and I just had a different sense of right and wrong than most people did. I noticed when I would go hang out with my friends at their house that some of them would talk back to their parents a little bit and I was absolutely mortified because I was like, oh my god, how could you possibly be so arrogant? How could you be so brave? I could never say that to my mom, she would do this or that. There was just a different culture of respect and culture of fear of authority and things like that. And I think I was raised with a very clear sense of right and wrong, and if you do the right thing, then everything will be ok, but if you do the wrong thing, there will be repercussions and there are punishments for that. In the United States, you get rewarded with lots of incentives, lots of prizes, lots of objects- a title, promotion, or whatever, and if you’re bad, you just kind of get melded into the pool of average people who are moderately morally sound, but like whatever. Do you know what I mean? It’s really hard to describe.
JP: Yeah, I understand.
AW: So, I was just struck by that, and even now I have a really weird old western sense of justice, and I don’t like when people get away with stuff. I mean, when I was in high school, we did a group project and two of the four people were not pulling their weight. I mean, I would pull them a side and rip them a new one. I would be like, ‘listen, I’m not doing your side of the work. I’m going to go tell the teacher that you’re slacking off and not doing anything and I’ll be damned if you’ll take credit for this powerpoint that I made.’ I would get so upset because I had this very black and white version of right and wrong. Like, you do something, you get that thing done to you. It was very tit-for-tat. In America, a lot of people oppose the death penalty. A lot of people are not held accountable for what they do- like celebrities and politicians are not held accountable to the same degree that a normal person would be and so it is just an interesting cultural difference. And I think really accountability is a big part of that too, because in the German culture, at least in my experience, you are held accountable for everything you do and there is really no way to get out of it. So I think that the Krampus and the tradition of him and the relationship to children is a really clear way to illustrate that. So it just seemed like a good way to explain it to people who maybe aren’t as familiar with that cultural reference. It speaks to this wider arc of like, the cultural differences between right and wrong, between the German and American culture, I guess.
JP: Ok. Very good. To wrap it up- how did you do the sequencing? Because that always drives me nuts. How did you decide what went where and did you spread them all around you, or- how was that process?
AW: I definitely did the lay-it-all-out on the floor and play musical pages for sure. I think the sequencing is really difficult. And I don’t even know that… I’m sure if I read this chapbook like 10 years from now, I’ll be like oh man that one should have totally gone over here. I think that part of the nice thing about sequencing is that you have to sequence it in such a way that feels true to you in that moment. You know what I mean? I have written all these poems at different times, and I have a different relationship with all of them and so I think the sequencing probably reflects where I’m at in my life right now. Like, the very first poem, ‘Morning, 13th Street, Roanoke, Virginia,’ I’m having this very meditative moment about looking out and seeing this bird and it kind of launches me into this memory- and feels very much like how I’m approaching my life right now. Where everything I see- I’m getting ready to graduate from graduate school and I’m probably going to be moving into a new house in the next couple of months, and it’s just kind of a lot of changes coming up and I’m so desperate for just a quiet, peaceful moment to just sit and be still. And so, having that poem as the first poem in the chapbook gives me that.
JP: Yeah. It is a very meditative moment.
AW: Yeah, so in a way picking that poem as the first one might have been my way of just saying I just need a breath. And then the last poem, ‘Brotzeit’ just kind of jumped out at me as a perfect end poem because it’s unexpected. The poem describes the beginning of something- it describes the beginning of a meal, but brotzeit is also the last meal of the day. So it has this dual function of… you don’t see in the poem the two people actually eating, the poem is all about the preparation for the meal, but it also represents the closing out of the day with this final meal. So that seems fitting. And the poems in between them, I think one of my big concerns was just separating them out thematically and not having all the farm poems together, and not having all the love poems together and trying to spread them out enough that there was some tonal range between them and that I wasn’t hitting the same note over and over again.
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