Amanda J. Bradley has recently published her second poetry book, Oz at Night. This follows her debut collection, Hints and Allegations. I was really impressed with both books, finding some rare qualities in her poetry, and interviewed Amanda about her sources, inspirations, and aesthetic choices. You can read one of Amanda's poems, "To Thomas Pynchon Regarding The Crying of Lot 49," and also listen to it here.
I enjoyed Oz at Night tremendously, in large part because of the sense of playfulness, the sheer joy at being alive that comes across without being maudlin or sentimental. It's something very rare in poetry these days, where the default mode is grief, often unearned, often disproportionate to the level of one's individual suffering. Was your poetry always like this? Why is it difficult to write poetry that's proportionate and balanced and measured?
Amanda: Perhaps there is a tendency in some circles today toward overwrought seriousness, but there's a long, rich tradition in poetry of playfulness and comedy. Even just in the Anglo-American tradition, think of Chaucer whose Canterbury Tales are at times a riot, and, of course, in Shakespeare's sonnets, we find the playfulness of "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun." Marvell is highly amusing as he satirizes Charles II's courtiers, and this strain continues right into twentieth-century America with Kenneth Koch and Frank O'Hara and so on. Life dealt me some rough blows in my twenties and early thirties, and my poetry from that era reflects that. I have a strong melancholic streak, but I also do love being alive. The former was the stronger impulse in my young adult years, though, I must admit.
Actually, my favorite thing about aging so far has been the emotional maturity that comes with it. I recognize now that obstacles and setbacks don't mean the end of the world. In my opinion, that's what makes one's poetry more proportionate to one's reality, more balanced--an emotional and intellectual maturity that most people simply do not have at a young age. On the other hand, I adore some poetry by certain young poets such as Rimbaud and Thomas Chatterton, who only wrote as young men, and Percy Shelley I enjoy precisely for his disproportionate emotional response to the world. He was over the top in many respects, and there's a place for that in poetry, too, in my opinion.
Why did you choose Oz at Night as the title of the book? Was it to emphasize the strange combination of innocence and fantasy that lends the book its quirkiness? I love these lines of whimsy from the title poem: "Would Kandinsky love the colors of Oz / or would he find them banal, scattered, suffused?" The poem "Growing Up with Star Wars" conveys to me the same desire to hold on to innocence.
"Oz at Night" is far from my favorite poem in the collection, but I felt the title best captured the flavor of the book overall. Oz to me connotes fantasy, as you say, yes, and a sense of wonder or awe at life. I never cease to be amazed by how I never cease to be amazed by life! There's always something unpredictable about the way life unravels, always something new and exciting lurking around the bend. I repeatedly try to control the directions my life will go, but then I'm amused by how I never really can. The night of the title to me lends the darkness and fear that run throughout the book.
For example, I'm fascinated by why, from a philosophical stance, bad things have to happen. That is to say, if I were to create the world, why would I choose to make bad things happen? We've all, I think, at some point, posed the notion that we couldn't understand good if there were no bad to contrast it. This idea fascinates me, as well as the questions surrounding to what extent we have free will which requires decision-making which requires diachronic time or history. There's a dark side to probing these kinds of questions; these kinds of questions can lead people to scary places. But then in those dark corners we are startled by a new idea or we experience déjà vu from encountering an old idea at the end of a new path, and the awe kicks in again. Living in the world of ideas is sort of like living in the fantastical Oz--at night.
Who taught you the most about poetry? Also were there influences or teachings you had to shed in order to emerge into your true poetic self? What was your best preparation for allowing yourself to express your unique voice?
Mary Kinzie taught me the most about poetry hands down. She headed up the undergraduate creative writing program at Northwestern University when I was there in the 1990s, and she was one tough cookie. In the first course I took with her, half the class dropped by the end of the first week because they were terrified of her. I recall one student hiding in the bushes to get away from her. She truly inspired fear and among a high caliber of students. Everyone was the high school valedictorian or close to it at Northwestern, and they didn't balk at challenges. But they did balk at Kinzie's class. I recall being reduced to tears in one of her classes, but I stuck it out. It was well worth every ounce of flesh. She taught us everything there is to know about prosody. She taught us scores of literary terms, and she made damn sure we understood them completely and could demonstrate lucidly that we did. I learned how important the literary tradition is from her and how important precision and clarity are in every type of writing, including poetry.
To find my true poetic voice, I think I had to shed the sense that I could only write when I was feeling down. My journal is full of entries about all the little tragedies along the way because I tended to write in my journal and to write poetry when I was morose, but somewhere along the way, really only a few years ago, I realized I could write poems on command and that I could write poems when I was seeing life in a positive light. I could write poems in response to things I was reading, and I could write poems when I was just bored or had the time. With prose writing, that's always been more clear to me, but less so with poetry.
The poem "Commodity Trading" addresses another, but related problem which is capitalism's habit of eating away at our kindness and our very identity. We care so much about commodifying and selling ourselves as media-packaged products these days--on Facebook, on Instagram, on Twitter, and so on--that we risk losing sight of what truly matters. But I think that writing for readers inherently has the same problem. As writers, we mine our lives and our friends' and family members' lives for content and substance that we are essentially selling to readers in order to move them. The writer-reader relationship is both very intimate and emotional and very much a matter of persuasion or selling. We all have other ways to spend our time, so we have to be convinced to keep reading. There is a cynical and an idealistic way to look at the writer-reader relationship, but today's market culture hyper-realizes the cynical way of seeing it, in my opinion.
At times you become exuberant as in "Fluorescence," where you write: "I am deliberately impaired. I could be / coming up with fabulous ideas: iPods, / digital cameras, in vitro fertilization, / screenplays, wireless, the slogan / 'Secret: strong enough for a woman.'" Slightly more subdued, but I think in the same vein, is the very playful "A Description of Kant's Categorical Imperative in a Women's Clothing Catalogue." What makes such poems appealing to you?
When I think of exuberance in poetry, I think of Walt Whitman or William Blake or Allen Ginsberg's Howl. Maybe Sylvia Plath to some extent, but hers is a terrifying exuberance:
Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
Yikes. I adore those lines, but they are truly horrific. My poems that you reference above are, I think, goofier almost. There's a slapstick element to them. I like some silliness in poetry, though. Why not?
"Fluorescence" has a serious aspect to it in that I question my young-twenties tendency to combine caffeine, alcohol, ephedrine, and so on to feel different, out of body, super-alive. I used to impair my abilities to function normally, and the poem asks how wise this was, questions how much time did I waste. But the poem also embraces that state of mind by enacting it through exuberant listing.
"A Description of Kant's Categorical Imperative in a Women's Clothing Catalogue" is funny because it combines a central ethical philosophical tenet with the banal language of fashion catalogues. But it's serious in that, I hope at least, it questions the absurdity of these catalogues that come through the mail and urge women to get on the internet and order clothes. Kant's imperative asks us to question the ethical ramifications of everything we do, and of course we should be questioning whether we send money to that television evangelist or buy some doo-dad from QVC or order clothes from a catalogue.
I think we encounter poems like this less than more staid poems because poets feel pressure to say something important. I honestly feel we do have a responsibility to say something meaningful, but it's entirely possible to be silly as we do. And it's more fun that way. I think poets can limit themselves, and I'm guilty of this too, to staid tones and serious ideas, when there's plenty of fun to be had in poetry. I was fortunate enough to work with Elaine Equi at The New School in recent years, and she does a wonderful job in her poetry of being elegant and outright funny as she also says something important. She was a big influence on me in this respect.
I find your response to Carl Andre's Equivalent V one of the most interesting poems in the book, partly because it's experimental and minimalistic in the same way Andre's sculptures are. Is this kind of experimentalism appealing to you?
Experimentalism is very appealing to me. I think poetry is sometimes falsely divided into two camps -- experimental (language poets, OULIPO, Black Mountain, etc.) and lyrical (the rest of us) when in fact many poets like myself experiment in small-scale ways. My entire poetic project is not as experimental (at least so far) as Susan Howe's or Lyn Hejinian's, but I do toy with experimentalism in, say, "The Nicene Creed Meets the Jabberwocky" or in the Carl Andre poem you mention. If posing moral dilemmas in poetry isn't particularly sexy, experimentalism is. I think there's something inherently sexy about conceptual art and experimental writing, but I'm not sure why. I guess it suggests an intellectual rebelliousness at the center of its aims, which has sex appeal.
As I love to go to a museum to see Cindy Sherman or George Condo, so I love to read Fernando Pessoa or John Ashbery. But that will never detract from my love of, say, Carl Phillips' poetry or Wislawa Szymborska's.
From your first book, Hints and Allegations, to your new book, what is the greatest difference you've noticed in your poetry? Have your habits of writing poetry changed? What is the greatest difference in style and content?
I've already stumbled upon addressing some of this above accidentally, but there does seem to be more philosophical depth and more joy in the second collection. That is quite simply because I was happier in general writing Oz at Night and I learned to write poems in various moods, not just when I was down. And gosh, I hope my philosophical understanding continues to deepen as I age. That's what we hope to gain by living, right? Wisdom? Humor? Peace? I hope I continue to grow as a person, and that my poetry reflects that growth in successful ways.
Anis Shivani's debut book of poetry is My Tranquil War and Other Poems. He has just finished a book of sonnets called Soraya, and has started working on a new poetry book, Empire. His collection The Fifth Lash and Other Stories has recently been published, and look for his novel Karachi Raj later in 2013.