Web Feature

SAMUEL AMADON
in conversation with BENNINGTON REVIEW

 

ISABELLA CASEY

Other than the narrative structure itself, what differentiates a narrative poem from other poems in terms of responsibility? Does the narrative poem ultimately achieve something different, or do you see it as a different approach to achieve a similar thing?

SAMUEL AMADON 

Starting with my own work, the poems in The Hartford Book often center on a story I liked to tell or something that I had read or heard. A story I might repeat to you if we were on a car trip or sitting on the stoop. That's how I began writing those poems, but that's not really the case with the poems in Like a Seawhich often started with a formal constraint or a loose sense of a feeling or even a weirdo title. The nature of those Hartford Book stories—basically "fucked up things that happened not always to me"—worked with the candid, deadpan, heavily vernacular voice and extended sentence I used in writing them. If it seemed like I was elevating or declaring something important with how I presented it, then it felt off and a little bit opportunistic. Like, "look at me and my terrific poem about fake cancer." I also wanted to be faithful to this attitude that's present in Hartford, a frankness and a toughness. And I was writing in a way that was similar to how I spoke at the time. Richard Howard sat me down and showed me how to put that voice and those words into poems. Then I learned more words later.

My point is that there's a lot of particularities that went into those "narrative" poems that made them work the way I wanted and that don't really apply to other "narrative" poems. This is the problem of viewing poems through aesthetic categories: one ends up viewing the poem through the lens of the category and not really seeing it. Or at least not seeing the poem itself as immediately as you might if you resist that kind of thinking. I want to be surprised by poems--both ones I write and ones I read--and that surprise comes from a poet doing something individual and new. Not necessarily something radical, but something I might not have seen or seen from them before. I think all poems have a responsibility to achieve something different. 

ISABELLA CASEY

In terms of "truth-telling" is there a different approach to portraying "real life" in poetry as opposed to non-fiction?  Non-fiction writers draw from "real life" experience, but there is an understanding, on the part of at least some nonfiction writers, that there is room for slight embellishment or subjective interpretation. How about in poetry?

SAMUEL AMADON

Maybe the question of "real life" is more in the minds of some readers of nonfiction than it is in the minds of poetry readers, but I'd never really thought about that. It's fairly common advice in poetry writing workshops to abandon the idea you came in with for the idea you found in the poem. I think that's good advice, but it's going to lead a poet to give up "real life" for the life in the poem. Who's to say that's not real life too? 

ISABELLA CASEY

What are some common threads between Like a Sea, The Hartford Book, and the poems you are writing now? What preoccupations do you find yourself approaching from different angles?

SAMUEL AMADON

Well, I guess one thing is that I keep publishing my books out of order. Though The Hartford Book came out two years after Like a Sea, it's really my first book, and now I'm publishing my fourth book Listener before anyone takes my third book TourismAfter writing The Hartford Book, I felt I needed to do something very different than what I had in that book. It felt like cheating to keep writing the same kind of poem. So Like a Sea was partly written out of an instinct to get away from myself—lots of the poems take language from other sources, for instance—though I don't know that I knew that getting away from myself was what I was doing at the time. In a way that's similar to The Hartford Book, I just couldn't help myself from doing the things I was into doing when I wrote those poems. I was excited about poems with bizarre syntax. I was excited about writing with a polyvocal speaker. I was excited about chance operations. I was, and am, excited for opportunities to be as ridiculous as possible. There's a line in one of the "Each H" poems in that book that goes: "food cake. Food cake? Food cake." That sort of thing. 

In Tourism, my as yet unpublished third book (clears throat), I actively tried to write poems that were unlike the poems I'd written in the past and unlike the other poems in the book. There are poems in iambic pentameter and in syllabic patterns. There are poems that are the result of research—into the original Penn Station, the Gardner Museum heist, the many swimming pools of Robert Moses. The book ultimately takes on the subject of transformation, of "touring" and turning, and makes a call to stop. In Listener, which comes out from Solid Objects in 2018, the transformations are a little more subtle. The poems come out of who I am now—an assistant professor in a small southern city, living with my books and my family who I love, and dealing with the world—and they often feel weirdly suburban and pastoral. They also aim to bring out things that were in my work before, but were less recognizable. I mean probably just to me. I don't expect anyone else is looking at these things so closely, but, for instance, when I look back at Like a Sea now, I see poems written during the Bush administration. The poems in Listener I think capture a similar feeling of what it means to live now with the weight of climate change in the air—or more visibly in the air at least. Obviously, there's something else in the air now. 

ISABELLA CASEY

In terms of prosody, what must not be ignored for you as a poet? And if anything should be ignored, what must be?

SAMUEL AMADON

Traditional prosody makes a clear case for language in poems serving simultaneous purposes, but sound and sense are still required if a poem isn't in iambic pentameter (even if the sound is monotone and the sense is nonsense). And I think it's useful to think of poems as being in metrical feet whether or not there is a set pattern to those feet. Lately, I'm really into doing things sonically, formally, and syntactically that are sort of funky and off. In Listener, I've been using rhyme that way. And I love being able to break a line on a pair of prepositions, even better if it's the same preposition twice.

ISABELLA CASEY

As a poet, what is the best advice you've received? What is the worst?

SAMUEL AMADON

The best advice I got was from Timothy Donnelly, who told me I always sound like me. I was worried at the time about trying to make different "kinds" of poems fit together, and he was telling me I didn't need to. I've really taken that to mean I can try as hard as I want to put together things that don't fit together, and they're still going to fit. I think it's good advice for most people. When you recognize the thing that's distinctive about your work, don't try to do that thing anymore. You're already doing it. Timothy also told me—over the photocopier—any time he's got the opportunity to complete a task, he tries to take it. But that's not really about poetry. I don't know what the worst advice I've gotten is, but I'm sure it began: "This whole room of people agrees that..."


SAMUEL AMADON is the author of The Hartford Book and Like a Sea. His poems have appeared recently in The New Yorker, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, jubilat, and Guernica. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of South Carolina, where he edits the journal Oversound with Liz Countryman.


ISABELLA CASEY is an editorial assistant at Bennington Review.



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