profile in poetics: Amber Nelson

Amber Nelson


Young lover of Goosebumps and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Amber Nelson, co-founder and poetry editor of alice blue review, divulges her splay of reading attractions from the enticing mythological labyrinths of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, to feminist texts, film, and other pop cultural facets. These interests allow Nelson as a writer to sculpt diverging landscapes onto the field of the page in a manner that externalizes cultural staples in innumerable ways. She tells us that part of her development as a poet was to “understand the power of sound, the power of stranging an image, and the true scope of what language can communicate”. The reader is therefore asked to negotiate these complex issues on a very cerebral level.

Nelson is a poet who embraces the feminine on a highly intimate intuitive level. She explains that each poem desires a unique approach, an appreciation of its own being, that which gives homage to sound image and idea. She states, “I have realized, over time, that I am a sonically motivated poet. Which is strange to me since I think that the art form I have the weakest relationship to is music.” This makes us question the semblance of music to language, linear to complex, mind to body, and the ways in which poetry has to ability to unite these polarities, through as she delineates “language/sound, and a sense of structure”.

Nelson is the author of 3 chapbooks: This Ride is in Double Exposure (h-ngm-n), Your Trouble is Ballooning (Publishing Genius), and Diary of When Being With Friends Feels Like Watching TV (Slash Pine). 

1.)    What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

My first inspiration was my mom, as cheesy as it might sound. First and foremost because she encouraged me as a reader, reading me Grimm’s fairy tales when I was very young, and then she was avid reader herself. There was on time I remember where she challenged me to a reading race. She would finish a whole book before I finished the second half of Charlotte’s Web. She did beat me. When I was growing up, she read a lot of Stephen King and Dean Koontz and it was under her influence that Horror ended up being one of my first loves as well. I read Goosebumps and Fear Street, and by the time I was in 5th Grade, I had moved onto Dean Koontz and Stephen King. In fact, one of the first “Great Novels” I ever read was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I read this in elementary school and did not understand much of what was going on in a subtextual level. But I loved the horror of it.

But it wasn’t just as a reader that she ended up as my first inspiration but as a writer as well. The first time I ever put pen to paper for creative purposes was because of her. I was about 7 and bored at this Italian restaurant we used to frequent. We were waiting for our food. Normally my family would play hangman while we waited at restaurants, but this time my parents were talking and I didn’t have anything to do. I was bothering my mom and she convinced me to write a story. When I asked her what I should write a story about, she told me to write a story about a frog named General Jim Jumpingbones. After that, I wrote and wrote, filling notebooks (since lost) and from that moment on I knew I wanted to be a writer. True, I thought I would write the great American novel, but that was my moment.

It wasn’t until college that I realized that I was much more interested in poetry. I had a great teacher, Julia Mae Johnson (a lovely poet in her own right) at Hollins University. It was in taking her class that I realized that ‘story,’ in the traditional sense, wasn’t my main mode of travel. Poems suited me better. That, and my friend Chelka, who I met at Hollins, who had such a beautiful sense of language. A born creator and lover of art, which I admired.

All of this is to say, that my greatest inspirations have not necessarily been the writers themselves. Not to say I haven’t loved and been inspired by writers. Favorites for me now include Stacy Doris, Lisa Robertson, and Alice Notley, of the living. And of the past, the NY School: Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler most specifically. If I were to be completely sentimental, I would say that James Schuyler is the keeper of my heart. I have a tattoo quoting his poem “A Few Days” on my forearm.

I will say that what I look for in a poem has changed over time, but my favorite writers have pretty much been my favorite writers since my first introductions to them. And they are my favorite writers, perhaps, because they speak to me in ways that have nothing to do with the surface stuff—the language, say, or structural decisions. It’s not about the simple line level. If Schuyler speaks to my heart, then Lisa Robertson speaks to my brain, and Notley to my…gut or something. And Stacy Doris, I don’t really know her though we’ve shared a few emails, but I think I feel something akin to…well, kindred. I feel very comfortable in her work, despite the fact that I know other people find it challenging. It feels right to me.

2.)    Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

When I think of the people who have supported me the most, or had the most impact on me as a writer, what comes to mind are peers—they are the people who I have worked through my creative difficulties with. And for that, I have to thank Will and Sarah Gallien, Jodi Chilson, JR Walsh, Russel Brakefield, Maged Zaher, Bruce Covey, Nate Pritts, Kate Greenstreet, Timothy David Orme and Andrew Hughes. Also, Joseph Wood though we’ve only just started talking. Some of these people I met as classmates, some I met as visiting writers, some I developed correspondence with as a result of some kind of publishing relationship. But they are all people who I respect and admire as both writers and as people, and with whom I have worked through my own creative processes. And, I think and hope, I’ve been there for them as well.

3.)    How has your own work changed over time and why?

My work has changed greatly and often. At least, structurally, tonally, and the subject matter of my poems changes project to project.  The reasons are two-fold: a) I see no reason in tackling the same things in the same way, and b) I believe that each poem has its own way that it needs to come into being.

What I will say that I think sticks to my poems from project to project, poem to poem, is a sense of language/sound, and a sense of structure. I don’t think each poem sounds the same, or looks the same, but that each poem has a shape to it, and the shape is specific to each poem or project. And I have realized, over time, that I am a sonically motivated poet. Which is strange to me since I think that the art form I have the weakest relationship to is music.

4.)    Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

I’ve already mentioned my love of Horror. I also very much enjoy Science Fiction, the occasional Fantasy novel, sometimes I read YA. But I don’t know that I’ve seen any of these influence my work. Of course, I am a composite, as all people are, and my love of these things is certainly a part of me, so they must influence my work in some way. They are a reflection of my utter geekiness. Still, I don’t feel that they’ve made that much of an impact on my own writing. The things I have seen have a direct influence on my writing, however, have been the non-fiction things I’ve read—feminist texts, mythologies, philosophies and sciences. And television. I have a love of TV and bad movies and pop culture. Allusions to that world certainly appear in my work.

5.)    What are your plans for the future?

In the immediate future, I am taking up the fiddle. I want to play folk music.

6.)    What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

Right now, sitting in my apartment, if I look around at the books that are out…not the books on the book shelves or stacked on the floor, but the books lying out because I’ve been using them, reading them, picking them up, quoting from them in an email, whatever they are out for…I find Lisa Robertson’s XEclogue, Kirsten Kashock’s A Beautiful Name for a Girl, the anthology Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovating Writing by Women edited by Mary Margaret Sloan (and recommended to me by Maged Zaher), Alice Notley’s Reason, Anne Carson’s Decreation, Laynie Brown’s The Scented Fox, and a just finished ms by Brooklyn Copeland that I have been taking notes on. Obviously writing by women in the last 20 years is important to me. But I also think it’s important culturally, and important for readers that aren’t just other women.

I’ve been talking with a friend, a male poet, who believes that the most interesting writing today is coming from women. It’s hard not to agree with that, at least on some level. I feel like the greatest risks I’ve seen—be it aesthetic or emotional—has often (not always) been by women. Not to say the men aren’t doing it too—Matt Henriksen’s book from this year blew my freaking head off. And this isn’t something I can qualify, or quantify. It’s just that I am really excited by a lot of the writing I see by women these days. Which is wonderful.

7.)    Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

There are more, to be sure, but I think Brooklyn Copeland. I’m biased, I know, but she’s the writer I am most excited to see continue to develop. She is so much younger than I expected after first encountering her work—as in, she is younger than me. But I think that the way she carries herself, which is with elegance and wisdom, translates to the work. Her poems are elegant, precise and good.

Also Karena Youtz has been getting some attention recently, and I hope that continues. She’s an amazing human being as well as a poet. I have met few people kinder. And you should buy her second book, which is forthcoming from 1913.

8.)    If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I like this: flexible. I would also like to say that I hate labels. And I do, in theory, because they are too simple, they are never complete. So if I was being flexible, I would go back, in part, to the old joking label that Will, Sarah, Andrew (another friend of ours) and I used to use: Mad Lib Poetry School. The idea of it was to mad lib out the things that, as writers, we too heavily relied on. Our self clichés, our easy ways out. But I don’t really use that as a method anymore, so I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate. However, I think the spirit of it remains apparent in the work I’ve done, and it certainly speaks to a certain part of my development as a writer.

9.)    In the first section of your chapbook, This Ride is in Double Exposure (h-ngm-n), the world of the material blends into public and private spheres. The female character assumes material characteristics of this world with focus on her body. For example, in ­­“The Girl at Monceau Bakery,” there is a line that reads, “May was a clock. A basket. Her proximity, a tapered string of pearls.” The male character on the other hand seems less objectified; instead more connected to superfluous notions of money, morality, and at one point is even named a god. Can you elaborate on the discussion behind these gender roles and how they fit into your landscape of non-temporal time?

The relationship between man and woman in this project was kind of a byproduct. An interesting byproduct, yes, but still a byproduct. I have long been interested in the relationships between different art forms, such as poems that are written about or from or in relation to films. But while I am interested in the process, I am also often frustrated by the product. A lot of the poems I see end up as strict descriptions of the film, with none of the feeling or experience. Or, more exactly, I often feel that the poems aren’t taking advantage of their poemness. They rely on the film to do all of the legwork, as though the poem doesn’t need to do anything else. And maybe it doesn’t, but I feel like it should. So, after speaking with my friend JR about this, I decided that I wanted to try my hand at sort of translating the film—both the story, and the ambiance and mood and general feeling—into a poem. In so doing, I wanted the poem to stand on its own as a poem. I wanted it to become its own thing. I wanted to be able to remove the filmic reference (title it something entirely different) and still have the poem seem to hold water.

I wrote these poems in time (speaking of temporality). I watched the movies and I wrote, I wrote somewhat quickly, intuitively, responsively. I never paused the films. And I think, with Rohmer‘s films, I was forced into his own male gaze. His films are very much of the male gaze—men looking upon, admiring, sexualizing women. As a viewer of his films, I think you are intentionally put in the viewpoint of his male protagonists. I can’t say this exactly because I am not watching the film now, but that is certainly my memory/feeling of watching those movies. And in rereading the poems, that is the sense I get from my response to the films through the poems. And frankly, I think they end up interesting me exactly because of that. I’m not valorizing the way he portrays gender roles, or even approving of it (though I will say that in these films, the women do have power—it’s a product of their being sexual objects and so not the kind of feminism I necessarily adhere to—but Rohmer definitely gives his women characters power). Anyway, there it is.

10.)    There is heavy emphasis on the perception of light in your same piece of work. Passages such as “hourglass of light,” shifts to “light misleads in chords,” to “so few boxes of light”. Would you please describe your perception on the concept of light, your intention behind this demonstrated malleability, and how you perceive this concept to take place in our everyday lives?

The concept of light makes a greater appearance in the Lynch poems. And I wrote those with the same project and process in mind as the Rohmer pieces. Frankly, Lynch’s films have a beautiful sense of lighting. The lighting calls attention to itself. And it does so in every beautiful stinking film. Even if you aren’t into the films narratively—and I wouldn’t blame you even though I wouldn’t agree—his films are shot beautifully. And I think putting that sense into the poems was necessary for interpreting my own relationship to his work. His films explore the underbellies of things, and still finds and creates beauty with it. I find his films are very much struggling inside these two ideas. And I think they lean a little to the dark…so the appearance of light matters.

11.)    In all three of your chapbooks, you take on very unique and varying tones. The chameleon like effect is accomplished through your precision of melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia. Can you divulge parts of your aesthetic craft, tools that you use, and ways in which your poetic voice has evolved over time?

If we’re going for evolution here, well, I’ll skip the teen angst and go straight to where it probably matters. After deciding that poetry was where I wanted to live, I wrote a certain kind of poem. My friends at Evergreen called them “relationship poems.” It was fair. I literally couldn’t find a way to write about anything but relationships.  Probably because I was 20 years old and didn’t really have anything to say, didn’t have a strong relationship yet to the possibilities of the poem itself, and well… I was 20 years old.

While I was at Evergreen I had two amazing teachers in this year-long creative writing program: Bill Ransom and Leonard Schwartz. They couldn’t have been more different, which was the most perfect experience for me because Bill tapped into my need to have writing to connect to my feeling side, and Leonard sparked my interest in the more cerebral side of linguistic play. Leonard taught me about process-based work—collage, erasure, n+7s. In writing within these oulipian constraints, I came to understand the power of sound, the power of stranging an image, and the true scope of what language can communicate. And with Bill there to remind me, I never lost touch with that more emotionally motivated space. (As a sidebar: this is not to say that Bill wasn’t absolutely brilliant, or that Leonard was an emotional void. I think nothing could be further form the truth, and that’s what made them both great at what they do.)

Anyway, what I realized was that what we see and what something sounds like carries emotional weight. Otherwise paintings, films, music—these things wouldn’t have the profound ability to affect us. But I had never truly connected that to the poem until this class.

So of course! Poems have all of those components. I came to understand a failure in my own poetry: to not acknowledge that poems are visual, poems have sound, and poems have words that signify things. The shape of a poem, the sound of each word used and its relationship to the next word, these things mean as much as what the words themselves mean. After this class, I spent a lot of time working on making each poem carry each of these things.

Which brings me to the first manuscript I ever had accepted for publication, graciously, by Adam Robinson of Publishing Genius.

In Your Trouble is Ballooning I wrote the poems using collage—one of the processes I learned about at Evergreen. I came to this project trying to get out of my own head. I was such a young writer, writing “relationship poems” and relying on specific words so much that my friends had taken to calling them “amber words.” And then they would instruct me to “Mad Lib the fuck out of it.” I still wanted to write poems where I was in control of the saying…but I needed a way out of my own head. I needed a filter. So I decided to write poems where each poem used the structure from a poem that I had read and enjoyed—thereby getting away from my own syntactical tendencies. I then, using word lists, collaged over these poems, replacing each noun, verb, and adjective. I did this consciously and thoughtfully and with the knowledge that I still wanted these poems to “mean” something to me. I needed to have more intent than splattering words on a page, or being clever or cute, and so I came to each poem with that—with an ear to the sound, and my mind to what these poems might culminate.

But after I finished that manuscript, I was ready to tackle writing without a net.

With This Ride is in Double Exposure, Dutch Baby Combo, and  Diary of When Being with Friends Feels Like Watching TV I did just that. These poems happened from my brain to the page. They were “projects” but not “processes.” I had practiced creating so many poems, first, using those oulipian constraints and processes, through that mental and linguistic exercise, playing in the language, feeling out how words feel, how they look on the page, rolling them in my mouth, that now when I sit down to write I can do so without looking outside for a language, or borrowing somebody else’s architecture. The language is already inside.

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