Amy Newlove Schroeder
Amy Schroeder is a poet whose sensuality molecularly blankets communication of the senses as they translate experience and cognition to the page. In this equinox we invite into the conversation “the woman’s subject position, sexuality and sensuality, grief in its many forms [and] juxtapositions between the high and the low, between the sublime and the quotidian.” As a writer she is motivated by the accent of sound and image telling us, “it is as though I am a blind woman feeling her way through unfamiliar terrain. I try to find what feels accurate and move toward that, rather than making formal decisions about what seems appropriate or correct.” So chance balances the juxtaposition, the poem as planet, the piece as whole.
Schroeder expands and contracts the fricative movements of the “alienation that is a part of human life”. In our humanity we symbiotically repel intimacy as it envelopes us. She continues, “We are almost always alienated in some way, whether it be from our own selves, or our family, or a lover, or from the larger world that surrounds us. I feel that most of life takes place in the spaces in between—when we are moving away or towards the things that matter most.” It is in the dreamscape that we are able to personify this delicacy, this paradoxical stasis that brings us towards love; a translation. As to which she says, “Love is also about a similar kind of action, a chronic, and not always successful, effort to make ourselves understood to another person … You cannot engage with someone intimately without being scarred.”
Amy Newlove Schroeder’s first book, The Sleep Hotel, was published by Oberlin in 2010. Work has recently appeared or will be forthcoming in Field, Witness and Boston Review. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Southern California, where she currently teaches writing. She lives in Los Angeles.
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?
I was that kid who walked around with a book all the time (and I do mean all the time—I have been known to cross the street without lifting my nose). Like many escape artists, I think that I transformed one mode of escape (reading) into another (writing.) I made my first attempt at age seven—a short story about a missing diamond necklace. (The thrilling conclusion: Stolen by a greedy blue jay and had hidden in her nest.)
Like many writers, I found poetry as an adolescent. It was a balm to my whipsawing emotions. I read the usual cast of characters: Whitman, Ginsberg, Plath. While these writers remain important to me, as I got older I learned that there were actual living poets whose work I could read. I have been chiefly influenced by contemporary female poets: Jean Valentine, Louise Gluck, Brenda Hillman, Sharon Olds, Jorie Graham. While I still read these poets, they were very important to me when I was in my twenties, when I was trying to find voices I could connect to both pyschically and poetically.
2.) Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?
I have been very fortunate in finding mentors, and I have had many. My earliest mentors were my high school English teachers. I attended Berkeley as an undergrad, and I was lucky enough to be accepted into an upper division poetry workshop taught by Yusef Komunyakaa. When I was pursuing my MFA, I worked closely with Carl Phillips. Most recently, when I was completing my PhD, I was mentored by Carol Muske-Dukes and Susan McCabe. The various ways that these teachers have helped me are too many to recount here, but one element of the teacher-student relationship has remained consistent—it was not so much that these poets taught me how to write, but that they provided support and connection. It is possible to learn a lot from a mentor, but I think what is more important and more sustaining is the confidence gained from having someone you respect believe in you. Writing is a lonely practice, so having mentors is both crucial and nurturing. Now that I am beyond my studies, I find myself being inspired by friends who are poets—Gretchen Mattox, L.B. Thompson, Elena Karina Byrne, Joy Katz, to name a few.
3.) How has your own work changed over time and why?
The writer’s journey is necessarily one of discovery—discovering one’s subjects, discovering a voice, finding a comfortable form. I think the key element that has changed in my poems is that they have grown less accessible—not intentionally so. My earliest work was fairly uncomplicated, even simple. Paradoxically, I now feel much clearer about what I want to talk about—the woman’s subject position, sexuality and sensuality, grief in its many forms. I am also very interested in juxtapositions between the high and the low, between the sublime and the quotidian—the experience of listening to Bach in the car while giving panhandler money, for example.
4.) Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?
My taste is catholic—I will read pretty much anything, from bestsellers to obscure texts on ancient mystery religion. I’m not sure how my reading has affected me formally, but I think the content of my poetry reflects that variety. The Sleep Hotel contains a wide range of references, from a Led Zeppelin song to the medieval text A Cloud of Unknowing. I like to mix different things together and see if they spark—perhaps that is a result of my varied reading practice. Mostly I read like an addict—when I am reading, I am already thinking about the next book that I will want to read. One of the defining qualities of the addict is a sense of insatiability—I suspect that this feeling or yearning can be identified in my work.
5.) What are your plans for the future?
I am currently working on my second manuscript, which is tentatively titled Lamia. I am also working on prose in various forms—an essay about the year I lived in Istanbul, some short stories, some book reviews. I also have plans for a novel.
6.) What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?
This is a difficult question to answer, I think. Perhaps the most significant change is the great expansion in the number of female writers, particularly female poets. Women have always written, but historically their work was often marginalized—one must always remember Woolf’s attempt to picture Shakespeare’s sister, and then being reminded by a certain text on the history of England that women at that time, were more likely to be “locked up, beaten and flung around the room,” than to be writing poetry. In today’s literary world, women are taken seriously—while sexism still certainly exists in the literary world, I think it is less of a factor than in say, the days of Bishop and Moore. Certainly we do not have to contend with the resistance that Dickinson faced. At the same time, some have suggested that within the broad landscape of American poetry, there is a tendency to celebrate beautiful boys—attractive young male poets. If this is true, I doubt it is a symptom of illness in the world of poetry—rather it is a reflection of a kind of sexism that is deeply ingrained in our culture.
7.) Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?
Katie Ford, Hilary Gravendyk, Susan Stewart, Rachel Zucker, Noelle Kocot, Saskia Hamilton, Dana Levin, Carrie Fountain, Julie Doxsee
8.) If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?
Reluctantly compulsive post-confessional confessional
9.) Your book Sleep Hotel, out from Oberlin College Press embodies an intimate lyric that is at once encompassing and foreign at the same time. Thematically this is shown in poems like the “The Sleep Hotel,” that displaces a familial relationship to a hospital room and ice chips. But also in your poem “Pacific,” where we read, “the water is so impersonal, / a stranger to everyone”. The music in these transitions is effortless. Can you describe how sleep interacts in this discussion? I am also interested in your choice of phanopoeia and melopoeia to facilitate these seamless tensions?
In writing about Dante, Pound suggests that we should first read him only for the images—the leopard should act only as a leopard, rather than as something for which the leopard stands. I tend to hew to this philosophy in my own work—I try very hard to get out of my own way. I try not to think when I’m writing—instead, I feel as though I am trying to find something that satisfies me, both sonically and verbally. As Stevens writes, “The poem of the mind in the act of finding / what will suffice.” I am trying to find what will suffice. When I am writing, I am led by sound and image—it is as though I am a blind woman feeling her way through unfamiliar terrain. I try to find what feels accurate and move toward that, rather than making formal decisions about what seems appropriate or correct.
Your reading of my work seems accurate—I do tend to write from a place that is extremely intimate. At the same time, I try to contend with the alienation that is a part of human life—we are almost always alienated in some way, whether it be from our own selves, or our family, or a lover, or from the larger world that surrounds us. I feel that most of life takes place in the spaces in between—when we are moving away or towards the things that matter most. My poems come from those interstices, those betweenpie mountains, as Hopkins described them.
The image of sleep was crucial to me as a vehicle for describing this sensation of being both connected and disconnected—when we sleep, we are apart from everyone, but at the same time we may be dreaming about the people in our lives. Sleep also echoes the creative process for me—a kind of lucid dreaming, that is transitory and not completely under our control.
10.) In your poem, “After Reading Lao Tzu,” we are presented with a sentiment from Lao Tzu, who states, “The one who speaks does not know, / The one who knows does not speak.” The lyric proceeds, “Meaning we were all sad // Meaning that when you were seized by desire, it was nothing more than flesh, bared above the collarbone.” In regards to mind body dualism, and the act of writing the body back on to the page, is all writing then a bare collarbone? In your opinion how do you believe that poetry addresses this sentiment, knowing and unknowing, and how does this interact with the body?
Well, if you read the line carefully, it is defining desire, rather than writing. Of course, all poems are in some way about poetry, so in that way it could be construed that all writing is desire, and thus metonymically, it can be asserted that the poem is saying that writing is only about the fleshly, only about the momentary act of brushing someone’s bare shoulder with your fingers. Your question is complicated, because for me the body is central to my work—at the same time, I am invested in the creation of a personal metaphysics, that is to say a way of understanding the world through a kind of emotional, sensory and spiritual philosophy. We understand the world first through the body, through the five senses. Then we attempt to process that understanding in the mind. Sometimes the two cannot be reconciled. And sometimes the bodily supplies us with insufficient information, or information that we do not want to accept. It is difficult to accept that desire may be only desire, that there is nothing beyond the body. At the same time, this is something that must be accepted, because even if we have a spiritual faith, our bodies are finite in this world.
11.) Communication, from the speaker to the received, even how it is presented internally and externally is a translation. This is further complicated with speech versus writing, a predominately right brained activity and writing which is more linear and left brained. In your poem, “The World is Transformed by Rain,” the poem reads, “in translation, brown rewritten in green. Possibly all love is translation”. The poem continues, “I never understand what you say when you’re speaking. You change me, / and I let you.” Love is translation never completely understood yet transformative. Could you please elaborate your interest in juxtaposing rain as opposed to sun in this idea of transformation and how you believe love interacts in translation and communication?
For me, poetry is about translating what is only in the mind, only understood privately, into something that can be comprehended in the known world. To some degree, love is also about a similar kind of action, a chronic, and not always successful, effort to make ourselves understood to another person. Sometimes that effort is fruitless, but it always leaves its trace upon us. You cannot engage with someone intimately without being scarred. And I don’t use the word scarred in a pejorative sense, rather to suggest that we are constantly trying to make ourselves understood to other people. And quite often what they say back to us reveals that understanding is not possible, at least not in the way that we might have wanted. The constancy of this translation—one might even say transaction—leaves a mark that cannot be erased. The final line of that poem attempts to render the truth of this: “I don’t love you, but I bloom under your hands / green as limes.” Not all relationships last, and few succeed in a kind of full-fledged knowing and understanding between two people. But anyone we brush up against in that intimate way affects us. Bodies leave traces in the mind.