Monday, April 10, 2017

Interview with Amy Small-McKinney by Susan Tepper

Interview with Amy Small-McKinney by Susan Tepper

Susan Tepper: Your new poetry collection ‘Walking Toward Cranes’ (Glass Lyre Press) involves a personal illness and what it took to walk away from that segment of your life. Because our lives are, in a way, crafted like novels. Did you start these poems during the illness stage or after?

Amy Small-McKinney: Thank you Susan for this question. Before answering, your assertion that our lives, in a way, are crafted like novels, fascinates me because I am not a novel writer, though I love reading them. I would have no idea where to begin! And I suspect if I did try to write a novel, it would jump in and out of the present to other times because my brain, especially while writing poems, works that way. I believe that I don’t know how to write a linear narrative; it is not how my mind works. Having said that, while putting ‘Walking Toward Cranes’ together, I did begin to see the pattern and the sections. In other words, they emerged after the poems were gathered and organized.

ST: Also being a poet, myself, I understand what you are saying here. It’s almost an organic thing, the way the life organizes the work without our conscious approval.

ASM: I wrote many of the poems from diagnosis through treatment and then recovery from treatment. They began the day of my suspicious mammogram and ultrasound. The poem, Flying Low, was written on the ride home. I remember driving close to my home when a flock of tiny birds swooped in front of my car. I remember pulling over and a poem was emerging. I remember rushing home and writing the poem. I knew it was about the suspected breast cancer. From then on, I wrote and wrote, Susan, with no thoughts of publishing or a book. I wrote for my life. During the chemotherapy, there was a very dark period when I didn’t write much, but even then, when able, I would let anything that needed to be said, just be said. I never thought these would become a book. The other poems were written shortly before or shortly after treatment and seemed to fit.

ST: Flying Low is indeed a poem that foreshadowed an overwhelming event in your life.
You wrote: “…One tried to talk to me. / If I listened, I would know he is tired. / Inside of me, there is a swarm, / surplus only heat will destroy. / …”
Of all the types of writing, it’s my belief that poetry lives closest to the soul or heart or whatever term people use to explain their deepest core selves.

ASM: I agree, but also hesitate to agree because I imagine all writers tap into something below the surface to unearth their stories or poems. I had a friend, a novelist, a mystery writer, who talked to me often about her process and how painful it was for her to find out her characters, no matter how different they seemed, at first blush, from her, ended up having so much of her in them, including things she preferred not to think about. It is what honest writing is about. I tell my students that they can write about a tree or a car or a blueberry, and there will be something of themselves lurking in that tree, car, or blueberry, something that needs to be said. But for me, poetry is everything. I know that sounds corny, but poetry is where I find out what I am feeling and thinking. It is the safest place in the world for me, despite the fear of what might be said. I just finished reading a book by the poet, May Swenson, and so many of her poems were about nature, but also about wanting to be “naked” in poems as she could not be in life. But, yes, poetry does come from that part of myself I could not otherwise hear. I listen hard to it.

ST: That is the ultimate way to write, whether it’s poetry or novel or stories. Close to the bone without the awareness. I can’t imagine story-boarding a novel though many successful novelists do just that. For me it would take away the joy of the journey. Will there be clouds? Will we reach an ocean? Once you’re locked in, the art goes out. You’re walled into structure.
Your poem Being Something Else begins: “A window sheeted in plastic and tape, / draped in nothingness like lace. / A window that dreads winter, snow closing us in. / …”
There is much more here than the literal interpretation, though that in itself is almost lush despite the intention of the poem. You notice I say intention of the poem (not the poet).

Being Something Else #2 follows in the book and is vastly different. A much more optimistic view of things despite the illness still present. It begins: “Fruit carried to our daughter. / Bananas, green. / When brown with pointlessness, / they are rich with tumor necrosis factors. / …”

ASM: Susan, you selected two poems I have difficulty talking about! You rascal! Of course, I have difficulty talking about most of my poems. I can talk at length about poetry by others, but sometimes I feel as though my own work is a mystery to me. Or perhaps, I keep them a secret even from myself. & yes, I do notice the “intention of the poem.” Thanks.

The poem’s intent, I think, is to talk about isolation, fear of loss, and the need to return to the world. I can tell you that I recognize the details. For twenty-five years, we lived in an old and drafty house before moving into an apartment. We lived in that house during my cancer. My chemo treatment was smack in the middle of the worst winter in years; even the clinic needed to close for a few days. At some point, my husband was also ill and I was afraid, I am sure. I remember taking a train to the city on a clear day and feeling a freedom I hadn’t felt during my treatment and during that winter. Apparently, it was not possible to write that as a narrative poem. 
Being Something Else # 2 came about, in part, because a dear poet friend of mine suggested I write a series. It never became a series, but it created this second poem. I remember seeing someone on a train (I live beside a train and love trains) carrying fruit. I imagined carrying fruit to our daughter, again. I read somewhere that those brown bananas I don’t eat have a component, tumor necrosis factor, and that tumor necrosis factor might prevent or fight cancer. I don’t know, but it seems that the poem is trying to talk about a kind of acceptance, maybe acquiescence, but a return to life. But there is something else. The speaker moves along the same track as the tumor necrosis factors, but also as the train where there are morning glories nearby with their mouths opened, almost in song. This is life, isn’t it? We cannot do anything but move along.

 Susan Tepper, an award-winning writer, has been at it for twenty years. Six books of her fiction and poetry have been published, with a seventh book, a novella, forthcoming in the fall of 2017. FIZZ her reading series at KGB Bar, NYC, is sporadically ongoing these past nine years.

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