“I like processes that evade intention: [my] poems don’t usually start from an intention. Rather, they discover meanings from found words and objects. “
Amanda and the Man Soul (Emrys Press, 2017)
What’s your chapbook about?
Amanda and the Man Soul collects poems spoken by and about Amanda and her dead twin, Gloria. Amanda, born with her vanished twin’s DNA embedded in her body, is a colony: she contains Gloria; the animus; memories of her mother and father; her own work, her obsessions. She’s preoccupied. Because she views herself as a kind of hybrid, Amanda also sees herself as monstrous, a theme reflected in the epigraph from Jeffrey Cohen’s book, Monster Theory, which holds that while “monsters” occur in nature, the category of monstrosity reflects a projection of the larger culture’s or the individual’s fears, desires, and repressions. The poems have a broad emotional range, humorous, mournful, self-deprecating, even glib. While Amanda as a speaker may not always realize the import of what she reveals about herself, and hence there is irony, she also mourns the miscarriage of Gloria, which deprives her of a sister, a companion who is like and not like the self, a kind of double like the soul. The biological ground of the poems is vanishing twin syndrome: DNA or even body parts of a twin who is not viable can, and in rare cases, do, become embedded in the body of a viable twin. Unlike Gloria, the vanished twin usually is voiceless.
The book’s blurbs realize aspects of this fiction that I hadn’t recognized even as I put the manuscript together. Dorianne Laux says it “overwhelms us with the mystery of what it means to be human and alive in a body, to be in possession of a soul, maybe twin souls.” Caki Wilkinson says that the “…lines shimmer and hum with a loopy, lovely music….” and that the poet “braves the divide between self and other, body and soul, with the pluck and precision of one who understands ‘this dance/read me, rhyme me/make me cohere.’”“ Chad Davidson says of the title poem that “it fuses idiomatic speech, ‘hidey hole,’ ‘nobody’s knockover,'” with “high-church poetics,” creating a “comfortable chaos.”
If you have written more than one chapbook or novella, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
Please see my previous interview on Eating the Light (Sable Books, 2016). It collects poems that revel in the sensual world of sight, but that also focus on how vision may colonize, in a sense, objectify, nature, art, and the human body. A central image manifested in the poem “Turner’s Sun” and in the title poem “Eating the Light” is the devouring nature of light but also of sight, for we both eat the world and are eaten by it as we absorb the light of what we see. Like the current book, Eating the Light is inflected by feminist and post-colonial theory. Allison Joseph, who chose it for Sable Books, calls the book “a book of vision, of tantalizing images and sensations… both tangible and ethereal.” Sandra Gilbert says, “The elegance of… language is as compelling as the incisiveness of her thought.” And Art Stringer says, “having dined with her, we begin to glow.”
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The oldest piece, “If Amanda Were Admiral,” written probably fifteen years ago when I first “discovered” Amanda, began as images about the sea–but when I saw those images through the lens of my then-nascent persona/character, I saw the sea as exuberant producer of life forms in need of being both “cajoled,” and “cosseted”: that is, in need of mothering. The poem that catalyzed the book is definitely the first I wrote on the vanished twin, done in early 2016, “The Gone Twin, an Origin Myth.” The tone of mourning emerged with “Chimera,” one of the poems that won Nimrod’s second place Pablo Neruda award in 2017. In that poem, I imagined the Edenic dance of the twins in utero and explore what might have been. All the poems but “If Amanda Were Admiral” were written from 2015-2017, so it’s the first book of mine that collected mostly newish poems.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I began the book in late 2015, unbeknownst to me at the time, when I participated in Tupelo Press’s 30/30 project: having to write a poem/day for public display required something “ready to hand,” and so evoked the relatively unformed character of Amanda. Until then, she’d largely been a blank canvas for poems about being seen, about visual objectification, including some sonnets, but during 30/30, I wrote several poems that began to flesh her out as a character, with preoccupations and an interior life. During the process, I read a Facebook post about vanishing twin syndrome, and immediately felt that Amanda had a twin, and began working with this as an underlying fiction after the 30/30 project. For a while, all I had to do what start a poetic line with “Amanda” and the poem took off.
I have a daily writing process: after coffee, I sit down and write, sometimes starting in my favorite “Decomposition Notebook.” I begin work often by finding trees, plants, birds, buildings, cars—a world––outside my windows at home and when I travel, and begin poems describing them thickly, in great detail, finding metaphor often as I go; these may become “attached” to an emotional complex right away and become meaningful, lay around for years until that magnetism occurs, or languish in a Word file. Sometimes, I riff off collected words or phrases from ads, other poets, novels, non-fiction books; I write towards or against them, expanding on them. I sometimes write from sets of rhymed words, or from pairs of words that have similar sounds, such as forfeit/forget/beget. Poems that start from these words or phrases or seen objects always demand a lot of revision to find an emotional center.
In general, I am very driven by sound, by double meanings, by image, and these impel me once I begin a draft. Rhymes sometimes help me move from one perception to the next; they may or not stay in the poem. The associations I make when I reach for a rhyme often lead to discoveries of meanings I hadn’t foreseen, and may guide the rest of the poem. I ALWAYS revise a lot, usually discovering richer meanings, more complexity and direction in that process.
It must be obvious that I like processes that evade intention: poems don’t usually start from an intention. Rather, they discover meanings from found words and objects. “The poem is the discovery,” as I said in my Eating the Light interview. Often my only intention is to write lines, to experience the energy of creation. This belief/practice is consonant with Roland Barthes’ views of writing in “Writing, an Intransitive Verb,” and in other ways this is a spiritual practice—it enables discovery in a meditative state, the medium of which is language.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
The title came from the poem “Amanda and the Man Soul,” which was published in Poem/Memoir/Story, now Nelle, and reprinted in the wonderful Nasty Women Poets anthology edited by Grace Bauer and Julie Kane for Lost Horse Press (2017). I arranged the poems to foreground the underlying loss and presence of Gloria at the start, and after that, arranged them both for narrative purposes and so that contiguous poems echo images and themes. Because the starts and endings of poetry collections are so important, especially in contest screening, I also try to place strong poems in those positions.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
The cover process was truly synchronistic in the Jungian sense: a meaningful coincidence is at its core. I first searched the internet for portraits of women, but my editor Jan Bailey found them too beautiful to represent the troubled and sometimes psychologically unhealthy Amanda. Then she or I (??) thought of looking for paintings about cell division, and when I found and showed some to Jan, she in turn sent me some of her daughter’s paintings: Orr Ambrose, an incredibly skilled painter, has been obsessed with biological, cellular themes. I immediately found one of her pictures that I loved. It seems to show two blurred round bodies, fusing or separating—according to the title it’s a butterfly––and its colors match the book’s obsession with red and blue, “blood out and blood in,” as one of the poems puts it. Traci Barr, the incredible designer, came up with the beautiful oceanic pale blue/green swirls that background the cover painting. I love it.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a full-length book, Chimera, which is in circulation and includes a lot of new work, some poems from the Amanda chapbook, and the poems that won Nimrod’s second place award. It gathers poems spoken by and about Amanda, and also foregrounds monstrosity and colonialism. Its topics range from poems about my own father, the sun, and the Catholic church’s father/son, to lush poems about animals and plants, whose oddities may suggest monstrosity. Once you start writing about monstrosity, though, many things that seemed merely objectionable become monstrous. The manuscript is braided—that is, the various “topics,” including the Amanda poems, interlace with each other, the contiguous poems, hopefully, linking through similarities of image and diction.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
First of all, writing poetry is a thankless task: there’s no money in it, no status, little fame. Take it on only if you HAVE to write, if you are obsessed with it, if it sings to you in a way nothing else does, only if it is the only activity that makes you feel whole. If you’re that person, learn what’s going on in the recent past and now, today: don’t imitate your Grandmother’s Book of Nineteenth Century Verse. Find poets you love and want to be, whose work gives you poem envy, and then find books by those poets and study them. Read, read, read. If you don’t have guidance on contemporary poetry from classes in literature or creative writing, find poems in the best journals. I include a list of journals I admire here, but others will have very different lists: these long-standing journals seek to publish the best literary work and often discover new poets and honor more established poets: Nimrod, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, The Los Angeles Review, Crazyhorse, The Laurel Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, The Cincinnati Review, Boston Review, AGNI, Beloit Poetry Journal, Tupelo Press Quarterly, American Poetry Review, Yale Review, Gulf Coast, Ploughshares, Sixth Finch. Yes, yes: there are many, many more, but these are some of the places I know whose taste is reliable and earnest. Once you find poets who give you poem-envy, buy their books and study them. Learn techniques from them—ways to make word choices sing, ways to plunge into the poem, or sidle into it, or meander through it, strategies of stanza division and line breaks. Write, write, write. Revise, revise, revise. First drafts rarely are great poems, though it can happen. Writing poetry requires an odd mixture of humility and boldness; you cannot assume you’re great, but you must write and work at your poems as if you think you might become great. Once you get poems that you think are as good as some of the published ones in good journals, send them out. Then be patient. Rejection is a pain in the ass. Acceptance helps you keep writing.
Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
I think the chapbook’s brevity allows the politics of its topics and/or obsessions to emerge more clearly, in my case and in this book, feminism and the ways that the designation “monstrous” serves to reflect the fears and hatreds of those who brandish it. Monstrosity has long been used to categorize women and minorities, represent them as subhuman; similarly, colonizers attributed monstrosity to native peoples, their cultural practices and deities. Interjecting external attributions of monstrosity undermines selfhood, potential, wholeness. Attitudes about Appalachia, where I live and have taught for 20 years, and about Appalachians, exemplify how monstrosity, along with other post-colonial attributes, cling to groups and influence their economic and political fates.
What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?
I think Amanda and the Man Soul creates a rich interior life of multiple voices, colors and things. It’s full of birds and trees and colors that filter in from the natural world and enliven it and maybe embody its obsessions and desires. It’s bodily, full of blood, tissue, fluids. The fragmented self, the atomic self, is a truism of post-modernity, but vanishing twin syndrome enabled me for some reason to see and understand how a presence within the self of something that is not the self, and yet is very like the self, both disrupts and enriches. At the same time, I composed somewhat blindly at first, engaged with the metaphor or conceit of the twin, the animus as occupant of Amanda, without quite recognizing how Gloria is like the soul and the unconscious. The unconscious in my view is an otherness embedded in the human, an animal, vegetal, even mineral self that we do not control or manage, but that peers at us from within, and yet, also and simultaneously IS us. It energizes and feeds creativity. The interior here is also mythic—a world with its own constellations, yet also peopled by myths and literary figures we hold in common, such as Penelope and Orion.
Mary B. Moore is the author of Amanda and the Man Soul, winner of the 2017 Emrys prize judged by Dorianne Laux. Moore’s second full-length collection, Flicker (2016, Broadkill River Press) won the Dogfish Head Poetry Award judged by Carol Frost, Baron Wormser, and Jan Beatty. Eating the Light (2016, Sable Books) was chosen by Allison Joseph for that press’s contest. Poems appear in Georgia Review, Nimrod, The Orison Anthology 2017, Nasty Women Poets, Birmingham Poetry Review, Cider Press Review, Coal Hill Review, Drunken Boat, and others. Poetry, Field, Prairie Schooner, New Letters also have published her poems. Cleveland State University Poetry Center published her full-length book The Book of Snow (1998).
To the Miscarried Child
on Van Gogh’s “Irises”
The irises aren’t eyed, but tongued,
and the three bearded sepals
droop, pant, loll among
the splayed, jade-green blades,
while behind a jumble of tilted
flowers, a bud
like a bird’s head with two white
eye spots eyes us,
half plant, half animal,
like the foam-formed,
almost human shapes we imagine
in Turner’s turbulent seas:
Poseidon, or something stymied,
unable quite to be,
like you, like me, ma semblable,
A few buds even ape
the brushes’ flame shapes, fuse
paint and painter, art
and artist. The one white iris,
a blind eye, color
made of all colors
tugs us into its cup, a boast,
among the blues. Its white looks
like absence, not plenitude.
And you, dear jilted ghost
of almost, veined iris-blue
in the dark womb water,
still porous, your skin a skein
of eyelets and mouths, gone
before you’d grown the husk
of being human: if you’d had the luck
to be born, would Vincent’s
irises have awed you too?
The terrors his brush disclosed,
bad gods among the beauties.