Prior to the release of his new poetry collection, Boom Box (Sundress, 2019), Amorak Huey spoke with Sundress editorial intern Jenna Jankowski about nostalgia, the South, and the intrigue of an adolescent perspective.
JJ: Do you believe that it is at all possible to be nostalgic without sacrificing historical accuracy? How does one navigate that terrain?
AH: When I write poems, I’m not super interested in historical accuracy. I’m more interested in chasing some kind of emotional resonance. While many of the poems in this book align fairly closely with my own life, others depart wildly. Some of the speakers are me or a version of me, but others aren’t at all—in the title poem, for example, the speaker is based on a kid I knew from down the street, even though the emotional journey he’s on tracks with some of my own experiences from that age. Now that I think about it, that speaker is based on two different kids.
JJ: Noting changes you’ve mentioned about reading habits I wondered, in what ways—if any—have you changed your own creative expression to resonate with the way people read today?
AH: I don’t think most people read any poems, much less my poems. Is that a change in reading habits or just the nature of poems? I just told a poetry class the other day that they shouldn’t try to write poems specifically to draw in readers who don’t like poems. I don’t know if I believe it, but it sounded good when I said it. I think you have to write what you want to write, in the way that you want to write it, and trust that readers will find meaning in it. People who read poems know what they’re getting into: poetry asks you to slow down, to spend time in it, to let the language work on you, to read and re-read. People who read poems, I think, are making a generous and empathetic choice just by coming to poetry in the first place, and those are the readers you want to reach. You want to make sure you’ve written something that rewards them for their time.
JJ: What was your primary thought process as you ordered your collection? Is there a larger narrative arc you hope the reader can tune into?
AH: It took me a long time to order this collection. I worked with Maggie Smith on a draft of it, and then Erin Elizabeth Smith from Sundress helped me put it in its final shape. The poems are roughly, though not precisely, ordered by the age of the speaker. That seems so obvious now, and I don’t know why it took a long time to come to that. I think the various speakers’ concerns with loneliness, desire, and self-definition remain constant, but how those concerns manifest in the body and in the larger world evolve as the speakers progress through adolescence. There’s not a single underlying narrative in the sense that this is a novel-in-verse or anything like that, but I think readers might sense some kind of arc to the collection.
JJ: The South feels like the pulse of this collection; what characteristics of it—besides the fact that you were born there—make it essential to the book?
AH: I wasn’t born in the South; my family moved there from Michigan when I was 3. That feels important because my feelings about Alabama have this kind of doubleness to them: it is home, but I am also an outsider, an interloper. What’s essential about it for me in how it shapes this collection is the weather—all that heat and humidity and the threat of tornadoes in the summer—and the colors: the green of the kudzu on the farm where I grew up, the red dirt, the muddy rivers. And of course the history. So much violence and turmoil, especially and obviously around race. There’s an external placidness and underneath that there’s this seething, roiling anger. Probably that’s everywhere, not just the South, not just Alabama, but it’s definitely tied up in my complex feelings about where I grew up.
JJ: As you developed Boom Box, why did you find yourself gravitating toward the perspective of an adolescent?
AH: I return over and over to my adolescence as I write because it’s such an interesting in-between space when you’re uncomfortable in your own skin when you are neither who you were as a child, nor who you will be as an adult. Then later you grow up and learn that your whole life exists in that in-between space. These poems were not written all at once, or in any kind of sequence, but in amongst the poems in my other books. Eventually, I realized that they all belonged together, that they were speaking to each other.
JJ: Given the prominence of hyper-masculine pop-culture icons like Han Solo or Knight Rider, what are your thoughts on the influence of pop-culture on identity?
AH: We spend our lives looking around for models of how to be a human being in the world, right? It’s why we tell stories, why we read, why we listen to music, watch movies, or at least part of why we do those things. So it’s natural that these icons, for better or worse, become part of our sense of self. We define ourselves toward them or against them, or both.
JJ: Can you talk a little bit about the ways in which pop culture helps the speaker interpret the world around him?
AH: When you’re young, and maybe always, you’re looking for the rules for how to be a human being. You’re trying to figure out how to be happy, connected, less alone. For me, and for the speakers of these poems, pop culture was one place to find a version of those rules. Songs, movies, music: these people had it figured out, right, and so they offered a path to follow. Or they didn’t have it figured out at all, and they offered reassurance that I wasn’t the only one stumbling through the human experience.
JJ: As a writer, this era has been influential for you; but how has it been significant for you as a person?
AH: I was 10 when the 1980s began and 20 when they ended. That’s a hugely formative and transformative decade in anyone’s life, I think. My parents got divorced. I got my first boom box; the first cassette I owned was Thriller. I went from being homeschooled to attending public school. I got my first car: a tiny blue Datsun pickup. I graduated and left home for college. Lots of changes in that decade, for sure, and I think this book reflects my ongoing attempt to make sense of them.
JJ: How accurately (if at all) does the written word bring back what we’ve lost to time?
AH: I don’t know how accurately poems do anything if you’re talking about a kind of journalistic fidelity to facts. But I don’t think accuracy is the right measuring stick. Does a poem teach you something about what it means to be alive? Does it change how you see the world? Does it give language to something you’ve felt but not articulated? Does it challenge you to feel something entirely new? Can you find yourself in a poem — and more importantly, does a poem enlarge your definition of yourself? Does a poem make you feel less alone?
Amorak Huey is author of two previous poetry collections: Seducing the Asparagus Queen (Cloudbank Books, 2018), winner of the Vern Rutsala Prize; and Ha Ha Ha Thump (Sundress Publications, 2015). Co-author of the textbook Poetry: A Writers Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), he teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.
Jenna Jankowski is a graduate of Lawrence University where she earned a BA in English with a minor in Russian Studies. At school, she served as the editor of an on-campus literary magazine, and she has since worked with Sourcebooks and Browne & Miller Literary Associates. These days, she can be found scouring used bookstores for new finds. Consequently, she can also be found anxiously surveying the ever-growing stacks of to-be-read books on her shelves.