Interview with Amy Watkins

Sundress editorial intern Sabrina Sarro asked, Amy Watkins, author of Wolf Daughter to participate in an interview about her collection of poems—each spanning the maelstrom of feelings and bodily/emotional experiences that take place during the complicated and heavy time of adolescence. This work pierces like a staple in the tongue and begs its reader to contemplate the relationship between the hunter and the hunted, and whether or not is it wiser to act as a hunter when your default in society is the endangered.

Sabrina Saro: How does this collection inform how women coded or girl coded people and youth are treated globally?

Amy Watkins: A wolf is both dangerous and endangered. Young women and girls are often treated like they are dangerous (seductive, volatile, untrustworthy) and endangered (fragile, precious, in need of rescue), and both those perceptions put girls in real danger. Women and girls are more likely than men and boys to face domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment, and gender discrimination. And yet girls are powerful and resilient. They love themselves. They love their friends. They stand up to bullies and sail around the world and fight for clean water and start online movements and solve unsolvable problems. Their experiences are worth writing about.

SS: Why the choice of animal and forest metaphor?

AW: In the first poem, when my daughter says, “I don’t remember how not to be a wolf,” that’s a direct quote. She was playing a video game, and her character had transformed into a wolf, and she didn’t know which buttons to press to change back. It struck me as an almost too perfect metaphor for being a teenager, especially a girl: physically, emotionally, and intellectually changing, uncertain moment to moment if those changes are empowering, embarrassing, exhilarating or grotesque. I wrote the first poem then thought, “I can keep going.” 

SS: What motif was the hardest to write for you?

AW: The ones that took the most revising were #6, about active shooter drills, and #15, about visiting the Borghese Gallery in Rome. I wrote most of the poems/motifs/segments pretty quickly and didn’t revise them too much. The hardest part was figuring out how much wolf imagery was needed, and then just letting the poems be simple, direct, fairly literal snapshots of life.

SS: How did you get the idea to write each poem in its exact order?

AW: After I wrote the first one, I set a goal to write 20 wolf poems in two months. I figured if I wrote 20, I would end up with 10 or 15 that would work for a chapbook. I didn’t revise any of them until I had handwritten drafts of all of them. By then I was certain it was all one thing, and I knew what I wanted the overall feel to be. Of course, I didn’t write the individual pieces in this order. When it came to arranging them, I knew I wanted whatever came last to be joyful. I knew one of the segments about reading bedtime stories belonged near the beginning and one near the end. The rest was just a matter of sensing which pieces belonged next to each other.  

SS: You explore this notion of if it is better to be the hunter or be the endangered. How does this underbelly inform your message?

AW: I’ve had this conversation with a lot of women: When you’re walking alone and pass a strange man, do you look him in the eye or avoid eye contact? Does one feel safer to you than the other? Why? I think most women have answers to those questions. I’m not sure that most men do. When I wrote that poem, I was thinking about all the ways we teach girls to protect themselves—don’t go to the bathroom alone, always have your keys out when walking to your car, don’t give him the wrong idea, always (or never) look a strange man in the eyes—how early and frequently we hear this advice and how ingrained it becomes. 

SS: This collection often explores growing up, and the body changing. Why did you include that?

AW: I can’t imagine writing about adolescence and not writing about the body. Although the wolf metaphor takes on different meanings in different poems, that’s the most obvious analogy to transforming into a different creature. All that change can be exciting, but it can also be awkward or frightening. 

SS: How does the collection position itself racially?

AW: In my mind, this question connects to the idea of being or being perceived to be dangerous/endangered. I think of the way black teenagers are treated like dangerous adults—and, therefore, put in danger—in situations in which white teenagers are likely to be treated like children—and, therefore, protected. Wolf Daughter isn’t about that (it’s about my and my daughter’s experiences, and we are both white), but it is partly about the ugly human tendency to treat people as “other” for all kinds of reasons. The girl in the poem keeps being reminded that she doesn’t quite fit in, and she keeps pushing back, being herself—loving herself—anyway.   

SS:  How does this collection challenge or speak to femininity?

AW: I grew up in a pretty repressive religious tradition. I wasn’t allowed to wear jewelry or “unnatural” makeup. Even when the rules loosened up and those things were no longer forbidden, they were not the kind of thing a serious person cared about. It’s taken me a long time to feel that it’s OK for me to admit that I like feminine things. My daughter doesn’t have those hang-ups. In the poems, she rejects some traditional expectations of femininity (and takes some shit for it) and embraces others. She says without self-consciousness, “I might be the cutest person alive.” She and her friends seem freer than I was at their age to express/challenge/celebrate/reject femininity on their own terms, and I find that inspiring.

SS: Why the title?

AW: Originally, I was going to call it “Teen Wolf,” but my friend Jae Newman is smarter than me and suggested that “Wolf Daughter” might be just a little more evocative.

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Amy Watkins is the author of three poetry chapbooks (Milk & WaterLucky, and Wolf Daughter), a graduate of the Spalding University MFA in Writing, and a parent of a human girl. Find her online at RedLionSq.com or @amykwatkins on Twitter. She lives in Orlando, Florida.

Sabrina Sarro is a current social worker in the state of NY. They hold an LMSW from Columbia University and are currently pursuing an MFA from the City College of New York-CUNY. They are an alumnus of the LAMBDA Literary Emerging Voices for LGBTQIA* Writers Retreat, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Yale Writers’ Workshop, and others.

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