Amorak Huey is the author of the poetry collection Ha Ha Ha Thump, which was published by Sundress Publications in August, 2015. He sat down to talk to our editorial intern Adam J. Gellings about process, influence, and more!
Adam J. Gellings: What is your writing process like? Do you have a routine?
Amorak Huey: My writing routine is the absolute lack of a routine. I envy those writers who are all like, “Oh, yes, I arise and write from 5:30 to 7 every morning. The sunrise and the quiet house are so inspiring!” My life is far too chaotic for any such thing, and probably I lack discipline for all that anyway. I write when I can fit it in around the edges of things. Sometimes early mornings. Sometimes late at night. Sometimes with Criminal Minds on TV, or while the kids are doing homework, or in the car while waiting to pick up the soccer-practice carpool. Often when I’m supposed to be grading or doing the laundry. There’s no better recipe for getting writing done than having something else I need to be doing. Conversely, there’s no better motivation for getting other stuff done—the house cleaned, the checkbook balanced—than having writing I need to do. It’s a weird life. I don’t write every day, but I write more days than not. Maybe this fragmented writing life is why I mostly write poems and not longer things that might require a more sustained kind of focus.
AJG: When did you first become interested in writing poems? Who were your early influences?
AH: It’s hard to pinpoint a true first moment. I grew up in a family of readers, talkers, storytellers, so words and books and writing have always been important to me. The first contemporary poet I was captivated by was Raymond Carver, whose work I came to through his short stories. I know his poems are not especially well thought of these days, but when I was in college, they opened up verse for me. He showed me that poems can be narrative, can be personal, can be driven by voice, can be clever, can be readable. These things are probably self-evident for most poets, but I had to learn them, and have to continue to relearn them over and over. Other poets I read with hunger early in my writing life included Maya Angelou, Sharon Olds, Adrienne Rich, David Kirby, Tess Gallagher, Bob Hicok, Jorie Graham.
When I was a senior in college, I had plans to be a novelist and short story writer. One of my mentors and writing professors sat me down in her office and asked if I was serious about writing prose, because she thought maybe I should write poetry instead. I don’t know exactly how she meant it—probably as a compliment to my poetry—but I was kind of devastated, despairing about how crappy my prose-writing must be for her to say this. In hindsight, this conversation probably was kind of a turning point for me, and gradually I started writing more poetry and less prose. I started grad school in fiction right out of college, but dropped out after a few semesters, and by the time I went back to do my MFA 10 years later, there was no question I was going to study poetry.
AJG: You have previously worked as a newspaper editor & reporter. What experiences as a news writer shaped your voice as a poet? Is there a bond between your creative writing & your work reporting the facts?
AH: The biggest connections between news writing and poetry have to do with language. They share the aim of achieving your purpose in as few words as possible. Wasting not a syllable. The demand that each word have maximum impact. My years as a copy editor taught me a lot about how sentences work and how to express a complex thought with clarity. Clarity isn’t always the goal in a poem, but it helps to have that ability in your writer’s toolbox.
The contrast between news writing and poetry comes in context and purpose. I’m always telling my students that if someone asked them, say, what happened at a meeting or where they wanted to go for lunch, and they wrote a poem in response, that would be weird. A poem is not the best way to handle the straightforward delivery of information. A poem is not a memo, or a news article, or a status update, or a text message to a friend, right? I mean, it can look like those things, it can take the shape of those things, it can borrow from those things, but as soon as you call it a poem, it becomes something else. I won’t say something larger, because I’m not sure about the hierarchy there, but definitely something other. So then the purpose of a poem must be something else, and it’s tough to articulate, but it’s along the lines of: a poem exists to create an experience for the reader, to use language to explore and evoke some event or emotion or memory, some facet of human existence, and in doing so the poem will necessarily bump up against the limits of language. The role of language in a news article is to be as invisible as possible, to deliver the goods and get out of the way. In a poem, the language is the goods.
My poetry voice is definitely shaped by my years as a journalist. It’s sometimes an obstacle I have to overcome, a tendency to over-explain or oversimplify. In a news article, it might be enough to write, like, “I was sad,” or whatever. But that straightforwardness isn’t always what a poem needs, though it can be. I have to create sadness (or happiness or lust or hunger or whatever). Invent it almost from scratch, using language, which is an incredibly imperfect medium. So then I have to reach for image or metaphor or another rhetorical device. Have to find something new in the language. Express something in a way it hasn’t quite been expressed before. And it’s so much fun. I am pretty terrible at it most of the time, but I love the attempt. It’s invigorating.
AJG: Could you talk a little about how you came about choosing Ha Ha Ha Thump as the title for your collection & the decision behind starting each section with a poem of the same name?
AH: That title came fairly early in the process, even as the book went through numerous drafts and revisions. I liked the tone of it, the idea of humor followed by something more alarming. I like to think that’s a metaphor for what some of the poems in the collection achieve. You’re laughing along then you’re like, wait, what?
I was interested in the idea of using a joke in a poem—not just wit or cleverness, but a straightforward joke with a set-up and punchline—and that’s what I was trying to do in the first “Ha Ha Ha Thump” poem I wrote, to go back to this childhood joke: What goes ha ha ha thump? Someone laughing their head off.
Then, when I was working with the amazing Erin Elizabeth Smith, my editor at Sundress, on the final shape of the collection, she wanted me to reorganize it to fight against my tendency to shape collections like narratives, because this isn’t a book with a single coherent speaker or storyline. So I was making piles of poems that felt like they could be sections and seeking some device, some structural mechanism by which to organize the piles, and I thought, What if I come up with other answers to the question? What else might go ha ha ha thump? I came up with a Hollywood marriage, a hyena falling out of a tree, a clown having a heart attack, and laughter to measure the silence between lightning and thunder. Those became the opening poems for each section, with each answer loosely—very loosely—connected to what I see as the uniting themes or tones within the sections.
AJG: Do you have a favorite poem in the collection?
AH: All my babies are beautiful! But since you asked, I’ll say the last poem in the book, “Ars Poetica Disguised as a Love Poem Disguised as a Commemoration of the 166th Anniversary of the Rescue of the Donner Party.” The absurdly long title makes me smile, and I think the poem comes pretty close to doing everything I want it to. I’m also happy with the hopeful chord it strikes at the end of this book, which I suspect at times might come across as somewhat cynical about love.
AJG: Are you part of a writing community where you live? How do you know when a poem you have written is officially done revising?
AH: I am so fortunate to have a built-in community of writers in the Writing Department at Grand Valley State University. How awesome is it to go to work with colleagues and students who value what I value, who want to have the same conversations I want to have about language and teaching and learning and writing?
I also am part of an online writing group with about a dozen other poets, where someone comes up with a prompt each month and we all write a poem for that prompt. Some of the poets in the group are local, but others are spread across the country. Each April, some friends and I do the poem-a-day thing, sharing our poems with each other for accountability.
So, yes, I am part of lots of writing communities, these that I’ve mentioned, but also being engaged with other writers through social media, reading their work and the work they find and link to. Reading literary journals and books published by small presses and discovering new writers and new poems, even submitting my own work, attending the AWP Conference—it’s all part of engaging with a larger community of writing and writers. Without these communities, I don’t know how I would keep writing.
I suspect that since you linked your question about a writing community with a question about revision, you’re also asking about a workshop-like group, a set of readers who offer feedback and help answer that “how do you know when it’s done” question. That, I don’t really have. In the online group, we offer encouragement and some feedback to each other, but the main point is to keep each other writing; if you’re in the group, you know you’re writing at least a poem a month. Similarly, our April thing is mostly about having someone on the other end who expects you to email them a poem every day. We do get together in May over burgers and beers to rehash and talk about the poems, but it’s more about celebrating having survived the month than about offering detailed feedback.
So when do you know you’re done revising a piece? The flippant answer is the real answer: You don’t. And you never have to be done. Even publication doesn’t mean you have to stop. Robert Lowell was famous for tinkering with pieces even after they appeared in prestigious journals, often to the irritation of his editors. But, yeah, at some point, you want to stop, right? You want to feel like you’ve reached some milestone, some point where the poem is ready for its close-up. And eventually, you do gain a sense of confidence that you can tell when your work is some approximation of finished, a felt sense of things having clicked into place. There’s no shortcut to that felt sense, though. You have to read literally thousands of poems and write thousands of poems that fall woefully short of your ambitions for them. Then read some more and write some more. Eventually, you’ll learn to trust in your feelings about a piece.
AJG: What upcoming projects do you have on the horizon?
AH: A new chapbook, A Map of the Farm Three Miles from the End of Happy Hollow Road, is coming out later this year from Porkbelly Press. I have two other full-length manuscripts in circulation, with all the revision and revisiting and rejection that process entails, and of course the most important project is always merely—merely—to write the next poem.
You can purchase a copy of Ha Ha Ha Thump from the Sundress Publications store.
Amorak Huey, a former newspaper editor and reporter, is author of the poetry collection Ha Ha Ha Thump (Sundress, 2015) and the chapbooks The Insomniac Circus (Hyacinth Girl, 2014) and A Map of the Farm Three Miles from the End of Happy Hollow Road (Porkbelly, forthcoming in 2016). He teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His poems appear in The Best American Poetry 2012, The Southern Review, The Collagist, Oxford American, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere.
Adam J. Gellings is a poet from Columbus, Ohio. He is currently a PhD student in English at SUNY Binghamton & he received a MFA in Creative Writing from Ashland University. You can find his work in Quarter After Eight, Rust + Moth & forthcoming in The Tishman Review.