Lyric Essentials: Amorak Huey Reads Traci Brimhall

Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week, we welcome Sundress author, Amorak Huey to read poems by Traci Brimhall and talk about the craft and hidden influences of our favorite poetry. Thank you for reading!

Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read these poems by Traci Brimhall?

Amorak Huey: When people ask me my favorite poet, I always say Traci Brimhall. I first became aware of her work at an AWP offsite reading in Washington. I was there to support my friend Todd Kaneko, who was reading, and Traci was reading as well. I found out she was doing her PhD at Western Michigan, where I’d done my MFA—and then she read poems from Rookery, her first book. They blew me away. I bought the book that night, and I’ve read it dozens of times, and I’ve taught it in my advanced undergraduate workshop many times. All of her subsequent books have been similarly important to me, and her newest, Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod, is incredible. So, she’s a super important poet to me, and these poems I think are great examples of what I love about her work—the intertwining of love, intimacy, tenderness, violence, and vulnerability—and on a craft level, the language is immaculate.

Amorak Huey reads “Self-Portrait as Milk Hare in Active Shooter Alert” by Traci Brimhall

EH: On the surface, these poems from Brimhall are strikingly different than your latest poetry collection Boom Box. Are there any influences or similarities that you’ve drawn from Brimhall’s work when writing your own poetry?

AH: Her work I think probably has a kind of hidden influence on my writing. Like, maybe not one that a reader would pick up on, but that’s there for me. I mean, I revisit her poetry all the time, and I will read a poem and sit with it, just trying to wrap my mind around how she uses language, how she puts lines and images together. When I’m stuck in my own head and struggling to make language work on the page, I’ll go back to Traci’s books. I think her influence might be more visible in, say, my first collection, Ha Ha Ha Thump, and possibly in my forthcoming book, than it is in Boom Box, which differs from her poems so much in subject matter, and definitely leans into nostalgia more than most of her work does. Her poems tend to be more urgent and more present than mine are, I think, and that’s something I try to use to push myself. I would never claim my work is similar to hers, but I aspire to do what she does. I would love for something I write to land in a reader’s body the way her work lands in mine.   

Amorak Huey reads “Ars Poetica” by Traci Brimhall

EH: Everyone has a personal relationship with reading poetry aloud. Would you like to share your experience when reading and recording Brimhall’s poems for Lyric Essentials?

AH: Like many people, I hate the sound of my own recorded voice, so I certainly feel a bit awkward recording anything. I also felt pressure to do the poems justice. I love them so much. But I do love reading poems out loud, whether my own poems or someone else’s. I read to my students a lot, and I have gotten more comfortable with it over the years. Robert Pinsky says the medium of a poem is the breath and body of the reader, and I believe that–so reading a poem I love out loud is a great way to experience it.

Amorak Huey reads “Fledgling” by Traci Brimhall

EH:  Is there anything you are working on now that you’d like to share with readers?

AH: I haven’t been writing a lot of poetry this year. But, not entirely coincidentally, I’m taking a 24 Pearl Street workshop led by Traci on poetry and the body, and her prompts and discussions (and having deadlines!) have helped me draft some new poems. But my next big thing is that my fourth full-length collection, Dad Jokes from Late in the Patriarchy, comes out in 2021 from Sundress.

Traci Brimhall is a lyric poet and author of four poetry collections including Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod (2020) and Saudade (2017). Her book Our Lady of the Ruins was selected for the Barnard women’s poetry prize in 2012, and her first collection, Rookery, was the 2010 winner of a Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award and a finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year Award. Brimhall’s work has been published in The New Yorker, Poetry, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, and has also been featured on Poetry Daily, PBS Newshour, and Best American Poetry. Originally from Minnesota, Brimhall earned her MFA from Sarah Lawrence and her PhD from Western Michigan and now teaches creative writing at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, where she lives.

Further reading:

Read Brimhall’s latest collection, Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod.
Listen to Brimhall read and discuss her poem “Resistance” on The Poetry Magazine Podcast.
Get to know more about Traci Brimhall at her website.

Amorak Huey is the author of the poetry collections Dad Jokes from Late in the Patriarchy (Sundress Publications, forthcoming in 2021), Boom Box (Sundress Publications, 2019), Seducing the Asparagus Queen (Cloudbank, 2018), and Ha Ha Ha Thump (Sundress Publications, 2015), as well as two chapbooks. Co-author with W. Todd Kaneko of the textbook Poetry: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury, 2018). Huey teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

Further reading:

Purchase Boom Box by Huey from Sundress Publications.
Read this interview with Huey from The Kenyon Review on Poetry: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology.
Follow Amorak Huey on Twitter.

Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society. She is the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at

Sundress Announces the Release of Amorak Huey’s Collection, Boom Box

Sundress Releases Amorak Huey’s Collection, Boom Box

Sundress Publications announces the release of Amorak Huey’s collection, Boom Box. In this, Huey’s third published collection, the poems brim with desire and are hounded by the uncertainties of puberty, while Huey’s speaker chronicles the honest arc of an adolescence that is neither purely tragic nor purely ideal.


In Boom Box, Amorak Huey’s incisive and tender portrait of a GenX childhood, he challenges his readers to reconsider the way in which we relate to the past as we age. “What are the uses of nostalgia?” Huey asks. “What does it conceal, and what does it uncover?” Boom Box is suffused with the loneliness of small-town isolation and punctuated by the deep hurt of divorce. It is also rife with the pleasures of discovering a favorite album, and the powerful, restless energy of being seventeen. With the humor, curiosity, and earnestness of youth, Huey threads references to KISS, Star Wars, and even Dungeons & Dragons throughout the book, invoking at every turn the comforting sweetness of nostalgia. But Huey’s work is never saccharine. Instead, with each successive poem, and the discerning eye of a sage adult, his speaker untangles a web of early memories. By skillfully painting an experience of growing up in the wide rivers, gravel parking lots, and lonely dirt roads of Alabama, and by pairing those images with intimate snapshots of high school break-ups, missed connections, and Little League fathers who “never had a problem disappointment couldn’t solve,” Huey offers his readers a unique opportunity to remember the awkward trappings of youth through his artistically masterful lens. In this way, Boom Box revisits the foundations of the coming-of-age genre with style, clarity, and an emotional resonance that lasts long after its final lines.

Chelsea Dingman, author of What Bodies Have I Moved and Thaw, says, “If poems are magic, then the poems of Boom Box are rife with the magic of childhood in guitar-solo riffs of splendor and nostalgia. Amidst sweeping narratives, the past stands as a monument to be worshipped instead of forgotten. The sorrow, the thrill, the sex, the music, and the awkwardness, are all captured as if in time capsules—these are poems of loss and marrow and place, of time and the wars it wields. They are profound in their honesty, bittersweet, heartbreaking, yet redemptive. Like a stadium-rock anthem. Like the song thrumming in the background of a life that testifies ‘to love a place is to leave it behind.’”

Order your copy HERE.


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.


A-Line: Amorak Huey’s Seducing the Asparagus Queen

Sundress Publications is pleased to present A-Line, a new review series. A-Line will feature reviews of new books and chapbooks by our Sundress authors published by other presses. Our hope is to feature the critical and thoughtful insights of our editorial interns about books by the authors we love.


Asparagus-Cover-204x300-1.jpgAmorak Huey’s second full-length collection Seducing the Asparagus Queen can best be described by a line from “Six Years in Sudbury, Ontario”: “Whatever doesn’t kill you fucks you up in some other way.” Huey’s book chafes against American culture and with that the American Dream, by using common sayings about work or life and twisting them to reveal the truth—when bad things happen you don’t just get over them unscathed no matter how many cross-stitched pillows say you will, there will be scars. You’ll come home from war and your father still won’t be proud. You’ll work a job, grind yourself down because you’re supposed to, and your wife will touch herself to Dancing with the Stars while you get drunk and flirt with someone from high school in the same stuck as you. Huey makes the truth easier to swallow with his witty and punchy lines like “Cut your girlfriend in half, she holds it against you for weeks.”

The pairing of his humorous, cut-through-the-thick tone with intriguing images make his poems ache—the embodiment of the broken extrovert, bandaging his wounds in laughter like the clown imagery in a few of his poems. Because of this I found Seducing the Asparagus Queen refreshing and relatable. Huey captures every phase of life—the restlessness and desperation of youth, the disillusionment and the self-doubt of adulthood, mourning, and really the disillusionment with life in general. I felt understood by this chapbook. Like I slumped down in a barstool, head to bar top, and this chapbook slid me a whiskey shot, and gave voice to the stirring feelings underneath. It told me that life is hell and probably cursed a few times before taking another shot, pausing as the whiskey burned its throat and said that no one has the answers. I found a comfort and camaraderie in feeling stuck, in someone wading in too far to turn back, but unsure of how to continue. Whether that be the moment in the back of a car somewhere in the middle of nowhere, where touch is the only language, your whole future ahead of you, or you’re trying to figure out how to fit, how to work, how to be a parent, how to let go of one home for another, how to lose someone and keep moving forward. Seducing the Asparagus Queen is funny, insightful, and exactly what I needed to read.


Order Seducing the Asparagus Queen at Cloudbank Books


Jenna Geisinger is a fiction and creative non-fiction writer from New Jersey. She attends the MFA Professional and Creative Writing Program at William Paterson University, while working as an associate managing editor for the Schuylkill Valley Journal and a reader for Philadelphia Stories, where she has been previously published.

An Interview with Sundress Author Amorak Huey


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.

Ha Ha Ha Thump by Amorak Huey Released by Sundress Publications


Knoxville, TN-Sundress Publications is pleased to announce that pre-orders are now available for Amorak Huey’s debut full-length, Ha Ha Ha Thump.

You don’t need to count how many times variations on “disappear” and “disguise” appear here to get the sense that Amorak Huey is not only a witty and keen-eyed poet but also a consummate magician, directing our gaze to one thing even as he prepares to show us something better. Thus one poem declares in its title that it is about wallpaper, not breasts. In another, the pope imagines himself a married man, and if that’s not magic, I don’t know what is. Like a 21st -century“Abracadabra!” the phrase “ha ha ha thump” serves as the title of this collection and then recurs as a poem title not once but five times, cracking the ordinary world open to reveal the wonders within.
— David Kirby

Chapter by chapter, night by night, Amorak Huey’s Ha Ha Ha Thump creates a mash up of domestic life and celebrity culture—the beautiful monotony of marriage to a super model, heroic personas professing to their beloveds, a rock star’s immortal prowess shows signs of aging. These poems are insightful and funny, but best of all they are jubilant about all our small human failings adding up to love. The tongue may be hostage to memory, we may “replicate our favorite mistakes,” we may fail to make love in our parents’ hot tub, but what rises in each manifestation of these love stories is the persistence of possibility in all its bright pulsing urgency.
— Traci Brimhall

“The problem,” Amorak Huey writes, “isn’t feeling nothing, it’s feeling everything.” Ha Ha Ha Thump is a book that feels everything, and the feeling it reaches for most is love (in each of its delighted and damaged forms). This is a tremendous book with a spectacular heart, and at the center of that heart you’ll find love. I mean, first you’ll find vampires, bank robbers, reality TV shows, tiny robots and a steady, enduring sadness, but then—in the middle of all that—you’ll find love.
— Matthew Olzmann

hueyAmorak Huey, a former newspaper editor and reporter, teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His chapbook, The Insomniac Circus, was released by Hyacinth Girl Press in 2014. Ha Ha Ha Thump, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications in 2015. His poems appear in the anthologies The Best American Poetry 2012, The Poetry of Sex,and Poetry in Michigan/Michigan in Poetry, as well as journals such as Rattle, The Collagist, The Southern Review, Poet Lore, Menacing Hedge, and others.

Ha Ha Ha Thump is available for pre-sale at

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Everything Is Awesome (When You’re at AWP)


Every other Facebook post from every journal you follow is plugging their bookfair table. You’ve been invited to more offsite readings than it would be humanly possible to attend. #BadAWPAdvice keeps popping up in your Twitter feed. Friends of friends are looking for roomies in Minneapolis.

Yup, it’s AWP season.

Expressing your world-weariness about AWP is a badge of honor in this literary community of ours. The panels are lame, the bookfair is too big, the hotel elevators are slow, and there are just. So. Many Hipsters. Everyone is going but no one wants to be there; people who are staying home this year take to social media to proclaim their relief to have avoided the chaos. People who are actually happy to be attending occasionally, apologetically, stick out their heads to say, “I know, I know, but it’s not that bad,” like the earnest kids in high school who kind of enjoyed eleventh-grade English but knew saying so would make them a target.

But wasn’t that most of us? Aren’t we those bookish, sincere kids? When did 80 percent of us turn into the too-cool-for-school crowd?

Sure, of course there’s truth in all the snark. I certainly am not above complaining. For example, it very much irks me that no one—not one time, ever—has approached me at the bookfair to offer me a substantial check in exchange for the screenplay rights to that prose poem I published in Los Angeles Review. And, my goodness, all the talk about drinking. We’re like 10,000 freshmen out of the house for the first time with newly minted fake IDs dangling on lanyards around our necks.


The Sundress ladies out on the town at AWP Seattle.

The whole experience can be anxiety-inducing. It gets at our inner fear that everyone else has this writing thing figured out more than we do. Everyone else will seem busier than you are, with more places to go, more obligations, more connections. “Lunch? Oh, sorry, my panel’s at 1, and then I told [famous writer] we could meet for tea after her reading, and then I’m doing an offsite reading for [magazine that keeps rejecting you], and tomorrow I’m blowing off the conference and spending all day at [secret cool-sounding artsy place or distant-but-lovely nature spot] with [people you’ve heard of, though you may not know exactly what they do].”

Going to AWP will not get you published in that one journal, nor get your manuscript picked up by that other press. The odds are good that no one will come up to tell you how awesome your writing is. You’re unlikely to strike up a lifelong friendship with this super-famous writer, or that editor, or the other agent.

But, in the end, you know what? I love AWP. I look forward to it all year.

The bookfair is amazing. Just crazy awesome. The best part. I spend way too much money there every year. (All those people complaining about how poets don’t support the biz by buying books or subscribing to journals are NOT talking about me.) And yet there’s some inherent awkwardness in the whole thing. The people behind the tables want to sell their books and journals, while the people on the other side of tables are secretly (or not so secretly) hoping to be recognized and told, “Hey, I was hoping to see you. Can we publish your [novel, poem, story, 10-minute play, hybrid-lyric-language-experimental-fragment]? I have a contract right here with your name on it, just in case you came by.” (I can tell you from experience, this rarely happens.)IMG_1213

At the Sundress table at AWP Seattle.

Most of the readings are great. The audiences are generous, the readers are happy to be heard. However, it is almost inevitable that someone whose work you have long loved will turn out to be a giant douchebag. So be prepared to have at least one illusion shattered. What will make up for it is discovering someone else you didn’t know whose work is a joy and who turns out to be quite lovely in person.

It’s always fun to spot writers who wouldn’t be celebrities in basically any other context, but walking past them at AWP is like walking past Brad Pitt: “Did you see that guy? That’s Kevin Prufer!” “And look, over there, it’s Allison Joseph!”

(A bit of advice: If you do happen to walk by someone whose work you admire, stop and say so. It’ll make their day. Unless they’re the one fated to be your giant douchebag for the year.)

Some of the panels can be underwhelming, or overly specific. (“A Biomedical Science Approach to Teaching the Lyric Essay to the Students in the Third Row of an Introductory Multi-Genre Classroom at a Regional Teaching University in One of the Dakotas” got accepted and my brilliant panel proposal was rejected? Who’s in charge of this thing?) Other panels sound great, but when you get there, it quickly becomes clear no one has prepared a thing, and everyone’s just going to talk off the top of their head about whatever until the 75 minutes are up. But you pick and choose your spots, and find some good moments all over the place. Plus, as I tell my students, you’ll learn more if you go in looking for what you can learn rather than what you can make fun of on Twitter (#AWP15) or in next year’s blog post. Attitude matters.

Every year I leave AWP knowing I learned something—something that will help my writing, something that will help my teaching. I come home with new books and journals and having discovered new authors whose work I want to swim around in. I feel like I am part of a community, and like there are others out there who value what I value, who are working at the same things I’m working at.

And this: I come home eager to write. For me, that is exactly enough.

hueyAmorak Huey, a former newspaper editor and reporter, teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His chapbook, The Insomniac Circus, (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2014) and Ha Ha Ha Thump, forthcoming from Sundress Publications in 2015. His poems appear in the anthologies The Best American Poetry 2012, The Poetry of Sex, and Poetry in Michigan/Michigan in Poetry, as well as journals such as Rattle, The Collagist, The Southern Review, Poet Lore, Menacing Hedge, and others.

How Not To Write Misogynist Literature (A Guide For Dudes And Bros)


By Amorak Huey

It’s tempting to start this piece by repeating the obvious, only speaking slowly: Don’t. Write. Literature. That. Is. Misogynist.

Because, seriously. It’s not that hard.

Except, apparently, it is for a lot of writers. Dudes, I mean. Of course. So, fellas, here’s a little Jeff Foxworthy-esque checklist to see if your writing is misogynist:

  • If the women characters in your writing exist largely to illustrate the state of mind of the men characters … your writing might be misogynist.
  • If there are no women in your writing, like, ever … your writing might be misogynist.
  • If your writing describes violence happening to women, and it’s graphic, or titillating, or sexy, or supposed to be excused because you’re doing the oh-so-original work of exploring the psyche of the violent or lonely male mind … your writing is definitely for sure misogynist.
  • If those #GamerGate yahoos would appreciate your writing … well, yeah. Come on.

Look, if you’re a dude and you want to write about violence happening to women in order to reveal the inner workings of male mind, don’t. Just don’t.

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If you read that last paragraph and you still want to write about violence happening to women, then you need to ask yourself why. Do you find violence against women arousing? Do you feel like it’s your chance to get revenge against some woman who broke up with you, who was cold to you at a party, un-supportive of your genius in some way, who wouldn’t talk to you in high school? If it’s any of those things, get help. Talk to a counselor about your anger towards women.

The rule of thumb in comedy is that the best stuff punches up. Takes aim at the dominant class; tweaks the oppressors, not the oppressed. Similarly, the best journalists take seriously the duty to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

There’s nothing easier than making art that re-victimizes victims. That enforces the status quo. That points out and belittles the otherness of the other. There’s also nothing less interesting, less meaningful, less productive.


In the end, not producing misogynist literature starts with awareness. Be aware that your piece of work does not exist in a vacuum; as soon as you publish it, it becomes part of a long history of literature. Be aware that this history is overwhelmingly male-dominated. Be aware that continuing this history without critique is the most facile thing you can do as a writer. Be aware that you’re not the first guy who had a hard time finding a date to the prom, or grew up without money, or otherwise has felt un-privileged at some point in his life; be aware that despite this feeling, you have benefited and continue to benefit in ways large and small, felt and unfelt, from the patriarchal status quo. Be aware that almost everything that has been hard for you in life would have been harder if you were a woman. Be aware that you do not need the last word in every conversation.

If you’re a dude and you consider yourself an ally to women, and you write something that people suggest is misogynist, don’t get defensive about it. Don’t shush the women who are criticizing you. Don’t patronizingly explain literary tropes. Don’t explain that change takes time (the favorite last line of status quo defenders in every era). Don’t start hashtag campaigns like #notallmen or #alllivesmatter where the purpose is blatantly to downplay the suffering of people who are not you. Don’t complain that anyone who questions you is silencing or censoring your art. Don’t poke and prod and protest, and then cry foul as soon as your prodding makes someone angry, as if your perfectly reasonable response could never have provoked anyone to anger. Don’t talk about how you were just trying to start a conversation, as if no one would have thought of these issues without you. Don’t explain that the purity of art is more important than anyone’s silly politics. Don’t claim the artist’s right to provoke as a rationale for being insensitive, as if being an artist makes one immune to criticism.

And for god’s sake, don’t whine about your intent. Intent is irrelevant. I tell my students all the time that we don’t get to walk around behind our writing and explain what we meant. When an art professor builds a larger-than-life statute of a KKK member and erects it anonymously one night at the University of Iowa, his alleged intent (he said later he was trying to critique America’s racist history) does not magically transform a racist symbol into an important piece of art. Replicating the symbols and tropes of a racist or sexist ideology is not, by itself, a critique, no matter how well-intentioned you claim to be. Paula Deen protested that if we could only see into her heart, we would know she is not racist. But we don’t get to see inside anyone else’s heart, just as we don’t walk around with our artwork, our poems, our novels and explain the nobility of our intentions.


The best writing grows out of empathy. Empathy grows out of listening. And listening? That’s the heart of it. Sometimes, dudes, we need simply to shut up and listen.

Amorak Huey, a former newspaper editor and reporter, teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His chapbook, The Insomniac Circus, is forthcoming from Hyacinth Girl Press. His poems appear in the anthologies The Best American Poetry 2012, The Poetry of Sex, and Poetry in Michigan/Michigan in Poetry, as well as journals such as Rattle, The Collagist, The Southern Review, Poet Lore, Menacing Hedge, and others.

What I’ve Been Reading: Laura Kasischke’s “Space, In Chains”

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I tell my poetry-writing students all the time that a poem is not a riddle. By which I mean, not merely a riddle. Because of course there’s something riddle-like about poetry – some grasping for an answer. The difference is that most riddles have that answer, one answer, singular, some correct response that puts the question to rest. Poems, being wiser, know the question is never fully put to rest, the exploration never ends.

Somehow, between the time I first read Laura Kasischke’s National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Space, in Chains (Copper Canyon, 2011) and my recent revisiting of it, I’d managed to forget that the book opens with two different riddles as epigraphs and includes five separate poems titled “Riddle.” The first of these poems ends with this line: “What would I say if I spoke?” The last, a prose poem falling a few pages from the end of the collection, ends thus: “My eyes closed, my hands open, Take it, take it. Then every day wasted chasing it.”

There’s nary a moment wasted in this book, in these poems, which offer an intense, immersive reading experience. The questions – riddles – keep coming, and so do the many, many possible answers. I cannot read this book in a sitting or two; each poem demands more attention than that. Each poem says, “Slow down, stay with me, sit a while and ponder.” Another thing I tell my students is that poems ask more of us as readers than emails or text messages or social media statuses: poems ask us to be still a moment, to exist suspended from space and time with the poem. The poems in this book demand that of us in no uncertain terms. The poem “Wasps” opens: “I stumbled into this place with my suitcase packed full of prior obligations,” and isn’t that how we all live our lives? Yet there is value to unpacking, to sitting for a while. That poem brings up the swirl of life and trauma and memory, then leaves us with this:

… The physical universe and its buzzing machinery, its fantastical scenery.

They were all around us that day. In the confusion of air. In our strange dreams. In the baggage we’d brought with us and would have to leave. In our faded animal memories.

The humming gold of being, and ceasing to be. The exposed motor of eternity.

Such is the reading experience in this book: all the madness of the world peeled back in search of what sustains us.

Honestly, it’s hard for me write coherently about this book because I find it so intensely, awesomely freaking brilliant. Most books, even the ones I love and return to over and over, have some soft spots, some unevenness, some of those poems you flip past. Space, in Chains feels impeccable, inevitable – and does so without feeling at all precious or over-polished.

Laura Kasischk

Jeffrey Levine writes, “Every time we write a poem we announce to the world what we think a poem is” – every poem an ars poetica, in other words. For me, it’s difficult to read the poems in this book as anything else. Either explicitly or implicitly, every poem here seems to be about the creation and seeking of meaning, the limits of language, the intersection between word and world, memory and form. The prose poem “The Knot,” which opens the third and final section of the book, offers a series of images that easily function as definitions of poetry: “The knot in the mind. That pounding thought. The cricket all night. That bright singing knot. That meditation on knots, which is a goat. The child who will be the knot of its love.” And then this closing stomach punch: “Not a fist in a lake, this knot of a stranger. Not the bureaucrat’s stamp on the folder of our fate. But a knot nonetheless, and not of our making.”

The book’s title itself is both riddle and ars poetica, for what is a poem but space in chains? The infinity of existence contained within T.S. Eliot’s framework? Kasischke’s title poem takes on our need for human connection as bulwark against the abyss, and its closing words do basically everything I want every poem I write to do:

It’s all space, in chains – the chaos of birdsong after a rainstorm, the steam rising off the asphalt, a small boy in boots opening the back door, stepping out, and someone calling to him from the kitchen,

Sweetie, don’t be gone too long.

The very best of poetry – like that in this book – offers all of us that voice calling out as we step out into the world, that reminder that we need not face the day alone.

Amorak Huey, a former newspaper editor and reporter, teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His chapbook, The Insomniac Circus, is forthcoming from Hyacinth Girl Press. His poems appear in the anthologies The Best American Poetry 2012, The Poetry of Sex, and Poetry in Michigan/Michigan in Poetry, as well as journals such as Rattle, The Collagist, The Southern Review, Poet Lore, Menacing Hedge, and others.

Where the Political Poets Are

NPR wants to know where all the poets have gone. Or at least that’s the clickbait-y headline on a recent think-piece in which Juan Vidal laments that poets aren’t political these days.

Mr. Vidal suggests that “literary provocation in America … is at a low” now that the Beat generation has died off. He name-checks a bunch of canonical male poets of the past and laments that they are no longer with us. He praises rappers and slam poets and Lupe Fiasco. He closes his overwrought commentary with a question: “Did they [poets] stop speaking, or have we stopped listening?”

I can’t tell if that query is intended as a mere rhetorical flourish or if it’s supposed to be a self-deprecating joke. Because it’s entirely clear that poets have gone nowhere. We’re still here, still writing, still engaging with the world, still challenging injustice. What’s not clear is whether Mr. Vidal has read any poetry published in the past few years.

It’s entirely predictable for the poetry community to react defensively when someone suggests there’s no such thing as a poetry community anymore, and the poets I follow on Twitter and Facebook bristled for obvious reasons when Mr. Vidal’s piece first appeared. So I’ll try to keep my own bristling to a minimum here, providing instead a sincere answer to the question of whether American poets in 2014 are taking on the important issues:

Yes. We are.

It’s not just slam poets and rappers, either, though to be sure the spoken-word crowd offers plenty of compelling and important social commentary (check out the Button Poetry Facebook page for examples).

If Mr. Vidal is truly interested in poets engaging on the page, here’s a list of places where he could turn:

  • Jamaal May brilliantly engages with Detroit and the plight of the American urban environment in his book Hum.
  • Timothy Donnelly’s Cloud Corporation is a subversive and intellectual examination of the effects of capitalism and corporate power on meaning.
  • Brian Turner served in the U.S. Army in Iraq and Bosnia-Herzegovina, then came home and wrote eloquently about his experiences in two books of poetry, Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise.
  • The poetry journal Rattle has an ongoing call for poems that respond immediately to the news of the past week.
  • Bob Hicok’s Words for Empty and Words for Full is, in large part, a response to the shootings at Virginia Tech, the university where he teaches.
  • Nikki Finney’s Head Off and Split (which only won the National Book Award) is intensely immersed in contemporary issues of race and politics.
  • In 2013, Nightboat Books published an anthology of “Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics,” giving voice to a community often overlooked by the canon and the academy.
  • Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals is an argumentative and intelligent response to the 21st-century American power structure.

And this is but a starting place, the first names and books and poets that came to my mind, poems from my own shelf, my own recent reading list. Every single person who reads this blog post can surely provide their own list of political, engaged, reactionary, challenging poets.

So much of the best poetry being written today is doing exactly what Mr. Vidal wants it to: taking on the tough issues of the day, speaking truth to power, grappling with the limits of language to express what matters most. In his closing paragraph, Mr. Vidal offers this view of how poetry once functioned:

“They once fed us, our poets; emptying themselves in the process. Generously, courageously, they brought the darkness to light. They said what we felt, and didn’t mind taking the heat for it — whatever that meant.”

It seems unlikely that Mr. Vidal will ever read what I’ve written here, and unlikelier still that he’ll read my examples and rethink his stance. But if he somehow does wind up here and is reading this, I challenge him to read just one poem – Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke,” which first appeared in The Awl and was probably one of the most-read poems of 2013. This poem checks every box on Mr. Vidal’s wish list. Written well before his commentary, it offers the best rebuttal I can think of.

Amorak Huey, a former newspaper editor and reporter, teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His chapbook, The Insomniac Circus, is forthcoming from Hyacinth Girl Press. His poems appear in the anthologies The Best American Poetry 2012, The Poetry of Sex, and Poetry in Michigan/Michigan in Poetry, as well as journals such as Rattle, The Collagist, The Southern Review, Poet Lore, Menacing Hedge, and others.

Amorak Huey on Writing Funny


For openers, a peeve: It’s highly annoying when poetry reviewers seek to praise the poetry in question by insulting other poetry.

In Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals drew the following blurb as an editor’s choice: “Lockwood offers a collection at once angrier, and more fun, more attuned to our time and more bizarre, than most poetry can ever get.” I like Lockwood’s poetry, I’m happy to see it earning mainstream attention, and I do find it generally fun, angry, bizarre, attuned to our time. But she’s certainly not the only poet to whose work these labels apply.

When I see such sweeping declarations, I tend to think the reviewer probably hasn’t read much poetry since that Intro to Lit survey back in sophomore year, and is amazed that the book in his or her hands seems so different from Whitman or Wordsworth, Keats or Dickinson. (Never mind that each of those poets also wrote with their share of fun, angriness, bizarreness, attuned-to-the-times-ness.)

These no-other-poems-are-like-this pronouncements are particularly common when a reviewer comes across a poet whose work is funny. Readers seem perpetually astounded – shocked, I tell you – to discover that poems can be humorous.

But of course poems can be funny. Poets have been bringing the mirth since Shakespeare, since Chaucer, since Sappho, since – well, since poetry.


My forthcoming collection from Sundress is titled Ha Ha Ha Thump, and I guess I’m setting myself up for trouble – title like that, you’d better be funny, poet boy. Honestly, I have no idea how funny the poems are, if at all. It’s not up to me to decide, anyway. I am reminded of a story I heard Lia Purpura tell a crowded auditorium at AWP a few years ago, about calling one of her pieces a lyric essay and having someone respond, “Shouldn’t you just call it an essay? And let the reader decide whether it’s lyric?” (She got a lot of laughs with that one.)


I have to battle against an abundance of earnestness in my writing; my first drafts are often tediously heartfelt. Humor, for me, is a hedge against that, a way to temper my innate sentimentality.


David Kirby was the first poet whose work gave me permission to think of poems as possibly funny. One of my favorite poetry-memories is watching him read a poem about a summer job he once had in which he and a co-worker had to repossess wigs from delinquent housewives. The audience was roaring with laughter by the end of the poem.

I have to learn some lessons more than once. My writing ever backslides toward sincerity. Billy Collins, Mark Halliday, Tony Hoagland – these were the next poets who gave me permission to seek humor in poems. Then Bob Hicok, in particular his poem “What Would Freud Say?” The line “explosion kills asshole” belongs in the Funny Poetry Hall of Fame.


I have a distinct memory of the first time it occurred to me that I could make other people laugh. It was October of my freshman year in college, and a group of us went to a haunted house out in the country – more a haunted estate, really, with a tour guide leading us through a series of rooms and dark paths as masked people jumped out from behind bushes with roaring chainsaws, bloody cleavers and the like.

Our group included seven of us: three couples and me. So I walked up front with the guide and offered a running commentary on the events of the evening – acting like an ass, basically, I mean, I was 18 years old, I’m sure everything I said was obnoxious and juvenile. But I had people laughing. Being the funny guy at the front of the group had never been in my wheelhouse before. Still isn’t, if I’m being honest, but it was nice to know it was at least a possibility.


A classmate in the MFA program at Western Michigan, Jamie Thomas, gave me lots of insight into writing funny. He has a knack for the clever detail, the smart observation, the absurdity of the mundane, and I knew from my very first workshop with him that I wanted to steal from him.

Jamie told me that he thinks of humor in poetry more as the employment of wit than simply telling jokes. And that’s right. The humor – like metaphor, simile, form, content, truth – has to be in service of the poem, not the other way around. A poem may have much in common with a joke, from structure to content, but a poem cannot be merely a joke.


It’s hard for me to think of a contemporary poet I truly admire whose work isn’t witty: marked by word play and incisive observations about the idiosyncrasies of human behavior. Poets and standup comedians, we aren’t so different.

A friend who does improv comedy taught me the “yes, and” rule, wherein each participant works not to halt the momentum of a scene, but to elevate the stakes, heighten the absurdity of the moment, before passing it along to the next player. In other words, do not challenge or question or apologize for the world being created, but explore it, invent it, change it. Humor should arrive organically. You don’t need me to tell you all the ways the same principle applies in poetry.


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So who’s funny these days in the poetry world? Kirby and Hicok, of course. Lockwood, too. Erin Keane is a personal favorite (I mean, she has a poem called “How Do You Get a Clown to Stop Smiling? Hit Him in the Face with an Axe!”; talk about your Funny Poetry Hall of Fame). Rebecca Hazelton is another favorite, as is Kiki Petrosino.

Jason Bredle and Jennifer L. Knox are deliberately, provocatively funny. Catie Rosemurgy’s poems are often darkly hilarious. Jessy Randall has a delicious sense of the domestic absurd. Besides being brilliant, Mary Ruefle is sneaky funny (check out the “mint” line in that linked poem). Matthew Olzmann and W. Todd Kaneko and Dean Rader and Jill Alexander Essbaum – I could go on and on. And on.

These are not the only funny poets, of course. Far from it. Most poets are funny at least some of the time. (Although you’re probably better off not trying to convince a class of grumpy first-year writing students of this fact. I’m just saying.)


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Humor and poetry both rely on verbal surprise, the pairing of the unexpected. Humor in poetry works best when it’s juxtaposed against some other mode: anger, insight, sadness, tenderness. Poetry happens when a poet presses up against the limits of language when it comes to capturing the human condition. Poetry is utterance, is act, is disruption, is the reaching for that which is understood but previously unarticulated. Humor is these things as well.

The other thing I remember about that night at the haunted house, about that entire autumn, about my whole freshman year, is how dreadfully, desperately lonely I was. Without question, my jokes that night were a response to being the only person in the group without someone to hold onto when the bogeymen popped out of the shadows. Humor, like poetry, is how we cope with the fact of our aloneness in this world.

At the end of the night, as we walked through a field back to our cars, the jokes had run their course, we were all tired, the couples leaned against each other. My roommate and his girlfriend held hands, and she noticed me, walking apart from them. She reached over and took my hand, too, such a small, tender, generous gesture, and we walked like that, the three of us, quiet and connected in the darkness.



10295556_716543425070275_5388953265068860591_oAmorak Huey, a former newspaper editor and reporter, teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His chapbook, The Insomniac Circus, is forthcoming from Hyacinth Girl Press. His poems appear in the anthologies The Best American Poetry 2012, The Poetry of Sex, and Poetry in Michigan/Michigan in Poetry, as well as journals such as Rattle, The Collagist, The Southern Review, Poet Lore, Menacing Hedge, and others.

Sundress will be publishing his first full-length collection, Ha Ha Ha Thump, in 2015.