Amy Wright’s essays think about ‘land’ first as the thing to which thinking belongs: the place without which one cannot be, much less begin to think. Land is between the noun and the verb: something which is arrived-to, lived-on, and also that which is arriving to us. ‘Where’ is the question these essays ask, and they answer it variably: city, museum, room, book, the changing landscapes of loss. – MIEL
Christina Rodriguez spoke with Amy Wright about how Amy used the restorative power of the creative process to explore “everything from grief to the bright comets of writers and artists whose bright tails lift our eyes.” Wherever the land is was published in February 2016.
CDR: Where does your understanding of poetry come from? Do you feel as though you are part of a larger tradition or history of writing/literature/text-production/voice? How do you feel your writing takes part in that?
AW: The first poem I memorized in elementary school was Emily Dickinson’s “I Never Saw a Moor,” so she’s a cornerstone. As part of my graduate dissertation at the University of Denver I positioned my work within the context of the women’s lyric, so I can trace my influences from Sappho to E.D. to Lorine Niedecker and Fanny Howe by way of another native Virginian, Ellen Bryant Voigt. I revel in the open spaces that Anne Carson creates with her bracketed translations of Sappho, even as H.D. surfaces in the myths I make of local characters. Concurrent with these influences, though, I was reading and translating César Vallejo’s posthumous poetry, so translated work is another important foundation for me. I remember well Walter Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator and his suggestion that the best way to access work in translation is to read as many versions as you can. I am never not thinking about how words render differently across syntaxes, dialects, discourses, and media. How like stone gems are in certain light.
CDR: Give a general overview of your work. What are your main concerns, ideas? What images do you find yourself using over and over?
AW: “There’s something beautiful about a heavy bird,” I say in an essay about buzzards. I tend toward images of contrast—soaring scavengers, blind chair caners, sparing banquets and “eyes aglow with want.” It manifests in a need to apply theory, live ideologically. From this tendency stems my interest in prose translations—to reveal the practical guidance inherent in Sappho’s and Dickinson’s work. I am always making the case that beauty can be utilitarian.
CDR: In one sentence, what is Wherever the land is about? Tell me what interests you most about this book—or tell me other things, besides books, that might constellate around it.
AW: The title came from Whitman’s line in Song of Myself: “This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,” so this book is a kind of personal instruction manual for the restorative power of the creative process. It arises from grief as well as triumph, though we are inclined toward the latter. Irish-eyed daisies do not spring from Nag’s Head dunes, but tillable soil depends on a high proportion of sand. But if I only get one line, I’d say this book is about that which underlies everything from grief to the bright comets of writers and artists whose bright tails lift our eyes.
CDR: What inspired the styles of writing within Wherever the land is, especially in the final section, “One Art, Any Number of Works”?
AW: They say need is the mother of invention, and in the case of “One Art,” it was. I had written the text in close proximity to a deadline for a contest that asked for essays that “pushed the boundaries” of the essay, which is an already boundless form. Since I had written about a series of stolen art works as a metaphor for my brother’s death, I decided to try to make visible the feeling I had in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum of facing those empty spaces. How like that was to looking into my brother’s bedroom after he was gone. I didn’t want to reproduce the actual works any more than try to replace my brother, but I could draw the sensation and in so doing draw it to the surface. Later it occurred to me that the impulse was similar to writing into the gaps in Sappho’s work. So much of her oeuvre has been destroyed or lost. What recovery can be made but through our side of the conversation?
Regarding models, I’d say Montaigne’s Essais inspired the writing style, since I was trying to educate myself.
CDR: Your work switches between references to various written and artworks and your own words. Did you worry about losing the reader without having the original work for readers who are unfamiliar?
AW: I don’t think writers can help making references post-Internet to art or literature that won’t be unfamiliar to some readers, familiar to others. It’s kind of amazing to happen into a conversation with someone who shares your favorites. Thankfully though, electronic versions are only a few clicks away from the primary texts, and perhaps I’ll inspire readers with some of my allusions, which is how I originally found Edmond Jabès, Jean Genet, Roland Barthes, etc. Writing is a kind of word of mouth.
CDR: The end of the book highlights your brother’s illness and road to death. Tell me about your experience writing that portion of the book.
AW: Well, it was teary. At the point of writing it, Jeremy had been gone for ten years. Time gave me perspective and courage to reflect on that phone call where I first learned of his cancer, the terrible day the doctors admitted it metastasized. I must have begged his forgiveness a hundred times, crying all the while, for dredging up this part of his story when so much of his life was charged with joy. The only way the whole of him would fit onto the page was alongside drawings that added the dimension of playfulness so many knew and loved him for.
CDR: How does/do your identity/ies feed into your writing?
AW: Amiri Baraka says a writer must be standing somewhere in the world to have a point of view. Everything I have ever seen—from the Southern Cross to Shoshone Point—can only widen the angle from my starting point in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s where my eye became an I, looking at that grass, those lightning bugs. From there I trained my light on a certain wood when I left it so I might find my way back.
CDR: Where do you go for support, encouragement, and companionship?
AW: Writing conferences and retreats help me forge connections with other writers who motivate and prod and collaborate with me on various projects. I’ve met friends I will treasure forever in Westcliffe, CO, Gambier, OH, Sewanee, TN, Amherst, VA. Social media keeps us in touch.
CDR: What is your experience of writing community/ies like?
AW: Universities shaped and to a large extent defined writing community for me. Workshops taught me how to talk about writing in a way that is constructive to other writers, and in so doing, I taught myself how to recognize what I was seeking. Workshops taught me the value of multiple readers. They taught me the art of macro and micro revision. They taught me to hold onto anyone I meet who is willing to give me feedback. And finally, they taught me to look outside the classroom in bookstores and libraries and book fairs for a broader and more diverse representation of community.
CDR: Who do you write for, and why?
AW: I write for the seventh generation beyond mine. Not that I think my work will be read that long—no one can project that, but in the same way that I might buy vinegar or Borax to clean my tile grout rather than bleach, I consider whether certain ways of looking and being are sustainable. I can only imagine that far out though by looking back. I grew up on a Virginia Century Farm that reaches into my mother’s family for five generations. From her, I am the seventh generation. Can I write something that would have relevance to my great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother? I aim for that.
CDR: What is your creative process like? For instance, how do you generally begin writing, and how do you go from that to the stage where you are ready to say your work is ‘done’?
AW: There are those who go on a road trip and the stoplights blinker into a corresponding map in their mind. For me, they link only by metaphor. A gas station clerk will conjure my piano teacher or the smell of a steakhouse my trip to Argentina. When I leave a place I have a collage of connections whose pattern may never be apparent unless I write them down, so I write them down. I set aside time in the mornings, but that’s as disciplined as my process gets. The adventure of discovery is essential for keeping my interest, so I can’t know too much ahead of time. I want to find out what it means that two stories are connected in my mind.
Regarding knowing when something is finished sometimes it happens pages before I realize it. More often though I have sent work out too soon, a restless mother who booted her younglings out before their time. I have to practice patience, to sit on work until my initial impulse cools.
CDR: Who are your favorite poets writing now, and what do you admire about their work?
AW: Ellen Bass for her ability to make clarity complex. Natalie Shapero for her tremendous allowance. Fred Moten for the cool, low bass and whistle of his rhythms. I read Kay Ryan the way I listen to favorite albums, on repeat for weeks at a time, for her profound and subtle sense of humor.
CDR: Do you engage in multiple creative practices? How does one influence the other(s)?
AW: I write songs. They seem to grease a channel in the ear so that what comes can more clearly come. They also encourage me, since they tend to sound like hummy anthems.
CDR: What have you looked forward to about launching your book? What has your experience been in working with MIEL?
AW: I looked forward to holding and seeing the physical object, which was indeed a great joy. MIEL makes such beautifully handcrafted books. My first issue of 1110 made of me a devotee even before I discovered their nonfiction series. After I found their prose chapbooks, I began to sing its praises every chance I got.
My experience as an author has only enhanced my respect for Éireann Lorsung. She reworked digital images in a visual essay into an artful print version. She procured blurbs for me as if that’s just how things are done, but not all publishers do. She is conscientious and considerate, a brilliant editor. I am grateful to have found MIEL and proud of this representation of my work.