The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Amy Newman about her poetry collection Dear Editor.
This is an edited transcript of the Poetry Book Club discussion with Amy Newman. Every month The Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts a discussion online with the club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can read the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club click here.
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: I’m curious about the form, Amy, because I was drawn to that so strongly. How did you come about it?
Amy Newman: Well, that’s a great question. I was thinking about what makes a poem a poem–it’s not just line breaks. There’s this human thinking and wondering, a different energy and tension–and one day I thought–what if, when she goes to compose the cover letter, the poet doesn’t or can’t turn off that part of the mind that is actively involved in writing poems?
Brian S: Was it a case of writing one or two and then seeing how far you could push the form? Or did you conceive of this as a book from the start?
(Feel free to jump in Thelma )
Amy Newman: I started, just with the one. I just tried one, and wrote my name at the end and thought–that’s ridiculous.
Brian S: I love it.
Amy Newman: but then the next day I wanted to write another. So I thought I might have something. And then, I became very interested in her, and in her story. So I decided to see what would happen from there.
Brian S: It was impressive the way you managed to keep the poems fresh and interesting with that form. It could so easily have slipped into a rut.
Amy Newman: Thanks, I appreciate that you think that it didn’t! I didn’t know that it would open up such a world, but it was pretty wild to let myself think about her.
Brian S: Was there any significance to the fact that there were only three seasons in the book?
Amy Newman: Well, the book begins with fall, because my last book was very concerned with the word “fall”–so that was kind of a starting point for me. And from there, I got her to spring. I didn’t think until now that she stops before summer. Of course, even though i started sending the manuscript out, she did keep writing, but I didn’t include those poems in the book.
Thelma: There’s something of the vulnerability of the child in Bishop’s “Sestina” that these poems recalled for me. Maybe it has to do with the grandmother and feeling of abandonment.
Amy Newman: That’s wild, Thelma, I’m a huge Bishop fan. In fact I recently wrote a poem series about her, and her short story “In the Village’ is something of a touchstone for me.
Brian S: Are the poems you didn’t include going to find a home in another book, do you think? Is there a manuscript in the works named “X=Pawn Capture”?
Thelma: I wondered about that too.
Amy Newman: No there isn’t a manuscript of poems, although for a while I had her write drafts of poetry, and at some point there were poems with line breaks in the manuscript, but I took them out. In her cover letters she’s most real to me.
A poem opens a door you didn’t know was there, and she’s the least aware of how she’s conveying herself there, the most in touch with the world, I think. As she sees it there are no curtains between herself and her imagined reader. I think I’d really like to feel that way when I write.
Brian S: Did you have trouble thinking of these as discrete poems? One of the members of the club suggested that the book felt like a poem in itself.
Amy Newman: At one point there were homework assignment in the manuscript, too, where she did the same thing, but I took those out.
Thelma: I was noticing the gridded fields of both the chessboard and the calendar and wondered if the similarity was intentional.
Brian S: Does writing in the voice of a character help you to feel like there’s no curtain between you and an imagined reader?
Amy Newman: I like the idea of any poetry book as being one long poem. I did something similar in an earlier book–in fact, I like to read poetry books as though they constitute long poems, kind of a dialog. What Thelma says of the grids is very perceptive. Nabokov was a great influence, and formal patterns interest me.
Brian S: I think I’d like to take a look at those homework assignments sometime.
Thelma: I like that kind of arc in a book as well, however subtle it may turn out to be.
Amy Newman: Writing in the voice of the character–also very perceptive, yes. I am reserved by nature. To place the name Amy Newman at the end of each poem was something of a giggle-worthy trespass.
Michael Hollander: Hello
Amy Newman: Brian, I will find them and send them to you.
Thelma: Hi Michael!
Brian S: Hi Michael!
Amy Newman: Hi MIchael!
Brian S: That’s one of the things that made the poems so effective I think–the middle of each one was so full of wonder and expectation, while the beginnings and endings were, well, banal almost.
Brian S: I wondered what it would be like as an editor to receive one of these letters, and then look for the poems attached and not find them.
And I decided I would love it if it happened.
Michael Hollander: the form I thought was very musical, like listening to different versions of the same song.
Amy Newman: I like that idea Michael.
Brian S: Were there ever moments when you were working on these that you thought you were falling into a rut with them, that they were starting to sound alike?
Amy Newman: Yes. The template was the same for each one, right? but I wanted to tell a story, a narrative.
Michael Hollander: it seemed like one of those tape loop digital delay guitarists, like Bill Frisell
Brian S: How did you deal with it? (I feel a little obsessed with process for some reason).
Amy Newman: but something about that template repeating was alos amusing. And I was hoping for a lighter kind of writing, because my previous book was very hard.
Brian S: So was there something freeing about this book?
Amy Newman: No–
Thelma: It didn’t come off as light-hearted, that’s for sure.
Amy Newman: well, I was happy with the sound, with finding the poem inside. A lot of surprised were there. And she seemed to have to being in the same way, each time, but she needed it to get somewhere.
Yes the thing is, I mean for the book to be light, but of course I got serious.
Thelma: That abasement of the writer before the editor … agh, I guess we all have felt that at times.
Amy Newman: I “*meant* for the book to be light–to be funny, when I started, because my previous book had been darker, say. But of course, she got serious, and it took over, as happens in life.
Michael Hollander: i didn’t know if it would be light or heavy at first
Amy Newman: that’s quite a feeling–that invisible editor can be a very powerful thing.
Brian S: I loved as well the strange complexity of the relationship between the grandparents as well as between the speaker and the grandparents individually.
Amy Newman: I realized a bit of the way through that writing to such an entity, that writing at all, is a bit of a habit, a custom, like prayer.
Yes, those grandparents. I wasn’t sure where they came from.
Thelma: I felt sorry for the grandfather … married too soon to a fanatic and nothing to live for but his daily game of chess.
Amy Newman: It’s interesting to hear you think of him, Thelma.
Brian S: That’s funny, because I felt more sorry for the grandmother for some reason. Though I thought both certainly had their grumpier qualities.
Thelma: And while the grandmother burning the letters might have done that for thrift’s sake, it was sort of horrifying.
Brian S: It’s a completely different kind of relationship than I had with my grandparents. I basically lost touch with mine in my early teens, so it was interesting to see a much different one.
Gaby Calvocoressi: Hi Everyone!! so sorry I’m late. Hi Amy!
Thelma: Of course I felt mostly for “Amy,” having to navigate puberty in a household full of repressed desire.
Brian S: Hi Gaby!
Amy Newman: HI Gaby!!
Gaby Calvocoressi: Hello Everyone! Hello fellow Persead!
Amy Newman: Hello fellow Persead!!
Brian S: Oh, that’s right–same publisher for both of you!
Amy Newman: Thelma, navigating puberty–yes. That’s there, and another book too!
Gaby Calvocoressi: Same publisher. Same EDITOR
Thelma: How was that–the editing–for you two?
Brian S: So I’ve got this manuscript and I was wondering….
Gaby Calvocoressi: Maybe Amy can start and I’ll jump in
about our Editor
the illustrious Gabriel Fried
Thelma: I guess you can’t really say much unless it’s positive. S/he might read this later.
Amy Newman: Gabe did a great job with this ms! I felt as though he’d absorbed it in his veins or something.
Brian S: How closely does he work with you on the poems?
Gaby Calvocoressi: He’s a tremendous editor. He edited my first book and second and I agree with Amy. He really can sense what your poem is. Not what he might want or not want but want is authentically yours
Amy Newman: He was very respectful of the poems, and he saw every single detail down to the tiniest thing. I was amazed. It was extraordinary. I have never had that experience with the editor before.
Yes, Gaby, what is authentically yours, that’s absolutely it.
Gaby Calvocoressi: He doesn’t work with me on poems specifically but he will say when things don’t feel right in the manuscript. It’s a really old school relationship. He said to me once, “My job is to talk to you when you’re lying on the kitchen floor and also to tell you to get on with it.”
Brian S: That’s really interesting. Most stories I’ve heard have been about editors that are pretty hands off. But I haven’t heard many stories either.
Gaby Calvocoressi: I was lying on the kitchen floor at the time
Amy Newman: I haven’t gotten to the floor yet but I think i am heading there sometimes.
Brian S: Did he suggest pulling out certain poems or including ones you were thinkng about leaving out?
Gaby Calvocoressi: I was waiting for comments on my second book. And I was nervous and it had been (literally) less than a week. And I called and was like, “I get it. It’s horrible.” The man is a good tough saint. He has suggested moving things. I don’t think he’s ever suggested cutting to me
except for the drama
Amy Newman: Not really. He doesn’t cut so much as shape.
Michael Hollander: has anyone suggested that you do a calendar based on the book?
Thelma: A good tough saint. I like it. Better than a silent god!
Brian S: That could be fun.
Amy Newman: Michael: a calendar? hmmmm go on….
Brian S: What made you decide to cut everything but the letters? Did it just flow better that way?
Camille D: If you hear heavy breathing it’s because I’ve just raced in the door.
Brian S: Hi Camille! I was hoping it was for me.
Amy Newman: It seemed to flow better. I liked the assignments–and I thought the manuscript, at that point, could use the break–but then it seemed that they were just that. And that the voice was more interested in the letters. The letters are more her discipline, more her voice.
Michael Hollander: trying to get my head around how to say it, but i think an edited version of the book might work as a calendar.
Thelma: There would need to be some summer in it … but yes, I can almost see it.
Camille D: Brian, that ambient panting is always for you.
Brian S: I also like how you referenced workshop a number of times in the book as well, which reinforced the form. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with workshops. Wonder how everyone else feels about them.
Camille D: And for Gabriel Fried. I love Gabriel Fried. He was the editor for the From the Fishouse anthology.
Michael Hollander: part of it is the development and pacing, which is quite excellent. and it’s a book that rather than reading all at once, it kind of wants to be read a little bit over a long period of time
Michael Hollander: but yes, you’d need summer
Brian S: I feel like we should give him a call and have him log on. Or at least send him a note when it runs on The Rumpus.
Amy Newman: “Amy Newman” finds the workshop a real challenge. but they also make her think, and wonder about what makes a poem, and what is real, so they’re useful to her too.
Camille D: Amy, I see way back in this chat that you mention that Nabokov was an influence. I kept thinking of Pale Fire as I was reading your book. That slippage between the poem and the notes and the realities and wackiness of the writer’s mind. Were you thinking of that book in particular?
Gaby Calvocoressi: I just Facebooked that we’re talking about him
Brian S: I just liked it.
The advantage of a two-screen setup.
Amy Newman: Pale Fire, yes. and Luzhin Defense. Absolutely. That’s how all the thinking of the poems began.
I’m gonna like it–but maybe we’re not fb friends yet. Will do it.
Camille D: Michael’s got his calendar suggestion. I’m curious about “Amy Newman’s” hagiography. The Lives of the Saints as your speaker creates them are pretty fascinating to me.
Thelma: An image thing that I noticed and liked a lot was how the cigar and its smoke rising seemed a counterpoint of sorts to the grandmother’s perpetual looking toward heaven … and her burning of the letters, later.
Camille D: “Pale Fire, yes. and Luzhin Defense. Absolutely. That’s how all the thinking of the poems began. ” Can you expand please?
Amy Newman: My husband loves Brian’s timeline pic.
Brian S: If you’re ever in Des Moines, I’ll take you there. It’s called El Bait Shop. That’s a standing invite for anyone here. Or in the world for that matter. Buffalo chicken egg rolls.
Sorry, I drifted off for a minute there.
Amy Newman: I’m influenced by Nabokov’–immensely. What is real?
Thelma: You made me hungry, Brian!
Amy Newman: At one point in The Defense, everything becomes a chessboard for the narrator. And what “Amy Newman’ sees –imagines, see–is her version of the real. But she’s also aware that what is real is one of the key questions in her workshop class. So this bothers her too.
Thelma: We’re all voyeurs to some extent, right? “Adrian
Camille D: Side note: I love that workshop class and what they say a poem should or shouldn’t do. I love your use of the meme as something that I see as an answer to the continuous gripe about the workshop poem.
Thelma: “Brody”–sorry, it got cut off.
Amy Newman: Thanks Camille! That’s a big part of the book–her wondering that, as she’s sending these poems off. As she maybe is sending these poems off.
Brian S: “Her version of the real” is the way I try to look at all writing. I had workshop mates who balked at anything that contradicted their version of the real.
Amy Newman: Yes, Brian, exactly.
Brian S: Not many, fortunately. And I was probably guilty of it a few times myself. Part of that love/hate relationship with the workshop.
Camille D: I’d love to hear what you have to say about Thelma’s point about the smoke throughout the book.
Amy Newman: Sure. It’s all about forming your aesthetic, in the face of all that. The Amy Newman in the book is really struggling with that. I probably do too.
Well, I think it’s interesting, that smoke image. I can’t help but see much of the upward images in the book as following her letters, as she sees them. being shot upward like arrows, being shot into some ether.
Thelma: A rendering/surrendering.
Brian S: The ending of the book felt like the end of a prayer, but more personalized–”forgive my trespasses” instead of “forgive us our trespasses”–which may be why it sort of feels like a single long poem. Can you go into why you ended the book that way a little?
Thelma: Yes, for me that line was just heartbreaking.
Amy Newman: Yes, like prayer. It may be immaterial whether the editor returns her letters or even sees them. What’s important is how she interprets his silence.
For whom are we writing when we write poetry? It’s a dialogue with the self, at least, and then always an imagined audience–but who is that imagined audience?
Gaby Calvocoressi: I love that. It makes me think of Herbert
Camille D: I never read books from the end. I’m one of those who starts at the beginning and goes straight through, but for some reason I read that last poem first then for a long time just jumped around, as if I were reading a slush pile. It was very rewarding.
Gaby Calvocoressi: particularly his poem Denial.
Amy Newman: Silence is a part of her life to be sure, and it’s an essential component of writing too. It’s the one response we can be sure to struggle with.
Gaby Calvocoressi: “All day long my heart was in my knee/but no hearing”
Brian S: We have about 3 minutes left. Any lurkers want to throw out a question for Amy?
Amy Newman: Wow, Camille, that’s wild.
Camille D: See how it feels after you go on the road with the book.
Brian S: See, I tend to jump around, but in this case I started at the beginning and read straight through. It grabbed me by the lapels from the second I opened it.
Brian S: Seriously, I knew I wanted to choose this book fifteen minutes after I opened it.
Michael Hollander: Me too, I went through in order
Thelma: Ne too. What’s next for you, Amy?
Amy Newman: I want to thank you guys for reading the book, and for taking it for The Rumpus!
Michael Hollander: I’m sorry I don’t have much to say tonight, I’m a bit preoccupied, but I really liked the book. my favorite in a long time.
Thelma: Me too, I meant.
Camille D: The pleasure was ours.
Brian S: Any last questions?
Amy Newman: Well, i have a new project i’m working on, about mid-20th Century American poets, a kind of study of American poetry coming into being.
Brian S: Want to give us a taste of who you’ll be talking about?
Camille D: This would be a poetry project or a critical one or a little of both?
Brian S: (Say Merrill. Please say Merrill.)
Amy Newman: It’s a book of poems. There’s Delmore Schwarts, Plath, Berryman, Bishop, Sexton
haven’t gotten to Merrill yet!
There’s some stuff up online–
Brian S: Throw up a link and I’ll put it in the transcript.
Amy Newman: oh, here you go–this one’s from the Missouri Review.
There’s some at Narrative, but it’s a paywall, sigh
Camille D: The Missouri Review…..a great place for the long poem or the long series of poems.
Brian S: Awesome! Thanks for being with us tonight. It was fun.
Amy Newman: Thank you guys. It was my pleasure.
Gaby Calvocoressi: Thank you, Amy!!! And thank you for such a great book!
Amy Newman: Thanks Gaby!!
Thelma: Thanks for the book and conversation. wonderful!
Michael Hollander: bye bye
Camille D: I’ll take my panting elsewhere now. Bye!
Amy Newman: Thanks Thelma, Michael! i appreciate it!
Brian S: Good night everyone. See you next month.
Author Photo by Marion Ettlinger