A Small Universe Set in Motion: Talking with Amanda Moore
Amanda Moore’s National Poetry Series-winning collection, Requeening, examines the life of women and all we receive and pass down as daughters, mothers, wives, and makers. Early in the book, Moore writes: “I open this small universe and set it in motion.” From there, Requeening mimics the structure of the hive and explores what happens when things—a home, the past, a woman’s body, the bodies of those she loves—alternately thrive and collapse. Formally various, tender one moment and brutal the next, these poems honor and illuminate the abundant love and wounding losses of our lives.
Requeening, Moore’s debut collection, is forthcoming from HarperCollins/Ecco in October. Her poems have appeared in Best New Poets, ZZYZYVA, Cream City Review, and the anthology Mamas and Papas: On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting. Her essays have appeared in places such as The Baltimore Review. She has received awards and fellowships from The Writer’s Grotto, The Writing Salon, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and the Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Currently poetry co-editor at Women’s Voices for Change, Amanda also serves as a board member at the Marin Poetry Center and was as 2019-2020 Brown Handler Resident. She is a high school English teacher and lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter.
I spoke with Moore in August after she’d road-tripped across the country with her daughter to vacation along Lake Michigan in the tiny town of Good Hart—one of the places Moore considers home.
The Rumpus: Tell us your origin story as a poet. When did you know you were a poet, and how did you know?
Amanda Moore: I love this question when other people answer it but I have a hard time answering it for myself. I do know in middle and high school I wrote dreadful rhyming couplets in spiral bound notebooks and I loved them. [Laughter] I don’t really remember reading poetry, though. We had an illustrated book of Robert Frost’s poem “Birches” in my house growing up, so I suspect that’s where my sense of rhyme came from, but I don’t remember reading other poems in my young life. And then, early in college, I went through my Anne Sexton and then Sylvia Plath phases. I still remember poems I wrote those first two years as heavily influenced by what Sexton was trying to do: excavating family stuff, confession, using fairy tales.
Rumpus: So by the time you finished college, did you know you wanted to pursue poetry?
Moore: Well, I did apply to MFA programs, but looking back I laugh at how little guidance I had! I applied to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and for a Fulbright to go to Costa Rica where I’d gone as an undergrad and discovered poets, such as Ana Istarú, who I wanted to translate, and that was it. Neither of those options panned out. [Laughter] I was so naïve—I didn’t realize it was hard to get into Iowa! So, I guess at that point I knew I wanted to be a poet, but what I ended up doing first was teaching English in Thailand. I didn’t really understand that poetry was a thing you could just do.
Rumpus: But you did eventually end up in Cornell’s MFA program, right?
Moore: Yes, very soon after that. But it was a strange, small program and a program in transition. Archie Ammons was there, and I was lucky enough to be his work study student. My job was to type up on my laptop what he brought in on ticker tapes. I learned a lot about poetry from him and maybe a lot about confidence, but he didn’t really shape my work. And no one really did, because it was a program focused on its PhD students. But once I figured that out, I could do my own thing. I got a carrel in the library and took classes on the Duino Elegies and beekeeping and Spanish cinema and just read. I can look back now and say I got a lot out of it, but it took years for it to manifest.
Rumpus: So, a lot of what you learned was actually self-taught? Which maybe is great?
Moore: I think it’s great in the end. Crystal Williams was there with me, and I remember her passing along advice that, above all else, being a poet is about longevity—you just need to keep doing it. Even in the years when I was mired in self-doubt and not publishing, I was still writing, and Crystal’s path was an inspiration for me. She exists outside of any established writing school or community, and she has taken her own path through academia and into administration, which has afforded her autonomy and longevity. That’s what I’m drawn to… doing it a little differently than the typical academic path. I love that my career exists completely independently of poetry. Poetry could go away tomorrow and I’d still have my life.
Rumpus: Tell our readers about that life, that career.
Moore: I’m a high school English teacher… and that’s the one thing I really got from Cornell is that I learned curriculum development and skill-building through the John S. Knight Writing Program. After my MFA, I moved to Detroit and got a job at Cranbrook Schools to write content for their website. Eventually, my boss helped me transition into the classroom and I discovered I just love to read with students! I’m so assured as a reader that I understand a text, but I learn from what students pick up that I didn’t—and maybe couldn’t—notice. I taught The Odyssey for almost twenty years, and listening to kids, hearing the way they interpreted it via their lives—it’s the collaborative engagement with literature I love.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about your book, Requeening. What is this book’s origin story?
Moore: There have been versions of this book since I was at Cornell in 2000 and 2001—the bee poems started there. I wrote the title poem then, although it was in a different form. Because I didn’t get the post-MFA book deal or job, poetry became something tied to my life more than to my career. I still wrote poems, but not to any end. There were many times I thought I’d return to the manuscript, but life got in the way. Then, in 2014, I took a term off from teaching and had a residency lined up at Brush Creek Arts Foundation. I thought I’d finally have time and focused attention to give the manuscript—but then I got diagnosed with cancer and started treatment.
When I finally came back to the work after treatment, I thought there were two manuscripts: the cancer poems and the baby poems over here, and the bee poems and marriage poems over there. I was writing some of the haibuns in the book by then, and it all just felt like a jumble. And then, in 2019, I took a workshop with Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and we were talking about my manuscript and how I felt like the cancer poems didn’t belong with the others. And she said, “Why not? Beehives collapse.” So I stopped making two manuscripts and made one. I shed dozens of poems. Aimee’s guidance had me thinking about order and the cycle of the hive—and that made excising and ordering easier.
Rumpus: What were the poems or who are the poets that helped you write the poems in Requeening? What poetic lineage are you a part of?
Moore: Plath, of course. Jack Gilbert, Sharon Olds, and Lucille Clifton taught me that poems could be made from my life, the joy and pain of it. Rilke is in there, reminding me it’s okay to follow my obsessions. And my friends and contemporaries helped me write these poems—mostly women, some I know only on the page, some widely published, and some unknown but to the small circle of a writing group.
Rumpus: Speaking of lineage and women, one of the themes in Requeening is matrilineage—the things that we get from the women in our lives and the things that we pass on. I want to ask about your epigraph, because it both aligns the book with the idea of matrilineage and sets it apart from that idea. It’s from Plath and it reads: “I stand in a column // Of winged, unmiraculous women / Honey-drudgers. / I am no drudge.”
Moore: Well, the “unmiraculous” is important because that’s the work of growing up, right?—when you realize how unmiraculous your very miraculous life is! [Laughter] I spent time when I was young with my grandmothers on both sides of my family, and it seemed so amazing to have their wisdom, traditions, food, time, and presence in my little life—and then I realized: Oh, this is just what women do! This is unmiraculous! And I think of drudge, which has a bit of a negative connotation that I reject: we work; that’s what women do, and the difficulty or drudgery of that work doesn’t make it miraculous. Poetry may feel difficult sometimes, but it isn’t laborious like women’s work is. So, even though I stand in this column or line of hard-working women, I recognize I also stand apart from it through my poetry.
Rumpus: What about your speaker? Marvin Bell says about a poem’s speaker—and I’m not quoting directly, but it’s something like, The “I” in your poems is not you but it’s someone who knows a lot about you. Is this accurate when it comes to the speaker of these poems?
Moore: Absolutely. Even though these poems come from my life, at some point there has to be a departure—because the poem becomes more important to me than the lived experience being accurately reflected. At some point, I depart to honor the narrative truth of the poem. So, the speaker is not me, but it might be someone who sits on my shoulder all the time and takes the details down.
Rumpus: And this speaker has a daughter, like you do. Has your daughter read the book, and if yes, how does she feel about it?
Moore: I think she has lots of complicated feelings about the book, and I did give her the opportunity to pull anything that felt uncomfortable. She said at some point: I just had to stop reading [the poems], Mom, because in so many of them someone is either naked or vomiting! [Laughter] But she felt really strongly that she didn’t want to censor me, although I wonder if she’ll change her mind once the book is out in the world.
Rumpus: That takes some maturity.
Moore: It does. And at some point—well, I don’t think she realizes right now how much affection the speaker has for the daughter.
Rumpus: I was just going to remark that the amount of tenderness in these poems is astounding—even as you’re writing about the more difficult parts of motherhood and daughterhood. What are your methods for bringing tenderness into a poem?
Moore: I don’t know how conscious it is, but one thing I’ve recognized from teaching is that there are some perfectionist parents who seem unable to think that their children might do something wrong and still be these incredibly lovable human beings. That lack of nuance has always been shocking to me, and my greatest mother friends have always been the ones to whom I can say: This is horrible, I feel like my face is burning off, and if I had known it was going to be this hard, I might not have become a mother. I think you can only admit that when there’s such a deep love for the child, a primal love, an unconditional acceptance. I love being a mother to my daughter.
Rumpus: That’s so clear in these poems.
Moore: I love it even when she’s being horrible! And I think when you’re alive to knowing that those extremes are married, in a sense, then the tenderness just comes through.
Rumpus: I want to ask you about the form of the mother-daughter poems: the haibun, a classical Japanese form that begins with a prose block and ends with a haiku. What brought you to the haibun form and what did it allow you to do that you couldn’t have done without it?
Moore: Well, I found the haibun through Bashō first, but then I wanted to know who was using the form now, so I learned from Forrest Gander’s haibuns, and Kimiko Hanh’s, and Aimee Nezukhumatathil’s.
And then these haibuns just started arriving at this liminal moment when my daughter was changing, and—because now we have babies in our thirties—I was changing, and the tension between the prose and the haiku seemed really perfect for both stages of life, hers and mine. You know, I have a friend who says the only way to be successful in parenting is to talk fifty percent less.
Rumpus: Oh, that’s really good advice! [Laughter]
Moore: And so, in the haibuns, the prose block is what I want to say, and the haiku is how much my daughter wants to hear. Prose also felt like what I needed in order to embrace the totality of the experiences I was trying to write about, to control the narrative, the urgency, all the details.
The haiku were the hardest part for me: stumbling my way into what those little codas could offer. Did I want a different voice? Did I want a daughter’s voice there? But eventually I started thinking about what a haiku can offer in terms of a turn toward nature, which sometimes might be the salvation of those tough mothering moments: How do I look at the natural world either as an escape or an assurance that these struggles exist across species but that they resolve, too?
Rumpus: Yeah, there’s some consolation in that.
Moore: Consolation is a great word for it.
Rumpus: Speaking of the natural world, you live near the Pacific and start most days surfing. And alongside the tenderness of these poems, there’s also brutality. I’m interested in that knife’s edge of difference between tenderness and brutality and whether surfing has taught you anything about writing poetry that navigates that line.
Moore: I’m really not a good surfer, but I show up and something happens. And, of course, I don’t always know what’s going to happen—sometimes it’s amazing, and other times it’s horrible. I’m in a stretch right now where there’s maybe only one or two good rides per session, and even then, they’re not amazing rides. But the discipline of showing up means I find things I never thought to look for.
And I’m glad you asked about the brutality of it because Ocean Beach, where I surf, is a tough break, and it’s pretty scary sometimes. I’ve been way out where it’s completely calm and the only way to get back to shore is to ride these massive, crushing waves, and it’s terrifying! But if you’re standing on the shore, I wouldn’t look nearly as far off from you as you look to me—so that perspective has been helpful: I can feel like I’m risking a lot even if the reader doesn’t sense all of that risk.
Rumpus: Which are the poems that give you that terrified feeling, the feeling when you’re out past the break, but you’re writing them anyway?
Moore: Mostly the narratives of mothering and illness, because I think they engage with things we don’t talk about a lot: the pain of mothering and the experience of cancer, the brutality of treatment.
Rumpus: And what did writing those poems teach you?
Moore: I think I’ve learned how to listen better. For a long time, I was trying to jam my ideas into a form or style that I was reading. So, listening to my own voice and trusting my own style was huge, realizing it’s okay to write this very simple poem in a very simple form. And I learned from revising—not how to write the poems, but how to work them. And from the many poems I cut, I learned to let go rather than insist that they belong in the book. I guess what I learned is: I need to listen, I need to revise, and I need to let so much go.
Photograph of Amanda Moore by Clementine Nelson.