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Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Writer: Amie Whittemore

December 26, 2019

NM: I know you as the intrepid book review editor at Southern Indiana Review, so let’s start there.  How did you land this job?

Amie Whittemore: I feel like Ron Mitchell (Southern Indiana Review’s Managing Editor) will wish I had a more poetic response to this, but he wrote me an email with an offer to head the reviews column and I said sure and here we are, almost two years later. At the time, I was writing/publishing a review or two a year and working my full-time job as a Lecturer at Middle Tennessee State University (which is where I currently work; the Reviews Editor role is a side gig). I suspect Ron reached out after reading some of these early reviews, but only he knows the real answer to this question. 

NM: Why even bother publishing reviews of poetry – who reads poetry anyway? :)

AW: I feel like this idea, of poetry not being read, is largely perpetuated by people who don’t read poetry (it’s kind of like vegans sitting around at a vegan restaurant wondering why no one is eating meat); I think all signs point to people do read poetry, and that those of us who do are many and enthusiastic about it. 

Photo by https://richtarbell.com/

Photo by Rich Tarbell

As for poetry reviews–that’s a trickier question. I’m not entirely sure how many people read the reviews I write and edit, but I know that writing them benefits me as a reader. Through reviewing, I am invited more deeply into a poetry collection; I learn more from it. Through editing reviews, I’m exposed to texts I might never have read otherwise. 

I also take pleasure in shedding even a small spotlight on poetry that I find tantalizing, and do hope that my reviews help connect writers and readers. 

NM: What motivates you? How do you ensure you get the motivation you need? 

AW:  In terms of writing poetry, what motivates me is that writing continues to be my way of making sense of the world. It is how I process the wild, bizarre experience of being a human on this planet at this particular time. 

In terms of editing, honestly, as a woefully Type-A person, the fact that it’s my “job” to write reviews motivates me. It provides the external impetus to do challenging but meaningful work that can be easy to slough off. 

In both these cases, I think the motivation is intrinsic to the situations; my main barrier to motivation is putting too much pressure on myself (produce more! be smarter!) or comparing my work to others (why bother writing poems, when Poet X, Y, and Z are so much better). We all have these discouraging voices in our heads; I try to be kind to them and acknowledge their desire to protect me from looking like a fool, and carry on. As with most wisdom, easier said than done. 

NM: What throws you off? This could be a small thing or a big thing. What do you do to regain your composure? 

AW: I think the most distracting thing, for me, is a personal interaction that nags at me for some reason–usually a text or email that I checked when I should have been writing. Sometimes it’s just a request that I do something–and, again, that Type-A brain of mine, wants me to DO IT NOW, even if that’s not required. Other times, it’s an emotional exchange that I can’t shake off in order to write. 

Sometimes I just lean into the distraction; other times I get up from the desk, wash some dishes, make the bed, and hope those small physical activities reset my brain. 

NM: What skills would you like to learn/acquire? How can you plan for doing so? If you could learn anything, and time/money were no object, what would it be and why?

AW: I’d love to learn the piano and be a better gardener. I also have no faith that retirement will exist by the time I’m in my 60s-70s, so would like to learn survival skills to manage what I envision to be a rather apocalyptic time 20-30 years from now. Honestly, I have no plan to accomplish any of these things, but if time and money were no object, they’d be what I’d do! So, if anyone wants to take me into their Golden Girls-style commune during the apocalypse, please let me know. 

NM: Is there a book/podcast/website that you find yourself recommending to people? 

AW: My favorite thing to do these days is to recommend science fiction trilogies: here are three favorites: Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, and N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, though that may fall a bit more toward the fantasy side of the speculative spectrum.  

I often recommend The Moth podcast because it’s (almost) the only podcast I can stand to listen to; I know many people love podcasts, but I’d rather learn something by reading about it than watching or hearing it (I read Ted talk transcripts rather than watch Ted talks, etc.) I love people’s stories, so The Moth has won me over–especially when there’s a story about a ghost sighting. I love those the best. 

NM: If you are a goal-setting kind of writer, what are your goals for the rest of this year? What, in your opinion, would be one practical and useful thing that a creative person should accomplish/achieve in, say, six months? 

AW: Since the year is about over, I’ll focus on my goals for 2020: I would love for my second manuscript to get picked up for publication, though I fear that’s going to require another major revision and I have no idea how to approach that task. I also have a few new projects I want to start, but I’d rather not disclose much about those goals or I believe they’ll become as unlikely as my dreams of piano-playing and survival skill-learning. 

As for one practical and useful thing a creative person could accomplish in six months, I think the most valuable thing any creative person can do is to create a workable routine for themselves. Six months seems like a good amount of time to put it into practice an actual practice and make adjustments. Figure out what time of day you can set aside routinely to turn to your work. Figure out a few tricks to help you keep writing/creating even if you’re distracted or not feeling inspired. Then, after you’ve established a useful process, only then, turn toward goals related to production. 

For me, I’ve learned that I write best in the morning; I begin by reading poetry for awhile, 30-60 minutes, then try to write for 2-3 hours, 2-3 days a week. If I can’t write or revise, I submit finished work. If that feels unbearable, I turn to my writing block tricks: I post a new blog in my slow journey through Elizabeth Bishop’s complete works, I try to write in persona (a character from a fairy tale will often get me going), or use a form (I find ghazals can help me warm up). 

NM: What public or media engagements have you found to be most effective in promoting your work? What kind of opportunity do you wish to see more of? 

AW: I’ve found any public activity–a reading or leading a workshop–where I can connect with potential readers to be the most useful for promoting my work. I usually sell more books after a 3-hour workshop than I do at a reading, and I think it’s because of that personal connection: we’ve discussed poetry and various vulnerabilities during our time together in a class and I think buying my book becomes an extension of that conversation, in a way. 

I’d love to do more university engagements, particularly visiting with creative writing students and giving a public reading on campus. I hosted several writers this semester at Middle Tennessee State University using this format, and my students loved the conversations they had with the wonderful writers who spent time with my class. While I don’t think these types of visits are necessarily great for selling books, I love talking with emerging writers about the writing life. 

NM: Who are the people/groups to whom you turn? What resources do you still need?  

AW: I have a few close writing friends with whom I share work and I find their input and encouragement invaluable. I sometimes feel I tax them too often with the task of reading my work, so having another venue for the exchange of feedback (for instance full-length manuscript exchanges) is something I often dream about, but am unsure how to cultivate. It can be difficult to find a reader who can see something in your work that you can’t and can communicate with you about your work in a way you can actually use–where their advice provides you with pathways and vistas you couldn’t imagine before. I’ve been lucky enough to have a few readers like this in my life and I am always greedy for more (and, to be fair, to be that kind of reader for someone else is also something I highly value). 

NM: When people seek you out, why do they turn to you in particular? What do they want from you? Are you comfortable with that, or would you rather it were something else? 

AW:  I know people love to complain about how many emails they get, but, to be honest… people don’t seek me out for much (and I am one of the few people who still loves getting emails). That said, I occasionally get asked to blurb a book, to provide private editorial services, and/or to give a reading/lead a workshop. Again, since I am not overwhelmed with “asks” at this point in my career, I enjoy these ways of paying forward all the kindness and help my editors and teachers have given to me over the years. 

I have also recently been asked to serve as Poet Laureate of Murfreesboro for 2020 and look forward to using this role to engage more closely with writers in my community. 

NM: How’s your social media presence? Is there anyone whose social media presence you feel is useful and meaningful? 

AW: I try to make my social media presence as much about promoting others’ work (sharing favorite poems and reviews) as possible, though, of course, I find it handy for sharing my own work as well. I have also become more conscious about what personal information I share as more and more of my “friends” are literary contacts rather than actual friends. This has led me to be a bit more thoughtful about what I post and what kind of energy I want to share with the world. 

I feel like Ilya Kaminsky’s Twitter (@ilya_poet) is extremely thoughtful and he always seems to be encouraging other writers, at all stages of their career, on that platform. I think that kind of generosity of spirit is rare (in person, and in online exchanges) and it is that spirit I strive to cultivate in my life. 

I also love Neko Case (@NekoCase) and Jeff VanderMeer’s (@jeffvandermeer) twitter feeds; Neko’s is a mix of fiery support of social and environmental justice and animal pictures and Jeff’s is bird videos from his magical backyard, reading recommendations, and with a dash of environmental justice posts as well. I think both of these artists use their platforms in ways that are personal yet aware of their influence. 

NM: How can one make money from writing? 

AW: This may not be what anyone wants to hear, but to make money from writing, you have to (I think) be willing to write about things you are not interested in–at least until you build up a reputation and client base. I began my freelance career writing about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and copyediting lawyers’ websites; I did not enjoy any of this work, but it did pay me.

https://richtarbell.com/

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 27, 2019 1:42 am

    Reblogged this on THE BLOGGING STATION.

    • Houndart permalink*
      December 27, 2019 6:18 am

      Thank you for the reblog, Andy!

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