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“There comes a point in everyone’s lives where we start to recognize that we are making choices, that we are determining who we are by the actions that we make,” poet, educator and activist Amy King stated in a 2015 speech at SUNY Nassau Community College, where she is a professor of English and creative writing. “What we do says a lot about who we are, not just what we say.”
As a young child growing up in the Bible Belt, King remembers going to the grocery store with her grandfather—her one source of stability, love and unconditional support at that time who, “everyday,” made comments that she was learning to understand were racist. She recalls watching her grandfather flirt with a Black woman who was checking out their groceries. “I was very young,” she told students about that day. “I didn’t even have the vocabulary at that point to recognize this feeling or to articulate what this feeling was, but it was the feeling that something hypocritical was going on.”
That was when King, who identifies as queer, began trying to figure out how to address those moments in her family. “A story begins when a protagonist recognizes a conflict and begins to address how to correct that conflict,” she shared, “and some of us choose not to address that conflict—and that is a story too.”
After growing up in Stone Mountain, Georgia, King lived with her father in Baltimore, Maryland. As a teenager, she worked for the National Security Agency after testing high for analytical skills, but says she felt “uncomfortable” there, even just at 17, and “didn’t like the way the institution was run.”
Two consistent themes throughout King’s life are “social justice and story.” Her latest book, The Missing Museum, is described as “a kind of directory of the world as it rushes into extinction, in order to preserve and transform it at once.” Publishing it won her the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize and vaulted her to the ranks of legends like Ann Patchett, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rachel Carson and Pearl Buck when she received the 2015 Women’s National Book Association Award. (Named one of “40 Under 40: The Future of Feminism” awardees by the Feminist Press, King also received the 2012 SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities.)
King is co-editor of the anthology Big Energy Poets: Ecopoetry Thinks Climate Change and the anthology series Bettering American Poetry; her other books include I Want to Make You Safe, one of Boston Globe’s Best Poetry Books of 2011. Much of her prose, activism and other projects focus on exploring and supporting the work of other women writers, especially writers of color. King is a founding member of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and former Editor-in-Chief of VIDA Review.
During a 2014 interview King gave for Houston’s Public Poetry Reading Series, she spoke on the subject of trying to understand poetry by asking a pivotal question: “What is ‘understanding’ and what is an ‘experience’ with a piece of art?” She went on to say poetry should “jostle” us out of our regular ways of thinking—it should “undo” us in ways that are both good and uncomfortable.
For this installment of Ms. Muse, King opens up about learning to speak up and step up—and shares three new poems with Ms. readers. Here’s to hoping that they “undo” you.
Amy King (Photo: Ana Božičević)
I cannot afford to live in the city I teach in,
& the number of people sleeping in cars has grown,
indivisibly. This is not a dream of guarantees
but the pursuit of handwritten freedoms that night the sting away.
Demons of clinics devise distribution mechanics
based on who you were born to & who you might know.
The 2 a.m. quiet promises no solace or silence when days
are hobbled & taken. Soon, light will be privately owned.
I’m Building a Body to Burn My Effigy In
I will not mention stars Today. They have been used
for purposes not their own. Listen to them. Give them space.
Observe but leave them distant. If you think you know everything
about them now, you have outgrown yourself.
In the south we say bigger than your britches burns,
but I do not wish to confuse. I want to learn.
The denim and calico patchwork
of my childhood. Mothballs in a little black box,
felt lining each crevice. Michael Jackson
on a hobbled turntable someone left
at the apartment complex curb.
Costwald Village. Regal.
British. Anything but.
The dislocation of Backwoods, Georgia.
The first time a man touched me,
his semen glistening my inner thighs.
“Thriller” and the plywood coffee table.
The hoarder grocery bag maze
and Childcraft Encyclopedias flayed across the shag.
My 12-year-old amazement.
My 12-year-old embryo.
The fact of a body electric, searing for days.
Turning that birthed another world with a song and dance.
So many ways to joy. Some to death.
My anything. Me, anything. Joy even.
Amy King (Photo: Kimberly Evans)
Can you tell me about your process of writing “I’m Building a Body to Burn My Effigy In,” “Joy Even” and “Selling Short”?
I don’t have one process. Sometimes compiled notes take shape. Or a poem just falls out of me as if, gored, the liver drops from my body. The heart seeping sounds more fitting, but a liver plop fits better.
“I’m Building a Body…” comes from an interest in physics and mortality.
“Joy Even” is part of the slow-burn of outlining a memoir.
“Selling Short” emerges as predictive dream, touching on issues that have recently led me to Rosi Braidotti’s “The Posthuman.”
What childhood experiences with language informed your relationship with poetry?
When I first moved to live with my father in Baltimore at 15, I spoke slowly and heard the same. I often said “What?” in a deep southern drawl, uncertain of my own ears, which was probably also testament to a deeper uncertainty too. My father was my only safety line in a house full of strangers and with a stepmother who, quite quickly, began to play her own uncertainties out on me.
One day, as usual, I asked “What?” and my dad, no longer riding the romance of his daughter’s betrayal of her mother to be with him, the winner, suddenly shouted at me, “DO YOU REALLY NOT KNOW WHAT WE’RE SAYING?” It shocked the shit out of me. I made adjustments over time to alter the way I spoke, how I heard, to absorb unknown word usages and infer what I could. And to recover from what that moment meant.
You might prefer the story of how I used to read Gertrude Stein to friends over the phone to annoy them until I realized I had tricked myself as I was enjoying sounding her poetry aloud. Or how I grew up reading Nancy Drew and science fiction late into the wee hours and then woke up and watched Saturday morning cartoons in black and white. But this moment with my father shattered something. Luckily, the cracks are often where we make things and the broken pieces what we make things with.
I’m stunned by that moment with your father and your struggle to understand what people around you were saying. I’m also struck by the notion of the poet as a young girl not trusting her own ears, as you say. How did you learn to make out the words all around you–and to trust yourself?
I don’t think I ever have really. I just embrace the temporality of life a bit more than usual and go with what comes across. It’s why I am not embarrassed to ask someone to pass the “lotion” for the salad or to verb nouns for decades now. I think subconsciously I suppressed my accent as a response to my father, but that shock taught me that not only is my mother unreliable, but so is the alternative, my father. I had already been disabused of the notion of unconditional love; I was holding out hope in him for at least a lasting, warm embrace. I’ve grown since that bottoming out: DNA is not all, and one can find family—and become family—elsewhere.
This is all linked to the notion that people speak to signal group intimacy; language is shaped by mutual alliances and allegiances. When family rejects your language needs, believe the message it sends and seek anew.
Do you seek out poetry by women and non-binary writers? If so, since when and why? More specifically, how has the work of feminist poets mattered in your childhood and/or your life as an adult?
I won a city-wide fiction contest for Baltimore ArtScape during my senior year of high school. It was judged by Lucille Clifton, which made a lasting impression on me. I was not a writer, but my high school English teacher, Carolyn Benfer, encouraged me tremendously. I was attending a vocational school in the city and, up to that point, was destined to become a CPA.
From there, I attended the University of Maryland at Towson State and had the good fortune to enroll as a double major in English and Women’s Studies. The latter program is especially noteworthy as the program served as the model for many other Women’s Studies programs across the country, as envisioned and spearheaded by Elaine Hedges, who was also an active feminist, affiliated with the Feminist Press. This program led me to numerous marginalized writers back in the early nineties that I likely would not have encountered so early on independently or simply from core English classes.
I cannot speak highly enough about the work that Women’s Studies program did. The short answer is that the program taught me to seek work by marginalized writers as I would be missing out on so much otherwise. I do not seek literature simply to reflect my own experiences—I seek to learn beyond them.
What groundbreaking (or ancient) works, forms, ideas and issues in poetry today interest and concern you?
There is no one work, and as such, I continue to read widely. There are so many books I have not read yet, which is thrilling. Some of my touchstones range from Cesar Vallejo to Leonora Carrington to Audre Lorde to James Baldwin to Lucille Clifton to Gertrude Stein to John Ashbery. There are numerous younger poets I look to for energy, shifts in consciousness and awareness of current cultural concerns and who also signal structural and formal changes. A handful include Billy-Rae Belcourt, Chen Chen, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, Vievee Francis, Airea D. Matthews, Raquel Salas Rivera, TC Tolbert, Ocean Vuong and Phillip B. Williams—but this by no means is an exhaustive list. Check out the poets anthologized in the Bettering American Poetry series I am lucky enough to be a part of.
As a woman, and as a woman who writes, what do you need to support your work? What opportunities, support, policies and actions can/could make a direct difference for you—and for other women writers you know?
Besides the room, money and time Virginia Woolf called for, I’m beginning to find that a support network is vital. I don’t think this needs to be formal or a writing collaboration. I simply mean that it is encouraging to have regular check-ins with a small group of writers, as few as two even, where you discuss what you’re each working on, maybe share a small piece/excerpt, get feedback and discuss ideas.
It is often the idea exchange, even with just a friend on the phone, that I find generative. I find myself articulating ideas and vision in a way that is as revealing to myself as to my friend. I leave those conversations with ideas of where to head next with a poem or on what to research to build foundational ideas for a concept.
What’s next? What upcoming plans and projects excite you?
I’m outlining a memoir—fingers crossed—and writing poems. I may birth an essay down the road, but that is gestating for now. And volunteering time and support to a program called La Maison Baldwin Manuscript Mentors, a nonprofit arts and culture association that remembers and celebrates James Baldwin in Saint-Paul de Vence, to save James Baldwin’s house and turn it into a vital residency in France.
How has the current political climate in the U.S. affected you as a woman writer?
I am not so much shocked as often startled. I think we all knew white supremacy, colonialism and toxic masculinity were at the helm, but the built-in invisibilities kept them shrouded in respectability politics and notions of civility, and of course, that begs the question: Whose civility? I also don’t think we are in some unique moment of history where shocking things have taken hold and the end is nigh, but that is how it feels at times. Power and paradigm shifts are often premised on tectonic shifts, and folks have to finally step up, choose sides.
That seems key at the moment: one can no longer pretend to be above the fray. And that may be most painful for those of us with privilege. No one is outside anything after all.
The post Ms. Muse: Amy King on the Power of Stories and the Weight of the Current Political Moment appeared first on Ms. Magazine Blog.
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