Amber Nelson

Your Trouble is Ballooning (Publishing Genius, 2011) is available here. alice blue review and books are available here.

A.) What's the first poem you remember writing?

The first poem I remember writing was a poem called "One Man"--it was all about being responsible for the change in your own life, and it rhymed and I submitted it to that poetry contest that every writer who doesn't know what they are doing submits to and, gasp!, was published in that giant anthology of poetry where you're one of like 20 people on that page. But that was back when I thought I was going to write novels. The poem that was the most significant, for me, was when I was in my freshman year of college. I wrote this poem about sitting at a picnic table in summer on my lunch break eating grapes. It was just this image of how a grape pops in your mouth. It was then that I realized I was going to write poems, not fiction. That was when it clicked.

B.) What are three songs you've listened to on repeat lately?

Lykki Li "Dance Dance Dance"
Whitest Boy Alive "Burning"
Lupe Fiasco "Sunshine"

C.) Do you carry music around with you throughout the day? If so, what are you listening to and when are you listening to it?

I gave up my car almost 4 years ago in an effort to live a little less reliant on fossil fuels. I spent the next 3 years, in Boise, on my bike. About 2 days after I moved back to Washington State I got hit on my bike by a big white truck. After that, it was all public transit. And ever since, even though I'm essentially back to full health, it's been hard to get back on the bike full time (particularly since Seattle is basically one long series of hill... no matter which way you go). As such, I spend most of my music listening time on the bus. I listen to my ipod, usually on shuffle, and occasionally I'll set it on "genius" (usually to one of the above songs). Also on the mix, the uber pop album by Ben Kweller: Sha Sha Sha. It's goofy and he's clearly 18 or something (which he was... I met him when I was 18) but it makes me smile. I hear he's a country singer down in Austin these days. I keep meaning to look into it. I've heard it's really good.

Sometimes, at work, I put headphones on. I have a Prince/Otis Redding/Nina Simone station.

D.) Do you carry poetry around with you throughout the day? Whose books are you carrying?

I carry a book with me wherever I go, though not necessarily poetry. Since I also do a lot of my reading on the bus, and usually early in the morning before I've had my requisite coffee, it can be difficult. Usually, I read SciFi. Most recently, I finished The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein, and I just picked up The Dispossessed by Ursula K Leguin.

However, lately, I have been in a poetry groove. In the last week I read 3 Black Ocean titles: Ordinary Sun, Girl Without Arms, and Pigafetta is My Wife. I'm preparing to reread A Beautiful Name for a Girl by Kirsten Kashock (Ahsahta), which was my first choice for the year I read for the Sawtooth. While it didn't win, Janet Holmes did choose to publish it. I'm pretty ecstatic about that.

Books that I often hit repeat on include: Collected James Schuyler and Collected Frank O'Hara and Collected Jack Spicer.

E.) In Issue A, your poem "As a Threshold Brook" may seem entirely different from what people are used to seeing from you (and especially compared to your new chapbook with Publishing Genius)-- it's almost an experiment in traditionalism. What is the personal/professional significance of this new style?

Well, for me, the change was rather gradual, though I can see how anybody who has been at all aware of my work over the last few years would find this poem a little startling. I wrote my Publishing Genius chapbook, Your Trouble is Ballooning, about 6 years ago. Or, at least, I started it 6 years ago and finished it about 4-5 years ago. In certain ways, everything I've written since then was in direct response to that manuscript. Your Trouble was a process-based work. Yes, I was careful about it. I wasn't throwing words on the page willy nilly, but it was still written via collage process, as a way to break out of my own syntax-- back when my friends and I still referred to ourselves as "The Mad Lib School of Poetry." Since then, I've chosen to write without that process-based framework. Mostly because I saw, early on, that I (personally) could easily use it as a crutch. It was here I realized that for me, writing poetry had to do with learning and so it was unlikely that I was going to be doing the same thing over and over.

After that, I wrote two (mostly terrible) manuscripts that were me working myself away from a reliance on oulipian style processes: a manuscript that played with genre (non-fiction, scientific notebooks, etc), and then one that played with form.

And then, in the summer of '09, right before I entered my thesis year, I wrote a poem, a long poem (something I had wanted to do since my undergrad) called "Diary of When Being with Friends Feels Like TV." But writing this poem, when I set out, wasn't about form or genre or lines or language. Writing this poem was about learning about me, dealing with me, and dealing with other people in the world. That became my Slash Pine Press chapbook (forthcoming). A long, narrative poem, sort of in a Schuyler tradition.

After that, I took a class at Boise State with Martin Corless Smith where we read from the pastoral tradition on-- looking at sort of a history of poetry in a way. And I read Marvell, and Donne, and Wordsworth and a bunch of others... and while I frequently resisted the way we looked at the poems, I could feel myself being directly affected by that conversation, wanting my poems to be in conversation with it. This was especially true since, simultaneously, I felt myself resisting more and more contemporary poetry-- a trend I started seeing that I could only describe as "hip." Somehow, poetry started seeming like a fashion statement, alongside skinny jeans and hipster mustaches, something that was highlighted at AWP in Denver. Gross. I wanted poetry to be more than a fashion statement. I wanted something more... honest, maybe? Less ironic. (This brings me to a moment when Paul Hoover and Maxine Chernoff came to read in Boise and talked about their own turn away from irony... it stuck with me... though I think we mean it differently.)

And so I found mysef turning away from my own time. I was slipping, slowly, into traditionalism.

Then I graduated. I moved back to Seattle. I wasn't writing. That's not entirely true. I started a new job at a synogogue. This job made (makes) me happy. But there was this strangeness where being in a synogogue means, in a way, being surrounded by death. My boss was diagnosed with breast cancer. Another coworker had a heart attack. Another's daughter had just overcome Hodgkins in time for her Bat Mitzvah. Congregants were calling in (and still call in) pretty much daily: to have kaddish read at services or have their friend/lover/family member's name read on their yahrzeit date. I'm not religious. And I am not Jewish, religiously or culturally. But I was moved. I started rereading those pastoral poems. Milton especially. I reread Ginsberg's "Kaddish," particularly the first part. I read others. I was also reading Brenda Ijima's Eco Language Reader and Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan and ended up writing this long poem about ecology and dying.

I wasn't sad. I was happy. And I noticed something about poetry: it's almost always about loss. Loss of life, loss of friends or lovers, or the reach for these things that we don't have. Anne Carson writes about this in Eros, the Bittersweet. I had know this, about poetry, objectively, but it had never really registered. Probably because I had always been unhappy and so those poems about loss felt real and necessary. And they are.

But like I said, I had moved back to Seattle and I was happy for the first time in probably 4 years. I mean really happy. I was living my life. I was actually living--doing stuff, going out in the world with the other people and trees and weather in it. And as I read and read some more I noticed that even "happy" poems are usually poems about trying to be happy or the loss of happiness or the memory of happiness.

And this is why I wrote "Unheeded as Threshold Brook." The title is from a poem by Keats, "The Human Seasons." I wanted a poem that was about being happy, that expressed that happiness, that was joyful and not about the loss of that happiness but a poem that lived in that moment.

All of this said, there is one thread I can say has been in the poems from Your Trouble is Ballooning onwards: sound. It's not something I noticed on my own. A close friend of mine pointed it out. But if you're looking for a way to connect my older work to my newer work, that's the way. Sound remains my go-to mode of travel.