Sam Amadon and I have known each other for over a decade. We have much in common, particularly Connecticut. I had a few questions for Sam about his second collection, The Hartford Book, published this spring by Cleveland State University Poetry Center. Sam is also the author of Like a Sea, which won the Iowa Poetry Prize in 2010. His poems have appeared recently in American Poetry Review, Better, The New Yorker, A Public Space, and Ploughshares. He teaches in the MFA Program at the University of South Carolina. We conducted this interview via email from our respective homes in Vermont and South Carolina.
What was the process of composition for The Hartford Book? How did it relate to your first book, Like a Sea?
I wrote the bulk of the poems that now make up The Hartford Book in 2004. It was my first semester at Columbia and I was working with Richard Howard. About once a week, I’d go to his apartment in the Village and I’d bring him three or four of these poems. He really showed me how to write them, but more than that he showed me that I could write them. I had thought of poetry as something careful and cool, and my poems didn’t sound anything like me (as in the “me” sitting in the diner opposite you). Richard changed all that. He was so excited by these poems; it was a motivation to write them. We’re obviously quite different people, Richard and I, and I think this was part of his fascination—it was like I was bringing him the news.
Anyway, I found a method for the poems: long, funny circles of talk that make shifts via association, and continually find their sad way back to where they started. That line also works as a fair description of most of my friends from Hartford. That’s part of what I was after: to bring out this way of being that feels local to the place, to the people, to me. After a long process of weeding out (I cut the book in half over seven years) and changing forms, I think I got some of that. In Like a Sea, I was trying to do everything but write The Hartford Book, not because “I wanted to get away from it,” but because I wanted to see how different I could be and still sound the same. Even the procedural poems in that book, like “Foghorns” which is drawn entirely from A Long Days Journey Into Night, feel to me as if they fit in a wide circle drawn around The Hartford Book.
The Hartford Book poems were composed before Like a Sea, yet published after. Was this weird in any way?
Like almost everybody, I get really frustrated with the idea that half of poetry is off-limits. Or with the idea that you don’t have to read my poem, you just have to figure out which column it falls into on your aesthetic spreadsheet. So to some extent, I was happy to be publishing The Hartford Book after Like a Sea just to confuse matters. The best thing that came out of it, I think, is what it did to Andy Axel’s brain, evidenced here. With readers like him, I don’t think we have to be quite so afraid of the future.
How has Hartford/Connecticut as a landscape/place affect your development as a poet and the language in your work?
Well, Michael, as you might recall, it can be incredibly lonely. That’s partly what I think of when I think of Hartford. Driving in circles through empty streets and listening to the radio. Sitting by myself at the coffee place. Big empty parks. I didn’t do a lot of writing there, and I didn’t do a lot of reading. But for the part of being a poet that is about being alone, Hartford taught me how to do that. It’s not surprising that I grew up four or five blocks away from Stevens.
What’s this poem, Controversy, you’ve written with Tom Hummel?
Tom and I had been searching for a way to do something collaborative together for a long time, but whatever we’d come up with seemed half as good as what we could’ve written on our own. In Controversy, we figured out the trick was coming up with a project that needed two authors, that couldn’t have been done by one person alone. Essentially what we did is a blind erasure. One of us would provide the other with sentences from a text that the other would erase, but we never told each other what they were erasing. And we added other constraints: if I took a sentence from the thirtieth page of the third book on my fifth bookshelf for Tom to erase, then Tom would take a sentence from the thirtieth page of the third book on his fifth bookshelf for me to erase. We picked the sentences ourselves, but chance had a role in choosing the pages. I really like how it turned out. It’s like a box of broadsides. Which is something I don’t think either one of us would’ve made on our own.
Does that process fall anywhere in what’s
been dubbed the Conceptual poetry spectrum?
I don’t know if I would call it conceptual exactly. I tend to think of conceptual writing as work that plays out a meaning that’s made off the page. Like Jackson Mac Low’s “Ridiculous in Piccadilly.” When you run through that poem, you “be poor always and unkempt”; you “be ridiculous in Piccadilly.” I don’t think that’s the case with what we did. I’d file Controversy under Procedural Epistolary. Because we were really erasing as a way to write to each other.
Do you consider the Hartford Whalers to be the 2006 Stanley Cup winner even though they won it as the “Carolina Hurricanes”?
No. But I did watch some footage of the end of the last Whalers game the other week, and wept a bit while looking for my dad and me in the crowd. Look I know that teams get moved, and the Whalers going to Durham is nothing like the Dodgers and Giants going to California or anything, but it has to be one of the stupidest and most wasteful thing’s that’s ever happened to a franchise. Rowland thought he’d move the Patriots to Hartford, so he let the Whalers go, and years later I drove by him walking his dogs on the street (when he was getting impeached) and shouted, “Governor, you’re an asshole.” If I saw Bob Kraft, I’d do the same thing.
We can both reconcile poets like John Berryman and Gertrude Stein in our own work, even though some consider them to represent disparate branches of poetry. Do you see these distinctions becoming more and more unnecessary for others?
Well it’s easy for me to do that with Berryman and Stein because we have so much in common—the three of us can’t shut up. Really, I think the idea of “disparate branches” is more to blame than the differences between any two poets. That’s the deception: all the long-drawn lineages. There’s no master plan that we’ll finally figure out, thank god. I don’t to mean to say that conflicts and influence, schools and rivalries don’t offer us anything, but that can’t keep us from reading these individual poems by these individual poets. We have to try to keep remembering that. Anyway I don’t think you reconcile Stein and Berryman—I think you put them in the same room and let the sparks fly.
What was it like to be published in The New Yorker for the first time?
Not to say that poetry hasn’t given me a lot, but it did feel pretty good to pay the last part of that month’s credit card bill with “the money from my poem.” It was unexpected. I sent into the slush for years. Turns out they actually read it.
Tell me a little bit about your current manuscript, Tourism.
With Tourism, I tried to play against myself section to section. Most immediately, this is visible in formal changes. There are poems in rigid syllabic patterns without punctuation. There are poems in received forms: Petrarchan sonnets and heroic couplets. But I also created difference by taking on subject matter that doesn’t quite fit with who I am. I never knew about the original Penn Station, the one they blew up to build MSG. And when I read about, I thought there’s a certain kind of poet who does research on something like this and then writes about it. Then I tried to do that myself, and by the end, I dropped the “there’s a certain kind of poet” part. The manuscript’s a departure from the first two—the word “Hartford” never appears—but inside, it’s full of these departures from itself.
You recently received your PhD from the University of Houston and are now teaching at the University of South Carolina. How have you found the experience?
I think if the MFA students I’m teaching weren’t generous and kind people who write interesting and daring poems that it would be a lot harder. For that I feel really lucky (beyond how lucky you have to feel just to have gotten a job.) I felt ready to make the move. I’m writing new poems now, after a bit of a drought, and I think teaching has a lot to do with that. Doing the PhD really gives you a chance to figure out what you think about workshop. You see how you think it should run, how you don’t think it should run. To my mind, it’s about being the best audience for the work. The idea that having someone waiting to read it—to really read it—has a lot to do with it getting written.