Audi Alteram Partem (Hear the Other Side) / An Interview with poet Amanda Rachelle Warren

Audi Alteram Partem (Hear the Other Side)

by Amanda Rachelle Warren

I shut my eyes; a dead man sings in my head.

And I can pick the tune, well enough to
know it is a hymn for banjos and fiddles,
but he is a capella. I can pick the tune,
but not the words.

Drunk at sixteen, you sung church songs
to them few saints we believed in:
Our Lady of Lost my Last Dollar,
St. Speeditup,
Dear Done-it-now,
and all the Demi-Gods of Beech and Blossom.

Lying back in the mown grass, gathering dew,
you: mouth sticky, pink drink sweet and sweeter.
Revelation and damnation all soft-serve swirled like the Dairy King.
Every note dead set, but half the words cold, dead wrong.

I trace, on the map,
the path that led/took us to us.
Wet grass to pound cake.
Tender to foreign.
Touch to Touch-me-nots.

I ask the dead man to speak up.
What he’s singing seems important
only because I can’t make it out.

Sometimes there is a choir.
Sometimes the quick bright chatter of many voices.
Sometimes, with startling clarity, a woman, loud in my ear, distinct,
telling me about the nemesis sun, armed pirouetting galaxies,
and the smell of carded wool before it is spun.

And then asking me, over and over,
Don’t you understand? Don’t you? Don’t you?
I do not understand.

I ask the dead to speak up.
I tell them in my real loud voice,
Ifin ya’want something, ya haveta says so I can hear.

The dead man sings me to sleep,
and there’s nothing to fear.

First published by Causeway Lit 2017. (Winner of Causeway Lit Spring 2017 Poetry Contest.)

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Amanda Rachelle Warren’s work has appeared in Appalachian Heritage, The Pinch, Roar, South 85, Anderbo, and Beloit Poetry Journal as well as other journals. Her chapbook, Ritual no.3: For the Exorcism of Ghosts, was published by Stepping Stone Press in 2011. She is the 2017 recipient of the Nickens Poetry Fellowship from the South Carolina Academy of Authors and currently works as a freelance writer, part-time teacher, and full-time poetry pusher.

Amanda’s work was brought to our attention by poet Allyson Whipple, whom we interviewed here. We offered Allyson the opportunity to “pay it forward” by choosing another poet to interview, and she chose Amanda. Allyson says, “Amanda Rachelle Warren is one of the people I think exemplifies a true poetry citizen. No matter how busy she is with teaching or her own (fantastic) writing, she’ll always make time to support other poets. I have such deep admiration for not only her art, but for her service to other writers.”

So, here is Allyson’s interview with Amanda.

Q~How would you describe your style?

A~I would say that my style is very voice driven and concerned with place and inheritance and identity. I think the self is something we all struggle with, and I had a particularly difficult time finding my place in the world. I always feel like a bundle of contradictions, and my poetry reflects the voices of those competing selves. Place, self, and voice are interconnected for me. I am an Appalachian who grew up part-time in the city. I am an English professor and word-nerd with a non-standard dialect which I was shamed for early on in my education. That leaves a mark, particularly for poets. I had to relearn my own voice in some ways, and that’s made me concerned with dialect, speech patterns, the lexicon of our individual voices, and the ability/inability of language to capture the ineffable contradictions of our experiences. That sounded hoity-toity. I like words. Words haunt me.

Q~Tell me a little about the poem “Audi Alteram Partem.” How is it representative of your work?

A~I jokingly say that 90% of my poems are about dead boys. Although that’s not entirely true, this poem “Audi Alteram Partem” which is Latin for “Hear the Other Side” is definitely about a dead boy. I think I write poems about the things that haunt me, and one of the things that haunts me most deeply is the loss of those other potential selves and their experiences…ones I did not have because my path led elsewhere. For me, part of that loss of potential selves is a reflection of the death of loved ones who helped form the self that carries on without them.

Q~Is there a backstory to the poem that you want to share?

The Latin title is a thing I’m doing. I have a lot of interconnected poems about Appalachia with Latin titles. The choice is inspired by my great uncle who died extremely young during WWII in an airplane crash in Brazil. He was this hillbilly kid who loved machines, and oddly knew Latin, which surprised me. He ended up in the Air Force where he traveled around the world. I have a box of his letters home, and they’re fascinating. He would write his younger brother in Latin so the censors during the war didn’t know what he was sharing. He was clever and charming, and he inspired me to learn Latin, too. At the very least I wanted to understand what he had written. Sadly, his younger brother also died in an airplane crash. Gravity does not love my family.

Another inspiration for this poem is not something I normally talk about directly except to family really, but there are many women in my family who hear voices. It’s not a frightening or a troublesome thing, but a fact. Are they real? Who knows. Is it psychic ability or mental illness? Probably both. Centuries ago they’d be saints or witches, right? The fact remains that we hear voices, and those who do hear them love them. They’re a comfort of sorts. So, when I wrote this I was thinking about my extended family and the voices (literal and not quite literal) of those family members we lose during our lifetimes. Those people live on in the stories we tell and those things we’ve learned or come to understand by growing up in a space shaped by their presence: place and voice and sorrow and joy and love and struggle going back generations.

I was also thinking about the border between what is acceptable and unacceptable, what is holy and profane, which is a topic I’m always interested in. I’m not a religious person, or really a spiritual one in any standard sense of the word spiritual. But, I am fascinated by what does and does not feel like “church” for lack of a better word, and the ecstasy of that feeling–those moments of overwhelming oneness and belonging, those little moments of awe, in the strictest sense with a little touch of terror, that we hold on to that become touchstones or emblems of joy. I was also thinking of how religion often offers joy in one hand while slapping us with the other and telling us “no.” That’s not fair. Life does it, too. I want the awe. Many people seem to become less aware of awe as they get older and more concerned with what’s acceptable. Well, some of us do. I seem to get less concerned with what others think as I get older, or I just never grew up. I don’t want to be so “grown” that I can’t lay in the yard and stare at the sky and feel awe.

Q~Did it come easily to you or was it hard to write?

A~This one was easy but it also developed slowly. It started with a bunch of notes, the title, and the italicized line in dialect. It sort of pieced itself together and then went through a few drafts. I remember being excited to write it, particularly the part about the map and my indecision about whether the line should be “the path that led us to us” or “the path that took us to us.” Both the active “led” and the passive “took” seemed genuine to the poem, so I decided to include both. The list that follows moves the speaker and audience from innocence and acceptance to something less secure, more distant, impersonal, fragmented.  I want to weep for the two boys in the poem and what they hold on to…like the comfort of their voices and memories.

Q~What’s your writing process usually like?

A~Scraps and lists. Lists everywhere. Notes. A bit of a line. A snippet of an image. Something I overheard. Something I saw. A list of names for cats I hate. A list trying to describe a smell. A list of attempts at spelling out birdcalls. A list of the interesting names on gravestones in the old corner of the cemetery on top of the hill between this town and the next. A list of astronomical terms. A list of meteorological terms a storm-chaser might use. A list of places where someone might experience a first kiss. A list of street signs or town names that make me imagine the people who live there.

Eventually these things will spark a poem. I live up the road from a street called Withering Heights. Withering. On that road are three mobile homes. One day as I drove by I noticed that near the second trailer there was a dog standing on the roof of a red pickup truck and howling. That’s a beautiful image…old joyous dog sounding his heroic AOOUUU on top of a truck on Withering Heights!  That’s going in a poem eventually. And, that poem will go through a lot of weird little revisions and a few major ones. Hopefully, it will turn into something, but if not…that’s a learning experience for me. It might take decades to write that poem, or it might take a half day. I don’t know. I’ll keep working at it.

Q~Why do you write poetry?

A~I’m not really sure. I love words. I love language. I love the power it has to create ideas. I started out writing stories and reading nursery rhymes. I learned to read by writing actually. It was some 1970s method of teaching children to read and my Aunt wanted to try it out so I was her guinea pig. My first story was a poem/story about my new swing set. It was written in a “book” of kindergarten lined paper bound in wallpaper scraps. My mom still has it. I love writing prose, too, but poetry is my main focus. Ideas and images and lines and voices get stuck in my head, and it’s how they get out. It started out pretty cathartic, and I guess it still is, but it became more than that once I started reading the work of other poets. I was the 15 year old with three books of contemporary poetry in her bag, I guess.

When I started attending poetry workshops and learning more about what could be done with language I was hooked, but it still wasn’t a thing I thought about as more than a hobby…it was just a thing I did. I wrote poems. I got serious when I applied for my MA in creative writing at Ohio University, but I still didn’t know what I was doing or what I was getting into. I will admit that the reason I didn’t apply for an MFA is that I didn’t know that was an option. I had no clue about college and definitely no clue about graduate school. If I hadn’t gotten in I still would have written poetry, but I have no idea what I’d be doing with my life or where. Sometimes I like to think about that other self.

Q~Do you find yourself returning to certain themes or subjects in your work? Why do they resonate with you?

A~I return to place. I write about rivers and mountains and light and fractured people who are haunted by things. I write a lot about roads as well. I love roads. I love driving. I love seeing what’s out there. And, I’m super social, which is not very “poety” of me. I love talking to people and learning about their lives…what makes us human and tragic and bizarre and lovely. Also like I said, 90% of my poems are about dead boys. Again, I my poems return to those things that haunt me. I think that’s true of most writers though.

Q~Who was your poetry first love?

A~My first love was Homer. We had an old, dusty collection of bound books, which now live on my shelves. I read The Illiad and The Odyssey. It’s all action and adventure which I loved at age 10, but it was the quiet moments that got to me. The wine dark seas. The hair curling like hyacinths. The pleas with the gods. The descriptions. Then I found other poets. Yeats, Tennyson, Rilke, then e.e. cummings for some reason, and he exploded my expectations of poetry.  I’d borrow poetry anthologies from the library and I ate up all the modernists and the Romantics and sonnets and psalms. I devoured them. Still, I hadn’t heard a voice like mine though. I had that odd expectation that we sometimes get as novice poets that poetry is this grand formal thing that belongs to  only certain kinds of poets, and certain kinds of people. I felt like it didn’t really belong to people like me because I hadn’t read poets like me yet. It took me a while to find the voices and poets connected more intimately to my experience. So, when I found Lucille Clifton, C.D. Wright, and Maggie Anderson and I read their work, I felt like the world had exploded. It was awe.

Q~Who are you reading now?

A~Currently on my desk: Lucille Clifton’s good woman, Terrance Hayes’s How to be Drawn, Martin Rock’s Residuum, Eugene Savitzkaya’s Rules of Solitude, and Donika Kelley’s Bestiary.

Q~What are your poetry highs/lows of the last year?

A~I’ve had a lot of publications in the last year due to some major “carpet bombing” of literary journals. It’s been great actually. The high point is that I had a manuscript accepted for publication through Urban Farmhouse Press for their Crossroads Poetry Series.

Q~What’s one piece of advice you want to share?

A~Take risks with your work. I mean that in several ways. The first way I think we should take risks is when writing. We should be unafraid to go to uncomfortable or difficult places in our writing. We should be brave about complicated things, expose hard truths, risk discomfort, and be honest about what we want to share with others.  Remember, poets can always claim poetic license if someone should question us…so don’t hold back. Those poems we take risks with sometimes turn into our best pieces. The second risk we should be willing to take is in sending our work out for publication. I know many very good poets who are afraid to share their work or submit it for publication. I am not sure if it is a fear of exposure, rejection, or something else, but I always think “what’s the worst that could happen?” I mean, if you send your work out and it is rejected, that’s not a big deal. And, if it’s published? Well, that’s awesome! Rejection of a piece of writing isn’t a condemnation of the work or a writer’s ability. Keep writing. Keep sending. Keep sharing. It’s okay.

Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work)?

A~I have no idea. My work is scattered all over the place. I should probably have a website. Just Google me, but be sure to include the middle name or you’ll get the myriad other Amanda Warrens. I can also be found on Google Plus.

Q~Is there anything else you’d like me to know?

A~Not all of my poems are about dead boys.

blue_house_photAllyson Whipple is a poet, amateur naturalist, and perpetual student living in Austin, Texas. She is the author of two chapbooks, most recently, Come Into the World Like That (Five Oaks Press, 2016). Allyson teaches business and technical communication at Austin Community College, and enjoys hiking and camping.

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