Q: In the first section of your book Burnings, the majority of the poems center around Vietnam along with maternal relationships with both your mother and grandmother. How much personal narrative is at play here and how much is history being retold through generations?
A: I was raised by women. I was saved by women.Â When we first arrived in the U.S. in 1990, my family (seven of us) lived in a one-room apartment in Hartford, Connecticut. We had no TV, no radio, and no one knew how to read, in any language. So we told stories. After dinner, we would all gather around my grandmother. She would close her eyes and the words would come slow, but within minutes, every wall would melt into fantastical landscapes of sheer beauty and terror. While snow dusted the streets and the winds rattled the windows outside, we sat singing and weeping deep into the night, the tea pot emptied and filled a dozen times over.
When I started to write poems, I wanted to honor these memories. And when my grandmother died, this pledge was even stronger. Because I am the only literate person in my familyâ€”the war interrupted everyoneâ€™s educationâ€”, I write their history as a way of keeping these stories alive. But I do take some liberties as a poet. My Vietnam is transgressive, it is not concerned with specifics or accuracy. It is the Vietnam that rears its hideous head again and again throughout our human history; it is the Vietnam of the Middle East, the one in our streets, our homes, and our hearts.
Q: ‘The Photo’ is written â€œafter the infamous 1968 photo of a Viet Cong guerilla being executed by South Vietnamâ€™s national police chiefâ€. Can you tell me what makes it important in 2011?
A: When I saw the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, I was utterly arrested. To me it is the ultimate allegory for all human failures and I wanted to capture that in the poetic form. Photos, as much as they are revealing, are also obscure. Their focus is limited by the lens, the light, the shaking hand. Nonetheless, that photo is even more relevant now than ever, perhaps because these scenes still happen. Whether we like it or not, someone is always being executed, someone is always being forced to kill another human being, often times against their own will.
When I was in high school, I would always get excited to learn about the Vietnam War, to know my history. I remember bookmarking the section months ahead of time. And every year I would find disappointment. Where we would spend an entire month on the American Revolution, nearly an entire chapter on Gorge Washington alone, only a few pages would cover the entire ten-year war in Vietnam, sometimes with only sparse paragraphs. The text was brief and often obscure: bad things happened, people died, no one seemed to know why, America left, there’s a wall in Washington D.C. In the course of reeducating myself, I was baffled by the lies the books told. So I guess a part of my aim as poet is to do what the media and textbooks failed to: to explore the truths that we would rather forget, but cannot afford to.
Q: One of the things I love about your work, such as in ‘The Masturbation of Men’, is the way you demonstrate the human failings and tenderness of men. How have you yourself struggled with the idea of men needing to be strong and masculine versus imperfect and emotional beings?
A: Being raised by strong women, I was able to witness the strength, ferocity, bravery, and diligence of womanhood. However, I also know how often they fail, how wounds can become catalysts for some of the uglier things in a person. In other words, growing up, women were more human to me than men. They were available, exposed in all their beauty and flaws. The only men I knew were in movies and music videos. On top of this, I lived in a black neighborhood where all my friends and neighbors share the same fatherless existence. We salivated and idolized drug dealers with tricked-out cars and wads of money stuffed into their jeans. They were not only heroes, they were nearly gods and everyone wanted to be one.Â So yes, I did and do struggle with the idea of masculinity and I guess I try to explore its dynamics in my poetry, that sometimes the masculinity we see is more a product of society rather than an innate propensity. That men are really women who yearn to be touched, to be liked, and to be happy and peaceful. I believe that with all my heart.
Q: I first found your work through a poem published in Muzzle Magazine titled ‘Song of the Subway’. As a daily commuter, I am always grateful for anything that breaks the monotony. This poem sincerely captures how NYCâ€™s underground musicians manage to burst through the harried exhaustion long enough to remind us there are more beautiful things to consider than our watches. Can you tell me some other beautiful things you have experienced or witnessed here in New York City?
A: I have a difficult relationship with New York City. It terrifies me. I have a very severe case of anxiety-induced Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It’s been an issue since childhood but only until I came to New York has it become debilitating. I can barely make it two blocks down Times Square nowadays without running into the subway or calling a taxi. When riding trains, it is imperative that I get a window seat. The enclosure makes me feel calm and safe. I can’t stand loud noises and I panic when people stand too close to me which make New York a very difficult landscape to navigate. However, this is why those slices of calm are so wonderful and outstanding. I think it was Jack Gilbert who said that smokestacks make the sky even bluer. And I guess it’s the same with this city: in the midst of so much chaos and anxiety, a brief moment of respite and beauty can bring you nearly to your knees.
Q: In your poems ‘Revelation’ and ‘Paramour’ you talk about the early recognition of your sexuality, your attraction to men as a beautiful discovery, whereas in ‘Echo’, you allude to an internal struggle with that discovery. Which one is more of a reflection of your personal experience and why?
A: Sexuality is difficult. I am still very new at it and am quite ignorant of most queer cultures and terminologies. I tend to be a recluse and do not have many queer friends who I talk about these things with. I often feel stupid when I hear people talk about â€œcruisingâ€ or â€œMuscle Marysâ€ and then have to go home and google-search it. But then again, I am not too interested in those things.
Sexuality is an important part of who I am but it is not all I am. For me, sex and its discovery is wonderfulâ€”the pure and reckless pleasure of it. I love its ability to pull one into such a fierce and total present. But the grappling of one’s identity as a gay person is a lot more intricate. It is less instinctual and more cerebral. There is so much at stake when realizing you are what the world despises. You risk sacrificing those you love and cherish in the hopes of freeing yourself just a little bit.Â And yet, nothing can be more empowering than allowing yourself to be loved and loving in return. Sexuality, like all identities, is not always one-dimensional and almost never easy. Nonetheless, it is so necessary to live with compassion for yourself and others. I think all people are good; they are just ignorant and misguided. If we educate ourselves we will be better equipped to love one another more fully and dutifullyâ€”the way we were meant to be.
Q: When you read your work on stage, do you ever feel anxious sharing so many details of your personal history and self? If so, what makes you continue to do so? Also, since (as you mention it in your thank you notes) there may be many â€œpoets buried deep inside lost and angry boysâ€, what advice would you give them as an adult and writer?
A: I am naturally an anxious person. Even after so many readings, I still get nervous. I’m just terrible at saying smart and funny things in between poems, so I just read one poem after another, keeping the notes as brief as possible. But as far as the content, I am actually less anxious when reading the poems themselves. When I read, I allow myself to reinvestigate the work, to go through the lines with the readers and almost live them again for the first time (does that make sense?).Â Reading the poem aloud is like a rebirth. I am no longer myself but am rather a manifestation of the poem. So I am not too shy about personal history being revealed during the process. But again, not all poems derive from personal history. I take a lot of different roles in my work and I contradict myself often.
As for younger writers, well I guess I can be considered one myself, and indeed, I am still learning. I would encourage younger writers to read, read, and read. You just can’t poop without eating. It’s a lovely and necessary cycle. I would also advise them to not always listen to teachers. They are smart and often understanding, but they are also human and flawed. And for god’s sakes, don’t write every day. That’s the worst advice I’ve been given. What a terrible thing to advise a poet. To write every day is to pry apart, on a daily basis, the mind’s most terrible crevices. You can trick yourself into believing it is a herculean act, nearly crusade-like. But one can only burn at both ends for so long. Save the poems, let them grow inside you, like a pregnancy, and when the water breaks, nothing can stop it.Â Also, there’s no such thing as writer’s blockâ€”don’t sell yourself short with such an excuse. If you have nothing to say, put down the pen, go outside, and fling yourself into the world. It’s waiting for you.
Amanda Mathews resides in Astoria, NY where she writes poetry in between molding clay, painting curvy women and illustrating books for fellow writers.