Interview with Amelia Martens

AMELIA MARTENS is the author of The Spoons in the Grass are There To Dig a Moat, a book of prose poems selected by Sarabande Books for the 2014 Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature and published in April 2016. Her chapbooks include: Purgatory (Black Lawrence Press, 2012), Clatter (Floating Wolf Quarterly, 2013), and A Series of Faults (Finishing Line Press, 2014).  She met her husband in the IU MFA program; together they have created a reading series, a literary journal, and two awesome daughters. She sat down with Tell Tell Poetry to talk a bit about inspiration, her playlist, and what she was carrying when she wrote her most recent collection.

Kallie Falandays: Okay, we have to talk about this title. What’s happening? I love it and I’m curious about it, but I want to know more. Is this a twisted Simic reference? Is it an Iron & Wine thing? Is it over my head?

I enjoy Simic and Iron & Wine, so I love that the title could have those origins. However, it comes from a line in “Pink Pigs and Orange Horses”, a poem near the end of my book. My husband picked out two possible titles from poems in the book and we decided this was the best fit. I think he secretly enjoys how long it takes me to say the title! As a writing teacher, it is always important to me that a title doesn’t mislead—that it matches up with the content and starts setting up expectations. Spoons are domestic, usually interior items. Moats are part of fortification, defense against attack, but also part of make-believe. The act of digging a moat with a spoon adds the concept of futility and possibly torture. (Remember the 90’s Robin Hood? “Because it's dull, you twit! It'll hurt more!”). The length of the title (while long to say aloud) is also about as wide as my prose poems usually end up.

Before we even get into the book stuff, I want to talk about the bookstuffs. The design and layout of this book are incredible. Who designed it? Did you have a hand in the process? What was going through your head when you saw your galley?

The incredibly talented Kristen Radtke, Managing Editor at Sarabande Books, designed my book. I love it; the cover is stunning (and green is my favorite color). The inside layout is perfect; I enjoy how the poem titles are justified to the outside margins. Kristen made my pages into a pleasing tactile and visual experience for readers. Please see her website to learn more. And get ready! Kristen’s graphic memoir, Imagine Wanting Only This, is forthcoming from Pantheon Books.

Can you talk a little bit about what your writing and publishing process was like?

I started writing these prose poems right after our first daughter was born. Looking back, the compression of time seems to have heavily influenced the form; I didn’t feel that I had time to fret over the line (and line breaks are really important to me). I also see that the intense, surreal, narrative experiences of new parenthood encouraged me to write these prose blocks. I just wrote in the moments between nursing, changing, washing, cleaning, teaching, sleeping. I put the poems in a pile on my desk, and the pile kept growing. We had our second daughter two years later and the prose poems kept coming. In the summer of 2014, our daughters were 3 and 1; July is Sarabande’s submission period for the Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature and this contest has no entry fee. My husband had been sending his own poetry manuscript out for a couple years and I hadn’t sent anything out—but I had these poems in a pile. Because the Bruckheimer was free, because I had a stack of poems no one had seen, and out of resentment that I hadn’t been publishing—I got my act together and submitted my manuscript a few days before the contest closed. Sarabande is amazing to work with, and I appreciate their attention to every step of the process.

Many of the poems in this collection are prose poems. What draws you to this form or is it something that occurs organically?

Yes; this book is all (organic) prose poems. As my publication date came closer, I started to think about why these poems took this form. At first, I put a lot of emphasis on time constraints, but as I look deeper into the relationships women writers have with the prose poem (see Holly Iglesias’ Boxing Inside the Box), and as I think about other possible influences for me, it makes sense that these poems came as prose poems. Narrative increased for me as a new mom (stories of pregnancy, birth stories, bedtime stories, story of the child’s daily activities, then children’s books, etc.), and parenthood is a series of surreal adventures (I’ve never said “Just put on pants!” so many times a day). Parenthood also increased my attention to how weird the world is and how strange some of our human habits are—things I didn’t think much about previously, I now have to explain: why does the Tooth Fairy collect teeth?

Your collection begins with an apology and moves to a story about beginnings. What most excites you about your own collection?

“The Apology” is my introduction—this is the speaker, this is the world of these poems; here the daughter is introduced, here the reader sees language being tested out, played with, here an apology can be a constructed object. I am excited by the landing spaces of these poems; the little places for readers to stop and think about their own worlds—their participation, their complacency. The prose poem presents a unique opportunity for readers to be inside a poem before they realize it’s a poem. I see these as poems that matter, that ask the reader to reflect.

I am drawn to your collection for the intimate voice that we experience in the poems. It’s almost as if we’re children and the speaker is everyone’s mother. When did you “discover” this voice; is it yours? Is it like you? Can we talk about it?

This is the voice that is in my head, so I guess it is mine. Our oldest daughter, Thea, is the primary child’s voice and I tried to be accurate with her dialogue (usually in italics). For sure, we can talk about it! I think it’s like me, but I recognize that I get imprinted by what I read, hear, see, too. Killarney Clary has a poem that begins “Because the ones I work for for do not love me…” and I love the cadence and rhythm  of her voice so much. I am not magic—I have to write with the voice I have—so this is it, right now.

My favorite line in this collection is “I want to mail you my heart,” and also “Who did Anne Frank get to be next.” Who does Amelia Martens get to be next? What is she working on? What is she listening to? What is she writing and staring at?

My twin sister, Canyon, and my husband, Britton, are both incredibly important to my existence. When I am without these two, I tend to get overwhelmed—I want to mail them my heart. One day after listening to Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Holland, 1945”, which Thea often requests and also calls “One, Two, Three, Four” in the car, she asked us who Anne Frank got to be next. Amazing.

I’m working on writing one poem at a time; I’ve been giving myself little projects of made up forms. I’ve also been spending much of my time supporting my book—setting up readings, trying to connect with writers conferences (I’m super excited to be teaching at the IU Writers’ Conference in June),traveling to be on panels, etc.—trying to be a good host to the poems and honor the beautiful book Sarabande has created. I am also digging into the prose poem—and realizing my knowledge of the form resembles an iceberg: Baudelaire-Edson-Simic, sticking out of the water and a whole world (mainly comprised of non-male poets) underneath the prose poem surface.

What were you reading while writing this collection?

I have lists of the books I read for 2013-2015 on my website. Mainly this is me trying to hold myself accountable to read, which was super challenging being a new mom; as you can see I am getting better at it! One of the most important books I read while writing these poems, which motivated me to send my manuscript out, was The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice  edited by: Gary L. McDowell and F. Daniel Rzicznek.

There are a few movements that recur throughout the poem. One is an idea of building and carrying. What were you carrying when you created this collection?

People. Literally. The poems started coming a few days after Thea was born, so often I’d be holding her while writing or trying to jot a note, a seed for later. Then Opal’s whole composition happened in the middle of writing these poems, so carrying them both around, and then I was writing while holding her too.

Can we have a little playlist so that we can listen to it while we read The Spoons in the Grass are There to Dig a Moat?

 The Avett Brothers, Josh Ritter, Justin Townes Earle, Joe Pug, Tracy Chapman, Indigo Girls, Gillian Welch, Gideon’s Rifle.