It’s been a summer of string lights & striped shirts & poems shimmering in the midday heat, a summer of classic literature & cut nectarines & naps that engulf whole afternoons. Also: a summer of many interviews! I’m ceaselessly grateful to the beautiful bloggers & journalists who have allowed me to share their print & online spaces, so full of sunlight & song. Today, an interview with Amber Barnes of YA Indulgences in celebration of the many ways of creating & lingering inside poetry—thank you infinitely for having me! In case you’d like to while away your own summer eavesdropping in the most beautiful way on my musings, here’s where you can find the interview archive on Shadows of Cats—& in the coming weeks, do look forward to more interviews in The Kindling, JUNK, & more. Thank you, friends, for listening.
Poetry has meant so much for me since I was a teenager, what does poetry mean to you?
When I’m thinking about poetry I always remember my dear friend Natalie Wee, who in her stunning book Our Bodies & Other Fine Machines writes “I kneel into a dream where I / am good & loved. I am / good. I am loved. My hands have made / some good mistakes. They can always / make better ones”. I think a poem is a pledge to make better mistakes. I think it’s an amulet & an incantation. I think it’s a cry always heard but rarely answered. I think it’s an expression of hope. A rewinding tape. A holy ground. A wish not to be alone anymore.
What has been your proudest writing–related moment yet?
There are so many, but an enormous one is when readers tell me that one of my poems, essays, films, talks, or books saved their life. That always brings me up short, pulls everything into sharp & gorgeous focus, reminds me why I’m here & who I’m making for.
Also, on a more personal level, I get so quietly delighted when my mother enjoys one of my works—she’s the toughest person & the best woman I’ve ever known, & before I came along did not particularly see any use in poems or truly literature in general. Even now she doesn’t understand most of what I write, so on the occasion when she shares a piece of mine with her colleagues or sends me her reactions to a new book I’ve released, I definitely feel a bright twinge of pride!
What has the publishing journey been like for you? Were there any surprises or expectations?
My publishing journey has been nothing but surprises! I never thought my first book, which I originally self-published as a free chapbook when I was sixteen, would do nearly as well as it did, & I’m endlessly grateful for that incredible start. Later, when it came to submitting my fourth book, with one self-published & two traditionally-published books under my belt, I had no idea the manuscript would be rejected by eighteen (!) publishers before I finally decided to self-publish once more. I never thought I’d act in a film or code a Twitter bot or truly do anything outside of straight writing, so the fact that my work has turned out to be this multidisciplinary is also the most beautiful kind of shock. & finally, I always find it so fascinating & wonderful to see which works of mine readers connect to the most, since they’re so different from the ones I thought the most hard-hitting from the outset. I’m the luckiest artist in the world to have an audience that makes me question in the gentlest of ways my creations & the purpose behind them, an audience that pushes me always to be better than I am.
Do you have any tips for writers who would like to either self-publish or traditionally publish a book of poetry?
Finish what you start! I encounter so many young poets who are held back by a devastating perfectionism, one they often mistake as a boon over a shortcoming. The fear of failure, the need to make everything flawless, is not your friend. If you let it, if you don’t recognise the darkness in its unfurling siren song, it will twist & beat & narrow you down, keep you ensnared & afraid. Refuse to succumb to that myth. Bury the voice in your head that tells you how everything you make isn’t good enough. Just start, & then continue, & then finish. There will be time to question yourself later, once the work is done—but the sky opens like a promise or a prayer else the moment you write the end, & the only way to get there is by removing the paralysis that comes with expecting perfection.
What poets would you recommend?
In no particular order, Richard Siken (author of Crush & War of the Foxes), Ocean Vuong (author of Night Sky With Exit Wounds), Caitlyn Siehl (author of What We Buried & Crybaby), Alvin Pang (author of City of Rain & What Happened: Poems 1997-2017), Cyril Wong (author of Below: Absence & Oneiros), Darshana Suresh (author of Ocean Deep), Mary Oliver (author of Devotions & Wild Geese), Chen Chen (author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities), Lyd Havens (author of I Gave Birth to All the Ghosts Here), Mary Szybist (author of Incarnadine), Kaveh Akbar (author of Calling a Wolf a Wolf & Portrait of the Alcoholic), Clare Vernon (author of Acknowledgements), Logan February (author of Mannequin in the Nude & Painted Blue With Saltwater), & Blythe Baird (author of If My Body Could Speak).
What works are you currently writing?
At the moment I’m working with a marvellous team on a new short film based on a poem in my third book, which will hopefully be released around the end of next year! I’m also attempting to write a short story collection (though I haven’t truly exercised my prose muscles in far too long, so it’s certainly a challenge) as well as a book of poems about what it means to be an immigrant in America, a story told through an intertwining series of moth-soft gravity-loud ars poeticas. Mostly I’m trying to challenge myself in my work, excavate stories inside myself I’ve never confronted before, wound up like a silver watch with words rising always in the air around me.
What would you like to see more of in poetry?
More hope. More weird, daring work. More gender non-conforming poets. More exciting ways to display poetry outside of traditional books & chapbooks. More patience. More wonder. More poems that dip into music, & vice versa. More white writers supporting writers of colour. More exploration of the many ways of having a body. More glorification of the everyday rituals that build a life. More intentional architecture. More open mouths. More understanding that great art does not require suffering. More permutations of tenderness. More beginnings. More presence. More focus on the long-term over the immediate. More truth. More truth. More truth.