Poet Of The Week

Amanda Smeltz

     December 23–29, 2013

Amanda Smeltz is the author of Imperial Bender (Typecast Publishing), her debut poetry collection, which was listed by the Chicago Tribune and The Poetry Foundation as one of the notable poetry titles of 2013. She is the assistant poetry editor of Forklift, Ohio and attended The New School’s creative writing program. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prelude, [PANK], The Best American Poetry blog, Phantom Limb, Barrow Street, and others. She lives and works in Brooklyn.

Letter to Violi from Prospect Heights

The wind picked up this week something crazy,
ripped inside my coat on Sixth Ave. I got so ticked
I growled, fuck you wind! Some old women
whirled around, looked at me with prim mouths.
As ever, Paul, I offend. Now it’s night on Vanderbilt
and the café plays Ella Fitzgerald. She brings some relief,
as does this steaming pile of polenta, chevre,
ratatouille. No drink at the moment, though.
When I woke up this afternoon it was lousy.
Lips cracked and a memory of yowling at the bar
about quitting. I struggle a bit of late.
Last winter, smoking out of Ali’s wide windows
on the Bronx, you made that angry eagle face,
said what really pisses you off is when the good
ones see how hard it is and quit. I think
about the Marines again, but I confess
that has a dark origin. The get-fried-in-a-tank place.
That is not the poetry place. Besides, that we’re still
at war is idiotic. Hughes writes a massive piece
about his brother over there – he’s got this line about a .50 cal
taking off an eleven-year-old’s leg. I can’t stop seeing
my littlest brother: bright blonde hair, bleeding
stump like raw hamburger, me carrying him in
howling. I can’t take it. Can’t sign up for that,
even if sometimes I want to be hurled
like a grenade. What a crock, to pretend to blow up
solitary, like shrapnel won’t perforate nearby flesh.
Anyway the point is I won’t quit. Though I might take
flying lessons: Graves said my poems are like Pancho Barnes.
That’s one hell of a woman. After just six hours in the cockpit,
she had the trick down. I don’t know what G meant by it,
but I love a female ace and anything that keeps me
from an office job. You told me to avoid desks
and hucksters, both being bad for the constitution.
I think about your health. Whatever it is, kick its ass.
Shea misses you a lot and so do Jamie and the rest. Poetry
is boring without you. Come back and we’ll have a whole carton
of Winstons and that Irouleguy you liked
when you came by the restaurant. Send my regard to Ann –
ask if she’d mind the company of some rambunctious poets.
We’ll rent a car and drive upstate.
Get better. Come home. Love, Smeltz.

–From Imperial Bender, Typecast Publishing, 2013.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I was in my final semester of grad school, and my mentor Paul Violi had fallen ill and was unable to teach. I was supposed to be his teaching assistant that semester, and he was my thesis advisor–on top of the fact that I was worried about my friend and elder, to say nothing of all the other shit going on in my life. It’s hardly a poem at all: it’s just an account of what was happening.

Also, I treasure Richard Hugo’s epistolary poems a great deal and had been reading them, so I imitated. I was trying to learn something about what seems to me their put-on, tough-guy tone, where Hugo understates and kinda grunts, which oddly intensifies feeling. This is a thing that reminds me of Pennsylvanians and working-class roughs and corner-of-the-mouth-talkers like Paul.

What are you working on right now?

Over the last year and a half, I’ve become obsessed with strophes, especially distichs. The couplet has seized me–they remind one of formal logic, they encourage parallelism and comparison, they demand razor-sharp turns. Part of my interest in this is the fault of Anthony Madrid’s book I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say, which has me in its grasp. So I have maybe a dozen or so pieces I’m working on entirely in couplets, with more poems emerging every couple of weeks. I’ve also started rhyming in them, which is a thing that happens to me.

And then there are these pieces that echo Frederick Seidel, which started happening about two years ago and hasn’t stopped yet. I’m not rich as shit and I don’t ride fast machines, though, so I hope he’s not totally boring in my hands.

What’s a good day for you?

It’s got food and wine. Snow or sun. Swimming or yoga. Decent conversation or looking at art. Getting my day’s work done at my job, coming home to loved ones, and still having enough left in me to write. I listened to the Carpenters’ Christmas album this morning and that felt a-ok. I’m pretty easy. Shit ain’t bad.

How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you like most about it?

I’ve been here almost five years, so not long enough to say anything authoritative about anything. I live in Bushwick now, but have also lived in Prospect Heights and Clinton Hill.

What I don’t like about Bushwick: shitty siding covering decent old buildings, trash, bad sidewalks–all this because it’s been a neighborhood neglected by the city’s powerful for a long time, as far as I can tell.

What I love about Bushwick: a mural on every block. My neighbors and landlord are friendly. My ladies at the laundromat speak to me in Spanish first. Lots of creative people and unusual spaces. As long as it’ll have me, I’d like to be here for awhile. It’s great.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.

There’s this green triangle of a park in my neighborhood. It’s the only green space for probably half a mile around, in the middle of all these semis and industrial concrete–Evergreen Triangle, I think it’s called. This summer on the weekends it was these all-girl softball teams just shouting their asses off, which I loved. Bunch of neighbors lined up in those cheap plastic-weave folding chairs along the fences. In the fall it was boys playing pick-up football in long-sleeved shirts. Now it’s cold, and on my walk to work I see crazy people up in the early morning frost, taking their dogs out to play.

I love how people here figure out what they have and squeeze the life out of it, whether it looks like a little or a lot to outsiders. This borough is full of vigorous humans.

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?

Bernadette Mayer, born here. I can say Paul Violi here–though he was raised in Long Island, he was born in BK. Dorothea Lasky. I’ve liked some of the work of Farrah Field, Noelle Kocot and Alicia Ostriker, all of whom either live here now or were born here. Katie Byrum, Bianca Stone and Amy Lawless are friends of mine here whose work I care about.

I am pleased to note how many women I just listed.

I would like to add, in the overlapping part of the Venn diagram detailed “poets” and “lyricists,” Busta Rhymes and Mos Def.

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?

Unnameable Books, on Vanderbilt Ave. Greenlight Books on Fulton for the beautiful art books & monographs, though they clearly favor pretty fiction and cookbooks over poetry. It’s not a store, but Mellow Pages in Bushwick is my favorite little house that holds readings and accumulates a library of donated treasures. Excited about Berl’s Poetry getting a brick-and-mortar spot, though I haven’t been yet.

Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

Any café or bar that’s quiet and not popular. I spend enough time eating and drinking in the busy ones.

Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?

Russo’s Italian Deli on 7th Ave. Their muffaletta will fuck you up.
The Grand Army Plaza.
Red Hook waterfront and the Lobster Pound.
The waterfront near Greenpoint / Williamsburg where the East River ferry picks up.
Anywhere but the Bedford stop.

Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?

Roger Reeves’ poem “Some Young Kings.”

This is totally biased, but my partner Russell Dillon’s lovely first book, Eternal Patrol, just came out. I think it’s what “not all who wander are lost” means.

Darcie Dennigan’s new, long excerpt in the most recent issue of Forklift, Ohio (#27).

I heard Kwame Dawes read here in the city not long ago and he unexpectedly made me weep. So I bought his Duppy Conqueror and intend to read it thoroughly. The poem that made me cry was “If You Know Her.” (Also, “How to Pick a Hanging Tree.”)

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate __________,

And what I __________ you should __________,

For every _______________ me as good _______________ you.

How can I put any other word there than “myself”? Memory won’t permit it.

Why Brooklyn?

Initially, because I’d romanticized it out of my love of hip-hop. Currently, because I love it for reasons listed above.