Interview with Amanda Nadelberg

Ellen Boyette

Amanda Nadelberg is the author of three books of poetry: Isa the Truck Named Isadore, selected by Lisa Jarnot as winner of the 2005 Slope Editions Book Prize; Bright Brave Phenomena (Coffee House Press, 2012); and Songs from a Mountain (Coffee House Press, 2016). Her work has appeared in Harper’s, The Nation, and Chicago Review, among other places, and in 2016 she was a columnist in residence for SFMOMA’s Open Space. She is a graduate of Carleton College and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she held Truman Capote and Teaching-Writing Fellowships, and where she returned in the summer of 2017 to teach a graduate poetry workshop. A recipient of a grant from The Fund for Poetry and an advisor to The Song Cave, she is originally from Boston and lives in Oakland. I talked with Amanda over the course of a couple weeks about her poems forthcoming in The Iowa Review, recently published work, politics, and poetic practice.


Ellen Boyette: I am so excited by your work that is forthcoming in The Iowa Review. It’s pulled from an excerpt of a book-length poem entitled “The Fourth Moment.” I was wondering if you’d like to speak to the formal and visual elements in this new project, specifically the block-text poems that are visually similar to frames with text inside. I’ve never seen anything like it. How did you arrive at that form?


Amanda Nadelberg: The various forms of this book happened over time. One thought is that about ten years ago, I had been thinking of attaching or sewing or incorporating a text my mother wrote for the babysitter in 1983 to new writing, and I was thinking of marrying her writing and my own by using the forms of the Passover Haggadah. There are waves of repetition in Judaism, both in practice and in texts, like in other religions of course, and I started to think about what admitting its effects on me would look like. And while that particular set of poems never happened, I started, in the past couple years, bringing my mother’s notebook to readings; it’s beautiful and intimate and funny and feels oddly (or not) related to what poetry is. So that was a small tangent on being a Jew and having forms. I wrote the first draft of this manuscript over the course of a year, in a strict, somewhat accidental form I borrowed from looking at a calendar the wrong way in a doctor’s office: reading the days downward looked like assignments for stanzas, and I spent a year writing a book-length poem into that container. I broke it sometimes—one needs to—but something about the particular form and my adherence to it (I had a quota for each month, as opposed to having to write each day, a practice I wouldn’t want to commit to, life isn’t that predictable) allowed for other thoughts I hadn’t had in poems. At the end of the year, the book was tedious, unreadable, a hundred-page drone. I couldn’t edit it seriously without thinking of “ruining” the rules I had followed. I turned each section of the book (there are twelve) into prose and edited them in that form. I found myself underlining what seemed like thesis statements on each page, or the truth of my emotion, and wanted a way to highlight them, like bumper stickers in a poem. And I started having flashes back to that idea ten years ago, and I thought about what the Talmud looks like. So I incorporated some of those forms into the book, taking each page of prose and trying to see what its language required. The poem approaches what my experience of reading is, in writing.


EB: I love the variety of influence and inspiration that informs your poetic practice, from the intimate to the historical to the accidental. What is your relationship to control or intentionality when it comes to writing a poem? To editing? 


AN: In the beginning, poems came out on the first try—I often tie this notion to plain youth, like having dewy skin, like there are a set number of poems we have stored in our minds to be written in single attempts, and eventually the pantry is bare, and we need to find new methods. In writing my second and third books, the method changed to one of notetaking and occasionally setting aside time to write, sewing the parts together. I still sometimes depend on that way, employing what I’ve accumulated in notebooks or scraps of paper on my desk (that I put into a Ziploc if I’m traveling somewhere where I think I might be productive) when that particular shade of expression hits. (I guess lately some poems that come to me like lightning are these micro poems I’ve been writing, teeny, one to three lines each, and I probably started writing them as antidotes to having written a book-length poem.) But when I started writing The Fourth Moment, it was after a year of actively trying not to write. My third book was being prepared for publication, and I wanted to resist the impulses that I was familiar with, in particular the one where you stop life to jot things down. I wanted to live without documentation. So I wasn’t taking notes, so I wasn’t really writing. Part of this experiment of forcing my reliable method into to another habit came from wondering if I let language go, unrecorded, would it come back (ha). And I don’t think it did exactly, but whatever came felt somehow and otherwise new, like that very resistance formed another language for—and in and from and on—me. I was writing into a very controlled form, as I mentioned before, but what went into it felt wild, or from deep tracks of memory. I like to joke that this book is a memoir in verse, and/or that it’s autofiction, or that it’s a series of elegies for the living. Since I developed better habits, or stopped believing in first versions, editing has become more fun (fun? I guess so) than writing. It’s just another kind of listening that often hinges on what isn’t being said.


EB: That tension between what is and isn’t being said is so apparent in those micro poems you nod to, a few of which are up at Hyperallergic. They definitely have a lightning effect on the reader as well, often funny and at times almost epiphanic. As a poet and as a reader, which kind of language do you trust more, the macro or the micro? 


AN: You ask good questions, thank you, Ellen. I think it’s the space where they overlap that I like to be most, as a reader and writer. I believe in figuring what’s possible in plain, accessible vocabulary, making wonder out of the ordinary, making use of demotic language as a means for inclusion. That said, I think syntax plus being attuned to mishearing the world can be productively estranging, and that’s where poetry can remain well. When I have fallen into the macro, it’s a series of accumulations of the micro, to be honest. I’m sure that’s not true for everyone, but it’s the been the case for me so far. 


EB: To what extent are your poems politically engaged? Has the current political climate changed your writing? 


AN: In answer to the first question, sometimes somewhat and sometimes a lot. I find the particular label troubling because it doesn’t account for vast subtleties, especially in the present moment. A love poem, a domestic poem, a pastoral can all be political. Caring for loved ones can be political. During one of the protest weekends in the past year, a friend at work remarked: not everyone can be at the protest—someone has to be ready with bail money, someone has to take care of the children and the elders, someone has to have food ready when everyone comes home. At a reading in August in California, during the Q and A, Brenda Hillman raised her hand and reminded Cole Swenson that Cole had once said “women should smile at one another” when they’re out walking, strangers. To me that’s political. What’s hard about the term is that it assumes a public nature, and there are equally private—and necessary—ways to be political. Answering the phone at my day job feels political (it’s a nonprofit environmental law firm). I think the question is coming up a lot more and the truth is everyone has different ways of processing the ongoing nightmare we’re in. The short answer to your second question is that those micro poems are all I’ve written.


EB: ​And that’s what really struck me about those micro poems—how they manage to operate in a kind of personal transparency, as well as a clearly political register. They’re somehow both modest and defiant. I think you bring up a great point about the undiscussed private ways to be political, especially when we might consider the fundamental acts of a poem as occurring beneath its denotative or public surface. Which brings me to my last question! In your most recent book, Songs from a Mountain, I was struck by the sheer number of real places that appear—the effect, for me, was feeling both grounded in reality (where places and bodies have names), and still somehow fully placeless, in the mind, free of perimeter. “If aloneness creates its own desire / send me back in mapped envelopes” demands the speaker in the poem, “Matson.” How does location, geographic or otherwise, influence your writing? 


AN: It did especially with that book. I wrote the earliest poems in my last few months in Iowa, there are a handful I wrote when I had to move home for a surgery, and the guts of the book—the long poems and the short ones—were written after I moved to California. A lot of them felt (still do) dependent on accumulated, newer habits of life here and the landscape of the neighborhood I’ve lived in now for six years. I remember there was this whole span of time that a Safeway was knocked down—only to be rebuilt—and while it was under construction, the view up Claremont Avenue was a daily, stunning reminder of the forms of the earth. After living in the Midwest for ten years, writing against the jagged backdrop of the state of California changed the possibilities of my relationship to form. Also: time, the body, the city, and reading. But form first.