An interview with Amanda Earl

Amanda Earl’s visual poetry has been exhibited in Canada, Brazil and Russia, and published in the last vispo: anthology: visual poetry 1998-2008 (Fantagraphics, 2012), Of the Body, (Puddles of Sky Press, 2012), Bone Sapling, a collaboration with Gary Barwin, (AngelHousePress, 2014), a field guide to fanciful bugs, (avantacular press, 2010), Montparnasse: this is visual poetry, (chapbook publisher, 2010) and in the magazines, untethered (2017) and dreamland (2016). Amanda's visual poetry also appears in online journals, Brave New Word, Angry Old Man, Ustanga, h&, Our Teeth, otoliths, tip of the knife, ffooom, the new post literate, Logalia.com, DrunkenBoat, and the Bleed. Gary Barwin gave a lovely write up of Amanda's visual poetry on Jacket2, "What kind of [sic] sense is that?: Amanda Earl & the synaesthesia of reading" (June, 2013). For more vispo, please visit EleanorIncognito.blogspot.ca.

How did you begin writing, and what keeps you going?

I have been writing since before I could physically write. I’ve always had an imagination. I’ve always told stories. In Show and Tell in grade school, I made up a different story about the adventures of Gumby and Pokey every time. The teacher asked me to bring in something real and I didn’t know what she was talking about. The inner workings of my imagination were as real to me as stories about the shells kids picked up on summer vacation.

I have always scrawled my thoughts on whatever paper I had handy. I was in a terrible band with a friend in grade 7: neither one of us played instruments, just banged on boxes in her basement. I think we called our band, Fragile. We both wrote songs.

It wasn’t until post-university in my late 20s that I took a fiction writing workshop at Carleton University, some evening class taught by a dude who was enthralled with trains. He kept on harping on that old adage, “write what you know.” I didn’t know anything, so I stopped writing fiction. Late in my late 30s I began writing erotic fiction,  including a collection of short stories (Coming Together Presents Amanda Earl, Coming Together, New York, 2014) and a novella, A World of Yes (self-published through DevilHouse, 2015).

In my mid-thirties, going through a difficult time in my life, I searched the Internet for poetry of solace. I happened upon the poetry of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Gwendolyn MacEwen. It was the first time I ever related to any poetry I’d ever read. And the first time I understood that the scrawlings I did my whole life could be called poetry. I took a creative writing workshop at the University of Ottawa where I learned how to edit my work and made friends with fellow writers.

I couldn’t stop writing even if I wanted to. It’s like breathing for me. I just do it. But I’ve never aspired to be “a writer” or “a poet.”

Three things keep me going: 1. the need to play and stretch my imagination (whimsy); 2. the need to learn and discover (exploration); 3. the need to connect with like-minded people in the hopes that fellow misfits will know that they are not alone (connection).

Have you noticed a difference in the ways in which you approach the individual poem, now that you’ve published a handful of chapbooks, as well as a full-length collection?

I’ve rarely been a one-off poem writer. I write long poems or poem series that are between 20 and 100 pages long.  

The Vispo Bible is a life’s work I may never finish. Writing long poems and poem series is just how I work. I’ve no idea why.  I have a lot of unpublished long poem manuscripts that don’t fit into any kind of mainstream publishing protocol. Even I haven’t figured out how to publish them or I’d self-publish them.

I serve the work. I write and create what needs to be done for the work to be created. I’m not great at fitting the work into some prescribed publishing medium.

Given you work in text and visual mediums, how do the two sides of your writing interact? How did you begin with visual poems at all?

Gary Barwin curated an interesting series in Jacket Two about reading visual poetry in which he wrote about and interviewed a bunch of visual poets, including me. He wrote about  how visual poetry was a kind of borderblur, how you can read it by first looking. I agree with that. Visual poetry takes into account both the text and negative space, the whole shape of what is presented on the page or screen.

Visual poetry to me slows down the acts of reading and understanding text. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the written word, big blocks of text. I began working with individual letters to slow things down, to interact more with the individual parts.

Around 2005, I started to learn about visual poetry from various list serves I was on for poetry and connections I made through rob mclennan’s above/ground press, one of whom was renaissance man and visual poet, Dan Waber who had a site where a bunch of us visual poets posted our stuff.  From there and other sources I became fascinated by the visual poetry of derek beaulieu, Judith Copithorne, Satu Kaikkonen, Márton Koppány and Gary Barwin, its shapes and in the case of Barwin and Copithorne, the colour they used in their work.

I have grapheme synaesthesia which in my case means numbers, the alphabet, people’s names, days of the month and the week, and pain evoke colour for me. I wanted to try to articulate this connection. MS Paint was included as part of the Microsoft bundle and I started to play with it. Then I got access to Photoshop and I started to go beyond the individual letter to words, to quotes from famous writers to the Bible.

In 2014, after Kiki was published, I took the first section, “Alice” and turned it into a vispo series called “Kiki in Wonderland” which I self-published through AngelHousePress in a limited edition of 26 copies. It was cathartic for me to turn my own words into shapes and take away the arbitrary connection between words that I had, in a way, forced into being, even though several of the sections of the book were actually cut-ups from books and films from the era between the Wars.

Visual poetry helps me to resist the predictable subject verb object arrangement of text that often tires me and bores me. I feel hemmed in by this need to conform. When I’m feeling bored by my writing in this way, I play with the letters to turn them into something fun and moving that breaks away from convention.

How has the process of putting together a manuscript evolved? How do you decide on the shape and size of a manuscript?

I don’t decide. The work decides. Many chapbooks I’ve had published are excerpts from longer manuscripts. Or in some cases the work is a response to something someone else has created, in which case I’ll model the length and shape on theirs, such as Robert Kroetsch’s long poem, The Sad Phoenician. I wrote The Sad Phoenician’s Other Woman (above/ground press, 2008) after reading it. I wrote it while I had a fever in the middle of winter. I wrote the draft in 48 hours. He used the alphabet and the conjunctions “and” and “but” to structure his poem, so I did too.

What poets have influenced the ways in which you write?

Gwendolyn MacEwen, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton were my first influences in my early thirties for dark imagery and myth.

Robert Kroetsch and Dennis Cooley made me love the long poem format.

Nathanaël for l’entregenre or the hybrid form.

Anne Carson for the poem-essay.

Sandra Ridley for poem fragments and prose poems.

Christine McNair for the mesmerizing and incantatory accumulation poems.

As mentioned above, Barwin, Koppány, Kaikkonen and Copithorne for colour and concepts in vispo.

And most recently Alice Notley for the anti-epic The Descent of Alette. Nicola Winborn and Dawn Nelson Wardrope whose art/vispo combos are exciting and imaginative.

Dona Mayoora’s asemic writing and numerous works published by Timglaset Editions in Sweden run by Joakim Norling have been a great influence as have presses run by Sacha Archer (Simulacrum Press), derek beaulieu (no press), Kyle Flemmer (the Blasted Tree), psw. Not individual poets, I know, so kind of going beyond your question, but the thing about visual poetry is that sometimes the style of it is cultivated within a particular small publishing house, so it’s important to mention the publisher as well as individual poets.

You are editor/publisher of AngelHousePress, and managing editor of Bywords.ca. Why do you feel this work is important, and what have you learned through the process?

I began as the managing editor of Bywords.ca in 2003, when I was only starting to get my own poetry published. I had the chance to read a lot of poetry by both established and emerging poets. This gave me an objectivity about what makes effective and not so effective poetry. It showed me where I was going wrong in my own work by allowing me to see how similar techniques I was trying were being used well or poorly by others.

Bywords.ca exists specifically to promote Ottawa’s literary scene and to publish those with a connection to the City. I wanted to do this because Ottawa writers often get less attention than they should, and because Ottawa is often mistakenly viewed as a place where nothing happens. In fact, our cultural scene thrives, despite there being no Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing programs at our universities, the lower number of grant opportunities as many other cities, and our lack of established book publishers here any more. (Chaudiere Books ended recently, Oberon and Buschek Books a few years ago.)

Bywords linked me to Ottawa’s literary community. I’ve made great friends here, and while I don’t often like to work with others, I’m part of a team of dedicated volunteers who I enjoy interacting with. I am proud of the work we’ve done, not just in publishing and promoting Ottawans and former Ottawans, but also in giving back to the community through fundraisers for the Cornerstone Women’s Shelter, Access Word Ottawa: a guide to accessible literary, storytelling, spoken word and non fiction venues and other initiatives. Through my work with Bywords I have learned that a writer doesn’t work in isolation and that it takes a lot to create an environment where writers can create and share their work. I want to help cultivate a welcoming and helpful environment as much as possible.

AngelHousePress is different in some ways, although it is also community minded. I decided to start the press in 2007 and was primarily thinking about publishing my own works in colour that I knew publishers couldn’t afford to publish, but if I did it in limited editions of 26 copies as wee chapbooks, my husband and I could afford to publish it.

Then I joined a great writing workshop group with poetry pals, Roland Prevost, Marcus McCann, Pearl Pirie, Nicholas Lea and Sandra Ridley. We wanted to publish our work as chapbooks. At first the press remained Ottawa-focused, but I really wanted to do something that was different from what Bywords was doing and I was starting to get involved in both the visual poetry and literary communities outside of my small circle.

As my writing changed through the various influences I’ve mentioned, I started to notice that a lot of the type of writing I was interested in wasn’t published that much in mainstream literary Canada, and much of it was being published online by individuals in blogs and eventually on FaceBook or in self-published in chapbooks and zines that I discovered at the Ottawa Small Press Book Fair, at Montreal’s Expozine and at the Toronto Small Press Book Fair and Meet the Presses. I loved what they did and wanted to publish it and support it.

I started to ask for work, and I received poetry manuscripts mostly from men. I began a close reading service for new women poets so that I could help them gain confidence and submit more of their work. The service lasted for about a year and a half and I enjoyed the opportunity to read work by over a dozen poets and then see their work get published increasingly.

The big thing that I’ve learned in volunteering for both Bywords.ca and AngelHousePress is that you get a lot by giving. I’ve met some amazing and creative folk and my own work has been inspired by the interaction and the work they’ve produced.

How important has mentorship been to your work? Is there anyone who specifically assisted your development as a writer?

I’ve been both mentored and acted as a mentor. I see it as quite important. There are a lot of negative voices out there. I recently turned down an invitation to submit work to a magazine that had the word “war” in the title. A lot of people want to pit poets against one another, to create a hostile environment, and I’m not sure why. I’m not interested in that. I admire all kinds of different styles of creating and I want to contribute positively. I don’t believe that insulting people or putting them down makes anyone a better person or a superior poet.

To have someone you can turn to for guidance, to help you learn where to submit, how to submit, to figure out who to read and to inspire you is essential in my opinion. Whatever field you’re working in.

I was fortunate to have taken a lot of poetry workshops, starting in my mid-30s from various writers. I took several of rob mclennan’s workshops and he and I became great friends. He’s introduced me to writers I would have never had heard of by suggesting writers who were doing work similar to the poems I was attempting. He’s published me quite a bit and he’s sent along calls for submissions that might fit with what I’m doing. He’s always taken a great interest in my work. And I think if you asked, a lot of folks would say he’s done the same for them.

What are you currently working on?

I’m editing a manuscript of long poems about the health crisis I had in 2009. It’s called Beast Body Epic.

I’m adapting a long poem into an experimental novella (Sessions from the Dream House Aria).

I continue to work on the Vispo Bible. Currently working on Deuteronomy from the Old Testament.

I’m making books of whimsy that combine my imagination, doodles, visual poetry, collage, watercolour and acrylic paint, markers and glue for friends and strangers. 

I’m not working on my novel; however the characters are getting upset with me.

Can you name a poet you think should be receiving more attention?

Ariel Dawn, a BC poet who has a wonderful poetry novella manuscript. Her work has appeared in Train.

Judith Copithorne, who turned 80 this year, has contributed greatly to visual poetry since the 1960s and is still making great visual poetry and sharing it on FaceBook and in galleries.

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