Please join me in welcoming Amorak Huey to the Poetic Asides blog!
Amorak Huey, a former newspaper editor and reporter, is author of the poetry collection Ha Ha Ha Thump (Sundress, 2015) and the chapbooks The Insomniac Circus (Hyacinth Girl, 2014) and A Map of the Farm Three Miles from the End of Happy Hollow Road (Porkbelly).
He teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His poems appear in The Best American Poetry 2012, The Southern Review, The Collagist, Booth, Oxford American, Menacing Hedge, and elsewhere.
Here's a poem I really enjoyed from his collection Ha Ha Ha Thump:
The Mafia Hypothesis, by Amorak Huey
We surprise ourselves with occasional small kindnesses.
We have long assumed that our every interaction
is motivated by threat.
Loss and desire, held together by spit.
The cowbird will destroy the nest of non-cooperative birds.
The strange egg
We can get used to anything--
if you make me another mimosa, I will drink
though I have bad memories of champagne.
The value of retaliation has always been the question.
When the season turns, we will gather enough twigs and scraps
to start all this again.
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What are you currently up to?
Being a dad and husband. Teaching. Adjusting to life with a new dog in the house. Staying busy in all the usual ways, like soccer carpools and kids’ music lessons and yard work and helping with homework.
Writing wise, I have a new chapbook coming out in December from Porkbelly Press, and I’m circulating two other full-length collections. Also, Todd Kaneko and I are working on a poetry textbook and anthology that should be out in 2018 from Bloomsbury Academic. That project is consuming most of my writing energy these days, but I’m still sneaking in a few poems here and there.
I really enjoyed your full-length debut collection, Ha Ha Ha Thump. How did you go about getting that collection together?
I had written an earlier manuscript of poems about blues music and blues musicians that for a long time I truly thought would be my first book. I sent that out repeatedly—55 times over two years—and it came close several times, but never found a home. That’s probably for the best, as such things usually are in hindsight.
Anyway, while I was sending that out, I was also writing new poems, and eventually, I had a lot of them, and I put together a manuscript and started sending out that one, too. It didn’t land, either, but I kept writing poems, and eventually had so many that I split that manuscript in two, and one of those was Ha Ha Ha Thump. It went through a number of revisions along the way, and eventually Sundress took it.
When you felt the collection was ready for publishers, how did you go about getting it published?
I submitted it to lots and lots of contests and open-reading periods for presses that I respected. I would send it out for a while, then revise it and try again. It was in its fourth iteration and had been rejected about 30 times when Sundress said yes.
And I’m not sure what exactly this suggests about the whole process, but after all those contests and entry fees, I sent to Sundress because the editor, Erin Elizabeth Smith, asked me to submit to their reading period after they published one of my poems in their online journal Stirring. Which seems like how the process should work, right?
I mean, an editor takes an interest because she likes my work—in the end, it certainly felt more personal and meaningful than all those contests where the odds seems utterly stacked against you. I spent an unseemly amount of money and emotional energy chasing all those prizes, but in the end, the book found the right home.
What has the process been like working with Sundress Publications?
It has been great. Erin is a fantastic reader, editor, and advocate, and I’m grateful for all she’s done for me. Even though the manuscript had been revised and revised before I sent it, we ended up overhauling it significantly after acceptance and before it was published. Erin helped me see that how I had originally structured the book wasn’t working; it almost had a sort of shadow narrative that didn’t always hold together. But I didn’t mean for it to be a narrative, or a single speaker.
Erin helped me find the sections it has now, which I hope fight against the idea that one singular speaker runs through the book. We also deleted about a fourth of the poems from the manuscript I’d first submitted, and ended up adding several new ones. I hope it feels more thematic than narrative. To the extent that this works, Erin deserves so much credit for pushing me in that direction.
And I really like the cover, which was created and designed by Mary Ellen Knight.
Any surprises in the publication process?
Nothing really surprising—except maybe the post-publication letdown. I mean, I knew it was a thing; I’ve read enough of those first-book interviews conducted by Keith Montesano and Kate Greenstreet to have had a sense that it was coming. But still, it’s a sharper feeling than I anticipated.
Right now, just over a year after the book came out, I find myself facing a real kind of melancholy about the possibility that the book will just fade away. Which I guess is inevitable. It’s just a strange emotional space.
Currently, you teach writing at Grand Valley State University, but you’ve worked as a newspaper reporter and editor in the past. Which is more conducive for writing poetry—the newspaper or teaching business?
I certainly write a lot more now, and I am beyond grateful to have a job that not only allows for that, but encourages and demands it. I love having colleagues and students who value writing in the way I value writing. Teaching as part of a standalone writing department is a luxury I am so happy to have in my life.
However, I think my writing life could also have been fruitful were I still a working journalist. I would have had to work harder to find that writing community I have built in at GVSU, and there’s no question that my writing routines and practices would look different. But that drive to write poems—it has to come from inside the poet. I would be writing poems no matter what my professional career looked like. I completed my MFA by commuting to Western Michigan University for a number of years while also working fulltime as an assistant sports editor.
There’s never time in life for writing poems unless you decide there’s time.
You’ve been published in several publications over the years. Do you have a submission routine?
I submit a lot. I get rejected a lot. So many rejections. I started seriously submitting my work in February of 2009, and since then I’ve gotten more than 750 rejections. But also, yeah, I’ve been really lucky to have a good number of poems accepted. I’ve learned not to take the rejections personally—but also to listen to them, to be willing to accept that a poem might not be ready yet, may never be ready.
I tend to submit in spurts, but my goal is to average eight to ten submissions a month. That means I have to always be writing, and I have to always be submitting. It feels crass to be talking about this, like I’m talking about publishing in this very mercenary way, but for me, there are two steps: 1, creating art; 2, getting that art in front of an audience. The commercial/submitting side can never be more important than the creative side, but it’s important not to ignore that part of it, either.
I keep pretty careful records, tracking my submissions on Duotrope and an idiosyncratic spreadsheet. I do simultaneous submissions, but never in violation of a journal’s policy. I try to send only to journals where I like their aesthetic or the editors’ work or the poems they’ve published in the past. I no longer send to journals that publish in the Issuu format, because I hate it, but I am equally happy to have my poems appear online or in print. I try to be honest with myself about whether a poem is truly ready to send, so that my ambitious, ego-driven, validation-seeking side doesn’t overrule my poet side.
Did I answer your question? I’m not sure I have a submission routine so much as a submission philosophy.
A poet most folks don’t know about that you think is incredible—who is it?
I don’t know which poets other people know and which ones they don’t. I’ll say Catie Rosemurgy, who is certainly not unknown, but it has been six years since her second collection, The Stranger Manual, came out. I adore that book and return to it often. It teaches me something about voice and persona and narrative and music every time I read it.
If you could offer up only one tip to your fellow poets, what would it be?
Always be writing the next poem.