portrait Amy King

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 164 ~ January, 2011

Amy King is the author of I’m the Man Who Loves You and Antidotes for an Alibi, both from Blazevox Books, The People Instruments (Pavement Saw Press), Kiss Me With the Mouth of Your Country (Dusie Press), and most recently, Slaves to Do These Things (Blazevox). I Want to Make You Safe is forthcoming from Litmus Press, 2011.

King teaches English and Creative Writing at SUNY Nassau Community College, located in Huntington, Long Island. Her poems have been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes, and she has been the recipient of a MacArthur Scholarship for Poetry. She was also the 2007 Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere.

In addition to organizing “The Count” and interviews for VIDA: Woman in Literary Arts, King edits the Poetics List, sponsored by The Electronic Poetry Center (SUNY-Buffalo/University of Pennsylvania). She also moderates the Women’s Poetry Listserv (WOMPO) and the Goodreads Poetry! Group.

King is currently preparing a book of interviews with the poet, Ron Padgett, and is also co-editing Poets for Living Waters with Heidi Lynn Staples and Esque Magazine with Ana Bozicevic. She also founded and curated the Brooklyn-based reading series, The Stain of Poetry, from 2006 until 2010.


Derek Alger: You were fortunate to run into a perceptive teacher in high school.

Amy King: My English teacher Carolyn Benfer rescued me in a number of ways. I left home at 17, had just begun my senior year of high school and was focused on Surviving. A job closing McDonalds and one working for the Department of Defense, vocational studies in Accounting, and serious lack of sleep didn’t exactly draw out my creative proclivities. But she did. First, she encouraged me to enter an essay in a citywide Black History Month contest, and later encouraged me to write a short story for the Baltimore Artscape contest that year. Lucille Clifton judged, selected my story, and then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke delivered my award in public at the courthouse, complete with monetary perk. The essay also won, among others. Ms. Benfer took me to the Channel 2 station herself, where popular news anchor Beverly Burke greeted and gave out, on the 6 o’clock news, the awards.

DA: Do you remember your feelings at the time?

AK: Encouraged, though uncertain about the possibilities of the creative arts. Even in my early college days, my schedule reflected Accounting classes and other surefire means for making money. That mode still sticks in my craw today.

But especially back then, my psyche brewed with a mix of anger and possibility. Anger for the past and issues I hadn’t resolved, primarily familial ones, and the possibility that came with escape from circumstance (true life Dickens’ tale!) as well as that which accompanies discovery, particularly as I explored the arts.

Literature classes opened onto new worlds, including Gertrude Stein, who thrilled and confounded, as did later friends who were filmmakers, activists and mixed media artists. I had never met such beings in my childhood and was enthralled with how much potential they felt, how free they seemed, the odd things they made and the mediums they used to explore and validate their ideas. I sought out and got to play in the land of art, resisted through the world of protests and political actions, and generally talked with peers who made me feel like I could make things, even out of words.

DA: You decided to continue on to graduate school.

AK: I needed to leave Baltimore. I applied to exactly two grad schools and went to the closest one that accepted me: SUNY Buffalo. I knew nothing of their Poetics program, though I had to choose a discipline to work through (having entered through American Studies), and that was the one. My idea was to find a female poet teaching in the program. I looked in the catalog, went to the English Department and, following the first woman who looked like a professor down the hallway, stopped her and asked, “Are you Susan Howe?” She was and right there agreed to work independently with me. Lucky coincidence. Progressively, I took classes with Charles Bernstein, Carl Dennis, Irving Feldman, Masani Alexis DeVeaux, among other thinking individuals who made me think.

DA: You also gained valuable experience in the working world.

AK: Aside from student loans, I needed cash. I had no family, no money, nada. So I worked at jobs I enjoyed. Again, luck. For three years, I worked as a residence counselor at a home for learning disabled adults. One learns patience in such circumstance, but also empathy. I mean, I entered someone’s home on a daily basis and was expected to help the residents in their domestic setting, advocate for them on appointments, and aid them in their work lives. As in any situation, I disliked some and really loved others. Even felt tepid towards a few, but protective. Such is life. But the thing that struck and stuck was recognizing the person in the diagnosis. Because the first thing you learn is a file for each resident. What code they’re on. What meds they take. What their diagnoses are. They’re labeled from jump.

So I learned that Mike had a head trauma that left him partially paralyzed with negligent short-term memory. He was on yellow code by default of his limitations. Paul had sexual proclivities that were illegal when actualized. He was on red code. Cory was overweight, had epilepsy and subsequent health issues but was on green code. And so the list goes for 12 – 14 residents at a time. What you don’t realize is that Michael is hilarious and sassy when he wants his way. He also croons oldies when he’s feeling fine. Paul can charm, talk politics, help other residents at will, and has an array of generous facets the ‘sexual deviant’ label masks. On the flip with his green code status, Cory would fondle Lynn if left alone in a room long enough.

I enjoyed my time at the home, navigating through with so many people who were also learning how to live in close proximity to any number of others. Hell, people without such diagnoses would have issues living in such close quarters. The people in whose home I worked did well to get along most of the time, interact and sometimes even enjoy the company — and not hate the revolving roster of counselors that changed on a regular basis. I don’t like when a substitute delivery guy leaves my boxes in the wrong spot, let alone when twelve people occupy the three bathrooms in the house.

DA: Was that the only job that sticks out?

AK: Oh, I thrilled to my job as a medical secretary in Labor & Delivery at Children’s Hospital in Buffalo. I’m not sure I should have, but I did. It was a high-risk hospital, so we saw lots of patients, had loads of resident doctors rotating through, and heralded many long-term reputable docs. The nurses were maybe the best, though. Once in, they made a career of it. They were like a family, with loads of seniority, and I learned a lot just from hanging out, listening in. They had means for resisting bad calls doctors made; they compared notes and knew which docs were the real deal. Sometimes they seemed to know more than anyone else on the floor. And overall, the nurses were the most empathetic and attentive group – consistently – with the patients on that floor. Just observing them was an experiential pleasure.

DA: And after Buffalo?

AK: I stayed a year longer than my studies required. Then the question: Atlanta or New York City? If Atlanta, then likely never NYC. But if NYC, then easy right turn to Atlanta. So I left with a then-friend for Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the midst of what seemed like a mass exodus of others from Buffalo to Brooklyn. Utne Reader also about that time declared my new neighborhood the hip spot to move to. That ruined it later (see cost of ‘artist’ lofts from 13 years ago to now).

The city thrilled, though. I loved the energy, the vastness, the arts in spades, the various accents, the dirt, the clash of unplanned architecture, how scenesters eclipsed but artists could be found on the right beer swilling night in some seedy, cheap bar, etc. I loved it. I’m sure everyone has their ‘back in the day’ NYC stories, but they’re real regardless of the numbers. ‘Back in my day’ Williamsburg was still not quite gentrified and things were still affordable if one worked a regular day job. I think I started my first one at the official Olympic film company making 26K per year, a ton of money to me then. I got to dress as I saw fit, leave by five, and hit the streets for shows and chats and parties and the like, taking it all in on the nightly. I didn’t bother with the poetry scene for years and lost touch with a number of Buffalo people. The explorations took me elsewhere, again, to film and video and music. I needed that after the ‘closeness’ of the Buffalo program.

DA: The poetic voice was still calling.

AK: Yes, in fact, I didn’t feel like I wrote as much as I wanted in Buffalo. The program there offered lots of theory and I was likely a little too preoccupied with full time work as well as being too naive to engage as deeply as I would liked to have in retrospect. I observed, listened in and learned, though. I still wanted to write once in NYC, but again because I was working full time, felt that I needed structured time and more instruction. MFA programs suddenly had appeal and not in the “I want to get one and teach” way, but in the “class time with knowledgeable instructors giving advice” way. So I kept working and got into Brooklyn College and the New School. I couldn’t decide, so I went to both simultaneously one semester while still working my full time gig. It turned out that Brooklyn College – then – offered more in the way of community feel and also had independent study each semester built in. The New School didn’t. I carried on at Brooklyn with the benefit of a much, much cheaper bill.

DA: Did you find yourself concentrating on any special form of poetry?

AK: My Buffalo upbringing held sway still, so I played at the political value of language but was also drawn to a variety: New York School, confessional, etc. I realized, though, despite the usually commercial push to ‘find a voice,’ that I needn’t align myself with any label. With that recognition in place, I continue to explore and write by whatever means feel appropriate for my aims or circumstantial predilections.

DA: You’ve been lucky to meet and study with many exceptional, as well as encouraging, writers and poets.

AK: Yes, I’ve studied under, met and even sought out some poets of wonder like the ever-encouraging Elaine Equi, the multifaceted and motivating Ron Padgett, the friendly genius Tomaz Salamun, and just too many to note, including poets who are my peers in years, and poets on the page or through the Internet I’ve not come face to face with yet.

DA: You eventually found the right teaching position.

AK: I wasn’t actually looking to teach. I worked for an ESL school in Manhattan and enjoyed a good bit of the job, including the international travel. However, the wages hurt as the cost of living rose over the years. After teaching adjunct at Brooklyn College, I decided to throw out a few CVs and wait for them to land. I got a call on the first one I sent. At the interview, I had nothing to lose, figuring this was my first try and would be good practice. I’m still at Nassau Community College in Long Island eight years later and also teach adjunct in Queens. When I got tenure, I moved to Huntington, LI, Walt Whitman’s birthplace. My courses range from basic comp classes to Film & Lit, Modern American Poetry, various creative writing courses, etc. The variety each semester, plus the more relaxed setting complete with trees and room to run around, keeps me happy out here. I never thought I would give up my Brooklyn street cred, but I’m faring rather well amongst the birds by the beach now. My more rural southern roots are showing.

DA: You also teach Introduction to Children’s Literature.

AK: That, too, was a fluke. I was asked to cover an empty section when I first started, so I made a go of it. I studied and read and tried out a couple of different standard textbooks and finally found my own way into this course. Through trial and error, I’ve managed to fashion a curriculum that other professors in the department have since adopted. I never would’ve thought I could teach such a course, except the more I read, the more I realized that the lines between “adult” and “children’s” literature are tenuous, flexible and sometimes meant only to protect adults. That, plus a focus on the pleasures of reading, has shaped my focus in the course.

DA: You recently embarked on a new project.

AK: Ana Bozicevic and I finally handed over the reins of our Brooklyn-based reading series, The Stain of Poetry (http://stainofpoetry.wordpress.com), to a few younger energetic NYC poets so that we could focus on other poetic endeavors such as our new magazine, Esque (http://www.esquemag.com), and our own writing. Esque was conceived as a way to get more unusual or nontraditional poetry and poetics statements into the world:

Oetry is the kitchen sink, Ifesto is everything but.

Oetry includes the texts of your native turf: poems, prose poems, verse-fragments, visual po-work. Send us especially work you thought was too strange, too out-there or in-here, a/typical, (not-)you, overly bold or bald – just too-something to send elsewhere.

Ifesto is a field for poets to lucidly engage beyond their poetry. It may include: manifestos, rants, theoretical or personal essays, half-formed statements of poetics, travelogues, music or literary or art critiques, a recurring dream. We invite you to write something especially for us: define or fracture the -etics, -eerness, -ility, -onality, -ism you write from or despite of.

Additionally, I have been working with Heidi Lynn Staples on “Poets for Living Waters” as an ongoing response to the Gulf Oil Spill and the continued fallout from Hurricane Katrina. We have readings coming up at AWP and many have happened all over the U.S. Some of these are documented on our site, http://poetsgulfcoast.wordpress.com. In addition to the activism, we’re also working with a number of people who use poetry as therapy. More info via Poets and Writers – http://www.pw.org/content/poets_act_on_oil_spill?cmnt_all=1.

Finally, I recently joined the great troupe of women known as VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts to conduct interviews with writers and point out gender imbalances in the publishing world. It has been a pleasure feeling supported and energized as we query the mechanics of publishing – http://vidaweb.org.

DA: You have been credited by many for working tirelessly promoting poetry for communities far and wide.

AK: I don’t know that I work tirelessly, but I certainly think anyone who feels entitled to critique a community they belong to should feel just as responsible for shaping that community. That is to say, if I want to see different readings or work published in the world, why should I sit around only complaining about what exists? I can use that same energy to put a little something into the world, or to change that world by asking questions and speculating on causes and solutions. The former effort birthed Stain and Esque and Poets for Living Waters, while the latter is how VIDA supports the changing face of publishing. If we don’t identify disparities and bias, then how can we ask questions? And if we don’t ask questions, how can we get folks to notice that, say, oh this major publication seems to only interview men with the occasional woman appearing in token fashion?

I do other things, too, that feel relatively minor at this point like moderating the Poetics Listserv (http://epc.buffalo.edu/poetics/welcome.html) as well as WOMPO – Women’s Poetry Listserv (http://lists.ncc.edu/scripts/wa.exe?A0=WOM-PO). This work doesn’t require much effort as I participate in these communities daily anyway. One can learn so much from just listening in, and when you have a question about poetics or women’s poetry, no Internet search engine can replicate the wealth of information the members of these communities respond with. They are truly a priceless, collective resource and, for some who live in more isolated places, a necessary consistent community of supportive writers.

Overall, what I get from this work far surpasses any tired feelings that seldom occur. I stay connected with writers by running a reading series or editing a magazine, and in the process, get to hear new work, feel envious and inspired by it and run back home to my writing desk. The work is regenerative and creative and worth the extra time I have that would likely go into watching movies if it wasn’t there to be done.