Amy Meng’s debut collection, Bridled, was selected by Jaswinder Bolina as the winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry. Her poems have appeared in publications including: Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, New England Review, Narrative Magazine, and The Offing. She is a Kundiman Fellow and poetry editor at Bodega Magazine. She currently lives in Brooklyn.
First of all, congratulations on your debut collection, Bridled! We’re so happy to feature two of your poems, “He Tells Me: Come Back When You’ve Pried Yourself Open” and “As If Time Could be Nailed to a Tree Like a Man or a Sign,” in Issue 36.1.
I love your description of Bridled: “A collection of poetry about why emotionally intelligent people enter into bad relationships.” Can you talk a bit more about this tagline? It’s great.
This is one of the elevator pitches that I use to grab people’s attention, and I’m glad it works! I think another way of describing the collection’s project is to say that it investigates how self-identity is distorted in romantic relationships. This was always a huge problem for me: no matter how busy and fulfilled I was on my own, once I was in a relationship I was incapable of balancing my own life with the beloved. It was frustrating to know this about myself and still look up at some point in every romantic relationship and find that the things that truly made me feel alive had drifted away.
I especially think of your description of Bridled in relation to your poem, “For the Women.”
There’s so much power in the word, “woman.” Women are strong as hell. Yet, there’s still so much we need to work on in discussing literature written by women, particularly literature written by women of color. Terms such as “confessional” and even “persona” have the potential to reduce women’s literature if they’re not used productively. We need to learn how to use these terms properly as well. What do you think about all this?
When I taught creative writing to college students, one of the biggest challenges for me was the reliance students had on rubrics and measurement. This reliance is trained into students over years of testing, but the result is often a fear of exploration, and refusal to occupy any space not scoped out by a rubric. I feel the same wariness about the kind of literary criticism you mean. I oppose the idea that terms like “confessional” and “persona” are negative, but I think that many people who are not broadly read or not confident readers may use these terms as for critical thought. These terms are the rubric that obscure the work, but that make the reader think they are reading.
I’m curious. What did you end up doing to help students get over their “fear of exploration?”
We played a lot of games, and they engaged in a lot of weird prompts. I tasked students in my Advanced Poetry class (where we had a full hour of time) with a multi-step exercise originated by Todd Kaneko, Assistant Professor at Grand Valley State University:
Free write for ~5 minutes about an ugly or uncomfortable moment in your life. Sharing optional.
Pare down the free write into six sentences of exactly eight words each.
Reverse the order of the sentences.
Tear up the story so each sentence is on its own strip of paper. Put all the strips in a communal pile (or two if a large class). Collage together a new 6-sentence story with sentences from the pile, using a maximum of two lines from their own story.
Students can share whichever version they want, but it is usually interesting to compare the fourth version.
A critical part of this exercise is discussing the process for students: why did you choose those particular lines for the fourth version? Why do several students choose the same line in the fourth step—what’s appealing about that line? Part of their unlearning was also my unlearning: the Iowa workshop model is an intensely flawed way of teaching creative writing to undergraduates. The model began as a way to teach graduate students who wanted to apprentice themselves to masters—it’s totally inappropriate for students who are uncomfortable with writing or very new writers.
I think a lot about the gaze in your collection—how this gaze informs the many layers of each poem. For instance, in “For the Women,” there’s a female speaker who knows “how it is to finish / a man and lie / still waiting” who watches another woman: “Your legs would have wrapped / around him here / where I’m sleeping.” And in “Good is what you become when you think someone is looking,” I love the moment where the speaker appeals to the masses: “I was watching, all of New York / was watching, and we were in thrall.” How does the gaze, both the male and female gaze, inform your study and interpretation of the line?
When I think of my own gaze, it feels obsessive and deeply internal: I want to know the inner mechanism of a person, I want to know the most private thing. There are times I wish I could stop looking at something, but my eye stays open. Beneath the fear, repulsion, anxiety of what is happening is a force that controls me. Maybe a hunger for truth, a desire to know – whatever the knowledge. Or a desire to not be lied to, to not be outside of – to have control and have enough information to at least be able to make my own mistakes.
So, what are your current obsessions (they don’t have to be poetry-related)?
I’m thinking a lot about process and motivation. I went through (and am still in the middle of) a huge dry spell in my writing. The thing people don’t tell you about publishing a first book is that you should have a second book already in the wings. So right now, I’m thinking about what motivates people and what has historically motivated me. This means I think about how fear shapes action.
And, adding on to the previous question about gaze and control, do you believe in restraint in poetry? Why or why not?
It’s important to give yourself free reign to be messy, ineloquent, and clichéd when beginning a poem. Like many other writers, I have to talk a lot to figure out what I’m actually saying. I think writers differ in how much and what ways they tidy after this initial chaos. In fact, what I see as chaos others see as creation, or the entire point of the poem. My poems ultimately tend to be more restrained, which is one thing I have to be careful of as a writer: my anxiety is that this restrictiveness is not dissimilar to being unimaginative or ungenerous.
Can you name a few poets you love? Who are you currently reading?
I’m currently reading On Immunity by Eula Biss, whose sense of structure in her writing is genius. Other poets I love include: my pressmate, E.J. Koh, as well as a few other folks with recent or forthcoming books: Jenny Xie, Ben Purkert, and Lauren Clark.
What are you currently working on? I’m so excited to hear about everything.
I’m starting work on my second collection, which is about chronic pain. I have trigeminal neuralgia, which is an intense nerve pain that intermittently affects the right side of my face. My condition is idiopathic (meaning there is no known cause), incurable, and tends to get worse over time — though luckily, I have mostly been in remission in recent years.
Millions of American adults experience some form of chronic pain. These conditions are externally invisible yet all-consuming to the sufferer; difficult to describe, yet diagnostically dependent on a patient’s description — and on a doctor’s belief in their patient.
Thank you so much for sharing, Amy. Your work is very important, and I’m really looking forward to this second collection. You’ve been such a pleasure to work with, and I love this discussion we’re having about your poetry.
Dorothy Chan is the author of Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, April 2018) and the chapbook Chinatown Sonnets (New Delta Review, 2017). She was a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship. Chan is the Assistant Editor of The Southeast Review. Visit her website at dorothypoetry.com.