About the Author:
Amanda Nadelberg is the author of Isa the Truck Named Isadore, winner of the 2005 Slope Editions Book Prize, and a chapbook, Building Castles in Spain, Getting Married, published by the Song Cave. A recipient of grants from the Fund for Poetry and the Iowa Arts Council, she is a graduate of Carleton College and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was awarded a Truman Capote Fellowship and a Teaching-Writing Fellowship. Bright Brave Phenomena is her second book of poems. She lives in the Bay Area.
On Bright Brave Phenomena: Geoffrey Hilsabeck and Amanda Nadelberg in discussion.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: So, I think we’re ready to start. We have our chocolate cake and—
Amanda Nadelberg: Coffee.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: Coffee. And your coffee mug has a mustache on it. And Kraftwerk is playing Autobahn which seems appropriate for talking about your poems.
Amanda Nadelberg: And raceways.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: Yes. That’s on here?
Amanda Nadelberg: Yes.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: I just want to start by saying how much I like the poems and how much I enjoyed reading them and I want to thank you for the poems. I do have a lot of questions.
Amanda Nadelberg: (laughter)
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: What’s so funny about that?
Amanda Nadelberg: Go on.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: Maybe we should introduce ourselves. So. I’m Amanda Nadelberg.
Amanda Nadelberg: And I’m Geoff Hilsabeck.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: So, question number one:so if I understand you these poems are invitations to the party that is your mind. But that’s not the question yet. It’s not like any party you’ve ever been to, though, and it isn’t always fun. It’s always interesting but it isn’t always fun. There are rooms that are off-limits. Rooms, as you say, that “have been closed forever.” But it is a party and the reader still goes to parties in the evening. You’re welcome! Does that seem like a fair description of the poems?
Amanda Nadelberg: Sure, I like the idea of the potential fun that would hopefully happen at parties though there are also terrible parties that people go to.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: I didn’t mean to imply that the poems are simply fun. It’s just that you reference parties a lot in there.
Amanda Nadelberg: Yeah, that’s true.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: I want to ask about the epigraph, which I love. I feel it captures something essential about the poems. It’s by a fashion designer who makes dresses to go to such parties. And it’s plainspoken in the way that the music of the poems is sort of plainspoken also, and idiomatic. But most importantly, it describes absence, which I found to be a sort of dominant theme in the poems, a lot of descriptions of absence in the poems. So I wonder if you could say a little about the relationship between the epigraph and the poems, why you chose that epigraph, how you chose it, and where you found it.
Amanda Nadelberg: Great question, thanks, Geoff—
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: I’m Amanda.
Amanda Nadelberg: Ha, OK. I found the epigraph while watching a television program on MTV called The City which follows a young woman named Whitney, and it chronicles her work life in New York and she interns—or works—at Diane Von Furstenberg and gets to have some one on one contact with the designer (while also struggling in her off hours to create her own fashion brand!). And so Diane Von Furstenberg says this thing in an episode of The City offering Whitney some love advice. And when I watched that ten seconds in which that was said I found myself needing to hear it over and over again. And what I love about it is that there’s something so mistaken in the way that the . . . I’m just going to read it so I can say what I really mean. She says: “Absence is to love what the wind is to fire. When it’s a small fire, the wind kills it, but when it’s a real fire it intensifies it. So the absence should do that.” And when I first heard it I just thought it was so remarkable and it felt right and strange, it felt good to hear someone say that. But when I later wrote it down, (I held onto it for a long time before I really knew what to do with it—I kept it taped up by my desk lamp, kind of as a totem pole for a lot of the time while I was writing this book) I think what I loved most about it, aside from the fact that it obviously talks about love and fire and wind and absence, as you pointed out, what really kills me most is the “what—it—it—it—it—that” and how those words accomplish these small but important sense-pivots. And I know that in dispensing advice DFV is trying to succinctly describe something but because of those empty/easily-replaceable words, I feel wonderfully disoriented in that kind of logic. That’s what I can say about that.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: Yeah, nice. It’s nice too, now, to have the image of it being tacked on your wall as you’re writing the poems because the poems are so intimate and this epigraph is sort of tacked onto the collection, guiding it. So here’s a few lines from the collection that I really love: “I am dirty, / I am dirty this morning, up in the mud / all night. My ears and their new parts.” And that’s from the poem “Powerage.” I love it. I think it captures some of the crazy metamorphic trace-inducing energy of the poems. The speaker is somehow human, animal and god, I think, in those few lines. Or, maybe: animal, vegetable and mineral. But it’s touching and it’s honest and it’s a little frightened and it takes me to the barn and the bedroom. My question is; what are the ears’ new parts?
Amanda Nadelberg: That’s a good question. Something changed very much in my poems when I started listening to some new music a few years ago and this poem is written after AC/DC. This is one of the earliest poems in the collection—I think I started it 4 years ago. Some friends had introduced me to the music of AC/DC and I started listening to it and I felt really excited about the pithiness and the frankness and the grossness of that music, and I loved how it felt to listen to it very loud. But also something happened regarding those new cadences of that music in particular, and also this one song that I couldn’t stop playing that winter. (It’s by White Williams and it’s called “Violator.”) I started writing “Powerage” while thinking about AC/DC and listening to that other song, and then kept listening to “Violator” and something felt very mechanically different about what I was doing and what sentences lengths and cadences and durations I wanted to be using in these poems. And I think that’s because of a slightly obsessive but also just very direct repetition of listening to songs while trying to endure the time it takes to finish a poem. Which was also really interesting because before I wrote this poem I’d never really written anything long, this was one of the longest poems I’d ever written.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: So the song provides a formal constraint for the poem in a way?
Amanda Nadelberg: It did, but partly by accident. I didn’t set out with that constraint in mind, it just happened. And the first four or so stanzas were written very quickly while listening to the song and then I stopped, and thought about what I’d done, and showed it to a friend who said “keep going, keep going with this” and then to try to figure out how to re-enter that space I just started listening to that song again (a lot of times) until I thought I had finished the poem. Yes, so it was a kind of invisible constraint while writing. And by “invisible” I mean that I fell into a constraint and a pattern, and it had less to do with the lyrics or the singer himself but very much to do with encountering a new music.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: Mmm. So, I was thinking about how much nostalgia is in the poems, but nostalgia isn’t even the right word because it’s more powerful than that. There’s a powerful sense of something having been lost and you’re not at all shy about that and it’s foregrounded in the titles, for example “The Moon Went Away,” “You Were Shoveling Snow…,” and
“Instantly I Was Love.” What comes out of that absence is almost a sadness that is quite present in a lot of the poems. At one point you talk about a sadness that you let be spread across you, and the image is of jam, and that sadness mixes with desire so we have “love and sorrow floating like a cactus tree” through every poem. It’s quite a potent mix and you describe it as creating a floating motion rather than a forward motion. The poems do appear to move quite a bit and with great energy but in fact they kind of float in a way, and we float with them. And the “we” becomes “I” becomes “you” becomes “they” because, as you say in another poem, “All we have is pronouns.”
I’m wondering if you can talk a little about this issue of getting from A to B to C in your poem, I mean, obviously that’s kind of a creative problem when writing poetry: how do you get from one idea to the next?
Amanda Nadelberg: To begin, when I started writing these poems it was also because a friend had said to me “Don’t write another project”—my first book was a project and a second thingy I wrote was a project and after that I wanted the challenge of not writing something with any kind of formula or complete set of rules at the start. And I was so afraid, I think, of having anything be cohesive to a larger model that I even refused to write any one particular thing as a whole for a long while.
I had been collecting these little lines and scraps in a shoebox. And at a certain point I realized it was time to try to put some of them together, so the act of writing a poem became almost an editing in and of itself, a sewing together of disparate pieces over a connected period of time that all somehow felt more connected because of a floating feeling, an emotional floating. So when I started piecing them together I’d often start with some real-time writing to either begin a poem and to see how or if these pieces would fit in with each other, or I’d write something in the middle or the end. So, really the poems are disparate pieces that were sewed back into chronological or emotional line-neighbors.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: Would you call it collage?
Amanda Nadelberg: I might. I should also say that any disruption (which often finds itself prevalent within some of these poems) is done in real-time writing and out of a pull toward interruption, not necessarily from collage, though that’s also true that an instance of collage might feed an interruption or juxtaposition.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: Why do you like interruption?
Amanda Nadelberg: I think it’s a comfortable way that my brain and my mother’s brain work. My father is often admonishing one or the both of us to finish our sentences—we rarely do. I think in real life it’s hard for me to think cohesively which then is interesting (sometimes) as it relates to poetry. I mean, that stuff works better in poetry than when you need to tell an alien how to make a peanut butter sandwich.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: Let’s talk about Eric Rohmer. You mention him in the acknowledgements and then there’s “Poem from Claire’s Knee.” I’d like to hear you talk about movies, as someone who likes movies. (Though I don’t like those particular movies.)
Amanda Nadelberg: I’ve always liked movies and I had been watching a lot of French ones before and in the midst of writing these poems. And then our mutual friend Ben had me watch La Collectionneuse and I just loved it so much. I borrowed some other Rohmer films from him and found them beautiful and surprising that the things I was thinking about in my own life felt very familiar in his movies—these stories about the terrible things that people do and the mistakes that are made through the honesty in his films. So I watched Claire’s Knee and wrote that poem shortly afterwards and then I found myself watching it again very soon after that and that subsequent time, I kept a notebook out and wrote notes which immediately became “Another Interpretation.” It was written through and toward the movie but also at myself and the lives around me. These (I call them movie poems) took a very long time to write. Well, that’s not quite right. They took a short time to write in that they were written in one sitting while watching a two-hour movie, but they took a long time because I kept pushing the pause button so I could jot down chicken scratch to things I was hearing or seeing or saying to myself during the experience.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: So what did you get from Rohmer?
Amanda Nadelberg: I was amazed that something felt so true to me that was made very far away and 40-something years ago. I was interested in the mistakes and interpersonal relationships that Rohmer’s movies tend to focus on. It was very exciting and special to have this background, and to look at something while thinking. I mean, poetry can’t really do that, right? Like nobody’s book does that except for Tom Phillips’ A Humument. There is so rarely a striking or overpowering visual component (in color!) that coincides with a text.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: Well Claire’s Knee, there’s a lot of quiet time in it, right? I mean it’s very visual—speedboats going away and someone’s climbing a ladder—
Amanda Nadelberg: It’s quiet, but there’s also these fantastic displays of houses and wallpaper and oftentimes, when we’re outside, Rohmer somehow makes the natural world appear as the most vivid and incredible backdrop behind people saying the most ordinary things. I adore that. And the natural world (which I was already kind of obsessing about in the language of the other poems in the book) of these movies looked almost like an imaginary bed sheet hung to depict a most beautiful “nature scene” backdrop. And I love that use of the background as a character in his films. I mean you can’t not notice it. I love it as much as I love the wallpaper featured so often in scenes inside the houses.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: Sometimes the poems seem to crave a kind of slippery existence, as with the pronouns earlier: one elides, one becomes the other. And in the poem “Recommendation or Decision” you say “in this world you are what you want / to be” and you break the line after “want” so the line seems to imply that desire shapes us as much as we shape it. You are what you want. You are whatever that desire is. Or you are what you want to be. Other times, like in the poem “Muddy Feet Danced on This Table” things slip out of their true form, so there’s this great, funny, weird thing that happens, in that poem, where the bird flies into the forest and becomes broccoli. I kind of understand that in this context that is a kind of unwilled change—because why would a bird want to change into broccoli? And still, other times, they reject the slipperiness altogether and they say: things just are what they are and they don’t really change. So you say in the broccoli poem, “You’re just a person in California.” You’re just a boring dumb human being in a single individual place and that’s it, you don’t really change. So, Oracle . . . which is it?
Amanda Nadelberg: I think this is the part where I’m supposed to answer D, all of the above. Because I think these poems have a tendency toward a kind of obstinacy and a kind of determination but also I’m very much in love with the logic of 2+3=4 and that comes in, I believe, where the bird and broccoli are one. And so that’s just as important as some sort of blatant or rampant repetition of an idea, whether that’s a repetition of life or of some re-experiencing of art. There’s a real stubbornness in that I started repeating things, almost aggressive repetition, within the poems. Like I stopped caring if I’d said “moon” already. Or river or ocean or mountain or lipstick or any of a number of particular colors. There’s a whole word universe that this book belongs to. Record players. Sneakers. Telephones.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: Is there anything you’re ashamed of in the book?
Amanda Nadelberg: I’d really like to say no. I remember that in my first book there are poems that I have never read aloud and not because they don’t belong there but because I’m ashamed to read them aloud. And I had this idea after that book that in a future collection I’d like to say I’d not be embarrassed to read any poem out loud. And while this book probably has a lot more naked honesty it’s also very important to me how much honesty we can access through a kind of imagination. So a lot of things that are said in this book are very much made up even if they sound like they could be true.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: Is there anything you’re particularly proud of?
Amanda Nadelberg: Err . . . next question!
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: I really love the poem near the end “A Long Time Ago in the U.S.A.” and I think it’s really like a bravura performance. I’m a little weary about asking a question about it because it ends “If after all of this you’re still wondering you must not have listened to the bravery, the electric things I kept losing.” But I did listen but I’m still curious, who is Henry?
Amanda Nadelberg: This poem has the oldest elements in the book. Henry was a boy I was standing behind, a number of years ago, on the security line at the airport. I was traveling home to Massachusetts and he was saying good-bye to his parents and it seemed like he was going off to work for the summer. I saw his ticket and I saw his name was Henry Brown and he was going away to Alaska for some time and it was a very touching thing to see him say good-bye to his parents. For days after I kept thinking of him and imagining what else was going on and I took some of that wonder with me on my own trip home. What’s interesting is that while I worked on this poem on and off for years, I never knew how to finish it and when I came across it again a couple months after I’d completed Bright Brave Phenomena, I was able to look at this poem and fix it and make it belong to this group of poems.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: So Henry is just Henry Brown of Minneapolis, MN.
Amanda Nadelberg: I actually had an idea he was from Wisconsin maybe. As I moved beyond the singular experience of that particular day in the Minneapolis airport, he came to stand in for other things. So that feels very true to what I was just saying before about a kind of honesty. I am fascinated by what imaginary things we can make as honest as possible or make seem as true for others in the same faraway way that those Rohmer movies felt very true for me, even though they were not my story or my time.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: So you imagine this life for Henry.
Amanda Nadelberg: A little bit.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck: But that is somehow an act of kindness? I guess for him and for you? And that extends this relationship that is very fleeting in a typical modern setting, an airport where you see all these people and you don’t really know anything about them.
Amanda Nadelberg: Yes. That also used to be very much a mode for me when I was younger. I remember feeling that poetic moment, like witnessing something that had to happen around me before I could write. So it’s also interesting to think how now, those moments, when they do happen—and they’re very, very rare—how they almost mean so much more than they did when they were my only way into a poem. There is so little control or pro-active measures plausible in that kind of process. I don’t mind when it happens these days, but I don’t like to rely on it.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck received his MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop in 2009. He is the author of the chapbooks The Keepers of Secrets (The Kenyon Review) and Vaudeville (The Song Cave). His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in 6×6; Forklift, Ohio; We Are So Happy to Know Something; and Propeller.