Today on the blog, we have an interview with poet extraordinaire Amanda Hawkins, who is providing some insight on the industry and what got her to her success today.
Metonym: Instead of the traditional "When did you start writing?" question, let's go with something different: How old were you when you wrote a poem you were really proud of?
Amanda Hawkins: That is a great and potentially revealing question. What you’re calling pride I might reinterpret as confidence.
Writers and artists are a notoriously needy bunch; we are way too often reliant on external affirmation. I was 34 when I finished the first poem I felt like: “Yes, this is a good offering and I can be confident.” This is telling. Honestly, I believe now more than ever that following your voice and interest to its absolute end is the number one most important thing to be able to do as a creative person. Take the work as absolutely far as you can yourself. Don’t be lazy. Don’t settle. Follow it. Then and only then get feedback. I worked very closely with a poet for a couple years to get myself started, and it was invaluable and she was exactly what I needed at the time. But I couldn’t find my voice in the presence of another. It was like decorating a cake with someone looking over my shoulder. I have terrible performance anxiety, so reading on my own and pursuing solitude was a big part of finally writing the poems I could stand behind.
All that, and also: It isn’t about age. Some people are more confident. I put off attempting to publish poetry until I was 30. I actually believed no one was worth listening to until that arbitrary age. (I do not believe this anymore.) I gave in to this ridiculous idea and so put off my own artistic development because I also didn’t work very hard at writing until then. The truth is the poets in their 20’s who are publishing amazing work are doing it because they have the confidence I didn’t have until my 30’s. Imagine though what would happen if we all—at every age—believed we could have something to say and did the work required to say it well.
M: Where were you first published, and was it as affirming as you had hoped? Or, what was the most affirming publication you were part of?
AH: My first publication, was in Christianity and Literature, a peer-reviewed half-critical half-creative, faith-based journal. It was not quite as affirming as I’d hoped. Quite simply: it was a thick journal. There were many words in it, and my poem was short and hardly more than a ripple of sand on the huge sprawling beach of the publication—how could it possibly make a difference in anyone’s life!?
The reality is, the first five years of my attempts at publication—which trickled in and included mostly local non-literary magazines—was where and how publications first happened. That whole while I felt like I was on trial—like I had to be fairly dissatisfied to earn whatever “successes” would come in the future. (I cast meaning about everywhichway, it’s how I got through my days.) So, though I was dissatisfied on one level, I also felt like I was exactly where I should be.
To date, my most affirming publications have been the ones I did not seek out or expect—when an editor reads and appreciates my work and asks for more work directly. The writing life is so often lived out in solitude and a of cone of silence—even when there is chaos and even though we work with words—that it can feel like an incursion of the divine when someone actually responds. I don’t expect it. I don’t even long for it—it’s that rare.
M: Are you ever completely satisfied with a poem you write, or is there always room for improvement?
AH: I do think there is always the possibility of change—but I might not say “improvement.” When I can read a poem and every single word and punctuation is utterly in place—and when I have followed the voice down—it is done. I can let it go out to the world.
But people change. And words and meanings and insights change. So, too, with poems. It’s more like knowing an individual over time: They grow.
M: What's one piece of advice you would give to authors and poets trying to be published?
AH: I have this quote taped to the shelf above my desk. It’s the words of Michelangelo to his apprentice: “Draw, Antonio, draw. Draw and do not waste time.”
In other words: Focus on the work. Read lots, yes. But write your socks off.