All I knew about Amy Pence, when I asked her to participate in this interview, was what I’d gathered from reading and reviewing her most recent book, [It] Incandescent. My review was impressionistic, glowing, and confused, because that was how the book made me feel. It reworks the words and life of Emily Dickinson into a series of poems that defy genre entirely: a rare creature that alchemizes biography, poetry, memory (though not necessarily memoir), text design, fiction, and neologistic punctuation.
I learned from interviewing her that Pence is quick, thoughtful, and gimlet-eyed—all characteristics she shares with her work. I also learned a handful of other things I never would have known about her: what she abhors in a novel, how she feels about Instagram poets (spoiler: not good), and how she almost ran over Jonathan Safran Foer (on CD).
Tell me about your hatred of books. Do you hate certain kinds of books, certain authors, or just particular books when they come along?
I had trouble with this first question. I worried too much (obsessed?) about hurting someone’s feelings, even the feelings of a rich and famous author who would never read this. Because that’s what I do. (Worry that I’ll hurt someone’s feelings). Also, because it’s just taste and because I’m a poet, and I know there’s so little turf and so few readers. It’s difficult to slam people who are frankly just doing their best—although that’s seriously not always the case. My most recent book is a hybrid, and I’ve been branching over to fiction, so with apologies to anyone mentioned here, I may take an isolated rake at poets, but concentrate more on fiction. So…
–Books with a Beavis & Butthead heh-heh thing going (usually potty or dick humor)
–Books with footnotes to imitate David Foster Wallace
–Books by Instagram poets
–Self-pubbed books by “mystical/metaphysical” poets with misspellings (even on the cover)
–Books by celebrities are cause for concern (but then Jamie Lee Curtis wrote some fantastic children’s books that I read to my daughter when she was a kid, and Patti Smith is the bomb, so there are always exceptions).
So far I’m on board with both your hesitations and your prohibitions. Any particular examples of books you hate?
–Unfortunately, Lincoln in the Bardo lost its gleam because of the juvenile B&B aspect for me. Primarily because of the ghost with an overlarge dick, and other heh-heh characterizations of the graveyard hordes which struck me as put-downs. Sure, it was complexly written, which I admire, but the humor was appropriate for a 13-year-old, even though it wouldn’t be assigned in junior high.
I hear George Saunders was great at AWP, and I’ve seen some of his talks and read interviews. He has a lot to share about the process of writing, so, his contributions are plenty…just his “humor” very seriously undermined the book for me.
I adore Saunders, but I know you’re not the only one who was disappointed by Bardo. What else?
–Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am. I listened to this on CD, and it included: scatological sex scenes, perfunctory revelations about being a parent, parents acting like children and children wisecracking as if they were adults—also seen in most sitcoms—and a lengthy 13-year-old masturbation musing. I didn’t know when it would end. I contemplated running over all the shiny little discs at a rest stop outside of Tampa, but I’d checked them out from the library and paying for them is beyond my means.
–I’ve frankly only flipped through the best-selling Instagram poet’s book, and, well, coolish font notwithstanding, I think we called that Hallmark a few years ago, so…no thank you.
Zing! I respect this, since you’re a poet with a meticulous sense of craft. But I wonder what you think about the angle that people who would not otherwise read poetry use this poet as a gateway to more serious work.
I really can’t say, but I suspect you’re right. When I picked up and read, then set down the Instagram book in a bookstore, I was with my daughter and her friend, both 21 at the time. Her friend said of the Insta-poet, “she was only 16” (true? I didn’t verify this fact), so that could certainly be true for that age group, and shouldn’t be discounted. Music can bring us into poetry, which was the case for me, so maybe the Instas are serving the same purpose. Plus, these are poets are making serious bank. Who knew?
Are there more in-depth reasons these books bother you?
These books are about surfaces, whether an ironic surface or a superficial stab at meaning. Not so much Lincoln in the Bardo, but his pyrotechnics become surface-y and the characters suffer as a result. I went to grad school with David Foster Wallace (whom we called David or, those closer to him, Dave) and I think he was a genius, but it’s also true that he could pander, that he could go on (ahem) too long. Also 1) I’m not admitting to having finished Infinite Jest. Also 2) That leeway to follow a tangent has not been safe in the hands of those with less genius.
I couldn’t agree more. DFW is in my pantheon, and yet I can’t bear some of what he’s wrought in terms of less talented imitators.
Recently, I reread The Catcher in the Rye, and again, not a book I’d list as a fave, but the economy of that book is masterful.
The poems and books I like have many layers, are layered with language, theme, and technique. They thrive in ambiguity. I love my two Emilys: Dickinson and Brontë. Dickinson’s “Missing All” and her use of “Dark” can never be pinned down. She told us she’d tell her truth slant, 1) because she had to, and 2) because poems are rich fields of multiple meanings. And Brontë: why do we love Heathcliff? He’s a douche! But Bronte’s narrative style—her box within a box framing—the gothic interlocked coffins—LoVE!
I tend toward gothic in that way, but not entirely for the subject matter, more in terms of technique. For that reason, I was writing column poems (now called contrapuntal poems—) in the early 2000s (think about those coffins side by side!). I liked exploring the possibility of a poem being a text that could be read more than one way, and loved the project of shaping them line by line. They were routinely rejected—except by New American Writing and a few others—and I couldn’t publish anything book-length until 2012 in Armor, Amour. But now they are everywhere, which is exciting.
I admire Tyehimba Jess’s rich and complex work in Olio for that reason. Ocean Vuong also has a Dickinson way of compacting and distilling, yet thriving in ambiguity.
Do you think your dislikes have influenced your reading of other works?
Well, yes, probably. There are certain authors I’ve tried and given up on, or I just don’t read. I read The Corrections, but haven’t read any others. I’ve tried his stories, but meh, I may not read any more Saunders. I’ve read two of Foer’s books, and that’ll do.
For the record, the earlier Saunders, the better. I found Tenth of December good, but nothing like as good as Pastoralia. What about writing? Have you decided never to write about a particular subject, for example, based on a book you hated?
Masturbation is best kept to oneself—in subject matter and if that’s really just your project.
Case in point: “metaphysical” poets who misspell convergence on the back cover, for instance.
What was the last book you read that you recommend?
This last year I’ve read and recommended Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, and Ada Limon’s book of poetry Bright Dead Things. Each one is a complex undertaking of female voice and experience on this planet.
It occurs to me that aside from the Instagram and mystical poets, the books you’ve said you disliked here are all written by men. I have friends who refuse to read books by men altogether, not because they’re misandrists but because they’ve been burned too many times. Thoughts?
When I think of it, I much prefer women’s fiction to men’s fiction. Perhaps because irony figures so prominently in much male work. And that “jaunty-phony” (I’m quoting Jane Miller, my teacher at U. of A.) voice doesn’t appeal to me. So, no, I don’t avoid male writers, and I try to keep up, but I have too little time, so often go for books by women.
That said, my favorite short story is James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” and I’ve learned much from just listening to his work on audio—his verbs sing and carry us completely into the narrative, and his use of imagery is astounding. Fitzgerald’s work is razor-sharp, of course. Contemporary writers: I love Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Specimen Days as well as David Mitchell’s books (I’ve seen them take a hit elsewhere in this series, but I do like the mystical elements and the surprising time shifts).
I admire/revere many male poets as well. Jane Miller often said that irony has no place in poetry—which is entirely debatable, but my tastes run to that end. For instance, Walt Whitman was writing contemporaneously with Emily Dickinson—and Song of Myself/Leaves of Grass are stylistically her opposite, but just as complex and full of lines that are jewel-boxes to open and open again. I interviewed Li-Young Lee many years ago for Poets & Writers, and the beauty of his lyrical work cannot be dimmed by time. Other male poets that amaze: Robert Hass, Nick Flynn, Paul Guest, and Jericho Brown, especially his newer poems (in The New Yorker recently and at The Adroit Journal). I’ve already mentioned Vuong and Jess. These poets are not afraid of vulnerability and there’s no hiding. For the poet or the reader.
Do you keep books or give them away?
For most of my life, I kept books. However, I had a calamity last year. A 90 ft. tree fell through my house, destroying the front half of my house and my loft full of fiction and non-fiction. Some survived and some didn’t. I was surprised that I didn’t directly replace any of the books I lost. All my Brontës and Virginia Woolfs survived, so all good there. Jane Hirshfield’s book Nine Gates, about writing poetry and signed by that gracious poet, shows its war wounds, but I couldn’t throw it away.
When I moved across the country, I was surprised at how many books I was able to discard and not miss. Many of them were books I had to give up on believing I’d read someday.
That is true. And I take back my previous comment. I replaced one: My Antonia, because it’s fairly embarrassing that I haven’t read it, so I got it second-hand. I’m still a believer that someday there will be the perfect day for Willa Cather.
Someday. Have you ever physically thrown a book across a room?
I have, and I have a memory of doing so. But I’ve blocked out the author and the title. (Or don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings—I may have met the writer….).
What are you reading right now, and do you like it or hate it?
Poetry: Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Kaveh Akbar. Like! Just began rereading Carolyn Forché’s Blue Hour… Fiction: rereading The Odyssey. Can’t not because I’m tutoring 9th graders and that’s what they’re reading, and well, can’t not be moved. Aquatically and otherwise.