This a new series where I interview poets about their process and writing in reference to a single poem. Today we have Amanda Miller, an amazing poet who shares poems and prompts over on her Instagram Page @lemondaisypoety. One of her prompts inspired a poem that ended up in my pamphlet Refraction. Today we are discussing a brand new poem of hers.
By Amanda Miller
Inspired by Portrait by Antonio Machado
My history begins with a familiar frost, turning from the sun—
A childhood that is full of faceless wounds trapped in New York,
A grave somewhere, adorned with chaos and lost to survival.
Twenty years draped upon my grandmother’s arms,
While being spoon-fed a cloud of amnesia.
My poetry comes from a storm just passed and one not far off
Trying to capture the wind, as if to hold and to beg.
I know it too well, anyway
A feverish will to be more than, to keep catching up to myself,
— which makes writing this poem a comedy,
And the writer a tragic sovereign.
I try to swear I am good and honest, but
The mind and heart are warring countries,
To one of which I am the owner,
The other to a wild horse—
Untamed often and always to blame,
For flirtation keeps me present in the mundanity of life,
That of which breeds the seed for writing, such
I romanticize the rusting of a nail,
The storm thrashing like a bull-train
That could rip my safety raw.
This is the infinite search, nestled in my palm
Twisted in my mind. Oh, how funny…
The portrait of me.
A- This poem went through roughly 4 revisions over the course of two weeks with some feedback from my dear friend Mollie Gold. I’m pretty satisfied where it landed, it was definitely a piece that gave me a run for my money though. Doing an imitation poem can be tricky - you have to constantly remind yourself “what would I say? how would I phrase this?” instead of trying to sound like someone else.
D- What drew you to the Antonio Machado poem and make you want to write a response to it?
A- Well, at the core of it, I landed on him out of insecurity. I was reading Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, and somewhere in there she mentions Machado; I believe she mentioned him in the context of reading the poets of the past and realizing that we can connect with them much more than we think, despite our different contexts. (I like that a lot, by the way, it almost gives you permission to misunderstand them with a sense of reassurance that you ultimately will understand them.)
Anyways, I realized I had no idea who Machado was, never read a piece by him before, so as I always do, I rushed over to find a poem by him to ease my own insecurity of feeling “dumb.” Somehow I landed on his poem Portrait during my search. I had come across a few that I didn’t feel connected to, but Portrait quickly hooked me in. I often used lines that I liked as a prompt to begin the piece. For instance, the first stanza begins, “My childhood is all memories of a patio in Sevilla. In my mind, I go, “My childhood is all [fill in the blank]” and then I get started. I thought the first stanza was also unique in the way it marks time very quickly, almost like bullet points, “My childhood…My youth…My history…” This alone made me want to use the lines to dig deep into myself, to see what I would find if I tried to boil down my childhood, youth, and history, into one line each, and how I would proceed to build off of that. It’s the fact that these are huge topics, for anyone, and now I am forced to make one notable remark about them and make the rest of the piece build off of them. But Machado knew how to say a thing and make it full of complexity, and that’s what I love about writing and being a poet, of course. Machado had his dueling parts to reconcile, you see it in the line where he discusses his blood, “ripe for revolution” but his “poetry comes from some untroubled well”. I wanted to think more about my own work as a poet, what conflicts run through me and explore how I manage them, live them, and survive them. If I was going to make bullet points out of major phases of my life, I wanted to make them hold a complexity that honored them, just as Machado does.
D- Interesting, and I think you definitely capture the complexity of the original in a different way. Do you often write poems inspired by other poets? What do you think the advantages of this form are?
A- Not often, but I have done it in the past. I can only think of a handful of times and usually it has to do with feeling inspired by the unique voice or approach of that poet. The first time I did an imitation poem was in college, as an assignment. Through that experience, I learned a new way of phrasing my words in a way that I don’t think just reading would have offered me. Practicing in someone else’s style can give you new ways to think about the positioning of your words or the meter that they take on.
This particular form I think has the advantage of allowing one to speak freely, perhaps spontaneously, without getting too carried away. We must always come back to the world within the stanza and adhere to certain syllables and themes. Looking back, the translation I read of Machado’s work has rhyme in it, and I realize now that I of course got rid of that. I say of course, because I am not one who goes towards rhyme because I know it’s very hard to do it well and usually runs the risk of cliché.
D- You mentioned before it went through about four drafts and you struggled with it. What were the difficulties in writing this poem?
A- When I look back, I think I came across a few different struggles at different phases in the writing. The first being in the production: What am I going to say that is different than Machado? And what am I going to say that may be similar to him? At first I went stanza by stanza trying to copy the themes, word choices, rhythm, which is difficult in its own right, but then you also have that worry about sounding like someone else. I figured I would worry about that later on after I got most of the words down—there’s only so much buzzing you can have in your head about the poem when trying to write it. So then day by day, I just added a stanza or two and eventually stopped trying to stay too close to Machado.
It’s funny because at one point or another when I am writing, I’m just throwing anything and everything on my mind down, and you have no idea until the second, third, or fourth draft if any of it actually is coherent and plays with the themes throughout. But that’s the amazing thing about our brains, and what keeps me interested as a poet—our brains are working on so many levels, conscious and subconscious that you actually make more sense than you think when you just let go and write. I think giving myself enough time was imperative to overcoming that fear of not sounding like myself. What’s great about truly being with a poem, is that a line or two may come to you completely separate— you think it’s for another piece— but then when you connect the dots, you see the themes of your life, and what you pay attention to and connect with, finds itself over and over again. My line “The storm thrashing like a bull-train” was actually intended for another piece (so I thought). It was only until I had that “ah-ha” moment, and put it in this poem and read the whole piece back, that I realized it actually makes sense and echoes back to the metaphorical storm I mention in stanza 2.
I think in general, the difficulty is having that faith in yourself to make something great that comes from yourself without placing too heavy control on it. You have to have that faith when you go into writing and even editing. I knew that the structure of stanza 1 would have to change because it was too close to Machado for my liking, so around the fourth draft, I changed the stanza from sounding like bullet points, to hopefully what reads as a more fluid style.
D- Yes, it’s something I’ve been learning recently is to have faith in the process and give over to the subconscious more.
You mentioned you asked for feedback from a friend, how did that change the poem?
A- Yes, the subconscious is not usually talked about I suppose in the conversations I’ve been having with writers, but I think it’s something I am constantly benefiting from and intrigued by as a tool for writing. As for working with my friend, Mollie, she actually gave me the confidence to pursue this piece because I originally had big doubts about it. It’s so great to have someone who goes, “Oh I love this! Keep going!” and who you trust isn’t just saying that to be nice. Mollie went in there and told me what lines were working, and which one’s just weren’t landing strong enough. I think getting her feedback made me go into the piece with a fine tooth comb and really have a look at what the piece was trying to say. It made me dissect the piece in a way I usually don’t with my work, but I think ultimately made it stronger because I was more clear on the direction of it. She pushed me to find better word choices and be even more intentional and thoughtful at every turn.
D- How typical is this process of redrafting and seeking feedback for you? Does your process vary from poem to poem?
A - Well I suppose I would break those two items up—redrafting and feedback. Redrafting happens almost every poem I write because often the first thing I put to paper doesn’t completely make sense, and only will if I keep on working at the initial thought. Feedback, I would say happens less often—mostly because I don’t want to bother people. Now that I have made a couple friends on Instagram though, I have an “open-door” policy with them in terms of sending unsolicited poems to one another. I love this honestly, because I know there is mutual respect and a genuine friendship when we can just be like “Hey can you read this and tell me what you think?”
I would say the process does differ for each poem, each has their own obstacles. With this poem, I think getting feedback was the easiest way to “diagnose” the issues and get to work on fixing them. With other poems I’ve spent a long time on, the issue may be thinking of the next big narrative direction or simply getting back into the “mood” a poem originated from. I think a lot of my poems begin with a feeling that has been incubating and if you act on that feeling and write, you are in the moment of that poem. Sometimes the issue on a second draft can circle around trying to tap back into the original feeling because that was the fuel for it. Sometimes that feeling is lost for a while, and if it is a feeling that much of your work is based around, I think this lands people in what we all know to be, Writer’s Block.
D- Thanks so much! *** Amanda is an American poet who in her is essence a creator of many things, intrigued and motivated by capturing the dualities of the world. Her work is often described as mystical, unique, and magical. With a passion for building community, she uses her platform to challenge and foster conversations around writing and helping writers reach their full potential. This includes helping writers self-publish their books with My Word Publishing as publishing coach—ensuring all writers keep all of their rights and royalties. Amanda is the curator and editor of The I In Politics, a poetry anthology that will be coming out by the end of the year and proceeds donated to charity. She hopes to inspire others to use their creative gifts for advocacy and the greater good. To read more of her work, follow her on Instagram (@lemondaisypoetry) or visit her at My Word Publishing