Interview with Amy King, 2015 WNBA Award Winner

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Prof. Denning, the Executive Director of Internships for the MS in Publishing program, also the President of the New York City Chapter of the WNBA, interviews the 2015 WNBA Award Winner, Poet, Professor and Literary Activist, Amy King.

Topjane kinney denningThe Women’s National Book Association is proud to announce that Amy King, Poet, professor of English and Creative Writing at SUNY Nassau Community College, and executive board member of VIDA-Women in Literary Arts, is the 2015 WNBA Award winner.
 
In this interview Jane Kinney-Denning, president of WNBA-NYC and VP-elect for the National Organization, talks to Amy about what receiving this award means to her, the importance of recognition of women in the literary arts, her work and what is it like to live life as a poet.
  
Jane: Hi Amy, congratulations on receiving the WNBA Award and all of your recent successes!
Amy: Thank you, Jane and everyone who makes the WNBA such an imperative organization, especially right now as we see the liberal arts being chipped away at across the country. Literacy, and all of the benefits reading brings, is vital at this cultural moment as we begin to sense a scarcity of resources and the dire need towards evermore empathy.
Jane: What does receiving the WNBA Award mean to you?
Amy: Winning this award is a tremendous vote of confidence I never expected to receive. That it is a public gesture and one with such a rich history encourages me even more to continue advancing the work I’ve been doing with VIDA on behalf of women’s voices everywhere. That it comes from the WNBA, with its national reputation and focus on women’s voices and the literary world, suggests potential for such growth that my enthusiasm is only compounded to the point of bursting over the affinity!
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The WNBA Award was presented to Amy King at the SoFAB Institute in New Orleans, June 6
(Left to right) Jane Kinney Denning, president WNBA-NYC, VP-elect, WNBA National; NC Weil, WNBA Award chair; Amy King; Carin Siegfried, president WNBA National.

Jane: Why are these types of awards important for women?

Amy: So much of the work women do often feels unrecognized anyway, especially in terms of social justice, and we simply do it because it’s the right thing to do and is necessary work–without expectation of recognition.

Notable awards, generally speaking, seem to be reserved for achievements focused on “big” advancements as related to a capitalist mode of thinking and related to the production of goods or scientific achievements, and on the flip side, require undermining and even destroying the feminine.  I’m thinking especially right now of the men of the Manhattan Project, like Richard Feynman, who did the math and then spent the decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki depressed because of the source of destruction of human life his talents contributed to.

Closer to home, it’s not difficult in the literary world to see the upper ranks of awards, like lifetime achievement prizes, still going mostly to men.  It mirrors the glass ceilings in the business world’s upper management positions and the political world’s mostly male senators, etc.  So when we receive such a public acknowledgment, it speaks substantially to our mindsets and makes these efforts feel integral to the larger, important work of the world.

 On a personal note, I have not been modest about receiving this award and have used it to talk to my students about what I do and why this work is valuable. To some degree, the award validates what may have seemed irrelevant or disinteresting to them before.  The WNBA has piqued their curiosity and for that I am also grateful!

Jane: Can you tell us about your role in VIDA?  How is the organization run?  What is the importance of volunteers?

 Amy: VIDA is run by all volunteers and has been for six plus years now since its inception.  I serve on the Executive Committee, which is a collaborative one, and there is a Board of Directors as well. We also have a web team and numerous wonderful interns.

 My role has evolved over the years, but I’ve been involved from the beginning, thanks to Cate Marvin reaching out to me. I originally helped tally the first VIDA Count, participated on panels and spoke publicly on the organization’s behalf, and I was also advising along the way about VIDA’s online presence. When I was voted onto the Executive Committee, I assumed responsibility for developing that online presence and am still working to that end along with my other online cohort, Lynn Melnick.

We are working on developing a platform for a plurality of voices to be disseminated widely and to actually build an audience and get those voices heard. I was also one of many who advocated for and worked on our latest addition, the Women of Color VIDA Count. I had a very good education in Women’s Studies and learned a lot about the achievements and pitfalls of the Women’s Movement. I’m not alone in wanting to evolve VIDA into an even more substantial organization that embraces an intersectional feminist approach to not just be “another feel-good-white-girl institution” as poet Kima Jones so aptly put.

Without volunteers, VIDA would not exist. In fact, we created a one-page handout for the release of this past count because “What can I do to help?” has become a recurring mantra indicative of how much larger VIDA is than the faces the organization has come to be associated with. VIDA has tapped into a pervasive desire among readers, writers, publishers and educators alike to see and realize a more diverse literary landscape. That hunger motivates and garners volunteers, who continue to develop and support outreach efforts and foster the conversation in so many productive ways.

We are inspired to dream bigger and more significantly each year because of the efforts of so many brilliant volunteers. And again, we are all volunteers, which may speak to the aforementioned attitude of simply doing the work because it is the right thing to do, without expectation of personal gain.

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Jane: How has volunteering for VIDA impacted your life?

Amy: Haha, besides stretching my time so thin? Well, it has allowed me to avoid navel-gazing for starters. As a poet, I am prone towards wallowing in the human condition, my own especially, and while that can render a good poem, it is not necessarily the only value I wish to contribute to the world. I like to locate a balance between surviving, writing and being altruistic in some relevant capacity. Beyond my own earlier activism, I wanted to make a contribution on a larger scale and VIDA has provided an outlet and focus to work for positive change in the world. VIDA fits with my belief in changing attitudes through hearing voices in that we advocate for a broader plurality of voices in any literary venue, whether that be on a panel at a conference or literary festival, in a journal reviewing magazines or simply when publishers are considering who to select for their yearly catalog or booksellers are stocking their shelves.

 Creating & cultivating awareness in others has been a point of learning for me as well as aiding others in changing what might be their own homogenous palettes. I so often quote Aung San Suu Kyi‘s  “If you’re feeling helpless, help someone,” primarily because it has proven to be a vital truth. Each time I do something for someone else’s benefit, I feel enriched personally and excited to see how others might benefit, even in ways I didn’t anticipate. It sounds cliché, but the reward when doing something for someone else almost always feels so much more heady & thrilling than if I had just worked on achieving something for myself.

 Jane: The Executive Board of the WNBA National was recently discussing that the opportunities our organization gives women to take high-level positions that are not always available to us in the corporate world is an important part of our mission. Do you agree?

Amy: Yes! I think I actually mentioned this parallel above, but I’ll elaborate a bit and just say that I often speak to my students about this disjunction between the work that women do and the expectations we have. The stats across the board show that young women earn higher grades in college, but as soon as they graduate and enter the work force, we don’t ask for commensurate pay and advancements. Men believe they deserve rewards for their efforts and ask for them. Repeatedly. Women generally expect our efforts to be recognized for their merit, and so we work and wait. I speak from personal experience.

Even now, in my forties, I still feel guilty when I simply *think* I deserve some sort of recognition for my efforts. I rarely ask for such rewards. I assume this is a condition of the gendered ways in which we are raised, whereas boys and men are encouraged and feel entitled to go out and make up the public world–to colonize it, so to speak–while girls and women are still held to a code of modesty that can limit voicing needs and desires in public ways.

Jane: Can you tell us a bit about the book that you are co-editing: Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change?

Amy: Poet, Heidi Lynn Staples and I are currently editing this anthology as born from our earlier initiative, Poets for Living Waters (PFLW). PFLW began as a call for poems in response to the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill Disaster. We soon received thousands of submissions from across the country, so we had to recruit a few interns to help us sort through, select and post everything. You can still see that response on the website.

We continue to be inspired by the enthusiastic acuity and insights provided by so many poets, so here we are. The anthology covers a broader scope of ecological considerations, devastations, theoretical approaches and responses. Obviously, the work within will be more nuanced than the original focus on one ecological event, and we felt the need to get these substantially more complex poems into the world because climate change clearly isn’t going away; the approaches towards how to address climate change is also framed by how we view it and its effects more specifically. Attention on these conditions will only increase over the next decade as even more weather phenomena devastate populations.

That certainly is where poets come in: we wish to see the world beyond statistics, especially by incorporating a humanity that is very much invested–beyond the science–in this evolution and aiding in shaping it in ways that inspire a cooperative and empathetic approach, rather than the reactive “Doomsday hoarder” approach that is already being promoted via such TV shows and conservative militant groups.

Jane: What are you currently reading?

Amy: Besides student essays and submissions to the VIDA website, I just cracked open What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought by Lewis Gordon and I’m revisiting Zami: A New Spelling of my Name: A Biomythography by Audre Lorde, thanks to one of my students delivering an inspiring presentation on Lorde which in turn reminded me of the jolt this book gave me and ensuing thrill I experienced reading it as an undergrad.

Jane: Do you get inspiration for your work from others? Other places? Other spaces?

Amy: I am always inspired by others’ work, whether as books or paintings or photographs or music or activism or good works. I have a storehouse of staples I return to, depending on my mood and the medium I wish to interact with–and am even now developing some lectures based on some of those inspirations like the painters Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Leonor Fini. I gravitate towards cafés, public parks and poetry spaces and less proper–or “rougher”–places than museums for inspiration, though museums have merit too. I’ve always preferred the mediums and artists that weren’t tapped or sanctioned in popular fashion to learn from.

Jane: Living a literary life means a lot of literary encounters with other poets, writers and artists. Tell me some of your most memorable sightings/encounters?

Amy: Hmmm. That’s a tough one. I think a moving one for me was watching Isabella Rossellini act about six feet from me in the Off-Broadway production of “The Stendhal Syndrome” in 2004. I also went to a party at George Plimpton’s famous Upper East Side apartment once where he had to “rescue” me from sparring in his kitchen with Anthony Haden-Guest. At the same party, I chatted with Marisa Berenson, who became even more engaged when I told her I thought she was hot in “Cabaret.”

But I think a favorite will always be sitting with the poet Tomaz Salamun at a reading he gave on Long Island about six years ago. While his poetry is incredibly daring, I found him to be quite humble and even slightly shy.  It was a surprising contrast to the work, considering the subjects he explored and what he laid bare in his poetry, especially in his books dedicated to his wife, the painter Metka Krasovec.

Jane: Great encounter! I went to a party at George Plimpton‘s house in the early, early 90’s too! Is it possible we were at the same party? I remember meeting Eugene Ginsberg and Mr. Plimpton taking me and my friend into his bathroom to show us his autographed photo at the foot of it.

 Amy: I moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 1997, but I don’t think I went to Plimpton’s home until the early 2000s. You and I were likely ships in the night … I bet we can agree on his friendly and welcoming demeanor though! I recall being tipsy as Hayden-Guest and I pseudo-boxed, and Plimpton coming over, taking both of my hands in his, and gently letting me know that if my boxing companion was causing me any distress to let him know.

He smiled very warmly and I recall my exact thought at that moment: George Plimpton is not only a nice guy, but his hands are warm large mitts! They were the perfect combination of a strong athlete’s as well as that of a considerate writers’. He said other friendly things about the party and his home and asked me about myself, but the memory of that gesture still makes me think about how such a simple act of kindness–of reaching out to a stranger in a very basic human way–can resonate deeply.

Jane: Where do you like to write?

Amy: I carry a notebook everywhere and jot notes down sporadically. That’s the beginning of writing, cultivating the habit, at least for a poet of my ilk. I move notes to a computer at some point, then I sit on it.  That can be in my study at home or at a café. But I like the notebook moreover because it gives me permission to write anywhere and for as long or as briefly as I like. I try to enact the idea that a writer writes when she’s not doing everything else. And that can happen anywhere at anytime and feel as casual or focused as the writer’s mood dictates.

Jane: What advice to you have for aspiring poets?

Amy: Carry a notebook. Write when you aren’t doing the rest of living. Even if just for a minute. Write a phrase, write a sentence, write down whatever stands out. Every passing phrase adds up. Look for the unusual and note it, even if it’s just a misheard phrase–sometimes those are the most important ones. As I just noted in my notebook and then tweeted the other day right before I gave a talk, “See like a poet. See more than you wish to.

Jane: You once referred to yourself in an interview as an “aging poet”…well, you seem quite young, but what you do think that means in terms of your artistic output and reach?

Amy: I don’t know what it means in terms of output, but as my time has become more precious and in demand and as I have been wanting to write more essays on poetics, I feel hungrier to write. I also hope that as my poetics and poems evolve, they begin to have a reach that is an extension, in some capacity, of the social justice work I have done for much of my adult life.

Jane: Is there anything else you would like to say to women working in some aspect of publishing today, as an author, poet, teacher, librarian, editor etc.?

Amy: Well, as noted above, we are often asked quite a bit right after each annual VIDA Count is released, “What can I do to help?” So to that end, a number of VIDAs composed this handy sheet that provides basic but very helpful advice for getting started.

Please take a look at this handout, share it, help spread the word about the work we’re doing at VIDA–and don’t forget to prioritize your own writing! Also, it’s never too early to make kids and teens aware of these disparities in the literary world–they will be future readers, writers, teachers, publishers and editors, and the best part? Show them the charts: they get it instantly!

And thank you, WNBA members, once again for this tremendous honor and the support it brings to VIDA’s efforts!

Jane: Thank you Amy for a great interview and congratulations again on receiving the WNBA Award!