commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | spring 2008  
Poet to Poet | A Contrary Interview with Amy Groshek...     Page 2


BEERS: Congratulations on the recent publication of your chapbook, Shin Deep, by Finishing Line Press. Few people outside of the poetry world seem to know about chapbooks. Was Shin Deep published as a result of a Finishing Line chapbook contest, or was it a general submission?  What advice do you have for young and emerging writers regarding publishing a chapbook versus waiting to publish a full-length collection?

GROSHEK: Thank you for the congratulations. Shin Deep was submitted to the New Women’s Voices contest at Finishing Line. I chose to try to publish Shin Deep as a chapbook because I had about 20 poems, perfect chapbook size, very much all of a piece, very much focused on the Farm Crisis and working-class family identity. I also knew, for instance, that “The Revolutionary,” with its expressly Marxist tone, and “Paying the Bills,” which so explicitly calls capitalism to task, would never make it big in the conservative poetry climate here in the United States. (I still type this with fingers crossed—please,  for all our sakes, let my cynicism be proven wrong.) Knowing all this, I decided that rather than save my “farm poems” for inclusion in a slim volume (which would, for the reasons above, be rather difficult), I would try to publish them as a chapbook. The first advantage is that that a chapbook is cheaper, and therefore easier for working people, the people for whom I wrote Shin Deep, to obtain and read. The second advantage is that chapbook publishers, operating on low budgets and more or less under the radar, aren't victim to the same level of coerced conservatism as major presses. What's sacrificed, of course, is the whole marketing and distribution mechanism of the major publishing house. But I always felt that these poems, while they might move the typical poetry audience, were more for people who rarely read poetry. I made my decision with that in mind. For younger writers: you've really got to decide what you want, and then weigh that against your stack of rejections. In the case of Shin Deep, I'm very pleased with the end-product, and I'm mostly just thankful that it's out there, contributing to the conversation.

BEERS: Since moving back to Wisconsin, you've worked as a technical writer and an online learning designer. How do you think these experiences have informed or shaped your writing? Do you think your working experience creates a different energy than the experience of a writer who is also a teacher of creative writing at a college or university?

GROSHEK: When I finished my MFA, I went to work for a university—as a teacher of writing, but foremost as a technologist. They were very good to me there, and that's where I developed my expertise in online education, which has gotten me through subsequent tough spots, and given me a more livable lifestyle than either teaching or corporate employment. But I saw immediately that the corporatization of education had made the university an untenable place for someone like me, someone who has extremely high expectations for herself and for others. With few exceptions, my students came to class with an imperative based on their place as consumers, not on their desire to learn, to bechallenged, to grow. This was terrifying and, as a teacher, humiliating. What would it mean to be a good teacher for such students? The corporate world is even more demanding, but at least the price is out on the table, not buried in things like tenure, grant reports, and the mixed blessing of committee appointments. There was an essay by John Barr published in Poetry in September 2006, titled “American Poetry in the New Century,” which caused quite an uproar among the readership. He writes, “[t]he effect of [MFA] programs on the art form is to increase the abundance of poetry, but to limit its variety. The result is a poetry that is neither robust, resonant, nor—and I stress this quality—entertaining; a poetry that both starves and flourishes on academic subsidies.” I desperately needed the MFA—because for someone of my socioeconomic background, it was the only way out (economically) that was also a way up (spiritually). I could chase this dream for three years, or I could enter the salt mines of corporate employment, once and for all. The MFA allowed me to study what I needed to study, to undo the crude marks of years of New Criticism at the hands of inept college professors, and to take possession of my creative life. In fact, in that way it probably saved my life. In a practical sense, I wouldn't deny any young person that—ever. What I do question is this: what's happened to our culture, that artists, not just writers but musicians, visual artists, and performance artists as well, must shelter, as students and instructors, under the patronage of the academy? Do I think that corporate employment is a different kind of experience than working at a university? Yes. Definitely. Working outside of the academy isolates one from many connections, and also from many influences. But here's the real difference: I currently work part-time as an instructional designer, so I have to buy my own health insurance—at $350 a month. I won't tell you what percentage of my income that is. I consider it worth the expense, because I'd be incredibly depressed if I had to work 40 hours a week, and give up that writing and reading time. But it's a very dear sacrifice, and will certainly have ramifications for my future—my financial and medical future. So because I live and work outside of the protection of the academy, every hour I spend at the library, every time I sit down to my typewriter, every word of every poem bears the particular, bitter charge of that knowledge, the knowledge that I'm staking my whole life on poetry—and risking my health, my rent, the cost of repairing my used car—everything. Designing online learning sounds pretty mundane, but I doubt there are many poets in the academy who can honestly make that claim. It would be bold of me to say that that intensity, that immediacy, is apparent in the poems themselves, but perhaps it is.

BEERS: I've seen references to Whitman in your work and have heard echoes of Frost. Who do you consider your influences? What writers would you recommend to other young/ emerging poets?

GROSHEK: Both Whitman and Frost have been big influences for me—especially Frost. I memorized his work in high school, for fun. Later, studying under Linda McCarriston, I was required to memorize even more Frost. So his sound is very much a part of my work. Ideologically, I would point first to Polish poets Wislawa Szymborska, Tadeusz Rozewicz, and Czeslaw Milosz, then to Robert Hass, Thomas McGrath, and Hayden Carruth. And finally, another master of iambic pentameter to bookend Frost: Milton's Paradise Lost. My advice to young writers is to find a writer you like, and take his or her best poem, and memorize it. Then memorize another. Put poems on your walls, where you'll see them every day, and make them part of your life. Let them out of their books and into your body. As a heavy reader of nonfiction, I also recommend Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, Terry Eagleton's After Theory, Wendel Berry, Gene Logsdon, Octavio Paz's Children of the Mire, Theodor Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, Jean Baudrillard's The Spirit of Terrorism and Requiem for the Twin Towers  and The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact, Michael Hamburger's The Truth of Poetry, and James Scully's Line Break. 


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