Line / Break | Season 3 is back with Harvard PhD candidate and Stanford Wallace Stegner Fellow, Amanda Gunn!
Amanda and Copper Canyon Press publicist Ryo Yamaguchi take a trip down memory lane to chat about their shared time at University of Illinois and Amanda’s deep love for perfumes and nostalgia.
Ryo Yamaguchi (00:00):
Hey everybody. I’m Ryo Yamaguchi, the publicist at Copper Canyon Press, and you are watching Season Three of our interview series, Line / Break, which goes off the page, and into the homes and minds of our beloved poets. We began Line / Break as a way to connect during the pandemic, and we’ve had so much fun seeing poets on screen, hearing poems, talking about writing books, and life, we simply had to keep the series going. Thank you for tuning in.
One of the best parts of this job is meeting new poets, and one of the best parts of meeting new poets is finding these deep commonalities. When Amanda Gunn and I first spoke, it took us a while to realize that we spent many of the same years in the same sleepy corner of Central Illinois, Champaign Urbana, where U of I resides. I don’t think we ever interacted, and it was amazing to talk to this other poet, who seemed to have lived in this alternate universe, each of us with our totally discrete lives, set in this common place and time. That sense of personal life, the infinite interior of personal life, otherwise adrift in the expanse of a shared world, that’s one of the most incredible dynamics of Amanda Gunn’s debut collection, Things I Didn’t Do With This Body. I am so excited to talk about it today with Amanda, with all of you. Amanda, my goodness, thank you so much for being here.
Amanda Gunn (01:28):
Thank you so much. Thank you so much for having me.
Ryo Yamaguchi (01:33):
So, it’s December, and I think anyone who’s been watching the series knows I’m a little bit focused on the end of the year, so I can’t resist talking about the end of the year. Here in Santa Fe, we are bracing for what’s supposed to be a big snowstorm. I think it’s already kind of passed over the Sierra, kind of out by you. So, I kind of want to open up in asking you, Amanda, would you call yourself a winter soul, or a summer soul, or maybe neither? What do you think?
Amanda Gunn (01:58):
Oh, that’s so hard to say. I would say I’m something of a fall person, a fall soul, if that exists.
Ryo Yamaguchi (02:11):
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, that seems poetic to me. What is it about fall? I mean, is it that kind of change? Is it the colors? Yeah.
Amanda Gunn (02:17):
I don’t know, there’s something really sort of poetic, I think, about fall. There’s a sense of it being the end of something, the end of the pleasures of summer, with also this impending cold coming on. It’s this sort of being wedged between these two really different kinds of grief, or something, that makes me feel like that resonates with my poetic soul.
Ryo Yamaguchi (02:58):
I totally get that. Well, impending grief, or impending… Yeah, I mean, I think of the interiority, and all these things. It’s funny to me to think… I mean, I guess I kind of open with this weird season thing too, thinking about you as someone who, right before this call, we were talking about how you’re in Berkeley, but you’re completing your PhD at Harvard, so you spend a lot of time in the Northeast. So, you see, you’ve experienced all these different seasons, and-
Amanda Gunn (03:20):
Ryo Yamaguchi (03:21):
Amanda Gunn (03:22):
Yeah. I mean, grew up really a child of four seasons. I grew up in Connecticut, and it’s been very strange being out here, and not really knowing what to expect. The winter is sort of an onslaught of rain, but it’s still kind of warm, and sunny, and sunny sometimes, and really, adjusting myself to a place where change feels more subtle. In the Northeast, there’s this sense of really understanding where you are with regard to the seasons. It’s very different here.
Ryo Yamaguchi (04:12):
Yeah, yeah. I know. I can think of that, the four seasons, where you can really pinpoint what date it is just by what’s sort of happening with snow, rain and stuff. So, we’re talking about how, we’ve shared this time in Central Illinois. And so, remind me again, sort of your trajectory of your childhood. So, you were raised in Connecticut, but I know that you spent time as sort of a young adult there, or I mean, you had a lot of family there, I know. Could you remind me of what… Yeah.
Amanda Gunn (04:34):
Yeah. So, I grew up in Connecticut. I ended up going to college in New York City, at Columbia, for a little while, but it was not for me. It was not for me at all, and I ended up taking some time off. And then when I was ready to go back to school, it sort of worked out for me to move to Illinois. And because my mother’s family, my mother’s entire family is from Champaign Urbana, mostly Urbana, and her mother’s house was there, my grandmother’s house.
And so, I moved out there to take care of it, and eventually I went to the University of Illinois. So, it’s funny when you say that. We passed through those halls at the same time, but we didn’t know each other. But I really felt like, when I was there, I had a kind of townie life. I spent most of my time with my family, and I lived on the north end of town, which was nary a student in sight. But, yeah, so that’s sort of how I ended up there. And then afterwards, I returned to Connecticut, where I worked as a medical copy editor for a dozen years, before going back to grad school.
Ryo Yamaguchi (06:19):
Yeah, yeah. I know. And your life, and experience with medical writing is something I really want to talk about too, particularly all the themes that are happening in this poetry collection.
Amanda Gunn (06:31):
Ryo Yamaguchi (06:31):
I’m going to linger on this Urbana thing for just a second longer though, because I-
Amanda Gunn (06:35):
Please do. Please do.
Ryo Yamaguchi (06:38):
I mean, as somebody who’s been there, and many people have, I mean, there’s a unique dynamic to the place, that some college towns have, but not all of them. I mean, I’m thinking of places like Lawrence, Kansas, maybe is another place that’s kind of like this, where you have what would otherwise be a fairly rural, mid-size city, and those kinds of places have just really undergone a lot of change over the last several decades, which is politically, socially, economically. But then you have this major university that’s there, that brings the entire city, or the entire world in.
Amanda Gunn (07:06):
Ryo Yamaguchi (07:06):
Was that like… I mean, so exactly the way you described, townie life versus the university life, and that of course is in stark contrast, I’m sure to living in Connecticut, definitely living in New York.
Amanda Gunn (07:18):
Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
Ryo Yamaguchi (07:18):
Was that a difference you liked? Did you prefer Urbana? Or was there a culture shock for you when you first got there? Or, yeah, yeah.
Amanda Gunn (07:26):
No, there actually wasn’t a culture shock, because I had spent many, many summers going up there to spend with my grandmother in that house, that I eventually lived in.
Ryo Yamaguchi (07:35):
Amanda Gunn (07:36):
And so, there was very much a feeling of coming home, and this is just on a personal level, it was very much a feeling of coming home, and getting to know my mother’s family as an adult, in a way that was just really, really special to me.
Ryo Yamaguchi (08:02):
Amanda Gunn (08:02):
And I write about some of them in my work, but I think it definitely was a change, from a place like Columbia, in terms of just the size of it. I remember getting to the University of Illinois, and it’s this massive, massive university. I think, at the time we were there, there were 36,000 students.
Ryo Yamaguchi (08:37):
That sounds right to me. Yeah.
Amanda Gunn (08:38):
Does that sound right? Yeah.
Ryo Yamaguchi (08:39):
I remember that was the population of the entire suburban town that I came from, in Bartlett, but yeah. But anyway. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Amanda Gunn (08:45):
Ryo Yamaguchi (08:45):
Anyway, that number’s very seared to my mind because I remember them being the same. Yeah, yeah.
Amanda Gunn (08:51):
Oh, that’s funny. Yeah. Yeah. So, coming to this place that had, what did they call it? What you do before the football game? Tailgating. The whole tailgate… Just culturally, it was so, so radically different from being at a place like Columbia. And so, I think that was the culture shock, within the university was the culture shock, but not the town itself, not living there. In the town. I felt very comfortable, and very, very at home.
Ryo Yamaguchi (09:27):
Amanda Gunn (09:28):
Ryo Yamaguchi (09:29):
It’s funny thinking of how… I’d always thought of that when my grandparents, my grandparents lived in a near suburb of Louisville, Kentucky, and that was an odd anchorage, because I’d been there my entire life. But my family moved around a lot. So, in some ways, that was more home than any of my actual homes with my family, because it just had a longer duration.
Amanda Gunn (09:49):
Ryo Yamaguchi (09:50):
Or something like that. That’s so interesting. Well, you’re kind of starting to touch on this terrain that is one of the first… Only question that I really like to ask in every one of these Line / Breaks. It’s, an old question my predecessor Laura Buccieri had, and I love this question so much, so I’m just going to kind of ask you this question, and it’s in this whole realm of your origins. So, thinking about your time in Connecticut, or thinking your time as a young adult going to college at U of I, or even earlier than that, I mean, if you can recall the first time you felt yourself starting to become a creative person, or the first time that you really recognized yourself in other art, in books, or in movies, or whatever was first attracting you, and the first time you saw yourself reflected in that? Yeah.
Amanda Gunn (10:38):
Oh, that’s… As a creative person, that’s interesting. Yeah. I think that I sort of see it and see the question in two ways. I think that… I remember being seven years old, and knowing that I wanted to be a writer.
Ryo Yamaguchi (11:03):
Yeah. That’s so incredible. With conviction? You were like, “This is what I’m going to do?”
Amanda Gunn (11:06):
Ryo Yamaguchi (11:08):
Yeah. Amazing. Amazing. That’s so amazing. Yeah.
Amanda Gunn (11:09):
I remember that.
Ryo Yamaguchi (11:15):
What do you think it was? Did you felt that you need to express yourself, or that you wanted to capture, describe things around? Or yeah, what do you think it was?
Amanda Gunn (11:22):
It’s really funny. I think that, just already, I loved reading, when I was really little, and I had that feeling of, “Put me in, coach.” That’s how I felt.
Ryo Yamaguchi (11:44):
Amanda Gunn (11:44):
And when I would read something that I really loved, I felt, “Just let me get in there.”
Ryo Yamaguchi (11:51):
I just want you to know that feels like a very Illinois reference, by the way.
Amanda Gunn (11:53):
I know it does.
Ryo Yamaguchi (11:54):
Yeah, yeah. Anyway, go ahead. Yeah, yeah.
Amanda Gunn (11:56):
It does. It does. So, wanting to be a writer happened very young. I didn’t necessarily see a path to being a poet full-time, until many, many years later. Actually, not that long ago, in the middle of my MFA, even when I was doing the MFA, I thought, “I’ll do this, and then I’ll go back to being a copy editor. I’ll just go back to work in that way.” Yeah. But I also, in terms of seeing myself, I don’t know, seeing myself as a creative person, in other works, yeah, I think it has to come down again to my reading.
When I was a kid, I read, as I was growing up, I read every plucky girl series that was ever written, starting with Ramona and ending with Anne of Green Gables and Laura Ingalls Wilder in the middle. These were the things that I loved, and wanted to… I wanted to be like these women, who wrote these books. I was conscious of the writers.
Ryo Yamaguchi (13:29):
Yeah, it’s funny how thinking of that world of the plucky women, us protagonists, or something, but that’s been so important for our development as a society. The specific books that you’re referencing, for empowerment of women, and of course, and things like that. But then also to inspire that craft of writing, or that craft of attention, and critique, social critique, and things too. Yeah.
Amanda Gunn (13:56):
Ryo Yamaguchi (13:57):
I think that’s so wonderful. I love what you say here, this thing you kind of just inserted, which is this thing of, “I’m just going to do poetry, I’m going to do my MFA, and then I’m going to go back to work.”
Amanda Gunn (14:07):
Ryo Yamaguchi (14:07):
And this is something, you’re really delineating something that I’ve really tried to work through. I can think of one time I did an interview with someone, and we got into this same sort of territory, where it was like poetry is not, and can never be work, even though you are making a career out of it.
Amanda Gunn (14:25):
Ryo Yamaguchi (14:26):
And that’s a wonderful dynamic. I mean, I think, always to think of that way. I don’t know. Do you think of poetry as work? I mean, of course poetry means also teaching, and reading, and everything. Yeah, but…
Amanda Gunn (14:39):
Yes, it does mean all those things. I think of it as… Well, it’s really hard to say. I kind of go back and forth on this issue. I think I’m like you, I’m always like, “Is it work? Is it my work? Is it this thing that…” And I don’t know, is it my work with a capital W, or a lowercase W?
Ryo Yamaguchi (15:03):
Amanda Gunn (15:05):
What do those two things mean? I think that I think of poetry, like you said, reading, reading friends’ work, editing, writing my own, teaching, all of these things as poetry, but do I speak of them with the same… Do I speak of all of these things, this collection of things with the same sort of actual feeling in my heart, and I mean that, that I did when I spoke of my work, when I was a copy editor? Which was important to me, which led me to this place, which informs my writing, but nonetheless, didn’t feed me in the same way.
Ryo Yamaguchi (16:06):
Amanda Gunn (16:09):
So, that felt like, I don’t know, maybe the difference is maybe it’s work, and maybe there’s a job. I don’t know. I feel like there’s some language to be… Some special language to be deployed for each of these things, that really gets at the nuance of how different they are from each other, how different they feel. Right? Because I think we’re talking about how we feel about it.
Ryo Yamaguchi (16:37):
Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. And we need to a better word. It’s funny, I was reading something this weekend that was from German Translation, and he said it was Immanuel Kant, and he says, “We have a word for this,” but then in the translation, it’s like five words, because that’s how German works.
Amanda Gunn (16:56):
Ryo Yamaguchi (16:56):
And I love that. I was so tickled by that. I was like, “No, we don’t have a word for it.”
Amanda Gunn (17:00):
Ryo Yamaguchi (17:02):
Anyway, whatever. Yeah. This is, I think, a great time to hear a poem then. I mean, let’s hear the work.
Amanda Gunn (17:07):
Ryo Yamaguchi (17:08):
What do you think? I mean, is it… Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Amanda Gunn (17:10):
Yes. The work.
Ryo Yamaguchi (17:10):
Amanda Gunn (17:11):
The work. Okay. I’m going to do something a little bit cute. I’m going to read the first poem, and the last poem, but I’ll start with the first poem of the book.
Ryo Yamaguchi (17:21):
Amanda Gunn (17:21):
The first poem is a poem that I wrote about my dad, and this one is an American Sonnet. So, a few sonnets in the book. Father at Table. There was what he demanded with one word, and a pointing finger, chicken, cornbread, potatoes, the delicacies his labor both purchased, and prepared for us. All his long hours, hours, trying not to interrupt the table talk that had snapped shut, and refused him. Not vain, not white folk. He asked only one courtesy, no swearing he could hear. He was a Christian, and my father. That God forsaken finger, how stingy it seemed then. Now, how tender, how pleading, how I bristled at the soft of his voice, an engine rumbling under the hood of our attention. And oh, what kindness I held back, expecting things he would never ask of me. Wait your turn, say thank you. Say please.
Ryo Yamaguchi (19:18):
Oh, that was a wonderful read. There’s so much poise in your reading. I mean, I can hear the sonnet, but it’s not just hearing the sonnet, it’s hearing the sonnet, doing this, the eye-tracking, and the sonnet as painting in the father, and that kind of careful attention, that careful line-making. Yeah. I don’t know. It’s wonderful.
Amanda Gunn (19:41):
Oh, thank you.
Ryo Yamaguchi (19:42):
Yeah. I mean, I want to talk about… Yeah, so I really want to talk about form, in this book, but maybe let’s talk about sonnets because, so, okay, so Toby, whom you just met, has this great question about sonnets, and it’s kind of ranging, and freewheeling a little bit. So, I’m just going to ask you this question verbatim, and this is from Toby.
Amanda Gunn (20:04):
Ryo Yamaguchi (20:04):
Let me get to it here. So, Toby says, “I love sonnets, and I love sonnets in Things I Didn’t Do With This Body, which expand upon the rich catalog of African American experimental sonnets. How did you first enter this form? I think, what was your first entree into this form, and what has been generative for you about its limits, and its history, or any of its features? How do you approach a decision between writing a more formal, like rhyming sonnet, or a sonnet that appears more experimental, or modern?”
Amanda Gunn (20:34):
Ryo Yamaguchi (20:35):
A couple points to that question there.
Amanda Gunn (20:36):
Oh, that’s so many. You might have to remind me of other aspects as I guess try to answer. Ryo Yamaguchi (20:41): I sure can. I will. I will.
Amanda Gunn (20:42):
Ryo Yamaguchi (20:42):
Amanda Gunn (20:43):
So, I did my MFA training at Johns Hopkins, and there was a lot of… I mean, you can write any way you want there. It was a wonderful program. But I did get an education in meter and form there, that I had not had before. I wrote free verse most of the time, but my final semester in the MFA, I decided I wanted to write entirely in sonnets. I wrote sonnets for every assignment, because I really wanted to master that sense of economy. I heard this poem by Rhina Espaillat called Find Work. And in it, she talks about her grandmother, and she tells a certain narrative of her grandmother’s whole life in this sonnet. And I got that feeling again, “Put me in, coach.” I got that same feeling.
Ryo Yamaguchi (22:21):
Amanda Gunn (22:21):
I got that same feeling.
Ryo Yamaguchi (22:24):
I mean, “Not only, I can do that, I have to do that. I have to do what I’ve just seen.”
Amanda Gunn (22:26):
I have to do it.
Ryo Yamaguchi (22:27):
For something. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Amanda Gunn (22:31):
Yeah, yeah. That particular poem… Of course, I’ve read many sonnets over the years, but that particular poem was the one that made me say, “I have to learn how to do this.” And as a result, I wrote the two poems about my grandmother, and my grandfather, Long Ways From Home, and Monarch, about my grandma, Jessie, whose house I lived in. And then I just sort of wrote love sonnets, and grief sonnets, and I just sort of… That particular time, I was really writing formal rhyming sonnets.
And for me, a lot of the beauty and charm of the form was to be found in the rhymes. Because up until then, if you read my book, you see that there’s a lot of poems that have internal rhyme. That’s something I got to much later. Up until this point, I was not using… I had not been really using rhyme. And so, the excitement, or I felt around it, was about getting to use these loud, perfect rhymes, just unabashedly.
That was something that I found really beautiful in the form, the way that… This is why I was particularly drawn to the Shakespearean sonnet, because there’s this feeling of that final rhyming couplet snapping shut, and the authority in that kind of sound-making, that that sound-making produces, was really, really fun, and really exciting to get to use.
And then there have been other times… There are times when rhyme doesn’t feel that kind of snapping shut. That kind of rhyme doesn’t necessarily feel like what I need to be doing in that poem. But I still love the economy, and the turn, and the pacing that 14 lines will get you, which is why I didn’t try to write this sonnet, Father a Table. I didn’t try to write it as a formal sonnet. I wrote it in the American style.
Ryo Yamaguchi (25:36):
Yeah, yeah. I want to kind of go back to… My mind is latching onto this word that you used, which was loud, and the loudness of rhyme, and maybe the brazenness. And I’ve been thinking about that in a way, also reading… Finding myself drawn to a lot of what I would say severely formal poetry, in a way. And what you say is like-
Amanda Gunn (26:01):
Severely formal. Sorry. That’s really good.
Ryo Yamaguchi (26:06):
I mean, well, because sometimes I feel, particularly as a modern poet, or a poet of the contemporary age, I feel like there can be a flirtation with form, there can be… But I’ve been seeing in other poets, and some whom will talk about in this Line / Break series, talk with in this Line / Break series, really embracing, wow, just super bang on rhyme, end rhyme. And there’s something that is really remarkable, and wonderful about that, and to me, I hadn’t thought about it, until you said that word loud. I was like, “Oh, it’s because it’s loud.”
And there’s something about loudness that, it’s like, what’s great about going to a really loud concert? I just had the great fortune over the Thanksgiving holiday of camping on the beach many nights, and just falling asleep to not only… y know, you think of the ocean as this lulling presence, but it’d be like, this is crashing loud waves all night long, and you lose yourself in that. Or you struggle to maintain your integrity within it. It’s spectacle, and spectacle is so often used in these nefarious, horrible ways, but to take ownership of spectacle in something like poetry is a delight. I don’t know.
Amanda Gunn (27:14):
Ryo Yamaguchi (27:15):
I’m trying to find a question in this. I’m just kind of remarking on your sense of that. But yeah,
Amanda Gunn (27:21):
I guess feel the same way about poems that I do about musicals.
Ryo Yamaguchi (27:32):
Amanda Gunn (27:32):
Like, go big or-
Ryo Yamaguchi (27:35):
Okay, tell me more. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah.
Amanda Gunn (27:35):
Like go big, or go home. That’s how I feel like. I just feel if… The thing that rhyme can produce, can help produce, is this emotional resonance that feels really… It’s like it kind of hits you in the pit of your stomach. And if you are using rhyme, and really deploying it to its… to its utmost, then I think you’re taking emotional risk. It’s not just a formal risk, it’s an emotional risk. And that is something that I think is really exciting. I mean, why not do something that only poetry can do?
Ryo Yamaguchi (28:28):
You’re bringing up the idea of form, and emotion is bringing me to some other terrain that I was kind of hoping we’d get into. And that is, I’m trying to think of the best angle into this. It’s sort of this idea that, something I noticed also in this work… So first of all, the work is really formally diverse. And so we’re talking about sonnets here, and this severe form of rhyme, and things, but that is just one part of this entire body of work.
Okay. Well, let me ask this question. So, this is a more basic question. So, a lot of the sonnets are sort of front loaded to the beginning of the work, and so there’s kind of this arc to the formal change that happens in the book. And I know that some of this was sort of decided upon in developmental editing, and things. But I was curious if you could just talk a little bit about how this book is assembled, maybe formally, but maybe also emotionally? Yeah.
Amanda Gunn (29:25):
Formally, yeah. Do you mean how it’s ordered, or how it’s curated? Which I feel like is a maybe slightly different. Like what’s included, or how it’s ordered. How it’s ordered is more mysterious to me, that I-
Ryo Yamaguchi (29:46):
Yes. Okay. Okay. Yeah, yeah.
Amanda Gunn (29:49):
Because I got so much help on ordering the book. I find a lot of… This is the problem that a lot of poets have, I think. It’s very hard to order your own work. I think when you do it yourself, you end up sort of lumping things thematically, like, “Okay, these are going to be my girlfriend poems, and these are going to be my…” And they just sort of… My historical poems. It still does that to some degree. So, because I sort of put myself in the hands of other really smart people. I’m not sure I really have an angle on the ordering principle of the book, but I will say that I wanted the poem… Sorry, I wanted the book to organize itself around working its way into what I felt was the most important poem in the book, and then working its way out of it. And that’s a poem…
Ryo Yamaguchi (31:08):
Can you, or do you want to identify that poem? Or should we-
Amanda Gunn (31:10):
Ryo Yamaguchi (31:10):
Okay. Let’s not do it. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Amanda Gunn (31:10):
I’m not going to say.
Ryo Yamaguchi (31:10):
Yeah, yeah, okay. Okay. Yeah, yeah.
Amanda Gunn (31:15):
I was going to say, but I think I shouldn’t say.
Ryo Yamaguchi (31:16):
Oh, don’t say it. Don’t say it. Okay. Yeah, yeah.
Amanda Gunn (31:17):
I’m not going to say it. I’m not going to say it. Yeah. I just wanted sort of… In the end, because I kept adding in more material, I was sort of doing my best to keep it from being totally thematically organized, and really to have the poems have an energy off of each other, as they moved through.
Ryo Yamaguchi (31:47):
Yeah. Listen, can we talk about the curation part of it then?
Amanda Gunn (31:50):
Ryo Yamaguchi (31:51):
Yeah, yeah. So, talk about what… Yeah, what were the poems that you wanted to have together, in the space of the book? Or yeah, talk to me about curation, or what didn’t make it.
Amanda Gunn (32:01):
Yeah. I mean, there are a couple of… I mean, it’s funny. I think a lot of first books have so much from across the life of the poet, right? Because I think most people, this isn’t true of everybody, but I think most people, when they’re putting together their first book, they don’t know they’re writing a book until somebody says, “You’re writing a book.” You don’t know. You’re just taking it poem by poem, week by week. Or at least, that’s how it was for me.
Ryo Yamaguchi (32:49):
Yeah. I think you’re describing one of the main common things of a debut book, which is all of yourself into it.
Amanda Gunn (32:55):
Ryo Yamaguchi (32:55):
Amanda Gunn (33:03):
Yeah. So then what I end up having is this book that is about family, about history, about grief, about pleasure, about food. There’s a lot of food, surprisingly, a lot of food in this book.
Ryo Yamaguchi (33:23):
It’s a delicious book. Yes. Yeah, yeah.
Amanda Gunn (33:28):
And also about illness, about chronic illness. There’s a lot. There’s so many things. But what it begins to coalesce around is this notion of how the body carries you through your life, and the ways in which it can support that life, limit that life, and the ways that we, in turn, act on the body, that transform it in ways that are sometimes irrevocable.
Ryo Yamaguchi (34:19):
Amanda Gunn (34:19):
And I feel like the book ends up living in that place of thinking about what’s irrevocable.
Ryo Yamaguchi (34:36):
Amanda Gunn (34:38):
Even though for me, it’s about all these other sort of subcategories, and things.
Ryo Yamaguchi (34:47):
Yeah. Earlier, when you were dropping kind of descriptor words of what’s contained in the book, every one of those is somewhere in my question set here, which is great. So, I’m happy, I’m feeling aligned. But listen, the way you put this, like, oh man, I’m like, what’s irrevocable in- that we’ve done, or that just happens to the body, and that… I think… My wife and I this morning had one of those Monday breakfast things where we’re like, “I’m getting so… My gray hair in my beard, and all these.” Just one of those not good ways to start a Monday. But thinking about, okay, all of this, of course, there’s… Your history as a medical copy editor, so can we talk about that for a second?
Amanda Gunn (35:31):
Ryo Yamaguchi (35:32):
And how you think that informs this sense, or this theoretical structure, or thematic structure of the book? Do you feel that you had… Is this book writing yourself out of all of your experiences, reading so much medical literature? Or is it… Yeah.
Amanda Gunn (35:48):
Well, I don’t know. It’s really hard to say, because when I was working, I mean, I had several different lives as a medical copy editor. The last part of that was working… I was working for big pharma, in this small medical education company, and I worked on one drug for eight years.
Ryo Yamaguchi (36:21):
It doesn’t get much more specialist than that, right? I mean, yeah.
Amanda Gunn (36:25):
Yeah, yeah. And so, this particular drug, it’s possible that that was the sort of germ of the idea of thinking about the body sustaining damage through illness. And sometimes, it can be recovered, and sometimes it can’t. And that, in addition to my own aging, and my own experiences, and all of that, and the experiences of the people I love, but there was a lot of difficult material to look through for commas, and periods, and all of the sort of… We were there to make sure everything was clean, and perfect, and ready to submit to the FDA. But along the way, you see things that are difficult to encounter. I’d say that specifically comes into play, in I think there’s a couple of poems in the book that reference my time there, but that broader question of the things you see in that work, I think comes into the issue of chronicity.
Ryo Yamaguchi (38:29):
Could you unpack that word, chronicity? Yeah. Yeah.
Amanda Gunn (38:33):
Oh, just the state of the state being chronic, the chronic illness that is with you, that will never, ever, ever, ever go away.
Ryo Yamaguchi (38:44):
Amanda Gunn (38:45):
I talk a lot about a mental illness in the book. There’s a series that I think of as the chronic series. It’s not labeled that in the book, but it’s what I think of the title of the series being, because it’s all about reckoning with pain that’s not going to get better.
Ryo Yamaguchi (39:12):
Amanda Gunn (39:18):
Do you know? And I like-
Ryo Yamaguchi (39:19):
Amanda Gunn (39:19):
Yeah. This is- The series was based on my experience, and this is something that I’ve been experiencing since I was 10 years old, but that I didn’t start to reckon with, until I was a very grown adult, and really understanding what it means to have something that will only get worse, that will not get better.
Ryo Yamaguchi (40:03):
Yeah. Yeah. No, I mean, that’s massive. That’s so massive. Yeah. Okay. Let me ask you a question. So, thinking of pain, and of this thing that just really is not going to get better, but there is, in this book, there is a counter to it, and that is just lavish pleasure. All these pleasures that are in here, sexual pleasure, you talk about food, and food in all of these sensory ways.
So let me ask a question, but it’s going to be a really specific question, but I can condition it with a general question. So, let’s try this format. So, the general question to condition this specific question is, what is the role of pleasure in this book? What is the role of pleasure for you? Is it a counterbalance to pain? Is it an escape from pain? Is it a form of protest? So, those things, okay. Specific question, within those conditioned questions, can we talk about perfume? I really want to talk about perfume. Yeah.
Amanda Gunn (41:08):
Ryo Yamaguchi (41:08):
Amanda Gunn (41:10):
Ryo Yamaguchi (41:11):
I think of you as a scent poet, and I think that that gives you… And I think that’s a hard one thing. There aren’t many scent poets out there, and I think this gives you access to special powers.
Amanda Gunn (41:21):
Ryo Yamaguchi (41:21):
You have these crazy special powers because of this. So, tell me about your special power. Yeah.
Amanda Gunn (41:28):
My special power. I have always, always been obsessed with scent, and I’ve been a serious collector of perfume since I was a teenager.
Ryo Yamaguchi (41:45):
Yeah. I have to mention, since you mentioned to me earlier that you recorded something recently in your perfume closet, or you had before.
Amanda Gunn (41:51):
In my perfume closet.
Ryo Yamaguchi (41:53):
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Amanda Gunn (41:53):
That was in my last… The last house I lived in, and I can’t tell you where I kept my clothes, but I had a perfume closet. I have no idea. They were wherever. But yeah, I’ve had this obsession with scent, and it’s very interesting. I think people who… Sort of perfume culture, people who are, I don’t know, there’s all sorts of names. Perfumistas, frag heads, et cetera, et cetera. I think people who are obsessed with perfume are obsessed with memory, because we’re always chasing a memory. We’re always trying to… If I smell a perfume that smells like my dad’s charcoal grill when I was a kid, I would pay any amount of money for that perfume.
It’s this trying to bring back, bring back. And it’s not always smells that are pretty. Sometimes, especially the animalic scents, that are inside what smell like really beautiful perfumes, something might smell really fecal, or it might smell like wet wood, or something like that, but it doesn’t matter, because they evoke something that you want to collect, and keep, and reproduce again and again and again and again.
Ryo Yamaguchi (44:03):
Yeah. I love this scents that you’re describing where it’s like, it’s as though this loved one, or this lost person, or lost experience is just upwind of you. I can’t see them, but I know they’re there. Their presence is there. Like that.
Amanda Gunn (44:18):
That’s right. That’s right. When I smell my grandmother’s perfume, I feel like I’m back in her bedroom.
Ryo Yamaguchi (44:27):
Amanda Gunn (44:27):
It’s this being snapped back, that’s just very enticing. But you asked about the role of pleasure.
Ryo Yamaguchi (44:46):
Amanda Gunn (44:47):
That’s… I write about it a lot, and I’m still figuring out what I mean by it. I think that when I write about pleasure, it’s often about refusal, right?
Ryo Yamaguchi (45:16):
Amanda Gunn (45:17):
It’s often about refusal of some kind. But then there’s also the problem of the body, that I’m always thinking about, and where pleasure, where certain kinds of pleasure can also be a punishment to the body, can also change the body, can also hurt the body. And then the body in turn, limits the life. Thinking about things like, well, I don’t know if you would consider it pleasure, but thinking about things like… addiction, or just things that-
Ryo Yamaguchi (46:08):
I mean, addiction begins in pleasure, does it not? I mean, when one thinks that.
Amanda Gunn (46:10):
I think it does.
Ryo Yamaguchi (46:11):
Amanda Gunn (46:12):
I think it does. But then it becomes something else.
Ryo Yamaguchi (46:15):
Amanda Gunn (46:18):
It’s something I think about, it’s something I think about because it’s affected my life, but not something I’m expert in. So, I’m not sure.
Ryo Yamaguchi (46:27):
Amanda Gunn (46:30):
Ryo Yamaguchi (46:31):
These are really, really powerful dynamics. And I think your book has really made me think about pleasure in different ways, too. And my own sense is, I don’t want co-opt a term like addiction or something, but I certainly have… I over-indulge in all kinds of things, and it has had me thinking about that relationship of it. And part of it is just that question of, what am I seeking in the experiences that I’m giving to myself, or in things I’m consuming, or what am I really after in that? And the answer has never been clear to me.
Amanda Gunn (47:03):
Yeah, it’s very interesting, isn’t it?
Ryo Yamaguchi (47:06):
Amanda Gunn (47:07):
It’s very interesting because, excuse me, because I know that taking the night off, and watching a movie, or watching a show that I really want to watch, and then binging on it, at first it’s a pleasure, and then it turns into this thing that loses its power to be pleasurable, or to give pleasure over time. Why does that happen? Where is the drop off? That’s what you always want to know is, when is this giving me something, and when does it start to take something?
Ryo Yamaguchi (48:01):
Amanda Gunn (48:02):
When does it have that tipping point where it’s begun to take something away?
Ryo Yamaguchi (48:07):
Yeah. Well, I’m going to make a risky comment here, and that is that poetry ceaselessly gives pleasure. And that’s maybe my very gauche, awkward way of recognizing that we could talk forever, but we’re coming to the top of the hour. We got to come to a wrap. I would love to hear one more poem. You talked about reading the last one. Yeah. And if you don’t mind, I hope that wasn’t too abrupt, but yeah.
Amanda Gunn (48:36):
No, no, not at all. Not at all. Okay. Like I said, I’m going to read the last poem in the book, which I’ll just preface by saying that this is a poem I was thinking about, or I wrote when I was thinking about all the little decisions that go into whether you’re going to become a mother or not, and how they sort of turn into a big decision. Like this.
Erykah says, “melodies, prayers, babies.” A woman who isn’t asked says nothing. A woman who isn’t a mother fields questions. A woman who isn’t a mother owns a field. My mother holds my knee, my mother’s left hand is a wooden shield. My mother tells her cousin “when she’s ready.” A woman who waits—
Erykah says, “We give birth to different things. A woman who knows the difference says poems. A mother slices a pepper like a heart. A mother says, “Like this.” My mother holds a braid, holds the milk, holds a chrysalis. One mother says you “dodged a bullet.” A woman who waits waits for a sound in her heart. A doctor says, what saves you, what saves my life will burst a baby’s heart. A doctor says, “Choose.”
My mother’s hand in the car, hits my heart. A mother’s grief arrives, already swaddled. A mother with ashes for children says, “istinem.” The woman who birthed my mother says, “Maybe.” A woman who’s no longer asked, says “nothing?” Erykah says, “Birth things.” A woman who makes a choice works a field. My mother taught my hands to crimp the pastry. I taught my mother’s hands to lattice pastry. The woman who birthed my mother says prayers. My mother holds a needle, holds a feather, holds a door. When a doctor says, “choose,” a death is meeted. A poem says the same each time you meet it. A woman who doesn’t choose, crosses a field.
Ryo Yamaguchi (52:06):
Oh yeah. So, I mean, I love this poem so much. It feels so familiar to me, yet I’m still caught off guard hearing it. And again, your reading is so… The way you read it with such poise. And again, I can feel this lineage, the heritage is being passed through these really tactile experiences. I mean, this is a mother poem of all mother poems, I think. I don’t know. It’s really wonderful.
Amanda Gunn (52:32):
Thank you so much.
Ryo Yamaguchi (52:33):
And it gives me hope for future, too, and the mother is the junction between past, and future, and all these… Just incredible. Yeah. Well, thank you so much, Amanda. I mean, we really could… I mean, we need three more hours to… I mean, there’s so many things that I couldn’t get to, that I really, really wanted to talk about, but we’ll just have to save it perhaps for another time, to do this.
Amanda Gunn (52:53):
Ryo Yamaguchi (52:53):
I’m so glad for what we could discuss today. Thank you so much for being here. I hope it was fun. I hope… Yeah.
Amanda Gunn (52:59):
It was great. Thank you so much for having me. This was great.
Ryo Yamaguchi (53:02):
Yeah, absolutely. And yeah, I had such a good time. And yeah, we’re getting close here, December, so everyone, hunker down in the wintertime. Thank you all out there for joining us for this one, and we’ll see you at the next Line / Break.[End Transcript]