The Writer’s Block Transcripts: A Q&A with Amber Flora Thomas
On June 18, 2015, Amber Flora Thomas came to City of Asylum to participate in the fifth annual reading by Cave Canem poets. Cave Canem, an African American poetry organization, was founded by Toi Dericotte and Cornelius Eady in 1996.
Amber Flora Thomas is the author of The Rabbits Could Sing and The Eye of Water, winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. She has been the recipient of the Richard Peterson Poetry Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize from Rosebud Magazine, the Ann Stanford Poetry Prize, and an individual artist grant from the Marin Arts Council. Amber Flora Thomas read with Willie Perdomo and Cornelius Eady in the Alphabet City Tent on Sampsonia Way.
Before the reading, Amber talked to Sampsonia Way about the expectations she faces as a woman of color and a black poet, and how Cave Canem has influenced her work. She also provided some advice to young writers.
As a woman poet of color, what kinds of expectations do you encounter from the poetry community at large?
I think that if you identify as a black poet people expect you to write about being black. If your work doesn’t specifically talk in a political way about it, some groups can be disappointed, some individuals can be disappointed. I’ve definitely experienced that. I’ve also experienced the flip side of that, which is that I am mixed race and so in some circles, it might not be “acceptable” that I consider myself a black poet, because I have a different cultural experience, because I come from having parents of different ethnic backgrounds.
Reality is the world sees me as a woman of color, and I see myself that way. I have no choice but to see myself that way. And thank God for that!
How do you navigate those expectations through Cave Canem?
Cave Canem has made it okay for me to be a poet, to write what I need to write, and to have the experience that I have being mixed race. It doesn’t matter that I have a mother who is Irish-German. The only thing that matters is that the world sees me as a black woman, a woman of color, and because of that they open their arms to me.
Are there any topics that are off limits to you?
There are certainly some things that I haven’t been able to write about. Both my parents are still living, so sometimes there are things that I feel like I can’t say because I’m just not ready to bring that up while they’re still in the world.
In terms of race, in terms of my experience as a woman of color, I don’t think that anything’s off limits. I feel like Cave Canem has made me be okay writing about whatever my experience is about race. It can be kind of confusing at times being a person with two cultural backgrounds, so I think that through being a fellow at Cave Canem and reading other writers of color, I’ve learned how to write about that experience without feeling obligated to make it understandable for other people, but rather just be honest about what it’s like for me.
What are your least favorite interview questions?
I think that if I’ve ever had a bad experience in an interview, it’s just getting asked questions when people make assumptions about who they’re talking to, and then I have to sort of navigate their assumptions, navigate what they’re trying to ask me by then first correcting them.
What are your obsessions as a poet?
I really like working with animals in my poetry. There was something about the animal body; it’s okay to write about dead animals. It’s not okay or as easy to write about humans dying, or explore [the human body] in an unabashed way. But you can do that with an animal body because we cut into an animal body, we remove the bowels, we use it for meat, we do this whole process to the animal in a way that we would never do it with the human.
So I do a lot with the animal body and use it as a vehicle to explore the human body.
What would you tell a student who was worried that he or she wasn’t a “real poet”?
I would tell them not to worry about that exterior concern with the writing or with publishing or what their perception is based on something they’ve read or heard. I would ask them to talk to me about their lives. What are they doing with their life at that moment? Are they nine months pregnant about to pop out a baby? Well maybe this isn’t the time that they’re going to be writing their next book. Maybe they need to have their baby, have that experience, and be in their minds thinking about the time, when their child is a certain age, that they’ll be able to go back to go to writing.
I would say that it’s not important what anyone else says about what they should be doing with their writing or how many poems they should be writing, or how often, but rather they need to figure out who they are, what they want to accomplish in their lives, and really be honest with themselves about that and then go out and do it. If, after they have that honest conversation, they discover that they really only want to finish one book, and do it really well, but that one book may take all of their adult life to complete, and, at the end of that cycle, someone may not want to publish it. So they have to decide: is it more important if they wait for a publisher to say yes, I want this book? Or is it more important that they take all the steps necessary to get it done and then hold the finished product?
It’s very hard. It’s so competitive out there and there are so many people who think they have the “right answer” about what it means to be a writer, but ultimately the only thing that really makes you a writer is putting your butt in a chair and doing it. Some writers are different. They think about their poems or their essays or their stories for years and years and years. And then when they put their butt in the chair after five years of not writing, suddenly they’re just writing the whole entire work. It just comes out like that.
Learning who you are and what your goals are for your writing is really important. But all that exterior stuff is not relevant to anything other than what other people think of you.