“I need to live to have anything to say”: An Interview with Amber Nelson

Amber Nelson’s latest book of poetry, Sexiest Man Alive, illuminates the differences of men placed in the public eye. From malicious Mel to charming Channing, she’s got it covered, as well as a look into her own character. Nelson is also the author of In Anima: Urgency (2013) as well as several chapbooks, including First Apocalypse (2019), and The Terror of Spring (2016). We talked about Sexiest Man Alive, media influence, climate change, and future works while she was at her desk in this time of social distancing.

In the self-titled preface to your book, The Sexiest Man Alive, you mention how you have to wait for inspiration to strike. Do you have any particular things or instances that reliably trigger your brain to start creating or does it just come to you? I remember when I first started writing I would get inspiration in the middle of the night. Sometimes it would even wake me up and I’d have to run to find a pen.

I would say it has always depended. Writing more frequently does seem to prime the brain better for more inspiration, to look at and think of the world that way. And yeah, I’ve definitely woken up in the middle of the night with a line, or several lines, and had to scrawl them down somewhere. Sometimes they are useful, and sometimes I wake up and look at what I’ve written wondering what on earth I was thinking.

I’ve known people who seemed to get anxious, fidgety, if they haven’t written in a while. The way I get if I’m trapped inside for too long. I’ve never felt that way about writing, always trusted that it would come when I wanted or needed it. That a big writing project kind of empties the tank and then I need to just go out and live to refill it. I need to live to have anything to say.

I definitely agree that experiences lead to better, more interesting pieces. It’s important to continue to create memories in order to not only better your writing but yourself as well.

These days I’ve been feeling like there are more important voices than my own that need to be heard. It hasn’t kept me from writing or publishing some, from giving a reading now and then. But it has reduced some of the urgency.

But while spending the holidays with my partner’s family, we often took walks in the woods across the street—in a park with a small system of trails. The park had signs on some of the trees, identifying them, listing some of their characteristics, their history, whether they were native species in the region, the impacts of non-native trees. I’ve been wanting to do something with that. I’m not sure yet what.

You mention that pop culture has likely influenced you as a poet. What would you say would be the most influential thing to your writing right now?

Pop culture has definitely influenced me as a poet. The Sexiest Man Alive is direct commentary on the weirdness of celebrity. This Ride is in Double Exposure are poems written entirely in response to individual movies. Diary of When Being with Friends Feels Like Watching TV makes regular reference to different cultural touchstones. The elegy I wrote after my grandfather passed away quotes Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Dutch Baby Combo played with nursery rhymes. Poetry was how we told our stories a long time ago, but now, the most central way we tell the stories of our lives, that we share them, that we pass our histories and what they mean, is through movies and television. Of course people still read and obviously, as a poet, I believe that matters. But there is a much wider footprint for Game of Thrones than there is for, say, Prageeta Sharma’s Grief Sequence, since I just finished it.

And I don’t know that the influence of pop culture on my writing will go anywhere. But it hasn’t really had a dramatic influence on my writing recently. This is, in part, because I have been writing much less. But also, in part, because the primary thing I’ve been working on is a collaboration with a visual artist, Kohl King, and what we were working on seemed born out of our own lives, different grieving processes that we were individually going through, and using art as a way to work our way through that.

Other external influences for me have always been the natural world. As a hiker/backpacker/bicycle rider, it’s omnipresent in my life. I grew up at the foot of Mount Rainier and spent much of my childhood camping. And now, with climate change, it’s on my mind in that way as well, a looming threat, all the ways we humans have screwed up.

Climate change is a really big issue right now. A few years ago I canvassed for a non-profit. It opened my eyes to what is happening and what we can do to stop it. So, out of curiosity, what are you doing to minimize your carbon footprint?

Ten years ago I sold my car and bought a bicycle. For 10 years I was a full-time cyclist. I recently bought a car (mostly for my work but also to go hiking etc). It sits parked most of the time unless my partner and I are headed out of town. Mostly I ride my bike, walk or take transit.

I work hard to buy as much food in bulk sections as possible, use reusable food storage in place of Ziploc and plastic bags etc, switched to a safety razor instead of the expensive and wasteful lady razors, and also buying hygiene and beauty products in bulk instead of in single-use plastic bottles. I also live a pretty DIY life at home, mostly making my own home cleaning products. Of course I recycle. Skip the Keurig and use a reusable copper filter in my coffee maker (or a french press or moka pot), and compost. 

Also, while not even a vegetarian, I’ve put a special focus on eating more plant-based and vegetarian meals starting this year. That said, I made char siu this week while social distancing. So, you know, not remotely a vegan.

In an interview with Poetry Northwest, you describe the process for writing another book of yours, In Anima: Urgency, as having an urge to write even though you didn’t fully understand what it was you were writing. How did you come up with the idea for The Sexiest Man Alive? When I first heard about it, I immediately thought that this was going to be interesting. It took me by surprise just how deep into these men’s characters you go. In the Sean Connery piece, you go as far as having him actively compare himself to James Bond, the good and the bad. It’s like I’m seeing the insides of these men put onto the page. 

I had moved back to Seattle after grad school. I hadn’t been writing—too busy working, making new friends, building my new life, or whatever. But I was in the grocery store one day waiting in line at checkout and saw the cover of People magazine and didn’t recognize anyone on the cover. I thought that was weird because wasn’t celebrity sort of what that magazine dealt in—wasn’t that the pitch to buy? All the dirt on some celebrity life?

It got me thinking about the nature of celebrity. I asked around at my work for old issues of the magazine—one of them was Sexiest Man Alive 2011—Bradley Cooper. I didn’t really yet know what was going to happen, how it would develop, how I would pursue it. All of that happened naturally while I was just thinking through everything, how weird that whole universe is. (And no judgment here—I’m totally guilty of it, obviously.)

Also, later, I learned who those no-name people were on the cover of the magazine. It was the Kardashians.

So why choose to do the poems based off of People’s “Sexiest Man Alive” list and not another or your own concoction of men or women?

People did ask about doing the Sexiest Women Alive. I just kind of felt like women celebrities get picked at enough. And also I felt pretty done with this project at this point. But it felt weird to leave it unbalanced which is why it felt important to write the poem about me—I tried to be as unflinching toward myself and my own public speech as I was to anyone else.

Was it difficult to write such an honest piece about yourself?

It was, in the way that I wanted to be… you know… as objective as possible. But also because I just don’t have as much public speech as a celebrity does to work with. 

Which poem from this book was your favorite to write? Do you have a favorite poem overall that you’ve written?

Well I don’t know about favorite. Nick Nolte hits me hardest in the feels. And Tom Cruise, for me, was so surprising. And I see it when I share it at readings. People come with the expectation about crazy Tom Cruise, but it doesn’t turn into that. And that was what it was like reading those interviews. Channing Tatum, though, is probably the most fun.

It’s interesting to see just how different people’s preconceptions are compared to what you’ve published. Was it challenging to differentiate between what the media has to say and fact?

Not really. Since the project inherently took preconceptions into account. I have no illusions that the material I was working with was fact. It’s already been filtered through somebody else’s vision—whether through the written editing process or through the bend of an interviewers questions. Bias is built in to the material. Plus, the other part of the idea is that the celebrities themselves are performing their personality, not necessarily offering objective facts.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that truth doesn’t shine through—and I hope it does. But all of this is about performance and perception. Each celebrity’s self-perceptions and self-performances. The perceptions of the media and the audience. The way I perceive both performances. The way I then perform that perception. It all just loops and loops back around on itself. Talking about it is even kind of dizzying.

Wow, that’s very confusing. I’m glad you were able to navigate that web of personas to give us this fantastic finished product.

Do these poems reflect how you feel about these men or is it an objective view? The stance taken in the poems is one of defense. They’re defending themselves against the world’s views but, I guess what I’m really asking is, are they defending themselves from you? 

I don’t know if objectivity is really possible, but I also don’t think these reflect my personal view. My goal, I guess, was to kind of distill the experience of these interviews, en masse. It’s a combination of their performance of themselves, the journalist interpretations, my own interpretations. It’s not real. But I also expect that their performance of themselves isn’t real. Like this isn’t what they are like when they are home, by themselves. It’s their image, their brand, what they’ve decided to show to the world. But, I think, that the poems do encapsulate how I have experienced these celebrity personas, often including how they may have changed over time.

You’ve now written two full-length poetry books. I’m sure a lot of work goes into producing one, even with all the poetry I’ve written over my lifetime I don’t think that I could put together enough similar material to fill a book. Do you have any plans for another book in the near future?

I have actually written six full-length poetry books—it’s just I’ve only managed to publish these two.  🙂 I expect most published poets have a manuscript or two tucked away, unpublished, somewhere. Or maybe that’s just how I like to comfort myself.

I had no idea! That’s fantastic that you have so much material to work with. I’ve got quite a few unpublished things gathering dust, too.

At this point I don’t necessarily have any plans for future full-lengths. I have one book that had a publisher and publication date, but the press went under and I’ve never found a home for the book since. I am still hopeful that I will. Other things I’ve been working on since have been smaller. I’ve always loved the chapbook length—as a reader and a writer. And currently I have three chapbook projects kind of in the works, at different stages of development. I don’t know at all what will come of them, if anything. But they are there, being written.

Tori Felter is a senior at The College of Saint Rose. She is majoring in English and always had an interest in the publishing world. She is looking to make it a career after graduation. Over the years, she has written a number of short stories and poems, but looks forward to the day when she can help writers, like herself, put their work out into the world.

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