I had the honor of meeting poet, writer and teacher, Amy Orazio, in Los Angeles at a conference several years ago. We connected on our backgrounds in writing, and I was instantly captivated by her fun personality, completely at rest in her own skin.
At the time, she was expecting baby #1. Now, she and her husband, Caleb, live in the uncool part (according to her) of Portland, Oregon, with that sweet baby #1 and also a baby #2.
Amy received her MFA in Creative Writing at Otis College of Art and Design. Her work has appeared in publications such as H_NGM_N, Bitterzoet, Gap Tooth, Pidgeonholes, Synasesthesia, Chaparral, and The Curator. She just released her first book, Quench, a collection of her original work. Buy it!
And check out our fun interview – you’ll fall in love!
A.S.: Amy, tell us a little about yourself. What do you do? What is this season of life all about for you?
A.O.: Right now I stay at home full-time with my two sons. I was an adjunct faculty member before this; I taught English to college freshmen. I really enjoyed it, but I can’t imagine returning to that role for a while. My babies are 23 and 7 months old, and I can barely see straight, let alone think about standing in front of a class. I have a collection of poetry coming out soon, so I’ll have to wear both my writer’s hat and my mom’s hat, in order to get the book out into the world. I’m thinking about enrolling my sons in the process–perhaps they can pass out snacks at my readings (they prefer crackers and applesauce pouches, which I think will be a hit for attendees).
A.S.: When did you know you would be a poet?
A.O.: I always loved writing, but my path to it professionally has been wibbly-wobbly. I went to a bible college for my undergraduate studies. I wanted to devote four years of my life to learning more about God as a person: all of the interactive and mystical and healing parts. While a lot of my peers [I went to high school with] were in huge lecture halls in universities taking classes that would inform a trade or career, I was in tiny little rooms studying the book of Ezekiel and intercessory prayer. It was incredibly impractical, and I loved it.
After graduating, I took supplementary courses at the University of Oregon so that I could go into the counseling/social work field, although it felt like a bit of a stalling tactic–not a job that was ultimately making my heart come alive. As I was nearing my late twenties, I was feeling unfulfilled and static at my job. I knew that I wanted to pursue a more creative life, and I knew that I wanted to go back to school. On a whim, I applied to an MFA Creative Writing Program. The school required a portfolio so I scraped something together, using poems I had written in my journal. I was stunned when I was accepted into the program, but it was just the push I needed, to own that part of myself.
I think that investment of a graduate degree (the time and money it required) was what it took for me to identify writing as my MAIN thing. I actually can see now, the connection between my undergraduate studies and graduate studies. To embrace both divinity and poetry is to embrace mystery and the abstract.
A.S.: Who are your favorite poets?
A.O.: A few of my favorite poets are Lorine Niedecker, Samuel Menashe, e.e. cummings, Brooklyn Copeland, Martha Ronk, Ocean Vuong. I also keep company with poets I adore who are putting relevant work out into the world: Rocio Carlos, Rachel Kaminer, Sierra Nicole-Qualles, Bridgette Bianca.
I am drawn to poets that anchor their work in visceral experience and master the economy of language: the ones who say a lot with a little. I find myself re-reading the poems that pack a punch, that surprise me and sing to me.
A.S.: What do you love about writing?
A.O.: I’m super sensitive. I FEEL ALL THE FEELS, and I notice all the things. I think writing is a great funnel for my experience, for the way that I move through the world. Also, it’s just fun and incredibly satisfying to partner with the creative process, to wrestle with words and come out on the other side with something beautiful or interesting.
A.S.: What is your writing process? What motivates you as a writer?
A.O.: Reading informs my writing process, for sure. Absorbing the rhythms and word choices of other writers helps that writing part of my brain; it starts humming along, and I remember what it feels like to write. Going for a walk and letting a piece breathe is usually helpful for me too–the act is so rhythmic that it can sometimes get my creativity unstuck.
As of late, I’ve found that having kids is an interesting creative constraint. I will only get one or two hours of solitude a week so I force myself in that time to GET SOMETHING ON THE PAGE. Just anything. Sometimes it’s trash, but a lot of times I can mold that raw material into an interesting piece later. So far the pressure is good for my hemming-and-hawing tendencies
A.S.: Who would you define as your audience?
A.O.: That’s a pertinent question, something I’ve been thinking about. In graduate school, we were warned that the audience for poetry is limited. We were advised that only poets or people that run in literary/academic circles buy poetry books; therefore it would be prudent to invest in a career outside of writing (such as teaching or publishing).
However, what I’ve seen in the last few years is that there is a HUGE audience for poetry. Poets like Rupi Kaur and Cleo Wade, who are writing simple, easy-to-read pieces, have amassed enormous followings! So I think that the interest is there, it’s just a matter of presenting the poetry in a way that makes the work feel accessible.
My writing isn’t super opaque, but it’s also not pop poetry either, so I am trying to think of ways to bring people into what I’m doing–to provide an avenue into the work. The ground level interest in poetry that is popping up on Instagram is encouraging! I’m hoping to draw people toward different flavors of poetry (like mine!), and I would love to broaden my audience, especially beyond the poetry world.
A.S.: What does “TRUTH” mean to you? What lens do you view truth through?
A.O.: This is going to sound intellectually lazy, but I don’t think a lot about TRUTH with a capital T. Questioning truth often happens in super existential thought processes or conversations, which are both just really boring to me.
I took an apologetics course in bible college, and I could completely see the merits of engaging with that kind of study, but I didn’t connect to it. I did love this quote from CS Lewis. It’s the only thing I remember from the class,
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him [that is, Christ]: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse…You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon, or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
That has always stuck with me, especially as our culture has free-floated from modernism to postmodernism to–where are we at now? Post-postmodernism? Truth is a little slippery right now, and there are merits to being inclusive and keeping the door open to new and varying thoughts; however, I don’t think it makes sense to land on Jesus being a good teacher. FULL STOP. He was either crazy or God.
Here is a different way into explaining how I experience truth: you know that part of the Bible, right after Jesus came back from the dead, when he was walking with some folks, but they didn’t recognize him? It wasn’t until they were all sitting down eating that their eyes were open to really see him. They said, “Were not our hearts burning within us?”
I love, love, love that part. They connected the truth of His existence to the burning in their hearts. I will never shake that. It’s how I have always felt about Jesus. I mean, I’m a writer, and articulating ideas and experiences is what I do, but I can’t explain WHY I believe that God is real and that he is true…
My burning heart is the witness I need.
A.S.: What would you say are the strengths/weaknesses of Christian poetry vs. strengths/weaknesses of secular poetry? Do you feel that Christian and secular poetry are paradoxes or parallels, and why?
A.O.: There is a lot of cheesy poetry out there, both overtly Christian and not Christian. I’m sure I’ve contributed to that cheese pile! But as I grow as a poet, I’m trying to expand myself beyond didactic and concrete tendencies. I think that if you grow up in a culture like the church, you are trained to pull teaching points and lessons out of everything.
Most teaching in the church is very linear, very clean, very sure of itself, very easy to understand. When I read the Bible, however, I don’t necessarily see that. I also don’t see that in life. It’s all messy, sensual, circular, random, mysterious. I want my poetry to reflect that.
I think my favorite piece of the Bible, that feels like good Christian poetry, is the beginning of John 1. The light metaphor that John uses, combined with the sound that he employs and that idea of GOD WEARING FLESH–it’s all so weird and gorgeous.
A.S.: What does “Christian poet” mean to you?
A.O.: I actually don’t intend to write about spirituality, but it is a heavy theme in my work. I feel like poetry is funny like that. You think you’re writing about one thing–maybe cutting into a lemon–and you realize later that the poem was about a relationship of yours, or your connection to God or your reaction to life.
I wrote this poem called “Wait Here” when I was living in Los Angeles. At the time, my husband and I were thinking about moving back to the Northwest, but we weren’t sure. I felt good about the poem–I thought the imagery was interesting and the rhythm of it worked but I had no other feelings about it. Like I didn’t connect it to my own journey.
About six months later, we found ourselves living in Portland, OR, and an online journal reached out because they wanted to publish the poem, including an audio recording of it. My husband made this beautiful little video of me reading the poem, using clips of our life. When I watched it for the first time, he (my husband) pointed out that the poem seemed like it might have been about our own transition, that pull toward our home. I gasped when I realized that. The true meaning of the poem snuck up on me.
Anyway, I think that since I am a Christian and I am a poet, that will tend to happen–my faith will present itself in my work before I even realize it. But I am not setting out to write explicitly Christian poetry.
A.S.: Are you working on any current projects?
A.O.: I wrote and am now releasing a book called Quench. The book is about a thirst for home, in every sense of the word: a home in God, a home in love, a physical home. It takes the reader through different landscapes and seasons, positing that the environment around us can affect the way that we see and ultimately, the way that we drink.
A.S.: What is your dream as a poet?
A.O.: I want to keep having fun. I don’t want to take myself or my work too seriously. I want to create poetry that reaches into people’s spirits before their heads. I want to write as a way to stay upside down, to savor, to pay attention. Mary Oliver, a beautiful human who has a completely different faith perspective than I do, wrote this (excerpt from The Summer Day):
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Four years ago I would have turned my nose up at that poem because it’s so simple and straightforward. But now I hold it in my hand as I would a dear loved one. What a credo! That’s what I want to do; that is my dream: to write, to see, to live.
A.S.: If you could give any advice to poets, what would it be?
A.O.: I’ve taught a couple of poetry workshops and what I always try to emphasize, and what students rarely listen to, is this: STOP USING CLICHES. Just stop. Cut back on adjectives and flowery language. If the poem feels boring and plain-spoken, don’t be afraid to get weird and mess with the syntax a bit. Be comfortable with mystery.
Then again, I might have been teaching a future Mary Oliver (who is known for her simple, earnest poetry, see above example). What do I know?
Check out some of Amy’s poems related to TRUTH that were published in Curator Magazine, HERE.
Follow Amy on Instagram and check out her site, www.amyorazio.com.
And BUY Amy’s brand new book, QUENCH, a collection of her poetry.