Poet Amanda Smeltz Discusses Wine, New York, the Ambiguity of Destruction, and Her New Collection IMPERIAL BENDER

Typecast Publishing authors Amanda Smeltz, Chris Mattingly, and Matt Hart will read April 20th 7:30pm at Seidenfaden’s (1134 E Breckinridge St  Louisville, KY 40204). I guess Jen Woods couldn’t resist throwing a party here in Louisville for National Poetry Month! Smeltz’s Imperial Bender is forthcoming as a limited VAULT edition, the first run of Mattingly’s Scuffletown is due shortly, and Matt Hart’s Sermons and Lectures: Both Blank and Relentless is being reprinted in box-set (letterpressed booklets and the CD album of the same name by Matt’s band TRAVEL stuffed into a cool box). To celebrate her own book and the rest, Amanda Smeltz is coming all the way from Brooklyn, NYC to party with us!

 

Brandon Stettenbenz: As a sommelier you have to know your product intimately, down to the slightest nuance. In Imperial Bender, your poems often compare individuals to very distinct wines, and you seem to mull them over carefully, in a similar way to wine though perhaps with less professional distance. How does your profession fit with or influence your poetic?

Amanda Smeltz:  I compare people to specific wines in the book? I know there’s one poem where I liken my skin getting tan to Heiligenstein (which is a famous vineyard in Austria, it means holy rock)— but this has less to do with wine knowledge and more with my capacity for mythologizing. My profession isn’t being a somm; that’s an aspect of my day job. Thinking about wine isn’t a superpower, though of course it doesn’t suck to think sensually and emotionally as part of your job. But listen, a lot of it’s throwing around cases of booze in storage and dealing with imbecile salespeople. The Muse turned down my invite to visit the walk-in where I’m counting kegs.

BS: Speaking of spirits, this collection is boisterous, surreal at times, but also seems very personal. Some of the poems, in my opinion, read like letters to loved ones lost to death, or simply left behind. There’s an elegiac fondness working like vines through this book, like some organic network of human experience that binds crazy parties and indiscretions into a tapestry of being (as opposed to a National Lampoon movie). Could you tell us how you approached balancing your personal experience/narrative with the universal/philosophical images that delve into/aim for our “collective unconscious”?

AS: Hey, there’s plenty universal and philosophical about indiscretions! Shakespeare was more bawdy than I am, and no one pokes him about showing too much undapants.

I was fretful about a very confessional poem I was writing in grad school, one that was about as realist as they come, and a friend advised me not to be so nervous: he said the more honest we are in poems, the more others will recognize themselves in them. Through empathy, I wager. Admittedly I sometimes fear being considered an inferior intellect for my need to overtly explore my personal history, but that’s only when I’m being pathetic. I’m bound by my personal experience, even my body, but I mean to use them both to enter being beyond my own. As to how I go about doing it, I don’t understand my own methods. A lot of the poems are just frantic attempts. Rhyme I tried, and bravado, and narrative, and vivid imagery. How does any poet do it? I’m still learning. Seidel has: “I don’t remember poems I write. / I turn around and they are gone.”

I like that you said “elegiac fondness” in the same breath as “vines,” though. Couldn’t be happier to have those things said in earshot of my poems.

BS: Your poems in Imperial Bender go back and forth between allusions involving Greek mythology and romanticized modern experiences akin to the dramatically embellished beaches and pastoral places a reader might find in say, a Harlequin Romance. I found these transportations surprising, at times hilarious and at other times dead serious. I just don’t see many people hitting two very disparate ends of the literary spectrum within one collection, let alone one poem, very often. Delivering believable emotions to your reader in two modes back to back seems like an inherently difficult approach. Why did you decide to layer your work with these different allusions?

AS: Because that manner of counterpoint delights me. High and low, pah. It seems to me our notion of poetry lags way behind our notions in the visual arts. We’re comfortable there with not differentiating between high and low. I make a shitty realist, it turns out, and I can’t “correct” some of my bad taste. I populate my poems with things I delight in or am vexed by. If that’s Tupac and the book of Isaiah in the same breath, I can’t help that any.

BS: You also address people in your personal history (most notably in “Letter to Denny from Brooklyn”) as well as historical figures (ex: George the second) and poets (ex: Keats, Li Po). Besides being obviously rooted in your past and education, perhaps in your development as an artist or just personal development in general, what reasons did you have for using such specific figures? What’s their function for you, and also for your readers?

AS: I like people! I put people in my poems because they’re what I spend the bulk of my time thinking about in real life – whether alive or dead, fictive or “real…”  The people in what I write are alive to me. To employ someone from my life is strange anyway: the moment you put them in your poem, your intention of how to depict them or what they mean to you is out of your hands. It belongs to the reader immediately. Denny Smeltz may as well be John Flippin’ Keats to you. And who Keats is to me is my own goddamn business, and I intend to keep talking to and about him. Although, as regards the habit of name-checking my poet loves, the very intelligent Mark Bibbins told me I’m too much FUCK YEAH NEW YORK SCHOOL, and that’s likely true.

BS: There’s quite of bit of self-destructive behavior, which you lament, celebrate, and forgive almost simultaneously. Likewise, the destruction and mutilation of individuals, societies, and landscapes wrought by war is also present. Finally, the motif of destruction, mutilation, and change inevitable to time and human experience is implied by natural imagery (most notably in “Baby, Vivere”). Those are three quite distinct ways to address our malleable reality and growth/decline as individuals and as a species. Why did you choose such an aggressive mode to tackle this subject? Is the natural imagery intended to quell or defang the terror of war and abuse?

AS: “Lament, celebrate, and forgive almost simultaneously” – that’s very accurate. That’s close to how I encounter wrongdoing and suffering in myself and in the world. Some kinds of destruction have no redemptive aspects – rape, abuse of power, brutality. But even in the wake of horrible suffering, there’s sometimes a pasture… And some kinds of destruction aren’t evil at all; I’m not the only artist who’s made good, lucid work in a gnarly hangover. I don’t know how to talk about the ambiguity of destruction better than this. It is probably one of the reasons I write poems.

If this mode, whatever it is, seems aggressive to you, I can tell you that you aren’t the only person who’s found being with me exhausting. Being a human is intense!

For the natural imagery – no, it can’t de-fang the horror of the world. But it is still crazy beautiful here sometimes. There’s a begonia blooming outside my window right now, on my gritty industrial block. I love it, and I love the neighbors who insist on it despite their nonexistent backyard.

BS: Ok, that was a ton of literary, philosophical and craft talk. Lastly, I’d just like to share a note I wrote while reading Imperial Bender and maybe get your reaction to it: “Celebrations of the wild mundane and of modern misfits drunk on dreaming.”

AS: I’d say you’ve captured perfectly my romanticizing self-indulgence. Cheers.

BS: If you aren’t excited Louisville readers, you might want to check your pulse. Seidenfaden’s (1134 E Breckinridge St  Louisville, KY 40204) April, 20th @7:30PM: Grab your best hat, slip on your boots, get ready to laugh, hoot and holler, put a couple books and maybe some bourbon on your tab for the authors!

 

Author Bio: “Amanda Smeltz is the assistant poetry editor for Forklift, Ohio. Her interests include philosophy, history, swears and insults, bourbon and big laughter. In addition to writing, you can find Smeltz in her Brooklyn stomping ground working as a sommelier and wine director. Buy her a drink.”

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