The Poetry Extension’s founder and curator, Natalya Anderson, interviews our Poet of the Month for September – the compassionate, thoughtful, tender-heart, Amy Key.
Amy Key lives in London, England. Her poetry has appeared in Poetry, The Poetry Review, Best British Poetry 2015, and other fine publications. Her debut collection, Luxe, was published by Salt. She founded and co-edited the online journal Poems in Which. Her second collection, Isn’t Forever, is forthcoming from Bloodaxe in June 2018.
Natalya: Hi Amy.
Amy: Oh my God, it’s a phone call from Canada!
Natalya: Yes, it is! Am I audible?
Amy: Yeah. Can you hear me?
Natalya: We’re good to go. You have a new book coming out next year, Isn’t Forever. I can’t wait to hear more about it. First, tell me how you began writing poetry.
Amy: By accident, really. I was just past my mid-late-20s, probably about 27 years old, when I first joined a writing class. I experienced a sort of grief for creativity that had felt very accessible to me in my teenage years. I think this might happen with a lot of people. I wrote a lot – not poetry, but short stories and music. It was a very big part of my identity during that formative time. Somehow I landed in my late-20s and, even though I read heaps, I wasn’t practicing any of those things any more. I was living in a shared flat, and I didn’t have a piano, so I couldn’t go back and write music again in the way I used to, so I thought I’d join a creative writing class. I joined one that had a lot of elements – poetry, fiction, scriptwriting. I found myself quite disinterested in all the elements apart from the poetry and that was surprising to me.
Natalya: How did you go from that first course to your debut poetry collection, Luxe?
Amy: Another course was recommended to me, and it was Roddy Lumsden’s group. I didn’t know who anybody was in poetry at the time. My knowledge of contemporary poetry was really poor. I joined Roddy’s class as a beginner. I was writing for two years when he was editing a series of pamphlets. The pamphlets were supported by the Arts Council for poets under 30 years old. I was really lucky that he chose my work.
Natalya: The pamphlet anchored you a bit.
Amy: That’s the word, yeah. It gave me kind of legitimacy. I was just about to turn 30 and most of the poets who were in that group were quite a bit younger, all coming out of English Literature programs. They all had the confidence, the vocabulary…
Natalya: The youth…
Amy: Yes! I felt like a late starter, as though I’d never catch-up. So, the pamphlet gave me a bit of a foothold. Then Roddy became the poetry editor at Salt, and we had become friends. I was really lucky that an editor took an interest in developing my poetry. I had that opportunity with Luxe.
Natalya: How are things different as you work on Isn’t Forever?
Amy: With Luxe, I didn’t really interrogate whether or not it was ready or if I had enough material. I was in a bit of a hurry to get some affirmation – not public affirmation, but like a small child who is told they’ve done something well. It was not as good a book as it could have been if I’d waited a bit longer. Luxe has that feeling of an accumulation of publishable poems. I wasn’t necessarily thinking, ‘What is this book about?’ That book happened to be trying to shine a light on elements of femininity that might be dismissed as froth – wanting to fit in with feminine ideals but fighting against them. With Isn’t Forever I wanted to sweep off that top layer of the shimmery language and be more direct, more brutal and somehow more tender with it.
Natalya: Let’s talk about how you do that with a poem like, ‘The News Reported She Wore Her Body to the Event’. It is so direct, and so good. I jumped out of my skin when I read it.
Amy: In my new book, I’ve got these presiding spirits, if you like, who preface each section with a line. One of them is Anne Sexton. She says, ‘We entered it completely / and let our bodies lose all their loneliness’. What the speaker enters could be love; it could be water; it could be both. When I read that I felt really emotional. That’s what happens to me when I’m in water. My body loses its loneliness and lets go those feelings of rejection for being, I guess, a fat body. Feelings about my body and opinion about women’s bodies that have been constructed around me or embedded in me for so long under so many different guises. Even though as a white woman, with blonde hair and blue eyes, I benefit from a society that values white beauty ideals, I’m completely messed up about it.
Natalya: Have you ever spoken, directly, to friends or family about this? Do you only write about it?
Amy: I find it so difficult to talk to people about this. It’s like you mentioned before when we were emailing or talking about these ideas. There’s this suspicion that people won’t treat you with care or they will say one thing (‘but you’re beautiful’) while thinking something else (‘I hope I never get like that’). People don’t know how to talk about it and I don’t know how to talk about it.
Natalya: You’re right. I suppose I’ve experienced something similar, only insofar as living in a body that is somehow not belonging, and people not knowing how to talk about it. I don’t know if that is helpful, though, or selfish.
Amy: No, say something.
Natalya: When I was living on a psychiatric ward, for all my teen years, those of us who were anorexic were in one group, the bulimics were in another, the over-eaters were in another, and then the crisis patients – adolescents who were often attempting suicide – were in another. We all had a completely different language and avoided each other. But we all had to take occupational therapy together. So, there was Lisa with her butt hanging out of her gown, sewing together a wallet; there was Julie with her butt hanging out of her gown, making papier-mâché napkin rings; there was Christine, butt out, rolling her eyes over a paint-by-numbers… And by the time we’d all lived together in that craft room for several months and years, we got to the point where we would talk to each other comfortably, and we saw that we all had the same story. Most of us had been sexually abused, or abused in some other way, and most of us just wanted to be loved or protected but were too broken up to know how to find or achieve that idea of love.
Amy: It’s such a mess – everyone is suffering in one way or another. I try to read stories by women who have a wide view of and experience of ‘beauty’ and look at images of different kinds of bodies. I have to reprogram my brain, tell myself, ‘Other types of bodies, all types of bodies, are good.’ And yet, it can feel like if we can’t describe them as beautiful, they have no validity: ‘She’s fat, but she’s got a great face.’ Why does beauty and attractiveness always have to be the goal? All of this expectation, and the shamefulness, prevent us from having good conversations with each other. For me, the impact of that is a feeling of being dislodged from my own body. It’s easier to pretend that it’s not there and, in some respects, when you are a fat woman other people pretend it’s not there too.
Natalya: I am finding a lot of women I interview are concerned about how women themselves contribute to our distressing physical perceptions. While we aim to dismantle patriarchy, we can occasionally still feel hurt by, judged by, and shamed by, our own grandmothers, mothers, sisters, girlfriends, female colleagues… And we all contribute to that, no matter how feminist we consider ourselves to be. Perhaps it’s our own fear of being invisible or erased by another woman’s success or accomplishment. Perhaps it’s just allowing feelings of shame to win. Perhaps it’s being exclusive toward another woman or another group of women. How have you experienced this?
Amy: I grew up in a household where Mum was always trying to diet and food was a source of shame and reward. From an early age, I knew that I wasn’t one of the thin girls. I remember I was quite good at sport and ran in a sports day race where a boy shouted at me ‘Come on, Chubby Legs!’. I feel like everyone, regardless of size, has stories like this – of being carved up into your body’s parts and herded into what is and isn’t acceptable. There’s a pernicious dieting culture in Western society. In recent years I’ve tried to take back control. I had to say to family and friends, ‘I don’t want to talk to you about your diet.’ I don’t diet, because when I diet I become completely obsessed with food and it’s all I think about – I feel I become less interesting as a result. It takes up all my brain – a brain I could be using to write, to be a good friend, to find pleasure. I’ve also become very sensitive to how women writers describe bodies in their writing and found it painful to read so many examples of bigger bodies being symbols of disgust and failure. Earlier in the year there was an amazing Facebook post by the writer and editor Ijeoma Oluo where she said, ‘I will not support the harmful notion that a smaller body is a moral victory’. Her words made me sob – I don’t want to be part of that culture either. But, at the same time, I battle with that, and at times I see my reflection and find my body disgusting, and I want to be thinner. I want to be able to buy clothing in more shops, and I want to be seen as conventionally desirable. And then I feel guilty and ashamed. The poem we’ve been discussing isn’t about that but it arises from that context.
Natalya: I hear you. I suppose we’re all tied into this shame for some reason. I grew up afraid to eat, to the point of terror, because when I was being abused as a child I would be sick. So, from a young age I figured it was best to avoid ever having food in my stomach, because then I wouldn’t vomit. Then that got all twisted into a shameful, anorectic spiral. And I still wear that shame. I must reprogram my brain, but I usually fail.
Amy: I’m so sorry that happened to you. Unfortunately, I also had that experience of childhood sexual abuse. I know that for me lots of how I feel about my body is tied to that experience but that knowledge has only developed in recent years – the trauma, if you like, showed up early but my ability to recognise it is relatively new.
Natalya: We are different, physically, but we have something similar going on inside. I think this is the case for a lot of women, and yet we don’t treat each other very well.
Amy: I know the people that love me try very hard to make me feel good about myself but I think I would agree a lot with that. How could we be anywhere else when society wants to control our bodies – how we use them and what they look like? Everyone I know feels they are fighting those expectations, more or less. Everyone has this internalized. There are small things I try to do. I try to never comment on other people’s bodies in a way that rewards them for thinness. I don’t greet someone with, ‘Oh you’ve lost weight.’ There’s a bit of me that just doesn’t want to play into it. I try to think of what makes me feel safe and secure, and I don’t feel safe when people comment on my body in that way ‘oh you’ve lost weight you look so good’. It gives a rush of pleasure but then it makes me resent how people have viewed me before that weight loss. The language people use – ‘Oh, you’re so voluptuous; you’re so curvy’ – for me is really loaded with a kind of demand that bigger bodies are acceptable if they provide sexual pleasure. It’s about changing the language. I think It’s like your experience on the psychiatric ward. You’re all put in these different categories, but when women actually talk to each other about it, when I talk to my women, it’s, like, ‘Oh, we’re all struggling with this. Oh, mate, I feel exactly the same way.’ Even us having this conversation contributes to the dismantling of these negative ideas society cultivates in us and that is precious and necessary. When I was writing ‘The News Reported She Wore Her Body to the Event’, I felt it was a bit of an outing of myself. An outing of myself, publicly saying I have these feelings of conflict about my body. I have a fat body (as though people wouldn’t notice if I didn’t say it first, as though I could make fatness invisible through sheer strength of thought!). The mainstream body positivity movement, which, to quote my friend Rachel Benson, is ‘made to be about and to benefit only white, thin, able-bodied people’, seems to lean too heavily on self-love. Coming back to what Ijeoma Oluo said: ‘no amount of self-love that can fully counter a world that hates fatness’, not to mention hatred of women, people of colour, people with a disability, gay people, transgender people. There’s so much work to do.