. . . [I]n the final instance, I believe
a good poem is a good poem. . . .
~ Spoken Word Artist, Poet, and Storyteller Ami Mattison
Ami Mattison is a poet who also is a storyteller who brings her work to life through spoken word performances. I first had the pleasure of reading a poem of Ami's that she had posted to one of my poetry groups at the networking site She Writes. I have been impressed ever since not only with Ami's deep sensitivity to words and her understanding of words' use and power, but also with Ami's writing at her blog poetryNprogress, where you'll find posts on creativity, creative success and diligence, and many other informative essays on writing and professional and creative development. Ami also is a champion of other poets; at SheWrites, she offers perceptive comments on drafts and unqualified, unstinting encouragement.
Ami is the author of a chapbook, Slug. Mojo. Poetry; has produced a demo CD, Strange and Potent Mixture; has published some of her writing in the anthology The Very Inside; and co-edited the anthology Not Your Mama's Cookbook (King's Crossing Press, 2002). She frequently leads writing and spoken-word performance workshops.
I asked Ami to sit virtually with me for an interview, via e-mail; I am especially pleased to be able to share that interview with you now.
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Maureen Doallas: What influenced your decision to become a poet?
Ami Mattison: Reading great poetry and falling in love with poets and poems during my college years propelled me towards writing and becoming a poet. Until that time, from childhood into young adulthood, I wrote primarily short stories, and I dreamed of becoming a novelist. While I loved poetry, writing it and becoming a poet weren't even on my radar yet. When I was introduced to the poetry and other writings of feminist poets Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde, not only did I fall in love with their work; their writings showed me what was really possible with poetry—how it could change hearts, minds, and lives, how it could be located in personal experience and simultaneously illuminate how such experience intersects, collides, or becomes intricately interconnected with culture, history, and politics. With their lives and with their work, they were highly influential in my determination to write poetry and become a poet.
At the same time, my friends were very influential in my pursuit to become a poet. In young adulthood, I hesitated to call myself a poet and to own that identity, primarily because I didn't think my poetry was very good. But I'd share my poetry with my friends, and they all were so supportive and loving about my efforts. They kept saying, "You're a great poet! Your poetry is brilliant!" And while my poetry was certainly not brilliant at that time, [my friends'] encouragement was invaluable and nurtured my identity as a poet and my work.
MD: Do you recall the first poem you ever wrote?
AM: The first poem I ever wrote was about my father, and I used the metaphor and descriptions of his hands to describe both his rough and his gentle nature. My parents asked me to read it to some family friends, and that was the occasion for my first poetry performance as well.
MD: What most satisfies you about being a poet?
AM: The actual work of poetry, playing around with language, and figuring out what language can and cannot seem to express are so much fun to me. Sometimes I get frustrated when I'm working and unable to express exactly what I want. But there is nothing quite like that feeling of stringing together words, making meaning, and expressing something more surprising and more honest than I had originally conceived. So, playing around with language and being surprised by what I write are the most satisfying parts of being a poet.
MD: What prompted you to begin performing your work?
AM: Throughout the 1990s, I presented my work in a number of literary readings. But these experiences were unsatisfying. In my writing, I was working very hard on the sounds and rhythms of my poetry, and I didn't know how to use my voice and my body yet to convey these sounds and rhythms. In 2000, I started going to an "open mic" called Cliterati, which at that time was exclusively for women writers. I really dug that scene, and the poets were doing different things with their voices and bodies, taking some risks and performing. So, I slowly but surely began to do the same. I began to memorize my work and began taking more and more risks. Before I left Cliterati, I was adding music to some of my pieces, collaborating with musicians, touring individually and with other poets (and actually making money), had recorded a demo CD, which I still sell at my performances, and working very hard to develop a unique brand of spoken word.
MD: What would you describe as the difference(s) between writing a poem to be read and writing a poem to be spoken aloud?
AM: A common search that drives readers to poetryNprogress is "how to write a spoken word poem". So, in an effort to answer this question, I've thought a lot about the differences between poems intended to be read from the page and performance pieces. However, I don't really have any definitive answers to this question. The interesting truth is, any poem potentially can be a spoken word piece. But the more successful spoken word pieces are easy to follow when listened to. Sure, most spoken word pieces need to be listened to several times to really understand their full meanings. But poets who are not writing for listening audiences don't seem so concerned about using seemingly cryptic metaphors and language that seems more like a code than some straightforward conveyance of thought.
A lot of poetry intended for the page seems to be written for an audience well-versed and educated in poetry and literature. Spoken word poetry is intended to be understood and enjoyed by everyone and anyone. So, accessibility tends to set apart "page poetry" from spoken word poetry. In the final instance, I believe a good poem is a good poem, and it can be read from the page or it can be spoken, and its value and brilliance will shine, regardless of the medium through which it is delivered.
MD: What makes a spoken word performance successful?
AM: A successful spoken word performance requires, first, a good poem, one that resonates with a diverse audience. And it also requires several important components, such as meaningful, committed gestures and intonation and pitch of one's voice. For me, what always wins is passion—when a performer manages to emote passion in her performance of a poem and to convey love for what she's doing. And when she does it a unique, interesting, and fresh way, I never fail to be impressed and inspired.
MD: In what kinds of venues do you perform? Which do you prefer, and why?
AM: I've performed in many different venues: bars, cafes, theatres, hotel conference rooms, university classrooms, stadiums, outdoor stages, and even streets and sidewalks. Where I perform is less important than the conditions under which I perform.
My favorite venues are small ones, where even a small crowd feels big because everyone is packed in tight and the energy is super-high. And I like to be relatively close to my audience so I can feel its vibe. I like to be able to see my audience; it's disconcerting to me when the stage lights are bright and the audience lights are dark. Not seeing my audience means I have one less physical sense through which to "feel" [my listeners] and understand how they're receiving my poetry. All that said, I do have a penchant for street performance. It's raw, exciting, and scary all at the same time.
MD: What was your first performing experience like?
AM: There are a few "first performances" for me.
When I first started reading my poetry, I stood behind a music stand and tried to use my best serious "poet voice". You know the one—every line goes up at the end and sounds like a question. I was never good at "literary" readings. Trying to conform to some standard notion of how a poem must be read was never very fun.
Another "first performance" was at an all-women's open mic, called Cliterati. I printed my poems on tiny pieces of paper and shyly read them to the audience.
A final "first performance" was my first paid solo gig. It was in Philadelphia at a women's arts festival. I busted out a few raw poems in my typically loud way. And the audience got really excited. After my performance, the host told the audience to quiet down, because the poet coming after me was sort of a literary poet, using really obscure images and a serious poet voice. Man, that poet hated me! She glared at me after the show and refused to speak to me!
MD: Thank you, Ami, for sharing with us thoughts about your craft.
Next week, on December 6, I'll be sharing Part II of my interview with Ami, who will be discussing her writing life, themes and subjects in her work, the use of personal information in poetry, the influence of her Southern background on her writing, and writing for particular audiences. Until then, please listen to Ami perform live her "Anti-Love Poem" on this 2007 YouTube recording.
Other Links to Ami