INTERVIEW: Amber Nelson

Amber Nelson is a founding editor at alice blue. Amber Nelson is the author of This Ride is in Double Exposure (H-ngm-n), Your Trouble is Ballooning (Publishing Genius), and Diary of When Being With Friends Feels Like Watching TV (Slash Pine Projects). Her collection, In Anima: Urgency (Coconut Books) is forthcoming in 2013. She lives in Ballard, Seattle, Washington, where she makes bitters and complex gourmet foods.

HUNT: On your last visit to Portland we casually discussed the nature of belief, as it relates to religion, atheism, science etc... while returning with pizza and beer from the NY Pizzeria. Somehow, to me, this subject always relates back to class stratification, and in particular 'coming up' 'trailer poor.' Do you think your individual class story relates in any way to your belief structure? How does this relate to the conscious choice to become a poet?

NELSON: I really enjoyed that pizza. It had so many vegetables!

While I don't normally associate my own class story as being directly related to my belief structure, it probably is. The first home I remember was a tiny house. I remember it in black and white. And then we moved to Parkland, a poor neighborhood in Tacoma, where my parents rented a trailer in a lot from my grandparents. I have some distinct memories of gangs and drive bys. But also of friends in the neighborhood, Jasper in one direction, and Rachel in the other, and walking to their houses to play. And of eating baked potatoes every night. I didn't understand, then, that it had to do with money. But I still can't really eat a baked potato.

I went to Catholic church with my grandparents on Sundays. I usually say I grew up Catholic, and in certain, important ways it was true. I did go to those services, I saw the terrifying statue of Jesus laying prostrate in Mary's arms, bleeding from various places. His wrists and feet, obviously. But I distinctly remember a wound on his chest near his nipple. But also, our family was large. My dad was the youngest of 8. We had big holiday events at the farm that my grandparents ran (they didn't own it, but they lived there and ran it...there were immigrant farmers, I remember, who had lockers in the barn where we had Christmas Eve every year), and inside the barn was also a basketball hoop where all the aunts and uncles and cousins would play HORSE and a sawdust pile out back where all the cousins played Hide and Seek. This is also the place where I rode on the back of a motorcycle that my cousin was driving and she crashed and her thumb stuck in the throttle while the tire was stuck on my thigh. I realize, now, that all of this sounds made up. Yet, all of it is true.

But I digress. What I mean to say is, I grew up going to Catholic church, with Catholic "values" but I never went to Catholic school or did Bible study because my parents wanted me to choose my own way, an opportunity they didn't get to have. (Later they regretted this as both my brother and I turned out without any belief in God.)

But, in regards to my class, I remember my parents both worked 2 jobs and in order for that to happen, my brother and I had to go to daycare. And the moment I realized that I didn't believe in God, or at least where I first started to question it, happened there. Two girls, what would be described as the "cool" girls (though at this point I think that I, too, was considered a "cool" girl), came up to me, hands on their hips, all kinds of attitude and asked me "Do you believe in God?" with that valley girl lilt (because it was the 90's) that told me that there was a right answer to this and I guessed that the right answer was "yes" and for a long time I claimed to believe in God even though in my gut I wondered if I did and so I spent a lot of time thinking about it. It was a year or so after this that I decided to try on religions. I had friends of various faiths. I went to a Buddhist temple. Lutheran services. One of my friends was Greek Orthodox, her father a Pastor, and I went to several services with her. I had many Mormon friends in High School because they were in A.P. classes and so was I...but I can't say I tried that religion on. There was all sorts of things that seemed like it wasn't good for me. Not being able to drink coffee being primary to that. In college I took an Asian Philosophy class, though at this point I was already claiming agnosticism, and in that class I thought that Islam seemed like a good thing, their 5 pillars made sense to me, but that Voidist Buddhism was probably the most likely. (Hey, I was 18.) Frankly, what all of this came down to for me was that all religions offered basically the same things: an ethics, a community. I already had a strong ethics, one which diverged from my fathers and led to many an argument there, and I never felt the need for that kind of community. Most of the kids I knew who went to youth groups seemed like cliquey assholes.

Then again, in my high school, it seemed like there was a class division there as well. Rich doctor and lawyer kids all hanging out at youth group being pious and singing their kumbayahs and then getting wasted and fucking on the weekends. The people I spent the most time with were not Christian. I hung out with some goth kids, some debate kids, some Mormon kids, I had a few friends who claimed wiccanism, one friend who claimed to be a vampire. And I worked at least one job from the time I was 15 on...at one point, during my junior year in high school, I worked 2 jobs. Who had time to go to church anyway? I was at work by 4:30 AM on Sundays. By the time I got out, most church services were over.

And I went to college and stopped investigating these things. Later I got into reading about science. I have always been a little mystic maybe, for all my talk. Not crystals and incense mystic, but I remember a time my grandma was telling me that she had ESP (extra sensory perception), how sometimes she just knew things were going to happen before they did. My mom does too; I've seen it happen. And I've had this experience too. Not like I can just decide to know what's going to happen in an immanent future, but sometimes I get this feeling. Saying this makes me feel ridiculous. But I read some physics about how there's a theory of time and all time exists simultaneously all the time and thought how that could explain deja vu, and dreams, and how sometimes I know things are going to happen before they do. And if I was going to believe in something, I'd like to believe that all time exists simultaneously. But I don't know. And so while I'm probably an agnostic, I usually say I'm an atheist, because it's easier. I also work in a Reform Synagogue, and I have to say, I generally love this place's approach to religion. I work for 4 rabbis, one of whom does not believe in G-d. But the things they care about most, more than a belief in some mystical whosit, is education and being a "mensch," a good person. Rabbi means teacher. And the teachers encourage their students to question the Torah, to question their faith, and to make their own decisions. Which is pretty awesome.

And I'm writing a novel in answer to this question and haven't even touched the part about becoming a poet.

I didn't really consider poetry until I was in my freshman year of college, and didn't decide that that was really right for me until my Junior year. But I was a big reader from an early age. And by the time I was 7 I knew I wanted to be a writer. And by the time I decided to write poems, I never thought about faith, and in fact, most poetry that touched on the subject held little interest for me. And I think class is very related to poetry. My educational goals, my life goals, they were never financially motivated. And I think it's exactly because of the class structure that I grew up in. I didn't have money. My parents didn't have money. I've worked from a young age. I know I don't need a lot of money and I know that, generally speaking, I'll always be able to find a job and eat and live. That doesn't mean it won't be stressful, I won't be broke sometimes, or that I'll make a lot of money. But I don't care about a lot of money. I went into serious debt to get this lit education, and I would happily do it over again. And I think you have to have that sense going into  poetry, because you're never going to make any money writing poems. And if you're writing poems to make money, well, then you're doing it for the wrong reasons. And you're going to be really disappointed.

Sorry I'm all over the place.

HUNT: I like what you typed about money and poetry. When we all lived in Seattle in that Northgate apartment, one of the things I loved about poetry was that the stakes were very low. No money would ever be in the balance, and so I could be my own little tyrant on the page. And fuck all those who didn't like what I was doing. I wanted to fail and fail and fail and enjoy failing. How do you feel about failure? Is success possible? And in a completely unrelated tangent, what do you think about SOPA? And beyond that, copyrights? Another thing I was thinking about this morning is your comment about wanting to be a writer at age 7. Were you writing at 7? If so what? And do you have any examples you could quote?

NELSON: I've been sitting on this (these) questions for a couple days now. We are having a Seattle style snowpocalypse--which basically means there are 4 inches of snow on the ground and the only thing going on is drinking. Seriously. All of the town seems to have shut down except bars. I partook a little bit myself last night.

But I've been sitting on the questions (during the inactive, netflix days) because while watching countless episodes of How I Met Your Mother, I was also thinking about it. And periodically checking facebook. Facebook looked like this: "snowpocalypse!" "SOPA! PIPA!" "snowpocalypse!" "SOPA! PIPA!" on and on for eternity. I took breaks from FB & Netflix to read articles about SOPA and PIPA.

The thing is, I had already signed petitions against these things, and letters to my congresspeople (thank you all the millions of organizations that flood my inbox asking me to do these things) and I knew that I was opposed to these laws, but I hadn't really thought about them. Or, rather, hadn't seriously looked into them. So yeah, I'm opposed to the bills. But it's not that I'm opposed to copyright--I believe in a free sharing of information, and yet I believe in intellectual property. I'm of two minds. I'm not clear, totally, on any of it myself yet. I'm working through it. I'll bring you back more when I have more sorted out. What I can say is I've seen lots of good reasons why the bills should fail, and not that many good reasons on why we need them in the first place. But I liked this article in Slate. And that 4 minute video that keeps showing up everywhere.

So yeah... to the meat & potatoes.

When we lived together in Seattle, well, sometimes I miss that...but anyway... we started alice blue and I remember part of why we started alice blue is because we weren't getting published, and the people getting published in journals in our stead...well...we didn't always love them. We wanted to make a journal that published things that we were excited about. And we wanted to do so in a super socialist kind of way. Or, at least, I did. I just wanted to do this for people. Honoring their work. Making something great. It was never about money. And I definitely didn't have any then. At one point I was definitely working 3 jobs and about 80 hours a week, and Sarah was volunteering for a while, and you had a job but...money wasn't a motivation. We forked over time. You guys forked over money. (Thank you.) Later, when I started the alice blue books, I forked over the money. And sometimes I still do, though it mostly manages to be self sustaining. No profit, but sales from one book have mostly paid for the creation of the next book. (But, ps, I remember Sarah feeling really strongly about copyrights. And for alice blue, all copyrights belong the authors. They aren't our ideas, yo, we just put them out there for the people.)

Then, I had specific things that I liked to see in a poem. Now, I think that's still true, but I think I'm more interested in various kinds of poems. I grow weary of tidy, uncluttered, edited, structurally sound, perfect, pretty poems. I find myself more excited by a poem that fails when it tries to do something daring than a poem that succeeds at what so many poets are doing well. Like, ok. I get it. There are thousands of poets who can write a competent poem. Really. I mean it. All of you out there who I rejected, well, your poem was probably fine. Maybe even kind of good. But the hardest part of reading the poetry for ab and narrowing down to the top 30, is narrowing it down to the top 30. After reading 50 really bad poems and 350 totally competent but not exciting poems, it gets really exhausting. It gets hard to see anything. That's not to say gems don't exist and I have loved the things we have published. But at this point in my life, I would say that I can avoid writing a truly terrible poem if I want. And I'd say that's true of most of the poets in our circle, extended circle, and that circle's extended circle. But I've probably written 100s or 1000s of totally acceptable, mediocre poems. And if I'm being honest, I'll probably never write a truly, truly great poem. And maybe only a dozen of us writing today will.

So yeah. I love failure. When I was in my second year of grad school, I decided to write an epic...following in the tradition of Alice Notley and Anne Carson and Lisa Robertson and Laynie Brown and I'm missing people but you get the idea. And I knew there was a very sincere possibility of failure, but...what was I going to do? Write another 100 competent relationship poems? Nah. That's boring for me. And boring for people to read probably. So I decided to go for it. And I failed. Granted, at the time, I thought I was doing ok. I mean, I got up 3 mornings a week and wrote for an hour or two. I had ideas, man. But in retrospect, well, there are still things that I think are really great about the ms. But overall? I mean, it's kind of a big old mess. But I'm totally grateful to the friends that supported me all the way through it. And never once told me how bad it was. I suppose they knew I'd figure it out. Or maybe, because they knew me, they were as excited by my ideas, if not the execution. Or...who knows. But yeah, failure.

I try to be motivated by risk. I don't want to succeed at the same thing over and over. And so I just keep trying different things. And sometimes it bombs. Risk means a potential for failure. And doesn't risking something give the poem something at stake? I feel like I'm usually on the right track when whatever I'm writing makes me super uncomfortable. When I have to send it to my 8 favorite readers to have them tell me I'm not totally insane for doing what I'm doing. When I know whatever it is could go one of two ways: either really great, or really terrible. When I don't have that, well, it's because I know the poem is probably fine.

As for writing at age 7... I was, in fact. At this point it was fiction. The thing that made me realize I wanted to be a writer was a story about a frog named General Jim Jumpingbones. The notebooks have been lost, but there were a couple 80 page spiral notebooks filled with his (mis)adventures. The name was my mom's idea. And so was the story. And it was all sparked because I was bored at the Italian restaurant and bugging my parents (who didn't want to play hangman for some reason...). I do, however, still have the really terrible, angsty poetry I wrote in middle and high school. After a quick flip of the pages I stumbled upon this little gem, a Buffy the Vampire Slayer Fan Fic Poem:

Gone & Back Again

created by darkness, born to the night
living for evil, living in spite

then something happens that changes it all
a gypsie you killed, they gave you a soul

future becomes past, a spry girl comes
you fall hard into a pit of love

one night of passion, you forget all your pain
your soul goes away, you're now living in vain

you broke the girl's heart, but right now you don't care
but she's strong, she'll come back. beware!

I even dated it. January 1998. Obviously, this was after I was 7 years old. That was, what, 9th grade? I was in Junior High. Yowza.

Bigger yowza? There were so many Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan fic poems. Some of them were collaborative amongst my group of girl friends.

On the other hand, I was in the 9th grade. What did I really have to write about? My parents weren't divorced. I wasn't "dating" anybody. My life was largely about working, going to class, reading, and Buffy, of course.

HUNT: I liked your teenage vampire poem. I liked how the lines rhymed, and how it reminded me of the fairly similar (though not vampire inspired) poetry I churned out in middle school and high school. This reminded me how you like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Joss Whedon stuff generally, and I've been thinking about how much of our generation seems to communicate/align via a shared pop culture. I can't count the conversations I've had that structurally look like this: "...Fraggle Rock...the A-Team...The Snorkels...Tyler the Creator, or something..." What do you think about pop culture and intellectualism that surrounds it? Academic Lady Gaga, etc...?

NELSON: Well, you know I'm a pop culture junkie. I have a love of television that goes back to childhood. I watched a lot of tv as a kid. (Small Wonders, what up?!) My parents didn't really encourage me (until it was probably too late) to be really active. They encouraged me academically, but not physically. Hell, I would get home from school and I wasn't allowed to go to friends houses or ride my bike in the street like they do on tv (in all fairness, I hated riding a bike when I was a kid). So I watched a lot of tv. And I think that's why we have these conversations about pop culture now. They are really about shared experience. I mean, Jane Austen made fun of her society for going to tea parties and talking about who got what dowery and who had a shabby dress and what that party was like etc. People talk about their experiences. We're a tv generation, a video generation, a going to shows generation (not that they didn't do that then too...I mean, they talked about plays, read reviews in the papers). It's just that now our shared experience is music videos, internet memes, tv, movies, music. I remember bonding with you over Ernest Hemingway, and then later the WB show Roswell (and to a lesser extent, One Tree Hill because, and I remember you saying this distinctly, it might be smart because it quotes literature at the beginning...but that it ended up that One Tree Hill is not that smart.)

When I was in middle school, in the midst of all the MySoCalledLife style identity and growth drama, I made friends with the aforementioned misfits. A couple of gay boys, girls who got kicked out of school for dying their hair a funny color, wiccans, etc, we bonded over Buffy. It was the show that, when it came out, we couldn't wait to get to school early to talk about last night's episode. And we identified with it. I mean, obviously not the killing vampires part, but they were teenagers that were totally believable. Right before Season 2 happened, me and the other girls had a Season 1 marathon from the VHS recordings one of us had made.

Later, I came to understand how smart it was. I mean, not much later. It was still on tv. But I was getting old enough to get the many layers going on. And part of what I think makes Joss Whedon so brilliant is that he is a pop culture nerd himself, and old school comic books and Star Trek style nerd. He's witty and observant. He understands character. He understands that pop culture is part of the shared experience. I mean, I can think of all kinds of examples, but the one that comes first to mind is the last in Season 4, Restless. In it, Buffy & the Scoobies have just beaten the most recent badass, Adam, by combining their essences into one Super Buffy. They're going to sit back, eat some popcorn, and watch Apocalypse Now but they all fall asleep. And one of my favorite parts is where Xander re-enacts part of Apocalypse Now, he talks about how it's all about the journey. And then he calls himself a "Comfortador" which always makes me laugh.

At the same time, the people that I loved knew that I loved Buffy, so they gave me books about it. I got the Watcher's Guide when I was in middle school. Later I got Buffy & Philosphy, wherein real academics engaged with BTVS in accordance with philosophers like Kant, and Marx. And I remember reading it and being surprised about how well thought out it was.

But it's not such a stretch, I see now. So I'm ok with pop culture being something that people engage with academically. Because part of the role of the academy is to ask questions and try to understand. What better way to understand people than by engaging the things they spend their time on, the things they talk about, their shared experiences.

For me, it was Buffy. At least it was then, though I can't say I've loved a show as much since. I guess, also, My So Called Life and Freaks & Geeks were pretty big in terms of creating characters and experiences that I found believable and relatable. How did Buffy get in the mix? Because, despite the fantasy and horror, it really does depict high school. I totally related (to Willow). I wanted to be Buffy. I was friends with Xander, and he was not so secretly in love with me. I knew so many Cordelias and hated them all. And I had a weird relationship to the library, and my elementary school librarian with the hippie pony tail who came to my XCountry matches. (Shout out to Mr Lumberger.)

Anyway, there's that idea that we create art to deal with and understand the world. And that critics are there to deal with the art. Now tv and movies are the way we mediate and deal with the world. And academics are there to parse it out.

I mean, Lady Gaga was a serious phenomena. And I liked how it seemed like she knew exactly what she was doing. She was making pop songs and celebrity and she was playing this game to the point of absurdity--but people ate it up. You're always saying how you feel like people in our generation like really obvious things. Lady Gaga was simultaneously obvious and baffling. She was an artist of pop. Of course academia will flock to her. They want to understand.

HUNT: Somehow I keep locking onto/rereading this statement from your answer below: "Hell, I would get home from school and I wasn't allowed to go to friends houses or ride my bike in the street like they do on tv (in all fairness, I hated riding a bike when I was a kid)." This seems like a point of departure from my own childhood, where my parents work schedules prevented them from enforcing rules. From about age eight, I was on my bike with friends and perhaps miles and miles from home, except perhaps when I need to care for my younger siblings (though, often enough, I just took them with me). Was your early childhood rigidly structured? How does this relate to Amber 2012?

NELSON: In talking with other people, and seeing the other kids while I was growing up, I know that the way I grew up was different. Some kids had curfews. I didn't. I had to ask permission every time I wanted to go somewhere that wasn't school or home. My dad grew up on a farm, and in a lot of ways he raised me like a farmer parent, just without the farm. The year I was going into 5th grade, my parents bought a house. An old house. And for rest of my time there I did a lot of chores. I helped with insulation and sheet rock. I did a lot of the finish work on the trim throughout the house. I dug holes. I helped build fences. Every weekend I had to mow our acre of yard (thankfully on a riding mower). My brother and I shared a rotation of house chores: dishes, dusting, vacuuming. My dad was an evil genius about these things. He would mark (or place, I've never been sure) some piece of schmutz on the floor, and if I didn't get it when I vacuumed, he'd tell me that I obviously hadn't actually vacuumed. He expected a normal-sized room to take at least an hour to vacuum. Our living room was supposed to take 2 hours. I don't know how other people feel, but I feel now as I did then: that just seems ridiculous. As far as seeing friends, I have distinct memories of my father saying things like "You hung out with your friends last weekend. You don't need to hang out with them this weekend." My parents would leave before me most week days. I would walk to school most of the time and leave about a half an hour after they did. I wasn't "allowed" to watch tv in the morning. At first I did anyway, figuring how could they know. But the first couple of times I did, they knew. It didn't stop me from watching the tv, but it did give me a strict ritual. Before picking up the remote, I would mark where it was on the coffee table. Then, before changing the channel to Fraggle Rock, I would mark what channel the tv was on, AND what channel the "channel return" button took me to. Then I'd watch Fraggle Rock until it was time to go, and then set the channel and channel return to their original setting, and make sure the remote returned to its original resting place at the right angles and everything. It was a rather intense ritual.

Most of my life was ritual. Breakfast, Fraggle Rock, School, Sports, Homework, TV, Bed.

Now my life is much the same. I'm a scheduler. Frequently my life is planned two weeks or more in the future. If you call me and want to hang out that day, it's not likely I'll be able to. Hell, I have one friend who has never managed to call me when I wasn't with somebody else. (I don't answer my phone when I'm with other people.) I rebelled against cleaning when I was a kid, but now I'm hardcore about organization. I'm a master with time management. People often wonder how I manage to do as much as I do. Sometimes I look back and wonder myself. But as much as I resented all of the crap when I was a kid, now I feel good about it. I'm pretty self-sufficient. And I have a really fulfilling and full life. And I don't think I would have been able to live the life I lead now if it wasn't for learning to manage my time, to work within a schedule, and to do general home maintenance as a child.

HUNT: Please provide three youtube links that you think are important for any reason at all.

NELSON: So, I've had a pretty crappy day today, and so I chose mostly videos that are important because they make me laugh, or make me happy, or make me feel better about anything at all.


This is because, if anybody out there has watched Game of Thrones you know, the amount of pleasure I get at seeing Joffrey get slapped is nearly insurmountable, and even then, only insurmountable by him getting slapped by Peter Dinklage.


Dance movies make me happy. Even bad ones. Which is why I had a dance movie marathon for my 28th birthday (Tap, Strictly Ballroom, and Step Up). However, when it comes to the Step Up franchise, the last two Step Up Movies had excellent dancing, and the quality of the dancing was in direct opposition to the quality of the acting. Wow that's some bad acting. But the dancing makes me happy. So hopefully, Step Up 4, which looks absolutely terrible, and actually looks like The Fast & The Furious The Musical, will still have excellent dancing and terrible plot.


This is important for reasons that are two-fold.

1) It's really funny.

2) It's a really sad reflection of our society's "stuff" problem.

3) When I was about 15 my family still celebrated Christmas Eve with all of the aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and my grandmother gave me a barbie. And I cried. I cried because I was humiliated that she would think that I would want a barbie at that age. I didn't even like barbies when I was young enough to really like barbies.

Even as I was making a scene, however, crying in front of my whole family out of humiliation about this barbie, I cried further because I was so ashamed for responding in this way. I knew it would be hurtful to my grandparents, and I didn't want to do that.

It turned out that my grandma thought I had said that I wanted this particular barbie. A 35th Anniversary Barbie. And it's possible that, without even thinking about it, I had said "hey that's cool" while walking through the store with my grandparents and she was paying such close attention that she took it as a hint that I wanted one.

I apologized to my grandparents, of my own volition, not twenty minutes after the last of the gifts were delivered, but my response to that Christmas gift remains among the list of things for which I'm most ashamed. And I wonder how these kids will feel 20 years down the line.

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