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Literary Activist Amy King Talks Advocacy, VIDA, and Poetry

Sarah Marcus: To me, you embody a life of Literary Activism. In your blog post for The Poetry Foundation you wrote: "I realized it would be helpful for me to connect the dots in my own evolution in order to crystallize a personal concept of literary activism, but as importantly, to recognize my own limitations and inability to set the industry standard, so to speak, on what literary activism is. So I reached out to a number of activist writers and asked them to weigh in on what their experiences of literary activism are." What did you learn from these responses? Do you feel as though there are some things still left unsaid? What do you believe our responsibility as feminist writers should be to Literary Activism?

Amy King: Thank you for the kind words, Sarah! I have been a teacher quite a few years now and an activist for even longer. Teachers realize that we are always learning. It takes a very large & probably blindered ego to default to that concept of the teacher as the font of all knowledge, ready to dispense wisdom like a bank. Long way to say, yes, I learned from those posts, deeply, because I haven't had the experiences of the other writer-activists in them.

I also wanted to try to foster & model a collaborative offering, where no one's definition was given primacy, which is why it was surprising and belittling later on, to hear from one of the people I had originally invited, as part of a group, who was essentially responding to our efforts to, in essence, pat us on the backs & say that we're all wrong and this group's vision is the correct path to activism. Infantalizing & very much not in an egalitarian spirit as well as incredibly myopic in scope. As well, I am no fan of organized religions for the reasons they have exhibited: groupthink. But as one who has worked with VIDA since the beginning & encountered all sorts who wish us to fail & who think the work we do isn't right for various reasons, I guess I shouldn't be surprised at all by people who try to trump activist work with their version of just how things ought to go down according to their neat little theoretical package.

As for learning from each person in the original post, I love the range of approaches, the varying energies and experiences and learn something new each time I re-read them. I cannot emphasize enough how impressive this group's input is. Some are eloquent, some pragmatic; some offer a historical scope, while others are enough to make Marx rethink his approach. I'm proud to know these poets & amazed that I am lucky enough to be able to share this age with them. And, their follow-up responses to the attempt to chide us are impassioned and impressive. I am quick to anger, but the varying replies really gives one a sense of a range of ways to tackle ego in its baldest, most befuddling forms, including with humor.

We also received an amazing amount of appreciative feedback and engagement, and I think it's no accident that when you Google "literary activism" it's the first result to appear. If you are a writer or editor or teacher or reader who wants to think their way into activism in the literary world, this forum will offer a handle here, an idea there, and then some.

SM: You were the recipient of the Women’s National Book Association’s 2015 Award given to “a living American woman who derives part or all of her income from books and allied arts, and who has done meritorious work in the world of books beyond the duties or responsibilities of her profession or occupation.” What does this award mean to you personally and what does it mean for VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts? AK: Personally, I am flattered and floored. I know that there were 'bigger names' in the running, but the WNBA wanted to support someone who was doing grassroots work, which is where the VIDA angle came in, although they did suggest that being a poet mattered to them, too! I'm not sure what it means for me in any measurable way, but it certainly is a tremendous vote of confidence that encourages me to carry on and validates the work I do with VIDA. I think the WNBA also wanted to recognize VIDA's impact on the world of literature in terms of advancing women's writing & working to seek parity for women's voices in the literary world. There is definite mission overlap between the two organizations that is significant & necessary. I did an interview with the WNBA's Vice President, Jane Kinney-Denning, which includes a picture of me *beaming*!

SM: You currently serve on the executive board of VIDA: Woman in Literary Arts. Why is VIDA still relevant and necessary in our larger literary community? Do you think that we will always need an organization like VIDA? What do you see in VIDA's future?

AK: I used to say we'd never see marriage extended as a civil right to all couples in my lifetime, so I am terrible at predicting the future. But yes, I think VIDA will be very necessary and relevant for some time to come. Our pie charts haven't changed in any dramatic way since we started counting gender disparity in publishing. We are also working to expand our mission to include more outreach to support writers in pragmatic ways beyond shining a light on inequalities.

We are, in keeping with our motto, seeking to develop the conversation by adding often overlooked voices to our counts and, as well, by continuing to expand our website as a platform for significant issues to be explored--in revealing detail. We've hosted excellent roundtables, have just kicked off an interview series called VIDA Voices & Views that has already featured former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove, and our features just keep delivering hard hitting, insightful voices on a range of topics related to women in the literary world. We are also working towards partnering with writer organizations to create VIDA scholarships for writers and developing our in-person outreach with panels and reading series, primarily headed up by Melissa Febos, which is really gaining ground across the country. But I'd really like to point out that VIDA is significant because we are all volunteers - from our counters to our board - and have been since VIDA's inception. Oddly, I think our significant impact on the lit world has led some to believe that we are fully-funded when we rely almost solely on volunteers to get the work done and out there for writers. I must say, VIDA wouldn't be what it is if it weren't for the passion of our volunteers and because of VIDA's mission, which has tapped into a need and desire that is shared by so many beyond our little organization. That passion for change is significant and is what motivates and often carries us along. So thanks to all who have read, shared, and supported our efforts!

SM: Your forthcoming collection, The Missing Museum, was the winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. What can we look forward to seeing in this collection? What is your favorite poem in it? What are you working on now? AK: I have a lot of favorite poems in the book, which makes it difficult to narrow down. You'll find some that are whimsical, but you'll also find a few more politically motivated poems in this book than in my past books. I'm moving a little more in that direction now, especially with models like Claudia Rankine's Citizen challenging and changing the boundaries of what poetry can present as. I found myself thinking, "Wow, so this is how the two parts of a person - the critically-engaged thinker-activist and the poet - can merge." It was a true ah-ha moment. I felt that a bit with Alice Notely's Culture of One but Citizen is more overt and I guess you could say blatant but poetic nonetheless. I think her book gives the "I hate political poetry" detractors a real run for their proverbial naysaying money; it is undeniably poetic and of the world in a sharp, strategic and altering way. So, I'm still reading and learning but hoping her model is motivation and permission and a guide to merge my many selves more seamlessly than I have been able to in the past.

That said, l can say that I was once surprised when Cate Marvin told me she had shared the poem, "We Will Never Fully Recover" with her students, and they loved it. I initially felt like that was just one jumble of confusion as I was thinking through the then-debates over marriage equality and the retraction of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and just didn't know what to do with it all. So, this poem reflects that confusion a little, the feeling of hypocrisy and the notion that everyone is just a person who will die one day, no matter who you end up loving or how you define yourself.

I also really like to read "Understanding the Poem" at public performances, because it is politically engaged (I was around when Mayor Guiliani's Zero Tolerance policing began and evolved with a deplorable increase in Stop and Frisk harassment cases of people of color), and this poem touches on that a bit. Beyond that, I say my name a lot in the poem, and having grown up in the south where I was taught to be a modest young lady, I am always undoing such underlying expectations of women to be ashamed if we boast about or even just like ourselves. So I dig pronouncing these verbal selfies before large crowds. Insert smiling devil emoji here.

Of I Want to Make You Safe (Litmus Press), John Ashbery describes Amy King's poems as bringing “abstractions to brilliant, jagged life, emerging into rather than out of the busyness of living.” Safe was one of Boston Globe’s Best Poetry Books of 2011. More information at Litmus Press and Blazevox Books. She is also the co-winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize for The Missing Museum.

King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the WNBA Award (Women's National Book Association). She teaches Creative Writing at SUNY Nassau Community College and received the 2012 SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities. She was also honored by The Feminist Press as one of the “40 Under 40: The Future of Feminism” awardees and co-founded the Poets for Living Waters initiative. Check out her latest work at Boston Review, Poetry Magazine and the Rumpus.

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