commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | spring 2008  
Poet to Poet | A Contrary Interview with Amy Groshek

Amy Groshek was born in 1977 in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where her family worked an 80-head dairy operation until 1986. In 2000, she earned a bachelor of science degree in botany from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. She then completed a master of fine arts in poetry at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Amy returned to Madison, Wisconsin in 2006. Since then, she has worked as a technical writer and online learning designer, specializing in open source technology. Her poetry has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Bloom, Cutbank Reviews, and The Anchorage Press. Her chapbook, Shin Deep, was published in February by Finishing Line Press. She speaks to Contrary poetry editor Shaindel Beers about growing up rural, losing the family farm, shutting out noise, working a job, valuing an MFA, publishing a chapbook, and writing poetry for working people in a capitalist culture.
SHAINDEL BEERS:  Amy, most of your poetry that I have read is grounded in your rural Wisconsin 
upbringing.  How do you feel that growing up on your family's dairy farm shaped your writing?  Do you feel that you'd be a different type of writer if you'd had a different upbringing, or do you think there's the possibility that you wouldn't have been drawn to writing at all, but perhaps to something else?

AMY GROSHEK: I think there's no question that I would have been drawn to writing. Even before I knew how to read, I wrote, by taking my mother's pens and filling pads of paper with scribbles. But certainly my strong sense of ethics, and the topics I choose, has a great deal to do with my family history. Let me fill in the narrative of my rural childhood a little more. I was born in 1977. At the time, my parents worked an 80-head dairy farm south of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. In 1986, rather than risk bankruptcy, my parents chose to leave that farm. They'd never owned the farm— only rented. Like most family farmers, they wouldn't have ever had the money to buy those 250 acres. I was 8 years old. So my childhood wasn't so much about living a rural idyll as it was about experiencing the denial, by the greater economic system and by the general collusion of the populace, of a way of life that I loved blindly, because I knew no other. I have friends who spent their teenage years doing chores on a farm, getting up every morning at 4 to help with milking, and they were very glad to get off those farms and away to college, if they could. By contrast, I yearn for that life because it was taken from me. Along with that lifestyle, that constant sense of your livelihood depending on so many factors you had no control over (government grain and milk prices, the weather, the whim of the weld in your latest cobble job on the broken tractor), came a general feeling that things were in some way unjust, that we as a family were up against unbeatable odds. After we left the farm, my father went to work in a factory. The verbal, physical, and emotional insult he's borne there, above and beyond the general offense which such a work environment wreaks on every body, are too many and too painful to enumerate here. Perhaps it seems archaic, in this postmodern age, but after so much honest labor, what kind of a world would loose such suffering on a good man? So my struggle has been to put all of that into context. Because the only alternative, for the working class, is self-hatred. By the time I was born, the rural American exodus, which began with the Okies in the Great Depression, was actually nearing a close, and its impact was being felt even in areas which were very favorable to agriculture and which had a long legacy of small-scale, family farming. All across the country, people were being forced to give up rural lifestyles and move to the city. I see my childhood as one of the last examples of this historical phenomenon, rather analogous to the Enclosure which took place in England when the Industrial Age began. My childhood marks the end of a population which Alexis de Tocqueville considered necessary to democracy: that of the freeholding yeomen,  the land-owning, small-scale farmers. I can't idealize that, in the way that many apolitical, regionalist writers idealize rural life.

BEERS:  One of your nonfiction prose pieces — "Me in the Bathroom," in the "This Alaskan Life" issue of The Anchorage Press — has a rush of language that is very poetic: "Should we break the script and tell our secrets, should she take me as I was, we could step together straight out of Shakespeare into the woods behind the set, into bramble and oak and the racket of frogs from the river." This makes me wonder how separate the genres are for you. Do you find that you're a different writer in prose than you are in poetry? Do you write poetry and prose separately? If you're working on poetry, are you writing any prose at that time, or do you have multiple projects in multiple genres going at the same time?

GROSHEK: It's interesting that you ask this, because I have very particular habits with regard to prose and poetry. I cannot write fiction or prose at the same time as poetry. In fact, I can't write poetry at all if I'm even reading fiction. I also can't listen to music with lyrics. So for most of the year, I go without listening to any popular music, and without reading any fiction. I've found that nonfiction, especially critical essays and philosophy, does not interfere with my ear for my own poems. As you might guess, my music collection is meager, and includes a lot of jazz. And I occasionally binge and read several books of fiction at once. The way I've come to understand it is that I write much more with my ear than other writers— even other poets. Because of the relaxed tension of the line, the beauty of prose, the beauty in the sound of prose, is very different from that of poetry, and so I can't hear both prose and poetry at once. Much of my writing life is spent cultivating my ear, putting good poetry into it, or keeping it in silence, so that when I need to hear the poetry, I can. I routinely wear ear plugs in all sorts of places where it isn't acceptable.


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