Rachel Nix: Amanda, you’re running one of the most consistently strong journals around. The content is broad but has a certain flavor that your readers have come to expect. Can you tell us what you look for when publishing poetry?
Amanda Oaks: First, thank you so much for asking me over to spill my poetry-lovin’ guts & for your kind words throughout this interview, seriously. I think it’s kinda common knowledge that we are mutual fangirls sooooo, be still my drummin’ heart, I’m honored to be here!
While reading submissions, I guess I subconsciously ask these questions or think about these things: One, the bedrock of acceptance, like the make or break, before anything else is, does the poem gently pull or thrust me into it & keep me captivated throughout? If so, I’m a big lover of how language is built, what words sound like when they are placed together, so when looking at the framework of a poem, I’m listening to how sound it is. Two, what is inside the poem? What is in-between the lines & the walls of it? What emotions live there? What feelings did it evoke in me? Can the speaker’s feelings & my feelings live inside the poem together? Are they lovers? Do they argue? But really, it’s all very subjective to be honest, my mood can affect what I choose, the season & even what is going on in my life. Powerful endings though, I’m a huge fan of those. I’m reminded of this poem by Suzanne Buffam:
ON LAST LINES
The last line should strike like a lover’s complaint.
You should never see it coming.
And you should never hear the end of it.
Oof. All the Yes.
RN: There are thousands of lit journals out there these days but you were doing it before it was the-thing-to-do. What made you start Words Dance?
AO: Before I started Words Dance, around 2001-2002, I was posting poems on a now defunct online poetry forum. This was before MySpace, or any of the social networking sites we use daily were a thing. Through those poetry message boards, I met a good lot of poets my age. They were writing & posting their work on the regular, as was I. We were collaborating together, giving feedback & inspiring each other, so I created Words Dance to house some of that work online & open it up to others as well. When I started to look for places to put the ‘call for submissions’ announcement, I quickly learned that there was a whole web of folks doing that & it was called the small press & I was fuckin’ hooked because I wasn’t really reading a whole lot of contemporary poetry at the time. So, from there, I started to find my people, people that I am still connected to today. Oh the internets, whatta wondrous & devilish thing.
RN: You’ve solidified the publication as one that isn’t going away anytime soon. Did you ever think it’d become what it has? Any ideas what you’re aiming to conquer next in the publishing world?
AO: When I started it I had no idea it would become what it is but it’s been my passion (with a couple short hiatuses) for almost 13 years. I’ve put a fuckton of time & energy into it, it’s been a long & lesson-filled road, but I’ve learned SO much & all of it was worth it. I tend to be one of those people that don’t really plan things. I am more action-orientated. If I fall in love with an idea it sort of overtakes my entire life until I execute it. That’s how I started publishing collections of poetry. That’s how Literary Sexts was born. I don’t really dwell on something long before I begin to carry it out. So, I’m not really scheming too much right now, expect for maybe this one secret project, but… yeah. ;)
RN: Your press, Words Dance Publishing, is responsible for some incredible releases—The No You Never Listened To by Meggie Royer and Chloe by Kristina Haynes are a couple of my personal favorites. They’re also stunning; the books you publish are always beautiful—the sort of books that deserve display, even. Since this is an issue focusing on craft and creation, what makes you put so much into design?
AO: I’m a big ole design nerd. Not just books, I’m a fan of anything that is aesthetically pleasing—photography, art, interior design, etc., but my favorite fav is when type + imagery make out—so I looooove what I do. I love collaborating with the poets to make something that we both adore, inside & out. It’s important to me. I work really hard at creating something that complements the beauty of their words because their words deserve it. It’s a bonus that others think so as well!
RN: You’re not just an editor, so let’s talk about poetry. I’ve been a fan of your work for a long time and am always impressed with how your style evolves and doesn’t back down to presets. How would you describe your writing?
AO: Describing my own work makes me feel a little jerky so I’m gonna go with a word that quite a few people have thrown at me regarding my work: visceral, & it makes a lot of sense because I love art that punches me in the gut—messy, feral, bare your teeth art. Art that provokes me. Art that reaches out with both of its hands & moves me. I’m not really interested in art that merely tickles my ribs (unless it’s the take-your-time in a very deliberate way kind of art—) I want art that reaches up inside of them & blenderizes everything I knew up until that moment, leaving me open, vulnerable & unable to move. I like to be gutted by sheer visceral impact. It’s inside moments like those where we can surrender ourselves to the magic of emptiness & what can come from it. That’s where I like to write from.
RN: Where can we see more of your work, by the way? Any new publications you wanna point us to? We’re into poet-stalking, so tell us where to start to get our Amanda Oaks fix.
AO: I haven’t really been submitting work lately because of time constraints & whatnot but I try to keep my publications list on ze website up-to-date, you can peek at that here. I’m also on Tumblr, which I use to post some of my work, others’ work & art I dig! I have a fickle relationship with Twitter, so there’s that, too.
RN: Speaking of new work, your latest collection, Where’d You Put the Keys Girl, is fierce (and happens to be available as a free download). It’s a Tori Amos inspired chapbook, simply stated, but it’s much more than that. What made you write it? Further, selecting songs as bases for each poem had to be hella hard—if you had included just one more piece, which song would have been the inspiration?
AO: Oh man, it was sooooo difficult to choose what songs to use in the chapbook but I’m gonna say, because they aren’t on any of the albums I chose to include in the chapbook, my favorite b-sides, Cooling or Honey, because SIGHS FOR DAYS. Music has always been one of my favorite mistresses. I think what sparked the idea was writing blackout poetry for Bye Bye Bukowski, an anthology not yet out by Hyacinth Girl Press. They were looking for erasure poetry made from classically oppressive texts. I had never done erasure poetry digitally before but I had so much fun creating that submission. I was listening to a lot of Tori Amos at the time & there was just this big aha moment at one point like omg, I could do this with songs—with artists that I love—& maybe I could do a series of chapbooks! So, I started & it got me writing regularly, which hasn’t been the norm for me since my early/mid-twenties. Right now, I am just trusting the format, letting it take me where it does. Aside from Where’d You Put the Keys Girl, I’ve finished one that is centered around Deftones’ music called, When Minerva’s Knees Hit the Ground & started two more focusing on mewithoutYou & Elliott Smith that I plan on finishing this year. They’ll all be free for download too!
RN: Switching focus—who are some of your favorite writers? Who’s work can you not get enough of lately?
AO: You mean besides the poets whose books I publish at Words Dance? ;) I have so many writer crushes, gawd, so I’m only going to name five: Ocean Vuong, Richard Siken, Rachel McKibbens, Janae Johnson & Megan Falley.
RN: Which magazines, online or print, do you admire and follow regularly? We’re always on the hunt for other journals to love on, and I know you love to support the lit community, as well.
AO: Muzzle, The Offing, Nailed, Poetry, Split Lip, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Thrush, Drunk in a Midnight Choir, Big Lucks! You have no excuse not to be reading amazing contemporary poetry because it’s everywhere, thank all that is holy for that.
RN: While on the topic of supporting the lit community, tell us about Lit Night, yeah? I was lucky enough to attend one of these get-togethers at The Artists Hand when I visited you last year, and would love to come back. I’m also envious and wish poetry readings were more prevalent in my area. How important do you think it is to have these local gatherings of artists? Has it helped you with your own confidence as a poet?
AO: We were so lucky to have you come take part! Honestly, Lit Night upped my quality of life like tenfold. Before Lit Night I was traveling to other parts of PA & to Cleveland to get my fixes of poetic energy, so to get together with a bunch of lit nerds every month is the absolute best. I’ve met so many lovely people through it, people that are now my friends & I am so fuckin’ grateful that we built it, that it still exists & continues to thrive. I’ve lived in this area most of my life & there was nothing like Lit Night before it, I firmly believe in build it & they will come. We started out with just a handful of people a month & now we are packing the place during the Fall & Spring semesters. Um, HELLO introvert with a cosmic fear of speaking in front of crowds here! Lit Night has been a tremendous help, because the only way to get better at it, & anything really, is to just do it, over & over again. Everyone is so supportive there, it’s a safe space, it’s loving. All of us are so blessed.
RN: We ask this in every interview because it seems like each editor has one book that’s defined them in some way. Any genre, and subject; what’s your favorite book? What book matters to you?
AO: This is SUCH a tough question because books, like music, poetry, like all art, seem to find you when you need them most sometimes & I’ve had quite a few books throughout my life show up at the perfect time… but since we’re talking poetry, I have to say Crush by Richard Siken. That book floored me. Still does. While reading it the first time, I threw it across the room, & was like FUCK YOU SIKEN HOW?! I’ll never get over that book. I still thumb through it on the regular.
RN: Got a question for us? About the publication, the staff, what we think about people who can use their tongue to tie knots out of cherry stems in their mouth? (Yes, these are the sort of things I personally ponder.)
AO: Because I know what a music head you are (& I’mma get back atchoo for makin’ me choose favs up there…) If you had to name the best album cover ever, what would it be?
RN: Best album cover ever? Well, hell. This is not an easy question but I’m going with my gut reaction. I don’t know if anyone will be surprised here, but it’s Pearl Jam’s ‘Yield’ – visually and ideally, it’s always appealed to me. The concept behind the art came from bassist Jeff Ament saying how cool it would be to have a yield sign where there was nothing to yield to. It opens up the theory, at least for me personally, that individuals often see barriers where there aren’t any. We allow things to hinder us.
(Plus, ya know, I’m a road whore. Show me a picture of an escape route and I’ll start packing.)
The actual title, so I’ve read, was based on the concept of yielding to nature—the basic theme of the novel Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, which the band members read while working on the record. Also: A BAND THAT READS. That’s just sexy. Admit it, you’re all Pearl Jam fans now.
Amanda Oaks is the founding editor of Words Dance Publishing, an independent press, literary blog + biweekly online poetry journal. Her works have appeared in numerous online & print publications, including decomP, Stirring, Glamour, Elle, Parenting, & Artful Blogging. She is the author of three poetry collections: Hurricane Mouth, her co-authored split book, I Eat Crow & her free digital chapbook, Where’d You Put the Keys Girl. Mama of two boys & a multi-passionate artist, she lives in rural western Pennsylvania, where she attempts to adult but is pretty lame at it. She digs dancing & poems that bloody her mouth just to kiss it clean.