Interview with Amy Carpenter-Leugs

This is one of an ongoing series of interviews with contributors to The 3288 Review.

Amy Carpenter-Leugs has written poems and nonfiction appearing in Voices, Peninsula Poets, Parabola, and catapult magazines. Amy is also the author of three children’s books dealing with issues of poverty and difference, all published by UCOM Open Door Press. A former English teacher, Amy now speaks and writes about life learning through conferences and online forums.  Amy lives in the literary city of Grand Rapids, MI with her husband Michael, their three sons, and the wildlife of Plaster Creek. More links to her writing can be found at amycarpenterleugs.webs.com. Her poem “Tucking Pants Into Socks” appeared in our Autumn 2015 issue.

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3288 Review: How and when did you start writing? Was there a specific event or moment which sparked your interest in the written word?

Amy Carpenter-Leugs: I’ve always written, even as a child (which sometimes got me into trouble with my classmates). As an adult, though, I’ve come to writing a little differently than many others. Though I’ve occasionally submitted stories, poems, and plays over the years, the most meaningful experience of writing I’ve had—my training ground in many ways—has been related to my parenting.

In 2003, after the birth of my youngest son, our family decided to explore a radically different path of education: unschooling. That means we homeschool without a curriculum—we learn from life and through our children’s interests. To do this, I needed support from others who were making similar choices. I didn’t know anyone in person when we first started, so I joined online forums about unschooling. Over the years, I wrote my way into a path that felt freer from the constant demands of society. As Charles Bukowski wrote in “The Bar Stool”:

I was avoiding
becoming ensnared
in a common
manner of
living.
I truly believed
that this was
important to me
when everything
else was
not.

Of course, he wrote it about drinking his life away, but there is a shared sensibility.

Writing within the unschooling community gave me the tools and the companionship I needed to help our family live so differently. Between playing Pokemon and nursing the baby I was reading, not just unschooling books, but on all sorts of topics from evolution to Hinduism, and it all made its way into my written posts in surprising ways.

On the forums, I was always writing within a conversation—adding perspective and then listening. So I was finding my own voice as part of listening to others. Many of the others were “just regular parents” like me, and yet they had really interesting things to say, and they each said it in their own way.  It was another step away from the more academic side of writing and toward something that felt of real, mysterious life.

We were also writing about the perspective of children—how the world must look to them, how they work to keep hold of themselves within its demands—and that has shaped my writing enormously.

Like many, I feel I’m being constantly remade as a writer. Earlier this year I took some poetry workshops with Phillip Sterling, and that started an interest in the sound-craft of poetry, on tightening and loosening the lines, on exploring them as another quiet path away from the boisterous world. So that’s where “Tucking Pants into Socks,” came from—that work in the last year.

3288 Review: Deliberately living outside of the mainstream of society comes with its own difficulties, particularly with solitary pursuits like writing. Do you use your poetry as a sort of “bridge” between the personal and the social? In addition to a mode of expression, is it also a way for you to stay connected to the community?

Amy Carpenter-Leugs: A friend recently shared this line with me, something she had read: “A conflict is a human connection.” My poetry is often fueled by a sense of conflict—moments of anger, confusion, or retreat that feel too distancing for the confines of everyday conversation. Perhaps that is an underground connection to the mainstream for me. Maybe it’s not an above-ground bridge, but more a tunnel.  Maybe it’s something like the Natural Bridge Caverns in San Antonio—both connecting and hidden.

Carl Jung writes in his memoirs that when he was a boy, he carved a small, wooden man out of his school ruler and colored it with black ink. He hid it in the rafters of his family’s attic. It was his secret. It empowered him as an individual within a society and a faith that didn’t seem to go very deep. It gave him strength to weather the difficulties of living outside the mainstream. When I write about children and about inner things, I’m trying to honor that life-giving secret within each individual without giving it away.

3288 Review: In June 2015 your poem “Cat and Bird: Contrapuntal for a Grieving Mother” took first place in the Dyer-Ives poetry competition. What is the story behind the poem—both its content and the unusual structure?

Amy Carpenter-Leugs: Back in about 2005 my sons and I met another unschooling mom, Jen, and her children on a field trip to Meijer Gardens.  Her younger son Isaiah was about 3.  He was active and beautiful, as kids that age are.  He couldn’t wait to get his whole body into the sand, couldn’t wait to put a toy boat in the water and splash around.  

As we all played together, I discovered that Isaiah had been born with several medical issues, so he was talking in sign language, and the tracheostomy tube in his throat needed to be lightly covered before he could play in the sand pit. I learned some sign language from him, as he said to Jen, “More boats, more boats, Mama!” Jen has a beautiful responsive way with all children—she’s kind of a modern day Mr. Rogers—so I loved watching her with him, listening and playing and helping him get what he needed.  She and I connected right away, as did our older kids, and I looked forward to spending more time with their family. But, as so often happens, we lost touch.

Two years later, we met again through our local homeschooling group.  In the time since that rather magical first outing together, Isaiah had died—in fact, just a couple of months before our reunion.  

So it evolved that my time of really getting to know Jen was during that early grief.  Her spark was there, and yet it wasn’t.  Because she’s a pretty private person, I had to keep reminding myself that her quietness, her walking away, the distressed look on her face—all of that was grief.  At the same time, she was very joyful around our children—playful, connected, leading nature walks and play battles and art times—just as I had known her before.

Jen started writing to process and capture her experience, and she really fell in love with poetry.  She would say it was like candy—once she started she couldn’t stop.  The two of us started a writer’s group, along with Lisa Gundry.  Jen would bring these beautiful poems about her son, her grief, her family.  It was an honor to listen and work on them with her.  At the same time, Lisa was working on what would become A Crowd of Sorrows.  What a group we were!  

After a couple years of working together, one of Jen’s poems placed in a local writing contest.  When we attended the award ceremony with her, Linda Nemec Foster had also won, and she read a contrapuntal poem—two parts that are read separately, and then read together—each line is joined with its counterpart to form a new line with new meaning. Jen and I were both fascinated with the form, and I saw her eyes light up as she heard it.  She loves the playfulness of poetry, and the contrapuntal form offers that in spades.

So I was toying with the idea of writing a contrapuntal for my dear friend, just for the joy it might bring her.  The love and grief and loss in  her beautiful poems were so present in my life.  I realized that because the subject was so big, and because the grieving was her experience, not mine, I needed small, everyday metaphors of my own experience to help me ground the poem.  That’s how the poem came to be “about” a Cat and a Bird.  

To be honest, I kind of got the poem wrong the first time, and I showed it to her that way because I was excited.  In that version I hadn’t yet worked out where the two lines are read as one—when two of the lines came together, it sounded like Isaiah had been happy to be in the hospital bed, when in fact he was pretty miserable there. I think that was painful for her, which I regretted.  

I put the poem away for years, and just recently pulled it out and started re-working it. I finally was able to get the lines, the meaning, the metaphors, the sound, and the counterpoint to all work together. She loves the poem now, and she loves that it’s part of a conversation about the issues around a child’s death. She and her family are big supporters of Hospice of Michigan, which allowed Isaiah to spend his last weeks at home, playing and doing what he loved, rather than in the hospital.  To have those choices around his death was very important to the family.

That Jen likes the poem is the thing I most care about.  The poem wouldn’t be out there if she wasn’t okay with it.

3288 Review: In general, what is your process for writing poetry? Do you set out to explore a scene or topic, or do you take inspiration as it comes to you? And once you start a poem, how does it progress?

Amy Carpenter-Leugs: If we think of imagination as being a well of images that resides in each of us, I would say that I often feel my poems rising up from that place. Sometimes it’s an image I see outside of myself, but more often I’m writing in response to a sensation in my body—a feeling like there’s a thread around my ribs, or a flame behind my eyes, or a place I go in response to the smell of juniper and sage in sandy soil.  When I get these almost elemental sensations, it’s more than an emotion—I’ve found something I value deeply, maybe not with my mind, but with the visceral response in my body, my senses.

I do sit down regularly to write poems.  I write whether I have inspiration or not, because I know I’ll discover something if I will just do the writing.  I start with whatever is in my monkey-mind, then move through memory and imagination to the things that seem to flash and spark.

As far as how the poems progress, the more experienced I get, the more I time I spend on revision.  Paying attention to the form helps me remain playful and mindful, even with the most serious topics.  I’ve come to love it—taking a word out, putting it back in, changing a line break, moving through different stanza possibilities…and then I’ll restructure the entire poem, or add a new element that allows for more contrast and more surprise.

When I’m thinking, “there should be more,” I’ll make the stanzas longer to see what I do to fill them up.  When the voice of a poem doesn’t seem to serve it well, I’ll try changing the line length to see what voice speaks when the rhythm runs differently.  I’ll try rhyme and sound so that I go to the unexpected place—not the place I feel, anymore, but the word that rhymes with “drive” or “air.”  I try to surprise myself—and then revise so that I’m making conscious choices about the tension within the poem—and then to surprise myself again. I like the conversation between myself and that mystery place—wherever it is that poems come from.

Workshopping poems with local poets has been a huge part of my revision process as well.  Jack Ridl, Dennis Henrichsen, Phillip Sterling, Lisa Gundry, Kathleen McGookey, Andy Saur, Jane Wheeler and more—all have been so generous with their time, and each has their own focus.  Phillip has an ear for sound, and  I learn a lot from him.  Jack’s ear works very differently, and he delights in surprises.  Dennis has developed a toolbox of techniques, many borrowed from other disciplines. for looking at form in free verse:  tension and resolution from music theory, storyboarding from filmmaking, and so on.  

When you work with a lot of folks, you get these wonderful glimpses at how they see the art, and you see your own poems completely differently afterward.  It’s great for releasing those poems from your own limitations and seeing what they could be—maybe what they were meant to be.

For a treat, here is Lynne Knight’s take on how one’s poetry evolves over time, from her poem “The Twenty-Year Workshop.”

She begins as many of us seem to begin:

“I was trying to become a poet, and I thought
everything I heard could become a poem
if I could figure out how to make use of it,
the way frontierswomen made use of berries
for dyes …”

And then, after years:

“And I would despair, because nothing I wrote
sounded as beautiful or profound as the foothills
of the Adirondacks, the word foothills alone
like its own little poem, hidden in the shadow
of the mountains, which, as I drove over them
to visit my sister in Vermont, seemed to taunt me
with their permanence, until slowly the need
to redeem as my own the words of others
became less desperate, and even shadows spoke.”

3288 Review: Tell us something about your experience as an instructor at the Open Doors Center for Self-Directed Teens. How have your students taken to writing? And have any notable moments come from your time there?

Amy Carpenter-Leugs: I was actually the Outreach Director at Open Doors, which was a great experience.  I loved hanging out with the teens, but I didn’t give much instruction — I did more listening and one-on-one mentoring.  Though I enjoy working with writers of all ages, most of the teens I know are sparked by things other than creative writing, so I like to listen and work with them where they are.  

When I was at Open Doors, I worked with one teen who was building mods (user-created add-ons and modification) for a video game in the Elder Scrolls series.  He was fascinated by a piece of horror fan-fiction, so he created that world in the game.  It’s story building, but with different tools.  Another teen I know loves improvisational acting. Again, she’s creating lots of characters and stories, but with her body and voice.  

I have a lot of fun working with my 18-year-old unschooled son.  He really enjoys writing and craft, but isn’t terribly interested in fiction or poetry.  I love to read everything he writes.  Much like the caring adults who show up to their children’s football games or gymnastic competitions and say, “I just love to watch you,” my main role to say, “I just love to read your writing.”  

This has been my discovery—that as adults we often forget to just love the writing for what it is.  We’re in a hurry to “help” young writers.  But it has to start and end with the joy of their process, the way their minds work, the celebration of their own voice and all its facets.  If they come to us for help, we need to first listen to what problems they see in their work, because that’s where they are, instead of laying down the problems we think we see.  Much of what we’re seeing can be addressed by tying it in with their concerns—and some of them won’t be addressed that way.   We can trust in the process and let that go.  Each young person—each person—has their own way of accessing the imagination.  First and foremost we need to learn to collaborate and follow their lead.  I’m still learning this, but it’s what I strive for.

I see the benefit of this playing out daily.  My son’s blog started as a video game strategy blog a few years ago, and then morphed into reflections and opinion pieces.  Now that he’s had some time with his own writing, he’s taking English 101 at Grand Rapids Community College, where they have him write weekly in rough draft form and then revise over time.  Because he’s writing a lot, I see his voice and comfort level growing by leaps and bounds.  He’s open enough to be able to ask my husband, who is an excellent editor, for feedback.  This is helping my son understand his own voice better. He tends to think in long sentences and dense word choices—the more he writes and fiddles with things, the more options he has for shaping those habits in ways that make sense to him.  

My 12-year-old unschooled son loves writing as well, but in a completely different way.  He’d like to create a video game someday, so he’s been busily writing down characters, backstories, plots, and so on.  He doesn’t show me any of this — it’s his own secret thing, which is powerful — but I can see how satisfied he is with his own process.  To me, that’s plenty.  And if he wasn’t writing, I know he’d be creating meaning in another way, as young people do.

3288 Review: One of our issue 1.1 poets was home schooled, and said that this experience was tremendously influential on her as a writer. Have you noticed any definable differences—for instance in style, subject matter or “world view”—between the finished work of unschooled writers and those who have gone through more traditional education? Or is the difference more in the process (motivation, support, literary influences) and less in the outcome?

Amy Carpenter-Leugs: I’ve been re-reading the Tao Te Ching lately and one of the concepts it holds is “how useful the useless is.”  Taoist writers refer to the Uncut Wood as having value—that is, a crooked tree doesn’t fear being cut down for planks.  The tree adds more value by being allowed to live in the woods.  

I’ve read only seven or eight unschooled writers, and I’ve worked closely with just a couple.  So I’m not sure I can speak about unschooled writers as a whole.  But I do find that at their best moments, unschooled writers are slightly more comfortable with being “useless”—Uncut Wood—and therefore a little more whole.

Put another way, unschooled writers have usually heard fewer messages that you have to do certain things to be a writer—write a certain way, read certain pieces, avoid “shallow” things like video games and fashion.  Or if they have heard those messages, they’ve had more time to let them slough off—time spent walking in the woods or listening to music—time where the sludge was washed away by the clean water of their own voices, their own hearts showing them the world that they respond to, that they love.  

I’ve seen unschooled writers write about everything from body image to education, from gender-identity to economics.  Many of them participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, held in November of each year).  Many do write about their own life learning experience, but other than that, I don’t see much similarity in content, voice, or approach.

But in many of the pieces I’ve read, I hear this confidence, this willingness to take time with something they love without so much worry about whether it’s “useful” enough for the rest of the world.  That kind of confidence can take you further—self-doubt tends to cut a process short, as people dread the revision and editing because it’s so uncomfortable.  It’s not that unschooled writers are doubt-free—no writer is—but that at their core they are more used to the process of just being with themselves in the world, and that shows up in their writing.

3288 Review:  What are you working on now? Do you have anything which will be available for public viewing in the next year?

Amy Carpenter-Leugs: I’ll have a new children’s book coming out through UCOM Open Door Press, called A Job for Hope.  It’s about a young girl who is re-establishing a relationship with her father after he’s served his time in jail.  Like all my books for UCOM, this one highlights the good work being done by the modern miracle workers at United Church Outreach Ministry, right here in our own city.  We hope to see A Job for Hope in print in the next couple months.

I’m co-writing a book called The Unschooling Journey with Pam Laricchia, who is a wonderful unschooling parent and author from the Toronto area.  In this book, we liken the unschooling parent’s journey to the Hero’s Journey, described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces.  I love this project.  We get to work with myths, fairy tales, and world religions to explore what an unschooling parent goes through when they step outside of the known and conventional in order to meet a mystery.

I’m currently working with a small poets’ circle and a memoir writer’s group.  The process is pretty messy, but I hope to have a small collection of poems about seeing through children’s eyes in the next year or so.  I’ve also recently picked up a memoir I was writing a few years ago, called The Housewife’s Alchemy.  So I’ll keep submitting and working and we’ll see what comes of it all.  It’s nice to remember that I really like the meandering journey, so I don’t have to be as focused on the outcome.