Interview with Amy Nemecek

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

Amy Nemecek has always dreamed of a walking holiday through the English countryside. She and her husband live in northern Michigan and have one son. Amy is a Pushcart Prize nominee, and her poems and essays have found homes in Indiana Voice Journal, Mothers Always Write, Vines Leaves Literary Journal, Topology Magazine, Foliate Oak and Snapdragon. She blogs at beloveddelight.wordpress.com. She can also be found on Twitter @Beloved_Delight. Her poem “Aslan Makes a Door in the Air” appeared in issue 1.3 of The 3288 Review.

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3288 Review: How and when did you get your start writing? What was the catalyst?

Amy Nemecek: I’ve always loved stories and language. My parents were not writers, but they consistently read to me and also enjoyed telling a good story, so I was always surrounded by that influence. I have early memories of scribbling stories on notebook paper while my older siblings did their homework. This was before I knew how to spell or read, before I even knew the alphabet, so my words were just squiggly lines. But I knew those squiggles meant something, and I would “read” the stories to my family.

When I was ten years old, I had to compose a story for school. I poured myself into the assignment, and my teacher recommended I attend the Young Authors program then held at Calvin College. Chris Van Allsburg was the featured guest that year, so hearing him speak and being around people who saw me as a writer was formative in helping me realize this could be a real vocation and calling.

I continued to write as I grew, but it wasn’t until college that I began to consider letters more seriously as a lifelong pursuit. Dr. Judith Fabisch, my English professor and mentor at Cornerstone University, encouraged me to continue writing poetry and helped me find my voice and hone my craft. I still ask her to read my work before I send it out into the world.

3288 Review: In your published work you compare writing to the work of a mechanic or woodworker. What is your process for writing poetry? Do you deliberately set aside time each day, or do you write poems as they come to you?

Amy Nemecek: My process for writing poetry consists of noticing things—in nature, in my everyday life, in what I read—and responding to them. My husband’s hobby is woodworking. He notices a bowl or vase or plate in a piece of wood and responds by shaping it on his lathe. That’s similar to how I craft a poem. I notice the potential in an image or phrase and then work to shape it into a useful poetic vessel. My dad was a skilled mechanic; he could diagnose and fix engines and motors. I follow his lead when I revise—tinkering, experimenting, and finally getting the timing just right so the poem runs smoothly.

While I’m not deliberate about setting aside a specific time each day to write, I do write something each day—whether it’s a new poem, a revision of an old poem, a story idea, a journal entry, or simply a personal letter. I work part-time as a freelance book editor, so even when I’m not working on my own pieces, I am inundated by words. What’s important for me is being prepared when a poem finds me—and they often come to me at the most inconvenient moments. That’s why I always make sure to have a notebook and pen handy to record the images as they come. My smartphone comes in handy for this—I have a note app that I’ve used on occasions when I find myself without paper, and if inspiration strikes while I’m driving, I use my voice recorder. Later I go back and cull my notebooks for inspiration, building phrases and snippets of metaphor into full-fledged poems.

3288 Review: You are quite involved in the Michigan writing community. Can you tell us something about that? For instance, in addition to writing are you also a teacher or instructor?

Amy Nemecek: I actually work part-time as an editor, doing freelance proofreading and editing for a West Michigan book publisher as well as for independent authors. After my husband and I relocated our family to northern Michigan in 2001, I missed the camaraderie of the Grand Rapids writing community, but I wanted to devote most of my time to motherhood. I continued to write when I could; I even submitted a few poems here and there, but without success. Several years ago I grew tired of writing in a vacuum and began watching for an opportunity to connect with other poets. I’d heard good reports about the Breathe Christian Writers Conference, which is held at my alma mater, Cornerstone University. When a friend encouraged me to apply for a scholarship to attend, I did. Not only did the planning committee award me a scholarship, they asked me to read one of my poems at the opening session. Those two days of workshops and networking reignited me as a poet. I have never met such an encouraging community! I’m grateful to be a part of it each October, and last year I had the privilege of leading a breakout session on the topic of “Coloring with Words.”

This year I’ve also joined a writer’s group via Mothers Always Write, an online journal that has published several of my poems. A number of us contributors longed for peer review and support, so we formed small online groups of three or four people based on genre. Once a month we use email to exchange up to ten pages for critique, and that practice has helped me grow as both a writer and a teacher, since I need to provide solid feedback for three other poets. The group came together so organically, and there is zero pressure to produce. We all live in different states and have diverse backgrounds, but we’ve developed a genuine sisterhood of words and ideas over these past months. It’s a highlight of my writing life these days; those friends motivate me to keep being creative with language and suggest ways to strengthen my poetry and prose.

3288 Review: Is the relative isolation of Northern Michigan more help or hindrance to your writing?

Amy Nemecek: The remoteness of Northern Michigan helps my writing. As I thought about this question, I actually surprised myself with that answer. My husband can tell you how I often lament the lack of a writing community in our region, especially when many of my West Michigan compadres have easy access to writing groups and guilds. I sometimes crave the give-and-take feedback that comes in gathering with other writers. However, I know that I do my best writing in solitude. Living in a rural community affords plenty of that.

Our family lives far from the lights and noises of town. I can step out on the deck at midnight and see the Milky Way, hear coyote yips, smell the dew fall. Not many cars drive down our road, so it’s an ideal place to walk, which is often when I do my best composition. In A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver talks about how walking is one way she makes her writing happen: “For myself, walking works…I walk slowly and not to get anywhere in particular, but because the motion somehow helps the poem to begin. I end up, usually, standing still, writing something in the small notebook I always have with me.” That’s often how my own writing comes about.   

The worst part of living in Northern Michigan is also the best part: dirt roads. They tear our car apart, but they provide me with endless inspiration. I roam these country byways near golden fields of ripening wheat, along the river, past a sheep farm. Sweet peas and chicory are in full bloom in the ditches right now, and everywhere is the heady sweetness of drying alfalfa and timothy grass. I hear balers chugging as farmers try to get the hay in before it rains. The sights, smells, and sounds remind me of a childhood spent roaming my parents’ hobby farm southeast of Grand Rapids. I know that must sound idyllic, but these are the images that remind and renew me, and they somehow work their way into my poems through the rhythm of my strides.

To compensate for the isolation I sometimes feel, each fall I attend the Breathe Conference, which I mentioned above. And being able to connect with other writers online has been a boost to my output as I’m able to revise in community. Overall, I feel I’ve been able to achieve a good balance between the solitude I need to birth my poems and the camaraderie I need to help them grow and develop.

3288 Review: A strong thread of faith winding through your work. How do you approach writing about something that is so central to your life?

Amy Nemecek: Thanks for discerning that thread, John. If I have an approach to writing about my faith, it is the simple act of reading. Reading the Bible first of all, and reading work by other poets of faith such as Luci Shaw, Wendell Berry, Madeleine L’Engle, Tania Runyan, and Jeanne Murray Walker. I also go back to classic poets such as John Donne, John Milton, George Herbert, and T.S. Eliot. John Bunyan’s timeless Pilgrim’s Progress has always been a favorite that I try to re-read every couple of years, and I find myself returning time and again to the works of C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers.

It’s no wonder, then, that the Bible especially weaves itself into my poems, that I find myself echoing its words and stories and images in my own words and voice. Sometimes I think that’s how I really internalize scripture and make it a part of me…breathing it in with my eyes and heart, breathing it out with my pen and keyboard. Part of my daily routine is praying through the book of Psalms (poetry!), something that goes back to my childhood when my mother would read a psalm aloud to our family at the close of every meal. So I shouldn’t be amazed when those words (and her voice) show up again and again in my craft. But sometimes I don’t even see it. For example, in reviewing a draft of my poem “Only Child,” which appeared in the May issue of Mothers Always Write, one member of my writer’s group pointed out an allusion to the biblical story of Jacob and his sons that totally caught me by surprise. The reference was not intentional, it just flowed out of who I am and what I cherish. I love it when that happens!

While I don’t necessarily set out to write Christian poetry, faith is at the core of who I am as a person and as a poet, so it tends to permeate my writing. Working with words is, for me, a way of living out my faith. A popular quote from Frederick Buechner says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” When I am faithful to my calling as a writer, I find joy. In an increasingly violent, broken society, I also know people are ravenous for the smallest glimmer of hope. My Christian faith has sustained me through times of grief and loss, including the death of my parents, my own cancer diagnosis 12 years ago, and the miscarriage I wrote about in my poem “Aslan Makes a Door in the Air.” I believe God is using every moment—both my darkest nights and my brightest days—to create something beautiful in me and through me, and I’m honored when others can perceive that hope through the poems and stories I create.

3288 Review: In your experience, how important is writing as an aspect of therapy, or in service of the healing process?

Amy Nemecek: I find great value in writing toward healing. Putting pen to paper has always been therapeutic for me personally. My maternal grandmother died the summer I turned 15. When I went back to school that fall, I began to use writing assignments as a way of expressing how much I missed her. I wrote a descriptive essay about her. I wrote the stories she had told me from her childhood. I even worked her into a creative short story. If I could capture her personality on paper, I could keep her memory close. My English teacher must have grown tired of reading about the little girl with sad blue eyes and hair the color of chocolate, but I think she realized how necessary it was for me to write about my grandma.

I began keeping a regular journal my freshman year of college after my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. I wrote through the many months of her illness, praying with my pen. Keeping a record of those raw, unfiltered conversations with God helped me work through the trauma of her suffering. After she died, the journal continued as my way of processing grief. Its pages often consisted of fragmented, run-on venting, but out of that grew more stable, mature poems that enabled me to step outside myself and see the sadness from a distance. I still turn to poetry as a way of coping when I miss Mom (see, for example, my poem “Melancholidays”).  

When confronted with my own cancer diagnosis in 2004, I wrote to try and make sense of it all. I wrote about the loss and the fear of dying. I wrote about how crummy I felt after chemo treatments, about how exhausted I felt after radiation. I wrote to keep family and friends updated along the journey. I wrote for my husband and son…just in case. But most of all, I wrote to remind myself of God’s faithfulness to me and my family, especially through the ugliness of cancer. Many poems and articles were birthed out of those journal pages. I expect there will be more as I carry the scars through life. I’ve been privileged to have one of these pieces published in Snapdragon: A Journal of Art & Healing, and I hope it will encourage others along their journey.

I find it near miraculous how, once my pen turns from journaling to poetry, I know I’m on the road to healing. The poetry doesn’t usually come during the pain but on the other side of it. When I begin to see metaphors and images that resonate beauty where there had been only ashes, I can find rest in knowing that all is well.

3288 Review: What are you working on now? Do you have any work coming out in the upcoming months?

Amy Nemecek: Fall is typically my most productive time for composing new poetry, so I’m eager for the inspiration that flows with the changing of the seasons!

This summer has been a dry period. I’ve received a lot of rejection letters, and as I write this I have no work slated for publication. So I just keep submitting pieces with the hope an editor will find them to be a good fit. I do have a poetry manuscript I’ve compiled and tentatively titled The Work of Our Hands. My goal for the coming year is to find a home for it. The title poem,published in Indiana Voice Journal, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and earned a scholarship for me to attend the Breathe Christian Writer’s Conference in Grand Rapids two years ago.

Currently, I’m busy preparing a workshop titled “Tracing God’s Thumbprint: The Poetry of Luci Shaw,” which I’ll present as the author spotlight at the Breathe Conference in October. I occasionally contribute to the Breathe blog as well; see my recent piece about “The Book Lady.” Of course, this time of year is always hectic as I embark on a new year of homeschooling my son…here’s hoping geometry, biology, and logic may prove useful material in future poems!