Amanda Calderon holds an MFA from New York University. She was a 2014 Poets House Emerging Poets Fellow and a 2012 fellow at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony. Other writing can be found in Poetry, Poets & Writers, and Words Without Borders. Her poem “Composite Tiger” can be found here. Another poem appears in the Mar/Apr 2015 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Composite Tiger”? Did you begin with an image? With a line or phrase? With the poem’s overarching animating idea?
Versions of the first line had been kicking around for a little while. “It was so big you thought it was a…” brick wall, I think that’s what it was in the beginning. Or something just as boring. More bland frustration than terrifying wonder. In the meantime, I’d become enamored with these incredible Mughal paintings called composites, in which the shape of one animal is stuffed with all sorts of ecstatic, squished together creatures. Most composites are elephants, but there are camels, horses, even men. Some are thought to represent the world, others the universe, others to depict a kind of dialectical relationship between the earthly and the divine. The result is totally dynamic, all crush and motion. I began to think of this as a sort of heaving, gigantic screen, and that’s where the poem began to take off.
Your poem “The Khan’s Wife” engages masterfully with issues of folklore, ethnography, and the transmission of stories across time and cultures. Do you think all existing lore is fair game for anyone to appropriate, or do ethical questions complicate the impulse to rework and retell someone else’s stories?
In one sense, yes, it’s all fair game. Part of what makes a story a story is its willingness to travel, to be re-formed and re-made, to make itself meaningful wherever it happens to be. To place restrictions on how we might use stories seems to me a bit counterintuitive and counterproductive. That being said, it’s not as though there isn’t such a thing as bad appropriation. I have to ask myself, Am I doing justice to this thing I’m borrowing? Do I understand what it is, where it’s from, why it exists in the first place? I think it’s the responsibility of all appropriators to ask these questions.
You know, the original title for this poem was “Nuclear Semiotics,” a reference to efforts by the U.S. and other governments in the eighties to communicate to humans thousands of years in the future about the locations and dangers of nuclear waste sites. Scientists estimate this waste will take anywhere from ten thousand to one million years to fully decay. Compare that to only five thousand or so years of written communication, much of which is still indecipherable, and you see just how mind boggling the whole thing is. Among the proposed solutions was the transmission of the warning message through folklore, poetry, music, and art. I wanted to imagine what these folk tales might look like, and at the same time, I wanted to imagine how the tales that are among us might change. I think I wanted to participate in that change, too. If someone reads my poems in ten thousand years and thinks that’s how it really was, I’d be very happy.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
I only began writing poetry five years ago. Then, the linguistic impulse was everything to me. I wrote entirely in the service of sound and language and was very much opposed to embarking upon a poem with designs, ideas, or expectations. One line would beget another and the poem would make its own meaning. And when I teach, this is exactly what I show my students in order to give them a sense of freedom. But I would say that today, I write with a kind of deliberateness. I do quite a bit of research, absorb what interests me, and let it unspool in my poems.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Maps. Absolutely maps. I look at them all the time when I’m writing. Mostly, it’s a desire to know where I’m placing my poem in the world. What does it border? How big are its rivers? What languages are spoken near it? And this information seeps into the poem as well, deepens it, fleshes it out. But perhaps more than that are the gorgeous names one encounters at every turn. I take my time learning and reciting them. Klyuchevskaya Sopka, Coyhaique, Ukkusiksalik…
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I am currently in the midst of my first manuscript, a kind of imagined history that deals with many of the ideas that crop up in these poems.