Samuel Amadon is the author of Often, Common, Some, And Free and Listener. He is the director of the MFA Program at the University of South Carolina, where, with Liz Countryman, he edits the poetry journal Oversound.
His five poems, each titled “DIVERS,” appear in the thirty-eighth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the five “DIVERS” poems.
A: These five “Divers” are five of sixty sonnets I wrote and rewrote between 2016 and 2022. They follow some of the rules. They aren’t in pentameter, but they stick to a decasyllabic line and they rhyme, but not in a pattern. Days and seasons are their subject matter, and they were written during a period when I only had brief moments in the day to write or to rewrite, and so the strangeness of tracking time passing gets mixed up with their composition.
Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: In my 2020 book Listener, I really started playing around with hard rhyme and an omni-present “I” voice. I had this idea about a speaker who is so present that they become like a screen or a background for the poems to play through. These “Divers” poems feel to me like an escalation of the work I was doing in that book. I say “escalation” because the constraints of the form—the size of the line and the sonnet and the need to turn it—go along with what I was already doing with the speaker.
Q: I’m intrigued at the structure of individual poems in a project that each share the same title. The late Canadian poet John Newlove composed a handful of poems each called “Autobiography,” and I know it was a structure the late Denver poet Noah Eli Gordon appeared repeatedly throughout numerous full-length titles. What do you consider the relationship between the poems in this project, presuming the entire sixty sonnets share a title? What do you feel is possible through the structure that wouldn’t be possible otherwise?
A: I made a number of radical revisions to the whole manuscript. For instance, I decided on a decasyllabic line after I’d written two thirds of the sonnets, and had to go back through and revise them to make that work. I kept making small changes globally like that, and at one point, I went through and re-titled every poem with a different title. I liked the titles a lot, but I felt like with the same title throughout, the sonnets were more dependent on each other to create a larger meaning and narrative to the manuscript.
Q: Do you have any specific models for the kinds of work you’ve been attempting lately?
A: I read lots of sonnets while I was working on this. I had piles of books around the chair where I write, and when I went to write, I’d read sonnets until I felt ready to write one. I think the poems reflect that reading. Largely in ways I couldn’t say exactly, but occasionally I would take a phrase, like “since there’s no help,” which is from a sonnet by Michael Drayton. I like trying to play with language like that as a kind of texture. I guess a lot of the reading I did was trying to find that kind of texture as a feeling in my own voice. I don’t know if that makes sense.
Q: What is it about the form of the sonnet that attracts?
A: I’ve been interested in the form for a long time, and I think it’s the turn initially that made me want to write sonnets. There’s a mix of constraint and recklessness, I think, built into the volta, which is a combination I find appealing. And I like working within the limited space of a sonnet for similar reasons (and the form just suited the constraints of my writing life over the six years when I wrote this book, where I had very little time to work, and between the pandemic, teaching, administrative responsibilities, my kids, and everything else, it was helpful to have a poem I could work out, initially, in one sitting).
Q: With a handful of published books, as well as your current work-in-progress, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: The Hartford Book, the first book I wrote, was a collection of narrative poems about my hometown and my screwed up friends. The book had a distinctive voice and style that I didn’t want to limit myself to, and after I wrote it, I actively tried to write in new ways, to see how I could get away from myself. The result was Like a Sea, a book full of experiment, polyvocality, and some constraint based writing. I set myself up on a pattern there, where each book I’ve written since has been in some way a reinvention of my work and a response to what I’ve done before. I doubt anyone else is tracking my books this way—especially since they haven’t come out in chronological order—but it’s helpful for me to think of things this way. I’m just starting to think about what I’m going to do next. I have a couple things I’m thinking about, but not really in a way that I can spell out at this point.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: I read around a lot, and my interests, generally, tend to expand. Yesterday, I read Larry Levis’s first book Wrecking Crew, just because I realized I’ve never gone past the selected and Elegy and I was curious to see where he started. Next, I’ve got a stack of books from Nightboat that came in recently that I’m excited to look at. I go back to Ashbery, to Crane, to my late teacher Lucie Brock-Broido, to Ed Roberson, to Keats and a bunch more. I try to add stuff to what I’m teaching, but inevitably, I end up teaching some of the same poems semester after semester, because they’re useful for talking through some point. Then in my reading for myself and for my own work, I find myself drawn to things that are hard to break down and talk about in those ways or books that I, at least, don’t know what to say about yet.