Brandon Amico is the author of the poetry collection, Disappearing, Inc., which was released in March 2019 with Gold Wake Press. He is a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellow, the recipient of a North Carolina Arts Council Regional Artist Grant, and the winner of Southern Humanities Review’s Hoepfner Literary Award for Poetry. His poems have appeared in Blackbird, The Cincinnati Review, Kenyon Review, New Ohio Review, and Verse Daily, among other publications. His poem, “An Answer,” first appeared as “Beekeeper’s Veil” in The Adroit Journal.
Below, Brandon and I have an in-depth conversation about many of the central themes in Disappearing, Inc.: social media, obsessions, politicized violence, climate change, and the role of poets & writers today.
Cameron Finch: In the end matter of Disappearing, Inc., you credit multiple publications, authors, and websites that you have taken direct quotes from and used in your poems. The range in reference is broad, from Huffington Post articles to Bashō, from Nat King Cole to The Weather Channel. I’m reminded of Jim Jarmusch’s quote that “Nothing is original,” which in itself is inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.” Can you take us through the process of finding your inspirations?
Brandon Amico: It’s interesting to discuss inspiration and attribution now, especially as so much recent discourse in the literary community has been centered on the thin or blurry lines between inspiration, iteration, plagiarism, and writing in “response to” other sources. In regards to the references and citations in this book, I tried to be exhaustive as possible in naming where even a piece of the poem began, whether explicitly or subconsciously. I do believe that we are a sum of what we take in, and that holds both on a physical and biological level as well as an artistic one. Every stimulus we encounter has a chance to make a mark in our psyche, and sometimes they find real purchase in there, surfacing in our speech patterns or recurring images or our obsessions. Obsession is something I try to be cognizant of, the images or ideas that we can’t shake from our brains and our creations try, in a myriad of ways, to make sense of.
CF: We’re bombarded with constant content from all directions, it sometimes seems! With so much out there to be inspired by, how do you know when there’s a poem lurking in the shadows?
BA: I like how you put that—a poem “lurking in the shadows.” Sometimes it does feel like that, when the kernel of an idea or a song lyric or something else is given so much mental sunlight and rain and has time to unfold, and it feels like the poet’s job is simply tending to what grows from the dirt. Other times the work, article, or whatever else being responded to is more explicitly tackled. Any time I find myself bewildered, and I do think bewilderment is one of the most genuine reactions we can have to this day and age, that’s usually a time I can use poetry to work through my thoughts. Two of the poems you alluded to are great examples of this.
For one, back when clickbait was still in its relative infancy and some online outlets were either blissfully unaware of it or just dipping their toes in, I noticed The Weather Channel had gone headfirst into the cynical waters of crafting headlines solely for their ability to lure in eyeballs and clicks, and not to inform readers. It was a jarring combination for me, these thinly veiled grabs for attention at any cost and a site that I always considered to have a very straightforward and important duty: make information about local weather events easily available to the masses. “This Toy Store Will Haunt Your Dreams!” one headline beckoned. “Don’t Let This Happen to YOU,” said another. Bizarre article and video titles for a weather website! That kind of disconnect is exactly what gets my mind turning, and my poem, “I Hate the Weather Channel,” formed out of my incredulous and increasingly frustrated response.
Second, seeing a Huffington Post article about a gun being produced to look like a smartphone until it was deployed created a visceral reaction on my part. I knew I had to write about it in some way. Thinking about the implications both of why it was conceived and the result if it did hit the market made my head spin. As it happened, I had also shared the article on Facebook. My friend and poet-hero Karen Skolfield and I started riffing in a comment thread, aping the “Gun that folds into a…” format to come up with ludicrous, sad, conceptual, or sardonic other camouflages for a deadly weapon. We weren’t thinking of it as a poem right away; we were just commenting back and forth, trying to make each other laugh or trying ourselves to confront the lunacy of our country’s relationship with guns. It was clear that a poem was forming like that, though. I compiled what we had into a document and, with Karen’s blessing, added to it and edited it, from which the poem, “A New Gun Folds Up to Look Just Like a Smartphone,” really came into being. So there was a stimulus—the article—and the processing of it was the poem.
CF: I’m fascinated by the different kinds of language you use in this collection. In poems such as “Customer Loyalty Program” and “Net Worth,” human lives are considered a commodity and are spoken of in disturbingly mathematical terms. Bodies often have their own language, too, in these poems, whether through violence or embraces or sex. In others like “Definite Article,” your wordplay looks quite whimsical on the surface, yet is an example of the very message you are trying to convey: that words rarely do what we want them to do or say what we mean to say. In a way, this is the most paradoxical statement to make as a writer! How do these limits on human language affect your work as a poet whose very job is to choose specific words purposefully?
BA: Trying to be understood perfectly is an unattainable goal, and yet it’s so much of what animates many a writer. Myself included. Eliot’s Prufrock said it most plainly, “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” But chances are if we think we’re understanding even that clearly, we’re probably missing something important.
I’ve come to terms with the fact that I most often write in the “ironic mode,” meaning I usually don’t identify with the speakers in my poems with what they’re saying on the surface. It’s one level of remove—me pointing at a thing rather than trying to embody it. I find this remove either necessary or at least helpful to take on our reality where every action and statement has an explicit text and layer upon layer of subtext. Dog-whistling political speech, marketing terms, manipulative language, all of these things permeate our lives and it takes a conscious effort to remain mindful of not just the explicit text but what lies under that—what someone is trying to actually achieve by saying it. By stripping off that first layer of artifice in language, and putting more focus on the subtext or context, poetry can be a tool in re-seeing the world we live in and thus finding a new way through it.
There is also the reality that once words have left your mouth (or fingers), you have little control over them. Yes, we can write to a specific meaning, but everyone brings their own perspective and experiences to a text, so what meaning is taken will rarely be the same for two people. I don’t find it useful to obsess over being understood perfectly, but I do think being mindful of the impact your words might have as you write them is an important responsibility in any field.
CF: Constant consumerism. Disappearing ozones. The constant blabbering of commercials. The death of the bees. The ding of another text message. Your poems intricately weave our obsession with technology and material goods with the destruction of the nature that literally keeps us alive. Other than the fact that everyone should be talking about these urgent issues, what drew you specifically to writing an entire collection about the business of disappearing?
BA: Exactly, this comes back again to the idea of obsession! The urge to hold on to things in our lives that are destined to leave us, to disappear, is yet another animating force behind art. We create, in part, to fill the gaps that have opened in our lives, or that will open one day, because everything is on a limited basis. I said in Disappearing, Inc. that every fear is, at its core, the fear of death, just manifested through a more specific means. That feels as close to an absolute truth as anything I’ll be able to put on the page.
Obsession also comes into play with how we interact with the world and how it interacts with us. Technology can be hugely innovative and change lives for the better, but it also seems to have a significant “rounding-off” effect that shaves off crucial nuance. We’re becoming more ingrained in routine and circular patterns of thought—we do less things, but we do them more often and deeper, which sounds like obsession to me—so something to nudge us into the new and unexpected, where pleasure and growth can be found, is helpful. Irony and humor, which both work best when operating with surprise and subversion, are useful tools in this regard. I guess it’s ironic then that I tried to write a book to make some lasting statement on impermanence, but the reality is the words that you’re reading right now are ones and zeros zipping back and forth between a server and your screen, and someday that server is going to shut down or malfunction or be wiped, or simply enough time will pass that no one will access the specific file housing these words. When thinking about that, we have the choice to either give in to inevitability or to scream something back into the void.
CF: The “O-word” has been coming up so much, I have to ask: what are your current obsessions?
BA: One idea I’ve been obsessed with lately is trying to get a handle on how joy manifests in an art piece or something else that was created. It’s always been clear to me that joy on the part of the creator can be sensed by the viewer/reader/consumer who experiences what they create. It’s tangible. You can tell when a musician is having fun on a track or when they’re just laying something down to go out to the public to meet the deadline their manager gave the studio, the same way you can tell when a poet is really enjoying the space of the poem and all of its possibilities or if they are themselves bored. I don’t often know when to look for it, but I’m paying attention for that as I read and watch and listen.
How people work together and build off each other is also fascinating to me, and I keep watching wherever I can to see how it happens. The ability to have fun and keep from being cynical is a big part of it, as is the ability for people to effectively communicate. How anyone can be well understood is a mystery to me on a conceptual level, and yet I see it so often when people are on the same page automatically, whether it’s highly public entertainers like the McElroy Brothers (whose various podcasts including “My Brother, My Brother, and Me” would also count as an obsession of mine) or two authors who work with each other to build something together. For the latter, I think of Dana Diehl and Melissa Goodrich’s collection of short stories, The Classroom (Gold Wake Press, 2019). It’s so much fun to read, full of outlandish concepts fleshed out with real attention to detail, that there’s no way they didn’t have an absolute blast working together to make the book. And that excitement for the work carries over to the reader.
CF: I can totally see that joy in your own collection! Despite the heavy topics, Disappearing, Inc. can also be very playful in how you jab with humor at the folly of our own society (see poems “Self-Portrait as Messenger App” and “If You Like This”). What part does humor play in your work, and what do you hope it brings to the reading experience?
BA: I do utilize humor whenever possible as levity or, more often, as a tool to jab at parts of our lives that are nonsensical, unethical, or simply require further examining. Humor has always seemed to me an incredible means to such ends, and I use it so commonly I wonder if it’s become the language I most effectively see the world through. It’s certainly a defense mechanism at times, when it is difficult to talk about heavier topics, or when I myself am puzzling through an idea. John Cleese has a brilliant lecture about creativity that discusses the difference between seriousness and solemnity that I think about often. In short, he said that solemnity has no point except to serve pompousness and the self-important. To keep those who are guarding their egos from having the air they’re trying to instill in the room punctured by humor. Humor is said by some types of people to be a distraction from serious matters, but I’ve found it to be incredibly useful in communicating. It serves as an icebreaker, a way of getting people to open up and consider new points of view. As such, humor has always been to me a more human language than the one we normally use to talk to each other, or at least more honest.
CF: Disappearing, Inc. showcases a terrific breadth of your experimentations with form. Some of your poems are long blocks of texts written in a stream of consciousness manner, while others are divided into neat couplets. How do you know which form a poem will take? Do you experiment with multiple forms of the same poem before committing to one? Do you have a particular form that you are drawn to more frequently?
BA: I’m terrified of becoming stagnant as a writer, so I’m always trying on new ways of crafting a poem, whether it be tone, point of view, or form. Often I’ll feel a poem out after I have much of its wording down: do the lines need to be shorter to slow the rhythm down a bit, should there be nontraditional spacing to keep readers on their back foot? Much of my editing goes by how a poem moves, and the sentence and the line are two units of lexical measurement that can be utilized to speed up or slow down a poem as needed. But sometimes a poem just doesn’t feel like it’s “working” and a significant overhaul feels warranted, at least to try and see if something knocks loose. A joke among an old writing group of mine was that we could always count on one kind of feedback with every poem we turned in: either turning a prose poem into verse or vice versa.
Funnily enough, Disappearing, Inc.’s first draft was entirely prose. More specifically, it was one long prose poem with numbered sections. This is partly due to experimenting more with that form, but also due to the fact that I wrote a good portion of the early draft of the book on my phone, at red lights and lunch breaks at work; any place I could get a few moments to take the line that was tumbling around in my head and get it on the page. In the editing process, the poems took on their own identities outside of one long poem, so the form necessarily changed, and the poems gained titles as well.
CF: I was drawn to your poem “T-Rex,” which speaks to the inaccuracy of written histories. We’re editing our “stories” online, we’re erasing people’s histories from textbooks and media articles. Museums attempt to preserve history, but again, whose history? What do you think poetry and literature can do that other kinds of (written) preservation cannot?
BA: Talking about preservation and thus history necessitates a discussion on disappearing, what either is purposefully erased or what slips through the cracks. They’re two sides of the same coin, so I wanted to focus on the how and the why throughout this book. And like most poetry, it asks more questions than it gives answers, but hopefully the questions spur readers to discover what the answers are for themselves, and then act on them. Humans are flawed and thus everything we touch is imperfect, and to be wary of anything labeled as complete or perfectly accurate is warranted. Indeed, that question you asked—“whose history are they preserving?”—is a crucial one, and questions like that are what I want people to take from the experience of reading these poems and apply to other things in their lives.
There is a need for people to probe below the surface level of what is explicitly said, especially when it comes from those with any form of authority or power. This was true before the incredible amount of media noise we are experiencing in 2019, but it’s especially crucial today when we have political and social rhetoric used to uphold the power structures that keep certain groups in control. As a white man myself I know it would be irresponsible to take everything at face value, and the fact that I could and then go on with my day is a huge privilege I need to remain cognizant of. We should always ask: what did the speaker aim to achieve in others with this statement, and why did they say it in that exact way? Poetry can isolate emotional truths that transcend explicit denotations of texts, and that is a skill that is sorely needed as we wade through this scary new public discourse.
CF: With gun violence occurring every day, capitalism crushing the majority of our nation’s citizens, and the earth’s temperature climbing, how do you think poetry can help us change our actions for the better?
BA: On a very real level, it would be disingenuous of me to say poetry itself can solve any of those things, or that the act of writing or reading poetry is at all a substitute for being an informed and engaged citizen. But, each of those problems you mentioned, and many more, are extremely complex problems without simple solutions and require both awareness of the intent behind the rhetoric used in public arguments about these issues as well as an understanding of contextual nuance in each case. Both of these things—understanding of intent and contextual awareness—are central to how poetry operates. Learning to engage with poetry—not poetry that serves to be opaque for the sole purpose of being opaque, but more so poetry that exists to share an urgent emotion or to serve as a record of self-discovery or observation—can give people the tools to ask important questions and poke holes in the “absolutes” being proffered in other parts of their lives, usually by people who hope we take everything at face value.
CF: In your poem, “Compulsion,” the speaker wonders where have all the art jobs gone. Throughout the collection, nature and human connection are not the only things on the brink of extinction. “The artist” is also contemplating their own fear of disappearing, of not being able to sustain themselves with their craft—a fear that every single artist I’ve ever met has faced. Can you speak to how you support your physical self and your creativity as an artist?
BA: I think it’s a symptom of a culture that does not fully see the importance of art that makes it so hard to earn a living as a creative. What is produced in our culture is subject to a capitalistic weighing, that of being judged on utilitarian or monetary means. That is to say, if there’s no monetizable “value,” it’s seen as frivolous and secondary. Value, in this sense, is not necessarily how much good or progress the thing made will create, but simply how much others will pay for it. Everything has a number, a value, and it’s really hard to see beyond that when our whole society has been constructed to teach us to amass wealth and toil, and create “value” in order to live a good life. Indeed, our culture values human beings by these same measures, so those with financial means and/or marketable abilities to create monetary “value” are deemed more worthy automatically by the system.
One of the reasons I turn to art and poetry is precisely because it goes against the economic system we’re tied to—it’s asking you to sit still, to grow yourself inward and learn and increase your understanding and capability for compassion. It does nothing to push the broad economic needle farther, and that’s such a rare, beautiful thing. Very few people go into poetry for the money, because it isn’t there—even those who get positions teaching it are often vastly overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. There’s almost no reason to read or write poetry unless you love what poetry can do, what it unlocks in yourself and others, and what it can give the collective society as a whole, even if that can’t be measured or well-monetized.
CF: That’s why grants and fellowships are so necessary for artists today. Speaking of, you recently won a creative writing grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Congratulations!
BA: The NEA Creative Writing Fellowship is such a gift. I freelance for my income, providing content, public relations, and book marketing work for authors or businesses. While that can be relatively satisfying (I still get to be creative and write, even if among very limited topics and to someone else’s specifications), it’s not exactly stable. The work comes and goes in waves, and I know many others are in a similar boat, so I consider myself extremely lucky to have been chosen for the fellowship. It’s helped stabilize my income, which has allowed me to spend more time on poetry and my family. And of course, it was also hugely gratifying—impostor syndrome is very real in the poetry world, and the validation that I must be doing something right has me feeling reassured in my craft.
CF: Given that our whole conversation has circled around social media, I have to ask: do you use social media (for professional and/or personal reasons)? What do you find are its pros and cons? What about social media interests you, scares you, fascinates you? What keeps you there?
BA: I do use it, for both personal and professional reasons. It’s been one of the biggest gifts to me as a writer and as a member of the literary community—how else would I have connected with all of the writers and poets I know, discovered new ones, and been able to crack jokes with some of my literary heroes in real time? It’s helped me from feeling isolated in the poetry world, since I don’t live in one of the major literary hubs like New York or Chicago. Social media has helped my work find readers; I can’t imagine getting my poetry into the world without the Internet’s help. And on the work side, it helps me find clients; authors with new books they aren’t sure how to go about publicizing and businesses/organizations who want a hand telling their story. Heck, my wife and I met on social media initially. So yeah, I like it!
That said, parts of it do terrify: the echo chamber of social media; how relative anonymity encourages certain folks to act out their worst impulses; and how the owner of any deranged, horrifying ideal or belief can find others to validate it and become emboldened to act on it. In that way, we’ve been given rapidly-spreading propaganda, the increase in hate group activity and conspiracy theories, and a resilient strain of anti-intellectualism that appears to be getting stronger. Facts have it pretty hard right now, too. It’s rough out there, and honestly pretty worrisome at times. I wouldn’t say these problems are caused by social media, but things about the medium have certainly exacerbated them.
CF: Lastly, do you have any new projects in the queue?
BA: Yes! Not only am I finally launching my freelance website, I’m enjoying the freedom of writing new poems without a particular direction to them—a welcome change of the past few years where everything revolved around the focuses of Disappearing, Inc. That said, many of the new pieces are starting to arc in a similar direction, so I think I might have found the backbone to my next collection! It’s exciting to be in a time of generation after I spent so long revising for the book. Revision can be a joy, but so can writing something full of energy and surprise, something that you can look back on and say “Where did THAT come from?” And then, later, you get to go in and excavate the poem, find out where in your mind it started from, and take it where it needs to go.