Conway poet Amy Dryansky insists that making art is ‘life-affirming in a way that we really need’
Conway poet Amy Dryansky came to my studio on April 16, the day after two bombs detonated in Boston, killing three people and wounding at least 140 others. I admitted that the event weighed heavily on my mind. Though we did not dwell long on the events in Boston, the topic remained in the air, threading its subtext into several strands of our conversation.
Dryansky has an impressive list of accomplishments to her name: she is a recipient of several MacDowell Colony residencies as well as other awards, including a 2013 Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship in poetry. She’ll be reading with other Fellows at Forbes Library in Northampton on April 24, and at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem on May 4. Yet Dryansky’s manner is warm and unaffected. We talked about her new book, “Grass Whistle.”
The poems in the book span about eight years. “That’s a lot of life,” Dryansky said, smiling. Most of the poems were written after her daughter, now 14, and son, 11, were born. As a new mother, Dryansky struggled with who she was as a writer, what her subject would be, and how to write honestly in a way that respected the privacy of her children.
“I wanted to find a way to write about motherhood that really respected its complexity,” Dryansky said. The idea that her work might be labeled “domestic” stymied her and kept her from writing altogether for almost two years.
“I feel that everything in our society wants to reduce everything down to its lowest common denominator — ‘Oh how cute, oh how sweet, oh how dedicated. Mothering is the most beautiful, most important job you can do.’ And it is! But somehow it gets reduced in that way and trivialized.”
Dryansky’s poem, “In the Tree House,” is written from the point of view of a woman tidying the kitchen of her daughter’s playhouse, sweeping up sand her daughter has pretended was fire, while asking herself, “Why can’t you just leave it?”
“Here’s this mother sort of busying herself with all the minutiae of mothering and childhood and there’s something very attractive about it.” Setting up the little playhouse is easy, Dryansky said. “What’s hard is figuring out how you’re going to relate to your children, how you’re going to raise them, how you’re going to be with them.”
Dryansky often differentiates herself from what she refers to as “the poem’s speaker.” The distinction is important to her. While many people assume that the pronoun “I” in a poem refers to the poet, Dryansky asserts, “It’s a construction. It’s art. It’s not autobiography. Certainly there are things in there that I’ve culled from my life but once it’s transformed, it’s transformed.”
A poem often begins for Dryansky with “some kind of triggering event or experience or image.” A first draft might concentrate primarily on her experience, “But as I go back in and start to craft the poem and revise, I let all kinds of stuff in.”
“In my poetry, I’m always trying to be conscious of a balance between language, image and story. I think the poems change from poem to poem in terms of what’s on top of that pile. But I always want people to be able to enter into the poem. I don’t want it to be all about language and cleverness and polish and form. I want there to be something that feels human and accessible.”
The poem “Somewhere Honey from those Bees” was triggered by news stories she’d heard about looting in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Dryansky felt that, “People were rushing in to condemn people for their behavior … And I thought, ‘Well, really? These people were desperate and abandoned. Who’s to say?’”
“So I think the speaker of this poem is trying to think through the death of her own father and imagining the loss,” Dryansky said. “She wasn’t in New Orleans, drowning, or in the stadium. But through her own loss, she’s trying to imagine what it must have felt like and to really try to get a sense of mercy — we all want mercy of one kind or another.”
The poem asks the reader to look closer, to really see beyond what Dryansky called, “The blinders of our judgment and our experience.”
There is much that is dark in the world and Dryansky admits to feeling drawn to it. But then, she points again to the poem’s title: “Somewhere Honey from those Bees.”
“There is light inside the darkness,” she said. “I’m standing there — or the speaker is standing there at her father’s funeral … and there are bees all over the creeping thyme … The world is buzzing.”
The events in Boston pulled at me then and I asked, “But is it enough?”
I tell Dryansky that I’ve been writing a poem about the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster that also includes bees. Right now the poem ends with a recipe for pear cobbler. “But is that a false kind of comfort?” I ask.
Dryansky replies, “We could just stand still and be paralyzed by everything that’s going on around us all the time. If you really thought about it, you could. But we can’t. We don’t want to. And also, there is so much joy and so much that’s amazing and wonderful at the same time. It’s all at the same time.”
“Maybe,” I suggest, “it comes down to what you’re doing in addition to making the pear cobbler and being completely devastated by what you hear on the news. Are you doing something?”
Dryanksy answers quickly, “You’re making art.”
“But is that enough?” I ask again. “Should I be protesting up at Vermont Yankee, too? I guess this is part of the question for me: Is making art enough?”
“Sure, if you can protest, protest, too,” Dryansky says. “But, I think in our society making art is a protest. It is an action. I mean, let’s face it —” She laughs as she asks, “Are we being paid for this?”
Making art is “life-affirming in a way that we really need,” Dryansky insists. What she often returns to for sustenance during hard times, she said, is the physical world: “the blue-black sky throwing its beauty around, regardless,” as she writes in another poem’s last line.
Dryansky will be reading in the 2013 Commonwealth Reading Series, a series of literary events featuring Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellows/Finalists in prose and poetry on Wednesday, April 24, 7 p.m. at
Forbes Library, 20 West St., Northampton. The other readers will include James Heflin, Brendan Mathews, D.K. McCutchen, Patricia Stacey and Julie Wu.
“Grass Whistle,” Amy Dryansky’s second full-length book of poems, is published by Salmon Press. Ask for it at local bookstores.
from Those Bees’
By Amy Dryansky
Try to see the world’s backstage
machinery, its business — Look,
said O’Keefe, look closer.
So the man on camera
keens for his wife,
and for the flicker of a signal
he’s ours, the sun shines
equally — gracing, gilding,
revealing, damning — it depends
on where you stand. Looting
or surviving? Taking or taking back?
And look at the flowers — how they open
despite everything. Maybe not as full,
or bright. Maybe not as many. One baby
held aloft, fighting for air.
When my father died the sky
cleared to perfect, creeping thyme and bees
blanketed the cemetery, honey
on its way to being made.
I thought: how could this day be
so beautiful? How could this day be?
Look closer. Even as the water recedes
there’s nothing sweet to see here.
And so the spider’s patient web,
and so the bird’s broken neck,
our necessary mercy.
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She has a studio in Greenfield. She can be reached at email@example.com Crapo is seeking published poets for her column. She’s interested in books written by a Franklin County poet and/or published by a Franklin County press.