In this interview, Alexandra Naughton, editor in chief of Be About It Press, speaks to Amy Saul-Zerby, author of Paper Flowers Imaginary Birds (published by Be About It Press in January, 2017).
Alexandra Naughton: Okay, so I thought I would start off by asking: when did you first start writing this book? What was the impulse to create it, or what was the inspiration? And what has the journey been like from then to now?
Amy Saul-Zerby: The book came into existence gradually over the past four years or so. In 2012, I’d just gotten out of a six year relationship, and had also just stumbled upon this community of young writers & poets sharing their work with each other online. I’d been writing poetry since college, but the poems in this book began to come when poetry was really becoming the center of my life in a way it hadn’t been before then.
While creating a full-length collection was always a goal, I didn’t set out to make this book. The collection of new work just kept growing until I had enough raw material to begin to think about whether it could even become a cohesive whole. Because the work is so confessional & draws so much from things I was going through during those years, I was able in early 2015 to create something that felt cohesive from the previous three years of very constant writing.
The key realization that really enabled me to craft the manuscript from all that work, which really surprised me at the time, was that the narrative arc was already there. All I really had to do at that point was arrange the pieces to tell the story that it honestly felt like they already wanted to tell, if that makes sense.
AN: Totally makes sense. When did you write it? How did you write it? Do you set aside time specifically to write? Describe a place that reminds you of making this book.
ASZ: I was jumping between occupations during that time, so my schedule wasn’t consistent. I wrote what I could when I could. When I began working on the book, I was helping my grandfather care for my grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s and to whom the book is dedicated.
If there is one place that reminds me of the making of the book, it is probably the house they lived in, where I would stay while taking care of her. She had been hugely encouraging of my writing since I was a kid, and would often ask me to read her my latest work. (My mother is also very supportive, so I am lucky for that as well! But Louise & I shared a very unique bond.)
I also spent six months in Austin, TX, working in publishing, and a good chunk of time in Philly working as a hostess and then an office admin in the restaurant industry. So my work schedule has changed several times, but I write whenever I can, which will always, always be the case no matter what else I’m doing. & which has really always been the case since I decided in (I believe) first grade that I wanted ‘to be an author’ when I grew up.
AN: That’s awesome that you’ve known since the first grade. I feel like that is when I discovering my passion for writing, though I didn’t take it seriously until later.
What kind of writing career would you enjoy the most? Do you see yourself writing as an occupation?
ASZ: I have a lot of hopes & goals with regard to my writing. Experimenting with forms other than poetry is a long-term goal, but I also feel that I have so much work still to do with poetry. I’m a huge fan of Melissa Broder’s work, in terms of content but also in terms of the breadth of forms she utilizes. I could see myself enjoying having a column, writing personal essays, experimenting with short-form prose / flash fiction. Screenwriting & playwriting are also really attractive forms, though somewhat more intimidating because they’re so foreign to me still.
But to answer your question: yes, I want to write as an occupation.
AN: What kind of stuff did your grandmother like to read? Was there a piece you wrote that she was especially fond of?
ASZ: Oh, she liked to read everything she could get her hands on, but I think short stories & novels were her favorite.
She was a very early riser, and one of my earliest poems was about reading with her in the mornings as a kid before anyone else was awake. She had me email her a copy of that one, printed it out directly from AOL (with the subject line and everything), then framed it and hung it in her study. So I think it’s safe to say that one was a favorite.
AN: Are you enjoying this interview?
ASZ: Yes, I am enjoying it very much, thanks!
AN: Who do you want to read this book? Who would you like to see holding a copy of your book?
ASZ: Honestly, I want whoever would get the most out of it to read the book. Whoever needs it, anyone it might help in any way.
I don’t want to see anyone in particular holding a copy of the book. I just want it to reach people with whom it might resonate. I would rather hear back from someone who found something helpful in one of the poems than see my book in the hands of a literary idol or a public figure or celebrity.
AN: BUT IF YOU COULD SEE IT IN THE HANDS OF A PARTICULAR PERSON, WHO WOULD IT BE????
ASZ: Haha, OKAY FINE, but I didn’t want to have to say this… it’s a tie & I would like to choose both Lena Dunham & James Franco.
AN: Why those two?
ASZ: It would just mean a lot to me.
AN: Okay, fair enough. There are lot of great pieces in Paper Flowers, Imaginary Birds. Lots of funny and sardonic quips. My favorite piece is probably the Craigslist missed connection. It’s too real.
What’s your favorite piece in the book?
ASZ: That’s one of my favorites too. Currently I really like ‘Celestial Bodies’. A lot of the poems in the book were written during such a different time in my life that I feel somewhat distant from them now, but that one still feels like me.
AMN: It’s so weird to see stuff written from years or even months ago. It can feel so foreign, like did I really write this. Do you see any growth in your writing now to some of the pieces in the book? Or maybe not even the poems, but personally?
ASZ: Absolutely. My writing has changed a lot, and I’ve changed a lot as a person, even just since putting the manuscript together in 2015. So the poems in the book from as far back as 2012 feel very foreign to me now. For me personally, the book feels like a kind of time capsule. It never feels like I didn’t write the poems, because I remember the things I wrote about so vividly (to the point where it’s almost painful to read parts of the book). It’s more like, ‘Wow, I feel so far from where I was when I wrote this.’ And I am grateful for that distance, and the book reminds me of how far I’ve come, which I often forget.
AMN: All right, let’s wrap this up. What do you think? We’re indie writers who work with indie presses, right, so that means we have to do a lot of our own promotion. What are your plans for promoting the book? Are you going on tour? What are your hopes for 2017? Any fun plans? Any fun projects in the works?
Also, please use this space to say whatever you’d like that you want to talk about that I didn’t ask about or whatever. 🙂
ASZ: Yeah! I’m doing a bunch of readings in Philly, including a release party. Working out the details of a release event in NYC, as well. And I’m in the planning stages for a west coast tour this spring! I’m fortunate to have a lot of energy to devote to book promotion at the moment, so I’m really just throwing myself into it.
I’ve also just started working for a local literary mag here (Apiary Magazine). So I’m looking forward to involving myself further in the Philly poetry community, continuing my work with Voicemail Poems, and touring / promoting the book.
And, as always, to continuing to work on new poems (& possibly other forms)! There have been times when I’ve really questioned the value of what I’m doing and let my self-doubt get the better of me, but at least for the moment, I feel motivated & determined to keep working at this.
AMN: Thank you for doing this interview. What did you think of it? Any areas in which I could improve as an interviewer? Please be honest.
Amy Saul-Zerby is a Philadelphia-based poet. Her first collection, Paper Flowers Imaginary Birds, was published by Be About It Press in January of 2017. Her writing has also appeared in TheNewerYork, Painted Bride Quarterly, Spy Kids Review and The YOLO Pages, and she is managing editor of Voicemail Poems & multimedia editor of APIARY Magazine.