An Interview With Poet and Survivor Amy Small-McKinney

By on April 22nd, 2015 Categories: The Breast Cancer Journey

It’s National Poetry Month, and we’re pleased to bring you an interview with poet Amy Small-McKinney. Amy was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. In celebration of National Poetry Month, Amy will be reading at the KGB Bar in New York City at 7 p.m. on April 29.

At what point did you first know you wanted to write poetry?

Well, I started writing in elementary school. In 6-7th grade I had a teacher who actually told my parents I was going to grow up to be a poet, but poet wasn’t exactly a job title for my family. I used to go to the library and bring home poetry books. One day in the basement, I found a Dylan Thomas poem, and I just sat there with it until I found land, like an explorer. It was the first time I felt like I “got” something about the world.

I was an awkward kid. I felt different. I never felt like I was totally understood, or could make myself understood. I actually had a speech problem when very young. Poetry was a way I could express myself when I couldn’t find any other vehicle. I never took myself seriously. How do poets live? I mean, I didn’t know anyone who was a poet. I figured I’d be a teacher, social worker, or secretary — at that time, these seemed like the only options for me. I wound up going to Penn State, but sometimes, I would write 20-page poems instead of required papers.

How did your poetry really get off the ground?

When I moved to Philadelphia after graduation, I studied with poet C.K. Williams, at that time known for several critically acclaimed books of poetry. Williams was running workshops in central Philadelphia.

I became part of a group of poets who became great friends, and I became active in Philadelphia poetry. It changed my life. Still, it didn’t occur to me that I could earn a living as a poet or an academic poet. I still had to work.

I’d get out of work at 5 p.m. and drive with a friend to New York City to study with David Ignatow, a poet now deceased, who taught at the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y. After David, I studied with the wonderful poet Jean Valentine, who also taught there. People were very kind to me, and they believed in me long before I believed in myself. One day, I finally called myself a writer. It was like opening the window. That thought would hold me together years later, when the cancer came.

But after this plunge into poetry, there was a time when I stopped writing to focus on my family. I adore my family, my husband and daughter, but had left behind my writing. Something huge was missing for me, something of myself. Once I realized this, that summer, I went to a writer’s conference at Colgate University and met poet Bruce Smith. Bruce is a remarkable poet and currently a professor at Syracuse University. He was incredibly kind to me. I was hungry; I knew I wanted to write and publish poetry. After the conference, Bruce graciously permitted me to send him work for comments. Since then, I never stopped again.

In 2011, I got a phone call from Joanne Leva, poet and director of both the Montgomery County Poet Laureate program and the new online artistic collective, tekpoet. Joanne told me that I was chosen to be poet laureate for that year. Together, we developed a program for kids in the mental health system: “Finding Our Voices, Poetry and Resilience.” I was living part of my dream. You may not get the whole enchilada, but if you can live parts of your dream, that can be pretty great.

How did illness affect your writing?

In August 2013 I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, but even before the diagnosis was confirmed, I kind of knew it. I remember driving home from the ultrasound, and I wrote my first poem informed by cancer, the probable diagnosis. I was a little girl again who could not articulate, but cancer said, “You have to write this.” We write what we know; we write what we’re living. I remember driving home in that car, writing that poem, and running into the house to type it.

 

Two excerpts from Flying Low:

“What are those birds called

that flew in front of my car,

 

black dots, floaters in an eye?

I was driving home, near my home,

 

when a swarm flew so low

I almost hit them,

had to look behind and swerve.

 

One tried to talk to me

If I listened, I would know he is tired.”

 

            and

 

“If he listens, I will tell him,

I don’t want to give up.

 

I pretend he is a young thing, will fly forever,

blackbird.”

 

Often, the only relief I’d get from fear and worry was to sit down and write. I did not try to write perfect poems. I wanted to be allowed to say anything. And it was the only time during day or night when I felt some sense of relief. So I just kept writing through the whole process. I didn’t even know if they were poems yet. I didn’t care if they were poems. I just knew it was the only place I could feel some sense of control. During the chemo, when I was really sick, I didn’t write as often, but it was always there for me. It was a ladder out of this well, this cave. I was drowning and it was my ladder out. So I’m grateful to poetry.

Now, I’m getting a few of them published! With each one, I have to ask myself, “Is this a journal entry or poetry? Am I allowed to talk about this, or is it too self-indulgent?” I had a lot of questions; I didn’t want the subject of cancer to move people more than the poem. I didn’t want to manipulate my readers. I wanted the poetry to stand on its own.

I’m still a member of two incredible poetry groups. Both are great sources of support for me. Each one is composed of very serious writers and poets in Philadelphia. It’s a blessing to have their support, their readings of my poems.

What would you say to others who think about writing but don’t believe they have what it takes?

If anyone wants to study writing, they should not stop themselves because they think they’re not writers. It’s another tool for handling the terrible stress of disease or any trauma. And it seems that writing can lower some of the stress hormones and lead to changes in one’s physical and mental well-being, even if it only gives you a few minutes of respite — they are invaluable minutes. It’s a way for people to find a safe space to say what they need to say.

Poetry gives you a certain order to the chaos; it was the vessel for all of my chaos. This framework, this container, made me feel safe, like when a kid is allowed to walk two blocks to the store. Within those two blocks, there is freedom. You’re feeling your freedom, but you’re also safe, because of the limitation.

I am currently teaching a poetry class: Memoir in Poetry: Personal Snapshots, in Chestnut Hill, PA, through a literary program called Musehouse. I am teaching because I believe in this process, in poetry (email: musehousecenter@gmail.com).

Amy Small-McKinney is the author of a collection of poems, Life is Perfect (BookArts Press, 2014), and two chapbooks of poetry, Body of Surrender (2004) and Clear Moon, Frost (2009), both with Finishing Line Press. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including American Poetry Review, Cortland Review, Pedestal Magazine, Blue Fifth Review, APIARY Magazine, and Philadelphia Stories and are forthcoming in Tiferet Journal. Several poems written during cancer treatment are to be published in an anthology, Bared, by Les Femmes Folles Books. During her tenure as 2011 Montgomery County Poet Laureate, Amy founded a program using creative writing for healing. Image credit: Sarah McKinney

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