An old soul: in conversation with Amanda Baker-Patterson
The judges of our Occasional Verse Contest said of Amanda-Baker Patterson’s 3rd place winner, “Happy Heart Day,” that it was the entry “most in the spirit of our contest’s namesake: light verse well done was Nick’s trademark—and his poems, like this one, often had a teasing edge to them.” “Happy Heart Day” is an anti-Valentine’s Day poem, dedicated to her cynic husband. Amanda answered my questions from their new home in Seattle. You can read her poem (and the Occasional Verse contest winners) in Issue 120 of TNQ.
The contest “envelope please” time is always fun, our chance to see whether our winning poems’ authors are at all what we expected. Reading “Happy Heart Day,” we all pictured a woman in middle age, someone long-married, so we were surprised to discover that you are relatively new to the matrimonial state, a young writer as well as a newlywed. What made us assume you were older? Perhaps the reference to records. Are you one of those back-to-vinyl types, or were you just channeling a figure of speech from your parents’ era?
I’m flattered that the judges assumed I was older. I’d like to think it’s because I’m an old soul, but it probably was the reference to records. My husband—who’s the same age as I am—is one of those snobby vinyl revivalists who insists that records sound “richer and warmer” than digital audio. His ear for music is more refined than mine and he’s probably right, but I still like to tease him for being pretentious. Since we moved to Seattle, we’ve also both been a bit influenced by the city’s hipster scene which embraces everything retro. He was listening to his parents’ old records as a student back in Waterloo, but now that we live in a place where record stores are fashionable, he’s building his own vinyl collection. So we actually do listen to records, and like the figures in the poem, we occasionally burst into impromptu dance numbers.
We recognized we were in the territory of light verse not only from your theme but from your fondness for rhyme, especially multiple-syllabic rhyme. Ogden Nash, for instance, was never so delighted (and delightful) as when he worked a three-syllable rhyme. Who are your favorite exemplars of light verse?
Ogden Nash was definitely a genius at creating surprising rhymes, which is something I thought about in writing this poem. A very obvious rhyme in a humourous poem can almost spoil the “punch line,” so I tried to avoid those.
I remember having to write an explication of The Waste Land in high school and hating it, having to slog through all those footnotes. I somehow stumbled upon Wendy Cope’s Waste Land Limericks and thought those were absolutely brilliant. They brought Eliot’s poem into a realm I didn’t feel as intimidated by and made it easier to wrap my mind around the original.
In April one seldom feels cheerful;
Dry stones, sun and dust make me fearful;
Clairvoyants distress me,
Commuters depress me—
Met Stetson and gave him an earful.
Is writing poetry a private pleasure only or do you have aspirations as a writer? Is yours a poetic sensibility or are you writing fiction as well?
My plan is definitely to be a writer—I’m in this for the long haul. I grew up writing little stories and thinking I might be a fiction writer. Once I got old enough to be critical of myself, I realized how difficult it is to write really convincing fiction. I took some creative writing workshops in university intending to focus on fiction and got sidetracked by poetry, which is probably even harder to write well, but also harder to criticize. I’m concentrating more seriously on writing poetry at the moment, but I still have lofty ambitions about fiction.
We all loved the playful tone of this poem, the way it manages to be both a poem of protest (against the mercantile interests that fuel Valentine’s Day) and a love poem. There’s a cheekiness to writing a Valentine’s Day poem to someone who abhors enforced professions of love (“your cynicism makes me swoon!”). Dare we ask how the poem was received?
My husband is most interested in poems that feature him as the main subject, particularly ones that cast him in an endearing light, so he loved the poem and was very excited to see it get published. I’ve gotten a fair deal of ribbing from him recently for being a highfalutin published poet, but I know that’s his way of showing that he’s proud. He’s extremely supportive and encouraging of all my writerly endeavors, which makes my life a lot easier. Richard Ford once wrote that it’s important for an aspiring writer to marry someone who really likes the idea of being married to a writer. So, according to Richard Ford, I’ve done at least one thing right.
I understand you followed your husband to the States. Have you been able to connect to the writing community there? Are you ever homesick? If so, what—aside from family—do you miss?
Maybe it’s the rainy weather or the fact that, geographically speaking, it’s kind of the end of the road, but Seattle is one of those places in the world that attracts writers, and I have been lucky enough to connect with a few of them. Soon after our move, I discovered Richard Hugo House—a kind of creative community centre founded by writers, for writers—which has been a tremendous resource for me. I’ve had the opportunity to take workshops with some of the amazing writers-in-residence there, including the great Northwestern poet David Wagoner. I’ve met people like Jennifer Borges Foster, the founder of a very exciting literary journal called Filter that’s entirely handmade, and Sarah Galvin, a columnist for a local newspaper who also runs a hilarious poetry blog called Tea Party. I took a class recently with Ed Skoog, whose poetry I’ve become a bit obsessed with. His first collection, Mister Skylight, just became available on Kindle and is great.
I’ve fallen in love with Seattle, but I’m certainly homesick sometimes. Many of the friends my husband and I made in university stayed in and around Waterloo after graduation, and we miss being able to hang out with them whenever we want. We’ve actually had a good number of our Canadian friends down to visit though, many of whom had never been out West before, and it’s been fun to show them around such a beautiful region. I do miss being able to walk into a bookstore and buy books by some of my favourite Canadian authors, many of whom are not on the shelves here. I have to get most of my Canadian literature online now. I also miss Swiss Chalet and Tim Hortons, as well as Canadian Chinese food, which is different from American Chinese food. Finding out that they don’t have chicken balls in the States was a very rude awakening for me, and the egg rolls here just aren’t the same.