|Poet, Activist, and new Real Toad member, Amy Barlow Liberatore|
Greetings Garden Dwellers!
I am proud to introduce you to our newest Real Toad's member, Amy Barlow Liberatore...the wit and grit behind Sharp Little Pencil . I had the opportunity to talk with Amy via G-chat this week. After our conversation, I tried to write a fitting introduction for this interview, then I realized...Amy needs no introduction at all.
Much like her poems: she speaks for herself better than anyone else ever could. If you have not read her work, do yourself a favor and head straight over to her blog. You will not be sorry. So, from the G-chat transcripts, I conjure forth a conversation with Amy!
Izy: First round is on me, what are you having?
Amy: A big cup of decaf coffee. Mmmm! And a chocolate chip muffin.
Izy: Your blog Sharp Little Pencil has a tag line--Poetry of lost years, wild times, mental variety, faith, and lots of jazz, could you describe why you chose “sharp little pencil” and that particular tag line for your poetry blog?
Amy: People told me (in the years before bipolar meds) that I had a “sharp” tongue and wit. I still do, but I’m more diplomatic now. “Little” because in my jazz career, I was “The Little Girl With The Big Voice,” and older guys called me “Little Sister.” And “Pencil” is mightier than pen or the laptop, for my money.
Izy: Currently you live in Madison, Wisconsin: how long have you lived there?
Amy: About two years. We moved here from Attica, NY, when my husband, Lex, was called to minister at a local United Church of Christ. Since I cannot work outside the home due to mental disorders, I am able to devote all my time to "care and feeding of pastor," plus blogging and taking care of home life. This city is a dream, like a small borough. If you've ever been to Ithaca, NY, you'd know this.
Izy: I have been through Madison on my way to Chicago a few times, and have always meant to get off I94 to delve into that town....as a Minnesotan, I must state that I hold no grudge with you, Ms. Wisconsinite Did you hear, MN passed the freedom to marry law today! Marriage rights for all!
Amy: Man, I worked so hard on that as an ally in New York State, and they passed it two weeks after I moved here. Just give us time, and CONGRATS to Minnesota!!!!! Glory, hallelujah for all!!!
Izy: Wisconsin soon, no?
Amy: Wisconsin, if only we can step over Scott Walker's multi-million-dollar butt and get people more active. This state is a bit different for me - Madison is a hotbed of liberalism... NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, of which I am a proud member, was started around a kitchen table with moms talking about their kids. Wisconsin had the first kindergarten, and public education is so important, but Walker is all for vouchers, which would mean the end of public education as we know it.
|Amy and her husband, Lex, renewing their vows.|
Izy: They are lucky to have you in state:) I wanted to ask you a bit about your activism, as it seems to be such a giant part of who you are.
Care to comment further on that?
Amy: It's everything. I was raised by a civil-rights mom, knew what "gay" was when I was five, and our house was sometimes filled with musicians... all shades of brown from beige (me) to cocoa; gays and lesbians; all nationalities. And this was in the lily-white suburbs, so my family had quite the reputation because of my mother's music career (jazz in clubs).
Also, I worked hard on Smoke-Free New York, and that paid off big time...
even though I lost my music career to secondhand smoke, at least I could help out a bunch of bartenders, waitstaff, and musicians keep their health longer.
My club days were long over by the time I started the campaign. It's not really activism if it's done to help yourself on a personal level. Always to help others.
Izy: How long have you been writing poetry? What was it like to realize you wanted to write poems?
Amy: It started with writing jazz songs years ago; I’ve since added praise music to my repertoire, and that’s very structured, very rhythmic. I wrote a spontaneous rant during a 2005 trip to California (about the gentrification of Venice Beach) and my friend said, “Amy, you’re a free-verse poet!” And so it began. The first poem I intentionally wrote was about my father molesting me, called “Daddy’s Little Girl.” It helped with the healing.
Izy: So, let's speak a little to your jazz career. How long did you perform and why did you stop >aside from the secondhand smoke,did it cause illness, etc
Amy: I first sang in front of adults around age 5, at one of Mom's "Singin' and Sippin' Parties." I knew all my life I wanted to be a singer and/or writer. My first gig was playing piano for myself and singing at an outdoor cafe, it was all Billie Holiday, etc.
Then a friend called me to sub for his singer, who was sick with the flu. I was 17, er, I mean they thought I was 18.
Piano bars and all after that. All standards, meaning Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, all the "Great American Songbook." Later, I started writing songs as well - some cabaret-funny, some just romantic.
I moved to LA at 19 because my cousin, Gregg Laughlin, was manager of a legendary place, The Great American Food & Beverage Company in Sta. Monica... Later, I met Rickie Lee Jones at a "hoot night" at the Troubador in LA; she wasn't famous yet. I'd play piano for free and sing backup for her. In fact, I sang backup for her "big night" when Warner Bros. was deciding if they'd sign her. I was very lucky, right place, right time, and willing, always, to support other musicians.
Then I got into drugs, yeeach, waste of my time. Even though I remember some sessions quite vividly and with fondness, most of it was just... you know.
Let's put it this way: Tequila plus Quaaludes plus Hopscotch is not a good equation!! I still have a lump on my ankle as a souvenir!
Went back east, moved to NYC, played loads of places: Caroline's Comedy Club (opened for PeeWee Herman, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Elayne Boozler, Sandra Bernhardt, a lot of greats before anyone knew them.)
Also did two seasons as Artist-in-Residence at the Princess Hotel in Bermuda, until I was so pregnant with Riley I couldn't breathe behind the piano. Came back, had Riley, went back to gigging...
Then to Puerto Rico, where my marriage to Riley's dad broke up... soon after, lost my career to the smoke, my dad to a heart attack, and my mom to too many years of alcoholism and smoking. All in about a year.
Izy: That is a lot to happen in so little time. part of what I admire about your work is your willingness to confront truth and shine a light on all parts of your life. That sort of courage is a rare gift. Is this something you've had to work towards?
Amy: Yes. I was unusually shy as a kid (except when someone asked me to sing, and I was on solid ground then). I flinched at flash bulbs, couldn't swallow pills, ate a limited number of foods, was very small for my age. It wasn't until I broke out in my 20s that I mastered "a mask," a sort of manic state when I was in public... all fun, all jokes, wicked sense of humor further honed by hanging with so many gay men...
It wasn't until I was 40 that I discovered I, like one of my sisters, had been sexually molested by my father when I was a very little girl. Started having flashbacks when Riley was around three, went to a therapist, and figured a lot of things out. Then...
it wasn't until I was 50 that the bipolar diagnosis came in. I prefer the term "manic depression," because "bipolar" sounds like you live half the year with Santa Claus.
Izy: santa or bears, right?
Amy: Yeah, or those dudes at the South Pole who are scientists but formed a rock band!!
Izy: That is the best possible association!
Amy: You bet, hee hee. It's all about being open to possibility.
Izy: Is Riley is your only child?
Amy: Well, the only one who lived. I had a miscarriage and at one point, a pregnancy that was doomed from the start. Even though I was on the Pill and he was using protection, I still got pregnant. I ended up having an abortion. Again...I speak of these things to show that we need to stop building up stigmas around uncomfortable subjects. Anyway...
Riley is IT. She is brilliant, sassy, a SoCal girl now, an artist, gender queer (wrote about that the other day) and one hell of a drummer, too. And so nice...
She's my all in all.
Izy: Your confession style is unique and bold. What is your writing process like?
Amy: My writing has a PROCESS? Like get a cup of coffee, go over prompts... I write to prompts often as a way of keeping myself on my toes...Pick up my trusty Ticonderoga #2 pencil and some journal or other and then close my eyes and meditate for a bit. Then, the words tumble forth or they don't. I do best...on days when I am either manic or severely depressed.
Writing in the depressed state has produced some of my best poems. It's part of the interesting circumstance of being mentally ill, or "other-minded." You see things differently from others. You notice the crack in the ceiling, you wonder about why things turned out as they did for you, for other people. You question war, injustice. I think most social activists have some sort of "other-mindedness," and in fact, that's why many of us are dismissed as crackpots. Hey, you think firing the first strike on a country with no defenses like Iraq is SANE? I rest my case. We create beauty and questions for which there is no easy answer.
Izy: Scenario: there has been an unlabeled tin can in your cupboards for years, do you open it?
Amy: Are you kidding? Do you know what it will smell like? I won’t even open it for the sake of recycling! It could be Pandora’s can of sardines or (yeeach) peas!!
Izy: Favorite curse word?
Amy: “Shit.” Satisfying ssssssssssssh prologue, crisp ending! Often said with two syllables: “Sheeeee-it!”
Izy: Matinee or Late show?
Amy: Matinee, because Lex keeps early hours and I won’t go without him.
Izy: An alien lands on earth and asks you “what is poetry?” Which poem of yours would you share as an answer (you can only pick one)?
Amy: We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Programming. We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Programming . I’d choose this, even though it’s not a poetic form, because I’d want aliens to understand exactly what kind of planet they’ve encountered, as well as something about our media and general methods of communication as a species.
Izy: Scenario: you are shocked to find your photo all over the news tomorrow morning...what is the shocking headline?
Amy: “Poet Arrested For Melting All of Ted Nugent’s Assault Rifles”
Izy: What are three things you never write about?
Amy: My sisters by name, because they have different views from mine about practically everything. Dirty poetry for the sake of being shocking. And any flowery verse.
Izy: Is there anything else you haven't said or spoken to that you want to mention?
Amy: I owe a great debt to so many poets on the Web. When I was living inside a loaf of Wonder Bread in Attica, the blogs were my salvation. I've received excellent advice and critiques from poets all over the world. When I am feeling down or isolated, there is an outlet... not only reading and commenting on other poets, but getting inspiration to write my own. I've created a lot of trouble for myself by telling my truth, and I know Grandma Blanche is looking over my shoulder (she had manic depression, too) and saying, "If you stop telling your truth, I'm not going to rest easy." I hope that, when I write about hot-button issues, someone out there might say, "Oh, I'm not the only one."