Welcome to our 12th Web Wednesday! This time, I had the fun of interviewing a poet I’ve actually met face-to-face: singer, songwriter, poet and friend, Amy Barlow Liberatore. Amy took time out of her cross-country solo trip to meet me for a quick lunch. This itsy bitsy gal has a magnanimous presence (Buffalo influence, perhaps? ), which we hope to provide more than just a nibble of in the next few moments.
Amy, you say of yourself that you “have a tendency to strike up a conversation with just about anyone.” Ready to strike? Let’s go!
PBs: In your chapbook “Dance Groove Funhouse,” you have the following statement: “Chapbooks are dirt cheap and fun to have around (kind of like me…!).” LOVE IT! Will you elaborate on that a bit?
ABL: Well, the “dirt cheap and fun to have around” bit was just a synapse firing off a little joke. It’s true that I have always been a cheap date (in the good way)… Lex and I think a splurge is going out for coffee and scones after seeing a movie. We live pretty simply. And I have always been told I am fun to be around because I am accepting of all, have a dark (bordering on grotesque) sense of Black Irish humor, and love a good belly laugh. Years ago, before I was diagnosed manic depressive, I believe I might have danced on a few tables… gee, I hope my daughter doesn’t read this!
PBs note: Amy’s chapbook is available for purchase or trade on her website, Sharp Little Pencil.
PBs: And while we’re on the subject of groovin’ and fun, I rediscovered your YouTube clip of “My Heart Has Never Been So Broken.” Great fun, talented lady!
ABL: Thanks, hon! I always introduce that tune as “an ode to heartbreak and OCD.” Sad part is, that YouTube clip missed the opening verse, which is spoken quite dramatically over some piano chords:
When dumped and downhearted, unloved and unsure
My girlfriends say desserts are the natural cure
Carbohydrate comfort; sugar-coated glee
A date with Ben AND Jerry… a fling with Sara Lee (that always gets ‘em!)
But I’m the kind of girl, when I get depressed,
I skip cholesterol and get cleaning-obsessed…
…and then the clip picks up there. Thanks, Amy!
PBs: There is a poem in your chapbook that particularly describes how I feel about poetry myself.
Oh Lord, I’ve found a new drug called poetry
More perilous than creating music
With its rhythm and rhyme and
Poetry is terrible, tantalizing taffy
Fun as bubblegum cuz you don’t know when it will pop
Deadly as daggers, thuggish as thoughts
Dangerous as freedom of expression can get
Bet your bottom dollar I’ll stir up trouble yet
Tell us about this poem, if you would. Was this one of your first? Have you found this to be quite true for you?
ABL: That one came about a year into my writing, shortly before I decided to format and self-publish Dance Groove Funhouse. I mean literally self-publish… format the whole thing on MSPublisher and take it to Office Max.
I found poetry to be a refreshing break from songwriting – all our other songwriting poets, including Walt, will tell you the same thing. Free verse allows for internal rhyme or no rhyme at all. This poem is an example of how I talk sometimes… very free-form, all over the place. And “stirring up trouble” is second nature to me because I’ve been an activist most of my life; my work reflects a lot of those values, instilled in me by my mom.
PBs: I must say to you nearly word-for-word what I said to Paula Wanken: Your blog, Sharp Little Pencil, attracts foot traffic and comments that would make most poetry bloggers jealous. Are you willing to share your secret to success with the rest of us?
ABL: Really? I didn’t know I was that popular. I try to answer lots of prompts, and, with the exception of a recent “blanket” thank-you to well-wishers when I posted my taking a break due to depression (there were so many – I’m really blessed), I answered every single comment personally. In fact, if someone writes a particularly telling comment, either on the subject or because s/he is sharing something from the heart, I will usually post the reply and then send them a copy via email. It takes time but lets folks know I really listen to them.
The other effort I make is to visit the websites of every single blogger who leaves a comment – and I leave a direct link to my latest work in the comment box. Sort of invites people back, and then we begin exchanging links. Once I’m through with that, I go back to prompts I’ve answered and visit those folks, leaving a link to my take on the prompt.
Certain poets have a way of “getting me” and we have established wonderful correspondence this way, keeping the conversation going. Also, when someone hints at having problems or memories that have been dredged up by a poem about mental illness or perhaps incest or molestation, I’ll write s/he an email, a couple of lines, to say, “Seems like this brought up some stuff with you. If you ever want to talk, email me back.” That, too, has produced amazing give-and-take. And what happens with Amy stays with Amy. I would never, ever use someone else’s story confided to me as the subject of a poem. I mean, that’s the worst kind of person to be: mean.
PBs: Your response leads me to touch on a delicate subject. I admire you, Amy, for making no secret of the difficulties you’ve experienced in life, including mental illness. Please tell us a bit about The Awakenings Project.
ABL: With pleasure. The Awakenings Project is an effort to encourage folks who have mental disorders to express themselves through art. I submitted three poems to The Awakenings Review and was pleasantly surprised to see all three in print! Then one of the founders, Robert Lundin, called me to chat about their fundraising efforts… and when a reporter for a daily in the suburbs of Chicago contacted Robert about the 10th anniversary of The Awakenings Project, Robert referred her to me for quotes about the value to my self-esteem, having my work published in a forum where no holds are barred and anyone can talk about any facet of mental illness.
My calling in life is to help get mental disorders “out of the closet.” The parallels to the gay world are not lost on me. People used to be shunned or thrown out of families or institutionalized because of what is simply a chemical imbalance. No one’s scared of diabetes – but when the imbalance is in the brain, folks freak out. I say to the world, “I’m manic depressive, I have PTSD and was molested by my dad when I was a little girl. I also have seasonal affective disorder and I live in Wisconsin! And guess what, other than the once-in-a-while ‘grey times,’ I’m a pretty functional, fun person.” I want everyone to feel good about themselves. Being mentally ill does not define me, any more than being straight, having political opinions that are somewhere to the left of Howard Zinn, or being a singer and pianist. These are all parts of me; none are the sole Amy.
PBs: Amy, I’d like to share here The Other-Minded, with your permission. It is an AMAZING statement/revelation/explanation/ode … I think it is one of your finest pieces. It completely wows me.
ABL: MARIE, THANK YOU FOR THAT COMPLIMENT. AND YES, PLEASE DO SHARE IT, THANKS!
PBs: Thank you, Amy. To quote you: “FOR EVERYONE, so they may understand what some call ‘crazy.’”
I am one of the “other-minded”
We filter truth through a lens tinted by our mood
or lit by the fullest moon
to create art, to fulfill our promise
Who else will capture the infinite loneliness
of the slab mattress in the suicide ward?
The blurred visions of panic in a grocery store,
surrounded by cardboard people
blithely stuffing their carts with Cocoa Puffs?
Who else will bear witness to
the undulation of one’s naked self in a mirror,
mesmerized by the sheer loveliness reflected?
Who but we have days we celebrate
for their sheer boredom
Walking the fields of home
while ceiling-gazing in midcity?
We endure darkness, yet we bathe in
the glorious light that follows
We stumble, then venture down a path
the “sane” would never dare.
Our words, our artwork,
our songs and poems
breathe both bleakness and dizzying victories;
improbable stories of
real people they’ll think we made up
(if only it were so…)
We are labeled misfit toys
but we dance on the edge
of a rolling coin
that never comes to rest
© 2010 Amy Barlow Liberatore/Sharp Little Pencil
PBs: Would you please briefly share with us what effect your journey has had on your writing?
ABL: I know that creative people all have a spark. When I was a little girl, I HAD to sing. There was no choice. When I learned piano, I HAD to play in clubs; singing Gershwin and Ellington and all the classics was like dancing in the spring rain. I also have a gift of gab that lent itself well to playing clubs, because it’s all about getting strangers comfortable around a piano bar. Later I started to write my own material, both jazz and gospel tunes.
But when poetry entered my life – and it did enter, I wasn’t looking for it – I realized there is a mindset that is required in an artist. A certain letting go, a willingness to peek at the world from around the corner and take notes, an urge to speak out about injustice, or simply craft a haiku for the sake of beauty. I have always been different from “the other kids.” That is partly the mental illness that runs in my family, for which I am grateful, because I took chances and went places my friends never dared. That, along with the creative spark bestowed on me by my Creator, gave me a life without all sorts of boundaries most folks couldn’t live without. It allowed a girl who grew up in the country a Greenwich Village lifestyle, interesting friends, a chance to live in big cities, to be pregnant in Bermuda and later teach my baby to swim off the shores of Puerto Rico. Almost everybody else played it safer than I did, and I think I’ve had one of the more interesting lives of anyone back at school.
Here in Madison, some of my friends are homeless; some are university students; some are at my church, others in the cafes. Some are Muslim, most are Christian… my former husband is Jewish, so we call our daughter “the Protestant Irishish Wandering Jew.” She’s a hoot and a half, too, that Riley, living in LA now.
PBs: Along those lines, you are also a woman of faith (and a preacher’s wife). I often ask our Web Wednesday guests what role their faith plays in their writing. For you, I’d also like to know specifically if being the wife of a preacher inhibits your freedom of expression … or releases it?
ABL: Great question, Marie, but not so easy to answer. I came to faith after losing my dad and then my mother four months later, in the middle of a divorce and having just been told I could no longer play in clubs because back then, the second-hand smoke was going to literally kill me. I have a hideous bronchial condition that still dogs me. I had always prided myself on getting along fine “without God,” and holy smoke, when the hammer came down, all that loss and grief, I called out, and God was there for me. Looking back, I realized that God’s fingerprints were all over my life; the Spirit whispered good advice when I could have made some dangerous mistakes. And Jesus had the best advice ever: Love. That’s the Gospel in a nutshell.
When I met Lex, he was not yet a pastor. He was a community organizer, helping low-income tenants with absentee landlords, working for social, racial, environmental, and economic justice. I was doing the same. He finally realized that, of all the great community organizers – folks who rally support for the oppressed – Jesus was the best example. We met in a Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) and became fast friends; when I thought he was going to ask me out, I asked Riley if it would be OK with her should I start dating (six years after my divorce). She said, “Is it Lex? He’s great, Mom. You should marry him.” Eight years old, she was, and completely serious.
Of course, we did get married, and then he felt the call. Once he was ordained, his first church was in a small town. I was a fish out of water; even though I had grown up in the country, I had definitely morphed into a city mouse. I mean, once you’ve discovered that dinner can be in Chinatown and if you cross Canal Street, dessert is cannoli in Little Italy, small-town life can seem a bit cramped. I’m no snob – I still smile when a truckload of cow-based fertilizer drives by, because it brings back memories. But I was so isolated from culture – a 45-min. drive into Buffalo isn’t bad, but coming home at night dodging deer on the back roads made it impossible for me to perform. The community was also very conservative, and here’s this chick in a John Lennon T-shirt hammering an Obama sign into the front lawn… they didn’t know what to make of me, and although I tried to “fit in,” I finally decided (with Lex’s encouragement) that my life is mine. I was in show business and writing years before Lex’s call… and our move to Madison, WI, has brought out the best in me. The folks at this church knew ALL about me – I disclosed my mental disorders, read them my poetry, sat in at a piano bar and played some fun stuff. Lake Edge United Church of Christ really embraced not just Lex, but me as well, for being myself. The most affirming, real people here.
PBs: Like our own Walt, you write music (melody and lyrics). “Tioga Moon” makes me swoon, my friend. Lovely in melody as well as lyrics, and you have the perfect voice for the style. (Click here to have a listen [Click on play arrow on upper left-hand corner of the blog].) Can you explain how you know whether what you’ve written is a song, or a poem? Do the words and melody come to you simultaneously?
ABL: That was the first song I ever wrote, really, and thanks for the compliment! I started it in California because it was Christmas and I was so homesick. Also, my friend Rickie Lee Jones said, “Write your own stuff. Write things you enjoy singing, that fit your style. Don’t write for the world… write for you.” Best advice ever.
Lyrics are always first. I do have an idea of the beat or the feel, but I get about ¾ of the words written and then I go back and “find the voice” that will sing the song to me. I’m notorious for pulling up at a friend’s house, knocking on the door, and saying, “Don’t say anything, OK? Can I have some paper and a pencil?” Then I scrawl five line staves on the paper and write what I hear in my head. I’m self-taught but I have near-perfect pitch, so I know my key before the pencil hits the pad.
Lex also knows: Whether it’s a cocktail napkin, the back of an envelope, or a scrap of paper, if my writing is on it, don’t throw it away! I swear, one day they’ll have to carry me out from under a pile of dribs and drabs of unfinished songs. There will be notes and poems hanging off my shoes like errant toilet paper, trailing behind me.
When young singers ask me about technique, I tell them, “First, sit down and read the lyrics like a poem. Read it aloud, with real feeling. Find out what the words mean before you attempt to sing the song, or you’ll just be another Ella clone, copying someone else’s style, never having that heart connection to the music.
PBs: I understand you have had more than one brush with celebrity. Who, how, when, where, and why?
ABL: It all started this way: I
have the coolest cousin in the world, Gregg Laughlin. You’ll recognize that surname if you read my poetry, because our grandparents
were Blanche and Bill Laughlin, and they appear in many of my poems, especially Blanche, my guardian manic depressive angel. Anyway, Gregg convinced me to drop everything in Binghamton, NY and move to Santa Monica, where he ran the Great American Food & Beverage Co., which in the late 70s was a very hot spot. All the waiters, hosts, and bus people were performers – you had to audition. He told me, “Just come. Don’t tell anyone you’re my cousin, and DON’T mention you didn’t audition.” I ended up being one of the only jazz people there, and all it took was sitting at the piano and singing, “Hard-Hearted Hannah” for them to accept me. A wonderful group of people. We were immortal, of course, took all sorts of chances with all sorts of substances and didn’t worry about the future. And in the door came, you know, Hal Linden from “Barney Miller,” the sweetest man ever. Patti Davis, before her dad was president; she had the best “home-grown” in town! Davy Jones of the Monkees, who seemed to be there to poke fun at his fellow ex-Monkee Peter Tork for working at a restaurant.
I later told Peter I thought Davy was “a bitter little troll.” Pete and I stay in touch; he’s been battling cancer recently, and Mickey has been right there for him.
I mentioned Rickie. I met her back when we were ALL poor and she was just coming up. Talk about a roller coaster, seeing a friend leap from a humble little cottage to the #2 album on the Billboard charts. (Damn that Supertramp, they never fell out of first place, ha ha.) We’re still friends, but mostly we talk about our daughters! She truly opened the world to me, taking me along on her first tour, sharing the fun.
Um. Bonnie Raitt, on tour with Rickie, fabulous woman, one of my heroes. Also on tour, Peter Erskine, one of the best drummers in the world, who’s still a friend, and the nicest guy you’d want to meet. Bobby Brown, Whitney Houston’s husband, stopped by my piano bar in Puerto Rico and waited until I’d packed up all my stuff for the night to ask if he could sit in, then got bent out of shape when I didn’t know who he was. Like I cared! Ace Frehley from Kiss, who pushed me out of the way as I was exiting the elevator and expected ME to apologize. “Don’t you know who I am? I’m Ace Frehley from Kiss!” I shook my head and said, “Proof positive that money doesn’t buy class.” Bob Dylan, at the restaurant… talk about zero charisma, YAWN. But when I went to visit Riley last year, I chased down Tony Shaloub and asked him to pose for a pic with me, because I’ve loved his work for years.
PBs: You are one of the most supportive poets I know. You touched on this above, but I’d like to delve a bit deeper: How important do you believe it is to support one another’s work, and how do you go about it?
ABL: I’ve only been writing for a few years, and it gets to me when poets put themselves down. I had zero self-esteem growing up, so I know something about lack of encouragement. It’s incredibly important that we as a poetic and artistic community support one another. The arts are under siege in this country, if only because no one wants to spend money publishing, etc. Blogs are a Godsend, but they don’t translate into money, so if you’re a poet, you’re doing it because you love words, because you HAVE TO express yourself. And so the more we not only praise each other’s work, but also gently critique it, the stronger we all become. When I see a typo, I mention it in the comment, “just in case you decide to submit it.” Marie, you have one of the rare first-edition copies of Dance Groove that has multiple typos in it. I learned a big lesson there. And recently, I had the privilege of polishing final edits for David Fields on Fred Weintraub’s upcoming autobiography, Bruce Lee, Woodstock & Me. Fred started The Bitter End and energized the entire coffee house scene in the Village, circa 50s and 60s. Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Cosby, Richard Pryor, Dylan, lots of folkies, all got their start with Fred at The Bitter End. He also helped make Bruce Lee an international star with his first wide-release film. Anyway, if you are a fan of that era, the book comes out in January, so check it out, and look for my name in the acknowledgments, LOL.
PBs: If we could know only one thing about you, what would you want us to know?
ABL: I say what I mean, I speak truth to power (probably why my FBI file is so fat), I’ll always have your back, I am a committed pacifist and a die-hard Leftie ‘union-yes’ feminist who doesn’t want to convert anyone from the Tea Party; we all have a voice and a vote. I don’t proselytize; I try to live by Jesus’ commandment to love and not to judge. If you’re straight or gay or lesbian or transgender, our home is a source of unquestioning love. As for race, we are all shades of brown in some varying degree, so let’s get over the racism, people. One more thing… my only prejudice is against bigots!
Marie, thanks so much for this opportunity to share more about my life and my work with our friends at Poetic Bloomings! You and Walt create amazing projects, and I believe this interactive blog is some of your best work. And to think it all started at Poetic Asides…
PBs: Thank YOU, Amy. Your willingness to be entirely transparent for the furtherance of creative expression and mental health impresses me. God bless you, talented lady.
One final thing: As always, I asked our guest to share one poem she feels embodies her work. Usually, I post these toward the beginning of the interview. This time, I wanted to end with Amy’s choice. In her words, she wrote this “… in hopes that anyone who had reached the brink of despair and was considering suicide would think twice. It speaks to mental health issues, but also to deeper feelings, the darkness of a lost soul. It’s the edgier side, but truth is bone deep.”
Bloodletting bride of
Over-rated solution to
Delusion tells you it’s
the only way out
(“Please proceed to the nearest exit”)
Psych meds assuage the
Numb it, dumb it down
But for the dedicated
Hounds of hell at their
In the end
it’s the end.
A final farewell to friends, family
Never mind who finds you
Don’t worry, your mom will bleach
But the sight will frighten and
haunt them forever
Never say never – again, I say:
Pick up the phone
Make the call
You are loved
© 2010 Amy Barlow Liberatore/Sharp Little Pencil