Poet Brandon Amico on capitalism, time and why you should ignore everything your high school teacher taught you about poetry

UNSOLVED MYSTERY: "I think there’s a sense from those newer to the form that poetry is something to be 'solved' — that there’s a hidden meaning to a poem that requires the reader to find a clue or key and it unlocks," says local poet Brandon Amico. "It’s hard to say where that sense comes from, but almost every young person seems to be taught that." Photo by Nicole McConville

The best piece of advice award-winning poet Brandon Amico ever received about writing poetry did not come from a fellow poet. Rather, the wisdom arrived courtesy of Aimee Blesing, an acting teacher.

“I was having trouble with a monologue from Spoon River Poetry Review,” he recalls, “and asked her how I could get across this subtext in the work that wasn’t explicit — how could I carry across this meaning I uncovered from the text without changing the words?

“She told me that if I had that meaning or image or idea in my mind when I performed, it would make its way to the audience,” he continues. “I keep this in mind when writing poetry; I think we have to trust — both ourselves and our readers — that readers will meet us where we go to meet them; that if I write with something in mind it will find its way to the page without me needing to overdo it.”

Amico, the author of Disappearing, Inc., is a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellow and serves as a poetry editor at The Florida Review. Originally from New England, he’s lived in Asheville for the past seven years.

In this month’s poetry feature, Amico shares with us two seasonally appropriate works and discusses a wide range of topics from capitalism to the importance of forgetting everything your high school teacher taught you about reading poetry.

On the First Day of the Year (1)

The coffers are tipped upside down and begin to trickle.
Time is money! it says on the street signs
and the building facades and the trash bins
of my city, where night unrolls a laugh

alight with stars and their operatic algebra.
Their connect-the-dots soothsaying. Diamonds
dropping into chimneys, our debts leave us—
we watch their vapor monologue in the cold air.

Time is money, and at the onset of a fresh deposit
we tilt our mouths upward in hope. We have
a whole year to become successful despite this germ of doubt.
How could this fresh year have an end date already?

I don’t follow, I don’t fallow. Must produce. Hope costs
money, energy: the next bag of wind is gently untied.

On the First Day of the Year (2)

At the committee meeting, the next bag of wind is gently untied.
It is a monumental success, not for the action itself
but the agreement for the action to be taken.
Outside we lean toward the decision-building,

as gravity would tug you toward a black hole, waiting
for the decision to reach us and blast us back,
the wind, yes, but also what the wind represents—
a need for shelter, something to keep warm from.

Surely this is the wind they have kept from us,
that would solve all our problems and guide us
Home. We voted to open this, we voted
Bag of Wind 20XX, as a group we decided

now is the time for exceptional luck, to seek
each lotto unclaimed behind a drowsing dragon.

Xpress: Let’s start with the inspiration for and intention behind these two poems. 

These poems were the onset of a 30/30 I did starting on Jan. 1, 2023 — a 30/30 being an exercise where you write 30 poems in 30 days. As it was the beginning of a new year, I wanted to examine how we conceptualize time as a possession; something you can have more or less of, that you can lose or gain. I think this is a reflection of America’s way of prizing property over many other aspects of life and making capital the largest factor in the options you have for your life. I also used the occasion as a chance to try my hand at a crown of sonnets, which are a connected series of 14 poems that use the last line of the previous one as their starting point.

Has this focus — the way in which we conceptualize time as a possession — been a topic of interest in previous works, or is this a more recent interest? And how has exploring it in your poetry influenced the way you think about it and put these thoughts into practice within your own life? 

I’ve been writing about how economic and social forces shape our personalities and paths for a long time. Though it does, as I get older, make sense that I’m more aware of time’s limited nature. I recognize the urge to try and slow time down, to save time where one can and spend it elsewhere. But that very language — “saving time,” “spending” it — betrays that to some degree we think of time as something tangible and thus controllable. That’s, of course, impossible. But it goes hand in hand with America’s imperative individualism: Even if something’s impossible, you should still be able to do it; if you can’t, it’s only because you didn’t want it enough. I try to resist that assumption in my own life.

Can we circle back to your previous response? I want to hear more about the 30/30. I feel as if readers would be interested in learning more about the benefits and challenges that come along with the exercise and what advice you’d offer those trying it for the first time. 

It helps make writing a daily practice. The first couple of days can be hard. You may feel like you’re forcing it. That’s OK — force your way through a poem every day. Sometimes you’ll write something bad. Sometimes it’ll be great. Usually, it’ll be in the middle somewhere. But you’ll find that by the end of the month, it’s not hard to get yourself into the writing head space, and you’re not waiting for inspiration to strike — you’re letting it meet you in process. It’s helped my writing find a rhythm; I go through intense periods of creation, often in the form of 30/30s, where I get new drafts, and then I spend a few months revising them. Then when I get restless, it’s time for another batch of new drafts.

That sounds familiar — the restless need to create. This, too, seems to go against certain American ethos. Creation for the sake of creation as opposed to, say, a profit. I don’t know what the question is here, but I’m curious to hear more from you on the act of creating for the sake of creation. 

That’s precisely why I love poetry — it gets to something human that has been uncorrupted by enterprise. Creation for creation’s sake, as you said. Sure, you can sell books of poetry or other artifacts of art; artists should make money; we can’t live in this world without it. Get paid, y’all. But the driving forces are different. If something is made with the primary intention of generating money, that colors what is produced. That’s not to say something commercial can’t be art or have merit, but nine times out of 10, the person who is creating from passion will make something I’m more interested in.

Speaking of … who are some local poets with recent or forthcoming collections that you’re particularly excited to read and why? 

Asheville has an amazing group of talented poets, many of which dabble in other forms as well. Just a few recent projects off the top of my head: Brit Washburn‘s collection of essays Homing In: Attempts on a Life of Poetry and Purpose came out recently; I’m excited to jump in there. And we have Emily Paige Wilson‘s novel-in-verse Four Months Past Florence here in the to-read pile. I’m looking forward to cracking into that, too. And though he’s since left for the Pacific Northwest, I still consider Eric Tran a local poet, so everyone should check out his latest book, Mouth, Sugar, & Smoke, if you didn’t grab it when he came to read at UNC Asheville in early November. I also, like many, am eagerly anticipating a new collection by the incredible Diamond Forde. No rush, though, Diamond!

Has there been anything you were taught early on about poetry that you wished you’d never been told? Another way to think about it: What do nonpoets get wrong when introducing young people to poetry? 

I think there’s a sense from those newer to the form that poetry is something to be “solved”— that there’s a hidden meaning to a poem that requires the reader to find a clue or key and it unlocks. It’s hard to say where that sense comes from, but almost every young person seems to be taught that.

I remember a high school class where the teacher shared a poem and there were questions like “Why are the curtains blue? What do those represent?” Like, maybe the curtains are just blue!

There is no right answer about what something in a poem “means” — there is intention and interpretation and a whole lot of gray area in between and context you can’t account for. Come to poetry more flexible, because I promise the good poems get better when you approach them from multiple angles and with an open mind.

Who are the four poets on your personal Mount Rushmore? 

Louise Glück, Karen Solie, Wisława Szymborska and Matthew Olzmann.


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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