October 17, 2013

Animals muse for poetry

Award-winning poet reads from original works

By ROBIN CAUDELL Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — Amber Flora Thomas decided her life’s path as a poet in her 20s.

“I got an enthusiastic response from my classmates at Humboldt State University,” said Thomas, a professor of creative writing at East Carolina University and this year’s guest speaker at SUNY Plattsburgh’s Black Poetry Day on Thursday, Oct. 24.

“I was taking classes every semester. I was already getting work published and sending it out to contests. I won a scholarship to attend a semester-long intensive poetry workshop at Bucknell University. They award it for two people a year. At that time, it really confirmed to me I was on the right path.”

In the winter of 1993, she relocated from her native California to Lewisburg, Pa., where she worked with poet Molly Peacock.

“She has been one of my first important mentors and been a really good friend throughout my writing career,” Thomas said. “That was the point I knew it was a good path for me. I was finding success with it.”

At work on a new manuscript, she is the author of “Eye of Water: Poems” (University of Pittsburgh, 2005), which won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and “The Rabbits Could Sing: Poems” (University of Alaska Press, 2012). Awards include the Dylan Thomas American Poet Prize, Richard Peterson Prize and Ann Stanford Prize. Her poetry has appeared in many publications, including Orion Magazine, Alaska Quarterly Review and American Literary Review. 

She received her Bachelor of Arts from Humboldt State University and Master of Fine Arts from Washington University in St. Louis. Before she decided on poetry, Thomas aspired to be a singer.

“I knew what I wanted to do with music and voice. I got to college and started taking the voice classes. I was coming up against people who had incredible range and experience, and I could not compete. I had an option to move on to advanced courses. I thought I was not going to be able to pull it off. I didn’t have a strong enough voice for that,” Thomas said.

She found her voice in poetry through an interior revelation, a breaking open.

“My first poetry teacher helped me understand what poetry could actually do,” Thomas said. “That’s when I realized it has this power. I’ve been working since I was very young. My father is a poet, what we call a street poet. He writes spiritual, kind of new agey, kind of poetry.”

When she was 12, he published a chapbook. 

“I was really impressed with that, and I was jealous. It was something about holding a book that was so amazing to me. It seemed like the most powerful thing in the world, to hold something that contained your words, to have a spine and cover and your name on the cover,” she said. “Certainly, my father was a huge influence. My oldest sister wanted to be a writer. That also made me want to be competitive with her.”

With a poet/sculptor father and a visual-artist mother, Thomas grew up in a dynamic, creative milieu in San Francisco.

“Early on, there was a lot of encouragement to write,” she said. “I wrote songs. My father helped me put music to lyrics I wrote. Even in that process, I was so limited with the music. I couldn’t imagine a big enough space to be able to do something interesting.”

Poet/teacher Judith Minty was tough on Thomas.

“And I responded well to it,” she said. “She wouldn’t accept anything than the best, most active poetry. I mean, there were real events and actions taking place in the poem, that it wasn’t all about feeling, about an event taking place or capturing a moment or experience. I had never thought of a poem that way.”

Thomas’s poetical framework was plastered with emotion, layer upon layer, until a Vesuvius eruption.

“She was attempting to hold my hand my first year at university, holding my hand trying to help me see this reality of figurative language that needed to emerge in the work. I was very resistant. I thought I knew what the poetry was supposed to be. I was horribly stubborn as a young person,” she said.

The following summer, Thomas, determined to be a writer, attempted to do what Minty told her.

“In the semester, it felt too hard for me to work in that setting, to show myself being that raw in that space,” she said. “In that summer, I wrote on my own and wrote these six poems. I brought them to her in September.”

Minty was blown away by Thomas’s writing, what she had been asking of her all along. 

“There are poems I’ve written throughout my life. Very early on, I was traumatized by my father having to butcher all these rabbits. He and my mother decided to farm rabbits. It would be a good way to have meat all the time, and they don’t cost that much to feed.”

A colony of pregnant does dropped their litter simultaneously.

“The smell of the blood brought these coyotes out of the hills,” Thomas said. “They basically killed the babies. The mother rabbits became so distraught; they killed the babies the coyotes hadn’t killed. They were horribly injured. The coyotes would jump up and pull their feet through the holes of the cages.”

Thomas’s father had to kill all the rabbits at once.

“I remember seeing the image of the rabbits, seeing their flesh coming off,” she said. “I was 5. I had no concept of death. My parents never talked to me about where meat came from. It was a horrific experience for me as a child.”

This was the ground she swept in those six poems, along with a rooster that ended up in a stew pot.

“I found a direction into the poetry. It was through animal bodies. That’s a little bit of the path. It’s been wonderful,” she said.

Thomas now wants her poetry to be more and to do more in the world.

“I want them to be more active in creating change and showing a more universal experience and show the way we think and experience things,” she said.

In her new collection, with the working title, “Helix and Leash,” she strives to make her poems more structurally dynamic.

“It’s very random, but within the manuscript, there are all these poems, spiraling on the breath of the poems, the way I wrote the sentence line and the full, logical movement of the poem.”

She revisits animals again.

“I just can’t stay away from it,” Thomas said. “Part of me wants to change, and part of me is not done using the animal and experiencing the animal. A lot of my fodder and inspiration comes from my animals.”

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IF YOU GO WHAT: Black Poetry Day with guest speaker Amber Flora Thomas. WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 24. WHERE: Krinovitz Recital Hall, Hawkins Hall, SUNY Plattsburgh. ADMISSION: Free. RELATED EVENT: Amber Flora Thomas reads at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 23, at the ROTA Gallery and Studios, 50 Margaret St., Plattsburgh.