How the Light Gets In
An Interview with Amy Wright
By Joni Tevis
Last Friday night I walked down to the brewhouse beside the railroad tracks, attracted by the flash and oomph of a silver sousaphone playing jazz. Also tenor sax, percussion, guitar, keyboard, trombone. The clarinetist was the frontman. I loved them all. The saxophonist wore a cream-colored sport coat so new that the tails were basted together with X’s. Someone’s parents sat in the first row of chairs, up against the rail. Hot as it was, they had both set their drinks aside in order to record more fully, holding their phones steady.
The sousaphone isn’t usually a solo instrument, but this one had his moment to shine and he made the most of it. Everyone had a chance to riff: acidic flavor of the clarinet, midnight blue trombone. I swung in a hammock chair and grokked it all. After months of being cooped up at home, it was terrific to go out and see a big white Husky with one blue eye and one gold. A man with a propane tank steaming Nepali dumplings, seven for nine dollars. A little boy walked on tiptoe in new black sneakers. Every band needs its listeners.
I remembered that as I reread Amy Wright’s excellent new book, Paper Concert: A Conversation in the Round (August 2021, Sarabande Books.) Like a jazz artist, Wright works in an old tradition, but remakes it in a way wholly hers. She weaves together snippets and riffs from fifty-three other writers and makers to create something new, a book she told me she thinks of as having fifty-four co-authors.
This willingness to hand over the mic and let other instruments take their solos reminds me of Montaigne’s callbacks to other writers, a gesture that pulls other places and times into his own capacious work. I think of Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl (Dalkey Archive, 1997), a history both collective and individual, telling stories we can’t stop listening to and don’t want to hear. I think of David Shields (Reality Hunger, Knopf, 2010) and Patrick Madden, whose fine Disparates (Nebraska, 2020) incorporates guest writers riffing on ideas and phrases.
Ultimately, Paper Concert’s generosity of spirit makes me want to be a better person, to help other people more, to stop being so self-centered.—Friends, the struggle continues.
On a hot summer night, Wright and I talked about the collaboration between playing and listening, between rush and pause. Along the way, we discussed treasures lost and found, fanny packs, and what her South Carolina tree name would be.
Joni Tevis: Tell me about Kilometer Zero in Paper Concert. What I mean is, point me to the place where the book began for you.
Amy Wright: I was on my yoga mat doing a lengthy kriya, or set of postures, thinking about all the conversations I’d had and how much I’ve learned from talking to people. Some of them were published and some lived in my head, where they were all in conversation with each other. They reminded me of how kriyas are passed down through what yogis call a “golden chain” of oral and written records. I thought how great it would be if I could compile the insights and stories I’d gathered, like Patanjali did the Yoga Sutras. When I finished my set, I copied and pasted over forty files into one document.
Joni: I think here of your lovely passage about quilting and remaking:
My family didn’t believe in reincarnation, but reincarnated objects surrounded us. Old tires became tree swings. Clawfoot bathtubs were repurposed as feed troughs. My grandfather saved baler twine, which he used to fasten everything from cattle gates to tailgates. My mother saved paper bags, buttons, and wood from fallen trees on the farm to make our mantel board, coffee table, and picture frames. My grandmother converted chipped plates into plant saucers, collaged broken glass into tabletop mosaics. And my father did his part by wearing new T-shirts to the field as soon as possible, so they became fit for what my mother called the rag bag. I learned to dust using my own cotton diaper cloths.
I love that nothing is wasted, and nothing is limited to only one life. The interviews you collect and weave together here, too, take on new energy when placed against other voices. They pick up other resonances: sympathetic vibrations.
For example, your interview with writer Rebecca McClanahan. She says: “But I do believe that the reader wants a job to do; a reader completes the transaction we writers set into motion.”
That got me thinking (as so many things do!) about Keith Richards, guitarist for the Rolling Stones. In a 1992 interview, Richards says,
The only songs that interest me could mean anything to anybody. You can take what’s happening to you and relate to it, and it will have a totally different meaning to you than it will to somebody else. I never think a song is finished being written just because you’ve recorded it and put it out. Now it can grow, because other people are going to hear it. That’s when it takes on its real meaning.
Joni: When in your life have you felt the freest?
Amy: I’d just completed the last two weeks of my notice as a web designer in Washington D.C. and was headed to Boulder to begin the University of Colorado’s graduate Creative Writing program. From floorboard to console, every square inch of my GMC Jimmy was packed. Bonnie Prince Billy was belting out “Don’t Be Shy” through the stereo speakers. I had learned how freeing it can be to reinvent yourself from going to a college far enough from my hometown to lend me anonymity, and I was now driving 1,600 miles away from everyone who knew me. On my keyring was a key that had been mailed to me, which would unlock a house where I would live with six strangers. Countless other doors waited to be opened by this move, and I felt powerful free.
Joni: Tell me about a particularly memorable drink of water you have had.
Amy: It was August 2001. My friend Jane and I were training for the Richmond Marathon. We had just finished a twelve-mile run on Virginia’s New River Trail and sweated out all 60% of the body that is water. Neither of us had carried a pack on that run. What we had in the car was hot and tasted like plastic, but oh, we gulped, panting between swallows like kids at a water fountain after recess, our shirts and ponytails dripping onto the gravel parking lot.
Joni: I love that. A line I return to in your book is this one from writer Wendy S. Walters: “But we are going to go where our stories go—the ones we dig up and the ones we invent. If we don’t make better stories, the worst of stories will make us.”
I see a stream of water running through your stories. For example: desert or swamp?
Amy: Swamps, for the cypress knees alone, let alone the mangroves, damselflies, bog turtles, salamanders, herons, etc. Despite the political analogies about needing to drain them, swamps are true wealth.
Joni: Tell me about something you lost that you miss.
Amy: After my brother died of a rare form of bone cancer at twenty, I started wearing his gold Oakley sunglasses everywhere. A talisman for keeping him with me, his sunglasses helped me imagine he could still experience things we loved to do. One day, though, I wore them to New River—a misnomer since its age is second only to the Nile for being the oldest river on earth. It pulled them into its ancient belly before I could snatch them back.
Joni: Friend, I am so sorry.
I picture the sunglasses resting on the river bottom, another lost treasure. By sharing the story with us, you allow us, maybe, to share a measure of your sorrow.
I think now of the moment in which you quote Wendy S. Walters, who says: “empathy requires us to dig way down into the murk, deeper than our own feelings go, to a place where the boundaries between our experience and everyone else’s no longer exist.”
You go on to say, yourself, “it positions empathy deeper than personal feelings.” I think this idea calls back to your description of the book as authored by dozens of collaborators or fellow travelers, a striking move of generosity.
Joni: This is based on your interview with Raven Jackson in which you ask about boundaries between poetry and film. Could you talk a little bit about how you understand genre?
Amy: I think of genres as a kind of literary periodic table. It is necessary to define each element’s properties, but the chemistry only gets interesting when those elements combine and react with one another.
At their best, the boundaries between genres invite new possibilities for expression. Hopefully the title Paper Concert suggests as much by embracing the paradox of enacting a performance on paper. Inside, the book’s integration of genres—including interviews, anecdotes, jokes, meditations, and songs—suggests not only that we need expansive forms to create expansive dialogues but also that any individual voice rises and distinguishes itself in relation to a collective.
Joni: What word do you love most in the English language?
Amy: Am I allowed to give a made-up word? If so, THIHACOIAAGT. It’s an acronym I created for an essay with the same title, meaning “the highest ideal humans are capable of imagining at any given time.” It’s also as unpronounceable as the Old Testament YHWH. I love how a word like that can sail past the mind’s horizon and circumvent the usual processes that contain knowledge rather than question it.
Joni: What’s something you say a lot?
Amy: I don’t always say it aloud, but in my head often is an expression I learned from my dad: “I’m busy as a one-legged frog in a squat-pissin’ contest.”
Joni: I love that! It reminds me of a saying I love: “busy as a one-eyed cat watching two mouseholes.”
You’re going to a meat & three. (For readers unfamiliar with the term, a meat and three is a genre of restaurant popular in the South, usually with a changing list of options: a couple of featured mains (e.g., fried chicken, meatloaf) and a series of sides (macaroni and cheese, pinto beans, tossed salad, banana pudding.)) What do you order?
Amy: Rainbow trout, broccoli, green beans, and slaw—if it’s vinegar-based. If it’s mayonnaise, I would get a baked potato. I am my father’s daughter.
Joni: Favorite (nonhuman) living thing?
Amy: Puffins! I’m sure I project onto them because I wrestle with decisions, but these quirky seabirds charm me utterly when they pace the sides of cliffs, strategizing and seeming to work up courage before they dive.
Joni: A great bird. I love its sturdy bill. I think about “There Once Was a Puffin,” by Florence Page Jaques, which you mention memorizing as a child.
Joni: Winter or summer?
Amy: Put me on the side of those with honeysuckle and swimming holes. Ever since I was a kid, I have reveled in the reading time summers represent. When I lived in Boulder, Colorado, I came closest to loving winters more for the great snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and ice climbing, but now that I live in Tennessee, katydid-and-cricket choruses hold summer’s sway.
Joni: Tell me about a surprising item in your fanny pack.
Amy: It would be a surprising item if I had a fanny pack! I keep as little as possible on my person at any given time, but I do tend to stock various cubbies with Falim, a Turkish gum.
Joni: You get one writer to read for the rest of your life. Who is it?
Amy: This is a straight question, but I have a trick answer: Fernando Pessoa, because his heteronyms would give me the experience of reading multiple voices and perspectives.
Joni: What is the best time of day?
Amy: It doesn’t happen every day, but those twilights when the sky turns indigo.
Joni: If you had to set fire to something, what would you burn?
Amy: Any fixed concepts of myself.
Joni: Last but not least. It is time to descry your tree name.
Answer me these questions three: One. Tell me about a song you love.
Amy: Leonard Cohen, “Anthem.” There’s a crack in everything—that’s how the light gets in.
Joni: Two. Tell me about a cherished possession.
Amy: My grandmother’s opal ring. We shared the birth month of October. It is a fragile and delicate stone, and its setting in this ring is high, exposed. It requires special care. She specifically left it to me in her will.
Joni: Three. This one is simple, but not easy: sun or shade?
Joni: Your tree is the black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia.) Because it cracks. Because it burns slowly but hot. Because its thorns require that one take special care while in its vicinity. Because it is durable when in contact with the soil.
Joni: What do you want people to remember about this book? In five words.
Amy: Learning transcends agreement and disagreement.
Joni: Amy, thank you so much for sharing your work with us.
Amy Wright is the author of Paper Concert: A Conversation in the Round (Sarabande Books 2021) as well as three poetry books, and six chapbooks. She has received two Peter Taylor Fellowships to The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Tennessee Arts Commission, and a fellowship to Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Georgia Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere.
Joni Tevis is the author of two books of essays, most recently The World Is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse. Her essays have appeared in The Georgia Review, Orion, The Southern Review, The Oxford American, Poets & Writers, and elsewhere. The winner of a Pushcart Prize and a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, she serves as the Bennette E. Geer Professor of English at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. She is at work on a new book of nonfiction about music and destruction.