Voices of Bettering American Poetry 2015 — Amber Atiya

How do you practice self-care when writing about difficult subject matter?

I listen to songs for the Orishas, Minnie Riperton, Stevie Wonder. Or I sit in the dark, in silence, and just breathe.

Amber Atiya Cover the fierce bums of doo-wop

Aziza Barnes asks in their poem, “How come black folks can’t just write about flowers?” Does this resonate with you? How would you answer that question?

Black folks are too busy dodging bullets to write about flowers. Or Black folks write about flowers as metaphor for Black folks. Or as something blood does. More often than not, the blood belongs to Black folks. Black folks are afraid to write about flowers because Black folks are psychic and know that writing about flowers leads to funeral services for Black folks. Have you ever written an obituary for a Black person? Have you ever combed through the details of a Black person’s life—date and city of birth, favorite color/rapper/food, profession, volunteer work, hobbies—in order to write about their death? Black folks have a complicated relationship with flowers which makes sense if you believe flowers and Black folks are interchangeable, both on and off the page.

We’re currently living in a police/surveillance state. How has this affected your approach toward poetry, art, persona, and personal presence?

Black people have been at war with the u.s. (whether or not we know it) ever since our ancestors were dragged here kicking and screaming. Surveillance is just another tactic of war. Recently, I was talking to an elder Black activist about why I don’t attend rallies and protest marches in NYC anymore—false allies with their own agendas, (what I suspect are) undercover cops leading people down side streets where officers are waiting with rubber bullets and batons. People think this kind of infiltration of organizations, events, and communities ended decades ago—no sir. I assume there are plain clothes officers everywhere, including at literary events. I assume there are artists informing on other artists. I assume at least one person in my social media network is watching, listening, and reporting back to someone. A few years ago, I started adding date, time, and location when I journal because I can’t shake the feeling that, at some point, I’ll need an alibi—how crazy is that?

Photograph by Dia Lacina
Photograph by Dia Lacina

Sometimes, I ask myself the following questions while I’m writing, posting about the president on social media, or doing battle with white men on the streets of NY:

Am I willing to go to jail for ___?
Am I willing to get my head cracked open for ___?
Am I willing to die for ___?

More often than not the answer is yes (and yes and yes) and then I write or post or do battle accordingly—although there was that one time I got into it with a white dude who admonished a group of Black teens for talking and laughing on the train. (Oh, the terror of Black joy on public transportation!) He ended his little speech with “I mean, this isn’t the jungle” and I lost it, jumped up and cussed him out so loudly the conductor came into the car to find out what was going on. I contemplated breaking his cell phone and tearing up his papers but didn’t want the teens, who were visibly shaken, to see me getting arrested if cops were called. (I do try to choose my battles carefully.) Instead, I tore into dude until he stormed off the train. I made sure the teens were okay, let them know they’d done nothing wrong, that he had no right to speak to them that way. As I exited the train, one of the teens thanked me for defending them. My response:



Amber AtiyaAMBER ATIYA is a poet, performer, and self-taught book artist-in-training. Her work has appeared in Boston Review, Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color, and on Poetry Foundation’s radio and podcast series PoetryNow. Amber’s chapbook, the fierce bums of doo-wop, was chosen for The Volta’s Best Books of 2014. She resides in Jamaica, Queens (by way of Brooklyn) and is a member of a women’s writing group celebrating 14 years, and counting.


This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry 2015. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”

Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for the anthology. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.