Amanda Butler on writing challenges

Many writers and poets participate in NaPoWriMo, NaNoWriMo, NaHaiWriMo, and other 30 day challenges. Were any of the poems in your first chapbook Tableau Vivant (Dancing Girl Press, 2015) inspired by such challenges? What do such challenges offer to a writer? Are there times when challenges are more or less helpful to the writing process?

I love the 30 day challenges! I participate in them whenever I can. I usually rotate on NaHaiWriMo (February) and NaPoWriMo (April) each year, but I try to do at least one NaNoWriMo event a year. The poems in Tableau Vivant were written in the summer of 2013, none of them being for any type of monthly challenge. That was a year of change and growth and new beginnings for me, so I focused less on challenges and more on capturing what I felt in the moment.

I highly recommend these challenges to any writer, whether they are just starting out or bestselling novelists. Any kind of daily action can, over time, become routine – and that’s what monthly challenges do for a writer. Suddenly, the writer is setting aside time to meet some sort of goal for thirty days – a poem, a paragraph, or a word count – and this can set the stage for creating a routine. I know for me, starting a NaNoWriMo project is a daunting task on the first day, but by the time the month is over, not writing feels unnatural. These challenges offer the stability of routine, the resilience of meeting a goal every day no matter what, and the value of prioritizing the project.

These types of challenges are so helpful to my writing process. I’m highly motivated by deadlines, goals, and the need to achieve, so I live for writing challenges. Motivation is crucial to art – the artist needs to be motivated to finish it, and that’s what these challenges do. Especially when there are forums involved! The NaNoWriMo forums are one of the friendliest writing communities I’ve come across, providing a network for writers to motivate and inspire one another, no matter the project. I am a firm believer that anything practiced for thirty days paves the way for a routine by the end of the challenge.


In the February 2016 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, in her essay “How to Give a Killer Reading” Christine Vines discusses great readings. Compiling advice from readers she’s hosted, Vines suggests keeping the length of the reading short and selecting something “funny and/or sexy”. What strategies do you employ when you’re preparing to read? What killer readings have you attended and what made them memorable?

When preparing to read, I approach the situation as if I were about to go on stage. I took ballet for ten years as a kid, so being on stage was familiar territory for me. When I was a little older, I was a lector for my church’s readings. Before standing up to read a poem, I mentally prepare myself as if I were about to go on stage or behind a church podium. I focus on reading my poems slowly with confidence. I listen to myself as I speak and gauge if the meaning of the poem is traveling through my voice in the way I want it to.

In April of 2012, I was lucky enough to attend a reading of Philip Levine, the 2011-2012 U,S. Poet Laureate. He visited my university when I was a student to give a reading of his poems that address working-class Detroit. His work was blunt with vivid imagery. After the reading, he gave a talk to the English majors in the library basement, and I will never forget the words he said – “There is no such thing as a bad poem” (just one that needs more editing!).

In January of 2016, I went once again to a reading at my alma mater, where poet Carolyn Forché was reading her work from her time in El Salvador as a human rights activist. Most of these poems were neither funny nor sexy; detailed descriptions of mass graves and dead bodies haunted her verses. She was able to see something like that in person and was brave enough to write it down and continue to give readings on it years later, and that stuck with me. This was a fierce reading.


In the February 2016 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, in her essay “Press Send: Risk, Intuition, and the Transparent Poem”, Leslie Ullman writes about venturing into a new experience of writing a poem a day that she sent out to a group of writers. She writes, “One of the things that struck me while writing under pressure every night was the sensation of reaching intuitively after some kind of trajectory leading to closure: tension evoked and then resolved, or tension leading to revelation if not resolution, or some other kind of change resulting in a diminishment of energy that felt like completion.” Talk about your process of writing poems, especially those written day by day. When do you know the poem is done (or done for now to meet the challenge)?

I try to be mindful when I write poems – that is, I try to write in the moment. I want to capture that exact moment in words. The emotions I’m feeling, the sight I’m seeing, the thought process I want to link it to – I want to capture that moment with its complexities. If it has captured the moment in a way that translates what I’m trying to say, then I consider the poem to be done for the particular challenge. I’ll let the poem sit for a little while – anywhere from a few hours to a few years – and revisit it for some reason or another. I consider a poem to be completely done when it feels its existence is complete.

When I write a poem, I usually write down the key words on the first scrap of paper I can find – a receipt, sticky note, etc. – and any images I want to pair with those key words. Then I get out the notebook I carry I always carry with me and the poem takes a basic form. After I edit it or rearrange some words, I copy it down into my poetry journal. If I decide to use the poem for a later project, that’s when I type it out. I love keeping my old poetry journals; even if I don’t like the poems as much as I once did, those journals represent all the different moments throughout my teen and young adult years.


In the February 2016 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, in her essay “How We Are Changed by the Rhythms of Poetry” Karin de Weille discusses the visceral reaction of the body to a poem. She writes, “We’re made to act the poem, in spite of ourselves, to ready our whole body for the match. We get as close as we can to the experience of the speaker. We put ourselves in his shoes, which really means our body in his,” continuing after the paragraph break, “We share the same flesh. Poetry knows this, moving through our communal body.” Talk about poems, chapbooks, and the work of author’s that have moved you.

It’s no secret that I live and breathe poetry. I try to read as many chapbooks and poetry collections as I can. My first favorite poet was Emily Dickinson – they say imitation is the best form of flattery, and when I first started writing, I wanted to BE Emily Dickinson. To this day, Dickinson’s work moves me with its flora and fauna, yet spiritual imagery.

Another author whose work has moved me is Francesca Lia Block. Her poetry collection, Psyche in a Dress, had a hand in inspiring Tableau Vivant. Block is one of my favorite writers – she consistently finds a way to describe both the grimy and the ethereal, most often in the same scenario. Block’s Psyche in a Dress moved me in that the collection takes the reader through the journey of womanhood through the various archetypes of feminine myth.

I’ve always loved the character of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In Carol Berg’s chapbook Ophelia Unraveling, a relationship is formed between Ophelia herself and the river that drowned her. The whole concept is a unique perspective that has shown me that perspectives do not necessarily need to come from characters.


How do you define chapbook? A short collection of poems that tell a story or stick to a theme or message.

What makes a good chapbook? The best chapbooks I’ve read are unified by a subtle theme; the subject matter does not tell the reader what it is – it shows them.

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? Basically, any that I read. Every chapbook inspires me to continue writing my own – every chapbook is a testament to the beauty of poetry.

What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? Francesca Lia Block comes to mind again. Her use of magical realism has shown me through the past few years that absolutely anything can be described in a poem and compared to absolutely anything else.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? How the theme ties together, and if each poem is saying what I want to say while relating to the overarching theme.

How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? I have been writing under different themes, seeing how I can make multiple issues fit within one motif.

What’s next for you? I’m currently working on more chapbook projects – most will be ready for submission soon and one will be self-published later this year.

Current chapbook reading list: I think at least ten. But that’s just the number of those I have on hand.

Number of chapbooks you own: I don’t even think I could start counting.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: According to my Goodreads account, I’ve read 34 chapbooks (not including verse novels and larger poetry collections).

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. I feel like every poet who has published a chapbook is like a part of a big, anonymous family. It takes an undefinable aspect of spirit to write poetry, and that connects every chapbook. And I am committed to my part in that connection.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I buy the chapbooks I can afford at the time. After I read them, I rate and review them on Goodreads. If I really like a chapbook, I’ll post about the reading experience on Twitter.

Your chapbook credo: I believe in poetry as a method of communication and connection – that chapbooks are literary tidbits of the poet’s existence – that each chapbook is a piece of the human condition.

Your chapbook wish: I wish to see chapbooks rise as a mainstream art form – as street art or public readings.

Residence: The weird state of Florida.

Chapbook education: In the creative writing classes I took in both high school and college, we had to write themed chapbooks for our final projects. I wrote about secrets and staircases, respectively.

Chapbook Bio: Tableau Vivant is a chapbook of poetry focusing on the beauty and confusion that haunts the early stage of one’s adulthood. Main themes include mythology and flora.







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    Jeremy Joseph Light
    April 12, 2016 at 8:34 pm

    Brilliant interview! Lots of delicious info about creating a writing routine.

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