Interview: Amy Schreibman Walter

Amy Screibman Walter

We talk to Amy Schreibman Walter about her poetry, Dorothy Young and cutting up the New York Times. You can read Amy’s poems “On The Bus From East Dulwich To Oval”, “Mannequin” and “Radio Girl” in issue 36 of Neon, or check out a review of her recent chapbook Coney Island And Other Places on the blog.

Your poem “Radio Girl” is a cut-up poem constructed out of lines from various interviews with Dorothy Young, Houdini’s stage assistant. Can you remember how and where you first learned about Dorothy Young? What interests you about her?

I was reading the New York Times online, back in the spring of 2011, when I came across Young’s obituary. I hadn’t heard of her before reading the article, and I was intrigued by her involvement in Houdini’s stage shows. She was just seventeen when she started working with Houdini. I started reading some of her interviews, and was struck by how much faith she had in Houdini, and how connected she felt to him, even decades after his death. As a teenager, she had completely fallen under Houdini’s spell. Supposedly she and Houdini were never romantically involved, though some sources say they were.

I took lines from the obituary and from various interviews and put them together to create a picture of Young, who was sometimes known as “Radio Girl”, a nickname given to her because one of her roles in the show was to jump out of a large mock up radio; an imagined projection of how the radio would look in decades to come. Soon, I had a poem. At the time of reading Young’s obituary, I’d been working on poems about flappers of the twenties – Zelda Fitzgerald, Lois Long, Clara Bow. When Young and Houdini’s wife, Bess, came to my attention, I decided I wanted to write about them as well. Radio Girl was the first in a series of poems I wrote about the women in Houdini’s life.

An older poem of mine, “Boardwalk”, (from my chapbook Coney Island And Other Places) references the vaudeville acts that performed in and around the Coney Island boardwalk during the twenties and beyond. For a while now, I’ve been interested in the stage shows of this time period, particularly the roles that women took on in these shows, and the nature of the relationships that were formed along the way.

Do you write a lot of cut-up poetry? How different is the writing process between that and your other poetry?

I wrote my first cut-up poem about three years ago. I was in a lovely old bookshop; the kind where you have to scour the aisles to find what you’re looking for, because there’s no order. I came across a hardback original edition of Dorothy Parker poems, and knew I had to have it. Dorothy Parker’s soundbites had long been interesting to me, but this had been my first encounter with her poetry. That evening, while looking through the index of first lines, I created a poem using my favorite first lines from the poems in the book. I called the poem “A Single Flower He Sent Me, Since We Met”. That was the first found poem I’d ever written, and it was published the following year. When I read it aloud for the first time at the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference in August 2011, it was really well received.

Since then, I’ve written several found poems. I really enjoy the process of creating a cut-up poem; it feels more light than writing my own words. It’s about selecting lines and arranging them just so. I like the transformation – seeing the lines in their original context and then repurposing them. The New York Times has been a source for a few of my found poems, and it’s fun to see journalism turned into poetry.

Where can readers find out more about you or keep up to date with your work?

My website: www.amyschreibmanwalter.com is where I blog about all things poetry. I also link to poems that have been published online. I’m working on a second chapbook at the moment. The book has a historical context and the poems are about women who were muses, wives or lovers to famous men. Both Dorothy Young and Bess Houdini already have their places in the pages of the book secured.

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Amy Schreibman Walter is the author of the chapbook Coney Island And Other Places, published in January 2013 by Lulu Press. Her poems have appeared in various online and in print journals, including Metazen and Elimae. She lives in London, England.