I talked with Amanda McLeod about breakups, poetry, and imagery. We end with wondering: How do we locate ourselves in experiential poetry?
MM: Heartbreak Autopsy starts off with these two poems, storm chasing and heat, that both have a remarkable and frankly sexual power. Storm chasing is a concrete poem, in the shape of a cyclone. What did that concrete writing process feel like? How did it differ from something like the short and punchy heat?
AM: I’ll start by giving you some background on the book which will hopefully make it all make sense! Cast your mind back to 1992 (showing my age here)…and the film The Bodyguard. Kevin and Whitney loved each other but didn’t stay together, and that film I recall being such a game changer in the way relationships were portrayed. There was a lot of shock and the ending was not what people were expecting (and not what I was expecting either). That was my first real jolt in terms of realising what sociocultural expectations were hung on relationships and the way they play out. There are these tropes of, when things end, one party is heartbroken and dissolves into loud sobbing or determined to win the other party back or goes on a revenge bender or it’s a sign from the universe that something better is coming. Things have improved, but there never seemed to be a lot of content that sat in that middle space, where there was the quiet grief of really wanting it to work, or those choices about going into something knowing it won’t. In recent times, I think when Anna Faris and Chris Pratt split, they said in their joint statement ‘we tried hard for a long time, and we’re really disappointed’. To me, that captured the reality of things not working out. No Disney-fication…it just sucked. And that in-between is what I wanted to look at in Heartbreak Autopsy. I’ve known a lot of people who’ve walked around wondering where their happily ever after is – this book is for them.
So, to your question about Storm Chasing vs Heat. Storm Chasing immediately felt like a form poem as I was working on it – for a long time, hurricanes and cyclones were only named after women. I wanted to explore the sense of attraction but also the underlying trauma – so often under that frenetic exterior there’s a lot of damage. It touches on risky behaviours and other things people tend to engage in after a relationship breakdown and there’s definitely an attraction undertone, but also a warning. There’s a space needed there for healing. Heat has some similar themes – there’s a definite sexual tone underneath – but where Storm Chasing explores a loss of control, Heat is very much about someone taking ownership. There’s almost a sense of relief and freedom in Heat.
In Storm Chasing, as I wrote, I could see her in a crowded room and there was quite a narrative underlying – Heat to me was as crisp as a slammed door.
MM: There are really clear images in a lot of the work in Heartbreak Autopsy. Do you usually work from an image?
AM: I’m also an artist, so I do tend to be quite visual in a lot of my writing as well. Sometimes there might be an image but there are some poems here that have come from a simple observation, or even an overheard comment or conversation on the bus.
And some come from asking ‘what should have happened’ or ‘what really happened’ when you read certain things on social media or in the news…
MM: It sounds like other people’s relationships, fictional or real and publicized, are a big inspiration for you. To me that’s interesting because there’s something so intimate, so interior about a love poem, or a break up poem. How do you bridge that distance and get inside what you’re imagining?
AM: Sometimes I’ve written by putting myself in their shoes and asking ‘what are you really trying to say?’ Other times it’s ‘what do you really need to hear?’ It’s Not Like That is one of those poems – I wanted to show that sometimes when relationships end, it’s because one person needs to be free and the other loves them enough to leave them – even if they don’t directly ask for that, sometimes their behaviours are sending massive signals that their lover recognises.
And then there’s my angry rant about the patriarchy, Secrets. Two people, something between them, and society will judge them both so differently on exactly the same story.
And of course I’ve had my own share of relationships that didn’t work, so the emotion of that is something I can tap into.
MM: Yes, I wanted to ask about Secrets and the difference between writing how a break up FEELS and how it’s PERCEIVED. Can you speak to that a little bit?
AM: I will try very hard to not get ranty. What I wanted to look at in Secrets is a complex web. So two people hook up, both consenting adults. And they can tell EXACTLY the same story, but simply who’s doing the telling determines how they’re judged. He’s a stud, she’s a slut. He gets to brag, but she’s told to feel shame. It makes me quite angry because each one did the same thing. I think back to a story that was quite big in the media here where two people were filmed without their knowledge. He’s largely moved on but she is STILL being tarred by that. And the only difference is their gender. I think Taylor Swift kinda nailed it with her song ‘If I Was A Man’.
MM: To switch gears a little, in writing these poems, there’s often an open ended question of who “you” and “I” are, who the exact players of the relationship and break up are. What’s the balance between writing a universal story and a story that is specific?
AM: I think by using ‘you’ and ‘I’, it allows readers to position themselves inside a poem. There’s also an intimacy in using that language.On some occasions though, particularly where I’ve written something observational (such as Piano Bar, Just After 2am), I’ve written to a specific story but also to something I’ve observed repeatedly over time. The girl in that poem – I think everyone has either seen her or been her at some point.
But relationships are so often ‘you and I’, aren’t they? When you turn to the third person, there’s a distance. And using ‘I’ lets me take on the role of storyteller when necessary, while still keeping that connection, like I did with No Fury.
MM: Absolutely. Do you feel there’s a difference between love poems and break up poems? Where would you draw the line?
AM: Hmm. I think there’s definite overlap, but to me breakup poems have a definite air of the no-longer-together. Love poems can be about unrequited love of course and the blurry part is where, after the breakup, there’s still love. But it’s the separation that makes a breakup poem, I think.
MM: So as I started out saying, there’s an intense but sort of mournful sexuality in several of the poems, Heat, Piano Bar at 2 AM. We hear a lot about sex writing as another tool in the writer’s tool box. Do you think it can be something more? A form in itself?
AM: Absolutely. I think Elisabeth Horan did it brilliantly in her Frida Kahlo poetry collection Self-Portrait. She delved into Kahlo’s sexuality and relationships in an interesting way – exploring both Frida’s connection to others and to her own body.
MM: I haven’t gotten to that yet, I’ll have to make the time.
AM: It’s a brilliant ekphrastic work and I love ekprhasis!
MM: I have to wrap up, sadly. I like to end by inviting you to ask me a question that I’ll try to answer and then turn outwards to our reader. What would you like to ask?
AM: How do we find ourselves in experiential poetry, when we haven’t necessarily shared the experience that’s being written about?
MM: I think the way we locate ourselves anywhere in literature, by reading with compassion and attention. But let’s see what everyone else has to say!
Amanda McLeod is a creative based in Canberra, Australia. Her catalogue of written work includes fiction, poetry, and book reviews; and she also works in a number of visual media. Her debut flash fiction collection Animal Behaviour was released in 2020 by Chaffinch Press. Amanda is the Managing Editor at Animal Heart Press, where she finds great satisfaction in helping authors bring their books to life, and is also the Art Editor and designer of FERAL: A Journal of Poetry and Art.