Amy Lutes, author of Baptism: On Sinking and Rising, talks about what inspired her poems and the lessons she's learned in writing and publishing it. She brings her raw words to life through elegance and grace. Whether of nature or grief, she speaks from the heart, drawing the reader in to her soul. My favorite poems were "Scars," "Elemental," "There Lived a Little Plant That Feared the Sun," and "Finding Love."
Amy Lutes is a poet, novelist, amateur artist, and nature-lover hailing from Tennessee. She spends much of her time following her imagination, seeking out deep spiritual truth, and exploring the world around her with her husband and two kids. Currently on her list of works in progress: a YA dystopian series, a fantasy quartet, and an application for seminary, where she hopes to learn how to better use story as a path to healing.
Amy’s social media URLs & website:
amylutes.com (currently under construction after moving)
twitter.com/amyluteswriter (though I don’t really use twitter)
1. Your book of poetry, Baptism, contains some poems from your teenage years. How far back do some of these poems go?
The oldest poem in the book is “Finding Love,” which I wrote when I was approximately 16. (If you want to know, I was 16 in 1997.) I’m not sure I remember what exactly inspired the poem. I do remember that I was particularly fond of the word quiescent at the time, and I’ve always had an infatuation with autumn. I had also just spent two years at a performing arts school and we’d been studying Finian’s Rainbow in my musical theater class. The song “Look to the Rainbow” held sway over me, with its beautiful melody and picturesque themes of searching across the world for love.
The next oldest is “Void,” which was written in 2003, while dealing with the repercussions of my parents’ separation and divorce. Pretty much everything else is newer, from about 2010 on.
2. There are some difficult topics that you cover in Baptism. What advice do you have for poets who are struggling with divorce, miscarriage, or other hard times?
I think poetry has always been a natural way for me to sort through my own feelings. Somehow, ordering those big, scary feelings into words and phrases that have to fit together a particular way helps to make sense of them.
I’m a big fan of strict poetic forms like the villanelle and the sonnet, where you have to be conscientious and exact about how you use vocabulary to say what you’re trying to say. I think that practicing in specific poetic forms can actually improve your prose as well, because you really have to be aware of how to put these huge ideas into, for example, iambic pentameter that rhymes every other line. In doing so, I think it activates a part of the brain that helps to bring order to the chaos, in a way. You’re able to take these things that are so difficult and might, in other circumstances, literally take your breath away, and then you can transfer those feelings into these small, bite-sized lines that at the same time convey the gravity of what you’re dealing with.
And I think that doing that—putting those feelings and emotions into that kind of even, digestible, manageable form—allows others who may be going through the same things to be able to bring order to their own chaos.
A type of poetry which I only really started exploring about three years ago is found poetry—including both the kind where you cut out words and phrases and rearrange them to say what they are speaking to you; and blackout poetry, in which you take a page from a book and scan it for words and phrases that stick out to you, and then you “black out” with a permanent marker everything else. These are both really therapeutic ways of using poetry and poetic process to help you sort through issues you yourself may not have had the words for at the time. Sometimes, our unconscious mind speaks better when we don’t try to force it.
3. You’re quite the nature lover. How does that play a part in your poetry?
Nature is one of my biggest inspirations. I’ve always felt a deep connection to nature, from the time I was a young child. When I was three years old, I told my mom I wanted to be a professional tree climber when I grew up. I was always in trees, in the woods, running barefoot through fields, and wading in streams.
My favorite place as a kid, where I did my deep thinking on life and spirituality (even if I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time), was this huge rock out in the middle of my grandparents’ property in Pennsylvania. It was at this particular position in the property where, from it, I could look out over the patchwork of farms and dirt roads and forest, and see a tiny church steeple in the distance, and the sky above me was so wide and brilliant, and the wind was wild and free and I felt wild and free there too.
I think especially when someone has those kinds of experiences as a child, they’re so intrinsically formative and informative, both shaping the person you become and influencing the things you do later in life. Nature has always been there for me. So have words. So it’s kind of natural that they would converge at some point.
4. What advice do you have for poets self-publishing their first book?
Learn from your friends who have done it before. Do some research. Honestly, I’d heard horror stories of formatting books from some of my friends who have self-published before, and I was afraid that formatting a poetry book would be even more difficult because of the sometimes odd arrangement of lines and words on the page. But if you do your research, you can find some great information on publishing poetry.
Though I ended up using a formatting template for my interior and just tweaked it to my needs, it’s okay if formatting isn’t your thing. There are people out there who know what they’re doing. You can hire someone to format your book, or there are even templates available (for purchase) that are specifically for poetry. It might take a little investment in your book, but I believe that any work of art that holds value in your own heart is worth a little investment.
Also, you may start off organizing your poetry book into a specific theme and then realize halfway through that your poetry is telling you something else. Trust your gut instincts. Initially, I wasn’t going to publish Baptism. I was going to publish Spiraling. And as I went through all my poems, I saw this new pattern emerge, this new theme, and at first I kept trying to make everything fit what I was trying to do initially, but it just wouldn’t work. So I finally let go and realized that my poetry was telling me my theme was Baptism. Trust your instincts. Trust your poetry.
5. What has been an effective marketing strategy for Baptism?
Well, the point of marketing is to get something into the hands of more people, right? So the biggest thing that helped with that, honestly, was running a free Kindle promotion for my book. It’s put the book into the hands of a lot of people. And people who read books and love them will tell other people about those books. So I’m hoping that people love Baptism, because quite a few people have it right now. But KDP has several marketing tools that authors can use, so if you’re self-publishing a book, I’d recommend checking them out and seeing if you feel they’re right for you and your project.
6. When did you realize you were ready to compile your poetry and publish it?
This has been something that’s been simmering in my mind for about one and a half to two years now. I have some friends who have self-published collections of their poetry. My friend, Beth Morey, was actually a pretty big influence on this poetry collection. I got to sort of watch her publishing process a couple years ago when she put out her book, Night Cycles (which is a lovely collection and anyone who loves poetry should give it a read). So the idea to publish my own started as a little tingle in the back of my mind back then.
But I always had other projects, because I’ve always considered myself a novelist first and foremost, never really a poet, even though I’ve not yet published a novel but have been writing poetry since I was quite young. At the beginning of this July, though, something snapped into place. And suddenly, I knew that I had to do this, that this book was the first thing I needed to put out there. I wasn’t even entirely sure why, except that everything I write about in my poetry shows up in some form in my fiction as well, and so maybe this was a way to get those ideas, which I’d been grappling with for so long, out into the world without having to actually world-build. (Which is super intense. And takes a long time. But that’s for another discussion.)
7. Instagram has played a big role recently in the poetry world (R. M. Drake, Atticus, Rupi Kaur). Are there any poets you love to follow?
I’ll be completely honest: I’m more of a Facebook person than Instagram, though I’m using the platform more now. The first Instagram-type posts I came across as far as poetry is concerned were from Nayyirah Waheed and Victoria Erickson. Waheed’s poetry is so striking in its simplicity. Sometimes, her pieces are like tiny gut-punches that stay with you for days afterward. Erickson’s poetry, like mini prose pictures, often has this elemental wildness to it that I can really identify with. I have since discovered some other poets whose work I enjoy, like Mary Oliver, Shinji Moon, Rupi Kaur, Tyler Knott Gregson, and Yrsa Daley-Ward. I’ve also started getting into spoken word poetry. I like Button Poetry on YouTube. Some spoken word poets I’m familiar with are Sabrina Benaim and Neil Hilborn.
But I also like to kick it old school with poets like William Wordsworth, John Keats, William Blake, Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, and the Carmina Gadelica (which isn’t poetry, strictly speaking, but folk prayers and incantations from the Scottish highlands). Sometimes I’ll go really crazy and read Goethe in German. Also, a modern poet who doesn’t do the Instagram thing but whose work I love is Alison Croggon. She’s been publishing poetry for about 25 years now, but she has also incorporated poetry into her fantasy series, creating pieces specifically for her stories. I love seeing the cross-pollination of genres. It’s something I aspire to in my own work.
8. What advice do you have for poets who are terrified of showing their work to the world?
Poetry is so scary. I know they say that you can see a bit of the author in every story or character she writes. But poetry is so much more raw and real than fiction in a lot of ways. There often isn’t a façade to stand behind; it’s just you, out there, for the world to see. But when I was shaking in my boots in the process of preparing Baptism for publication, I realized that so many people in the world can identify with the things I write about. I’m not alone in this. And neither are you. Your experiences, your heartache, your failures and successes—all of it is stuff that your readers will be able to relate to.
Because poetry is inherently about being human. That’s what it was made for, to process this thing called life and to share it with others. You’re not alone, even if you feel like it. Even if the stuff you’ve written about is stuff that you’ve never shared with anyone before, I promise there will be someone out there who will read your poetry and say, “Oh my gosh. This is me. You wrote this for me.”
Poetry is inherently about being human. [CLICK TO TWEET]
9. Out of all of your poems in Baptism, which one means the most to you and why?
I think, for this one, I have to go with “Here in the Woods: A Journey in Three Parts.” This poem took me about two years from the time I started it until I was completely done tweaking all the phrases and adding little pieces. The beginning of it came to me while I was driving down a country road. I had to actually find a place to pull over so I could type it out in Evernote on my phone before the words flitted away. (Ironically, I happened to pull into a church parking lot.)
It is ultimately an autobiographical journey but with fictional liberties taken. It’s a spiritual journey that I’ve been on my whole life, but that really culminated in the past few years when I began to realize that it is 100% okay if I’m sensing God more outside of the church building than inside it, since God never intended to be kept locked up in any kind of building anyway, and our souls (and bodies) shouldn’t be, either.
10. How does the word baptism play a role in your poetry? What is its significance you hope people notice?
The idea of “baptism” came to me while I was organizing my poems for publication. Initially I was trying to go for the theme of “spiraling”—how we tend to come back to the same ideas over and over again in life, just maybe with a little more understanding and maturity each time. But very quickly this idea of sinking into the depths and then rising into rebirth and renewal became obvious. And that’s essentially what this book is about: my own sinking into the depths—of depression, of emotional turmoil, of loss, of grief—and then rising again, sometimes fighting my way to the surface, and gaining clarity and a new outlook.
I think that’s something anyone who’s been through any kind of struggle can identify with. And I hope that at least a part of it resonates with those who read the book. But my ultimate desire in putting this collection out there is that someone, somewhere, can see that even in the darkest depths, there is still—there is always—hope.
An expert editor, seasoned writer, and author-centric marketer, Shayla Raquel works one-on-one with authors and business owners every day. Her blog posts have been featured on popular websites like The Book Designer and Positive Writer. She is the author of the Pre-Publishing Checklist and her novel-in-progress, The Suicide Tree. She lives in Oklahoma with her two dogs, Chanel and Wednesday.