NIU poet publishes, alter ego still waits for "Editor" to reply

Jun 15, 2012

Amy Newman has published more than 200 poems. She is also a Presidential Research Professor at Northern Illinois University. Her alter ego, "Amy Newman," is less successful but clings to the hope that an editor will publish her work.

The real Newman is the author of a new collection of poems called Dear Editor. The poems are submission letters written by the character "Newman," who is trying to convince a fictional editor to publish her own poetry. Each of the letters reveals something about the character including her childhood memories, dreams and a desire for human contact.

They also highlight the character's failure to separate the tasks of writing a poem and a submission letter. "When I write a poem," says the real Newman, "I'm using a different mind than when I write a submission letter to the editor. I turn off that poetry mind because it's a generic template." Dr. Newman wondered what would happen if a character couldn't, or didn't, turn off that poetry mind when submitting her work. She says she started these poems as an exercise.

The poems/letters feature variations on recurring themes, including a chess game played by the character's grandfather. The grandfather alters the rules seemingly at whim. For example, in one letter he says the first move must be made by someone who doesn't know the rules. In another game, young children are prohibited from playing "because of the obvious difficulties."

I don't think he meant it at the time, but as I was a child, it confused me a little, with him setting up the board and clacking the queens midair, saying: Let's play!

Newman doesn't know how to play chess, but she transforms this lack of knowledge into a mystical experience for her character. "It's complex, it's beautiful, she would like to understand it," she says. "But she knows the full meaning of it is withheld from her." For Newman and her character, chess is a lot like poetry. "Poetry never satisfies the desire," she says, "but it's animated by wonder. This is like faith to her."

Faith is another theme.  Each poem, or letter, is filled with stories of Catholic saints related to the character by her grandmother. Newman says her character has tremendous respect for -- as she puts it -- the girl saints. "They can break into blossom and burst into fire at any sign of bullying," she says. Newman admits she shares her character's desire for a superpower against bullies.

Like the grandfather's chess rules, the grandmother's saints are sometimes make believe. Of these, most seem designed to punish the grandfather:

Saint Berry, she'd say, picking up a rook and swishing it around the board. Saint Berry, who protested the loss of her virginity by heaping ash and kindling on the dinner of her betrayer. She'd move the piece in the air and place it somewhere on a white square. All right old man, you got your way.

Like chess, these saints arise solely from Newman's imagination. "I'm Jewish," she says. "My grandmother wouldn't have told her anything about the Catholic saints and would've been confused by my interest probably."

Next Friday, June 22, our Summer Book Series continues with Molly McNett's short-story collection One Dog Happy. Listen to the broadcast version during Morning Edition at 6:34 and 8:34.

Amy Newman, author of Dear Diary.