Interview with Anne-Marie Oomen

by Carrie Margolis

In your memoir, Pulling Down the Barn, an extensive family history is given. What process did you follow in researching the Oomen family’s history? Did researching your family history have any personal impact on you or your writing?

I work primarily from my own memory, which is usually similar to but not always exactly like my sibling’s memories. I do talk to members of my family and look at family photos and documents when they are available, but I know that my real sources (my personal primary sources) are my memories. I remember them because they were in some way singularly formative to my being, my identity. My brothers have other important memories, some that I don’t have. Memory is not history, memory is the story of an identity or realization or revelation. In that way, my memories may serve the narrative (that is, the literary endeavor) better than history. Though history can’t be entirely discounted, it plays a different role. I am aware of and careful about the place where history meets memory, and where imagination meets both. It is a rich meeting place.

In Pulling Down the Barn you write a very detailed narrative about your siblings, especially your two brothers. What kind of response has your family had to your writing?

I gave each of my family a copy of the final draft of that book and said, “This is your chance to say something if you want to say something.” I don’t know if they all read it, but no one objected to anything—or at least not anything they spoke to me about. I think they knew that even if I remembered some things differently, I was telling my truth. Here is an example: There is a chapter in that book, “Violence,” about my brothers in this terrible situation where Tom tries to kill Rick. It was a terrifying and formative moment for me. Both brothers remember that moment but their attitude is “Yeah, so we did that. What’s the big deal?” They carry none of the emotional weight that I do about that memory—it was part of my development but not part of theirs. So they couldn’t argue with it, but it didn’t have the import that it did for me. They understood and accepted the stories for that reason.

In many of your essays your lines read like poetry; your book of poems Uncoded Woman has a novel-like narrative which makes your style of poetry and prose writing seem to fuse together. What are the major differences and similarities between the two?

In my poetry the line carries meaning as much if not more than the sentence. So everything is tighter, more balanced, and I am paying attention to how the beat and the sound affect meaning. I think my prose rhythms are more free—the common difference among writers who do both. But I think they overlap because even if the prose breath is longer, and sentences are more asymmetric, I am still paying attention to figurative and sensory language, to word play, to the kind of image that grows in your head, the stuff of poetry. I call it “Five Rivers” work, after Mary Oliver’s line in her poem “Plum Tree.” The five rivers are the five senses. That’s where a lot of the writing joy exists.

Uncoded Woman has a strong Native American presence in character and voice. What Native American influence has impacted your writing?

I grew up near a place called, unfortunately, a “shanty town,” where many local Pottawatomie people lived. I knew one of the men who acted as chief of the tribe for a time, Isaac Battice, well enough to have conversations with him; and while I was in college studying cultural anthropology, I interviewed him. He and my father were friends of sorts—the chapter called “Stone Wounds” in An American Map talks about this relationship—and because of him, because of his generosity to me, I came to have an even deeper appreciation of the situation. Barn, in Uncoded Woman, is a quiet nod toward that influence.

Each poem in Uncoded Woman is titled by a flag or pennant from the International Code of Maritime Signals. What made you decide to use this kind of coding in your book?

I started using the International Code as prompts for myself, but as I played with the codes, they suggested experiences that I did not have, and so I began to develop some persona poems. Laure-Anne Bosselaar and Lee Hope heard these original poems and suggested that they were more of a series, and then supported the development of the manuscript. Gradually, the persona began to take shape into this young and troubled woman who is the voice of Bead. I loved using the codes because it gave me a way to move outside my own voice, to use my playwriting skills in poetry, and to “become” this other person on the page instead of taking the voice off the page and to the stage.

Your book of poems Uncoded Woman is dedicated “to the women working third shift.” What is the story behind this dedication?

I worked third shift in a canning factory (fruit and vegetable processing) for about two weeks when I graduated high school. Though I didn’t work there long, the job was formative. I was working mostly on the line with lots of other women, sorting strawberries, and I got to know all kinds of people, mostly women or seasonal workers, all of us fighting motion sickness as the line moved under our fingertips. As many characteristics as Bead shares with me, she shares even more with them. I always hear their voices in her voice; I hear their stories in hers. I had to quit because I found I couldn’t sleep during the day, and started suffering from terrible sleep deprivation so I had to find other work to help pay for college—but I’ll never forget those women. Bead is my quiet homage to them.

Both your poetry and prose have a very detailed sense of place and setting that completely engages the reader. How have you developed such an exceptional sense of place and setting in your writing?

Place is almost as important to me as people are. There are places that are friends to me. There are places for which I feel overwhelming love. I think I have a fairly good visual memory, but like most writers I’ve become a better observer over the years because I’ve really practiced it. It helps to take notes and photographs but so much of the writing is swimming in those five rivers of the senses. It means observing not just what you see, but all the other sensations as well. It also means interrogating the memory or experience brief as it may be— and seeing what unfolds. If I know I felt rain falling, I try to question that moment, go back inside and see what other sensations are there. What was the sound or the smell? I keep re-entering the experience until I feel like I discover the core, where meaning starts to take shape from experience. Many times I overwrite and have to go back because it’s just too much description. But the essence of the place is in that process. It’s not an unusual process—I suspect most writers come to move in the realm of experience and imagination.

Both your poetry and prose discuss the process of an individual’s personal transformation. Have you experienced a transformation process through writing?

Writing has given me an identity in the artists’ world; I cherish it. This is why I was never completely at home on the farm and thought for a short period that I might be meant to be a nun—you can all laugh now. Too much of my personality, my being was oriented toward another way of thinking and living than what the farm offered. This does not in any way discount the wonderful childhood provided by my parents and siblings. They are truly amazing people and are gifted in ways that awe me beyond words. But even they didn’t quite know what to do with or about me. Writing came slowly, through a gradual process, and gave me a way to be in the world and answered the question of who I was. I am also a teacher and I love that too, so I have the two masters—so to speak.

How has teaching at Pine Manor College and the Interlochen Arts Academy affected your own personal writing?

As a teacher, I am more aware of the range of writing because of the people in the program. It’s as wide as the sky, what’s happening here. I find myself conscious of my own limitations, and how to break them down. I find I have to overcome those subtle prejudices I don’t even realize are there until I am in a room full of writers each doing something dramatically different and all valid. At Solstice, I am being enriched by diverse people and I realize that my writing is starting to broaden because my thinking is—particularly when it comes to voice. That’s what an outstanding educational community does. As faculty, I become a student of my students, meaning I am studying them and their writing as a discipline of being.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

The usual. Read, read, read. Engage with other writers with an open heart. Practice writing as much as you can, even if it means you have to get up really early. Find good mentors and do what they suggest. Put your butt in the chair. Keep a notebook; save your drafts. Learn the submission process. Be generous with what you know. Don’t give up. I’ve failed, at least in part, at almost all of these practices, sometimes daily, but I am persuaded to come back to them over and over. When I do, I feel more like a writer. When I practice this advice consistently, I write. I write.