by Jessica Harrington
Amy Antongiovanni is a poet, teacher, and “advocate” for the literary scene within Butte College and throughout Butte County. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree and finding a job in the “real world,” she realized she needed more- wanted more. At the suggestion of a former professor, she read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Rilke posed a question that inspired Amy to pursue a MFA with a concentration in poetry: “Would you be content never writing another word again?” Her answer, obviously, was no. She has had a passion for writing from a young age; she loves beautiful language and tries to bring that beauty out in each young writer she encounters in her classes. She has instilled a love of poetry in me, my classmates, and will do the same for you if you attend her workshop, Taking Risks with Poetry, at the upcoming Wordfire conference. I sat down with Amy and we discussed the reading series she started, how the conference came to be, and what she hopes the community gains through events like Wordfire.
JH: The Butte College Reading Series has really given roots to the literary community within Butte College; it’s something you started, correct?
AA: Yes, I started it; there wasn’t one before I came along. I was really surprised by that, because at most Universities, the one I went to included, there was always literary readings happening. So when I got here and I realized that wasn’t happening at all- there was no group on campus who was doing reading, there were few, if any, faculty members writing and reading in the community, so I just started asking, “Hey, can I bring so and so to do a reading?” And the English Department at the time was like “Sure, why not? That’s a great idea!” So I got a lot of encouragement from people like Margaret Hughes and Marianne Werner who were both chairs, they’ve since retired, and both encouraged and helped me with that, but I mostly did that on my own.
JH: How many years ago was that?
JH: Now for next year’s reading series you, hopefully, have Nick Flynn (author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City), right?
AA: Yes, hopefully, we’re keeping our fingers crossed. If I can come up with the money, which I think I can, he will be here.
JH: Is there anybody else you have lined up or are hoping to get in the line-up for next year’s series?
AA: Kiara is hoping to bring a young man named Matthew de la Pena, who is from New York and is a Young Adult fiction writer. I am hoping that a woman named Kaya Oakes, who is a professor at Berkeley, who has recently written a book titled Radical Reformation, which is a memoir about her return to the Catholic Church after years as, sort of, a punk rocker. She is an amazing writer, she’s written a book of poems as well, so she’ll hopefully come in the spring. Then we have Jeanne Clark, who is a professor at Chico State, who is going to read in the fall and a couple other local people. We will also do the student reading, which is on May 17th this year, here on campus.
JH: How do students get involved in that if they want to read some of their work?
AA: They can just show up, it will be open mic with a sign-up sheet.
JH: That’ll be a fun event. So, I am going to switch gears a bit here because I would like to talk about the upcoming Wordfire writing conference
JH: I know that this conference was you and Molly Emmons’ idea- how long have you two been talking about putting something like this together?
AA: Yeah, before Molly was hired, and I was just bringing writers to the campus to do readings and talks, I thought about doing it because I was teaching a summer creative writing course and I thought it would be neat to run the class as a two-week summer workshop instead of a class. But I didn’t have a lot of support or help with the idea so I sort of dropped it. Then, when Molly was hired, I talked to her about it and she was interested in doing it so we started kicking the idea around and that was about 4 or 5 years ago. Then she came to me last year and said, “You know what, let’s just do it. Let’s make it happen, you and me.” And I was like “Alright, I’m on board” and from there we just got people like Kiara [Koenig] on board and some other people who were interested and now were here. I am surprised- or sort of in shock- that it’s actually happening because it’s been in our minds for so many years. It’s really exciting.
JH: It is really exciting, and I am so happy to be involved- I am also really pleased with how positive the response has been and how many people are interested in helping or attending the event.
AA: Yeah I think we have over 80 people signed up already, so it’s really exciting
JH: That’s so great! I am happy it is going to become an annual event, not only for the college itself, but for the students as well. It seems that students at Community College go, un-noticed for lack of better term, or not taken as seriously in their creative and academic endeavors a lot of the time, so it’s great that there will be this support system for them.
AA: Yeah and as it gains momentum I am hoping that it makes more money so that we can, in the future, bring more nationally recognized writers to the conference to read. It’s also really exciting because most writing conferences are very expensive and even though this is only a day and a few other social events, it’s affordable and it’s doable for people who can’t take a week off and spend $2000, or more, to travel to a weeklong conference or workshop. I don’t think, I am not aware of any other experience like this in California.
JH: Now you are also heading a workshop that is going to focus on poetry, what can one expect to walk away with if they attend your workshop?
AA: I hope to give people revision tools so that when they go back to pieces in their journal or first drafts, or take ideas and develop them further, they are closer to a final draft that is more meaningful to them and more carefully constructed. But, I don’t only want to talk about the finished product. I really am a strong believer in any creative work as a process. We need to understand how to take our writing or art, whatever that process is, to another level and that does take time but there are some tricks to help us get to that deeper level.
JH: What do you hope is the long lasting effect the conference has on the literary community in Chico?
AA: I would love, like you said earlier, for the community to have a workshop they can feel excited about. Something that is their thing, this is something else that is great about living in the Chico area. Like you’ve mentioned before, there is so much great theatre, music and so many talented writers and it’s not often that we all get to get together in one venue at one time to share our ideas with each other. I really feel like it’s a forum for that and it’s something to be proud of not only as a Butte College community but also as a greater Butte County community.
JH: I have one last question for you- if you could only read one book, and if that’s too narrow I’ll accept one author, what or who would it be?
AA: (Laughter) Oh gosh, wow. That’s like what’s your favorite film- I hate that question. (Laughter.)
JH: Yeah, it’s a tough one to answer.
AA: Let me see, what would it be. The first person that comes to mind is Emily Dickinson, she is one of my favorite poets. That is partly because the fact that she is so inventive with language. The closest poet I can think of that is as inventive and smart as her is someone like Shakespeare who just works their magic- it seems she had some sort of mystical way with language. So she comes to mind, but would I want to be stuck on an island reading Emily Dickinson over and over, I don’t know. I read a lot of fiction, probably more fiction than poetry actually. I think of certain writers whose sentences I love, like Charles Frazier’s book Cold Mountain, which is one of my favorite novels, because it’s so beautifully written. Some of his sentences just blow me away, or Cormac McCarthy is another example of a writer whose way with language is so poetic and gorgeous- his subject matter, eh, not so much my favorite, but I love his language. So I don’t know, that’s a tough one, I don’t know who’s work I would live with for the rest of my life, it’s a hard question to answer. Maybe Shakespeare- I mean I am not a Shakespearean scholar by any means but his breadth, the diversity of his work, maybe if I had to choose one I’d choose him.