For some new readers, poetry feels light years away from reality. It reads like a dense abstraction—the literary equivalent of a modernist painting that makes you tilt your head sideways and wonder what the heck you are missing.
But when poet Amie Whittemore first found poetry, the self-described “voracious reader” felt like someone flicked on the lights.
“In my high school freshman English class, we got an assignment to find 10 poems that we liked and create a little anthology,” she says. “As a 14-year-old angsty girl growing up in the middle of a cornfield in Illinois, discovering poetry was like discovering a way to deal with being a teenager in a format that I already loved.”
Whittemore saw poetry as a way to explore the truth from new angles. “Poetry reminds me of making a collage,” she says. “You’re looking at feelings and impressions, a lot of different pieces and how they feel when they’re next to each other. You’re not necessarily fitting them together to make a realistic photograph.”
Ultimately, she says, “It’s a way to grapple with the world, with being alive. It’s a way to think about things. It’s not necessarily linear, doesn’t necessarily have to fall into a clear logic, yet it brings me clarity in how I’m trying to engage with an idea or feeling or moment in my life.”
Despite her love for the subject, she denied her dream of pursuing poetry for many years. “It really did feel a little self-indulgent to get an MFA,” she says. “I was like, ‘Why should I get this degree just to write poems? It’s not going to get me a job, blah, blah, blah.’ I talked myself out of it for years and got a teaching degree instead, because I thought, ‘It’s more important to help other people love poetry. It’s not important for me to write it.’”
But the truth won out, and five years after Whittemore graduated with a bachelor’s in creative writing, she went back to school at Southern Illinois University Carbondale for her MFA in poetry.
“I found with time, if you deny a part of yourself that really gets you jazzed, you’re diminishing your own life,” she says. “The more I choose to do the things I love, the more I serve the world. It lets me be a better teacher and a better member of my community when I am doing what fulfills me.”
As a Piedmont Virginia Community College English teacher, WriterHouse writing instructor and co-founder of the Charlottesville Reading Series, a monthly event that presents poetry and prose readings for community members, Whittemore has helped hundreds of locals engage with the written world.
This month, she amplifies her voice in that world with the publication of Glass Harvest, her debut poetry collection. Layered with farm and prairie imagery, the book meditates on Midwestern landscapes and the personal lives that unfold there.
“When I started the book, I thought it was going to focus on two of my grandparents who died six months apart,” says Whittemore. “I’d talked to relatives and done research on my family’s history, but I didn’t write many poems about me.”
Unlike nonfiction, poetry gives writers the ability to speak the truth without risking wrong facts. “In my thesis defense, I was told that the Amie character was not well-developed,” she says. “And I realized that for the book to ring true, I had to be more honest.”
As Whittemore says, you have the ability to reveal yourself while feeling a bit protected. But even poets aren’t exempt from sweaty hands and pounding nerves.
“A friend of mine challenged me to write a poem I was afraid to write,” she says. “So I asked myself to think of a gentle audience. Who would that be? My granddaughter, I realized. A granddaughter who wants to know the secrets of my soul.”
So began “To my future granddaughter,” a poem-turned-vehicle for the discussion of Whittemore’s recent divorce.
“That was definitely a poem that I was very nervous about writing, but once I wrote it, it clarified for me why I was so nervous,” she says. “More often now I try to go toward that [nervous feeling], because I think good art should make you feel a little uncomfortable. It invites people into a space where they can talk about uncomfortable things and feel like, ‘Okay, we’re all here together. This is part of being alive.’”
Like witnessing art, honoring our creative instinct isn’t always easy. “It did take eight years to do this book, and it wasn’t an easy eight years,” Whittemore says. “There’s a lot of crying and freaking out and having self-doubt. For any artist, skill is important, but resilience is also really important. You need to be able to come back again and again. You need to have faith in yourself even when you feel defeated.”
In other words, poetry is as real as it gets.