Talking Paper Interview Series: Amy Saul-Zerby

Amy Saul-Zerby is a Philadelphia-based poet and managing editor of Voicemail Poems. Her writing has appeared in The YOLO Pages, Painted Bride Quarterly, and other publications. Among her inspirations are digital image macros, and in 2013 she self-published a collection of Snapchat poetry titled 10 Seconds in Heaven. She joined Voicemail Poems in 2014, two years after its founding by Jamie J. Mortara during 2012’s National Poetry Month. A collection of Saul-Zerby’s poetry, Paper Flowers (Imaginary Birds), is being published through Punk Hostage Press. In July 2015, she journeyed to New York City to take part in a Nomadic Press-organized reading at Nunu Chocolates Café & Tap Room with fellow Punk Hostage authors A. Razor, Puma Perl, and James Anthony Tropeano. I later followed up with Saul-Zerby and interviewed her about working with Punk Hostage Press, Voicemail Poems, the importance of readings, and the Philadelphia literary scene.

On Working with Punk Hostage Press

I like that [Punk Hostage Press] is a nonprofit, and that Razor and his partners are dedicated to donating books to people that really need them—like people in prison, and people that are homeless and in shelters. I don’t know that there are any other presses doing that, really.

I was at AWP in Minnesota this year. I did a reading at this little house in this basement with Steve Roggenbuck and Alexandra Naughton was also reading. Razor was there. I hadn't met him before, but we'd been Facebook friends and he had read some of my work online. What I read wasn't previously published. I think it was my first time reading that piece. It was just like a stream of consciousness kind of poem. After the reading, [Razor] asked me if I had a manuscript. Because he said it was a really strong reading, and he liked my voice, and he had read some of my stuff online—and if I had something, he’d love to see it. I clamored to get a good-enough version together, and I sent it to him.

[Paper Flowers (Imaginary Birds)] is a collection that I've been working on for a couple of years, so I’ve grown and changed a lot in the time that I've been writing them. I have gone back and edited it a little, but a lot of it is moving through different life stages and emotional stages and different outlooks. I guess there's kind of this movement within the book from bitterness about past relationships, to kind of getting over yourself, and learning to not hold on to things as much and be hopeful. I think the book kind of ends on a hopeful note. It's a lot about relationships, but also just about the experience of being alive and being a human. I hope that it resonates with people.

I like that [Punk Hostage Press] is a nonprofit, and that Razor and his partners are dedicated to donating books to people that really need them—like people in prison, and people that are homeless and in shelters. I don't know that there are any other presses doing that, really. I think that's very cool. I really like Razor a lot, because I think he has been in the literary scene for so long that he's seen a lot, and he still is open and excited about new things, as well as more established authors. There's a good mix. I think bringing those younger kids together with more established people is really cool, because I think there's a gap between those two groups usually. When I did the reading in New York with Puma Perl, Razor, and James Tropeano, it was really awesome to hear from different people than I usually would read with and hear. I have so many really young poet friends, and it makes me feel old sometimes. I did a reading with Steve Roggenbuck once, and there was this woman that wrote these Flarf poems, and she's like 50 years old. She writes Flarf Internet-based poetry. I thought that was so cool.

There was this Twitter account called @Horse_ebooks that was kind of a big source of Flarf poetry. It's poetry taken from Internet sources, like spam bots. It's found text, but it's very Internet-based and kind of nonsensical. This woman, Sharon Mesmer, whose writing is really kind of intense and explicit, she has this poem in the Yolo Pages called "Ass Vagina." It’s just a lot of porn-site-found text from the titles of videos and stuff, and then mixed in with spam e-mails about like real estate. She read that at this reading with all these young kids. I didn't know her at all, and I was expecting some 20-year-old guy. I don't know what I was expecting, but it was this really rad 50-year-old woman, and I was like, "Cool." You think people of that age are not open to new forms like that sometimes. But I think it’s really cool how you can bring generations together through shared interests, exchanging experiences, and different styles.

[The YOLO Pages] was an anthology of about 50 different poets work that Boost House put out, which is Steve Roggenbuck's art house/press. Steve is one of the figures of the Internet poetry movement. He dropped out of his MFA program, and just kind of cultivated this Internet following. I guess in 2013, he started like a writer house in Maine, then in Tucson, and they put out books by different people. YOLO Pages was something Steve was really excited to do, which he was able to curate, and take his favorite artists and share their work with people that were looking for a guide to new poetry and contemporary work. It was really cool to be a part of that. They went on a big tour. There was a lot of Flarf poetry. There were a lot of different forms.  There were image macros and tweets. I think I had a Snapchat poem in there and some blackout poetry. He also had set themes he wanted to include in there, which were socially conscious themes, like gay rights and trans rights. Just themes of acceptance, and social consciousness, social justice, veganism—he is a big proponent of that, and people being healthy and living by their beliefs.

On 10 Seconds in Heaven

It wasn’t supposed to be like the great American novel or anything.

When Snapchat came out, I was really intrigued by the form because it's a really interesting way of instantly making image macros, which are this form that was pretty popular at the time within the alt literature community. So I had been experimenting with those. Then Snapchat, obviously it's a very limited amount of space that you can put text. But it's short, what you can fit in there. I also like experimenting with selfies. I think it's a really interesting form of expression and it's so accessible to everyone. I really like experimenting with those forms. The only thing I don't like about doing things like that is that it's going to expire. Snapchat is going to get replaced. Facebook probably won't get replaced. Twitter probably won't get replaced, at least for a long time. But something like Snapchat, the book is not as relevant as it was when I made it in 2013, which is fine. It wasn't supposed to be like the great American novel or anything. I think there's still value in making zeitgeist-y things. It's fun, and I think it appeals to people that aren't necessarily interested in poetry as a more formal academic type of work.

I really love physical paper books. I don't think they're going anywhere. It's something you can't really replace. I don't know why I would say that, but especially with poetry, there is something about it. I feel like authors are never going to not want to have a paper copy of their book. It's just not the same having it on a Kindle. In a way that people might not necessarily want to buy CDs anymore to have, if they really love Taylor Swift and Kanye West or something, they might try to support the artist by buying the MP3s rather than downloading them. But with books, I feel that it's really exciting if you love literature to have a collection of them, to have your favorite author's books—and I like underlining and just being able to come back to the pages that my favorite lines are on.

Amy Saul-Zerby at the Nomadic Event at Nunu's Chocolate Cafe and Tap Room. She performed alongside James Anthony Tropeano, A. Razor, and Puma Perl. 

Amy Saul-Zerby at the Nomadic Event at Nunu's Chocolate Cafe and Tap Room. She performed alongside James Anthony Tropeano, A. Razor, and Puma Perl. 

On Voicemail Poems

We publish the audio of people reading their poems. They call in and leave a voicemail on this number that we have [1-910-703-POEM]. They also submit the text via Submittable. So we publish the text alongside this recording. It's just a really cool way to publish spoken word. The poems have to be under three minutes, just because of the voicemail constraint. The text has to be strong in the poem. The reading has to be strong. There's a lot that goes into it. When we publish them, we do quarterly issues. The current issue is the summer issue. For all of July, we publish a poem Monday through Friday at noon for like four weeks, and then that's the issue. It's spread out over a month. We put the audio up on SoundCloud, and share it on the website, and we have a Facebook page for it, and it's really cool. Everyone gets really excited to be published. I was so excited to send out acceptance letters. Obviously I had to send out a lot of rejection letters as well, which was sad, but people get so excited when their work gets accepted.

My friend John Mortara, who just put out a book with YesYes, started it a couple of years ago. I had been a fan, and I had a poem published in it. Then John decided to get together some other people to help him, because it was getting to be a lot of work, and John was working on their book. I wasn't sure how much time I would have to commit to it, but I was definitely interested. I started as a managing editor. I didn't know how involved I would be or not. I just was there for whatever John needed and to help curate. We had a couple of other people that were curating as well, and one of them doing social media. Then John went on a book tour for like 70 days this year, and they asked me if I could run the putting together of the summer issue, since they were on tour. So I got to take a more active role in it, and kind of direct everyone in that curation. John still made the final calls, but it was really fun to have a little more input.

On Hearing Poetry vs. Reading It

I used to like slam more when I was a teenager. I guess it wasn't even that new then, but it was a lot newer, and I was like 15 and it was really exciting. My mom took me to see Def Poetry Jam on Broadway. I think slam is really good for getting poetry into the ears of people that wouldn't normally read poetry. So it's definitely an important form. I'm not that into slam anymore per se, but I still like performance-based poetry a lot. You can do a lot of different things that you can't do on the page. There are things you could do on a page that you can't do with spoken. But I think performance poetry is really exciting, because there are so many different things you can do with it. Different styles, like comedic poetry I find really interesting. I like the line between stand-up comedy and poetry getting blurred, especially with authors reading tweets, which tend to be one-liners at poetry readings. I think it's interesting how you can hook people in with humor, and then you can get a more serious point across that way once you have them listening.

On Philadelphia’s Literary Scene

I moved here a year ago, so I haven't been here too terribly long. I've done readings mostly when my friends come through on their book tours, because I haven't immersed myself in the scene in Philly as much as I wanted to and still plan to do. It's been harder to find non-slam events to go to. I think I should still go to slam events just to see what's going on and meet people. But it's been really cool when my friends have come through on their tours. Steve Roggenbuck, Alexandra Naughton—and also on Punk Hostage, Die Dragonetti, he lives in Philadelphia. He put out a book, No Greater Love, with Punk Hostage. So I've actually done readings with Die since he was 17. Now he is 20, I think. So that's been really cool, watching Die grow up. I was in South Jersey for a while after college, at home with my mom. I wasn't living in Philadelphia, but I was so close that I could come in for readings, and there weren't really any readings going on in Jersey that I could do. So I would come to Philly and New York a lot. There are some good spots. There's this anarchist bookstore on South Street, Wooden Shoe that hosts readings for us sometimes. Painted Bride Quarterly is this literary magazine associated with Drexel, and they published a couple of poems of mine in their humor issue, and then they invited me to read at a bar. So that was really cool. I need to follow up and go to their readings. 

Interview by Christian Niedan
Nomadic Press
Niedan is a New York City-based writer and television producer. He is the creator and manager of a film website called Camera In The Sun, which looks at how people think of the places and cultures they see on screen.