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Amy Billone on her IRDA Winning “The Light Changes”

the light bigWhat is the name of the book and when was it published?

My book of poetry, The Light Changes, was published in 2013.

What’s the book’s first line?

This is a hard question for me because the entire first poem is written in the form of a single sentence. The Kindle edition prints it as a prose poem but I will transcribe the end of the sentence here with slashes indicating the line breaks that you can see in the hardcopy. It is called “First Words.”

“The same way/in my twenties I regained consciousness/after a six and a half day coma because I jumped/in front of a train I was so surprised to recognize/my pale-cheeked father waiting like a marble statue/by my side when we rarely talked and he lived/in a distant city that I spoke my first words/even though doctors had said if I survived/I would never recover language: Hi Dad.”

What’s the book about? Give us the “pitch.”

The Light Changes is a memoir which centers around an attempted suicide beneath the wheels of a train and the effort to find truth and beauty and meaning and success and revelation in the aftermath of this traumatic event: the reason why all human beings must cling passionately to life rather than give way to despair. The book both asks in as many ways as it can and answers as persuasively as it can the question so many people seek to know about themselves: why am I alive?

What inspired you to write the book? A particular person? An event?

The Light Changes tells a true story, my own story, and it gave me a way of making what might otherwise be too difficult for me to process feel organized and meaningful. It was as if it presented me with a terribly difficult problem that I could solve in the poems (as I did in my life in general). It also gave me a way of sharing with the world not only the problems I faced but also the solutions I reached.

What’s the most distinctive thing about the main character? Who—real or fictional—would you say the character reminds you of?

Other than myself as the main speaker and one of my mentors, the late Jack Gilbert, the main character in the book is my father. I am drawing from different traditions in my decision to focus on him. After introducing the theme of the suicide attempt in the first two poems, I deliberately echo Sylvia Plath by italicizing the word Daddy in the third poem, “Enchantment.” Before that point, I introduce both Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Barrett Browning as alternate voices by opening The Light Changes with quotes from them.

I thought a lot about both the biographies and the writing of these three different women artists I admire. All three had complicated relationships with their fathers. Both Plath and Woolf committed suicide. EBB was disowned by her father when she married Robert Browning but she went on to have a son and her life spun from unbearable despair after the loss of her brother to fulfillment and domestic happiness. I wanted to begin my book with the ending that Plath and Woolf chose for their lives but then to progress on my own path toward EBB’s ending, with the birth not only of my first book of poetry but also of my first son (though fortunately I was able to conclude with closeness to my father rather than disownment!) To reinforce this link to EBB, I chose to include exactly 44 poems in The Light Changes the same way that she has 44 sonnets in her Sonnets from the Portuguese. Even though I say in “The Flight Attendant Said” that I am writing 44 “pieces about Virginia Woolf,” the overall pattern that this number is meant to suggest reflects the redemptive structure of EBB’s hopeful sonnet sequence and of her own biography.

My decision to make my father the main character in the book happened very slowly. In part I think I began to focus so intensely on him because he is the only person I know who was willing to let me do whatever I wanted to do with him in my poems. This was the gift he gave to me. In part I did so because of my profound love for him and my identification with him. (He has read over 100 drafts of The Light Changes.) In part I am fascinated that his specialized work in nuclear engineering is completely incomprehensible to me while my work as a poet has always been incomprehensible to him even though the two of us are so much alike. I liked the idea of trying to communicate with someone you love when the two of you are speaking in different languages. Yet another reason for my decision came from writers one wouldn’t automatically associate with the women artists I mention above. I love the poems of W.S. Merwin and some of my favorites are about his relationship with his father. The same is true about some of my favorite poems by Li-Young Lee.

Over time, it became clear to me that by concentrating on one main relationship that contained so much love and complexity and by returning to it over and over again in my book, I could give the reader something to hold onto. It might work as a kind of glue.

What’s the main reason someone should really read this book?

The Light Changes will illuminate beyond any shadow of a doubt that life is worth living but it aims to do so honestly by showing all of the darkness that I needed to wrestle through before I could fully and ecstatically appreciate this gift.

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