Amber Atiya is the author of the chapbook The Fierce Bums of Doo-wop (Argos Books, 2014). Her poems have been published most recently in Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color, Boston Review, Black Renaissance Noire, Atlas Review, and Apogee Journal. A proud native Brooklynite, she is a member of a women's writing group that will be celebrating thirteen years next spring.
Question: Where does a word-rich, money-poor poet from Flatbush inevitably end up?
Answer: At the food stamp office.
Office of clients in faux furs and bubble coats, of institutional green walls like the abortion clinic I accompanied a friend to. Land of city workers, collecting mugshots and electronic fingerprints, "to cut down on fraud," as one supervisor claimed, through a mouth full of jelly beans. The chaos of the food stamp office—aka the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—has been great fodder for writing practice. Security guards escorting irate clients from the waiting area; the man who kept yelling at case workers to “check the schematics,” told me all he wanted was to cook a nice meal for his fifty-third birthday; the stranger who chatted me up during my train ride to the SNAP center, teaching me a spell to make a man fall hard (hint: it involves Haitian rum and drilling a hole into an apple), and pulling out his Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card to show me a picture of himself, femmed up, in a bobbed wig.
These are moments I live for as a writer, scribbling notes in the margins of a SNAP booklet ("What You Should Know About Your Rights & Responsibilities") or on the back of a voter registration form I’ll never use. Occasionally, these moments become poems, a couple of which appear in my chapbook, The Fierce Bums of Doo-wop, recently published by Argos Books. (Shout out to my nephew J----, who checked my ego by constantly asking, “Ams, what’s the name of your book again?” Only to walk off, chuckling, before I could answer.)
My mentor, musician and writer Norman Riley (the “Great Sage of Hell’s Kitchen”), once advised me to say, “yes” to any creative opportunity that felt right, that allowed me to sleep at night. I’ve performed at over ten events so far this year, which for a poet making chump change, has been financially challenging.
Two of these amazing shows were funded, fully or in part, by Poets & Writers. “Celebrating a Sacred Space for Women’s Voices” was curated by JP Howard, poet and creator of Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon (love to my co-features: Keisha-Gaye Anderson, Charleen McClure, and Cheryl Boyce-Taylor). And a reading at Bluestockings Bookstore in New York City was organized by poet Cathy Linh Che (dap to my co-readers: Wo Chan, Cathy Linh Che, Paul Tran, and Javier Zamora).
Real talk: It feels good to be compensated for my writerly endeavors, to not be entirely stressed about how much money’s left—or ain’t left—for my subway fare after a gig. (And I can testify that travel reimbursement goes a long way, all you reading series curators out there. Ten events times $5.00 is…) It feels good to have pocket change for everyday living expenses, to support other poets’ events, a little something-something in my purse for the $8 cover or two-drink minimum plus tip. Thank you for allowing me that, Poets & Writers.
It’s still a struggle from one day to the next, don’t get it twisted. Call me a stubborn Capricorn with Virgo rising. Call me a woman about her business: A chapbook welcomed into the world with the best launch ever (I see you, Krystal Languell, Cynthia Manick, and Betsy Fagin!); an upcoming Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon workshop that I’m facilitating, co-sponsored by Poets & Writers; and a couple of events scheduled for 2015, dates pending.
Call me a New York poet knee-deep in blessings.
Photo (top): Amber Atiya reading at Poets House. Photo Credit: Arnold Adler
Photo (bottom): Akinfe Fatou, Amber Atiya, and JP Howard at the chapbook launch for The Fierce Bums of Doo-wop. Photo Credit: Ed Toney
Support for Readings & Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, A.K. Starr Charitable Trust and Friends of Poets & Writers.