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An Interview with Amber James


My name is Amber James. I have an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. I almost finished a PhD in Creative Non-Fiction Writing, but felt like I wasn’t progressing in my writing because I was so focused on the academics and grades—so I stopped. I am an educator and have been teaching for more years than I can remember, and that brings me so much joy. I have a lot of cats, a child, and a life where I feel super fulfilled.

I present my work regularly at the Barbed Wire Open Mic Series in El Paso, TX, where I live and work. I have worked with several small presses creating educational content and teacher’s guides to help students engage with diverse literature.

Writing isn’t my whole life, but it is such an integral part of what makes me a whole person. There have been years where I wasn’t writing at all, and I think that I always come back to it no matter what because I can’t live without it. Being creative is part of who I am, and I think how that manifests itself will change over time but will remain essential to the core of my being. Art. Poetry. Writing. It matters in the world and in my humble opinion it’s essential to the human experience, for all of us.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

My best friend often gets upset with me because the words “I am not a poet” fall out of my mouth so easily. I was trained as an essayist all throughout graduate school, so it’s so odd to think of myself writing poems, but then—here we are. I started writing poems because I feel like they speak so directly—the constraints of length, rhythm and playing with words provide me with an outlet that the more cerebral essay don’t provide. For me, poetry is my heart;essays emanate from my brain. So writing a book of poems is surprising, but in the best way, because writing poetry has been a way to free myself and to express my deepest self. I think in a poem, I get the opportunity to be the most authentic version of who I am without any interference from my more cerebral tendencies, and I love that—I love the opportunity to not have to make logical “sense” and to be all heart.

I am deeply influenced by Latine writers. My second language is Spanish and I have lived on the border for 10 years, after doing a lot of work and travel with Spanish-speakers for the past 20. Writers like Neruda, Borges, Octavio Paz, Paulo Cohelo, and others taught me how to play with languages—both English and Spanish. I love a lot of the work that is being done in fiction from authors like Claudia Guadalupe Martinez, Isabel Quintero, Ben Saenz, Erika Sanchez. I’ve always loved Luis Alberto Urrea and Sergio Troncoso. Living on the border has meant that I love to read border stories, with all of the complexities of this liminal space that I have lived in for all these years. The border is not one thing—there is poverty, sometimes, but there is community, joy, success, pride and other components that are just not talked about as much in mainstream media. While I write about lots of topics, I think the border is the topic that gets my heart racing because in my work I want to talk about the real border, this big mix of cultures, joy, shame, language, issues of race, etc. And I think that is hard to do in a way that is sensitive to the complexities. It takes me a long time to write about this amazing place I live because I want to get it right, I want it to be true to the people that live here and the place. I think that is a difficult task, especially because I am guera and I have just had the joy of living in such a culturally rich space with so many amazing stories. I’ve said it in my poems and I’ll say it here, I’m a sort of permanent visitor here, and I have been blessed to be included in so many cultural practices and experiences that I am so grateful for. I want people to know about the beauty of this place, and so I try to share while also stepping out of the way as much as possible so that people can learn about the border and El Paso without making it about myself—because it really isn’t.

So, that said, while this is the most salient topic to me, the thing that I love the most, it takes a long time for me to produce, whereas other topics that aren’t as sensitive come easier, like talking about the ways that our lives interface with science and other phenomena in our daily lives. Those topics really matter to me, but they are less fraught and take less time.

What inspired you to start writing this book?

I started writing When the Moon Turns Herself Right-Side Out Again because I had a rough year in 2022-2023 and I needed an outlet that let me express myself. They say that you should take all the pain that is inside of you and give it another place to live—in art, in music, in poetry—and I think that is what I was trying to do. I just wanted a place to store the complex feelings I had after experiencing some pretty serious burn out. And that’s how I ended up writing a book of poems. I didn’t want to think about my feelings; I wanted to experience them, and I wanted to share them. And I think that is how this book started—it gave me an opportunity to connect my feelings with myself and later, when I started performing the poems in public, with others, and with the world as we experience it through natural phenomena.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

The title, When the Moon Turns Herself Right-Side Out Again, came from an article I read about the origins of the moon. I am constantly reading academic articles because I can’t get enough. I had been teaching myself quantum physics as a way to try and understand the world—and my inner world—more completely. As it turns out, the moon did some pretty amazing induction tricks when she was formed, pushing heavy metals from a molten core back to the surface—which is unusual because usually the heaviest elements of a planetary body stay buried. This made me think of the way we bury things within ourselves and how they often rise to the surface when we least expect or desire them to;our traumas always affect us. So, as I thought about this the poem just kind of happened—as they often do—and I realized that this poem really exemplified what so many of my poems in the collection were talking about.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

I think “Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd would have to be on the soundtrack to this book, if I were to create one. There’s so many themes of space and darkness that I think it fits. Maybe also the “Age of Aquarious,” although I have a hard time explaining why—it just fits. Songs by Florence and the Machine are also a good fit, since I think there is an ethereal feeling to their work and I hope that I have created that within my poems.

Definitely “la Puerta Negra” by Los Tigres del Norte would be on a sound track for this book because that song reminds me of so many backyard barbeques on the border. There’s a local band in El Paso called Frontera Bugalu, as well, and I think you could take any of their songs and play it behind my poems and I’d be ecstatic—they do such a great job of capturing the border and have influenced me in so many ways.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

I have worked in education for about 20 years in so many capacities. I love teaching, I love working and advocating for students, and I deeply care about under-represented populations including those who are mis-educated because of race, gender, and ability. Most of my life has been spent fighting the system and advocating for students, which is exhausting. The public education system in the US is not doing a great job of supporting under-represented students, and it’s always a fight against unrecognized biases. And while that work is so important, it’s also exhausting because there are so many people who just don’t understand. And I think writing is a place to take all of the frustration that you feel when you’re up against that and use it to make something insightful and important.

What books did you read (for research or comfort) throughout your writing process?

I have read more books than I can count, honestly. I grew up burying myself in books when anything got too hard or overwhelming, and that’s a practice I have maintained throughout my adulthood. Mary Oliver comes to mind as a source of comfort. Mary Roach, too, because of all of the ways that she integrates research but still makes something beautiful. Along those same lines, Sarah Vowell. JoAnn Beard has an amazing book out called The Boys of My Youth and I think that book influenced who I was as a young person and as I go back to it, I am constantly finding new ways that I identify with the writing. Carolynn Knapp has some amazing books about that capture the feeling of being a woman and I think those give me peace as I try to express myself as well.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

The final poem of my book is about a woman named Mirabel that I met while interviewing women and kids along the border between the United States and Mexico. Her poem is last in the book because I think her story is the one that matters most in all that I had to say with this text. I think that poem, coupled with the others that I wrote about the border are most important to me because they tell a story of an important and rich place.

I think that other than that, I want people to realize how important it is for us to love each other and ourselves, the places we are from and the places we call home. I think it’s a little cliche to say that love is the theme of a book of poetry, but sometimes cliches are true for a reason. This book was a love letter to myself, to the places I call home, and to that space inside myself that makes me worry I am not lovable—and it is also a love letter to those who maybe find that space inside themselves too. I think we, as humans, carry a lot of insecurity about whether we are worthy, whether the places we call home are worthy, whether our culture is worthy. And I hope this book reminds people that it is–that all of it is worthy, even those dark things that we are afraid of, even people and places don’t value as much as they should.

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