Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Life of a Poet~Amy Barlow Liberatore

Kids, this is why I love doing interviews so much. Every person - and especially every poet - has a story, and the poet we are featuring today is one of the most interesting folks in blogdom, in my humble opinion. Today we are sitting down with Amy, of Sharp Little Pencil, whose writings, passion and activism I have long admired.  Pull a deck chair into the shade, pour some ice-cold lemonade, and get ready to be entertained by this very interesting poet/musician/activist/mother/pastor’s wife.

Poets United: Amy, is there a story behind the name Sharp Little Pencil? What led you to the world of blogging?
Amy: The name Sharp Little Pencil was a fluke (as are many things in my life!)  I was using the electric sharpener and discovered that if you twist the pencil, the end is neater.  I said to my husband, “Now THERE’S a sharp little pencil.”  Boom.
As for blogging...  I began posting poetry at Poetic Asides, where all prompts are answered by posting the complete poem at that blog.  I found some names in red... clicked on them, and that took me to their own blog, outside of the P.A. experience.  Once I discovered that many sites, such as Poets United, We Write Poems, ABC, etc., wanted a specific link posted, I realized I needed to create a blog.  I tried BlogSpot but finally settled on WordPress because of their dashboard and other features.
Poets United: Can you give us a peek into your world, and family?
Amy: I was born in Binghamton, NY, just north of PA, and sang in public from the age of five.  I was always the little white girl with the big bluesy voice.  I ran  off to L.A. at the invitation of my cousin, Gregg Laughlin, who ran the Great American Food and Beverage Co., and performed there.  I did copious amounts of substances (which expanded my worldview in many ways).  I hooked up with Rickie Lee Jones before she was famous, played piano and sang backup for hoot nights at the Troubadour, and she invited me to come on her first national tour.  Then I sang in Bermuda, Puerto Rico, the tourist scene.  I can sing and converse a bit in Spanish, but Pamela Sayers has me beat by a mile!

Poets United: Wow, Amy, what an adventure – touring with a band!
Amy: After a first marriage that went bad but produced a wonderful daughter, Riley, I regrouped back home.  My folks both died within six months, so it was rough; I also lost my singing career to secondhand smoke.  Thus my typing skills and a plethora of boring jobs, keeping a roof over our heads, and an occasional gig – I was the only straight girl in Binghamton who played gay bars in those days.  When Mama died, all the guys came to her funeral – and these were folks who had been spit on by their own churches.  You can’t imagine the support I felt from that.

"My glorious daughter, Riley"

Poets United: I can’t imagine losing both parents so close together. But I love that your friends came to support you; that is really heartwarming. And your daughter is, indeed, glorious. Her self-worth shines in her eyes. Lovely to see a strong young woman.
Amy: I lived in NYC a great many years and became an LGBTQ [note: stands for lesbian gay bisexual transgender and questioning] activist when all my friends started getting sick in the early 80s.  What a sad time, we lost so many talented people.  Later, I took on environmental activism.  I had also been anti-war since my first sit-in in high school protesting Vietnam; at 16, my first benefit was for the Eastern Farmworkers Association, surrounded by what I later found was the cream of the Communist and Socialist society in my town.  I really valued their activism.  Also, because I’m manic depressive and have PTSD (I’m an incest survivor), I’m active in NAMI Stigmabusters.  I’m not broken, you know?  We all fix ourselves with the help of the right tools.
Poets United: Oh, I so hear you. And, sometimes, in turn, we encourage others to keep on keeping on, as people once encouraged us.

Amy: Now I’m married to a fellow activist, Lex Liberatore, who’s a pastor in the United Church of Christ (the Fundies all think we’re going to hell because we support marriage equality).  He wasn’t a pastor when I married him, but it’s worked out well, and he’s supported my struggles with mental disorders as well as helped raise Riley from age nine.  I have a great psychiatrist who looks like Doogie Howser and a therapist who is a life-affirming, marvelous woman, plus two groups of poets and an informal group of manic-depressive, schizophrenic, and other compadres with whom I drink coffee and “talk treason”!
Poets United: It sounds like a vibrant group of people. I would so love to pull up a chair! So....I suppose we should talk about poetry! J Have you always written?
Amy: I started out as a songwriter.  You can hear snippets of a bunch of my tunes (and some standards) on ITunes; also, my music website,, has a free song you can listen to on the home page.    I’ve always written; my first complete song was “Tioga Moon,” a love song to my hometown. 
My first semi-poem was a rant.  I was in L.A. last year – this was 30 years after I lived there – and found that all the cool places were no longer there and the housing was a complete gouge.  Venice Beach used to be for hippies and musicians; now it’s all Starbucks and parking tickets.  I sat down and wrote a three-page rant with lots of fun internal rhymes (it’s so long I’ve never blogged it), and I read it aloud for friends, who said, “Amy, you’re a poet!”  I didn’t know about free verse much, so I picked up some books at the library, went online to look at blogs, and educated myself.  The very first poem I intentionally wrote was called, “Daddy’s Little Girl,” which is not what it seems...  That was three years ago, and I’ve written almost every day since then. 
Poets United: What style of poem do you write the most?  Are there any styles you avoid or find difficult?
Amy: Free verse is my weapon of choice!  Sometimes I think in Shadorma; recently, both Joseph Harker and Viv Blake (AKA vivinfrance) turned me onto the snowball and the etheree, which are either one syllable going to ten or ten going to one.  In general, forms confuse me, because I don’t care to write and then “shrink to fit,” you know, make the thoughts conform.  Typical of a non-conformist, right?  I think that you will never see/a sonnet that was writ by me.
Poets United: I am leery of forms myself, but so admire what many of the poets create with them. How do you know when a poem is good?
Amy: It’s hard to judge one’s own poetry.  If I think it’s good, I’ll post it; if not, I save it on the page and go back later when it catches my eye.  Once in a while, a prompt (especially Brenda Warren’s Wordles, Sunday Scribblings, and the various Poets United opportunities) will just get me going, or a feeling will grab me before sleep, my most vulnerable time. 
Poets United: What, most often, triggers you to write?
Amy: Prompts are so helpful.  I have a bunch of them posted on my blog; also, when a poem answers a prompt, I try to attach a link and encourage other readers to experience other poets.  Also, I always track back to Poets United, my “poetic home away from home.”  The trigger to write?  A blank page, a hot cup of coffee, and something that’s bugging me, fascinating me, or coming up in my memory like the window of a Magic 8-Ball! 

[image from google]

Poets United: I love the nice things you say about Poets United on your blog.  Where do you go or what do you do to seek inspiration?
Amy: I pray, meditate, whatever you want to call it.  In silence, I find a sort of music, and inside that music, there are words flowing.  I take nothing for granted – even if it’s gibberish, something good eventually comes out.  Sometimes a conversation with a stranger on the street or sitting on State Street in Madison at a coffee shop, an interesting character will walk by, and I imagine their life, their lot.
Poets United: When do you write the most?
Amy: It’s a 50/50 split between late afternoon listening to jazz at my favorite Madison coffee shop, Manna, or at night after Lex has gone to bed (he’s an early riser) and I have the house to myself.  Then I hole up in my office and check out comments on my blog as often as possible, and write when it’s time.
Poets United: How does your environment impact your writing?
Amy: We moved to Madison this past January and expected to take a year to settle in, get to know the new congregation.  For those of you who aren’t news-minded, Wisconsin’s new governor, Scott Walker, whose campaign was funded by the Koch Brothers of the Heritage Foundation, immediately gave huge tax breaks to his cronies and proposed stripping collective bargaining rights from state workers, along with a draconian budget that rips the poor and civil servants a new one. 
I was raised a civil rights, Roosevelt-Kennedy Liberal, and I’m leftie to the core.  So much for a peaceful transition.  I had just left Buffalo, NY, where I’d gotten on the FBI’s radar for holding the bullhorn, creating anti-war chants, and speaking out about the cost of the war at the expense of public education and other services.  I was involved in the peace movement THIS go-round from Sept. 12, 2001.  A week after moving here, I was at the Madison Capitol Dome singing Union songs. 

[image from]
The deals our government has made with Big Pharma; the corruption of the Supreme Court (the five on the Right regularly attend Koch Bros.-sponsored parties and events); and most of all, the continuation of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are bleeding us dry.  Pres. Bush charged the wars on a Chinese credit card so taxes would not increase.  We need universal health care; quality education; civil rights for ALL Americans, regardless of gender orientation; an end to racism and xenophobia... but we give the defense industry $1 BILLION a WEEK so our kids can eat sand in a desert where the people don’t want them.  Unfortunately, Pres. Obama has gotten on my bad side over this.  I love the man, but his advisors have convinced him there is something to win.  There isn’t.
Poets United: I hear you, Amy. I’m a leftie too, and I cried with joy when Obama was elected. It was the first real hope I’d had since all of our leaders were assassinated Back in the Day. But with such a strong right wing, it must be very hard for him to accomplish what he wants to do, it’s one step forward and two steps back. Oh, umm, I remember now, we’re supposed to be talking about poetryJ Do you have a favorite poem written by you?
Amy: Oh, wow.  I think I will say, “The Other-Minded,” because it’s one which might spark some discussion about what mental illness really is:

I am one of the “other-minded”
We filter truth through a lens tinted by our mood
or lit by the fullest moon
to create art, to fulfill our promise

Who else will capture the infinite loneliness
of the slab mattress in the ward?

The blurred visions of panic in a grocery store,
surrounded by cardboard people
blithely stuffing their carts with Cocoa Puffs?

Who else will bear witness to
the undulation of one’s naked self in a mirror,
mesmerized by the sheer loveliness reflected?

Who but we have days we celebrate
for their sheer boredom
Walking the fields of home
while ceiling-gazing in midcity?

We endure darkness, yet we bathe in
the glorious light that follows

We stumble, then venture down a path
the “sane” would never dare.

Our words, our artwork,
our songs and poems
breathe both bleakness and dizzying victories;
improbable stories of
real people they’ll think we made up
(if only it were so…)

We are labeled misfit toys
but we dance on the edge
of a rolling coin
that never comes to rest

© 2010 Amy Barlow Liberatore/Sharp Little Pencil

Poets United: I love it, Amy. As you know, I have two extremely brilliant, quirky and talented kids who have struggles with being themselves in a world that has pinned mental health labels on them. They write and speak some of the truest words I’ve ever heard. I love your line “improbable stories...they’ll think we made up.” AbsoLUTEly!!! Do you have a favorite poet?  
Amy: Two:  Carl Sandburg, especially his Chicago Poems:  You Never Come Back.”  He wrote from the heart of the mill workers, the working class, the downtrodden.  Also, Pablo Neruda – I was reading Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair one night, and that experience became, “The Meaning of Silk Stockings,” pretty much as close as I get to erotic writing, yet nothing off-color.  It’s on my blog:

Poets United: Very moving poems, all of them. So why, when you get right down to it,  do you write, Amy?   
Amy: I write poetry for the same reason I sing and play piano and write songs... because I have to.  Creativity is in my DNA (along with the sludgefest of alcoholism, manic depression, and my pigs-in-the-parlor Irish heritage – all of which I actually dig). I self-published a chapbook, Dance Groove Funhouse, which I sell online; the worst word in it is “crap,” so your grandma can read it.  I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I would love to be published, but I have a long way to go before anything besides self-publishing is possible. My next chapbook will be more serious:  Women’s lives, mental health, sexual abuse survival, politics, teens and the challenges they face...  a lot of issues, I know, and cohesion is what I’m concentrating on.
[image from google]

Poets United: Yes! Amy, you must write it! I want to read that book, for sure! Would you like  to tell us a bit more about  your music?
Amy: I started singing jazz, first with hometown bands, where I was mentored by some wonderful older guys who treated me like a daughter.  Eventually, after going to LA, I settled into piano and vocals, and played everywhere from Bermuda and Puerto Rico to some of the best NYC clubs, including the Angry Squire and Caroline’s Comedy Club.  I opened for a bunch of up-and-coming comedians:  Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Pee-wee Herman, Richard Belzer (all he does is swear), Sandra Bernhardt, Harry Anderson.
Poets United: HOL-EE cow!!!!! You’re famous - or should be!
Amy: Later, I was called to gospel writing.  There’s a clip of a trio from a group I used to lead; they showed up at a jazz gig and I called them up to do “Rivers of Babylon,” and it had been six years since we’d sung together.  That’s at - and if you type in “Amy Barlow Liberatore” at the YouTube search engine, you’ll find “Take Me Back (Pt. 2),” which features my first husband on sax and our daughter on this little drum box!  Talk about a functional ex-family.
I also cut a CD, “Jazz Baby Hits Her Stride,” which you can download through CD Baby or ITunes, or contact me if you want an actual CD with the autograph and all.  Some is original music, and the rest is tasty little standards.  Jazz, Blues, Gospel.  You cannot pick one, because they are all cousins.
Poets United: Amy, you have done a lot of living in your life! Way to be! So,if you had the ear of Barack Obama, what would you tell him?
Amy: “You cannot win this war.  Let the Middle East figure out their own destiny.  The UN will have to bring about an Israeli/Palestinian peace.  BRING OUR TROOPS HOME.  The US needs to clean up its own act; instead, we go around telling everyone else what to do.  And bi-partisanship is crap.”  Then I would be shown the door and my FBI file would be just a bit larger!
Poets United: I imagine so! But I bet he’d agree with you – it’s The War Machine that prevents him. Do you have some favorites in blogdom?
Amy: Too many to list – I have an “I Love These Poets” section at the right of my blog, so check there. I’m afraid I’d hurt somebody’s feelings if I listed only a few. But ellyn maybe, who is a genius, has become a good friend.  She’s combining music and poetry and is on the cusp of real greatness, I do believe.
Poets United: I must check her out. So, to sum up, when you aren’t writing poetry, what interests do you pursue?
Amy: LGBTQ rights.  Combatting hydrofracturing, which threatens our fresh water supply.  Big Pharma.  Con-Agra and the rest who put family farms out of business.  Expanding people’s consciousness about mental disorders.  Solar and wind power.  Defeating the Tea Party’s fascist agenda.  Getting together with good friends and laughing our pants off.  Encouraging parents to talk to their kids about sexuality, about using condoms.  Literacy.  Spreading beauty.  Waging peace at all cost. 
Poets United: That about sums it up, all right. I love “spreading beauty and waging peace”. A lot! Have you ever lived a great adventure? Or are you living it now?
Amy: My whole life is still a great adventure.  I traveled cross-country solo last year to deliver a used car to Riley, and I met Poetic Asides regulars Marie Elena, De, Colette, and Nikki on the way from Buffalo to California, and caught up with Carolyn and Duncan, who stood up with me at my FIRST wedding.  Also musicians galore, including Riley (who’s a drummer as well as an artist) and my cousin, Gregg, who does a mean “Sea Cruise.”  I’m still trying to figure out what I’m gonna be when I grow up.
Poets United: Probably Famous. Or disappeared by the FBIJ If you could do anything, go anywhere, no limits, what would your life look like?
Amy: It would look like me sitting here sweating in front of my computer, a bit worried that my daughter lives 2,000 miles away, and with fireworks going off in the background, about to take my evening meds and go into prayer time.  In other words, I wouldn’t trade a thing.
Poets United: I wouldn’t either. Do you have a favorite quote?

[image from google]

Amy: “I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”  Thoreau was so right... if you spend your life pursuing money and grasping it, you miss out on the bigger picture.  I’ve known many rich people – some lost it all, some used it to bad ends, some let the money make them into total jerks.  We prefer simplicity.
Poets United: A wise choice.  Is there anything else you would like to share with Poets United?  
Amy: Let me share something spiritual:  I’m a committed follower of Jesus, but I don’t proselytize because I think all paths are real and valuable.  I have friends who are Buddhist, Muslim; my first husband was Jewish; I referred to Riley in one poem as “my Protestant Jew.”  She’s agnostic, which doesn’t bother me at all.  I don’t hold with Fundamentalism (George Bush and Osama bin Laden both were Fundamentalists, and look where that got us).  I don’t believe in The Rapture as anything other than a scare tactic and a giving tool to build mansions for greedy men.  If you want to see the true heart of any pastor, look at where they live, how they dress, and what they drive.  I mean, we rent; Lex would no more wear a silk suit than jump off a bridge; I take the bus; and we drive a second-hand car - Lex often bikes to work.   We are living the Gospel the best way we know how, inclusively and with open arms.  I believe in love.  I believe in peace.  I believe that wars are fought when people run out of words.  Words separate us from other species.  If we used them more effectively, this whole world would change for the better.
Thanks, Sherry Blue Sky, for offering me an opportunity to give folks a glimpse of my life.  Wait, did I tell you the best part?  I’m the happiest manic depressive sexual abuse survivor I know!  I can’t hold down a job, but I can sure as hell keep fighting for what I believe in and writing from my soul.
Poets United: Thank you, Amy, for a totally riveting interview. “Interesting” isn’t a big enough word to cover itJ You rock!
See, folks? Isn’t it true that poets are some of the most interesting people around? (Amy just proved it!) Hmmmm....wonder who we’ll talk to next? Who knows? It might be you!


  1. whoa this is very humbling, but inspiring!

  2. Great interview, I loved it! Wonderful stuff. :-)

    Well done both of you. x

  3. One of the most interesting interviews in a long time. Amy, you are an awesome person. Thanks for the view into your world. Sherry thanks for this.


  4. Poets United,

    A most interesting interview with Amy, a wonderful lady who has a great gift with words.
    Thank you Sherry for keeping us all in touch with our fellow poets, in this way.


  5. I knew Amy's interview would be fascinating. Amy, you are one talented, passionate and inspiring woman. Thanks for letting us "in".

  6. Wow! What a fabulous interview. I've been a fan of Amy's writing for a few months now. After reading this interview I'm a bigger fan than ever.

  7. Thanks for that Sherry and Amy. What an inspiration - you rock!

  8. Hooray for musician poets! Amy, you rock!

  9. Nice post! Thank you Amy and Sherry!

  10. To all my friends who have commented: I am a fan of yours... your blogs, your comments, your multi-faceted lives, which you share with love, with self-awareness, and with freedom. Our ability to connect to one another's lives through Poets United is an irreplaceable gift.

    Thanks to Sherry, especially. She supplied not only the questions, but the encouragement to "let it all hang out." She has become a source of real inspiration to me as well. As Duke Ellington would say... "I love you all madly!"


  11. Great to see one of my favourite poets featured! Congrats Amy :)

  12. Wonderful, incredible, a joy to read and an inspiration ... as always Amy :o)

  13. Thanks, my little Bee and Debbie! Peace, Amy

  14. Amy - you're my hero (but I think you know that already!) And Sherry - you rock for this superb interview with my favorite rabble-rouser!


  15. Amy- Thanks for sharing the essence of who you are, where you came from and what you believe in with us. When I grow up I wanna be more like you! = )

  16. fuckin' A ...
    lovin' this ,Pal
    you shine on,Glorious !

    not really anon..this is your old "Pal",sheila.:)

  17. Amy you are Amazing; so happy to see the spotlight on YOU! You shine~xXx

  18. OMG we have a lot in common! Sherrie, this was marvelous! I really enjoyed reading about her. Thank you.


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