Lisa Ampleman talks drafting poems by hand, what it means to be an editor who writes, and staying curious with editorial assistant Erin Peters. 

Lisa Ampleman is the author of a chapbook and three full-length books of poetry, most recently Mom in Space (2024) and Romances (2020), both with LSU Press. She lives in Cincinnati and is the managing editor of The Cincinnati Review and poetry series editor at Acre Books.

Erin Peters: Many of your poems, including “Point of Departure,” which was published in the Spring 2023 issue of Colorado Review, seem to be grounded in images of everyday experiences and observations. For example, watching a car drive on a bridge, visiting the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, or sitting in the waiting room of a fertility clinic. I’m interested in your process of moving from experience to poetry. Does the inspiration for a poem hit you the moment you see an event happen, or does it arrive later? 

Lisa Ampleman: A lot of the time, especially with the ones you’ve described, I felt something in the moment—some kind of like humming in the universal thread of our existence where I was like, oh, something is happening. 

For me, sometimes working on poetry overlaps with elements of spirituality and things like that. And so, it just seemed otherworldly. For example, watching this three-year old kid play around in a fertility-clinic waiting room and, you know, all of us were there just enjoying it, but I was also like, okay, the hairs on my arms are standing up a little bit. At the same time, sometimes it takes a while for that thing to become written about.  

With that poem, for example, I wrote a draft of it, but that was like ten years ago and I’ve revised it heavily since. Sometimes I need that kind of reflection and other life experience to be able to do it. With “Point of Departure,” seeing the image of a car’s hood just fly up into the air was so strange that I wrote it down. But it wasn’t until I was driving a lot on that same route after the experience of having a miscarriage where the things became linked together. And for a long time, that was something that only lived in my notebook. It took a while for me to feel like it was something that I could share more widely.  

EP: I’m curious, because you’ve mentioned a notebook, do you often write by hand? Do you start your drafts on a computer? What does that process look like for you? 

LA: My preferred method for most of my life has been to write by hand and I have this great series of notebooks that I bought a dozen of when I was in college because I loved them so much. In the past couple of years, I’ve developed arthritis, and it affects my hand, so I’ve been teaching myself to be able to draft on the computer directly. But I definitely still need to be able to take notes, so I use my phone for that. Lately, I’ve been thinking I’d rather have a small notebook in my purse or something like that. There’s something about the physicality of it. I know there are studies that students in classes, for example, who are taking notes by hand versus typing, process information differently and remember more. And for a long time, when I had to start writing on the computer, I had to change my focus because, before, when I would move to the computer it was always a stage of revision. It was like, okay, I’m going to see what this looks like on the screen. And so, I’ve had to take a step back and be like, no, this is “point zero” for the poem, and it’s okay for it to start here.

EP: Talking about technology has made me curious about your research process for Mom in Space. Your recently published collection uses the lens of spaceflight to explore subjects ranging from the personal to the political, from fertility tests and parenting to climate change and civil rights. So, it seems that many of the poems in this new collection intertwine scientific and historical knowledge with more personal considerations of motherhood and womanhood. What inspired this theme of spaceflight? And what was the research process like for this new collection? 

LA: I have to say that this was some of the most fun I’ve had writing poetry in my experience as a poet. It started almost, but not exactly, by accident. You mentioned the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History—they held an exhibit based on the Apollo 11 capsule, which was touring around while the Smithsonian Museum was closed for renovations. And they had—which I talked about in a poem, and I think in an essay in the book—a huge exhibit around it, including some things from Neil Armstrong that just kind of fascinated me, like a speech he had given at the museum talking about climate change. Knowing that he was from the area and seeing the objects up close just stuck with me in a different way.  

When I went through the gift shop, I noted what books were there. I was headed to a residency a couple weeks after that, and I wanted a big book to bring to take up some time in between writing and revising. And so, I got a book called A Man on The Moon by Andrew Chaikin, which is about the Apollo program. As I read it, I remembered that my grandfather was involved in some way in the space program in the fifties and sixties, and I wanted to reach out to him and find out more. I read that whole book. I was fascinated. It read like a narrative and there’s just so much I didn’t know. Obviously, a lot of us know about Apollo 11, but to see what came before and what came after, that opened my eyes, and then I wanted to know what happened next. I wanted to read more narratives about the space program, so I got a book about the space lab program, about the shuttle program, and about Mir. And then it was March 2020, and we were all going into lockdown for COVID. And so, I was able to feed this new interest but also escape mentally from where I was and what was happening. 

I just kept reading and I would come up with questions. I would see something and be like what? For example, I learned that Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura on the original Star Trek, was involved in recruitment for the Space Shuttle program. And I was like, what? So, I went and found her biography and read that and so it was like this led to that led to that. 

For the most part, it was that kind of reading, but I also had specific questions sometimes. There’s a program called the Mercury 13 that was composed of women who underwent the same tests as the pilots who ended up in the Mercury Program and I was like, okay, so what exactly did they have to do? So, I did some web research, and I did some kind of probably too-specific scientific-paper reading sometimes. But the thing that I found most fascinating was the astronauts’ accounts of the bodily experience of going to space, being in space, and coming back. Scott Kelly’s book Endurance, for example, which is about spending a year in space, was something I read during the pandemic while we were all at home in that early part. It just hit me in a different way than perhaps it would have if I’d become interested in space earlier, so things aligned together in that way. 

EP: It sounds like there were a lot of connections between your personal circumstances during the pandemic and the research you were doing at the time. The poem you wrote about Neil Armstrong’s speech, “The future isn’t what it once was,” was one of the first poems that I read from Mom in Space. While reading, I was interested in what led you to write about Armstrong’s speech. It seems like the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, of course, was a point of inspiration. Cincinnati itself feels important to this collection as it shows up quite a few times, so I’m curious to know more about your connection to the place that you’re writing from. 

LA: I moved here in 2009 for the doctoral program at the University of Cincinnati, and I had a hard time doing that because I had been living in Saint Louis, where I had grown up, and I had a good amount of my family and friends still there. But I met my husband about six weeks after I moved here, and as time went on, circumstances just kept falling into place, and we’ve stayed. 

When I first moved here, I was surprised by the geography of it, which is something else that comes up in the book. I’m becoming more and more fascinated with the geology of our current spaces and what they mean about the past. I don’t know if that’ll be something I write about in the future or not. But I’m noticing things like even the fact that it’s hilly, whereas Saint Louis, which is a similar city otherwise, is not very hilly. Also, the fact that it is so much of a border city. It’s right by Kentucky, and the Ohio River was one of the borders between the North and the South. So, some of it was that and some of it was just living life in Cincinnati and having those experiences be the triggers for what happens next. It’s a really interesting question. I definitely have thought about that, but not as deeply as some of the other kinds of things we’ve been talking about, so thank you. 

EP: Of course. It sounds like place has been an important influence on your work. I’m interested in what else might have impacted your writing for this new collection and maybe the current writing that you’re doing. As the managing editor of The Cincinnati Review and the Poetry Series editor at Acre Books, I imagine you spend quite a bit of time reading a wide range of writers across different genres. How does that reading impact your own writing practices? 

LA: I’ll back up and say that right before I went to that exhibit, which was in late 2019, we were putting together and getting ready to publish Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers’ book, The Tilt Torn Away from the Seasons, and the cover of that one is a topographical map of part of Mars. And one of the things that I found really fascinating in the moon exhibit were similar sorts of maps using similar colors, but how much plainer they were in a way. I think if I hadn’t been working on Elizabeth’s book, I might have been interested but not lingered as long in that exhibit. So, content-wise, that that was definitely one of the catalysts that got me in the door for space in the first place. But her work is very different. It’s focused on Mars and climate change, but it’s about the speculative experience of a group of women who go to Mars and try to terraform it and are thinking back at the same time about experiences on Earth. 

I also read a range of styles. Some of our writers for The Cincinnati Review and for Acre work very closely and carefully in form. I did more of that in my second book, but there’s “Tenuous Blueprint,” which is a sonnet in Mom in Space. There’s a ghazal in here, which is the first time I’ve written one. And I’ve also seen, in my personal reading and in my editorial roles, people blending the tools and content of poetry and nonfiction, usually in book-length projects, but not always. Jessica Johnson, for example, has a book called Metabolics that came out a little over a year ago. It includes poetic prose narratives with a speaker whose identity elements align with who Jessica is. I was really fascinated by the way she was doing that. I had already started writing some things that ended up being prosier in Mom in Space, but it was definitely something that made me think about the style even more. 

It’s interesting to watch in our field—and I’m I definitely keeping my eye on—the books that are coming out and what’s being read. Dear Memory by Victoria Chang and A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure by Hoa Nguyen were ones I was reading right before and thinking about this.  

EP: Being able to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening in poetry right now and in publishing is exciting. And it’s so interesting to hear that even the content of Mom in Space was partially inspired by another writer who helped you linger on an idea that you might not otherwise have. I’m curious which artists’ work you’ve been spending the most time with recently, either in your editing roles or just in your personal time. Have any poets, or artists in general, been inspiring your current writing? 

LA: I’ve been working with Acre’s poetry series for five years or so. Because of how the cycles go, I’ll be thinking about probably four different writers in the next few months. Jose Hernandez Diaz’s book just came out and I was working with our videographer on a video trailer for the book, which is going to come out later this week, so I’m spending time again with Jose’s poems. And I just spent time this week copyediting Carolyn Oliver’s second book. Last month, I was also talking to CD Eskilson. Their book, Scream/Queen, is coming out in fall 2025. And so, you know, they wanted to know the timeline for blurbs, and I gave them some suggestions for that. And then our most recently accepted book is by M. Cynthia Cheung, and she’s doing some revisions right now, so that’s something we were both thinking about together.  

It’s pretty amazing to be able to do that. I also get excited for my own work, obviously. I’m really excited to have Mom in Space out after working on it kind of alone for so long. But my work as an editor feels even more rewarding somehow. 

I’m also still reading a decent amount about science-y things. I don’t have a focused project right now, but I read The Exceptions by Kate Zernike. It was about the experience of women scientists at MIT from the 1960s and 70s until now. 

I’m also reading a lot of books by my peers who have poetry books coming out right now. Sometimes things happen where you and people you know have the same season. So, I’m rooting for and reading my friends Danielle Cadena Deulen, Cynthia M. Hoffman, Corey Van Landingham, and Emily Tuszynska.  

And for fun, if I’m not reading a light science book at the end of the night, I’m reading a mystery. I got addicted to those through Louise Penny, also in 2020. I’m reading one by Tana French right now. 

EP: You mentioned that you’re still reading some light science. Do you feel like you still want to explore more of the themes of spaceflight in future work? Have you still been writing about it? Or do you feel like that chapter is sort of closed for you and you’re on to the next research project or just the next project in general? 

LA: Yeah, I’m going to be interested to see what happens, because I’m still obsessed with space. Like, I was watching this Starship launch today and got super excited when it actually reached orbit. But, at the same time, I want to be careful not to just write Mom in Space over and over and over again. One of the last poems added to the book, “Solitary Rocky Celestial Body,” was one that I’d written after I’d already turned it in to the press. I had workshopped it with my online workshop group, and they were like, “Are you just going to keep writing about space?” and I was like, “I don’t know.” So, I was able to put that one in, but at some point, you know, that won’t work.  

There are areas of science that I don’t know much about, and I think I might be able to find the same type of awe that is part of what draws me to space stories. You know, I read a book about the deep ocean in the last couple of months. I mentioned geology earlier. And then more concretely, I’ve been working on a sequence about salt, the song “Clementine,” and nuclear power. That one feels a bit unwieldy and wild right now even though it’s kind of tamed itself a little bit.  

Yeah, I think it’s just a way of being curious about something. I’ve been thinking about T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and he talks about how, if you have oxygen and sulfur dioxide together, and you put a little bit of platinum in, then they’ll work together and form sulfurous acid—but only if the platinum is present. So, he uses that to say the mind of the poet is platinum, and the elements are feelings and emotions. I have some critiques of, you know, the overall kind of thing that he’s looking at, especially calling the poet “he” all the time. But the catalyst of the poet living a life is something that resonates. Sometimes, when I read a really good submission that isn’t there yet, I just know that the writer just needs to live more. I mean, that sounds like a weird thing to say, but they need to have another experience that helps them look back at what they’re doing and refine it even more. So, living is part of it, and then the mental and emotional life is another part of it. 

 And it’s just more fun to be curious about something. 

Erin Peters is an MFA candidate in poetry at Colorado State University, where she serves as an editorial assistant for Colorado Review. Her writing is interested in the connections between desert environments and the human body.