The Power of Poetry: Carol McAfee Talks to A.S. King About How Poems Are “The Truest Thing”

By Carol McAfee

I am excited to speak today with author A.S. King whose books about trauma and resilience are so powerful, they hit you like a lightning bolt.

Welcome here today, Amy. Please tell us about you as a writer. Your aesthetic.

I write weird-to-surrealist novels about young adults in order to help readers of all ages face and heal from their trauma. I also write poems.

Does where you live/work affect your writing? Choice of subject matter? Mood?

I work best at my desk, though I’ve written some decent poems on my phone. And I’ve written in hotels or airplanes for more than a decade. But I’m happiest when I work at my desk, in my office, in my house. 

Amy’s workspace.

What time of day do you generally write?

I write prose from 8am-3pm most days if that’s what I’m writing. Poems come at any time. Sometimes I write prose at night, too.

Honestly, it depends on if I’m at the desk. If I’m at the desk, I’m writing—no matter the time. 

Where is your workspace located? Are there artifacts, mementos, quotations, photographs that inspire you?

On the top floor of my house—the attic—closest room to the stars. We made it into the Zen room when [my daughter] Gracie died. To my left is her bookshelf and her saxophone and her teddy bear and things like that. I’m not sure if it helps me, but I think it absolutely helps me because she’s here. My desk has one framed photo on it—of Hawkeye Pierce.

I have many other things. Crystals. Lip balm. Candy. A river rock sent to me by my brother. A snow globe from Minnesota. In front of me is a wall with many Post-it notes filled with quotes by my very smart friends. There are several versions of Robert Plutchik’s wheel of emotions taped to the wall. Or sticky notes of ideas I’ve had.

There is art everywhere and to my right, in the dormer window, is my old art school drawing table where I make strings of meditation beads for people who need them. Everything here is inspiring. There are a thousand tiny things.

Do you draft first on computer? Use pen and paper? Pencil? Quill?

I am strictly a computer person now. I still write in my journal by hand, but I can barely read my own handwriting. 

Do you have any rituals or things you do habitually to get you down to the actual act of writing?

No rituals at all. I just write and see where it takes me. I do aim for word counts because I’m mathematical and on a tight schedule. 

Tom Stoppard’s definition of poetry is a good one to start from: “the simultaneous compression of language and expansion of meaning.” What is your definition of a poem?  In terms of prose, what makes something more of a poem or less of a poem?

I have no idea what my definition of a poem is.

I think a poem is a short form of magic.

And I think it’s the truest thing known to humankind.

Why do poems speak so intimately to our souls?

Because they are the truest things known to humankind.

Your favorite poets/writers who have inspired you most?

I can’t even.

Who, in your life, (another writer or someone else) has inspired you that people would be surprised by or just wouldn’t know.

I also can’t even.

Who do you write for? Yourself? A particular person? A cause?

The character. They tell me what to write. They know the code of the story. If I don’t write for them, they won’t give me the code.

What poetic techniques do you use most in your writing?

Amy in art school circa 1991. “Me, fruit hat, Yanis”

I use all of them in different layers—but I use repetition as a rhythm-keeper quite a bit. Three examples: a stanza from “The Goddess of What Matters”

I have become my future grandchildren—

the ones I will never meet.

Would have come from eggs—made inside me

same as she was / you were—made inside me.

I have become a child named—


And one from “Every Monday”

You were telling us something.

I don’t know what it is.

I don’t know what it is.

And yet, I am the only one who knows what it is.

Aoife also knows, only she

can’t talk yet.

She screams for her mother.

Because I can’t.

I have to look normal and eat food

and make sure my hair

is not frizzy.


From “June Cleaver 2018”

Look at her

backseat of the city bus

purse on lap


Look at June

in her pressed white dress

wedding day hair


Look at June

keeping all her promises clean

her brow kind


Look at June

wasting like chewed gum

spat out later

I have been utilizing right and left justify in poems. And also random paragraph structure, which I really love in Zachary Schomburg’s poetry. A lot of slashes. Freestyle.

Amy: “What best describes me as an artist: my feet in a river.”

In the books you’ve chosen to write in verse, in the poems you’ve written, why did you choose poetry?

Because in that area of the book, or of life, it was the only way to say what needed to be said. Saying it in prose would have taken too long or required explanation versus the faster, visceral experience of getting hit with a bullet train made of the truest thing known to humankind.

How, specifically, do you think poetic techniques can improve our prose?

Prose is improved by the practice of any other form. I remember the shock and delight I had when realizing that writing short fiction had changed the way I wrote novels. Economy of words came naturally and I took my time when choosing words.

To this day, the more I chop out of a novel, the happier I am with the prose. There are many other examples, but that’s a good one for poetic techniques as well.

Cynsational Notes

A.S. King is 2020 Michael L. Printz Award winner and LA Times Book Prize finalist for Dig (Penguin, 2020), 2016’s Still Life with Tornado (Penguin, 2017), I Crawl Through It (Little, Brown, 2015), Reality Boy (Little, Brown 2014), the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner Ask the Passengers (Little, Brown, 2013), Everybody Sees the Ants, (Little, Brown, 2012),and the Michael L. Printz Honor Book Please Ignore Vera Dietz (Ember, 2012). She also writes middle grade fiction as Amy Sarig King, including Me and Marvin Gardens (Arthur A. Levine, 2017) and The Year We Fell from Space (Arthur A. Levine, 2021). She is a faculty member of the Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts travels the country speaking to high school and university students, educators, and humans who care about the mental health of young people. A.S. King writes weird-to-surrealist novels about young adults in order to help readers of all ages face and heal from their trauma. She also writes poems.

Carol McAfee writes about resilient kids and teens from broken homes. A graduate of Vermont School of Fine Arts, Writing for Children and Young Adults, Carol recently finished her middle grade novel in verse, My Name is Max, about a boy, a girl, and a robot lost in the Maine wilderness. She is currently at work on a young adult called Tobacco Creek, where, during a Civil War reenactment, sixteen-year-old Zoey falls in love with a time-traveling Union soldier.