Interviewed by Jeff Haynes and Christopher Linforth
We would like to know more about how you started assembling your first manuscript. What was that process? Has it changed over the years?
When I graduated from American University with my M.F.A., my thesis was called Human Compromise. In the subsequent months, I began sending out the manuscript while continuing to write new poems, constantly trying to squeeze them in without tipping the aesthetic balance. I ended up with a serious case of bridesmaid syndrome; I had been named a finalist or semifinalist a dozen times over, but I didn’t know what to do to break through. (In hindsight, I’m grateful I didn’t get that first book out before I, or it, was ready.)
So I went to the Millay Colony, where I took only a handful of poems I felt passionate about. I pinned them to three walls of my studio, which turned out to embody the sections of what became Theories of Falling, and committed to drafting a poem a day. Seeing pages on the wall gave me a richer sense of order, and has been a part to my process ever since. It was important that I was writing up toward a goal, rather than cutting down from a mound of drafts. I dislike when a collection has the feel of “here’s the best of the poems I’ve written lately.” I want lean, mean manuscripts with thematic oomph. Sometimes, that means a poem you love has to wait. One of the centerpieces of Count the Waves is “The Wake,” which I drafted back in 2005.
I’ve always taken to recurring modes—the “Allergy Girl” poems, a half-dozen “speaks” poems, a half-dozen sestinas, the Traveler’s Vade Mecum poems—which complicates ordering. Is the point to give those poems distance from with each other, or to draw attention to their solidarity? For Count the Waves one trusted reader termed it as the challenge of “braiding a series of series.”
You’ve had poetry collections published by Norton and New Issues, and a chapbook by Black Warrior Review. What were your experiences like with these presses?
New Issues was the first to take a chance on me, so there will always be a deep loyalty there. In some ways, my experiences with all my publishers, though they vary in size, are identical: you have people working hard—probably underpaid, probably at the cost of their own writing time—to bring your work into the world. So you should treat them equally. I brought a bottle of champagne to my Black Warrior Review chapbook’s debut at AWP in 2009, and I brought a bottle of champagne to the launch of I Was the Jukebox at W.W. Norton’s booth a year later. (At which Nomi, a Norton staffer, almost accidentally decorked my right eye.)
That said, a great pleasure of working W. W. Norton is the reach of their distribution. My book has been spotted at in independent bookstores I’ve never even been to, such as City Lights in San Francisco, and Powell’s in Portland. I believe in the power of the hand-sell, and the browser’s market, so that means a lot. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky with cover design, too. IWTJ, ToF, that issue of BWR, and my memoir Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales of an Allergic Life all have a graphic-design quality, with bright colors and humor.
(Photo credit: Champneys Taylor.)
Your last collection I was the Jukebox is populated by a number of persona poems. What we’ve always found admirable in those poems is how well you enter the persona, whether it’s a cranky platypus as in “The Platypus Speaks,” or an inanimate object like in “The Piano Speaks,” and still somehow retain your own voice. How do you balance that equilibrium of inhabiting the voice of another without being overwhelmed, while still keeping yourself in the poem?
Before you draft a persona poem, the trick is to saturate yourself in the minutiae of the inhabited. I think through the item/character’s physical properties; historical context; how it reproduces or multiplies; what keeps it awake at night. Only if I fully commit to those concerns can my own psyche bubble to the surface in a way that’s useful—essential, really. That’s where the risk comes in, is the humanity hiding beneath the inanimate. “The Sand Speaks” (the opening poem of I Was the Jukebox) ultimately grapples with militarized culture, specifically my own father’s service as a U.S. Army General, which I’ve addressed in several autobiographical poems. What makes it work there is the unexpected point of view, of the sand first swearing “I’ll knock up your oysters” and then catching the soldiers’ bodies as they fall.
There is yearning at the core of every good persona poem. The irony is that while we describe them by their presence—the trappings of clothing or fur, era, mythology, vernacular, place—what really matters is the absence at heart. The worst thing is when a persona poem lacks insight, and aims to do nothing other than show off the accumulated research of the poet behind it.
You’ve written a number of sestinas throughout your career (which are all excellent), of which some appear in I was the Jukebox and Bitch and Brew. What draws you continually back to the sestina? And going off that, are there any forms you’re eager to try out? Any you find yourself steering clear of?
I call the sestina a “gyroscope,” because of the way it spends energy. The form lends itself to bold premises that aren’t necessarily going to offer narrative resolution, e.g., in “King,” from the forthcoming collection: what would it be like if there really was a kingdom of the blind, and the one-eyed guy (who only ever really wanted to be a musician) gets stuck being king instead? Sestinas are about obsession, and tussling, with lots of opportunities for wordplay and self-aware rhetoric. They appeal to the kid in me who always carried around copies of GAMES magazine.
My M.F.A. thesis had syllabics, two-plys, a triolet, a villanelle, a pantoum, and a whole sonnet sequence from the point of view of Medea. (No ghazals, though. That’s my Achilles’ heel.) I often find myself with a poem on the edge of sonnet-tude. But at this point in my writing career, I like my formal training to stay a ghost—discernible to some, not to others—without the giveaway of rhyme. Because the sestina’s “rhyme” is through lexical repetition, sestinas integrate well with free verse, or at least my free verse, which uses a lot of anaphora and refrain.
Your first book Theories of Falling seemed to be a book very much about human relationships and family mythology, and in I Was the Jukebox, we move into persona. What can long-time readers and fans (ourselves definitely included) expect in your upcoming collection Count the Waves?
“Family mythology” is a great encapsulation of Theories of Falling; it’s rare that one’s debut collection doesn’t feel like a Bildungsroman of sorts. So yes, in many ways, I Was the Jukebox was a conscious push away from the presumption of a consistent, author-centric voice. Is it any great surprise that it’s the book my parents prefer?
Yet neither book looked deeply into the nature of adult love. Not crushes, not lust, but real and sustained commitments that sometimes fail even with the best of intentions. I wanted to take that on, and in some cases that triggered poems that will feel much more personal than anything in Jukebox. A major inspiration point for working in this mode is Jack Gilbert.
At the same time, I wasn’t going to let the book collapse into a pile of confessional goo. I needed rigor, a structure in which to make larger truth claims. I found that in the prompt of “The Traveler’s Vade Mecum: or, Instantaneous letter writer by mail or telegraph,” an 1853 book that is part of the public domain. The author, A.C. Baldwin, itemized 8,000+ phrases, varying from practical to fanciful, that could then be combined via numeric shorthand. I was originally asked to write one poem for an anthology (which hasn’t found a home yet), but I ended up with a series of two-dozen poems. Each has a title line taken from the Vade Mecum. They all deal, in a sense, with the ways intimacy is lost and gained over long distances.
This book’s title is a purposeful mishearing of the Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet, which asks: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways….” You can expect some heartache, some laughter, more sestinas, more animalia, a lot of travel. And a sex-starved sword swallower.
Buy her books from her publishers here:
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Buy The Incredible Sestina Anthology, edited by Daniel Nester, available now from Write Bloody. Sandra has two poems in the book, including the title poem of Count the Waves.