A few weeks back, I wrote about the work of emerging writer Justin Sanders. Here, Sanders takes some time to answer questions about truth and fiction, higher education, influence, and Baltimore. I’ve included excerpts from his first collection of stories, for all the other ghosts, throughout the interview.
You call your first collection of stories, for all the other ghosts, “true fiction.” In hearing you participate in a recent Q&A, it struck me how intensely focused your audience became on “what really happened.” Can you talk about why that designation is important to you, and what you think your work achieves by blurring the lines between memoir and speculative fiction?
I just think it’s an accurate description, honestly. I think it probably describes near every story ever told—some parts are true and some parts aren’t. Because I am working with the stories of real people, real events, real pain and suffering, it feels honoring to state upfront the true/false duality. Whenever I read, I almost always get asked, “Did that really happen, is that real?” From my writer’s perspective I think that’s what a good ghost story is supposed to do, make the reader go, “Wait, did that really happen tho?” so I take that as doing my job well. Hopefully what my work accomplishes in doing that is just having people question more. Question everything, but in particular, question the stories we hear and pass on. We tend to think of mythology as tales and stories from antiquity, but we create mythology every day, and the stories we create have a very formative impact on our culture and personal lives. To that end, a lot of my work focuses on the more insidious shit that happens when we stop questioning those myths and stories, how the story can become so wildly disconnected from the truth behind it that it’s entirely fictional and what then happens when we take that complete fiction and build cultural and societal foundations upon it. Like, that’s how we get rape victims recorded as willing seducers and Christopher Columbus and Thomas Jefferson held up as heroes; that’s a digression, though.
Predators aren’t concerned with the noises prey make. They never think about the ghosts they’re making.
If I’m correct, for all the other ghosts came out of your time in the University of Baltimore’s MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts program. Can you describe your journey to and through that program?
I came to UB as an undergrad before it was a four-year school, and that’s how I learned about their MFA program. I love the professors I worked with, I love the colleagues and friends and family I connected with there. I have a lot of concerns and reservations about the value of MFAs as a whole, and there’s a whole conversation to be had about MFA programs producing MFA-style writing—which is to say homogeneous writing. But I do recommend UB’s program, not for any brochure reason or anything. I think UB’s MFA program really understands the future of publishing. The era of major publishers picking up writers and offering them these fantastic contracts with marketing resources and whatever, that era is dying if not already dead. What agents and publishers are looking for is a proven ability to write and sell, and increasingly that means self-publishing. They want to see if you can build a brand and market yourself, because even if you do get offered some fabulous book deal with built-in tours and advertising, you still end up doing all the brand building work anyway.
Picture two writers showing up to interview with an agent, and one has their manuscript and nothing else, and the other has their manuscript and also a book they wrote and published on their own and they can say, “I sold x many copies and grew my social media presence by x many people and I have the skills and knowledge to handle all the steps of making a book on my own.” That’s a real world perspective. Like, yes you have all these wonderful workshops and craft bettering experiences, but over the course of UB’s program, the real meat is that you write, edit, design, and publish. You graduate with a fancy degree, and also you come out as a ready-to-go, marketable author with a product ready for sale. I honestly think that’s more important than the craft portion. Craft can be learned and improved, in all honesty—and I say this as someone who teaches creative writing—with nothing more than a library card or internet connection. Being a better writer is simple: not easy—simple. Read more and from as diverse a pool of material as possible, then write more—make it a professional habit, do it every day. Guaranteed you will be a better writer.
I didn’t know what to say to that so I just shrugged and shook the Krylon can and knelt down and tagged her name on the curb. A firefly flew up from the storm drain across the street.
Much of your book seems to be set in Baltimore—one recognizes Pratt Street, Leakin Park, Hampden, and so on. Can you talk about the significance of place in your work?
I took a lot of lessons from Faulkner and Stephen King early on, and they both taught me that place is character. All characters are influenced by the place they live, and in writing, that place has to be concrete and real. That extends out to me as well; I’m a Baltimore writer. Bmore made me who I am, shaped my perspectives, colored my language. I love my city and I’m gonna rep my city till the day I d-i-e feel me? So it’s just natural that it shows up in my writing. I think having a strong connection to place, wherever it may be, creates passion and authenticity in writing. My city is part of my narrative/authorial voice. I write differently from a cat from the Bay Area, even if that dude has extremely similar experiences to me, I’m gonna talk about it differently ’cause I’m gonna talk about it as a nigga from Baltimore.
A lot of the real experiences in my book happened on Baltimore streets, and it’s, to me, honoring to place that accurately. With the fictional stories, it doesn’t even cross my mind to set them any place other than Baltimore and Black Baltimore mainly. It would feel phony to me to set a story in like, Williamsburg, New York or Small All White Town, Anywhere America. I don’t have any connection to those places. And just real talk, I’m fuckin really fuckin tired of reading stories set in generic fuckin mayo&wonderbread places. Like don’t hand me no shit set in a fuckin coffee shop, I’m not the audience for that kinda writing. I make a conscious effort to try and place my characters and stories in areas that I don’t think see a lot of true and accurate representation in fiction. I’m tired of seeing people set stories in black ghettos as a gimmick. I’m tired of outsider representations.
When I first heard her story I thought, shit happens. Because it does, because the thing about Lion and her scars and her story is that around here, that’s nothing new . . . For every story like Lion’s I can offer you twenty more. This is Baltimore, there are ghosts on every corner.
On the second to last page of your book, you write, “So here’s a story: One morning in Black Baltimore we walk outside and see fire in the distance. Not everyone on the street can see it. And those of us who do describe it differently.” I think of James Baldwin asking in The Fire Next Time, “do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” While the fire in your final piece resists direct symbolic interpretation or connection with Baldwin’s “burning house,” your stories repeatedly return to race-based and gender-based violence. Your art is intimately linked to personal tragedy, racism, and misogyny. Who are your influences or touchstone writers and pieces of writing in exploring systemic issues through the lens of personal art? I think of Baldwin, but I also think even more strongly of connections with Toni Morrison (in a work like Beloved), Octavia Butler (in terms of speculative fiction and social justice), Gabriel García Márquez (in terms of magic realism), and Claudia Rankine (in terms of lyrical explorations of contemporary issues). How do these (or other writers—please correct me if I’m off base!) shape your work?
There are probably a hundred names and works that I could put here. I’ll try to keep this succinct. The number one greatest influence for me in terms of processing systemic issues through personal art is Ralph Ellison and his works Invisible Man and “A Party Down at The Square.” I learned from both of those works how to write about and describe horrific experiences and have those experiences take center stage but not overshadow the larger narrative. Absolutely both the collected short stories of Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, namely One Hundred Years of Solitude, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, News of a Kidnapping, and his short story “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.” I’m a lover of magical realism, I think it’s a fantastic lens to view the world through, it gives me a way to re-contextualize issues for different audiences, and I’m always trying to turn that lens to reflect Black Baltimore. Zora Neale Hurston—it’s hard to describe how much I’ve taken from The Queen of the South. Mules and Men and Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Tell My Horse, and Seraph on the Suwanee are works I re-read over and over, and in total honesty, my shit is a fuckin hack ass version of work Zora started and, to this day, in my opinion, did better than anyone else. I take and play with a lot of philosophical ideas I got from The Phenomenon of Man by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. And recently I’ve almost exclusively been reading works by Indian and Pakistani authors, namely Shashi Deshpande’s short stories, though I’ll specifically point out “A Wall is Safer” and “Anatomy of a Murder,” Kamala Markandaya’s A Handful of Rice, Omair Ahmed’s Jimmy the Terrorist—they all write gorgeous poetry-infused prose that deals with entrenched sexism and racism.
Men are always the most afraid of women and blood. We know they’ve seen and will see more of it than we ever will and it reminds us of all the blood we haven’t shed, but are due to.
I know you’re a founder of Sounding Sea and have been active in the “Baltimore literary scene” for a while. Can you describe your impressions of Baltimore as a literary city? Are there emerging or established writers we should be following out of Baltimore?
Baltimore has one of the greatest lit communities I’ve been lucky to be part of. It’s intimate and fierce, and there are amazing works and events that come out of that community. My greatest issue with Bmore’s lit scene is that it reflects Baltimore; it tends to be very segregated. It’s not uncommon to go to a reading and the lineup and audience are all white—in the heart of a predominantly Black city. There are some amazing readings and performances at The Reginald Lewis African American Museum, and at Morgan State, and at Coppin State. You can find these amazing boutique readings and performances off of Park Heights Ave, but those spaces are considered the Black spaces, so you really don’t see much integration. Hopkins kids seem to have a rule against going past Guilford Ave and below 25th Street. I’ve been a part of the lit community here for almost a decade now, and I can count on one hand the times University of Maryland’s creative writing students have showed up at anything.
That’s unfortunate, because there are absolutely amazing talented writers and performers like award-winning slam poet Slangston Hughes. Dave K is consistently in the running for Baltimore’s best writer, and justifiably so. That said, for my money, who’s hot and coming up is Jessica Welch, a local fiction writer who just released her first book, called Murmuration, and it is mind-blowing. Sharea Harris, poet and playwright. She just released a book of poems called Dictionary. Wallace Lane is an incredible poet who has done some extraordinary work during Baltimore’s Uprising; he’s got a book coming out May 2017, I think. I just recently heard and met Marie Mokuba, who at sixteen is a stronger poet than the majority of Baltimore poets out right now. Christopher Warman is a powerhouse writer, and his book The Universal Machine is transformative, I know that description gets tossed around a lot—I mean it sincerely, no bullshit. His work taught me a profound and haunting lesson. Victoria Adams Kennedy is fantastic and has a new book, Where Loves Goes. Michael Tager is fast becoming one of Bmore’s most prolific writers and his work is a joy to read. I’m not sure if Nikki Richard is staying in Baltimore but no matter, Nikki’s book Pretty Things is phenomenal storytelling.
“Your father, he was killed in a drive-by you said?”
“Do you know what he was involved in?”
I don’t know if it’s the first time she’s encountered it, the immediate assumption that her murdered father couldn’t have just been a bystander caught in violence unconnected to him; the assumption that, of course, he had to have some involvement that in some way justified his death.
Maybe he heard the first shots, or maybe he smelled it in the air—roses and tobacco and tequila—or maybe Lena’s eyes went white and the baby kicked and Jay followed her gaze and saw it coming. It doesn’t really matter in the end.
You hear the strange cricket in the ovensing, and ask what it sings.This is what it sings.—Frank Bidart,
Is grief a bridge?
There are a million things I should be doing right now. It’s close to midnight. Earlier, yet again, I burned dinner and my husband ate it without complaint. There are many things I never learned to do properly. I don’t know how to ride a bike. When I swim, I just kick and reach forward. Once I went swimming on a lonely beach in the Dominican Republic with only my girlfriend’s mother. My girlfriend was hungover, and slept in, and I wanted to go swimming. Her mother didn’t like that I was with her daughter, or that I had come at all to visit that summer, but seemed worried enough that I shouldn’t go alone. Her mother stayed close enough when I swam out too far. Not too far, but just at the edge of too far. At the edge of a stronger current wanting me, wanting to pull me out further. Years later, in an Arab village in East Jerusalem, I stood at the edge of a winding road near the top of a mountain; it was a sharp drop. There was no railing. I stood close enough to the edge to almost fall. This, too, was over love.
Is grief a condition of love? Does grief prevent us from making peace within ourselves and with each other? I have known for some time that we are the predecessors of peace, but it will never come from us. On that lonely beach in the Dominican Republic, my girlfriend’s mother called out that I’d gone too far. She kept calling as I swam back, as if her voice was pulling me from the deep. Later she said nothing about it to her daughter, what happened, about the bridge that had formed between us, that might-have-been most unfortunate. It was more than one bridge. It was our secret. At the end of my visit she squeezed my hand and said sadly, If only you were a boy.
In East Jerusalem I stood at the edge of a cliff in the village as night fell and some children ran out toward me and grabbed my arms, pulling me back, scolded me for walking as a woman alone at night. A mother, perhaps one of theirs, came to me in the night. She threw a blanket around my shoulders. I didn’t realize the temperature had dropped and I had no coat on. We stood there, huddled with the children running around us, as she called a cab to take me home. She knew I was Jewish. The children knew I was Jewish. I said nothing. Later, I didn’t go looking for her. I didn’t go looking for them. These are the weights of past would-have-beens that weigh heavier than full-on regrets.
Is grief a way to reach you as it does conceal you from me? Is grief a collective consciousness that slips through our fingers?
One morning she slid through me and I lost her (for I’ll always know it was her) and bled her out in my husband’s arms, and it seemed she was all over him. It did not happen that quickly all at once. It did. Our would-be child was all over us and he held me and it was raining outside and I felt that she would never stop pouring out of me, oh my beloved, oh endless swimming further away from me.
Is grief a tide that never quite pulls me lonely toward those I don’t know as well as I should? Is grief only told in complex grammar?
Or is it beyond the reach of words, a wakefulness as strong as silence filling a bridge on the first day of spring, when no car will cross and we choose to walk a treeless crumbling street and all heaven is falling the buildings, washing them clean? That morning he bathed me before he was sure it was okay, to wipe away what I never quite knew I was possible of, and in the end was not a possibility.
Is grief a premonition from a future self? Is it a milestone in simply being, or being burst by a night terror? Is it a stone or lifeline cast from worlds unknown?
There who are not ours in blood, who ask us to step back, come back, waiting for us to come to our senses. There are a million things I should be doing. It’s well past midnight. My husband has stayed up as I write this, waiting for me.
And is grief not a waiting, and a waiting that gives nothing of itself and yet is a gift of memory, an accomplice to the very end, a gravity to which we constantly readjust, a gravity in which we kick and reach forward.
In my 190-plus posts for this blog, I’ve only once thought to sing the praises of A.Word.A.Day, Anu Garg’s brilliant daily email blast. Allow me a second huzzah: A.Word.A.Day is, most mornings, the Inbox guest I’m happiest to see. An entry from earlier this week particularly caught my attention: estivate (verb), “to pass the summer in a dormant state.” Finally, a way to describe what I’ve been doing these past months! I haven’t just been reading about Trump’s blunders and icing my back. I’ve been estivating!
But for me (and for the readers of this blog who are teachers or students), the period of estivation is over. Fall classes start soon; meetings are being scheduled; rec-letter requests are coming in. No more reading purely for pleasure! It’s time to get a head start on the syllabus. (What moron assigned all these books? Oh, I did.) No more Olympics! No more obsessive scanning of the news! I’m reluctant to tally how much of the summer I’ve sacrificed to the coming election—but, what the hell, let’s call it two hours a day, and then multiply that by 120. Almost 250 hours! Time I could have devoted to my kids! Trump’s not just a con artist; he’s a thief. And time is his currency.
One thing I’m looking forward to, as the semester approaches: teaching Geoffrey Brock’s new translation of Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium. I’ve written about Six Memos a number of times for this blog, so I won’t describe the work once again. (Nicholas Lezard has an admiring review just up on The Guardian’s website that calls the collection “one of the most unusual books of literary criticism ever written.”) But I will say I’m eager to pair Calvino’s lectures on lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity with works by Shakespeare, Dickinson, Milan Kundera, James Baldwin, and Tony Kushner that embody those literary qualities, and I’m especially eager to see what additional qualities my students advocate for in their own Sixth Memos.
But really, who knows how the fall will go. Back in April, taking stock of my 49th year, I mapped out something I called “Project 50”: a way to get ready for the milestone ahead. I listed a series of predictable midlife goals (predictable, at least, for my doing-all-right-but-could-be-doing-better self): lose a few pounds, get more sleep, swim, stretch, play tennis. I even set the whole thing up as a repeating daily event on my iCal. Three days later, I popped a disc. As the Yiddish proverb goes: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”
In 1984, Calvino was invited by Harvard to give six talks for the following year’s Charles Eliot Norton Poetry Lectures. He finished five of them by September of 1985, and then, before his scheduled flight to the U.S., he died of a cerebral hemorrhage. “I found the typescript on his desk,” his widow Esther Calvino writes, “in perfect order, each individual talk in its own transparent folder, ready to be placed in his suitcase.”
Winner of the 2014 Subito Press Book Prize, Sarah Bartlett’s Sometimes We Walk With Our Nails Out, her first collection of poetry, is a debut that doesn’t feel like one. Divided into three sections, each mellifluously gripping and poetically idiosyncratic, Sometimes We Walk presents its reader with a world divided by love and contentment, satisfaction and ambition. “Survival depends on a number of duplicities” is a consideration prodded in the volume’s first section, and this sentiment is tossed and teased throughout the collection. In her laudatory write-up for the book, poet Emily Kendal Frey asserts, “This is what I want from poetry,” and I concur. I asked Bartlett about the writing and publishing process for Sometimes We Walk With Our Nails Out, how her work has changed over the years, and the best and worst pieces of writing advice she’s ever received. And also insomnia; always insomnia.
Sometimes We Walk With Our Nails Out is your first full-length collection, but I know you’ve been writing poetry for years and have published extensively in the field prior to Sometimes We Walk. As such, has your goal always been to publish books or poems? Both? Or? Further, in our Internet Age do you think publishing a dead-tree based collection is as important as it used to be?
I suppose my goal has always been to write poems that feel authentic, engaging, and expressive. And then to figure out how to share them. But yes, I’ve been very lucky to have poems appear in amazing print and online journals over the years! As most writers know, sending out is a labor of love, and I certainly worked/work at it. Publishing online was relatively new back when I was in school, and it’s been such a fantastic way to reach a wider audience. I get a lot of great solicitations for work and nice notes from people who read my stuff online, and that is exciting. I remember feeling suspicious at first—like if the poem wasn’t on paper somewhere, it didn’t count—but that wore off quickly. That makes me sound so old! Wow. But it’s true.
As far as whether I think publishing an actual full-length book is important, I have to say yes. There’s still an expectation in the writing community that books should be realized. Also, writers are usually inveterate readers, and “book as object” is definitely real thing. At least for me. Books are part of our lives in a different way—they don’t run out of batteries, you can indulge in marginalia, lend them to friends, spill coffee on them, etc. They become both relics and totems. I think holding a book in your hand is a physical manifestation of hard work. It means something. But, online publishing is powerful, effective, and easily accessible. I’m speaking as someone who loves books. I buy a lot of poetry at Powell’s and elsewhere. So, in that vein, having my own book has been really satisfying.
Sectioning—Sometimes We Walk With Our Nails Out is broken down into three sections—“Freud Blah Blah Blah” (which appeared on its own as a chapbook from Rye House Press), “De Animation,” and “The Other Transcendence.” I’m curious, then, why exactly you ordered the book the way you did; what did that ordering offer you as the book’s author? Additionally, how important, in your opinion, is it for poetry manuscripts to have (specific) sections that deal with and/or engender (specific) themes or ideas? Would your ideal reader read the book from front to back, paying a good deal of attention to each of the volume’s sections? And if they just skip around from poem to poem, is something potentially lost?
It took me awhile to order this manuscript—the book starts both tight and compact and then slowly unwinds. Punctuation disappears in the final section. That is all intentional, as a primary theme of the book is transformation. So the poems themselves and the order they appear needed to reflect that, which was certainly a challenge. That took some thinking and a lot of shuffling. But I think you can absolutely pick it up and open it to a page and enjoy a poem without reading the whole thing. Would a reader have a different experience if they spent more time with the book versus reading a few selections? Of course. I think most authors would prefer that their whole book is consumed, right? But I like the idea of someone flipping through and really jamming on a random poem without any context. That’s very immediate.
I don’t think poetry manuscripts need to behave a specific way. I think they need to express what the author wants to express in the way that feels right. Ideally the order of poems or the use of sections (or not) delivers the strongest experience for the reader. No sections? Great. Sections? Great. If there were one right way to do something, this would all be pretty boring. For this particular book, sections were the best solution. It’s possible my next manuscript won’t have any!
Unlike a healthy majority of poets, you don’t work in academia and thus have a somewhat different relationship with the art form from that of other writers (i.e. you’re not trying to get a tenure-track job , and I assume your job duties/responsibilities don’t change depending on how much poetry you do or do not publish). Correct me if I’m wrong, also, but you received your MFA some years ago at this point, right? If all of the above is correct (and definitely correct me if that’s not the case), I’m curious how important poetry is to you on a day-to-day, week-to-week, year-to-year basis? Do you feel the same way about it that you did ten or twelve years ago, or has your relationship to it changed in some (good, bad, or otherwise) way?
I don’t know that my relationship with the art form is different, because I don’t teach. I have both more and less freedom, I suppose, in a world where everything is relative. I got my MFA in 2005, and I took a different path for a number of reasons. Now, I have a fairly demanding day job/career path in marketing/branding/design that comes with a lot of responsibilities. My career advancement is not tied to publication, it’s true. In that sense, there’s less pressure. But I think there’s always pressure on poets to publish regardless of what their job is or how much of their time it takes up. My friends who teach struggle to find time to write around grading papers and meeting with students, planning courses, etc. I hear a lot about that. We all have to juggle and figure out how to prioritize writing around life’s demands.
My relationship to poetry has certainly grown and shifted as I’ve grown and shifted as a person. But my desire to write hasn’t wavered—it’s still an essential part of my life. I still write regularly—sometimes prolifically, sometimes sporadically. I’ve always been that way. I have never written on a schedule, and I wish I were more disciplined. A small victory is that I’ve trained myself to write on airplanes, mostly on the short flight to my firm’s Seattle office. This is almost a weekly thing, and it’s a lot of fun to use the time sans internet for myself. I rely more on my phone’s “notes” app than I ever thought I would to jot down ideas and drafts. I probably send out less than I used to, but there’s less franticness there at this point.
Do I have less flex time than a teacher? Probably. Am I a little jealous that friends can write during the day? Absolutely. But it doesn’t make me less committed. The idea of a nine-to-five job doesn’t feel bohemian, and I think poets like myself who aren’t in academia get tired of addressing that. I find inspiration all the time at my job—I’m always learning. When I visit classrooms, I’m extremely energized and excited. Talking about poetry with young writers or designers is about as good as it gets, and I ask myself why I’m not teaching. Perhaps I’ll get the opportunity someday. For now, I’m enjoying what I’m doing. I won’t lie—it can be difficult to balance what is essentially two careers, but I’ve managed to feel my way through so far. Perhaps moving a little slower than I’d like with book tours and putting together manuscripts. But I’m doing my best and will keep trying to refine my approach.
Some of the poems in Sometimes We Walk have these little non-sequitur moments that, after reading the book, I couldn’t get out of my head. “Can I live vicariously through your ekphrasis? / Art is an arm but a shitty hugger” and “We all hold / a promise and a lie between our legs” (both from the book’s opening section, “Freud Blah Blah Blah”) were major gold stars for me, as well as the lines “I haven’t forgotten snow on the tongue— / tell me where to find the ad you are in. / I want your commerce on me— / it feels good to be dirty on a Sunday” (from “Wintertime Makes Me Honest”). There were various other standouts as well. I’m thus interested in the generative aspects of poeming for you—is there a normal process it takes, or is every poem different? I personally write poems (in my head, with a piece of paper in my back pocket) while walking my dog and thereby often have a lot of urbany nature going on in my work. Even if you don’t have a set writing schedule, is there a specific way that a poem normally begins? Do you ever start with the last lines first or vice versa?
I’m so glad you liked those lines! I think my entry into a poem is usually through a particular line or even a word or two. Where it comes from, or where it will end up in the poem, is never established up front; something will float into my head and then lodge there. Sometimes it germinates for weeks, sometimes only an hour. But when it’s time, it’s time, and I have to write it right then. This could take anywhere from thirty minutes to six hours. When I’m not at home, this makes me really anxious! Like it might escape me.
I pick up snippets of conversations, notice a leaf, read poetry that sets me off, dream. Part of the joy of writing for me is never knowing exactly where the next poem will come from. I think I’m slightly addicted to that reveal, which contributes to my resistance to a formulaic/disciplined writing process.
I’ve asked this of several poets but I’m forever interested: do you have, or would you care to identify, favorite words you return to again and again in your work? Words that you like, for whatever reason. I asked the same thing to Eileen Myles before and she hates and won’t use the word “shard”—too stereotypically poetic—and likes and often employs “you” and “dog.” Michael Earl Craig stated that he’s not fond of “snack” or “moist” but goes wild with “little,” “tiny,” “violently,” “briskly,” and “slowly.” Are there words, then, that you come back to again and again? Any words that you revile and won’t deign to write or type down?
Hmmm. That’s a great question—I certainly revisit phrasing. I’ve caught myself using “somewhere else” in a few poems lately. I also seem to be really interested in the color red, probably because I’m interested in bodies. Internal versus external. I am generally sensitive to super “poemy” words and try to avoid anything that sounds too precious. If there’s a straightforward way of saying something, I’ll go for it, though I’m nowhere near as matter-of-fact as Eileen Myles. Often the images or metaphors I’m utilizing are a little surreal, and if I added words like “momentous” or “blossom” to them, it would be clunky as hell. And probably unintelligible. Are there words I don’t like? I myself am not a fan of “moist.” It sounds and feels unpleasant! Does anyone like that word? But if a poem needed it, I wouldn’t shy away. Everything is on a case by case basis.
Favorites. Might you have a favorite poem (or a couple of poems) in Sometimes We Walk With Our Nails Out? If so, why that particular one (or ones)? What does it perhaps offer you that the others don’t, and were the circumstances of its writing different in any way?
This is a hard one! Is it cheating if I pick one per section? Hope not. The first short poem is from Section 1:
Suffering is having your body full of nails.
Just replace your blood with nails and see what I mean.
What a mirror. What a black lake full of stars.
I’ve visited classrooms at the Portland Art Institute quite a bit to collaborate, and when students got to choose a poem of mine to work with, many of them chose this one. I think it gets at a rawness of being a human. We can all identify with how pain is transformative. I’m always humbled when something I write is adopted into someone else’s landscape.
From Section 2, excerpt from “Being Unhorsed Vs. Being Unsaddled:”
You are standing by yourself.
Every morning you are on
the opposite side of the fence.
You don’t know how it happened,
you just know it’s happening.
This poem examines the shock and physicality of loneliness in a way that continues to resonate for me. When you are grieving, there’s a feeling of intense isolation that I was trying to express, and it still rings true.
From Section 3, excerpt from “Sometimes We Walk With Our Nails Out”:
Today I ruined a few things
separate from my intention
I hear that Mercury is in retrograde
I stayed up all night worrying about falling asleep
Soon I’ll be a message
on Winter’s answering machine
As you might imagine, I’m pretty fond of the title poem for the collection. I chose these particular lines because I like the humor and the honesty—there’s a baldness to the third section that is both dark and self-aware. Plus, I quite literally stay up worrying about whether or not I’m going to fall asleep. That is real.
I do, too, sometimes—it’s the worst. Insomnia’s fleeting eternity. A few final questions. I know you wrote the collection over an extended period of time, but who were you reading a lot while writing Sometimes We Walk With Our Nails Out? And as a writer, do you find you’re more influenced by your friends—some of whom, I know, are also writers—or more by authors, dead and alive, whom you haven’t met and likely never will?
I’m definitely influenced by both living and dead authors, like most of us. For this collection: Frank Stanford, Ben Mirov, Julia Story, Rilke, Anne Carson, Simone Muench, among many others, were happening quite often. I read my friends’ work all the time, either in draft form or published. We all push each other, and I’m so lucky to have that connection. Their insights and commentary are powerful, wise, and momentous. Some friends have read my work for a decade, and can give me incredible feedback. I’m lucky.
What’s the worst piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? Why, for your own concerns as a writer at least, was it so bad? And vice versa—what was the best piece received? Why?
Hmm. Tough. I think I blot out bad advice, so I can’t bring anything specific to mind. The worst isn’t advice per se, just commentary. That I should make my writing easier to understand. I don’t think it’s all that hard to understand my stuff for the most part, number one. Number two, then it wouldn’t be authentic. Also, I’ve been in conversations where myself and other women were told that writing “too feminine” was a problem, and that we should try and stay gender neutral. It’s pretty easy to ignore things like that.
Some of the best advice was from my thesis advisor at Emerson, John Skoyles. He spoke to me a lot about the entrance to a poem sometimes not being ultimately necessary once it’s complete. I still go through and do significant deletions in that vein. It helps my poems stay sharp and keeps me from being lazy. I’ll save the lines in a “scrap” file and go mining when I need inspiration. He also advised special attention to first and last lines, and that is absolutely something I practice.
Ultimately, the best advice is just to keep going. Keep pushing. To not give up in the face of rejection or writer’s block. We all tell each other that, and it’s essential to remember when things aren’t going well or easily.
Finally, I guess I’ll end with the perfunctory—what’s next? Anything new on the horizon in terms of readings, poems, chapbooks, full-lengths, other? And with regards to the publication of Sometimes We Walk With Our Nails Out is there anything you might do different, knowing what you know now?
I’m pulling together a second full-length manuscript—starting in a few days, actually! So that is exciting/daunting. Regarding Sometimes We Walk With Our Nails Out, I think I would’ve been more aggressive with self promotion. I didn’t exactly know when it was going to be released for awhile, and I played it pretty cool. Self-promo is hard for me. But I need to get over it.
When we think of “origin stories,” we might first think of theology:
But poems, too, can function powerfully as origin stories, particularly as a poet’s self-mythologizing of the path to poetry itself. When interviewers ask poets how they “came to poetry” or “knew they were a poet,” I kind of cringe. The answer is usually some vague variation on “even as a young person I loved poetry” or “I came to poetry a little later in life.” No radioactive spiders, no touch from God. How unsatisfying.
Jorie Graham’s poetic origin story is the closest I can think of to an electrifying encounter for biographers and critics to cite accordingly. In a 1997 profile in The New Yorker, she said:
I ended up in the wrong hallway [as a graduate student at NYU] and I heard these lines of Eliot’s flowing out of this doorway – ‘I have heard the mermaids singing each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me.’ And I just went into this huge, long classroom and sat and listened . . . It was like something being played in the key my soul recognized. (Schiff 64)
I think of this story as one articulation of an answer to Wallace Stevens’s question at the end of “The Man on the Dump”:
Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.
For most of us, however, the actual narratives of our lives are either too circuitous and opaque, or simply too mundane, to answer Stevens with one anecdote. (Luckily, we have Emily Dickinson’s consolation that “The Truth must dazzle gradually.”)
But in poems themselves, poets can really let their hair down and self-mythologize. A favorite recent example of this is in the most recent Birmingham Poetry Review (Spring 2016, Number 43), the literary journal of The University of Alabama at Birmingham. In this issue, editor Adam Vines included two poems by Tara Tatum, an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Florida. One of these, simply titled “Origin,” begins:
Born inside a thorn-thick
dragon fruit, I was carried to Texas.
While Tatum did literally grow up in Texas, this first couplet immediately asks the reader to invest in a different kind of origin story – metaphorical, symbolic, poetic. The poem gives us a kind of oracular midwife entity called “The hungry” (“The hungry sliced its pink throat open / with a stolen Damascus blade, and I tumbled out”; “The hungry said she will be the daughter of a _______ / the wife of the _______ . . . but no one knew.”). The poem gives us a bricolage of mythologies and readings (“the fumbling, the passing through Freud’s jewel-case, // laughing at the Medusa”). And the poem gives us the imagery and diction to read this poem both as a woman’s origin story (“my she-skin / binding feather and scale under an alien sun”) and as a poet’s origin story (“Leaves began growing from // my shoulder blades, crawling with beetles / spreading their black ink”). Both woman and poet are forged monstrous through mysterious rites and violences of cultural influence and the physicality and sensuality of the body itself.
When I recently taught this poem to high school students at the Baltimore Young Writers’ Studio, I was thrilled when one of the students focused in on the lines “I refused // to be a preposition. I became a gerund: the fumbling . . . the passing through . . .” The student noted that a preposition plays a supporting role in a grammatical unit, while a gerund is a kind of active hybrid of verb and noun, powerful and present. Here, the speaker transitions from passive (“was carried”) to active self-making, with the poem itself functioning as that becoming.
On Joyce Carol Oates’ Wild Nights! Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway and Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of the Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, & Martin Johnson Heade
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