Sarah Dowling is the author of Security Posture, published by Snare Books as the winner of the 2009 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. Her work has previously appeared in Action, Yes!, The Capilano Review, Cue, EOAGH, GLQ, the ixnay reader 4, West Coast Line, and elsewhere. Sarah Dowling is a Ph.D. candidate in the English department at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is working on a dissertation on multilingual poetry.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I don’t think that my first book changed my life, but I certainly met a lot of people through the process of publishing it, and their various presences in my life do constitute changes of different kinds. This is not to ignore the changes that can come with book publication, such as eligibility for certain kinds of grants, and even for certain kinds of jobs. But my book was published quite recently and thus far I haven’t made any attempts to secure any of those big-boy benefits I’ve heard so much about.
To answer the second two questions, my recent work is somewhat more similar to the first manuscript that I wrote, which was not the manuscript of my first book. I have returned to an angrier mode of writing, and one that is more explicitly quotational.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I probably came to poetry as a reader at the same time that I came to other textual forms, because my parents were very focused on education and always really emphasized reading. We read poetry, fiction, and non-fiction in our house, and we listened to and played a lot of music. I can remember receiving T.S. Eliot’s Book of Practical Cats for Easter one year, and Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery another. And there was a lot of E. Nesbit around.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
My writing is very, very slow and it requires a lot of “non-writing” writing time. I’m also very committed to revision, so it can really take forever.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I work on series of questions, and I often think of these questions as “books” because I have a feeling for how long I will need or want to spend thinking about them. Having said that, my first book took the opposite approach, and it was only after I had amassed several short pieces of about 5-7 pp. each that I realized that in addition to the formal similarities among them, there were probably also theoretical similarities, and that if I could isolate those, I would then have a book project. But even though the process was reversed from what I had done in the past, I was still working with “the book” as a compositional unit.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do really enjoy doing readings, and I find them enormously helpful, partly because they offer an occasion to generate and test out new work, and partly because versioning a text for performance can be crucial for revision. I also find the conversations generated at readings really valuable – this, of course, is especially true when I am not the one giving the reading!
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I’m interested in poetry that works in tandem with theory; that is, the poetry I like is explicitly theoretical. I’m interested in works that ask and answer questions about phenomenologies of reading, citizenship, embodiment, historiography, and so forth. What I find interesting is how the generic gap between theory and poetry allows each to say and do things that the other can’t, and so I’m excited by reading the two in concert, as supplements to each other.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
There are certain fundamental ways in which it doesn’t make sense for me to think about “larger” cultures. Every intervention I can see myself or my work making is an intervention into a very specific context, whether that is a context of poets in a particular city, a context of friends, the context of the readers of a given publication, a context of other texts, etc. I think of a writer’s role in terms of participation in an ongoing conversation, but for me it makes more sense to think about these conversations in specified, localized ways, not as “larger” cultures.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I had a wonderful experience working with Rachel Zolf as the editor of Security Posture, and I really would not have figured out how to make that book what I wanted it to be without her help. More importantly, she taught me how to finish a project, which was something I had never really felt that I had done before. She also gave me a lot of really helpful advice on how the process of publication works.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Don’t take any wooden nickels.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I suppose I was working doggedly at writing critical prose before I was working doggedly at writing poetry, so it has never seemed strange or difficult to me to do both, as much as each is strange and difficult individually. For me, the appeal is that writing in both of these genres extends what you can say and how you can say it. In other words, you have different ways in which to participate in those conversations that I referenced earlier.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I have a fairly specific routine in which I wake up, perform virtually the same actions, and go to bed at virtually the same time every day. I don’t write poetry every day – far from it – but I read and think every day, and that is a crucial part of my writing process. Any poem that I have written generally has at least six weeks of percolation and obsession as the prehistory of its first draft.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Deadlines. Fear. Shame. Desperation.
13 - If there was a fire, what's the first thing you'd grab?
Something completely useless: my keys. Force of habit. I would grab my cat as well, if I could catch him.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
The biggest influence on my work is feeling stupid. After that, the biggest influence is the news, but this is less in evidence in my first book.
But to answer the question more directly, there are many forms that influence my work that are not literary or textual. The most obvious of these is probably visual art. I recently saw a show of Roni Horn’s work, and her “twinned” photographs were very interesting to me because of their investment in repetition and variation. I also really like Riopelle’s late work, in which the elements of his everyday environment are rendered as palpable absences. I find it very helpful to investigate non-textual arts practices, because I often don’t fully understand their intervention into the discourses of their own genre. In the absence of that global understanding I can focus on what’s happening with the form, and it’s very useful for me to think about the ways in which questions of form have been answered in and through materials other than text.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Divya Victor, Rachel Zolf, CAConrad, Nicole Brossard, NourbeSe Philip, the members of my dissertation writing group, my dissertation committee, Virginia Woolf, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Fred Moten, Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein, Margaret Laurence, Tracie Morris, Rosmarie Waldrop, Erín Moure, Fred Wah, Jena Osman, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Caroline Bergvall, Sara Ahmed, Adriana Cavarero. Many, many others.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Lately I’ve been feeling pretty ready to move on to my next approximation of adulthood.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I can’t imagine being a writer without having other occupations. Do people really do that?
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I am doing so many other things, and I will continue to do them, even at times in opposition to writing. I think that writing has to be a complement to other things for financial reasons, of course, but also in order for it to be at all interesting. Many of the other things I do are forms of writing, like the Ph.D. dissertation I am working on; many are otherwise related to writing, for example I run the Emergency Reading Series in collaboration with Julia Bloch, and I am the international editor of the new Jacket2. But others bear only the most abstract, tangential relationships to my writerly practice, for example, I am an avid runner, I am a baby- and pet-sitter; I am involved in organizing work through my university. I am a reader of the newspaper, I am trying to improve my Spanish, I am a neighbor in my neighborhood, I am a friend and a family member, a Non-Resident Alien, and so on.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great books I read were Specters of the Atlantic by Ian Baucom and The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism by C.B. MacPherson. The last great films were Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a new manuscript, currently titled “Hinterland B.” This project concerns the waste areas lying immediately outside of cities, the hinterlands, in their literal and metaphorical senses. Etymologically, the word “hinterland” refers to the land that is behind, to the areas on the fringe of communities. I am interested in what takes place in these regions that are neither urban enough to be considered as part of the city, nor remote enough to be considered as nature. I’m interested in thinking about actual events that have taken place in these areas, and also in investigating the coalitional possibilities that such areas might represent.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;