Tuesday, January 18, 2011

12 or 20 (second series) questions: with Sarah Rosenthal

Sarah Rosenthal is the editor of A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area (Dalkey Archive) and author of Manhatten (Spuyten Duyvil), How I Wrote This Story (Margin to Margin), sitings (a+bend), not-chicago (Melodeon Poetry Systems), and The Animal (Dusie, forthcoming 2011). Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals including ecopoetics, Bird Dog, textsound, and Fence, and is anthologized in Bay Poetics (Faux), The Other Side of the Postcard (City Lights), hinge (Crack), and Kindergarde: Avant-garde Poems, Plays, and Stories for Children (a Small Press Traffic project, forthcoming 2011). Her essays and interviews have appeared in journals such as Jacket, Denver Quarterly, Rain Taxi, Otoliths, and New American Writing. She is the recipient of the Leo Litwak Fiction Award and grant-supported writing residencies at Vermont Studio Center, Soul Mountain, and Ragdale. An Affiliate Artist at Headlands Center for the Arts, she has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University and Santa Clara University as well as privately, and writes curricula for the Developmental Studies Center.

1. How did your first book change your life?

I’ve written three chapbooks, but seeing my first perfect-bound book enter the world felt like a rite of passage into the solidity of a “real book,” lined up on the shelf with all the other books. The physicality of it was undeniable. At the same time it felt anticlimactic. I’d already seen all the elements so much at that point—the text, the cover, the layout—that in a way it felt like the next step in a long process, not the earth-shaking event I’d imagined. Still, there is a shift if not a quake. I’ve had conversations with strangers who’ve said “I read your book and it affected me.” I don’t recall this happening to the same extent with chapbooks or with poems in magazines, so I have the sense that my work is reaching people in a different way.

How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

Not-chicago and sitings are most easily classifiable as poetry and How I Wrote This Story as fiction, but each includes elements of both genres. Manhatten continues the cross-genre impulse, combining prose-poem-like fiction, lineated poems, dream matter, and reviews (e.g. Rachel Amadeo’s film What About Me and Yoko Ono’s retrospective at SFMOMA). My second perfect-bound book is totally different from my earlier books: it’s a collection of interviews with a straight-up nonfiction introduction.

2. How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or nonfiction?

I came to fiction first, then nonfiction, and lastly poetry. In 4th grade I wrote what my mom and I agree is a masterpiece: Dreamer and Practical, a modern-day, novel-length version of “The Tortoise and the Hare.” My next high point (8th grade) was a critical work on Charlotte Brontë (including such memorable sentences as “The black raven of tuberculosis was to claim Charlotte’s life”). As a teen I submitted two poems anonymously to the high school newspaper and the faculty editor praised them—that made a big impact on me. My angst-ridden adolescence started receding in the latter half of my 20s when I was teaching toddlers. Their joy was infectious. For some reason the infection attached to poetry, the reading and writing and sharing of it, and has been relatively virulent ever since.

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?

I assembled all my chapbooks out of work already written over months or years, so I wasn’t working toward a project in those cases; I was just accruing work along the way. By contrast, coming up with a book-length concept that has the just the right combination of focus and porousness has been more of a challenge for me. It took me two years to land on the basic premise of Manhatten, and about the same amount of time to come up with the idea for my current work-in-progress.

My first drafts are often fairly close to where they’ll end up, but I think that happens because I practice my scales regularly, in the form of journaling and poetry-writing. If I do enough of this background writing, then when I’m ready to write what I think of as a “real” poem, it’s more likely to arrive in a close-to-final form.

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?

Somewhere along the line I got enamored of the notion of conceiving a book-length project and then carrying it out, partly because I saw that once I had such a project in place, it was a sturdy vessel I could travel in for a while. So for the past several years I’ve either been working on a book or thinking about what the next book might be, even though in the process I’ve written and published many shorter pieces.

5. Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I love doing readings, which goes back to my theater days, and also connects to my love of teaching writing and literature, where you’re helping a roomful of people connect to and through art. My writing is generally pretty solitary, and it’s a process in which I’m not at all shooting for facile communication—so seeing an audience connect to it in whatever way they can is confirming. I get nervous before readings, but by and large I’ve learned how to transform my nervousness into energy that fuels the occasion.

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?

My current work takes up the notion of “the animal,” including such investigations as our relationship to our own animal nature (a way of approaching the mind-body “problem”), and our ways of being close to and distant from other species (we domesticate, legislate, exterminate them), all of this happening in the context of radical, human-triggered phenomena such as global warming and a rapidly changing technological landscape. In my work, this theme of the animal braids itself in unruly ways with feminist politics and a constant interest in the artistic process, poetry, and language.

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?

I think each writer has to determine this for him/herself. Speaking for myself, I want to constantly transgress rules—whether imposed by the old guard, the avant-garde, or the last thing I wrote—about what a woman or a work of art can be and do, and thereby invite readers to interrogate the rules they live by, in the process gaining more access to their own original thinking.

This transgression happens in my writing in part through (mostly female) voices and figures who tend to be rule breakers: they’re messy, anal, wrong, smart, suspicious, sexy, uptight, tender. These voices and figures give the work an embodied quality and remind us that we are sensate, mortal beings. And because they are so vulnerable and flawed, they invite readers to question the ways that we judge each other and ourselves.

At the same time I share with many contemporary poets the sense that the self as we ordinarily define it is too limited to be an adequate container for literature, and the story is filled with fractures. In fact, I’m a poet precisely because poetry embraces the fissures, the falling-through-the-fissures, the lifting-off, the incommensurable or inexplicable. So my work welcomes otherness, unreason, and what feels like error; I incorporate dreams’ wayward logic and at times privilege language’s musical qualities over conventional sense-making; and I make identity slippery—the voices and figures appear and disappear, replace each other, change characteristics. These approaches help me create a zone of permission where I feel most at home and which I hope enlarges a reader’s sense of what’s allowed, what’s possible.

8. Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

If we define “outside editors” as book and magazine publishers whom I’ve never met: so far, I’ve found that if I’ve taken the trouble to listen to trusted colleagues’ feedback on my work, generally by the time I send the work to outside editors, the work is ready to be published.

I have a network of writer friends who read each other’s work critically, and I find this essential to the process of moving a piece of writing out into the world. I’ve been in writing groups for many years and find them extremely useful for getting a sense of what is or isn’t coming across to the reader, as well as for providing the discipline of deadlines.

9. What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

A grad school professor encouraged me to be fearless about taking up space as an artist. I think she wanted me to take more risks. Her comment made me realize the importance of pinpointing the moment at which decorum stops being a way to make the world a nicer place to live and becomes instead a form of self-erasure. Her words were a radical and important message given the cultural training I’d received to minimize my (female) presence.

10. How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

When I wrote Manhatten, it was a joy to write in multiple genres simultaneously—the genres influenced and enriched each other, with poetry (its craft, procedures, and permissions) as the dominant force. My poetic mind is my most liberated mind, so that was a good thing. In the past couple of years, the lines have been more distinct, as I finished up a book of interviews and started a manuscript of lineated poetry. I’ve also been incredibly short on time, which has necessitated hunkering down with one project or the other, according to whatever deadline I was facing. But I think they’re still influencing each other productively. Having opportunities to think/read/write critically brings sharper thinking into my creative work, and spending time in the creative zone helps me bring more depth and fluidity to my critical work.

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 try to write when my mind is freshest, which usually means first thing in the morning and during the night. In the later day or evening, I read things that support my current writing project.

12. When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Sometimes I need to engage with a different medium altogether—attend a dance performance, listen to music, see visual art. Doing art myself in another medium, however badly, inevitably renews my writing practice. Lately I’ve been reading other poets’ essays on poetics. This kind of reading can remind me of the larger enterprise of the poet-in-the-world in a way that’s energizing. Taking a walk or going to a museum are also great. One of my favorite places right now is the Randall Museum, which takes in local wild animals who have been wounded, as well as exotic pets whose owners don’t want to keep them any more. I love to go there with little kids.

13. What do you really want?

For my art, I want more uninterrupted time for reflection and art-making. For the world—where do I start? I want everyone to use nonviolent communication. I want universal acknowledgement of global warming with coordinated efforts to address it. But then my next thought is, I have plenty of work to do to clean up my own act in these arenas, before I demand that the world outside me change.

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?

Natural science plays a huge role in my current manuscript. Music and visual art are always important. I’ve been exploiting coffee table books and used art magazines lately. They’re not the same as a museum but they’re good for sitting at the kitchen table taking a break from print. The first thing I’d do with more time and money is go to more live performances (dance, theater, music) and resume studies in those forms.

15. What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

A random handful of faves over the last several years would include Eva Sjödin’s Inner China, Carmen Martín Gaite’s The Back Room, M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, Lydia Davis’ The End of the Story, multiple texts by Thomas Bernhard, Paul Celan, Edmund Jabès, Kathy Acker, and Eileen Myles, and works by the authors in A Community Writing Itself. The work and friendship of poets Jennifer Firestone, Dana Teen Lomax, Erin Wilson, Kristin Palm, Elise Ficarra, Lauren Schiffman, and many others provides sustenance and inspiration.

16. What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?

My fantasies include living part-time in New York, achieving some measure of fluency in either Spanish or French, and writing another cross-genre book.

17. If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternatively, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Often I see performance art as the ultimate art form—it seems to leave the least out; it’s like a distilled version of being fully alive. I’ve done pieces combining narrative, movement, sound, and images, both solo and as part the performance trio diSh with Dana Teen Lomax and Rose Najia. At some point I hunkered down with writing, because I decided that you need to commit to a form to make any headway. And I do think that every art form includes all other art forms. But I’m still enamored of the embodied purposefulness, the focused yet fluid engagement with the moment, that I’ve experienced in performing.

18. What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Sometimes I tell myself a story about how I just barely escaped being an anorexic clerk living near my parents, attending a monthly book club that reads bestsellers. Sometimes I convince myself that with all my interests and talents it was a hard choice between the flute, visual art, theater, and writing (sometimes I add dance to the list but that’s a little harder to spin). Sometimes I say my whole life from my earliest days pointed inevitably to my being a writer. Data to include in the latter story: My mother read to us religiously—The Real Mother Goose, A Child’s Garden of Verses; my mother’s idea of a good time is poring over a passage from Finnegan’s Wake; my grandmother coped with chronic pain in her last days by reciting Keats’ “Endymion”; my grandmother taught Latin and Greek; my mother taught French; my paternal grandmother, a German Jewish émigré who lived down the block from us, was a daily fixture, speaking German to my father and thickly accented English to the rest of us. All this, combined with the ego-boosting praise I received in school for nascent literary efforts—how could I not have ended up focusing on literature and language?

19. What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Beckett’s collected short prose; In the Realms of the Unreal (a documentary about the artist Henry Darger).

20. What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a poetry book that engages the question of the animal, along with feminism and the making of art.

No comments: