Wednesday, November 19, 2014

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Sarah Blake

Sarah Blake [photo credit: Jessica Todd Harper] lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband and son. In 2013, she received a Literature Fellowship from the NEA. In spring 2015, her first book, Mr. West, comes out with Wesleyan University Press.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

This is my first book so I feel like it’s constantly changing my life right now. I’m scheduling readings and making travel plans. It’s completely different from, let’s say, the last year spent mostly at home, writing, submitting, and taking care of my son.

My more recent poems are starting to appear in journals and they are very different from the first book. Mr. West was a very difficult book to write. It involved a lot of research and a lot of emotional investment that kept surprising me as the years of writing went on. The recent poems had to be a big departure for me. They’re more personal in terms of how they confront interiority and they’re more narrative.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I did a poetry unit in 5th grade and have been writing poems ever since. It has always made sense to me and I love it.

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 don’t really think of anything as starting. Maybe that helps. I keep writing and I see if anything is taking shape on a large scale a good ways into the process. My writing happens in batches where it comes quickly and then breaks where it doesn’t happen at all.  First drafts appear looking close to their final shape but not final version. Big chunks leave. New parts come. They often get longer. But the shape often follows the first few lines or stanzas (based on the length of the poem). I trust those opening impulses when the inspiration is clear.

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?

A poem usually begins in an image for me. I feel like it’s my job to spring forward from there. For this book, I was an author of short and long pieces that combined into a larger project. I don’t like to think of a “book” until the end. What became difficult for me was to compile the book, send it out, and then to break into it again after it had been accepted to make it the best book it could be.

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. I’ve read at high schools, universities, cafes, bookstores, and I can’t wait to read at more! And I often catch edits I want to make while 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 try not to think of concerns and questions while I’m writing, but every year or so, I gather what I’ve been writing and I try to think critically about what they’re doing and what they could be doing. Those questions go into my revisions, but they also are in the back of my head when I write in the future. They don’t apply pressure to my writing life but they definitely have an effect that I’m very grateful for. I don’t think I’m ever writing to answer a question directly. I guess I’m not asking those sorts of questions.

My most common questions are: How can poetry be important? How can a poet make poetry a valuable life to have lived? How can I move poetry forward? And then many, many thematic questions that often circle around what it means to be a person in today’s world—a caring person, a happy person, a person trying to be happy.

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?

It’s strange how I immediately think, writer or poet? There are definitely roles a writer can play (I’m thinking of Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan, and a few other writers that have pierced the bubble that leads into larger culture). But I’m not so sure about a poet. Not the way things are now in American culture. But that’s not to say the roles a poet can play in smaller cultures aren’t valuable. I think a poet should be a member of any community that’s worthwhile to them. Teach, mentor, read, review, talk, write, continue, continue. I think about all the poets that have touched my life, and I’m so grateful.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. Mostly it’s not difficult either, but sometimes an editor comes in that I’m not used to working with. That starts out difficult, but also ends up essential to the work.

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

These aren’t the exact words, but basically: Write the hard stuff. You have a worthwhile voice from which to write the hard stuff.

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

I don’t do much genre switching, so I guess, not that easy!

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 sometimes fall into a routine for a month or so (writing at night when my son’s asleep), but mostly I don’t have one. I do write a lot though, just not in a structured way. A typical day begins with my son waking me up.

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

For this book, I turned to research. I read more and more articles until something struck me. Now, if I really feel like I need to write, I open up a book of poetry. Reading poems online don’t affect me as much as opening up a collection from my shelves.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

I have a lot of allergies, so maybe a lack of fragrance reminds me of home!

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?

This book is filled with music, media, pop culture, history, and much more. My more recent poems turn a bit more to nature and science. (Like I said before, I needed a major shift.) I really love bringing all these different things to my work.

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

Lately I’ve been rereading Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Maurice Manning, and Lucille Clifton. I also think about Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina all the time.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Write a villanelle. Go to Ireland. The list goes on for days.

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?

A scientist. A civil engineer. A diplomat. I was a math major in college, and I love almost every subject. But I just kept writing and it took over.

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

At the end of college, I told myself I’d keep writing as long as it supported me. It hasn’t stopped yet. I feel very lucky for that.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire by Brenda Hillman. And Pacific Rim. (It should be noted I see about 3 films per year, but I still stand by Pacific Rim.)

20 - What are you currently working on?
A few things. A long poem. A screenplay turned into poems. And many other poems that don’t quite fit anywhere yet.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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