Sarah Marcus is the author of They Were Bears (2017, Sundress Publications), Nothing Good Ever Happens After Midnight (2016, GTK Press), and the chapbooks BACKCOUNTRY (2013) and Every Bird, To You (2013). Her other work can be found at NPR’s Prosody, The Huffington Post, McSweeney’s, Cimarron Review, Spork, The Establishment, Cosmopolitan.com, and Marie Claire.com SA, among others. She is an editor at Gazing Grain Press, a spirited VIDA: Women in Literary Arts volunteer, and the Series Editor for As It Ought To Be’s High School Poetry Series: Gender, Identity, & Race. She holds an MFA in poetry from George Mason University and currently teaches and writes in Cleveland, OH.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first chapbook, BACKCOUNTRY (Finishing Line Press, 2013) followed a tumultuous relationship and felt raw and maybe even reckless sometimes, but most importantly, its publication gave me the confidence I needed to continue writing after my MFA program. Soon after, I published another chap, and three years later, my first full-length, Nothing Good Ever Happens After Midnight came out with GTK Press in 2016. Nothing Good is a journey through surviving sexual assault and how that type of violent trauma gets coded within us. Certainly all of my projects have themes in common: trauma, loving people we shouldn’t, survival, the wilderness, drug addiction, and bears, but with each book my narrator grew more confident and assertive and insightful. The relationships between my narrator and self, her lovers and family, and nature grew more complex and nuanced, I think. I feel as though my next book, They Were Bears, out with Sundress Publications in February 2017, is the most cohesive of these collections. Rachel Eliza Griffiths writes, “They Were Bears gives us a world that is intimate, complicated, and lush in its raw, brutal meditation upon the complexities of Nature, both within and beyond our grasp as both human beings and animals. These poems by Sarah Marcus channel what the world demands of us, and our bodies as we are guided through a startling cartography of desire, trauma, and memory that is both refuge and wilderness. Marcus writes, ‘I want to say that there are places I have to go, and you have to follow me…through all this orange light, every version of the color red, we betray ourselves for miles.’ With stunning craft and intuition, Marcus places her lyric power against the beautiful, terrifying bones in us where words often feel broken and impossible. Her poems expand through their stark and luminous discoveries to reveal a natural and psychic world too complex to ignore. Marcus gives us sacred breath in which to claim that world when she writes, ‘We inscribe the rocks/with our names, wanting a sign,/want the sky to say:/This is mainland. Solid ground./The place you’ve been looking for.'”
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Maybe I came to poetry first because I get bored easily. The fun of poetry is resisting closure. When I write fiction and nonfiction, I never feel quite “finished” with the story. With poetry, even the first line wants to be complete. Poetry has always felt more accessible to me, even as a child.
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?
Initially, poems tend to come quickly. They are usually quite flawed in this form. It takes many drafts to let the poem say what it means in the simplest way possible. Other projects tend to require endless disconnected notes or long inner-monologues while I’m driving and unable to write anything down.
4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction 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’ve never started with a book length project in mind. This is way too overwhelming a prospect. Sometimes I feel like I’m just writing the same damn poem over and over again, so it all ends up being connected in the end.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I don’t think they impact the process itself. For me, readings are a lovely way to connect to other readers and writers. They exist for the sake of community and support. I enjoy reading very much, especially when I am paired with writers who hold very different aesthetics. This is how I’ve come to know and appreciate many of my peers.
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 am constantly struggling with the ideas of survival and revival. I guess the question is what’s the point of it all? Why are we here in this unforgiving landscape where other people are so close and yet so far away? I like thinking about all the ways we attempt communication with others and with a Higher Power and all of our miscommunications and good intentions. I am always questioning what it means to be a woman and who gets to decide. Who dictates experience? Can people recover? Is life just a series of moments that we might miss if we’re not paying enough attention?
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?
Writers should be advocates for inclusivity, diversity, and justice. The act of writing is a political action. We are responsible for cultivating and creating safe, open spaces for people to experience free thought and art.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Most things that are essential are difficult. I worked closely with an editor on They Were Bears. At first, I was pretty overwhelmed by the amount of feedback I received, but after stepping back, I was able to process each new perspective and question. I am so grateful for Sara Henning’s thoughtful and insightful edits and ideas. My book is absolutely better because of her guidance. It also helps when your editor is incredibly patient, professional, and kind. So, I feel very lucky.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Use your experience to empathize with others. “Every difficulty in your life builds up your mental library of what it's like to go through hard times. And every mistake enables you to empathize with others who also make mistakes. And every time you become frustrated or angry, you gain a better understanding of others who feel this way.
Make note of all your worries and your fears. Make note of your uncomfortable or embarrassing moments. These -- together with every injury, illness, and wound -- help you to become more sensitive to the suffering of others.” From Rabbi Pliskin's book, Kindness.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Somehow I find poetry and nonfiction to be more fluid. My poetry, though certainly fictionalized, often takes on a confessional tone and so I find it fairly easy to write personal essays or profiles. I have a much harder time with fiction. I am always so impressed with writers whose imaginations allow so many intersecting narratives to flawlessly come together. On the other hand, it could be argued that even vignette, memoir, or confessional work is always to an extent fictionalized depending on the owner of memory.
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?
What is a routine?
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I’ve been turning to Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, which is excellent and motivating in every way.
13 - What fragrance reminds you 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?
So much of my writing is centered on surviving and being wholly present in the wilderness. I am influenced by backcountry hiking and camping and by the act of trying to return to a simpler, more connected way. I’m not sure it’s possible to not be influenced by music. It’s a part of everything we do—human made or the sounds of nature—we are infused with music.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
So many writers are important to me: Adrienne Rich, Joy Harjo, Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, Pam Houston, Louise Gluck, and countless others. The writers that have helped me simplify my life are Cheryl Strayed, Paulo Coelho, and Don Miguel Ruiz.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a memoir. Hike in Alaska.
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?
Something in advocacy or social justice. I was a Rape Crisis Counselor and Victim Advocate in college, and it was one of the most important jobs I’ve ever had. I currently work in urban education. I am always interested in finding ways to support underserved communities. In another life, I could’ve been a wilderness survival skills instructor.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It never felt like a choice. I just always had to. I can’t not write even when my focus should perhaps be elsewhere. I minored in Middle East and Islamic studies as an undergrad and my first job out of college was doing communications and PR for a political nonprofit. Before I graduated, one of my favorite Creative Writing Professors pulled me aside and said, “Never forget that you are a poet.” I had no idea what he meant at the time. I thought it was a strange and intense thing to say. I get it now. I carry that voice with me still.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I am in the middle of teaching The Alchemist. It gets better and better each time I read it. Also, if you haven’t watched the documentary MissRepresentation yet, you should.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Various personal essays and poems. I’m always working on letting go of other people’s expectations and being my most compassionate self.
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