Thursday, May 28, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Sarah A. Etlinger

Sarah A. Etlinger holds a BA in English from Skidmore College, an MA in English from Syracuse University, and a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition (English) from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Scholarly interests include new media studies, first-year composition, feminist literature,  the Beatles, and popular culture. Currently, she is Associate professor of Composition and Literature at Rock Valley College where she teaches courses in composition, film, and literature.

A Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee, she is the author of two books: Never One for Promises (Kelsay Books, 2018) and Little Human Things, forthcoming from Clare Songbirds. Other poems can be found in a variety of literary magazines, including The Amethyst Review, Neologism Poetry Journal, Mookychick, The Penwood Review, The Magnolia Review, Brine (where she was September 2018’s featured Poet of the Month) and many others.

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

Though this might sound silly and vain, my first book gave me the confidence I needed. I had had several poems published prior to the book manuscript, so I had already achieved my lifelong dream of becoming a published writer/poet, but the book itself was monumental in realizing that dream. Yes, I know that there are millions of books out there, and that we ought to write for ourselves, and I do. (As my best friend puts it, writing is necessary and cathartic for me—akin to prayer, in a way) but the first book was huge for me.

My second book, out very soon, is a nice sequel to the first one in that it picks up themes from the first one. I’d say it’s braver, bolder, and passionate: the first book was trying to soul-search, while this one, I believe, has found its soul and is unashamed. But it’s still me and my voice.

The difference, to me, is that I have a reputation to maintain. If my readers liked my first book, will they like my second? Will they go back to my first one? And, now I’m responsible for two! As someone who likes to finish something and move on, it’s difficult for me sometimes to go “back” to my first one, yet I am proud of both of them and am glad I get to do this.

What surprised me, finally, with this one--- and with my upcoming work, which I’ll discuss later—is how different and yet similar the process was for publishing it. One previous book didn’t make any difference whatsoever when searching for a publisher: most read blind and didn’t care who or what you’d done before. So, while I believe in that, it struck me as strange that the process was exactly as nerve-wracking and frustrating as the first time.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

Poetry chose me. Let me elaborate: I have always been a lover of poetry, and fiction, too. And in college I thought I was going to write poetry seriously, except at 19 and 20 I didn’t realize that one had to revise, and in my immaturity I didn’t want to do that. Besides, life happened: I’d chosen a career in rhetoric/composition, teaching academic writing, which I loved. I was fine. I’d given up on being a creative writer long ago, I had no expectations. But poetry chose me the same summer I’d decided to start a novel (it was plotted and everything). So, though I’d had a lifelong love affair with poetry, it wasn’t something on my radar anymore…until, one afternoon, it was: in the form of a single poem, and since then (2016) I haven’t been able to stop.

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?

It does depend on the project, but since I’m usually working on individual poems, it doesn’t often take me a long time to get the idea. The initial idea often comes in a burst of words, and sometimes I can finish the first draft right away. Sometimes I’ll come back to things, or sometimes I fight with endings or shapes.

The second and subsequent drafts, however, are a different story. I work with a coach, so she’s usually my first—and always the best!—reader. She’ll often have lots to say, so I go back and work on it again. Sometimes it is “finished” then, sometimes it takes several more drafts, and sometimes I put them all aside. I do take notes, too, especially if I’m distracted or if I need to work on things later.

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’m never working on a book from the beginning. As a poet, my “form” is the individual poem. Most of the time I don’t even realize that I’m working on anything in particular, until I get two or three and my coach points out that they’re similar, or that I’ve used an image/word in all of them. A poem, then, often begins in a phrase that clatters around in my head. I think I’ve said this before in other interviews: conversations are a big part of my creative process. So many of my poems have stemmed from something a friend of mine said to me, or a phrase they use, and for whatever reason, I can’t get it out of my head. I’ll give a recent example: my best friend was recently going through a very rough time in his life, and we spent a lot of time processing. One of the things he kept saying to me was “No why questions! I don’t need to know why.” For someone like me, who’s extremely interested in the “why”—this was foreign. But in my most recent poem, I’ve written the line “You tell me never to ask why/So I’ll ask how”.

Other times poems begin in images or phrases I get. I can’t write a word unless I feel compelled by something—so the muse must be there. If I get a phrase or an image or a word, and nothing else comes, then I write it down and move on.

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

I do enjoy readings, though I don’t get to do too many of them (but I’m trying to get better at marketing!) and I get very nervous about them. They’re not really a part of the process for me; it could be because I don’t get to do many. Stay tuned?

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?

The current questions, in this climate in America, are really about truth: we’re at war with who we want to be as a nation, and as I see it, there’s the side of those who see our identity as one based in truth, compassion, reverence for human existence, and those who are looking out for individuals. What is the truth? Is truth perception only? Is truth grounded in reality—when we can see both that a reality is shaped by misinformation, and by “facts”? So I think that these are the current questions—and the questions I’m ultimately dealing with in my work, perhaps indirectly. I’ve said before that poetry tells the truth, and it does: the truth of a moment, a feeling, the way something looks, the power of language to both explain what can and can’t be represented. My background is academic, and I’m thinker by nature, so I’m obsessed with language and its representational qualities.

I’m trying to answer what it means to believe in something, to be connected to the world in greater way, I think. For me these questions are difficult, because I’ve never been someone who believes in God or a higher power or anything like that; to recognize, now, through my writing that there may be something beyond us is both exciting and bracing; exhilarating and comforting; terrifying and humbling.

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?

The role of the writer should be to tell the truth: about the world, about emotion and human experience, about thinking and language. To ask questions, directly and indirectly. To get us to realize the limits of our experience and existence and possibility, and to imagine new ones. Are we there? Some writers take us there, and because there’s so many diverse voices out there, we’re in an exciting time where, in many ways, there are an embarrassment of riches. That said, the role of the poet—I can only speak for my own genre, and even then my own experience—is one that’s constantly fraught. Poetry in many ways is relegated to academic circles and social media; poets can’t make a living only writing poetry. Poets’ role has always been to tell the truth in the ways I’ve listed above, but the concerns of the wider audience ---while growing—is one that many struggle with. A writer in the larger culture is to leave an impact, whatever that is, that survives beyond us.

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

Essential! I work with a coach/mentor, and it’s absolutely essential. But I think that if you don’t have the right one, or the editor doesn’t respect your own integrity as a writer (e.g. it’s always, at the end of the day, “my poem”.)

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

Right now, there are two: 1) Take the writing seriously, as if it’s part of your job, because in many ways, it is. 2) don’t stop writing, and when you do, find a good reader who understands you and believes in your work more than you do. (That may have been more than 2…)

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

It depends, on so many things. Though now it’s a bit better, for the first 3 years I’ve been doing this even semi-seriously, I have never had the luxury of a regular writing routine, due to the fact that I have a demanding full-time job and a young son. Now that he is in school, I can carve out more time for me to write. So, I’d say, if I get a writing day at all, it’s either in fits and starts (e.g. a note on my phone or on a sheet of paper), or in front of the computer if I do get any extended time to write. Lately, it’s been a lot of revision, which means starting with notes.

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

I tend to read, or revise my previous work, but lately, if I can’t get going, I stop.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Lilacs. Lilies of the valley. Brisket in the oven. Turkey roasting on Thanksgiving.

13 - 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?

Nature. Song lyrics, sometimes! And visual art—sometimes images from culture (recently, Judeo-Christian imagery) and mythology.

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

Jane Hirshfield, W.S. Merwin, Eliot, and Gwendolyn Brooks are my favorite poets, lately; for fiction, I love Roth and A.S. Byatt and Edith Wharton.

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

I’d like to travel more, I’d like to maybe write a novel, and keep writing poetry. Teach graduate students, maybe?

16 - 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?

If I hadn’t been a writer and professor, I would probably have been an attorney, which is something I almost did and I would have enjoyed that. If I could do anything else, I’d do interior design, or—if I had to do it all over again, I’d work for the UN/ become a UN ambassador.

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

I have never not written, at least in some capacity. My career is as a writing/English professor, which involves writing, so in that sense I’ve never done anything else. And I love teaching. But I think this time, when I began to write seriously, it was because I was called to do it and it was a healing, important, necessary way to live in the world.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I just finished two: Jane Hirshfield’s Ten Windows, and William Deresciewicz’s A Jane Austen Education. I don’t get to see too many movies, but the last one I saw and enjoyed a lot was an old one: The adaptation of DuMaurier’s Rebecca, and it was perfect!

19 - What are you currently working on?

...I’m working on poems for my 3rd book, which I am hoping will be a full-length collection titled The Weather Gods. But I never know what’s going to happen until it does, so stay tuned!

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