Sara Wainscott is the author of Insecurity System, winner of the 2019 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize (Persea, 2020). She lives outside Chicago.
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 day-to-day life hasn’t really changed. Maybe it’s that writing the book, surviving the circumstances of the book, changed my life more than having the book published did. Maybe it’s that the pandemic upended my sense of change. To be fair, I think my life has changed in ways that so far I haven’t fully experienced or haven’t processed. My recent work feels like an extension of my past work, though as with all work-in-progress I think my new approaches are more urgent and more interesting.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Poetry was one of the first things I felt really serious about. Also, I didn’t have much sense of what made poetry “good” and this was ultimately a kind of freedom.
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 process involves transcribing and dis/associating fragments of encounters and experiences, and the writing happens in bursts with slow periods in between. Recently, I tend to write a poem or several every day for a few days, and then nothing for a couple of weeks. In general, I work without tracking drafts or keeping notes, so it can be hard to say what happens between the early stages and the final shape, but I think it’s true to say that I revise extensively as I go, moving from place to place in the book, adding and deleting, writing and tinkering, some of which happens during the slow times.
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?
My work involves less thinking and more following thoughts, so poems begin with intuitive leaps between my experiences and my memory. At the outset I have some sense of form or tone but no plans for content. Since my process is associative and spontaneous, the constraints of a book give me a focal point. One constraint I like is to have a book title in mind early on, even before I fully understand it as the title. Then I can let my poems take shape without seeking any specific “aboutness” at the outset and instead explore how my daily life and interior life coalesce toward resolving the title.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Once I figured out that the reading isn’t only about the work, I really started to like readings. I like the shared (real or virtual) space and atmosphere, the threads that emerge between the readers’ work, and the conversations afterward. I like the feeling of collective minds being centered in their attention and the flow of being pulled into and through and out of language. Sometimes I think of my creative process as blissfully solipsistic, but this question helps me remember how grateful I am to people who organize and attend readings because readings can be both a provocative and a restorative influence for me.
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?
How do my recollections form an interiority accessible to me alone? What access do I have to other people’s memories? to collective memories? How do these recollections make up my sense of self? of privacy? of family? of community? of simultaneity? How do I experience the present and the future against my reactions to the past? How to understand or represent memory (and memory through language) that fails, fissures, erases, revises? What are the responsibilities of collective memory? How is language an apparatus of time (and vice versa)?
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 current role of the writer in larger culture seems mainly to entertain. Amusement and pleasure and diversion, or whatever it is to be entertained, I think are good and necessary to human contentment. Consideration and close attention, in other senses of entertainment, are also necessary to counteract the possible dangers of human contentment, and that gets closer to what I think the role of writers should be. I think the role of writers is to write, but there’s more to it than writing, isn’t there? There’s empathy and memory and ire and humor and discomfort and humility and aspiration and many other ways we seek out or attend to one another with language.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
My experience with working with outside editors isn’t very extensive, but I’ve been appreciative of those encounters. There is no substitute for a reader who approaches the work with deep curiosity and the ability to balance care and calling bullshit.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Don’t let the motherfuckers steal your joy.
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?
I write here and there when I feel like it, more within the routine of parenting and housework (and work, when I have it) than as a separate ritual. Usually, I’ll write in ten or twenty minute increments after the breakfast-and-off-to-school time and throughout the day between my other tasks. In the evening calm I might write for an hour if I’m really into a project. Some days I write a lot, some days I write down one or two words I like, and a lot of days I write nothing.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I loathe the notion of “productivity” as a measure of (writing) success and I protect the not-writing as an important part of my process, so I can’t say my writing ever feels stalled. There are times, when I’m on the verge of starting a project but can’t quite locate it, when I’m making false starts and word-barfing, that can feel frustrating. But I don’t suffer much frustration because I like writing to be fun. There are plenty of other things to feel terrible about! Reading books, taking walks, taking photos, and talking with friends are some of the things I find that mitigate the general terribleness.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Murphy’s oil soap.
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?
I think all of these forms find their way into the things I write, but film and photography are especially fascinating to me as representations of time/timing and memory. The work of Sally Mann and Cindy Sherman have been influential to my thinking about the moment as an artistic unit, the performance of self, and representations of decay. Silent film collections on YouTube, especially the work of Mabel Normand, Lois Weber, Bebe Daniels, and Anita Berber, have provided historical accounts and (sometimes notably bad) counterpoints or complications to the questions I consider about motherhood, humor, and bathos.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
My poet-friends, especially the beloved friends of my MFA cohort, are the heartbeat of my writing life. Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is the poem I’m forever chasing in my own work. I’m currently reading or rereading Harryette Mullen, Jean Follain, Rick Barot, Fanny Howe, Laura Ellen Joyce, and Arthur Sze. Without the present as a constraint, the list overwhelms me.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to translate a poetry collection, live in a commune, and visit my grandfather’s grave, for three.
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?
One thing I’d like to try is being a backup singer. Harmonizing, getting dressed up, maybe dancing a little, sometimes going on the road: that seems like a good life.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I wrote because I loved to read. I had my own library card and time to be bored and time to myself. And the reality is, I’ve done and I do lots of other things. The “something else” is a real presence, but for me it’s never in opposition to the writing.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Work Is Hard Vore by Philip Sorenson
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night dir. by Ana Lily Amirpour
Both are darkly hilarious, slant but sincere, bleak and beautiful. Both are lyric fantasies of the very real. Both are underpinned by overwhelming desires of literal consumption.
19 - What are you currently working on?
Things about f/actuality, stories and anti-stories, the retro-pastoral, and maybe something like post-domesticity are coming up in my recent work, and at least some of the pieces are shaping up to be discrete poems with individual titles, something I haven’t written for quite awhile. There’s a book in here somewhere, maybe two. I’m not quite to the part where I know what’s happening. Also, every so often I’ve been attempting little translations from a book of Sicilian proverbs.