THINGS WE’RE DYING TO KNOW…
Let’s start with the chapbook’s title and your cover image. How did you choose each?
I was so fortunate to be paired with Katy Bilbrey. Her cover image blew me away. We didn’t talk at all before she sent me the cover design. I was enchanted with her idea of the bag on the cover, because it seemed to convey (no pun intended) the things I was trying to talk about without sentiment in the chapbook. Wouldn’t this be just the sort of bag to bring memories and time into the present? How perfect to navigate airport security or baggage claim, compact enough to stow your grief in the overhead compartment!
If I asked you to describe or sum up your chapbook, what three words immediately come to mind?
Family, loss, lakeside.
What were you trying to achieve with your chapbook? Tell us about the world you were trying to create, and who lives in it.
In Portage, I try to return with the reader to the world of childhood, that “kingdom where nobody dies,” as Dylan Thomas put it, but which, as I wrote, I realized was full of people dying or going in and out of our lives without explanation. What started out being a sort of elegy for my childhood turned into an exploration of loss, and an attempt to hold on to all the ephemeral things I love.
Portage is inhabited by many children, or childlike figures. Of course, there are real once-children, like myself and my sister, but the apple trees are inhabitants, as is the moon, as is the sleeping seed. The lake where I grew up is as much mothering figure as it is a fixture in the setting. I’d initially thought about calling this chapbook Grandparentland, because there are so many views of older loved ones in this chapbook.
Can you describe your writing practice or process for this collection? Do you have a favorite revision strategy?
I write daily, and as I was writing during this chapbook that became very difficult, because so many of the poems were my way of trying to work through grief. A trick to get the words out became a strategy I still use when I’m stuck -- I tell myself I absolutely am not allowed to write about the thing that’s hurting. I pull up refdesk.com, and find an article of factoid as a starter, and write that poem. In the avoidance, the other poem seems to work itself to the surface every time.
In revision, I am ruthless with form. If a poem doesn’t seem to be working, I unlineate it, and then redo the line breaks. I look for emergent patterns, and try to even the lines out if there is a pattern. If not, I look for places where the lines do not seem to have much music. I remove those entirely to see if the poem works without, and if not, I try asking a question. I’m in the “a poem is never done, just abandoned” school, so revision is a constant thing for me, even years after the poem is written. Once it’s published, I bid it a fond farewell, but only then. Even then, sometimes I go back. Sometimes the published poem won’t leave me alone. This makes me revise it so radically that I suddenly have a sister poem on my hands.
How did you order the poems in the collection? Do you have a specific method for arranging your poems or is it sort of haphazard, like you lay the pages out on the floor and see what order you pick them back up in?
I knew I wanted there to be a sort of gentle narrative in Portage, and to end on hope. I printed them all out on half sheets, and ordered them and re-ordered them in a stack on my desk. I’d let that sit, to marinate in my mind for a couple of days, then go back to it. I’d insert one or two, and pull others, but in the end, the order that “feels” cohesive to me, even after it’s sat for a couple of days is the one I submit.
What do you love to find in a poem you read, or love to craft into a poem you’re writing?
Sound play/rhythm, buried puns. I especially love humor, even in dark poems. The “awful but cheerful” has a huge appeal for me.
Can you share an excerpt from your book? And tell us why you chose this poem for us to read – did it galvanize the writing of the rest of the collection? Is it your chapbook’s heart? Is it the first or last poem you wrote for the book?
I Consider Whether Shipping Your Memory Home Would Be Too Costly
I take your memory out to the garage
to weigh it. The scale for this is ageless,
brings to mind counters and bulk foods.
Its shadow has stood for years, swaying,
its red needle uncertainly bouncing when jostled.
A hidden spring reveals a drawer underneath,
a set of weights in various shapes.
One, a net of light on water cast in lead,
another, a set of miniature music box gears,
each the weight of a different song, all in bronze,
sawtoothed as if meant for toy lumber mills.
I place your memory on the cradle, light as light,
which also has weight and substance - matter.
I add twenty snowflakes, winter preserves.
I tap the meter, which trembles, add lemon
from a cold tea cup, hum as much as I can remember
from When the Roll is Called up Yonder. Finally,
I open your last letter, unbend the handwriting
so each word straightens into a binary barcode of blue,
dole out these sticks to the tray. If it balances, you’ll go.
Runner-up, Jeff Marks Memorial Poetry Prize
First Appeared in December Magazine, vol. 25.2 (print)
This is the heart of my chapbook. I wrote it somewhere in the middle of putting together the chapbook, shortly after my grandfather (who raised me, and who adopted me when I was 13) passed away. I think it might have been at that moment that I realized what bound all the other poems together. This seemed where I could best find peace, by noticing the details which felt so saturated with meaning, and finding comfort and strength in the natural world, and those around us. I wrote more poems for the chapbook after this poem, but it was always with this awareness/direction.
For you, what is it to be a poet? What scares you most about being a writer? Gives you the most pleasure?
Close examination of the world. Daily practice. These are also the things which give me the most pleasure.
As far as what scares me most about being a writer, I try not to examine that question too closely. Living in the moment/writing from that place is the best I can do to keep any fears at bay.
Are there other types of writing (dictionaries, romance novels, comics, science textbooks, etc.) that help you to write poetry?
As a former school librarian, I find any nonfiction reference books amazing. Many inspire my hybrid writing. I especially like old almanacs and encyclopedias, but I am interested in nearly any book libraries once kept in their Reference section for quick referral before the days of Google and databases. (Some still do, the dears!)
What are you working on now?
I’m working on ordering a couple different manuscripts/finding where the gaps are. I’ve written a sequence of poems featuring Glinda the Good Witch leaving Oz which is shaping itself into a full length. I’ve also got a hybrid manuscript cooking. I am constantly submitting individual poetry packets, and researching markets. I am associate poetry editor for both Emerge Literary Publications and Zoetic Press’s NonBinary Review, so I have plenty of reading to keep me busy.
What book are you reading that we should also be reading?
I read two to three at a time. Right now, I’m enthralled by Lydia Davis’ Can’t and Won’t, Kristen Eliason’s Picture Dictionary, and M. Mack’s chapbook Traveling.
Without stopping to think, write a list of five poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least write in permanent marker on your clothing, to take with you at all times.
I actually have Elizabeth Bishop ’s bywords tattooed on my wrist (“Spontaneity + Accuracy + Mystery).
Sarah Ann Winn's poems have appeared or will appear in Cider Press Review, Hobart (online), Massachusetts Review, Quarterly West, and RHINO, among others. Porkbelly will be releasing her micro chapbook, Haunting the Last House on Holland Island, in summer 2016. Her chapbook, Portage, is available as a free download from Sundress Publications. Visit her at http://bluebirdwords.com.
Nicole Rollender is a poet, editor and seeker.