Interview with Anne Champion & Sarah Sweeney
Interview by Kristina Marie Darling
Tell me about the nuts and bolts of your collaboration. What were the mechanics of your writing process?
Sarah: Anne and I decided to try and write collaboratively while vacationing together in Puerto Rico. The poems really took off in the town of Rincón, a sleepy surfing village that’s super hard to navigate and we had but one crude map. So the mystery behind our teamwork was kind of already there by default, as this town was just very interesting and colorful — and renowned for its beach glass, actually. Anne and I would switch turns writing lines in a notebook on the sand. It was very organic, and we pulled a lot from the people we met from the first half of our trip, spent in San Juan, to the characters we encountered in Rincón. We’d craft some lines, and if some components weren’t working, we’d scratch out words and lines and begin again until it felt authentic. We banged out several poems a day, writing even in the car ride back to San Juan, and on the airplane home. Back in Boston, the poems came more slowly, as we could never recapture the magic (and heat) of Puerto Rico, but revision became the main goal, and we focused on that.
Anne: We approached it with a blank journal, towels, and ample sunscreen. We’d lay on the beach and alternate writing lines: she’d write a line, hand over the book, I’d write a line, hand over the book, etc. The whole thing happened very quickly and very organically. We spoke briefly about who our speaker was: a woman who’d left a long term relationship and fled to Puerto Rico to immerse herself in a foreign culture and a plethora of love affairs to examine her sexuality and her grief. The style of our poems—brief vignettes in one long sequence—happened naturally. We quickly recognized that this form suited the content. Most of the manuscript was done in Puerto Rico, though we took a vacation to the Dominican Republic to finish it. At home, we lineated and revised it for over a year.
How does your collaborative work compare with your work as individual poets? What new forms, voices, personas, and techniques did you experiment with as a result of your work together?
Sarah: My work tends to be very narrative. I’m Southern; I like telling a story. The poems with Anne feel more lyrical, certainly with narrative elements, but they tell a story that feels less defined to me, perhaps because it’s fictitious. The idea of fictitiously crafting something makes me nervous, since I typically pull from my real life and work by day as a journalist, but I definitely learned to release the reigns—even just a little—on this project. The book is entirely a persona poem, written in the voice of a woman who has fled a relationship and is debating whether or not she ever wants, or is even able, to get married. I think Anne and I both identify with the speaker and we’re both a version of her, and this was a fun way to explore the themes of love and marriage and sex without explicitly referring to ourselves, or real events from our lives.
As far as experimentation goes, Anne is the queen of extended metaphor, and in her shadow I feel almost clinical! And I consider myself to be somewhat romantic, so we are drawing from different style palettes, though thematically we’re quite similar. I’m a control freak in general, so it was really a struggle for me to give in to the way someone writes that isn’t my own. While working, I could see the way Anne was trying to steer the poem, and I would attempt to steer it the other way, and she would counter that, and eventually a middle ground had to be reached. I wouldn’t call it a power struggle, but I did have to tell myself that I wasn’t always right, that I had to try new things in order to grow. This book was definitely a growing process for me.
Anne: Sarah and I went to graduate school together, and I’ve always deeply admired her work. We have similar obsessions in our writing, but very different styles. However, given our mutual obsessions and our love of the same poets, we always discussed collaborating in a way that would blend our styles into one unique voice. I was actually quite afraid of this process: I didn’t know if I could live up to Sarah’s stunning voice. But I felt that we seemed to complement each other well—Sarah has a knack for narrative and really powerful word choices and similes. I also have a love affair with similes, but I work a lot through image and lyric. This blend felt really satisfactory to me. And Sarah’s lines pushed me in new directions as a poet. There’s something thrilling about not knowing where a poem will turn next and letting go of control in that way.
I’ve never written a long sequence poem, and I rarely write in short vignettes. The result of it felt akin to an impressionist painting—tiny bits assembled into a whole. I also loved our use of white space, which felt both contemplative and haunting.
Your collaborative manuscript skillfully pairs received literary forms with hybrid, often experimental, modes of writing. I'm intrigued by your efforts to integrate tradition with innovation, since they are often presented as being mutually exclusive. What inspired you to pair these seemingly different types of literary texts?
Anne: Again, most of our formal choices happened sort of organically. Sarah and I are both very attentive to form and line breaks in our regular works, and we both generally write longer poems. But the nature of collaboration is experimental—you have to play around a bit. You have to let your work be a hybrid of someone else’s voice and see what that amounts to. In doing so, I felt willing to try to new things and let go of the reigns in ways that I haven’t before. The short vignettes felt very satisfying, and we formatted them in a variety of ways.
When I read work that experiments with form and style, I find the reading experience to be more intellectually engaging and stimulating. Contemporary women poets generally work in traditional forms that have been passed down by men, and those forms are wonderful—I use them regularly. However, innovation is such an important part of artistry: how can we take what works well and turn it on its head? How can we blend old forms together to make new forms? And what happens to the message when we do those things? Most importantly, style is a way that poets get to play, and this brings a lot of joy to the craft of writing. This manuscript is very different from my other work, and I’m actually incredibly proud of that. It feels unique and original to me.
Sarah: I agree with Anne’s answer.
You have traveled extensively as part of your writing process. What does an unfamiliar place make possible for you when crafting a literary text?
Anne: I’m always inspired by travel. Traveling, while indulgent and exciting, also shakes me out of my comfort zone and rattles me a bit. It makes me more attentive to my surroundings than I am at home. It forces me into new experiences and sensations, and it makes me really reflective and self-aware. Also, while traveling, I feel as if I’m constantly learning and absorbing, and when I feel that way, I have a desire to document that newfound knowledge and capture the culture so that I’ll never lose it. There’s also a sense of otherness that I feel while traveling, and I think that’s an important feeling to experience and interrogate.
Sarah: When I’m traveling, I’m able to access a lot of different facets of myself as opposed to staying in a terrain I’m more familiar with. I feel more inspired, introspective, almost nostalgic—for what, I’m not sure; but a certain magic is unlocked by breaking routine and immersing one’s self in a different locale. As a Southerner, I think I’m predisposed to that magic of geography—the South is the redheaded stepchild of the U.S., and growing up I always knew I wanted to escape. The South has served as my inspiration for a lot of my writing, so in a way, I’m still trying to escape. Even New England—every chance I get, I’m jumping off somewhere else. Every new place gives inspires me differently. My obsession over the past few years has been Mexico, where I lived for a time in the summer of 2012, and endured a really rocky relationship. I’m at the finish line of a manuscript about Mexico, but find that I need to return there—and only there—to finish it. I’m trying to pencil that in.
What else should readers know before reading your collaborative pieces?
Sarah: The voice is neither Anne’s, nor mine. When I say voice I mean the speaker, but I also mean everything about the poem. It’s purely hybrid, and really fascinating in that way.
Anne: I don’t think they need to know much, but we hope this manuscript is relatable to women especially. We tried to document the common struggles, pressures, and desires of the contemporary woman who negotiates her own wants and pains against what society expects from her. We tried to examine this through the lens of both history and different cultures: everywhere you go, there’s some expectation of what a proper woman should be, and there’s women longing to break the rules.
What advice do you have for other writers who are interested in collaborating?
Sarah: Take heed. Be ready for the unexpected things that arise. I can only speak from my own experience, which was realizing how close I am to my own voice that I’ve worked to cultivate, and how scary it feels to stray from that. Even when other people read your work and say they like it, it’s still scary. When I read this work now, I don’t think of it as me/mine/ours. I think of it as another entity that Anne and I created. A baby!
Anne: Sarah and I rarely fought through this process (there might have been a few minor disagreements), but I attribute that to our ability to communicate often about it and to be so willing to hear each other out and revise. Just as with your solitary work, you have to be ready to ‘kill your darlings,’ so to speak. You might think a line you wrote is so badass and cutting edge, only to have your collaborator totally repulsed by it. Be willing to cut it, let it go. Sarah and I both sacrificed an equal amount of lines to the revision process, but I think we both handled it with a lot of grace, as we were equally committed to making the best final product that we could make. If we really couldn’t agree on a particular poem, we brought it to our poetry group and let them make the final decision on it.
My other, just as important, piece of advice is to have fun together! Get a Margarita, put on some old school hip hop, and just be totally open to whatever your collaborator produces, be ready to take on any challenge and turn, because this process is really fun if you let it be, and your poetry can go to a lot of interesting new places. It’s also a fabulous bonding experience. Sarah and I were already thick as thieves, but now we have the memory of writing this book together as a really special part of our friendship.
What other projects are you currently working on? What can readers look forward to?
Anne: I just revamped my second individual collection of poetry, Small Wreckage, and I’ll be sending that out to publishers. I’m currently working on a manuscript about my experience on a peace delegation to Israel and Palestine last summer: I’m interested in taking my poems out of myself and exploring political poetry and poetry that pays witness. It’s been a tremendous challenge and an emotional experience, but I’m thoroughly enjoying the process right now, and the peace delegation was the best thing I’ve ever done with my life.
Sarah: I wrote a chapbook of poems about the search for connection in the digital era, centering on the online dating tool Tinder. It’s called Love Me Tinder, and was recently named a semifinalist at Black Lawrence Press. I’m hoping to publish that somewhere. I’m also trying to place my manuscript about the South, titled “Don’t Pretend You Ain’t.” And here in Boston, I’m running a seasonal storytelling salon at Oberon in Harvard Square.
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Taylor Swift of Miley Cyrus?
Anne: 100% Miley all the way. I just can’t with Taylor Swift. I don’t know why. Miley is equally annoying and repulsive, but I love her balls to the wall craziness. I love her sexual liberation. And I kind of dug her new album.
Sarah: Taylor Swift! I love writing about exes.
East coast or west coast?
Sarah: East coast. Hard living.
Anne: Most of the year I’m cursing the east coast for its bad weather. But secretly, I don’t think I’d be able to live in good weather. I think I’d be lethargic and unproductive and I’d feel justified in taking more naps than I already do simply because I’d be so comfortable. So, I’m an east coaster at heart. And I like that people on the east coast are kind of rude—you don’t have to be all friendly to everyone and say hi to strangers if you don’t want to. To be fair, we’re usually rude and grouchy because we’re being assaulted by snow and rain for most of the year.
Where is paradise?
Sarah: Mexico, always. And Greece. It’s been calling me since I was young, and I’ll go there in 2015.
Anne: Paradise is wherever in the world I want to travel next. I can find it anywhere—I just need to be feeling something new and learning as much as I can about the world.