In Conversation with Melissa Studdard
Sarah Marcus is the author of Nothing Good Ever Happens After Midnight (2016, GTK Press) and the chapbooks BACKCOUNTRY (2013) and Every Bird, To You (2013). Her next book, They Were Bears, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications in 2017. She is an editor at Gazing Grain Press, a spirited VIDA: Women in Literary Arts volunteer, and the Series Editor for As Is Ought To Be’s High School Poetry Series: Gender, Identity, & Race. Find her at sarahannmarcus.com. In the following interview, we talk about finding the courage to speak your truth, how to be a good literary citizen, the transformative power of poetry, inclusivity, and more.
Melissa Studdard: If we were to compare producing a poem to birthing a child, as many writers have done, I would say yours are birthed with no anesthetic. The poems of Nothing Good Ever Happens After Midnight, as well as your other poems, arrive from the deep suffering and strength of womanhood and bear all the beauty and pain of life. Can you talk about the ways in which your experience of being a woman is intertwined with your calling as a poet?
Sarah Marcus: Wow! I love that. Yes, no anesthetic over here. I think that feeling of intensity stems not only from being a woman who survives trauma, but a sober woman. For the last fifteen years, the type of synthetic pain relief that some rely on has, quite literally, been absent from my life. When I was much younger, poetry felt like a desperate need. It felt like some thing that was rushing out of me. Some thing I couldn't hold in, even when I wanted to. Thankfully, as I've grown as a writer and woman, I have taken effectiveness into account. Regardless of craft, I believe in my bones that the experience of being a woman—the shared suffering of being silenced or stalked or held down in various ways—is deserving of a platform. I am lucky that some people have encouraged and supported my work. And, I am acutely aware of how these messages are perceived by a literary public. I feel responsible for speaking up or "writing up," because I am able to. I feel this weight in all things, really. Making ideas or experiences more palatable or softer or easier to swallow is a disservice to people and a disservice to the strength we could potentially inspire in each other. When I was still working towards my MFA, a well-known journal sent me a rejection letter that said my work wasn't very subtle. I laughed when I opened it. They are right. I am not subtle. Nor do I ever want to be. Being a woman and being a poet and being loud about both is something I refuse to feel shame about.
MS: I'm glad you refuse to be shamed or quieted. The world needs your voice, and you are also a beacon for others who want to speak their truths. Can you talk about ways in which you have found and nurtured the courage to write the truths you want and need to write?
SM: I spent so many years of my life feeling lost. Feeling like I didn't really matter. Feeling like what we did here on this earth probably didn't make much of a difference. I was angry. I was angry about my own life, and I was angry about what I saw happening to others. All that pain is paralyzing; I didn't see a way out. Those were tough years to write through, because when you are still being formed, your work reflects that. So much was missing from what I wrote. Now, I am able to identify those weaknesses as a lack of perspective. There is strength in walking through torture. There is strength in standing there and staying there, as well. For me, my life and my writing depended on my ability to find the other side. A dear friend always reminds me that everything I've ever wanted is on the other side of fear. So, after years of work shops and an MFA and the demoralizing cycle of writing successes and failures, at some point, I just said, fuck it. I'm going to write about want I want and what I think is essential and necessary and beautiful. I am always encouraged by watching my students find their own voices and seeing the power that comes with believing in our own social efficacy. I look for people and for presses that want that for people, too. I believe that we get back what we put in and that being a good human and helping people and supporting voices that you think are important is the foundation stone of being in any community.
MS: On the subject of community—you’re a dedicated teacher, you’ve been working with VIDA for many years now, and, in addition to writing poetry, you've written important essays about topics such as receiving a Facebook friend suggestion for your rapist. Can you talk about what it means to be a literary citizen as opposed to a writer working in isolation? How do the roles overlap, and how does being a poet/teacher/feminist/activist affect the way in which you interact with the world?
SM: Haha! It's so interesting, because when I look at the list of all the things I'm involved with, I think... wow, that's awesome! But, to be honest, it's so easy to feel like I am a writer working in isolation. Something beautiful and freeing that I've learned is that, luckily, my feelings are not always facts. So, yes, the fact is that I am a literary citizen and being a poet/teacher/feminist/activist is vital to my identity and the way I operate in the world. I think the key here is to view other women, non-binary people, LGBTQ, POC, and cisgender male advocates' successes as my own successes. This means feeling real joy when people earn accolades and publish great writing and work hard to make space for diverse voices. This means never comparing my accomplishments to someone else's and staving off self-pity or jealousy when someone else gets something that I wanted. A community means that there is space and room and roles for everyone. Being a literary citizen is tied to recognizing intersectionality and inclusivity in our daily lives and actions. It means holding one another responsible when we make mistakes and working hard to ensure safe spaces for everyone. It means constantly growing and changing and being more open to understanding my own biases and assumptions. On a much smaller scale, every day I wake up and I read in the morning and I do my best to be the kind of role model that I fiercely wanted and needed. At the end of each day, I ask myself if I’ve lived up to that ideal. Was I available for people who needed me? Did I speak up even when I was scared or uncomfortable or didn't feel like it? Did I make space for other people's voices? Did I listen to them? Did I give of myself enough today? Many nights, my answer to those questions is that I could have done so much better! But, sometimes I have a gorgeous day, and the answer is yes.
MS: I love this: "A community means that there is space and room and roles for everyone." I love so much of what you've said here, and I want to revisit some of it in a bit, but for now I want to turn to your poetry. Your work is filled with certain recurring motifs and images. Bears, birds, and water are the three that stand out the most to me. Can you talk about what they symbolize and how they gain power in repetition?
SM: “Why bears?” seems to be a common question for me. I can’t stop writing about them. The title of my next book coming out with Sundress in 2017 is “They Were Bears.” I have a bear tattoo and our home is covered in strange bear paraphernalia… I have dozens of books on them and have spent years researching their origins and behaviors. I had the magical experience of a brief encounter with a bear in Montana this summer. I’m beyond obsessed. I love the mythology that surrounds them. I love that they look so majestic. That they have these knowing eyes. I love that they eat people. That we are still afraid of them. We should be. We should fear and respect their wildness. They are the ultimate symbols of the remaining wilderness in this country. Bears and birds and water are like breathing. In Nothing Good Ever Happens After Midnight, I use them as my anchors. Birds are beautiful, fragile, sometimes elusive and free. I have a wrist tattoo that says, “all my wings” after the Anne Sexton poem, “In Celebration of My Uterus.” The poem opens with, “Everyone in me is a bird/ I am beating all my wings.” I see birds as the ability to accept fate and fight like hell anyway. But, I also use them as moments of relief, as pardons and symbols of forgiveness. They recall regret and tenderness. In the poem, “How Birds Keep Warm in the Winter,” they display the possibility of care and comfort. Birds and bears and water in the collection all point to my desire to be less human, less flawed, wilder, freer. These images (water, perhaps, especially) have the power to cleanse and purify. To wash away and reimagine or recreate. I am very attached to the idea of becoming something else in order to heal our human selves. It’s messy; there’s cutting involved. There’s just something magical about nature. Something indisputable and inexplicable.
MS: Yes! In so many of the poems I see the urge to become something else in order to heal the human self. In “Winter Sleeps,” for instance, I see it in the lines: “I dream of having an immense body. Teeth like trees. / You can count the rings. I want to wear fur…” As well, in a review at Yellow Chair Review, Paul David Adkins talks about the poems in relation to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, about how they subvert historical rape representation and reclaim its telling for feminism. The victim no longer needs the gods for transformation but can self-transform. The victim and the tale are both changed and take flight, a transformation of transformation. It’s a great act of literary empowerment. Do you believe poetry also has the power to effect transformation off the page?
SM: I hope so. I think it’s tricky because poetry and poets exist in such insular turf in academia as well as in more “fringe” spaces. I’ve often felt, in certain circles, that poets are only writing for other specific poets or specific literary audiences. This is disappointing to me and is culturally reminiscent of the initial backlash that famous confessional women poets faced (not that long ago) when their writing became perhaps more accessible to a less elitist population. I think the onus, then, is on us as educators to teach poetry to younger students and in non-traditional spaces. My well-meaning friends and family often confide that they don’t understand my poetry or feel the need to say that I am far better at writing non-fiction essays. And, while I am open minded to that being true, I also see this as people feeling like outsiders. People feeling like they don’t have access to the tools they need to be able to appreciate this kind of writing. I think our failing system must demonstrate a willingness to teach and engage with poetry at all levels. Poetry is important, because the rules are different. The constraints of traditional prose are lifted and transformed. Poetry itself is subversive. The empowerment here is in the lack of limitation. Poetry as storytelling is not bound to traditional trajectory. Like healing, it is not lineal. A poem has the capacity to mirror our innate emotional nature because it can move in any direction. What else, besides art, functions this way in life? Maybe spirituality? Yes. Then, poems are spiritual. They can tell the truth using image and lyric and imagination.
MS: It’s interesting that you bring up spirituality here. In the same way that people have been made to feel historically that they need an intermediary to explain religion to them, children have often been made to feel that they need teachers to explain poetry. I like to think of kids in a classroom excited by poetry, not confused by it. I like to think of teachers giving them the tools to interpret, not the answers. Do you have ideas about the ways poetry can be taught to make it more accessible like this? And can you say more about the non-traditional spaces?
SM: What I love about the concept of spirituality is that it is unique and personal to each individual. Spirituality isn’t easily defined, and it can’t be argued. It is a way of claiming connection without labeling or displaying loyalty to a particular sect or way. Can’t this be the basis of creative writing education? Can’t we expose young people to all of the different ways of creative expression and allow them to develop their own connections? I think accessibility comes with exposure. We have art education and music education for young students. Why not poetry? Why not creative writing? Non-traditional spaces are situations that don’t include memorizing Shakespearian iambic pentameter in high school. Poetry should be prevalent in our other forms of socialization: newspapers; social media; in our homes and with our families; at libraries and in bookstores (and not just teeny, tiny sections); at community centers; and in after-school programs. I think about successful community projects for young people like Twelve Literary and Performative Arts Incubator in Cleveland that my friend, Daniel Gray Kontar, recently started. http://www.twelvearts.org/about This also means that when you tell someone you write poetry and they say, “I do, too.” And, when they take out a journal and read you something rhyming and awful, that you get to smile and listen and don’t explain how you are a “real” poet. Like that’s even a thing. And, yes, I have witnessed this encounter before! I guess the other missing connection here is that poetry has a real purpose in our lives, and like any piece of art, should create meaning and feeling. At school, we are often so literal, so tangible. Sometimes poetry is meant to be abstract or open-ended or so vast it’s difficult to label or contain.
MS: Earlier I said I loved your point that "A community means that there is space and room and roles for everyone." And you re-emphasize that here so well with the point about being a “real” poet and poetry having a purpose in our lives. I was going to ask more, but you’ve said it all here, so I’d just like to thank you for your work towards inclusivity and instead follow up on what you said about poetry being open-ended. One of the things I enjoy most about your work is your ability to convey subject matter in a way that feels complete but not closed. Your masterful use of enjambment certainly contributes to this, as does your ability to create subtext in other ways (See, you can be subtle!). I guess what I’m really trying to ask is how you find balance between what you want to make certain you convey and where you want to leave space for the reader to bring their own experiences and ideas.
SM: I’m not sure I have found balance, however, in my first drafts, I have no specific audience in mind. I am almost completely narrative and image focused. In my first revisions, I think about sound. I’m the creeper at the coffee shop whisper-reading the same line out loud over and over again. I then like to step away from the poems for a while. Sometimes, perhaps, for too long! When I return to them, I look for opportunities to take out anything unnecessary, which usually means large portions of what I wrote. I think this is where the “leaving space” effect occurs. Time away allows perspective and emotional detachment. The poem moves from my story/moment or my intended story/moment to an objective story/moment that is now detached from traditional truth telling. This is where the lines of fiction and autobiography are blurred. This is where things are erased in the name of cohesion and sound and story. This is why it is always dangerous to assume that poetry is purely autobiographical, because even when it is… it isn’t. When we workshop our writing in my high school junior literature class, I remind my students that their work is no longer theirs. That it in some small way, it now belongs to the class and our interpretation of what they’ve written. I have found that even my mentors at the “highest” levels find a self-appraisal of their own work to be insufficient. At some point, we get to ask ourselves if it matters whether or not someone understands what you meant, because what some readers have brought to my work through their own interpretations, has been far more beautiful than anything I could have originally intended. I think this need we have to correct and defend our work is a waste of precious energy. What’s important is to make sure my work isn’t so specific to my experience that no one else can come in. The overarching messages should be the same, but the details are what make it accessible or inaccessible. I will say that something I am hyperaware of is the closure in each poem. It’s imperative to me that each poem ends in a way that doesn’t create relief, but reinforces the moment. In some ways, I’m essentially looking to create a lack of closure.
MS: What a fascinating insight into your endings. Thank you.
Are there books, poems, plays, articles, essays, quotes, or stories that you revisit again and again? If so, what are they, and why do you revisit them?
SM: Oh! There are so many. Firstly, Adrienne Rich’s collected poetry and prose probably saved my life in college. Everything about her poetry and essays moves me to action. She lit a fire for me, and it made all of the anger inside of me seem necessary and purposeful. I imagine I will always go back to Joy Harjo’s She Had Some Horses. Those poems cut me. They are powerful in image and lyric and tell poignant stories that are both universal and intensely intimate. I’m embarrassed to say that I have three copies of Pam Houston’s Cowboys are My Weakness. The first copy is destroyed because of all of the underlining and note taking. I taught it each year when I was adjuncting. The second copy is clean, but starting to fall apart from use. The third copy is my back up. I just think the stories are so relatable and stunning and human. They speak to all of my flaws and strengths. I feel so connected to her characters and their adventures, like I know them, because I recognize so much of myself in each. I also, as you and everyone who knows me well know, love and cherish Richard Siken. I definitely love his new work, but Crush is terribly addicting. A few years ago, he shared a piece of advice with me that was given to him by Louise Gluck. I am butchering it, but it was something along the lines of, “write what only you can write.” I think about that each time I sit down. What can I say that no one else can? It’s an intimidating thought, right? That I have something to say that hasn’t already been said, but it pushes me to be my best, most me, self. Lastly, each morning I try to read a quote from Cheryl Strayed’s Brave Enough, because it is awesome and it reminds me that I can be awesome, too… if I want to make that choice each day.
MS: I love those works and authors too! What incredible advice from Siken via Gluck.
You mentioned that you have a new book, They Were Bears, forthcoming from Sundress in 2017. What else are you working on now? Do you have any other publications or events coming up soon that you’d like to announce? And is there anything you’d like to share about They Were Bears? Maybe a couple of preview poems?
SM: Right now, I’m just working on individual poems and revising personal essays. I have an essay that will be included in an anthology edited by RA Washington, Guide to Kulchur, and Dan Moulthrop, The City Club of Cleveland called A 2016 Race Anthology: Dispatches From A Segregated City, which will launch on October 27th. I am incredibly excited about They Were Bears, because the people over at Sundress Press are also wonderful humans. I would love to share preview poems!
In the everglades I am your secret and the palm trees will keep me
the hibiscus will keep me dew dusted
sticky stamen every time I look up a vulture is circling
Tangled in the tresses of the orange tree
my hair in the pool wound around
and around and around you
knees bloody on the concrete steps
under cloud cover unbraid my hair undress me
where freshwater prairie meets bay saltwater
hold me under in the backcountry swamp
under the mangroves in a costal channel with gators with catfish
I steal shells from Totch Island to remember you—
we are nothing without water
Name them: Great Blue Heron when you change your mind Cattle Egret
twenty years from now Least Bittern I will still be starving
for a scrap of
your sky Glossy Ibis we are impossible
but the weather the illusion of summer the heat of your mouth
I want to
two suns, and one is rising I want
to tell you: Roseate Spoonbill there will always be young
echoes beneath her soft skirt—no one chooses this—
to know each of your names (Bridled Tern) until you’ve lost the
memory of me—
one of those days Rock Dove when you wish you were in love
Suffer not yet our eyes to hunger for your face.
The creek edge is rugged
and young—an echo of your face,
the places unshaven. I’m daring
you to come in. It’s deeper
upstream in the place
where that giant bass lives.
I straddle the fallen tree
as daylight fades, and the water
You skip the flat rock
and the fish scatter. I’m so wet now,
these clothes are useless.
Fuck me in the woods in the place
by the pond. Bend me over—I’m bleeding
and you’ll still want to.
Up against the brush like a wounded animal,
where the shadow of the tree almost reaches us,
you say, I want to cum in your mouth, and I want
you to swallow. I leave a trail of blood,
because I’d like to see a bear,
and I’d like to be followed.
MS: Gorgeous, powerful poems. May your new book find the people who need it!