Portage (Sundress Publications, 2015)
Do you write more about Ohio and your past, rather than your present in Virginia? If so, why?
In Portage, I wrote almost exclusively about my past. At the time, I don’t think I was fully committed to the idea of staying in Northern Virginia, with its traffic, and constant activity/stress level. Everyone I loved was living in other states. My family was in Ohio, and my best friends lived in Vermont and upstate New York. My husband was living in Delaware, and I was driving three hours to see him nearly every weekend. (This is before we were married, and he moved here.) I had casual friends, but it seemed like a place where so much was on the surface, and I didn’t like that feeling. Since getting married, we’ve moved to Manassas, Virginia, which is further from DC. Manassas has personality, history, and a small town feel. I’ve put down roots, and joined local groups. This has helped me to feel much more a part of the community. I’m writing much more about the present than the past. I think writing about the idea of home is inescapable for me, and this is probably the first time I’ve felt as at home in my present circumstances as I did during my childhood.
How did you choose the forms or structures for poems like “Skyless” and “Mandala”? Do you usually make formal choices like these?
“Skyless” and “Mandala” both started as lineated poems. In the case of “Skyless,” I couldn’t quite reflect the shapeless longing of the subject matter when it came to line breaks. I kept trying to make it syllabic/enjamb the places which were most broken, but it didn’t seem to work as well as when it was a prose poem.
Just after I wrote “Mandala,” I was paired with the artist Steve Skowron for a Call and Response show at George Mason University. (Check out his beautiful work here: http://steveskowron.com/home.html) We started to explore how our collaboration could evolve that poem into a folio project, which would showcase his skills as a printmaker. He tasked me with doing three progressively smaller erasures of “Mandala,” and we collaborated to fit them visually to the images in the book, which he’d made as a response to my poem. (Sort of an artistic retrofit!) This meant that the original poem had to be long enough/strong enough to prop up its erasures, and helped me revise it into a more coherent piece than it ever was when it was lineated.
I don’t usually make formal choices in the direction of prose poems, unless I can’t find a sense of purpose in my lineation. At that point, I start to question whether the poem could be revised towards a different form to expand it, or if I should scrap the idea of form springing from the lines, and focus on revising towards the sort of surrealism or compacted narrative I feel good prose poems contain. I don’t always think about received forms like sonnets or sestinas when I’m considering form, but I do try to question whether or not the pattern operating in a poem is functioning purposefully. If not, I take it apart and try again.
In multiple poems, there seem to be religious undertones. Would you mind discussing this with us?
I grew up in a fairly strict religious family, where the only acceptable version of the Bible was King James Version, Christian radio was on much of the day, and we were drilled in our memorization of verses on a regular basis. In primary school, I went to a small Christian school, and my undergrad is from a small Reformed Presbyterian college in Western PA. For a long time, I resisted the idea of religion in my life and writing, but to write about my childhood home without referring to these influences would be to strip language and meaning from memories.
Several of your poems seem to be based on your childhood. How do you balance writing from memory versus writing for a larger audience in a relatable way?
I think that nostalgia is one of the things that makes us human. Not everyone was raised by their grandparents, but most people can relate to loss. I don’t maintain a conscious balancing act between the personal/larger audiences. My main concern (and a question I ask when I have the chance to workshop pieces about my childhood) is whether or not I’m walking the Elizabeth Bishop-y line between accuracy and mystery.
What is your writing process? Is there a radio station you listen to while writing, a coffee you must drink, or a place you must sit?
Every day, I make a pot of coffee, then feed my dogs/ let them out. As soon as I get my coffee ready, I ask the dogs “Are you ready to go to work?” and they scramble up the stairs to my office. I don’t necessarily have to work in my office, but it is the best launching pad for the day. I recently read an article which said that recent findings revealed that music doesn’t necessarily encourage creativity the way that scientists once believed, but that it does induce calm. I think I often need to calm my mind, so I do write to Pandora pretty often, usually the station which has grown out of many thumbs up/thumbs downing with an Indigo Girls seed. (I enjoy writing in coffee shops very much, but that gets expensive!) Routine is helpful for me as a writer. I find I write more/submit more/am more of a well-rounded poet if I honor that space, and am present and already writing, should a moment of wild inspiration strike.
Do family members affect your themes or writing process? If so, how?
My poetic lineage is more influential to me as far as themes go than my family members, these days. I mentioned Elizabeth Bishop before, and have tattooed (literally!) her words “Spontaneity, accuracy and mystery” on my wrist to remind me of things that I want to always be present in my own writing. In practical terms, I wouldn’t be able to have time to write in such large chunks if it weren’t for my husband. I probably wouldn’t take as many (very helpful) breaks if it wasn’t for my dogs.
Why did you choose to publish your chapbook online?
I wanted to work with a press who I felt would be a family to my work, and where I would be more than a number/face in a crowd. Sundress is small, (mostly) woman run, and strives to be inclusive. Their physical books and chapbooks are beautiful. When my chapbook was a runner up in their contest, and Erin Elizabeth Smith asked me if I’d like to be published online, I was thrilled. I’m a former school librarian, and know that as much as I love the physical book object, my chapbook would have the ability to reach many more people as an e-book. It was a tradeoff, because I don’t have something I can wave in the in the air at readings to prove its existence/promote it in a visible way, but the fact that it’s free is often enough to pique people’s interest to explore Sundress’ catalog further.
Do you write any other genres?
I have been writing more and more hybrid pieces, and love the way the form can serve to underscore/subvert/encourage a reader to read more closely.
Are you an artist as well? We were intrigued by your website.
I am a photographer, and am inspired by the visual arts. I’m currently building a retreat/day trip style workshop for people interested in writing ekphrastic works based specifically on sculpture.
What advice would you give new writers/ poets trying to get published?
Persist. Read widely. Know at least a little bit about the markets where you are submitting before clicking the “submit” button. If nothing else, read the submission guidelines closely. Duotrope has been an invaluable resource to me, as a poet at the beginning stages. Its hotlinks/thematic calendars/numbers have taught me a lot about the submission process, and helped me keep my professionalism (since I’m terrible at tracking when left to my own devices.) Persist some more. Persist, persist, persist.
Do you have a book or another chapbook in the works?
Yes. I am polishing a full length manuscript of poems about Glinda the Good Witch, who’s gotten tired of the image of her as eternally young, and who has left Oz. It explores themes of identity and belonging. I’m also submitting five different chapbooks right now, two of which are primarily hybrid texts. I work on a lot of projects simultaneously. It helps when my energy starts to falter to be able to set it aside, and disperses pressure I put on myself to finish/publish any one thing.
Was there research involved, or are your poems strictly based on experience?
The lure of research is impossible for me to resist. I love exploring primary source materials. Research for me is always something that has to be carefully managed, otherwise I can lose many days just wandering from resource to resource. I don’t pick a topic on which to focus, I just move organically through gorgeous database articles and YouTube videos. For instance, in the case of Haunting the Last House on Holland Island (due out from Porkbelly in 2016), my research topic list included Holland Island, the New York immersive theater experience “Sleep No More,” diving equipment, Wes Anderson color schemes, the Titanic, ocean currents, and researching what it would take to move an entire island, among many other nautical and non-nautical topics.
What is the most difficult part of writing poems and getting them published?
I think the sheer number of “not for us” answers can be hard to swallow. I try to keep in mind that this is a fact of life for any artist. It’s hard to imagine any other job where 90% of the time your boss/supervisor says to you “Nope, not what we wanted, but please do try again.” (Best case scenario for a rejection!)
What does “success” mean to you?
Reaching a wider readership is probably my biggest goal. In small doses, I feel a burst of success every time a new market says “yes,” or when someone tells me that they enjoyed a poem I’ve shared. I’d love for my manuscripts to get beyond the editor pool, and swim out into the world. I think I’d feel successful the moment I could check my own book out of a library.
Sarah Ann Winn’s poems have appeared in Entropy, Hobart (online), Massachusetts Review, Nashville Review, and Quarterly West. She’s been nominated for Best of the Net and Pushcart Prizes. Her chapbook, Haunting the Last House on Holland Island, is upcoming from Porkbelly. You can download her chapbook, Portage, for free from Sundress Publications. She holds an M.F.A. from George Mason University, as well as a Masters in Library Science from Catholic University of America. She’s currently a free-range librarian in Manassas, Virginia, where she lives with her husband, two sweet beagle/lab mix dogs, and one bad cat.
Twitter Handle: @blueaisling