The Heart Contracts (Finishing Line Press, 2016)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
The chapbooks that are among my favorites include Castings (Countryman Press, 1984) by my friend and editor, the wonderful poet, Lola Haskins, which I happened across in the Grolier poetry bookstore in Boston in 1994. Lola and I were friends then and it was cool to just come across her work perusing through shelves in this bookstore I had never heard of and had no idea at the time was so famous. Another chapbook with special meaning to me is Freight (Slapering Hol Press, 2000), which was sent to me by its author, Sondra Upham, after she and I met at a poetry workshop with Carolyn Forché in the Keys. Her book reminds me of the workshop, which was meaningful to both of us and also demonstrates how beautiful a well put together chapbook can be, with ribbons, special paper, etc. There is something about how these books can feel to the touch and how uniquely personal they can be.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
I like to support writers I know and care about. I also hold onto special books for as long as I can. There is something about reading a writer’s earliest published works that reminds me that while publishing a full-length collection is something many writers aspire to, a chapbook-length collection can be equally significant.
What’s your chapbook about?
The book itself was not assembled with a particular theme in mind, but once I determined which poems to include, some of the themes began to reveal themselves. Even so, articulating what those themes were wasn’t something I’d ever consciously tried to do.
My former creative writing professor, Van Brock, gave me a huge gift in the blurb he was kind enough to provide me. Essentially, and I’m paraphrasing, but he wrote that the book deals with losses, and the stories of these losses that live within the author. When I read his blurb, I thought: Wow, he’s right. Like most of us, I’ve dealt with loss at many levels in my lifetime. Many of my poems have to do with a sense of commitment I feel to capture something of the essence of the person, creature or thing that was lost, so that somehow others might experience them, not necessarily as I did, but somehow through a shared sense of the imprint they left on the world. These are the “heart contracts.”
I also feel that taken as a whole, my work deals with claiming identity and how we come to terms with who we are and what we want in life.
If you have written more than one chapbook or novella, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
This is my first-ever poetry chapbook, although I’ve been fortunate enough to have published several individual poems in various literary journals over the years.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The poem “Breath” was inspired by the death of my grandmother in the early 1990s. She was the first close family member whose death I was literally present for and writing that poem, although it took a few years, was probably an indicator that loss would become a key theme in my work. A few years later, I wrote “The Heart Contracts” after a dog I loved very much was hit by a car. There was a lot of drama surrounding that event; he’d had a rare heart condition that had been diagnosed where I work, at the UF veterinary school, and had been doing well on medication, only to die in a fluke accident. That poem, too, took a few years to write. When I assembled a group of poems that could be a publishable collection, those two poems stayed, as did others that dealt with loss but also with renewal. In that sense they each probably helped to catalyze the collection that became the chapbook. Strictly speaking, the oldest poem in the chapbook is “The Service,” which I wrote in the late 1980s and published in 1990.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I frequently revisit older poems and play around with them for a while to see if something interesting happens. Often, it does – an older concept, seen in a new light, turns into a poem I want to keep. I do occasionally have something specific burning in my brain that compels me to write, and there’s a sense almost of urgency, so I start a draft. Other times there are ideas, concepts or emotions that hang around in my head and seem to demand attention. At some point, I have to put those things out there on the page, wrestle with them and begin the process of asking myself what I’m really trying to say. All of the poems in the chapbook have undergone countless revisions and all took years to take the form they now have, although some poems are much more recent than others.
I also find that if I’m not writing but I’m sending things out, that “counts” toward feeding the muse. You’ll never publish if you don’t send, and if your goal is to publish, this part of the process is necessary, if somewhat tedious. Personally, I find comfort in routine, and the process of sending one’s work out has become so much easier with the advent of online submissions. Although submitting one’s work to potential publishers doesn’t afford the same gratification as when one’s work is accepted, or even that feeling one gets when one successfully works through many revisions to finally end up with a finished poem – it’s still rewarding, and it has to be done. So if you can’t write, send. Roughly half of the poems in this chapbook were published in literary journals along the way, allowing me to build the publication credits on my acknowledgements page.
As for a revision strategy, I don’t really have one, other than I revise everything, a lot, and have learned over time to seldom trust early drafts of a poem. So even if I think a poem’s finished, I’m still usually going to distance myself from it for a bit, until I’m ready to take another look at it. If I’m really feeling blocked, just getting lost in a good mystery, walking the dog, doing those one-foot-in-front of the other things to clear my brain, helps. The chapbook is ultimately a byproduct of all of those strategies, I think.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
The title comes from the poem by the same name that I alluded to earlier. I do love the title because it emotionally tracks to a specific and impactful event in my life – the loss of a beloved pet that happened to have had a heart condition but died of something completely different in a sort of cruel and ironic twist of fate. But the title also has the double meaning of contracts, agreements, commitments we make to ourselves and to others. My editor did help me select poems to include and with their arrangement. As I amassed a few additional publications in the past five years or so, I felt they worked thematically with the other poems and was able to work them in.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
I provided the cover art, as requested by the publisher, along with a general mock-up of what a cover might look like. I created the mock-up somewhat on the fly using a free downloadable desktop publishing program, but wanting to convey a look I had in mind. The designer with Finishing Line Press finalized the design with a few tweaks just before the advance sales of the book started on January 1. The cover artwork makes use of a photo of a raku pottery I have hanging in my home and I’m thrilled with how the design turned out.
Is there a question you wish you had been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?
I would love to be asked how learning that my very first chapbook of poems had been accepted for publication by Finishing Line Press affected me. Certainly I was thrilled. I was actually convinced at first that there must have been some mistake; I found the publisher on social media and messaged her, whereupon she assured me the acceptance was legitimate and even added that she loved my work and was excited to be publishing it. A few days later, I received a personal card of congratulations from the press. Scrawled in the return address area were the words, “Good News.” I practically swooned. I don’t know what else could have made me so happy.
In the weeks that followed, I proceeded to pull together my packet, which included blurbs for the book, for the press. The process of procuring these blurbs allowed me to reconnect with two of my former creative writing professors, Van Brock and David Kirby, both of whom have supported me and my work for a long time. I was not even 20 years old when I first met and began studying with them as young college student. My professors knew I wasn’t their best student, but I think they also knew I was determined. And they’ve been there for me in some way, all these years.
I really want to give a shout out to Finishing Line Press for accepting my chapbook for publication, which will allow my work to become available to a wider audience. The book’s acceptance has been a huge confidence builder for me, has expanded my literary connections already in a variety of ways and has both energized and motivated me as a poet.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I’m reading a lot of writers whose work is new to me but which I have come across or heard about, as well as revisiting poets I studied in school, as well as others I’m drawn to for whatever reason. There are so many writers in the literary canon whose work I never really had the chance to study or understand in context, despite having studied creative writing and literature in college. I want to read more writers from different cultures. My Kindle is full of a lot of new recent downloads and my bookshelf continues to expand. Books I’m simultaneously reading right now include the Collected Poems of Elizabeth Bishop, The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, Empty Sleeves by Sidney Wade, and The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling.) I recently read The Great Gatsby for, imagine this, the first time.
As for my own work, I have been reworking a lot of older poems recently and have written a few new ones. I’m writing more poems that deal with specific cultural or societal events because I feel compelled to do so, even as I wrestle with how best to do it.
I’ve been sending groups of poems to various literary magazines in hopes of gaining more individual publications as my immediate short-term goal. I’m also thinking toward my next collection.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
To be a serious writer is not just hard work, it’s a lifetime commitment and it’s blood, sweat and tears in the sense that you make yourself vulnerable over and over again and you get rejected over and over again. But you must be able to pick yourself up and keep writing and keep going. Find a community of writers, whether through a club or a class or an online group. Be selective who you share your work with, but share your work and be as generous with your time to others as you hope they will be with you.
What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?
Amass a decent list of publications before sending to chapbook competitions. Find a good editor to provide feedback not just on poems themselves but also regarding arrangement within a collection and title possibilities. If you are lucky enough to find a great editor, stick with that person and treat him or her well. Most importantly – don’t give up.
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
We all have to make choices who we read in the limited free time most of us have in today’s world. Many of us have demanding jobs, a house to keep up, a family to keep happy, a dog to walk. How do you decide which poets (or other writers) you want to read or should read, and how do you begin to understand what your own work might offer to benefit the literary landscape in the context of what else has been done?
If you wrote about one year from your life as a chapbook subject, which year would you pick? Why?
It would probably be this past year, 2015. It was a year punctuated by family visits, the aftermath of the tragic loss of a young nephew, coping with aging parents and various illnesses. Essentially the year consisted of a lot of drama and acute emotion tempered by gratification, often overlapping and compressed into one year. Maybe that’s what I’d name this chapbook: Confluence.
Without stopping to think, who are ten poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least your clothing, to take with you at all times?
Lola Haskins, Anne Sexton, Philip Levine, Carolyn Forché, Elizabeth Bishop, William Stafford, Emily Dickinson, Denise Levertov, Jane Kenyon, Ranier Maria Rilke.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
Painting, because it affords an opportunity to be physically closer to the transformative tools of art, including various types of paint, brushes, and paper, and requires an approach that starts with at least some type of end in mind while allowing the ultimate creation to still be a surprise. I actually have enjoyed painting since I was a child and have studied it off and on in later life. I love to paint and hope to do more of it one day.
What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?
It’s a world populated by people, places and things that have entered and exited my life but whose imprint remains and will hopefully be recognizable to readers as in some way universal and connected. These world occupiers reside in both physical and emotional landscapes that should mirror facets of the lives of each reader. Put more simply, the residents in this world are simultaneously strange and familiar, but they are connected in ways that will be perceived differently by each reader through their individual lenses.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
While the poems are all unique, all seem to be themed in some way toward longing, the desire to claim identity, loss and the everyday things in which those parts of life and the self can be reflected. So in my mind, they all fit.
If you could re-title your chapbook, what would the new title be?
I am very happy with the title of this book and wouldn’t change it.
What’s the title for a book you haven’t written yet?
Probably Fracture. I’ve actually got another collection in the early stages and it fits. But then I was listening to an NPR interview the other day and someone used this term and I thought: I’ve got to steal that and use it somehow. It was: “Fingerprints of Glaciers on Mars.” Not exactly a title I’d associate with my current work, but I loved it anyway so who knows, maybe I’ll write a book to fit the title one day.
Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?
As far as writing style and voice, that’s something I’ve just developed over time and it’s hard to say which poetic voices directly influenced me. I’ve read a lot of poets over the years but I do tend to gravitate to those whose work tells a story, paints a picture or captures a reality I can relate to in a multidimensional way. I would have to say that those people who have influenced me the most (over the years it took to put this book together) haven’t done so just through their actual poetry but equally through the ways they’ve modeled the writing life—their beliefs, practices, excellent advice, candor, and of course their kindnesses toward me. Lola Haskin and I go back 25 years and her editing of this collection was key.
Before I started working with her, I worked for about a year with Betty Bedell, a co-founder and former editor of Kalliope, whose services I read about in the Poets and Writers classifieds in the early 2000s. At that time I was trying to bring my creative writing back into my life in a more focused way versus sending out the random set of poems here and there. I remember sending her around 60 poems that I thought were terrific. She sent them back with edits and comments and basically said that of that group, maybe 20 were worth keeping. It was the type of honesty I needed. I think a few of those poems made it into The Heart Contracts.
Another person whose influence has been long-standing in my writing life is Van Brock, my former major professor at Florida State.
Who is your intended audience? What kind of person do you imagine writing to?
I don’t write consciously for a specific audience, and I know some people always want to know “what a book is about” before they’ll even pick it up. I’m further along than I once was if I can say about my chapbook that it’s about “losses and claiming identity and everyday things.” Something there for everyone, right? Actually I can’t presume to say who will connect most deeply with my book. I just hope some people do.
Who do you most hope will read your chapbook (either an individual or a particular group of people)?
I suspect that many people who buy my book will be friends and family members, maybe some other writers who want to show support. Of course, I hope they all read it—and if the people who know me best buy and read this book and like it, or even better, love it, I would feel enormously gratified.
But if people who don’t know me at all read it and like or love it, and if in some way this book stays with them, that would be a divine bonus. If any people who don’t regularly read poetry or think they don’t like it, or don’t get it, read my poems for whatever reason and find that they are touched by them, I’d call that a double divine bonus.
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
That it’s OK if you read and write in cycles, as long as you keep doing it, and that it’s not helpful to compare yourself to other writers who are naturally more brilliant or better read or more clever than you are. We all do it; I do it. But I know that ultimately it’s about being honest with yourself about how much you don’t know, seeking to enhance your knowledge and your practice in some tangible way, and staying the course. You still have a unique voice, a story to tell and a world to invent, and even though building that world can be a lonely pursuit, it doesn’t have to be emotionally solitary. You don’t have to be a miserable person or unsociable to be a good writer, you just have to be creative and insistent. Defend and protect your writing time, whatever that looks like for you.
What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
I write when I’m feeling sad, desperate and helpless. At the same time I write when I’m not feeling much of anything. I get to feeling by excavating pieces of my or someone else’s history that take me to a place I understand. And then I claw up way up and out, into the present and onto the page. My personal reading time is at night before bed. If I’m trying to write but am feeling blocked, I usually do one of two things – pull out a book by a poet whose work I know I’ll relate to quickly, just to get the juices flowing, or excavate old poems and play with them to see if I get anywhere. It doesn’t always happen, but it won’t happen at all if you don’t make some effort to open that creativity channel.
Sarah Carey is an award-winning veterinary public relations specialist, science writer and poet. She holds a master’s degree in English with a creative writing concentration from Florida State University. Her work has appeared in many small magazines and literary journals, including Rattle, The Carolina Quarterly, and South Dakota Review, among others. The Heart Contracts is her debut collection of poems. She works as director of public relations at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine and lives Gainesville, Florida, with her husband, Chad Hunsaker, and their Labrador retriever, Finn.
advance copies of The Heart Contracts can be purchased directly from Finishing Line Press
A Rare Disease
We work backwards:
who did what to whom, who took which drug
for pain? We chart ways of birth control
from pills to foam, to finally, withdrawal.
Cross the what-ifs off our lists.
Who else might we have exposed?
Who yet might learn from our mistakes?
We share which lines in our respective genes
could predispose us to this end,
exercise our possibilities, not excited,
not content, not with the long view of regret
but rather with the fixed eyes of predators
biding our time, tracking blood scent,
having set about to kill doubt
and, if we’re lucky, pinpoint how to live.
(From Poetry Motel)