“I write what I write. And chances are good I’ll say it aloud—a lot—too.”
What’s pink & shiny/what’s dark & hard (Porkbelly Press, 2015)
You are very open about your own abortion on your blog, impolitelines.com. When it comes to discussing your personal story, was there ever a time when you were more like”J,” whom you write about in “Chapter 7: Question for the mothers” and “Epilogue: Letter to J”? How long after your abortion did you begin writing about it?
As people who know me and love me will tell you, I am almost physically unable to be secretive–so even if things start out as secrets, they do not stay that way for long. But when I had the abortion I write about in What’s pink & shiny/what’s dark & hard, I didn’t talk about it as openly as I do now. It was a choice I made over ten years ago. I was so much younger then, and the boyfriend was still in the picture. By which I mean, as much as it’s my story, it’s his story, too. So if I spoke openly about it then, I would have been sharing things that he didn’t want me to share. At this point, the timeline is obscured and my name has changed, so I’m not so worried about the story getting traced back to him.
As to when I finally wrote about the abortion–god I’m so slow. I’m consistently writing about things that happened about 5 years prior. (Aside from these heartbreaking little prose poems I’ve been writing about teaching, which seem to pour out of me unfiltered and within hours of the events that prompt them.) I suspect I need the distance to turn things into art–into an object outside myself that I can manipulate.
How long did it take you to complete the chapbook, and what was that process like for you?
Ha! Again, I am so slow. The oldest poem in the chapbook is “Chapter 10: Dream,” and I wrote the very first draft of that poem my sophomore year of college. It took the next dozen years for me to figure out what it wanted to say. I wrote the poems the chap over probably 10 years–off and on. I’m quite the fiddly writer, so each individual poem lived many lives (unless it didn’t, like “Chapter 2: New Love” which was pretty much always that exact poem). And then the manuscript itself took a few years, too. Most of that time was figuring out what a chapbook is and how to structure a manuscript. Which is to say, I had to figure out how to shape a single story–and how to leave behind a twisty, bendy, serpentine collection that encompassed every salvageable poem I’d ever written.
Poetry seems like a less accessible form of writing than, say, memoir. Why did you–a self-proclaimed activist and someone who is passionate about informing others and making the topic less taboo–choose this genre?
I am a self-proclaimed activist–and I struggle over that word often. I alternate between including it in my bio and deleting it. On the one hand, I write about controversial subjects in order to raise awareness, organize panel discussions on rape, and teach in a “social-justice-oriented high school.”
But also, oh, activism. It’s a terrible word–especially with its connotations of the do-gooder parachuting into a troubled situation and fixing other people’s problems. So I suppose I hold onto the word to challenge myself to be an accomplice and not an ally. (Thank you to Olivia Olivia for pointing me in the direction of this excellent zine: Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex, from which I took the terms “ally” and “accomplice.”)
The form you use in poems such as “Chapter 1: Morning after the wedding of a friend’ and “Chapter 2: New Love” is striking. What made you use that form as opposed to the more conventional form of “Prologue: On D-Block”?
Almost all the poems in this chapbook have been tight little blocks AND blown up all over the place with white spaces and frou-frou formatting. It goes back to my natural inclination to work a thing in all directions until it settles down. “Prologue: On D-Block” has always been a ghazal in its heart of hearts, so it ultimately shifted back into neat, two-line stanzas. And boy, “Chapter 1: Morning after the wedding of a friend” was such a problem-child poem. I still can’t write parts of that poem, not really–I doubt I ever will write those parts, so I needed a way to address the lacunae. The white space in that poem is really just me hiding all kinds of details from myself and anyone else who might possibly recognize the things I won’t say. I guess I do keep some secrets.
The line from this chapbook I see most quoted in reviews is from “Chapter 9: September That Year”: “[…] Planned / Parenthood fed me a pill / like a quarter / and a gumball bled / from between my legs.” I was struck by the whimsical, casual nature of the image and how it is working with a serious subject. In other poems, you use images of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, swans, and parfait spoons. How and why did you settle on these images in your descriptions?
There’s a bonus feature in one of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer season box sets where Jane Espenson says about the pleasures of writing dialogue, “That’s one of the great delights in writing . . . when you’ve written a perfect line, you know it. You feel it in your gut.” (She was talking specifically about this illogical and perfect bit of dialogue.) And that’s it! If I knew how to explain that moment–that thing that helps snap two previously unrelated ideas into an integrated whole–then I could possibly control it. Then I would be such a better and more prolific writer.
Just because I’m curious…do your students ever ask you about your chapbook or your abortion?
By some miracle, they haven’t found it yet–or my author website. If ever they do find me online, I can’t imagine they won’t ask me about any number of super personal details about my life. I’m not really sure I’ll tell them anything, though–except that my writing speaks for itself. I like to pretend there’s a line between my personal life and professional life, anyway.
The chapbook seems to be doing more than just giving a voice to women who have had similar experiences. There is an unnamed character who occurs in a couple of poems, and he’s usually accompanied by lines that suggest abandonment. One of the most striking moments to me was the last line of “Chapter 3: Summer,” that expression of him not being able to hold the speaker in the poem because she was too painful to touch. Do you think this is a common reaction for someone who is in a relationship with a woman who has had an abortion?
I have very little idea about what the other side of abortion looks like–unless it’s by comparing it to how my husband felt when we miscarried a very wanted baby, when I miscarried and he stood next to me feeling helpless and also completely heartbroken. The situations aren’t identical, but they share some similar dynamics. Honestly, I think the boyfriend in the chapbook is a pretty good characterization of how someone in the wrong relationship reacts. An abortion didn’t lead to that boyfriend abandoning me–his own insecurities led to that. The abortion just hastened things along.
Were any of the poems particularly difficult for you to write (in terms of craft or emotions)?
Speaking of problem-child poems. Let me tell a story about graduate school and “Chapter 4: One Wednesday.” I had this one professor who was a douchebag. Very much a misogynist (and teaching at a school with a predominantly female student body!). Quite dismissive of what a good friend called “the domestic poem.” He thoroughly did not get “One Wednesday.” He thought I was a bit heavy handed with the three double-yoked eggs in that poem. So I told him that was what really happened: the morning of my abortion, I went to my job as a pastry chef, I stood at the butcher block separating eggs, and three eggs in a row had double yolks inside. That’s some kind of magic–like, something is happening in the wider universe when you run into that kind of coincidence. He just told me, “It’s not believable.” So I filed the poem away on my computer, and didn’t come back to it until six months later.
I was in a workshop then with Marie Howe, then, and we were discussing that very poem during a conference. I told her how I just couldn’t figure it out and how another professor had shot-down the three egg yolks. She grabbed my arm and looked at me intensely–a very Marie-Howe-like thing to do–before saying, “You must write this poem. You must.” I will be forever grateful to her for cutting through the misogynist’s bullshit.
This is really a story about how hugely important teachers and professors can be–and how easily they can crush a writer by imposing their own aesthetics on their students. If Marie hadn’t encouraged me, that poem would have died after my first semester in grad school. As it was, it still took me almost a year to regain any sense of my voice or my content after sitting in that disastrous workshop with that interminable asshole.
Have you been surprised by the response your chapbook has gotten?
I’ve only heard positive things from readers about the chapbook, which is comforting and encouraging. That part isn’t surprising, given how long these poems have been kicking around my life and how many times my friends and family members have read them. I do half wonder if this chap will ever get me into trouble, like if a parent reads it, or a student, or a potential employer–oh my god, or a parent of one of my kids’ preschool friends. I’m not surprised that that hasn’t happened–poetry is such a little world–but it’s not an impossible situation, and I don’t really look forward to it. But also, whatever. Fuck them. I write what I write. And chances are good I’ll say it aloud—a lot—too. If someone is surprised or taken aback by the chap, I guess they weren’t paying very much attention to who I am.
Sarah B. Boyle is a poet, mother, and high school teacher. She is the author of the chapbook What’s pink & shiny/ what’s dark & hard (Porkbelly Press, 2015), and her poems and essays have appeared in Really System, Menacing Hedge, Entropy, and elsewhere. She is a founding editor of the Pittsburgh Poetry Houses and reviews editor for Hyacinth Girl Press. Find her online at impolitelines.com.