“Writing is what helped me hold myself together.”
Named After Death (Banango Editions, 2016)
What’s your chapbook about?
The summer in between two years of graduate school, my mother was diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma (a brain tumor). A few weeks later, my grandfather was found to have a brain tumor and multiple tumors in his lungs. These poems are about that time in mine and my family’s life.
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?
Many of the poems came out of the first week in September of 2007. They look different now, but the drafts started then, in the peak of the anxiety of that time. Writing is what helped me hold myself together.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
For these poems, the task was often to find the poem in the mess and then find the best shape for it. I usually write very carefully for my first draft, revising as I go, but I wasn’t capable of that during this time.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
The arrangement tells a story and follows, mostly chronologically, what happened to my family. The title comes from the first poem and the Jewish tradition of naming a child after a dead loved one, sometimes by taking just the first letter. My son, Aaron, is named after my grandfather, Allen. I’m named after my grandfather’s mother, my great grandmother, Sarah. We are named after them and named after death.
What are you working on now?
A new collection of poems that explores my unrest.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Learn how to identify cliché. Watch television and movies, read plays, visit museum collections online, listen to music, read everything else, too. There is an entire history of writing and art and so many ways to access it.
What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?
Look for presses that publish online or that publish online after a small print run. Don’t let the work of the chapbook keep you from working on a full-length book if that’s what you need to be doing.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
Sculpture. I love all kinds of sculpture, from clay to glass. I would love to work with my hands and have studio space. Well, an alternate version of me would love that. I really like being a poet.
Did you set out with the intention of writing a chapbook?
Not at all. I didn’t know much about setting out to write any kind of book at that point. I just wrote poems. This probably explains why I didn’t have the thing figured out until years later, after I’d put a full-length book together, and overall thought about books more.
What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
Sarah Blake is the author of Mr. West, an unauthorized lyric biography of Kanye West, out with Wesleyan University Press. Named After Death, her first chapbook, is forthcoming from Banango Editions with an illustrated companion workbook. Her poems have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Threepenny Review, and many others. She was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship for poetry in 2013. She lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband and son.
Like Bird, Like Body, Like Grace
I think you want it all more beautiful.
What can I do for you? Is there a bird?
Is the bird like another more beautiful bird? Is the human body
like a lamb’s bleat? Is there an invitation
from the girl’s naked body to see her
also as the grief of me?
I don’t think you want to hear that the water falls like grace
but perhaps the horse is always
in the field for you. The morning passing
in the sun, sketches of starfish,
a broken egg in the sink, all waiting.
But in the still growing field of corn, stalks only up to my ribs,
my grief, ten feet tall, wanders. A haunting thing.
The clouds could be described as the falling laugh of him
but what then?