Sarah Maclay: poet, teacher, and author of Whore
Sarah Maclay: poet, award-winning author, occasional curator of the Sunday Open Reading Series at Beyond Baroque, teacher, supporter of the poetry community... and enigma.
When I read Sarah's book Whore (University of Tampa Press, 2004), I found myself questioning what kind of a person is capable of writing poetry that pulls one into a moment of absolute intimacy, leaves one feeling almost hallowed, and grateful for the ephemeral, yet irrefutable contact. My curiosity was piqued, as I had seen and heard Sarah perform her marvelous poetry on quite a few occasions, but had never exchanged more than a few friendly words with her.
One recent autumn morning, I visited with Sarah at a quiet, beautiful place in West Los Angeles. Ever gracious, warm, and modest, she showed me around the grounds (the trees were particularly lovely), served me tea, and shared with me the fascinating and compelling story of who Sarah is, and what poetry means to her.
ML: Why poetry? When did you feel the call to become a poet?
SM: I began to write early—and also to sing, and to play the piano, and to draw and paint and make up stories and act them out and write them. And I also danced, though I still can’t manage a decent floor combination. So it wasn’t that I was shot out of a cannon into one specific art form, something that used to drive me crazy when I was younger and so many of my friends seemed so clear that they’d found the one, while I still felt very serious about the several. But I really got into poetry in a big way when I was thirteen, after seeing Zeffrelli’s Romeo and Juliet. Of course I had to write at least one poem in a semi-Shakespearean mode to a guy I had a crush on but couldn’t talk to, and then I just kept writing. I’d write it frequently at night, in that liminal state between waking and sleep.
ML: There was a time when you took a hiatus from poetry to delve into other areas of art (dance, theatre, film) and worked in a variety of quotidian environments before coming back to poetry. Many writers (including myself on occasion) feel that the "interference" of life is a punishment instead of a blessing. How/when did the pivotal moment take place you realised it was time to go back to poetry? Would you consider this a moment of transformation? If so, why?
SM: As I mentioned when we were talking, I’d had a health scare on the edge of ‘95/’96, and around the same time I knew a wonderful casting director who was killed in an accident at age 50 while crossing a street in Moscow, on location—tragically; too young. As it turned out, after some nasty tests and procedures, nothing was wrong with me—none of the things that could have been—but for a few months I didn’t know what I was going to face. It wasn’t the first time, by any means, that I’d thought about death, or known people who’d died too young, but a close-up with mortality can be very focusing. I thought that if I really didn’t have much time left, I’d better be doing something that mattered to me—something that charged my soul’s batteries. Poetry had been coming up in odd ways in ’95. I hadn’t written it seriously for over a decade. At the time, I felt very far away from it, but people who’d read some of my older stuff started to come out of the woodwork to encourage me. Several of them encouraged me—strongly—to start coming to the workshops then held at The Midnight Special and Beyond Baroque. One night I went to hear a friend read at The Midnight Special. In the seventies and very early eighties I’d been going to readings all the time—then there was a long hiatus in which I mainly went to screenings and plays instead. I realized that night that it was the oral/aural element that had been missing, and for me it’s critical, crucial. That night I went home and literally pulled grocery bags full of old writing out of my closets, and started pawing through them. The first time I went to a workshop at the Midnight Special, which was within a week or so of that night, it took all my courage just to walk out the door of my house and drive over there. I didn’t bring anything. I just listened and began to give feedback. When I went home that afternoon I pulled out some old pieces and worked on them for about eight hours, into the night, reading them out loud, trying variations, listening, while literally pacing around the living room of my bungalow. Within a few weeks I was going to the workshops at The Midnight Special and Beyond Baroque religiously. I plunged in with both feet. Somehow—and I really don’t know how—I felt that I was able to cut the wheat from the chaff in a way I hadn’t been as able to do in the old days, and I also found that every other art form I’d spent time with and loved, and all the life experience—none of this was wasted. Poetry opened to include everything. I made a deal with myself that I wouldn’t censor myself when I wrote. I had no idea what I’d write or how it would be received. Luckily, as it turned out, it was mostly well received, and that was, I’ll admit, encouraging. I went to two workshops a week for about three years and then also began to facilitate them, something that hadn’t been a goal or even vaguely on my radar, but that happened organically. In ’96, I taped a few inspirational quotes on my refrigerator and looked at them every day, maybe more than once a day, for several years—my credos. This is the gist of them:
Martha Graham, from Dance to the Paper:
There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is
translated through you into action. And because there is only one of
you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it
will never exist through any other medium, and be lost. The world will
not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor
how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your
business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel
Sam Beckett: Fail. Fail again. Fail better.
And from the gospel of St. Thomas:
If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring
forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.
These may have been almost as important, at that time, as going to the workshops. Oh—there’s another great one from Sharon Doubiago that I can’t find right now, too.
Yes, this was all transformational. I felt very often as if no time had passed between my late teens and early twenties, when I’d been writing all the time, and this new writing time. It was as though writing again yoked me to that younger self—to something that felt true and vivid, to something I felt that I was supposed to be doing in the deepest way. What had passed between felt not like time, but simply experience. The sensation of arc, of circularity, was amazing. I also had the feeling that every day was gravy, was a gift—like getting another life, almost.
Every aspect of my life since that time has transformed.
ML: What are the three events in your life that have shaped you into the writer you are today?
SM:Well, to put this in perspective, because I think these early years do shape much of the way we see, before other life events come in, there’s the ground of growing up in the country in a family with bright parents, near a community that had a strong cultural life, so there was this curious balance of nature and culture. There was no kindergarten around when I was five, and no pre-school, so instead I’d stay home and color and paint and draw and listen to Debussy and Beethoven and invent stories for my dolls. My parents had a painter friend who’d let us adopt his cubist experiments from time to time, and these would hang on the plain pine wall in the living room. My father had been drafted to Paris a few years before I was born, and he and my mother had lived there for a time, so we used to watch slides of Europe a lot and I spent hours looking through a book of paintings from the Louvre. At the same time, I could see the Milky Way in full force every night, my brothers and I would weed the garden in the summers, I’d pasteurize and skim the fresh milk every day, we’d gather apples in the fall and make fresh cider—there was this whole other kind of life going on. And of course there was snow. We watched television but it was in black and white and we only got one channel. My mother read to us every night until we could all read ourselves.
So out of this basic grounding, if I have to choose three things that shaped me as a writer from that point forward, they were probably my decision to go to Oberlin as an undergrad; the moment in ’96 when I stepped back into writing after many years and began going to workshops in Venice and Santa Monica; and, oddly enough, a couple of readings I went to in Santa Monica in ’97, where I heard Cecilia Woloch, David St. John and Ralph Angel. Within the next few years, I would study with each of them—Cecilia and David in private classes, but also at, respectively, Idyllwild and Vermont, and Ralph at Vermont—and it was my hope of working with Ralph there that led me to the whole profound experience I had with the Vermont program and the faculty there, where I also worked closely with Mary Ruefle, Bill Olsen and Roger Weingarten and workshopped with everyone I could.
ML: Of all the places you could have settled, what brought you to Los Angeles, and what are some of the best and worst things you've gotten out of living here?
SM:I never thought I’d live here. I used to believe that Woody Allen line about how the only cultural advantage of living in Los Angeles was being able to make a right turn on red. What happened was that one of the many things I was interested in was film, and I didn’t want to, say, turn 83 some day and not have tried this. Along with other artistic pursuits, I’d acted when I was young and still wanted to explore it, but was also really thrilled by the work of filmmakers like Wenders, Herzog, Fassbinder, Bertolucci, Bergman, Scorsese, Mallick and later Lynch and a growing list of art house and indie filmmakers. I’d been working at the Seattle International Film Festival and Egyptian Theatre after a stint at the Seattle Sun, and doing some freelancing. One of the great things about this was that all of the indie/art house theatres in Seattle had a deal where their employees could see films for free, so it was a really wonderful and constant baptism into whatever was going on. A few of us started to move down here. One of the best things about that time, I guess, in both places, was that I was able to meet and talk to some of the people whose work I admired, and I met a lot of interesting people who were engaged with various aspects of film-making, some of whom I’m still in touch with. Herzog talked about how he’d always try to edit a film as though he’d pulled the footage out of a garbage can, and then he’d take a look at it to see what he really had. This is always one of the hardest things to do, I think, whatever the art form—how to see/hear whatever you’ve generated in a new way.
The first year or two I was here, after being in Seattle for a few years, where it’s amazingly green and full of theatres and bookstores and coffeehouses and great restaurants—everyone wants to get out of the cold—but also really quite gray for about two thirds of the year, I was amazed by the light. The palm trees, of course, and the birds of paradise, felt especially exotic. But the light—even if I was inside, the light coming though the windows in its yellow/white way—was consistently energizing. I love weather and changes in weather, but I think I may have a tendency toward seasonal affective disorder, so the light made a difference in my mood. And I spent the first couple of years here in a constant state of excitement, meeting people all the time, taking classes, working odd jobs. Living by the ocean is also a thrill, even for a non-swimmer.
But L.A. can also be a very tough place to live. Keeping a sense of community is tricky here, partly because of the very real problem of physical distance combined with increasingly insane traffic. And, as we’re all far too aware, it costs a lot to live here. I used to compare it to NY, where money flies out of my hands whenever I visit, and it felt a little easier to live here than there. But it seems to me that it’s gotten harder as housing prices and traffic increase. All of these make for a sort of exhaustion factor—it becomes important to try to find time to just be human, time for internal and physical repair—and I think it’s harder then to spontaneously get together with friends, though I’m able to, sometimes.
The poetry community, in all its porousness, has really ameliorated some of this for me. I’m amazed that it’s here, and I’ve been able to thrive for the last ten or so years largely because of it.
Here’s what I’m thinking about these days, about L.A., as a central metaphor: it’s about surfing. And I say this as someone who loves to look at water and to feel the power of the ocean, but who doesn’t swim or surf. To surf, you have to get used to a constantly moving target—the water you’re on is moving. So are you. It’s changing every second, as opposed to say, a mountain—a geographical feature that provides seasonal foliage fluctuation but is basically going to be in the same place for the duration unless it’s also a volcano or something—and even then . . .
I think I’m only recently getting the hang of this surfing thing, as it applies to life, particularly in terms of relationships. But I think this colors all aspects of life here, even more intensely than in other places. At some point, you’re forced to let go.
ML: Whore has been well received across the board. "Ms. Maclay has a superb lyric gift, a remarkable imagistic clarity, and a constant sense of invention. Her recent prose poems—a departure for her—strike me as some of the most gracious and compelling of the genre. She is melding the concerns of her more fiercely lyric pieces with a more elongated music phrasing, and the result is miraculous." - David St. John/Ploughshares / Winter 2004. How do you feel about this statement, and do you feel it accurately represents you and your work?
SM: Well, I don’t know if it would be possible for anyone whose poetry were being described this way to feel other than a) deeply flattered, and b) equally deeply hopeful that the poems achieve even half of this—and, I guess, glad that a revered poet/mentor thinks so, and has this experience of them. One thing I will say, though, is that the prose poem is not entirely new to me. My first chapbook, which came out longer ago than you even want to know, is a series of sort of absurd, imagistic, somewhat surreal linked prose poems (subtitled “a cartoon”), and I was writing prose poems as early as the seventies, some of which I later converted to lineated poetry and some of which I left alone. You’ll remember that some of the poems in Whore, as well as others written concurrently, take that form. But for some reason I felt a huge inner call to write nearly exclusively in that form as the next series of poems began, in mid-2002, and I think that the sense of elongated musical phrasing comes from an interplay of, as always, intense attention to the rhythms the poems seem to demand as well as a play with even longer sentences, conscious fragments and run-ons, and an even greater use of dashes, while sort of messing with the whole idea of coherence and unity that is so much a part of what we teach in what I’ve come to think of as the received form of the standard five-paragraph essay, though I think these prose poems do finally come to their own poetic version of coherence.
Prose poems, to me, differ somehow from paragraphs—aren’t, exactly, paragraphs; don’t need, necessarily, indentation; often defy the pattern of thesis-followed-by-examples, and disobey the usual quotidian deployments and purposes of prose. As much as any poem in any other form, they are acts of discovery—and also not at all, necessarily, narrative ones, as they might be in the prose of fiction. Many of these new poems feel quite dense to me—something I’m trying to find a way to balance, so I’m experimenting with creating some sense of space around them—clumping them in such a way as not to be completely exhausting. The music of the rhythms—as indicated by punctuation, for instance—to some extent will provide the attentive reader with moments for space, silence, and breath . . . on the other hand, some of these poems want to keep weaving the fragments, the layerings of image and experience, without really giving the reader (or the author, for that matter) much of a break for as long as humanly possible—think, for instance, of a certain kind of jazz trumpet solo that needs to continue to the very edge of the breath, and that needs to be periodically surprised by what it includes. Brendan (Constantine) recently mentioned that he thought of my poems sometimes as dancing on the edge of the event horizon. This is the scientific phrase for the place between the seen world of matter and the black hole, just before everything gets sucked in. I think that in some way this is an accurate metaphor for both the content of some of these poems and what they’re doing with form—with some of the moves they make—though that latter may not become really obvious until one actually tries to read them aloud. Some of them contain a lot of space, a lot of breath, a lot of small moments of caesura. Others, if I could manage it—even the longer ones—I would try to read in one breath, but without rushing the poem and without sacrificing phrasing. It’s impossible.
ML: Can you share the details that led to the inception of Whore? Has your life changed in any way since its release?
SM: It may sound strange to say—actually, I hope this will give faith to any reader currently in the same position—but Whore was essentially written as an MFA creative thesis—though of course this was hardly a perfunctory task, and I’d have wanted to shape it into a book whether or not I’d been involved in a program where I actually had to attend to that. It was compiled of poems I’d submitted to the Vermont College MFA process over a period of about a year and a half—some that I’d submitted with my application and others written along the way, all of which were subject to varying amounts of revision that was mostly complete by the time I began to assemble it as what Ralph Angel (who was my advisor in my last semester) would call “the larger poem.” This was an interesting and mysterious process for me. The task at hand was to send off a draft a month. This felt quite daunting, at first, but I think of it now as an amazing luxury, and a necessary one, because I always find it so difficult to maintain any objectivity, when trying to read through my manuscripts as though I’m coming across them for the first time, as though they’ve been written by someone else, for more than one or two readings each draft. And so having to go through the process of trial and error over a number of months, with some kind of rhythm between the times where I was actively working on it and playing with selection and orchestration and the times where I simply had to put it down and make a point of not looking at it for a week or two at a time in order to try to regain a sense of freshness, ultimately resulted in something that felt so sturdy to me that taking anything else out or putting anything else in seemed to violate what had become a kind of integrity of the work as a whole.
The process involved working with a series of clues, and gradually moving from one stage to the next. For instance, I believe one draft involved, mainly, finding some way to get from 62 pages to 50. So the clues were both this specific and this vague—there was precision, but no micro-management.
I didn’t begin with this title, and I actually just recently looked at my first draft of this thing and realized what a mess it was—it was a kind of collection but not yet a book. The first two titles were sort of cool as titles but, to my reader, didn’t seem particularly connected to the book. On a train ride down to read in La Jolla in the middle of this process, I spent a bunch of time scanning phrases and titles of poems in the manuscript and sort of metaphorically running my hand over what was there to see if anything had some kind of heat or strength or imagistic beauty—what would jump out. I think this was the first time it occurred to me that I might be writing a book called Whore. This was actually deeply frightening, but over time the title began to nag me and I couldn’t dismiss it, even though, well, uh, it’s an unusual name for one’s first-born—and it was a title that my mentor thought began to speak to the book (this will make more sense if you’ve read the poem) and also one that demanded that the book live up to the intensity of this title, so it was absolutely intrinsic in the organic process of forming the manuscript—it became an important element in the selection and orchestration process—and what finally coalesced around it felt as right and as honed to me—as much itself—as I could get it to feel.
Prior to that I had gone for more obviously “poetic” titles, and these also felt quite right for the books they belonged to—for instance, my chapbook titles Shadow of Light and Ice from the Belly. So this one was a big, fat, scary departure. But if someone as subtle and lyrically driven as Ralph could find in,Whore a title that felt right, it gave me enough faith to trust that maybe it was, indeed, the right title, and that I was just going to have to live with what the book seemed to want, rather than some other, safer frame I might have superimposed. One of the interesting things about the word, as Ralph noted at the time and as I have found quite a bit since publication, is that this word has a very pronounced and intense stability. One of my own hopes, oddly enough, is that my etymological ponderings somewhat destabilize it; allow us another root/route into what might be hiding below our preconceptions about it. But it’s interesting how, as a word, it sort of does contain a whole paradoxical world within the “rag and bone-shop” of the erotic heart.
And yes, my life has undergone a number of changes since the book’s release—most notably, it’s allowed me to teach writing classes in some spots I’ve found especially fulfilling, and I’ve been asked to speak or read at various conferences and festivals and colleges and bookstores, and so I’ve been traveling a lot more and coming into contact with new audiences and cities I’ve never been to before, as well as some I’m more familiar with. It’s been a thrilling time, actually. I’m constantly pinching myself. Well, ok, not literally. It’s also been an intensely busy time—lots of juggling.
ML: You said, "I think . . . we buy into the myth that in order to do our best work we need to go off to the woods or something and be alone with what we’re doing. Sometimes some variant of this is necessary, and productive. But more often we just get lonely . . . we forget that writing is communal." - Portland Phoenix - (Feb. 2004). Keeping this statement in mind, do you find that your best writing has been done while you are alone, or in a workshop? Why? Why not?
SM: Well, this needs a little clarification—perhaps I originally said “also communal?” The process of writing a poem, unless you’re doing something like one of those funny surrealist sonnets where you can’t see anything but the two lines before yours but have to add a couplet to something that will become a surreal compilation, or unless you’re actively collaborating—is going to be solitary; is going to be a tracing of whatever happens between you and your inner ear, you and your inner eye, your perhaps un-nameable emotional workings and what hits them from the external world, or the bank of memory, or whatever. This is private and often somewhat mysterious and compelling and completely involving, even if you must wait, after some initial jotting, for weeks or months for the next line, or the next clue.
The communal part is the feedback part, the part that involves co-inspiration. For me, the balance—between the solitary act of being with the words and whatever’s beneath them and then the coming together with others to share—feels very invigorating and enlivening, and creates a rhythm that I treasure. I have found that workshops create a sort of soft deadline for me, as opposed to a harsher, more terrifying one that might impede progress, since I think it may be human nature to want to bring something to share to each meeting—to avoid coming in empty-handed. So this situation sort of coaxes the work out of me, keeps the pipes running clear. And I’ve also been in workshops where I literally couldn’t wait to hear what the other poets were going to bring in—in each offering there’s a huge potential for inspiration and permission, in terms of what’s possible in expressions of both content and form/craft, if these are even separable. Reading widely, too, is a source of inspiration and permission, both of which I find increasingly indispensable as I continue.
So my writing is always done alone, even if there’s someone else in the room at the time. But without workshopping for the last ten years, it’s quite possible that I may have written nothing, or that the writing may have taken some other form altogether—letters, for instance. We can’t know, of course. But I can tell you that in the ten years before I began to workshop regularly, I think I maybe wrote two or three poems, and they weren’t very good.
Perhaps what’s at stake here is not so much the form of communing as the fact of it. Maybe someone going to a regular open mic will be similarly inspired. But clearly I, for whatever reason, seem to thrive as a writer if I have a loose family of writers to exchange work with—and these groups offer a kind of support, I might add, which is not something I’d anticipated, initially—a support of the simple courage to continue.
ML: Who are some of your literary influences?
SM: I have so many that I’m constantly in danger of forgetting someone, so I think maybe it’s best to answer this by talking about early influences and/or early resonances. As I mentioned before, I grew up in the country, and this was before cell phones and computers and cheap long distance, so although I went to school and we went to town fairly frequently, I think we were all combating a sense of potential isolation. So as a family we had about 40 magazine subscriptions—everything from Vogue to Popular Mechanics. And there were always copies of Harper’s and the Atlantic in the bathroom, so this is where I was first exposed to people like Merwin and Ashbery and Sexton. The first books of modern or contemporary poetry I bought—or maybe cajoled my mother into buying, I can’t remember—were an e.e. cummings selected and Anne Sexton’s The Death Notebooks. And I was at Oberlin at a time when Tom Lux and David St. John were there, teaching, and Franz Wright was there, as a student a bit older than me and later, passing through or sticking around to write—so I was hit by their work early on. David Young was completing his translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Stuart Friebert turned me on to Jean Valentine’s work. He’d give people little reading prescriptions after seeing their poems. And I discovered Gluck in the bookstore and The House on Marshland became a touchstone. So did Margaret Atwood’s You Are Happy. Transtromer came to visit. I loved his work and thought he was exceptionally kind and present. And Russell Edson’s work was big there—I found my way to The Childhood of an Equestrian, which introduced a whole new set of permissions. And Adrienne Rich was one of many readers who came through and inspired me, though I realized that I was nowhere close to being able to do anything like what she was doing. I also worked closely with Diane Vreuls, a smart and big-hearted fiction writer whom I adored. I should say, too, that in addition to the early poetic influences, Georgia O’Keefe, Virginia Woolf, Joni Mitchell and Laurie Anderson have particularly spoken to me as artists, and specifically as women artists, from about that time on. Also, I loved Beckett and Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson and Hemingway and the O’Neil of Long Days Journey. . . and Sam Shepard! Marquez. Dylan.
ML: What subject/theme have you explored the most in your poetry? Why?
SM: It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit that it’s probably love, in varying forms—and mostly erotic love, whether or not acted upon. So of course this also includes longing and loss and just deeply screwed up love, as well as the kind (or the moment) where everything’s moving along swimmingly. Why should this be embarrassing? I guess because it seems to be somewhat undervalued as a genre, canonically. But perhaps this is changing. I see no reason why love should be valued any less than epic poetry about war, and I hope it’s valued more.
Beyond that, I also find myself writing what may be called “existential” poems—poems where I’m chasing what we call “the ineffable.” Maybe chasing is wrong—poems in which I’m casting about for words that might evoke some subtly disturbing or stirring sense of, let’s say, mystery—that experience of something just beyond what we can perceive, or that we sense without quite having words for.
It’s my sense—and not just from my own work, but from observing other poets—that we don’t choose what we write about. Our subject chooses us. On some level, we have to respond to our obsessions. And I think that no matter the topic, what becomes most interesting is not so much the what of it but the how of it. It’s there, in the language and syntax that opens perception, that the real action is. So ultimately that’s what most interests me, whatever the purported topic. It’s that opening that can happen that I’m always hoping for, always excited by—and not just in my own work, but in poetry, and in other art forms. And in life.
I’ve also recognized that I have a huge taste for paradox, and for exploring paradox. For instance, my next manuscript is probably going to be called The White Bride. And just as the poem “Whore” gets at a kind of paradox built into the root of the word, “The White Bride” is not such a rosy poem, and finally “the white bride” is a metaphor for something else entirely. Tonally, the poem is rather chilly. One might imagine a sort of wedding poem, from the title. It doesn’t go that way.
ML: Have you ever experimented with any other type of writing? What were the results?
SM: I have an un-produce-able screenplay and I’ve written tons of letters and lots of essays and reviews and reports and introductions, and a few early short stories. I’ve also written short plays and performance pieces, one of which was anthologized many years ago and recently revived at Beyond Baroque’s Beyond Text festival last year. I’ve written, and repeatedly performed, over forty songs, and also adapted some poems or pieces of ancient theatre to song. I used to sing these in small bars and coffeehouses and natural foods restaurants. It was great. Sometimes I felt like a phonograph, which was actually sort of interesting, because I was often in a situation in which my function was to be maybe a little more interesting than a sound track for eating food. There was a kind of weird, shared privacy in this, and also a sense of intimacy with those who got interested. When I was a little kid, I used to write plays that were, very early on, really prose, and then later conformed to the format of theatre. I cast friends and relatives in them and directed them and we’d perform them for tiny audiences. For a while, I thought I’d end up writing novels. Never say never.
ML: How has your role as a teacher (both academically and as a workshop facilitator) affected your writing?
SM: I find that it’s an opportunity to continually deepen my commitment to and understanding of both the craft and the language of what we do—to keep going back to the basic elements, and to keep asking this basic question: what is poetry? The longer you can keep this question alive without answering it, the better. It also forces me to continue to delve into poems of the past and the present. This is valuable. And I think it’s valuable to have to continually realize how really vast it all is, to have to admit all of my own knowledge gaps. It’s also a great exercise in staying alert to the possibilities of any given poem. Any time we do this with someone else’s work, I think it potentially expands the possibilities for our own.
ML: You said, "If I am writing about something, I want you to see what you don't expect to see, or see what you might expect to see in a fresh way. I don't want you to experience the name of it. I want you to experience it. And in a way, all poetry is simply translation--of experience. It is a container for what can otherwise not be expressed or led to without somehow being flattened, without becoming a rumor of itself. It is, hopefully, repeatedly flammable, arranged to cause repeatable shocks of transport. And yet, my specific language will never be exactly yours, and I hope, will always work within the boundaries of my own." - The Writer's Chronicle, Oct/Nov. 2004. Based on this statement, how do you measure your success as a poet? What would be the ONE piece of wisdom you would impress upon other poets to achieve this goal?
SM: I think absolute objectivity about one’s own writing is difficult to achieve, so I’m not going to try too hard to answer the first question. I’ve been gratified that some reviewers, some of the introductions over the last year or so, actually seem to indicate that something like this happens in what I do. So perhaps that’s a sign that I’m on the right track. Whether or not any of the above actually happens is something only a reader can say.
ONE piece of wisdom. Jeez. That’s tough, Marie. I’m tempted to go back to that old, repeated saw, “Show, don’t tell,” or, as Billie Holiday would have it, though I know this is meant ironically when she sings it, “Don’t explain.” What I’m getting at is this: poetry is meant to evoke. It’s evocation, more than anything else—even if what you’re evoking is the ineffable. Trust your images, and trust your rhythms, to work on you and to work on your reader. Let there be some mystery. Let there be some gaps. Allow ambiguity. Don’t think you know where you’re going. That spoils the journey. That spoils the way. Any time I start a poem as an idea, it’s going to be stillborn—perhaps an overstatement, but usually true. I had to learn this the hard way in writing—not just in poetry but in prose. I once had what I thought was a great idea for an allegorical short story, but ultimately this isn’t where the really valuable, surprising writing comes from—it can so easily get heavy-handed. You have to just keep hanging your line out there and having no idea what fish will come up, or how big, or what color, or what kind, or when it will strike. And then you have to let the fish be a fish and not try to turn it into a talking fish, telling you what it’s doing there on the end of your line. Just let it be what it is.
ML: "Lyric" is a word that the many have used to describe your poetry. What role, if any, does music play in your writing?
SM: I try to be absolutely faithful to the rhythm of the poem as it emerges. If I don’t recall the exact words, I’ll end up with only a paraphrase, which is an altogether different thing, and I can’t continue the poem. I’ll often edit by saying the words aloud, over and over, listening for what sticks out or falls flat or loses energy—often that’s where the change needs to be made, or something needs to go. I get very attached to my syllables, once they’re right, even if I have to change a word, and sometimes a slight change in one line can affect the overall music of a line three or four lines away. There’s a point where I think you have to be very careful with revision. It’s odd. Sometimes you can lose three syllables but not one, or some other combination. Sometimes you can lose a whole section, or several lines, but you can’t change anything in what remains.
On another note (sorry, I get this way), some poems begin to emerge as responses to music I’m listening to, and whatever it drags up. Some music that has worked in this way, in the last couple of years: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, Gorecki. Right now I’m listening to Sigur Ros, so we’ll see what happens. Also, I think that in the last few years, especially, I’ve been more specifically influenced by jazz in terms of the degree to which there’s an improvisatory quality going on in the way various elements introduce themselves, and the degree to which I want to let the poem unroll without tying it into a received form or preconceived idea of where it’s going to go—and the degree to which I’m willing to let myself be surprised by where it goes. That said, I’m a sucker for repetition and parallel construction.
In the past, when I was writing songs, of course there was a more direct tie between the words and the music. I think often the music allowed me to find an analog for emotion, and then its specific play determined a kind of structure, with certain built-in limits, around which words began to form. I more often used rhyme in songs than in poems, but not always. I don’t think I ever wrote words for a song prior to finding the beginning of the music, but I did sometimes put poems written by others to music—Shakespeare, Atwood, Blake, Lao-Tsu, Neruda and others.
Finally, sometimes I use music just to get out of one side of my brain if I can’t figure out any other way to do it.
But I want to mention here, too, that the word “lyric,” though it’s so closely associated with music, may be used about my work because of its more primary meaning in regard to poetry—and that is its use to describe poems that dwell essentially in a moment and an evocation of the emotion of that moment, as opposed to narrative or epic poems, where story becomes a much more important element. It’s not, exactly, that all of the poems are without story, but if there is story, I always feel that it’s to preface whatever it is that happens in what David St. John calls “the lyric instant.” So I think it’s really often used just as a sort of categorical description, and not particularly as anything else. But maybe I’m wrong . . .
ML: What do you feel is more important in poetic performance; the oration of words, or a stylized performance? Why?
SM: What I feel is most important is being with the words and the rhythms of the poem—being present to them, as you would be present to words and music when singing a song, or as you would be present to an orchestral score if you were a violinist, and as, if they are your words, you were initially present to them as you received them—and being present with the audience. This creates a kind of quiet intensity, but not, I think, a stylization—not something that you drape over what’s already there, but something that allows the intensity of what is already there to fully exist.
Does this somehow get at why? Is that implicit in what I’ve said here? Well, I’ll try again. I don’t want to get in the way of what’s there. I want to be naked to it. If one is naked, oration and stylization are non-issues.
ML: My impression is that for all your artistic achievements, you are an intensely private person. Yet your work rings with an honesty that few poets possess. If you feel that this statement is true, why is it easy for you to be vulnerable in the role of a poet?
SM: It’s funny to think about this, because I can think of any number of friends who, au contraire, would probably accuse me of serial and repeated over-sharing, of maybe being a little more open than they might actually want. I used to want to share my entire life history with a new friend, and hear the same in return, until I realized that this was actually exhausting to most people, and then at some point there was just too damn much of it to share in anything like one breath, until finally what I most wanted was to simply be as present as possible in any given moment with someone else, and of course sometimes this just means that you’re both engaged in some specific task or some specific conversation, or, if you’re lucky, some specific enjoyable shared activity, and you both have time constraints, and so you do what you can with what you have. So I’ve realized that even some good friends don’t know whole patches of my past, not because I haven’t wanted to share them but because we’ve had so much other stuff that’s more urgent and pressing to discuss or to pursue, and there isn’t time, and finally maybe it isn’t important.
I know, too, that I get over-stimulated really easily, so at times I need to just be quiet, be alone. I once heard a story about a group of sherpas hired by someone who wanted to go to Everest, or some equally formidable place. They got to a point in the journey where no amount of money could convince them to go farther until, as they said, their souls could catch up with the journey they’d taken. Sometimes I feel like this.
In any case, I don’t think of myself as unusually private. But I do try to honor the privacy of others, where I need to, as much as I can. I think I’m a not-bad confidante.
I also consider myself extremely vulnerable—embarrassingly so, at times—and I think more than one friend has borne the brunt of this. I’ve wailed shamelessly into an ear or two.
So I don’t know that I’m actually more vulnerable as a poet, really. But it’s not something I think about one way or another when a poem is emerging, because I can’t second guess what’s happening—that would shut everything down. All I can do is allow it to emerge as it needs to.
ML: You mentioned plans for another book in the works: how will this next collection differ from Whore?
SM: Well, I guess I’ve begun to talk about this a little already. I’ve been in the midst of a series of prose poems since mid-’02, and I have the sense now that this is beginning to fall into place as a manuscript. I need to spend some time with it in the next few months—to play with it, to see what’s missing, to try some things that have hit me about orchestration. But it’s feeling close.
Many of the thematic concerns, overall, are similar, though I think that here some of the poems are a little more lush and more sensual, and others carry very strange cargo—very dark, and still others are playful, at times, in odd ways.
There are several formal elements that have become leitmotifs: many of the poems are ekphrastic or what I think of as quasi-ekphrastic, in other words, poems that were either inspired by certain images or art objects, or poems that are framed as though they were inspired by existing art, and much of this will be clear in the individual titles of many of the poems. Many, too, seemed to settle around what I think of as a “super-image” rather than a series of images, much as, say, a single painting is sometimes simply one image rather than a moving collection of images. It’s tricky to talk about, because in fact even a “super-image,” in a poem, is most likely going to be made up of a series of images, because it has to exist in words over a duration of time, even if that period of time is only a minute or two. But I think that many of these poems will have the effect, when one steps back from first hearing or viewing, of leaving one overall impression. Yet I don’t know for sure, actually, if this will be the case as one moves from the visual inspiration to an auditory rendering, happening in time. So perhaps these ideas are more important in inspiration than in delivery.
Some poems make unusually full use of specific words, in some cases embracing widely differing definitions. And finally, many of the poems are in third or second person. The use of the word “I” is minimized. And there are a number of different experiments going on that are specific to individual poems. Many of the poems first began with titles that suggested themselves as assignments, some of which took more than a year to find a way to fulfill. Some feel like portraits, others maybe like little stories or illustration plates from longer stories that aren’t told in full, and others like fairly elliptical lyric moments. As in Whore, there are also a few persona poems or dramatic monologues.
Sarah Maclay’s poems, essays and reviews have also appeared in FIELD, Ploughshares, Pool, The Writer's Chronicle, Hotel Amerika, Lyric, Ninth Letter, The Journal, Washington Square, The Los Angeles Review, Solo, ZYZZYVA, forpoetry.com, Cider Press Review, Runes and numerous other publications including Poetry International, where she serves as a contributing book review editor.
Whore, her debut full-length, received the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry. She has also received a Pushcart nomination, and was a recent recipient of the Albert and Elaine Borchard Fellowship. The author of three chapbooks, Ice from the Belly (FarStarFire Press), Shadow of Light (Inevitable Press), and Weeding the Duchess (Black Stone Press), she also co-edited the anthology Echo 6 8 1 for Beyond Baroque, where she has been a poet in residence and periodically conducts workshops.
A Montana native, she received degrees from Oberlin College and Vermont College. Recently, she has been teaching writing in the Los Angeles area--at USC, Loyola Marymount University, privately, and at FIDM.