“It’s possible to find a temporary stopping point”: An Interview with Sarah Green

Sarah Green is the author of Earth Science (421 Atlanta 2016) and the editor of Welcome to the Neighborhood (Ohio University Press 2019). A New Women’s Voices Series Prize winner, Green’s poems have appeared in such places as Paris Review, Copper Nickel, Pleiades, 32 Poems, and Field. Green currently teaches at St. Cloud State University. In this interview, we discuss Green’s future projects, tips on writing personal pieces, researching family history, and editing an anthology.

Let’s start with your poem “Lorain County, 1999,” published in Pleiades, which is about a driver telling a passenger they’re lucky to have gotten him instead of another person who may have gotten the chance to hurt them. Where did the ideas for this poem come from? Was it based on personal experiences or your own thinking? 

That poem came from a real memory, although the dialogue is imagined. I definitely took a long rural cab ride from Oberlin to the Cleveland airport in college, during which the driver told me I was lucky I got him and detailed the dangerous things that could befall me. The character’s speech in the poem is more lyric/heightened, of course.

You won the 2014 New Women’s Voices prize for your poetry book Skeleton Evenings. In her jacket mention, Dana Roeser describes your poems as “interced[ing] between the other world and this one.” I find this description interesting. Is this a type of perception you had hoped readers would take away?

“Interceding” is an interesting word because it evokes the phrase “intercessory prayer,” a kind of advocacy/mediation with some urgency. I like this idea, although I don’t know that I would have applied it to my work before Dana Roeser suggested it. Some of my poems are straightforward domestic/love poems, but it’s true that I have several poems in which a wistful or lonesome, seeking speaker seems receptive to the “beyond.”

I like Czeslaw Milosz’s lines in “Ars Poetica?”: “the purpose of poetry is to remind us/ how difficult it is to remain just one person,/ for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,/ and invisible guests come in and out at will.”

You have mentioned elsewhere about researching your family’s history for a future nonfiction piece. Can you talk about that?

Oh, thanks so much for asking about that—it’s not something most people know about. Yes, I am slowly writing a braided essay that interweaves an interaction my Minnesota ancestor, the 19th Century horticulturist Jonathan Taylor Grimes, had with Henry David Thoreau, with personal writing about my becoming a stepmother. 

I became interested in this interaction because I am originally from Massachusetts, but moved to Minnesota to be with my now-husband and his two children. I have no current relatives in the area and I feel like a transplant, but I was interested to learn about this relative who helped found part of Minneapolis and who brought certain plants/trees to the area. When I first moved here, feeling like a stranger, there was a catalpa in the front yard of our rented house, and that was one of the trees he—I don’t know the right word here—spread.

Interesting. I am currently writing my own book about my life and the people who have had an impact on it, but for awhile I’ve been having a hard time portraying emotions the way I want to. It’s like the relationships that are still in my life can’t be put into writing when they’re still growing. Do you experience the same kind of difficulty? Do you have any remedies for this kind of writer’s block?

I certainly understand the “still growing” difficulty. I am helped by a phrase Lauren Berlant uses: “situational clarity.” It’s possible to find a temporary stopping point, a temporary insight that is worth leaning into, while still acknowledging that things will continue evolving. As to your second question, I find it helpful to move my body, to talk to friends (both writers and non writers) about the topic, maybe to talk to them about their experiences to shift/jog my thinking, maybe to use tarot cards or other witchy intuitive tools … I don’t know if any of those resonate 🙂

Often what can’t be told directly can be told slant, Emily Dickinson–style, especially if we let our subconscious float up images toward us and we accept them neutrally and investigate their symbolic valances.

A new collection you edited, Welcome to the Neighborhood: An Anthology of American Coexistence, has just been published by Swallow Press. What was it like working with authors and editing a collection of pieces you didn’t write yourself? Did this make the process of editing harder or easier than your own pieces?

Ooh, interesting question! Yes, the anthology was such an exciting project and I would direct anyone interested during this “social distancing” time to not only check out the (affordable) ebook, but to also see our Instagram, @welcome.to.the.neighborhood, where there are author features/free writing prompts each week. 

As for editing, luckily I did not have to do any developmental editing/revising, because I selected pieces that I thought were already working well. The part that was more similar to working with a manuscript of my own was the task of sequencing/ordering. I wanted to shuffle the three genres, and also create interesting juxtapositions between ‘neighboring’ pieces that might ‘talk’ to each other or make sparks/friction. One of the authors remarked that the anthology was a kind of worldbuilding and when I was doing this ordering I felt somewhat like I was touring or filling a vast apartment complex with various characters. 

How much do you need to write to get to the point of assembling a new collection? For example, how long did it take to complete your poetry collection, Earth Science?

Earth Science came out of my Ph.D. dissertation, so I’d say it took five-six years. It was published in 2016 and it’s 2020, so I guess I’d better get cracking if I want to be consistent with that timetable!

The pull quote from Earth Science’s publisher, 421 Atlanta, says “…there’s so much I don’t know about my life.” I feel the same way. Was there a specific area of your life you wanted to find out more about?

That line came to me spontaneously/intuitively when I was writing the poem “Bon Bon,” about a funny donkey I met in France. The speaker is being a little bit “extra” or melodramatic, leaping from a particular unknown to a general campy helplessness (mixed with, I think, excited curiosity).

Your poem “Nike,” published in Sixth Finch, is dedicated to one of your students who had been shot in a fight. I am interested in its origins. Was this piece inspired by any of his work he had done in class with you, or something else you thought could represent him in the poem?

Kylie, what a perceptive and generous question. Yes, that poem means a lot to me. The parts that mention exercises we did together are completely pulled from my memory of the teaching artist prompts I gave that teen student and his peers in an after-school program in South Boston. His responses to the prompts were striking and memorable and I’m glad they are remembered in the poem.

You are currently an assistant professor at St. Cloud State University. Have you always wanted to teach? Or did you see yourself in another profession? 

I fell in love with teaching when I was a senior in college, trying out teaching ESL during a January term. I’ve been devoted to it since 2002 (!). The other day, an Introductory Creative Writing student asked me what keeps it new, and I found myself saying that students perpetually find ways to surprise me with their poetry—no one has ever answered a prompt exactly the same way twice in all this time. 

In addition to the surprise, I enjoy so many aspects of teaching—the opportunity to connect students to authors who may become touchstones for their own art; expanding students’ sense of possibility when it comes to genre, form, what one is “allowed” to say; watching the surprise on student writers’ and peer readers’ faces when the odd, messy particulars of one person’s life somehow bridge the gap between individuals and create connection; watching students’ confidence and leadership grow.

Kylie Washington is a freshman at The College of Saint Rose. She enjoys experiencing new things, finding ways to live a lifestyle to remember, and writing about things she feels matter most. Kylie is currently writing her first personal book that she hopes someday to share with the world.

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