Greg: Hey Sarah. Thanks for taking part in this online interview. My first question for you is this: what is the most recent poetic discovery you’ve made?
Sarah: Thanks, Greg! I’m happy to talk poetry. Just a few days ago I made a pleasant discovery in the realm of revision, which amounts to: don’t throw stuff out. I was looking over some really rough material from two years ago, which at the time was completely overwhelming and ended up falling by the wayside as I pursued other projects. For some reason, last week I was drawn back to it and spent a few hours chopping up and splicing together a couple dozen pieces. My distance from it allowed me to be merciless– also to see the poetic through-lines more sharply and realize that the poems did belong together. Now I have a chapbook draft!
I know everyone’s process is different, but I think there’s a lot to be said for revisiting your old writing, doing really quick, dirty, extreme edits, and seeing what you come up with. Essentially, trash becomes treasure with time (and a hacksaw).
Greg: While I certainly remember quite well the projects you were involved in two-three years ago, and look back on those days with joy (it really was productive, wasn’t it?) could you take some time to discuss what you were working on for writing, presentation, and curation of poetry in Philadelphia and beyond? Aside from your editing process, has anything drastically changed or morphed in your approach to poetry since then? If so, what? What’s stayed the same?
Also, can you tell us a little bit about the draft for the chapbook and the chapbook idea as a whole?
Sarah: Short answer to the chapbook question: I’m dorkily obsessed with American geography and history. The chapbook is just the latest incarnation of my fetish. It’s a way to view the rural American context through a historical lens, populating its landscape with female characters. These women question why they were brought to [X place], whether it’s a farm, a frontier, or a small town, to serve as men’s partners and as mothers of their children—producers, essentially, of bodies to work the land or the mill or the mine.
When I decided to move to Philadelphia after college, everyone I knew (who all moved either to New York or to the Bay Area) was like, “Why?” I didn’t actually have a good answer for them, knowing pretty much nothing about the city. But Philly changed my life. I was tremendously lucky to fall into (via craigslist, no less) the wonderful group of people who eventually became the New Philadelphia Poets, a group which is now defunct as a result of people leaving and other shifts. But for over three years it had an incredibly exhilarating run as a collaborative poetry troupe of sorts, putting on readings, performances, workshops, hosting great poets from out of town, et cetera.
It was through this turn of fate that I learned about experimental poetry in the first place. In college we read more straight-ahead, conservative kind of stuff; I used to approach writing a poem as if it were a puzzle to be solved. I would go to the library for five hours and not leave until I’d cracked the code. This is what you could call the “epiphanic” model, and it works for a lot of people. But ultimately it couldn’t hold what I was moving toward. When people in the New Philadelphia Poets starting sharing work (their own and their heroes’) that was more bizarre, less categorizable, not as easy to crack, I felt so liberated. Now I write pretty much exclusively by free association, which has allowed me to access and articulate the more fucked-up side of my mind. My poems are typically pretty dark. I just vomit and mop it up later.
I can’t overstate the value of writing in community. That’s what really opened up my head and my heart to the poetry I was meant to write. Because a lot of what I produced in that time was not mine by any means; it held pieces of everyone in the group, and the same was true for everybody else. In fact while we were generating material for our 2009 Philly Fringe show, we would do stuff like go to Washington Square (Philly has one too!), meditate on alchemy and the hundreds of dead bodies below our feet, write and immediately feed it to each other, write again until there was this crazy tangled nerve net of poetry that represented all of us and which couldn’t be untangled. Now when I write it’s with a channeled voice, a voice of multiplicity. That feels cosmic and right to me.
Greg: I’m also very curious about community when it comes to poetry, as well as poetics. As you’ll notice to some degree when you perform at the Breadline, a community exists and that community has its strengths and weaknesses. At the core there are poets and artists of all types living and being invested in the series. But additionally, artists who bring their work to the Breadline, either as a featured performer or someone on the open mic, either as a first-time performer or return performer, appear to use the space, the audience, the community, as a conduit to channel those creative energies and efforts.
I’m curious about how, in Philadelphia and otherwise, you’ve seen your own poetry and art interacting with the community. Have you shaped pieces to fit the mold of the communities you’ve been in, or have your pieces found themselves going to the community after they were created externally? Or perhaps a combination of both?
Additionally, I’m curious how things have changed for you since the New Philadelphia Poets evaporated (RIP). Any comments on the differences in your poetics and poetic outlook since shifting gears to San Francisco?
Sarah: Your description of the Breadline’s nurturing environment is so exciting, and I’m really looking forward to being there. I know I’ll miss our time in Philly when I see you thriving in your new Seattle habitat!
I think in Philadelphia I did a certain kind of molding for my community, as I was struggling to get comfortable with a new, experimental voice. At first maybe it was more self-conscious, born of a deep insecurity. But my confidence definitely grew over my time there, because of the pairing of warmth and high standards that existed in the community. Is that the ideal combination, do you think?
There was a really important step for me in between Philly (the New Philadelphia Poets) and San Francisco (where I’m in an MFA program). I lived for a year and half in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, a magical hamlet of 450 souls. In the nearest suburban hellzone, I waited tables at a corporate “casual fine dining” establishment that shall go unnamed, and on my days off I wrote my first full manuscript of poems. I actually think having a shitty and physically-oriented job, where I was on my feet all day and only using my brain for the most meaningless of tasks, was fantastic for my writing. I spent lots of time reading on the front porch with bad red wine. In poetry terms I was basically alone, meaning I had nobody with whom to talk shop in person, but I wanted it that way. It was like hitting the reset button, because I although I had a ball in Philly, I was also burnt out from coordinating and attending so many events. That time on my own was necessary to get through the project I’d set out to do, and it eventually led me to make the impulsive move of applying to a single MFA program (at SF State).
So things have shifted for me, definitely, since leaving Philly. I certainly miss the less structured, more whimsical, informal community that exists in a city’s poetry scene and encompasses a kind of diversity you (unfortunately) cannot always find in higher education. There are many differing views on the merits of MFAs, including the fear that everyone’s writing ends up the same (and worse) by the end. I only just finished my first semester. But I can say that at least in this program, I haven’t experienced a single iota of pressure to write in a certain way, and the stylistic range of the poets I’ve met is enormous. Which is awesome. At least in the context of this community, the only shaping of my work that I do is making it the best it can be.
In the meantime I’m identifying the writers in my program whom I respect most, personally and aesthetically, and am slowly starting to build dreams and energy around the kinds of non-academic side projects we can eventually do together in the real world (or at least in the real world of poetry, which in the Bay Area is happily very big).
Sarah Heady is a poet with roots in New York State’s Hudson Valley and an MFA student in creative writing at San Francisco State University. She writes about old stuff and human geography. Some places her work has or will be seen: About Place, APIARY, Bombay Gin, Chronogram, Hot Metal Bridge, and Never On Time. Two tiny chapbooks: Eight-track Underwater (2010, Splitleaves Press) and Cygnet (2009, _Catch/Confetti Press). As a founding member of the New Philadelphia Poets, Sarah produced and performed in Redemptive Strike: Reckoning the Decade at the Bowery Poetry Club in 2010 and In(visible) Keepsakes: A Modern Alchemical Carnival in the 2009 Philly Fringe Festival.
Sarah will be presenting her poetry at Breadline on January 16, 2013. You can visit her at sarahheady.com.