“I feel like most art searches for God in some way. So does mine.”
Hooked Through (Five Oaks Press, 2017)
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I would go visit my dad on the weekends as a kid. He had this old (well, new then) computer which was really only a word processor. I’d spend the whole weekend writing on that thing. At that time, I wrote stories and plays for the neighborhood kids. I liked to be seen as a writer then, and I think I knew it was what I’d always want to do. Eventually that turned into poetry I’d write for the preacher’s son (yes, really). Short answer, I guess I always just naturally turned to writing.
The dedication of your chapbook says, “For Cohen, my first born.” Are you often inspired to write for your family?
Yes. Cohen is eight now. When I had him, I was going through a long writing dry spell. I’ve met people who say they stopped writing after having kids, but for me it was the opposite. I came into myself as a writer after I became a mother. I dedicated the book to him because sometimes I would look at him and feel this terror about the world in front of him, which of course I couldn’t express to him. I also write for my husband a lot. I actually send him every poem in its first draft stage, so he’s always my first audience.
During our Skype session, you mentioned that your grandfather is Native American and passed to you motifs about life and death from his culture. Could you say more about how Hooked Through draws on your familial lineage and Native American culture?
My family moved from Appalachia to inner city Columbus before I was born, so they were relocated Native Americans (Cherokee/Seminole) in many ways—shrugging off their own culture in favor of assimilation. Despite this, there were still many stories and beliefs my grandfather passed on which I use in the book—my grandfather would hunt and fish and use every part of the animal, for instance. He was very in tune with nature. He was legally blind, but could go out into the middle of the lake and catch more fish than anyone else. He also would tend the earth, he had a huge, complex garden—and my family made different medicines and had a very holistic approach to healing and medicine which I used often in the book. I pepper images of all of this throughout. He is the bear, and I am the fish.
In “After the Burial,” the imagery is very vivid. How do you find these images in your mind’s eye? What place do you go to, mentally or physically, to attain such out-of-the-box descriptions?
For this poem, I think this was a real moment with my son—a dark sort of epiphany in nature. In general, though, I like to push myself to be a “literalist of the imagination,” to quote Marianne Moore. Sometimes I’ll turn to mythology or research to help jumpstart this sort of thought.
In “Until I Learn to Let Go Part II,” you write a very short but impactful phrase, “Death is nothing like the stories I keep telling you. But neither is life.” This sentence rang very true to me because often, it can be difficult to portray the reality of life and death through writing. Could you tell us more about this phrase? What advice do you have for expressing serious meanings with few words?
For me, story was such a central part of what I was trying to do with this chapbook, and it’s why I chose to separate it with Zipes and Bakhtin, whose theoretical work inspired how I approached mythological and family lore. I wanted to find my place not only as a character in these stories and forms, but as a human being who, though she will die, may use her words to find the immortality the characters in these stories have. For, as Jack Zipes says, “tales are marks that leave traces of the human struggle for immortality” (“The Changing Function of the Fairy Tale”). Many speak about death theoretically, disconnection from death out of fear. There is a postmodern push toward really looking at death as a physical thing. Stories bring immortality, but I try to pull these classical bodies back to the world of the grotesque (a la Bakhtin) by infusing them with the fear of death. My core drive is to protect my son from this aspect of the world, something I believe story was created for. But in the end, stories can’t replace experience—so for me, that end was a kind of letting go.
As for the brevity, I think it’s just about cutting back and cutting back until you get to the real core of what you want to say. I spend most of my revision time cutting off the excess!
What do you like to do when you’re not writing? Do you ever find inspiration for your poetry in day-to-day activities and do you stop right then and write them down, or wait until later when you sit down to write?
I wish I could say I stop and write it down because I feel like I lose a lot not doing that. I have three kids now (the youngest being eight months), so I have to find quiet times to write, usually when they are all sleeping. I will often get a line or idea in my head I’ll keep spinning and spinning, then it’ll be a more fully developed poem when I get that time to put it on the page. I always want to be like Joan Didion with a journal, but I’ve not been that organized. Someday over the rainbow.
As for when I’m not writing, I like cooking, dance parties with my kids, obsessing over Tori Amos, long baths, TV Shows with strong female protagonists (thanks for the category, Netflix), folk art, travelling, and of course reading.
What does your writing and editing process look like for your poetry?
I write pretty quickly, then spend a lot of time editing and revising. I will usually let a poem sit for a few months before I even touch it to revise because it gives me that fresh distance. I also have a great group of women (special shout out to Rae Hoffman Jager and Caroline Davis Plaskett) who I know I can count on to inspire me to keep writing, and who can offer me strong feedback when I hit a revision wall. I haven’t always had a writing group, but now I think it’s invaluable.
In Hooked Through you mention God a lot. What are your spiritual beliefs and how do they influence your writing?
I grew up with conflicting spiritualities. From the Native American culture to my grandmother’s hardcore Pentecostalism, I’ve been surrounded by spirituality and religion. This has made me desire truth. The trauma explained in the book threw that into a tailspin, though. It’s hard to find belief in that much darkness. I feel like most art searches for God in some way. So does mine.
What do you consider literary success? What would be the greatest advice you could give to a young writer looking to attain such success?
That’s a tough one! I’m not sure anyone really feels successful. Maybe someone like Mark Doty or Jorie Graham does. They seem to have it all, poetry wise—recognition, awards, etc. I guess there are the big names, then there are people I still think of as very successful, like Chen Chen who is becoming more widely read and discussed, and whose poetry moves and speaks to a broad range of people. I really don’t think of myself as completely successful, so I guess my advice to a young writer and to myself would be to just keep doing it. There’s a lot of rejection in the poetry world. My mentor Kelly Moffett always says “the best stuff is going to rise to the top.” When you’re in a huge thicket of rejection, just tell yourself that and keep going.
A common motif throughout your chapbook is teeth and skin. Is the process of developing a theme intentional, or do these motifs show up on their own?
They definitely show up on their own. I don’t think you can force a theme too hard. For me, if I am dwelling on something, I come back to the same images over and over naturally. Teeth and skin are the parts of the body we see and touch, they are mostly what we know of the body, we see them age and decay.
Who are some of your favorite authors and what kind of books do you read most often?
I mostly read poetry and I love all sorts, Sharon Olds, Adrienne Rich, H.D., Alice Notley, Anne Carson, Olga Broumas, Matthea Harvey, Harryette Mullen, Charles Wright—I loved Ada Limon’s Bright Dead Things, which I just read. I also do like to read fiction. I enjoy magical realism and fairy tale inspired stuff a la Angela Carter or Aimee Bender. I am most inspired by myth and epics. The Iliad is my absolute favorite. I’m currently working on a chapbook inspired by The Inferno.
If you could tell your younger writer self anything, what would it be?
Apply yourself! I feel like that’s what everyone would tell their younger self—I needed to, though.
What is the meaning behind “As If Death Were Nothing”?
This poem illustrates my desire to take story to a pre-patriarchal place. The characters in it are connected to the earth, not to ideology. I also allude to many types of story (Eve, the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood), but they are given an equal footing. What I want to show is that story in a natural instinct in humans and might help us get to the real in ourselves and the world.
Many of your poems make statements about life and death. Do all of these reflect your own opinion or do some of the poems have speakers who are different from you?
I think they are and aren’t me. As I mentioned, in many of them I am trying to get at the nature of the stories we tell, so I take on the more traditional narrative voice of the fairy tale speaker. The first section after “Like a Fish” is meant to be more detached in this way, the second closer to me and my actual feelings.
Sara Moore Wagner is the author of the chapbook Hooked Through (Five Oaks Press, 2017). Her poetry has appeared in many journals and anthologies including Stirring, Gigantic Sequins, Alyss, IDK Magazine, Reservoir, and Arsenic Lobster, among others, and she has been nominated for a Pushcart prize. Her poetry has also been supported by a SAFTA residency and a merit scholarship from the Juniper Institute. She lives in Cincinnati with her filmmaker husband Jon and their children, Daisy, Vivienne, and Cohen.