“Art, specifically visual art, has always excited me and haunted me. Writing this book was a way to capture some of those emotions.”
How Darkness Enters a Body (Porkbelly Press, 2018)
Could you tell us about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?
I knew that I wanted to be a writer at a very young age; ten or eleven, I think. I was very lucky to have parents who were voracious readers, and they passed that down to me. Libraries have always been places of refuge for me; whatever has been going on in my life, good or bad, I know that I can go to a library and that I will be welcomed by what it holds. My childhood and early adulthood were tumultuous; to know that I could escape into a book meant, and still means to me, a great deal. When I told my parents (specifically my father), he told me that being a writer was hard, and what would I do for a “real” job? At the time, I had no answer to that question. I didn’t really know how to even begin to be a writer. I wanted to be a journalist for a long time (When I was 15-16, I was a newsroom assistant at my hometown’s paper, and I had done a week-long internship at the Yale Daily News between my junior and senior years of high school.) I realized that the pace was too fast for me. But as I got older, I never envisioned myself as primarily a poet. I won first prize in a college writing contest, with a poem about Edward Hopper’s painting, Nighthawks. I was also taking a more general creative writing class, and my instructor saw something in the poems I was writing for that, and I think of that as the beginning to what I’m doing now. It’s difficult to believe that it’s been twenty years.
Could you share with us a poem from your chapbook? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
After Contact Sheet #4539 of three different sets of identical twins, by Diane Arbus
In our secret language,
we float upside down.
It’s like speaking to a mirror. Or
an x-ray. Those shrouded outlines
presenting us with maps.
Here is your tongue, sister. Let
me share it.
Here is my hand. You take it
piece left over
from the time before
when we slept in
the aperture of our
Here are our eyes. Pinholes
Why did I choose this poem?
I chose “Contact Sheet” because I see it as an entryway into the other poems. I use specific terms related to photography, like “contact sheet,” “aperture,” and “pinhole.” One of Diane Arbus’s most famous photographs is of a pair of identical twin girls, and perhaps using a work that may be familiar to others is another way to entice readers to explore the book further. I made an effort to use lesser-known Arbus photographs for the rest of the book. I also chose this poem because I like its strangeness. There is something eerie to it.
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?
For a long time, I said that I would like to do a chapbook of ekphrastic poetry, and I have a long history with that, from that college writing contest prize, writing about an Edward Hopper painting, to my first non-student poetry publication, which was about another Hopper painting, New York Movie. Two ekphrastic poems appear in my first chapbook. However, I kept circling around Arbus, and the way that she never looked away at people and things that were too often ignored, or if not ignored, instances that might just be thrown away. She was an extraordinary portraitist. My project became more urgent, I think, after I had an opportunity to see an exhibit of Arbus’s early work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2016. After only seeing the photographs in books, being up close to it made it more alive. It was also around this time that I first heard of Valerie Wallace’s full length book, House of McQueen, which was published this year, and deals with the life and work of the designer Alexander McQueen. It was such an innovative idea, and I wish I had thought of it! It shows me that there are no limits to what ekphrastic poetry can do, and was a real impetus to start working on this thing that I had wanted to do for so long. Art, specifically visual art, has always excited me and haunted me. Writing this book was a way to capture some of those emotions.
What is your chapbook about?
Aside from using Diane Arbus’s photographs to fashion a sort of “back story” for what I think or feel is going on inside the world of the photo, I notice that not a few of the poems are centered in women’s stories. I write about a sword swallower learning her trade from her mother. A headless woman who wonders what her mother might think about her being on display in a sideshow. I have a persona poem in the voice of Arbus herself, related to an accidental double exposure self portrait over a scene of New York City at night. I don’t know that when I set out to write the poems that I had in mind the idea that women’s stories was going to be a parallel thread to describing my interpretation of certain works. But that’s what happened, and I’m glad it did.
What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of my chapbook?
I submitted the manuscript to Porkbelly Press’s annual open reading period for micro-chapbooks last year. I think by that point it had already been turned down at another press; and I knew that Nicci Mechler, the EIC of Porkbelly was looking for Arbus related poems.
I was asked if I would be willing to drop a poem from the ms, and change the title, which at the time of the submission was Contact Sheet. I was willing to do that, and it was accepted. I knew that I would have a gorgeous book at the end of the process. Nicci asked me about cover ideas, and when I started looking around, I was looking too hard for art that had a similar aesthetic to Arbus’s work, and I came to the conclusion that I was looking, and trying, too hard to duplicate something that can’t be duplicated. One day when I was still looking for images, a friend on Facebook posted some illustrations from a German book on Astronomy, and that appealed to me. I somehow found myself in the digital archives of the New York Public Library, looking at images that were free to use, and I found this illustration of a total solar eclipse, which had been observed by the artist, E.L. Trouvelot, in 1878, in Wyoming. Light, of course, is needed for photography, but Arbus’s work is full of shadows, physical or psychological. I shared my find with Nicci, and she agreed that it was right. She chose to put it on a green background with red endpapers, which makes it pop. It’s like holding a dark green jewel in your hand. It was such a positive collaboration.
If you have more than one chapbook or novella, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
By the end of 2018, I will have had seven chapbooks published since 2012.
The Country of No (Finishing Line Press, 2012): This was my first chapbook. It dealt with the end of a relationship, the death of a parent, and acknowledged my primary influence, Sylvia Plath.
Edie (Whispering): Poems from Grey Gardens (Dancing Girl Press, 2015). This collection was my first of exclusively found poems, using the transcripts from the 1975 documentary, Grey Gardens. I used persona more than I ever had before. I wrote it fast, and it never felt like work.
She May Be a Saint (Hermeneutic Chaos Press, 2016.) This chapbook is a collection of centos using the work of C.D. Wright and Sylvia Plath as sources. Since 2016, the press has closed, but the book can be read online for free; it was chosen last year to be included in San Francisco State University’s Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange Program.
How Darkness Enters a Body (Porkbelly Press, January, 2018). A collection of ekphrastic poems using the work of Diane Arbus.
Dreamland for Keeps (Porkbelly Press, 2018.) A chapbook of found poetry using James Ellroy’s novel, The Black Dahlia, as its source material, again using persona to restore the
the voice of Elizabeth Short, the victim of a notorious murder in 1947 Los Angeles.
Little Sister (Grey Book Press, 2018.) Another collection of found poetry, using Anne Rice’s novel, Violin, as its source material.
This is Not a Redemption Story (Dancing Girl Press, 2018.) Forthcoming. This is a collection of poems that deals with the end of my active opioid addiction and my experience of early recovery.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Don’t be in a rush to publish or feel like if you’ve reached a certain age, you “should” have accomplished a certain writing goal. This is a marathon. Take breaks, or engage in another creative activity if you don’t feel like writing at a particular time. You are still a writer, even when you aren’t. Read widely. Read your contemporaries. Speaking for poetry only right now, there is a glut of incredible work out there, dying to be read. Ask yourself if this is truly what you want to do. Writing takes time, patience, and more patience. It can be a lonely job, so try to find a community that is welcoming, either online or in real life.
Sarah Nichols lives and writes in Connecticut. She is the author of seven chapbooks of poetry. Her poems and essays have appeared in Drunk Monkeys, Dream Pop, Memoir Mixtapes, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Rogue Agent, and the RS500.
Dreamland for Keeps: www.porkbellypress.com/poetry/dreamland
How Darkness Enters a Body: www.porkbellypress.com/poetry/darkness
She May Be a Saint: www.poetrychapbooks.omeka.net/items/show/67
“Suburban Dream,” (the poem I cut from How Darkness Enters a Body):