“I was genuinely unprepared for the memories that this storm brought up. It was almost like a fissure formed in my subconscious, freeing up memories I didn’t know I had, or had buried.”
Accommodations (Concrete Wolf, 2019)
Alana Pearce and Matthew Aprea: “An Ordinary Life” compares your ancestors’ endurance to roots standing firm in soil during storms. Did you choose “An Ordinary Life” as the first poem to suggest that, during hardships, your ancestors give you hope?
I always felt strongly about this poem, and I wanted it to open the book, perhaps because it felt like a kind of identity statement — a stake I could plant, a lens through which readers of the overall work could perceive the poems that lay ahead.
Although all of the poems in this book underwent substantial revision at some point, “An Ordinary Life” went through more iterations than any other. When Atticus Review accepted it, the book manuscript was in the final editing stages. I offered AR the most recently revised book version, but they said, no thanks, we prefer the other one. Which was fine, but no one but me and a few people who worked with me on it knows how I pulled my hair out over that poem trying to get it right. I’m sure I could still find things to change in it, but your read is pretty accurate.
I also aimed to convey a sense of connectedness, not just with my ancestors, also with my environment. And it’s a bit of a privilege poem too, right? As I kept working on the poem, it felt like it took that tone: “here I am; I’ve wanted for nothing, I’ve never been forced to leave my home to find food, or sustenance… this is my ordinary life…etc.” But I went with that, because I wanted to convey that an “ordinary” life can be extraordinary — and I don’t just mean my life, I mean anyone’s life — because security, however we define it, as lifestyle, domestic abode, whatever, can be so fragile. And I think ultimately one has to make meaning out of whatever one comes from.
Ancestral stories do anchor me personally in hard times, and to the extent I can listen better to those stories, as well as to the environment that feeds me, the stronger and more hopeful I become about the world in general, and my place in it. Maybe it’s also a poem that asserts the speaker’s desire to feel her life makes a difference.
Why did you choose the title Accommodations? Is it a metaphor for your family?
I liked the different meanings of the word “Accommodations”, how it encompasses the concept of places we live in long-term or fleetingly — physically and emotionally — as well as the idea of compromise or adjustment. The book deals a lot with relationships, with family and marital dynamics unfolding in a variety of physical spaces, so I felt it was just the right title.
In an interview with Split Rock Review, you discuss ordering the poems for your chapbook The Heart Contracts: “I didn’t really think of my first chapbook, The Heart Contracts, as having an arc. I did have some editorial help… but most of the decisions of what to put where were based on some sense of what felt right and organic to me.” Did you use your instincts for Accommodations? Could you explain your process for ordering its poems?
It’s a bit complicated, in that Accommodations was originally going to be a full-length book, and a professional editor I was working with had given me her view as to how the poems should be ordered in what was at the time about a 45-page manuscript. Despite my intention of not entering any more chapbook competitions while I focused on the full-length, I went ahead and entered the Concrete Wolf chapbook competition, because I’d been a finalist the previous year, and I kind of went, what the heck. I extrapolated from the order I’d come up with for the full-length to cut it down to chapbook length, but I felt the movement and story highlights were the same, just condensed.
The manuscript I submitted to Concrete contained 24 poems I felt were among the most finished, and I just felt that taken together, they told a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, and that the poems themselves were interwoven enough in terms of theme for me to be comfortable with the book as a whole.
Is Accommodations an autobiography of a chapter of your life? How does writing influence your healing process?
I think it’s fair to say that this work does largely center on certain key life events that took place over a fairly intense period of time, about three to four years. My father’s worsening health and subsequent death, along with my father-in-law’s death and the family dynamics that surrounded my husband and me as we worked through these major losses, was a big focus during that period. So was the surreal way that the rest of life continues to go on; I’d never had that awareness in quite this way before.
I found that I was writing more consistently and often than is my norm, and the reason had to do with being mindful that this was an unprecedented period in my life. I felt a strong need to capture the specific events, ruminations, inner conflicts and so forth, that emerged as I was navigating through all that was happening. I absolutely believe that the writing of poetry can be a healing thing, and for me, it often is. But writing poetry can also force you to wrestle with the things that arise from your subconscious, which might or not be things you can ever really heal from. For me, poetry provides a way to better understand myself and others, whether it’s through the writing process, which requires a lot of patience and reflection, or through the reading of other writers who inspire or motivate me.
Your choice of words is just outstanding. The diction in these poems gives them life, and fantastic imagery, and rich detail about what is going on. “Personal Effects” and “Personal Cure for Consumption” are great to read. The words in those poems are powerful. How do you come up with the words for poems like these?
Gosh, this is such a terrific compliment. Thank you so much! Very seldom does anyone comment specifically about aspects of my poems that they enjoy, so when anyone does, I’m amazed and totally humbled. And grateful.
To answer your question…I write my initial drafts in my own pretty basic words, just getting something going and out there, then work toward heightening the vocabulary, as well as other aspects such as metaphor, music, etc., in subsequent drafts. “Personal Cure for Consumption” was in a stuck phase for a long time, until the editor of South Florida Poetry Journal, Lenny DellaRoca, emailed previous contributors with a writing prompt, saying he would publish those he liked that made use of the prompt and arrived in his inbox within a very tight time frame. The prompt was “the woman with medicine in her voice,” and as you could see, I managed to take that and place my mother in the poem in a different way.
In your interview with Frontier Poetry, you stated, “I have to have balance in my life, and enough rest, or nothing flows the way it’s supposed to.” How long does it usually take to write one poem? Also, what is your writing schedule? Do you have days when you just write randomly?
My process varies, but what’s consistent is that overall I try to keep writing and poetry in my life in some way, all the time. Right now, I’m going on about six weeks where I haven’t written anything new or seriously revised anything; that’s a long time for me, but I’ve been traveling, busy at work, or otherwise distracted with life things. It’s always a bit disconcerting when I go through a period like this, but when I can’t write, I try to submit, or to focus on reading work by other poets.
I always believe the poems will come back, and they always do. I also recognize that while sometimes it’s hard for me to relax, the truth is that I’m a happier person if I can just let go of the need to produce something, even for just a day or two, and live more in the moment with my family. When I can do that, and get proper rest, I see things more clearly and my writing reflects that, I think.
I went years without seriously writing and sending out my poems, and still managed to get my first chapbook published, after maybe 12 years of sending it out. I was 58! At the same time, I started really re-focusing my writing efforts after that book came out, and the results I’ve seen in terms of publications definitely reflect a more disciplined practice and recommitment to the process.
“Seasonal Affective” comments on the fading Christmas season and your father’s worsening health: “Weren’t we past this, we ask? Always no, we say, and the chill extends to our bones.” How does writing help you process fear and trauma?
There’s no doubt that, in cases where I’m writing about situations or events that involve fear, anxiety or trauma, writing is for me a way to recreate those situations or events through language as a way to better come to terms with them. I happen to be one who avoids confrontation and conflict in real life as much as possible, but of course I carry emotional stuff around with me all the time.
With respect to specific subjects that involve difficulty or conflict, poetry allows me to unpack and articulate the issues I struggle with. At the same time, by taking a situation from my head to the page, I’m able to lessen some of the personal pain of the emotions involved by detaching from them through the attempt of making art.
When I begin viewing the emotions at stake in a poem through the lens of poetics, i.e. music, metaphor, broader literary context, etc. — things I think of when working on a poem — I’m often surprised at the reprieve I feel. Poetry also gives me the ability to create a new take on old emotions, and to create new endings instead of predictable ones.
In “Personal Cure for Consumption,” you process the death of your great-uncle, Marshall Parsons: “Take this history morning, bedtime, or as needed, with a grain of salt. You are more than DNA.” How does your poetry reflect on your family’s influence?
Thank you for this question. In this poem, I combine stories my mother told me about her late uncle, my great-uncle, with historical archives I was able to locate online. I added to that some echoes of my personal history with alcohol and depression, which is not something I really talk about much. When I say echoes, I mean there are parts of this poem that are not literally true, but felt true enough, to work with. I interwove some different truths in this poem, for the sake of the poem.
This poem tries to draw out the ways in which the stories we’re told or otherwise learn about our ancestors, can mirror our own, yet can also be a “smoke and mirrors” phenomenon: memories and stories change, depending on who’s recounting their specific truth. My truth may not be my mother’s truth; the truth about causes of death and depression varies depending on who you talk to. What really did happen to my great uncle Marshall? Did he really drink himself to death, as I always kind of surmised? Did he sleepwalk himself over a hotel ledge, as his death certificate says, or was his tragic death in his mid-30s a function of his alcoholism or even PTSD? We’ll never know.
My mom would say, “people didn’t talk about these things back then.” After my book came out, and my mother read it, I could tell she was distressed about how I interpreted some events and people who were part of her life and mine by extension. With this particular poem, she kind of walked back some of her previous comments, reiterating the unknowns about Marshall’s death and said again, “people didn’t speak of those things”, meaning mental illness and alcoholism. Specifically, her own mother wouldn’t talk about Marshall’s death, except very vaguely. Marshall died before my mom was born, so she never knew her only maternal uncle, other than anecdotally. But I’ve always been intrigued by his story, and this poem is my effort to re-imagine and acknowledge him, and what I still believe is a tragic story of a life lost too soon, and family secrets.
The poem “We Gather in Florida to Celebrate My Father’s Life” ends with beautiful imagery: “Flowers from each state he lived in flank the pulpit, bloom today in all of them, in all of you: dogwood, peony, forget-me-not.” I noticed that at the conclusion of poems that describe grief, loss, and Hurricane Irma, you end with hope or a symbol of a celebration of life, like the flowers, or like the handkerchief that is passed down in your family. Why is it important for you to end poems hopefully?
While I’m not necessarily of the fatalistic view that things happen for a reason, I do think that to continue on in the face of loss, we must find elements of memory or affirmation that we can treasure and hold close, in order to be able to continue doing whatever good we may be capable of, in a world filled increasingly with humanitarian, environmental, and existential challenges, not to mention challenges associated with aging. If we don’t find some things to be hopeful about or thankful for — for ourselves and those we’re accountable to, or are in relationship with, who depend on us —we run the risk of being consumed by negativity and overwhelming sadness.
In Accommodations, plants play an important role. For instance, in “Changed Landscape,” magnolias have been “Programmed… to bloom in the cold,” adding beauty to a season of hardship. In “Royal Palms Defend Their Place in the Condo Universe,” palm trees argue their right to exist in Florida amidst housing developments: “We impede some views, it’s true, but the association knew, or should have known, our nature when we went to ground.” The palm trees fiercely desire to stay in Florida where they have existed for decades. Do you often use plants as symbols in your poetry?
I’m so pleased you noticed this and asked about it. I have definitely become more aware of the environment in relation to situations I am writing about, and have made a conscious effort to be more observant about nature in general, particularly in recent years. Probably because of that, I find that the plants and trees that have surrounded me all my life in the South pop up more and more frequently in my poems. They seem to represent a sort of shadow presence, weighing in on my witness and experience.
“Royal Palms” is a persona poem that came about as part of an exercise in the Southeast Review Regimens program I participated in a couple of years ago. There was a different writing prompt every day in that program, and I happened to be at the beach on the day that prompt appeared. So, I kind of let loose, and chose the tree that was right in front of me to serve as the vehicle for an almost stream-of-consciousness conversation between the palm trees and the condo association’s regulatory universe. I haven’t written many persona poems, but I loved experimenting with that form, and found that doing so allowed me to be creative in fresh ways.
“Changed Landscape” started with me dissecting a photograph of my father in a courtyard on the Agnes Scott Campus, a beautiful setting with lots of gorgeous magnolia trees, in Decatur, Georgia. Everything in that photo seemed frozen in time, and there was that odd contrast between the cold weather and the blooming magnolia, which seemed to me to be an interesting detail to include in the poem, as it’s true of life in general that we live in a world of paradoxes, and a memory such as a photograph captures can bring that truth into sharper relief. In this poem, I’m in my air-conditioned office, in another place and time from when the photo was taken, reflecting on my father who no longer exists except in memory. Yet the memory itself is a kind of bloom.
Interspersed in Accommodations are poems about domestic chores like “Questions for the Plumber During Remodeling” and poems about mourning your father and the hurricane. Did grief make everyday challenges, like remodeling a house, more difficult?
One of the things I learned in navigating the loss of my father and the loss of my father-in-law within six months of each other was that for the rest of the world, as for me and my family—even in a time of such upheaval, life goes on. That seems so obvious, and yet all of a sudden, things like keeping mundane appointments, like preparing for a hurricane, like making decisions on new cabinetry and appliances, on a deadline someone else had set but we had bought into, were suddenly more difficult and consuming than I could have imagined.
I included the remodeling poems, which were also, of course, poems about my marriage at that point in time, as well as with my home in its “before and after” iterations — my physical accommodations — to provide a more multi-dimensional perspective on how grief can affect every aspect of life in ways we can’t anticipate.
In “Before Landfall” there is an interesting juxtaposition between Hurricane Irma and grief: “I watched him track my tears, a salt river, smelling of seaweed and grief. His good eye would have seen me through just one more storm.” Could you discuss the contrast of the incoming eye of Hurricane Irma with memories of your father?
When Hurricane Irma began bearing down on Florida in September 2017, it was predicted to be devastating to pretty much all parts of the state. There was bad flooding not far from us, but we were mostly fine in Gainesville. I wanted to capture what that event was like, before, during and after the storm, and the more I read about Irma’s characteristics, the more I thought about my father’s physical condition as it had deteriorated toward the end of his life. He had died only six months before, so a lot of the details surrounding his health were still fresh in my mind.
My dad was blind in his right eye, and at some point, I thought about how his good eye tracked my movements whenever I was with him. His eye and the fluid nature of life, and his specific life, became sort of metaphors how I was experiencing the storm.
The poem “The Block House at Mexico Beach” recalled your step-father as the “family evacuee.” It states how your family reminisced about him during hurricane season: “We relived his stay-or-leave dilemmas and their hold on us, when we found the house shuttering his everlasting secrets.” Could you discuss how seasons and weather awaken memories?
This poem was written in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, which devastated much of North Florida, including the town of Mexico Beach, where my step-father, whose name was also John, like my dad’s, had fixed up an old duplex he and my mom owned for about 20 years.
Although she sold the place when he died in 2011, it still held memories. After the storm, I was obsessed with finding out if the house still stood, and managed to verify that it did — although like everyplace else, there’d been flooding, and “still standing,” wasn’t a complete picture. The place looked very different from the last time I saw it, which was right after John died; my husband, sisters and I drove from Tallahassee to clean and sort through his things, so my mother wouldn’t have to.
I was genuinely unprepared for the memories that this storm brought up. It was almost like a fissure formed in my subconscious, freeing up memories I didn’t know I had, or had buried. My step-dad’s story was complex, and a bit messy. He dealt all his life with issues of abandonment and alcoholism, and harbored a lot of guilt having to do with his first family, which he basically left for my mother. Those years were long ago, and there was some healing, but this hurricane stirred up a lot of past hurts and family dramas. As I wrote this poem, I found myself reliving John’s story, as well as, by extension, my own story, and my relationship to those affected places: the house he built and the town he claimed as his own. And here’s the hopeful piece: the house survived, and I did, too.
What were some of the most important writing lessons you learned as a college student? How did they shape your writing style?
I’ll never forget my major professor, Van Brock, telling me at the end of my master’s program, that I needed to “revise, revise, revise.” He was actually quite frustrated with me at the time, and made me completely redo my thesis, which he felt I just hadn’t thought through carefully enough. After crying my eyes out, I did that, passed my program, got my degree and kept writing poems in the years that followed. But the longer I write, the longer it takes me to finish a poem, I’ll work on a poem for months, even years, typically, although there’s the occasional poem that seems to sort of write itself in a shorter period.
In general, I think much more clearly when I can slow my thought process down, and allow transformations within and outside of the poem — meaning within me as the writer/speaker — to take place as the poem evolves toward completion.
Another thing I’ve recommended to quite a few people is to read the Poets & Writers Classifieds for tips on where to submit. My former professor, David Kirby recommended this during my graduate program, and I found it very valuable advice. In fact, my first poem was published in the Florida Review, which I sent work to after reading that they were seeking submissions. I have also used P & W a few times to seek out editorial help.
As a student, I had the opportunity to briefly serve as one of several poetry readers for the Florida State University literary publication, then called Sundog. This was well before the advent of electronic submissions, so we were passing a lot of paper around. This experience gave me an appreciation of what literary editors go through in making decisions about what to publish, as well as to better appreciate the work literary journal editors put into making a journal successful.
“Paris Voices” examines the threat of terrorism in Paris. It stands out in Accommodations, which has poems mainly about loss in your family. Why did you include this poem in the chapbook?
That’s a great question, and one I’m not sure I know the answer to. It was a bit of an outlier, for sure. You’re correct, in that it was written after the Paris attacks and doesn’t neatly fit the other subjects in the book. The short answer would be that I liked the work, but questioned whether to include it until a reader/editor I trusted to give me very honest feedback, did not say “cut it.” So, I figured it must belong, and left it in.
A lot goes on in that poem; there’s the awareness of a terrorist attack, and the way the news amplifies this, such that we internalize a sense of fear and dread while we go about our normal routines; there’s also the juxtaposition of safety/security/normalcy with vulnerability and a sense of impending doom. These aren’t just emotions I’m talking about here, but rather states-of-being. Those avenues where tragedy occurs might as well be in our own neighborhoods, because they make us question what our reality is, and how to process what’s going on within us, with what’s going on outside of us, and outside of our control.
I could say “Paris Voices” relates to the other work in Accommodations because this poem extends the concept of occupancy, in the sense of places where we reside, spaces we inhabit in our immediate environment, to a broader, more global set of circumstances. We’re not just navigating the loss of a parent in this poem; we’re contemplating the loss of one’s own life and examining the surreal way in which we keep on living in the midst of tragedy, reenacting our routines, imagining they are the same as they always were, but knowing they are not.
“At Rhine Falls” brings Accommodations full circle with its theme of finding strength in family: “An origin, tectonic shifts, cracked bedrock, a flow of water an earthquake changed.” The poem suggests that breaking tectonic plates can form a waterfall, that beauty can come from destruction. Did you end with “At Rhine Falls” because it links to the first poem?
I always knew I wanted to end with this poem, but not because it linked to the first one — although they do bookend nicely, I think. The book opens with An Ordinary Life establishing who I am in relation to my environment and my ancestors, anchored by my home and original family, and ends with me far away from home in Switzerland, with my second family — my husband, his son and my step-grandson – at Rhine Falls, a devastatingly beautiful place with a fascinating history.
Experiencing this gorgeous and dramatic spot, which has lured artists, royalty and countless people for many years, with my step-grandson, my step-son, his wife and my husband, was a special memory. Placing “At Rhine Falls” as the last poem of the book was a way to end with a reminder of the cycle of life; it was a way to bring family, in its many dimensions, along with the book itself, full circle.
Sarah Carey was the winner of the 2018 Concrete Wolf Chapbook Award for her book, Accommodations. She is also the author of another poetry chapbook, The Heart Contracts, (2016, Finishing Line Press). A graduate of the Florida State University creative writing program, Sarah’s work has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Frontier Poetry, Grist, Carolina Quarterly, Potomac Review, Barrow Street, Atticus Review and elsewhere. She lives in Gainesville, Florida, where she works as a communications specialist. Visit her at SarahKCarey.com or on Twitter @SayCarey1.