Sara Cutaia: You’ve said lately that you don’t write as much as you used to. But when you did, how did you vacillate between writing poetry and writing essays? Was there ever a time you were doing both, or did you have to set time aside for each? Do you enjoy one more than the other?
Sarah Gorham: While I was writing my fourth book of poetry, Bad Daughter, I began extending my lines all the way to the end of the page. I was also experimenting with prose poems, expanding them as well, sometimes to two full pages. It happened pretty naturally. A group of these ended up as interstices in Study in Perfect. I spent two weeks in a wonderful farmhouse in rural Kentucky where I wrote the series, Study in Perfect, examining various kinds of perfection that ended up prompting a study of imperfection too. Perfect tea, perfect heaven, perfect conversation, perfect ending, etc. They were fairly idiosyncratic too—I make my tea in a microwave, for example. I started to breathe more in a sentence. During the same period I was commissioned to write an essay about mothers and daughters. I ended up calling it “A Woman Drawn Twice,” and thought it was my first real essay, I thought it decent enough to be included in this collection. Essays are a pleasure for me, and poetry was more torturing. It’s wonderful when you can finish a poem, especially when it comes very quickly, but a lot of it is struggle. In fact, I’m so happy here in the essay, I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back!
SC: Do you have any advice for writers that want to attempt to write in multiple genres?
SG: There were people at Iowa who crossed those sacred borders and wrote in both poetry and fiction. I never understood how they did it. Jayne Anne Phillips was one, and she’s had a very successful career. Generally, I think it’s better for a student to focus on one or the other, at least at first. But the approach to each genre can vary significantly, so when you get stuck, it’s a relief to move from one to the other. For example, I often used exercises to jumpstart my poetry. One of them was called a “negative inversion,” where you take a fairly simple poem, transcribe it by hand on the left side of a page and on the right you compose the exact opposite of every line. Sometimes it comes out as nonsense, but gradually, you’ll find yourself writing a poem that has nothing to do with the original. Then there are faux translations. The same process, but write out a poem in original Swedish. Read it out loud, then transcribe it on the right side of the page. It’s important that you aren’t familiar with the language, so your version will be based on sound.
In essay, description is a way in. Sometimes I think of essays as jigsaw puzzles. You start with the corner pieces, then you assemble the edges, then you start building the images on the inside. Or you can start with the images on the inside and work your way out. In any case, you’re beginning with something small—a scene, an image, a specific remembered experience. Less overwhelming! With these moveable parts, you can tackle thematic aspects and the transitions between sections. But to begin an essay on the generalized topic of love and death, for example, isn’t something I could ever do.
I’ve heard of another great jumpstarting idea: have a friend come up with twenty random, but interesting words and ask them to incorporate them into a page-length prose piece. It forces you in new directions the same way that traditional forms do for poetry.
SC: What about fiction? Have you ever tried it?
SG: No, but maybe it’s in my future. You know, I have trouble telling a joke! I always get the punch line wrong, or I take too long to get there . . .
SC: Well, in the first essay in your collection, “Moving Horizontal,” the prose where you and your husband find the new home – that felt like storytelling to me. And numerous other passages, too.
SG: That’s interesting. Perhaps it’s the invention factor that intimidates me? Anyway, there are story-like pieces in my new book, Alpine Apprentice. Two chapters towards the end describe an avalanche in Switzerland that my friend managed to survive. He was a teacher, and one of his students was buried underneath him. He had the ability to tell a story. I sat with him on a hillside, at the edge of this tiny Alpine village and recorded his account. It was riveting. All I had to do was pick it up and sew it together. It turned out to be a page-turner, as you might expect, but I had a lot of help!
SC: Many of your essays in Study in Perfect conclude with a rather open-ended encouragement to the reader to seek their own solution. Would you say this was intentional, to pose questions instead of offering answers?
SG: Yes, I prefer an open-ended essay. Far better than locking off the reading experience with a neat conclusion. For example, in “The Art of Lying,” the very last question I bring up casts doubt back over the essay, adding another layer, and leaving it up to the reader to decide whether I’m lying or not.