Sarah Gorham and Sara Cutaia

January 17, 2017

A Conversation

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.

SC: You’re the co-founder of Sarabande Books, created back in 1994. What prompted your desire to start this press? And since its conception, what has been the most rewarding part for you?

SG: My co-founder Jeffrey Skinner and I started playing with the idea in 1993-ish, during a serious recession. A number of presses were closing their doors to the ‘poor cousins’ of the publishing world, poetry and short fiction. It was really grim. We just didn’t have enough places to send our manuscripts. Then we had dinner with a special benefactor who felt the same way. At dinner this person said, “Wouldn’t it be great to offer some good news for a change? We can’t go on like this. We could start a press that just focuses on the books that don’t sell? But I don’t want to do any of the work.” So I piped up, “No problem, I’ll do the work.” I spent the next year and a half doing research and educating myself by chatting with other editors, designers, and marketing directors—my own publishers, and many more who were so very generous with their advice. One of the things we made sure of was, right off, we hired a marketing director. She and I went to New York, visited all the reviewers and had that face-to-face. It had really positive results. The New York Times reviewed our very first book of fiction. It feels like Sarabande has been blessed from the beginning.

And as to what’s been the best part—that’s really tough; there are so many.  I love the discovery of a fantastic manuscript, the actual physical sensation of knowing this is the one. I love going to AWP. We work in isolation in Louisville, a city that overall has only modest appreciation of literature as art. At AWP, we’re able to get a sense of where we stand in the publishing world—how sweet people feel about us, how well the books sell, and all the interesting conversation . . . it’s just really cool to be there. I love our lyric essay line, that we are among a handful of publishers seriously devoted to it. It’s incredibly rewarding how first time authors get started in their careers after they publish a book with us. Jobs, awards, grants. Ander Monson is a good example; Other Electricities was a finalist for a Mary McCarthy Prize. It’s great to see you can change people’s lives—makes it all worth it.

SC: You’ve said that when you’re reading for Sarabande, you try to “identify talent.” What in particular do you look for in this field of talent?

SG: Well the voice is hugely important. The micro, nitty-gritty parts: word choice, the movement and variations of a sentence. I started out as a poet, so I have that desire to see language pop. Also: Is there unity? Is there a progression? Is the manuscript organized in an unusual way? Does it knit together all the threads? Does it work both the heart and mind? I have a solid board of advisors, and they give me tips. I go to Iowa and meet with students there, all in the hopes of identifying talent. I can usually tell immediately if I want a book, because the hairs rise on the back of my neck and I get a little panicky as well as excited.

SC: You’ve said before that many of your poems and essays came directly from journaling. What is it about constant journaling that worked for you and your work?

SG: It relaxed me and gave me permission to simply fill up a page. I was reminded to look out the window and just see. There was the freedom to write without worrying about quality, just getting used to the sound of pen scratching on paper. I remove the censor, the internal, ever-doubting editor. In college I had a great deal of difficulty getting started. The pressure of some pretty prestigious early publications was a kind of curse I didn’t feel I could live up to. But honestly, I don’t journal much anymore. (Nor am I a great fan of the verb!) No time. Now that I’m writing prose, I’ve moved directly to the computer, which has sped up the revision process as well as freed my imagination.

SC: Did I hear that you used to be a teacher?

SG: Very briefly. I taught some comprehensive literature classes at Iowa. The only job I could find after that was teaching English at an alternative high school. But I had to quit in the middle of my third year. Horrible experience. Afterwards, I taught freshman comp here and there, so yes, I was on the teaching track. I met my husband at Yaddo. We married there, and eventually he became a professor of creative writing. It was enough that we were both poets; I didn’t want everything in our lives to overlap.

SC: Speaking of your husband, Jeffery Skinner—he is also a writer. What is it like living with another writer? Is it competitive, encouraging, etc? Does he read your work and vice versa?

SG: We were very lucky to have found each other and our writing relationship has been crucial to our development as poets, playwright, and essayist. After graduating from an MFA program that support system normally disappears unless you diligently pursue another group of like-minded people. Jeffrey is talented and smart, and I respected his feedback from the beginning. This isn’t to say there aren’t difficult moments. We are jealous of each other’s writing time. Now that he’s retired, he has plenty of it! Early on he was more successful than I was, winning grants and publishing books in rapid sequence. I was a kind of late bloomer. Then along came Sarabande, the perfect fit for my set of skills. My confidence increased, I learned a great deal from reading and editing manuscripts, and my writing and publishing picked up. My forties and my fifties were wonderful years. I wish I’d been able to know that in my twenties; I was so miserable, so eager for my career to get started.

SC: Can you talk about some of your early influences?

SG: Louise Glück, of course. Tess Gallagher, Nicanor Parra, Neruda, Laura Jensen, W.S. Merwin. An Eastern European poet named Zbigniew Herbert. In fiction: Nabokov, Garcia Marquez, Fitzgerald. Those stories were transporting. They taught me a lot about lyricism. I may have stolen a line or two but don’t tell anyone.

SC: In what way has writing essays about your past or your memories of the past changed them, if at all?

SG: The memories themselves are improvisations. When I’m writing about the past, I’m not necessarily sticking to the facts, only the facts as I remember them. I’m also creating art, and I do let aesthetics guide me. It’s all a mixture of imagination and the truth.

SC: Truth seems to be a prevalent theme in Study in Perfect. In the essay “The Art of Lying,” you say, “The truth is often too hurtful, terrifying, unpleasant, mundane, or confusing to deal with. It begs embellishment.” In an interview with Jan Morris in the Paris Review, she said that she, too, sometimes adds that extra inch of embellishment to her nonfiction. What are your feelings on this concept of truth in a nonfiction genre? What level do you think your work should be held to in terms of being honest about the content?

SG: I’m not a journalist, for one; mostly I follow the lead of John D’Agata’s work, where facts can be modestly altered to suit the art. I wouldn’t insist that the sun is twenty miles away, or that cars run on Karo syrup, but I am open to adjusting the wind direction slightly to suit the narrative or conflate two characters to make an experience richer. I think it’s possible that a better truth can emerge from a mixture of imagination and facts. For example, in my new collection, Alpine Apprentice, my friend K. C. survives an avalanche. I stirred in a few incidents experienced by other people I knew at the time, to give his character depth. At first, he was confused by this. But after he read several drafts he understood my intentions and was ok with a little embellishing. I’m lucky that he was that generous.

There are a few essays in Study in Perfect where I reconstruct and reinvent. I know that makes major publishers uncomfortable; at least I’m not claiming that my novel is nonfiction.

SC: Many of your essays and poems deal directly with illnesses and deaths in your family, including your daughter and mother. How do you gain distance from emotionally heavy subjects and then write about them?

SG: When my mother was dying—she died very young, at 51—I described what was happening in a large sketching book. I focused on just the details—everything I saw, touched, heard, smelled. I taped down receipts from the dry cleaners, labels from shampoo bottles, torn kleenexes from her purse, anything to remember her by. I took note of the weather, what she ate and drank, if anything. It was a way to separate myself ever so slightly, to look forward, and imagine anything positive in this horrifying experience. My sisters and I were an emotional mess, but if the writer doesn’t feel, the reader isn’t going to feel either.

SC: When you wrote your first poems at Iowa, you said you “faked masculinity.” Can you talk more about why that happened, and how you evolved from there?

SG: That was an interesting thing. Until I had kids, I didn’t realize that I was writing “as a man.” I was learning to be a writer during the 70s when the vast majority of our models were male. I could count on one hand the number of women that had published poetry and even fewer who taught it. Incredible. But that’s what the story was back then. I had no concept of who I was, much less what my voice sounded like. I guess I just followed the pack. It made sense to create another persona that would make more readily acceptable poetry. And my poems did very well. My first publications were in some pretty great magazines: Antaeus, The Nation, Ploughshares, The Antioch Review. . . .

SC: When you finally did find your voice, what do you think was the catalyst?

SG: I think it came from the primal necessity of separating myself from my children. Before they’re in school, the kids are it. You become a feeding machine, a dishwasher, launderette, poop cleaner-upper. Your ego is squashed. The experience is awesome of course, in good ways and bad. So I forced myself to keep my hand in. I did some freelance writing and dropped the girls off at daycare on Tuesdays and Thursdays to write poems. They weren’t very good, not for a long time. Not sure exactly where my voice finally stepped up. It was gradual. Maybe when I was introduced to traditional forms that forced me away from habitual language. I have a feisty personality, but in those early years I was suppressing it. Not allowing myself to be out there. I think aging is one of the best things to happen to a human being.

SC: Can you speak a little about your favorite recent authors?

SG: I love Mary Ruefle, Maggie Nelson, Thalia Field. I’m a great Ian McEwan fan, although I enjoyed his early books the most. He can write a sentence like no one else. I love Annie Proulx, Nicole Krauss, Albert Goldbarth, Denis Johnson, Jenny Erpenbeck, Peter Handke. I have to admit I’m an impatient reader these days and don’t feel the obligation to finish a book if I’m not engaged after fifty pages. So much of what is published, and highly extolled, is not very impressive!

SC: Lots of women names in there!

SG: OK, I’ll add a few men.

SC: Are you working on anything currently?

SG: I’m hesitant to even mention this because it’s so early, but I have an idea for a book, and it’s called Funeral Playlist. I have always kept a little folder on my desktop that contain songs and pieces of music I’d like played at my funeral. I decided to make a book out of that. I’m writing an essay right now based on an Italian love song by Caccini, a pre-Baroque Florentine composer. To get started, I listened to the track over and over and over while free writing, hoping to capture what I sense when I hear the music. Then I researched the history and strange Greek myth that gave rise to the lyrics. It’s a new way in and a fun structure. Whether I can see it through a whole collection, we’ll see.

As I mentioned before, my new book, Alpine Apprentice, will be out soon. When I turned fifteen, because I was a difficult teenager, my parents shipped me overseas. I attended a boot-camp style Swiss boarding school in the Bernese Oberland, at about 7,000 ft. Very small village. We took cold showers, peeled potatoes, cleaned the toilets, hiked and skied, took classes in German… it changed my life. I matured ten years in the span of just two. So central to my development, I’ve been dreaming about it for forty years. The same dream, about once or twice a week. So I thought I’d write a book about the experience, one that might exorcise the recurring dream at least. It was a fun project, with built-in structure, and I flew back to Switzerland a few times where I interviewed some of my pals who now teach at the school. I used the New York Times travel section for headings to each chapter. It’s more generally about the deep love and longing for a specific place.

Sarah Gorham is a poet, essayist, and president and editor in chief at Sarabande Books. Her most recent book are A Study in Perfect (AWP, 2014) and the poetry collection Bad Daughter (Four Way Books, 2011). Her memoir, Alpine Apprentice, will be published this spring by the University of Georgia Press.

Sara Cutaia is a student in the MFA program at Columbia College Chicago.

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