by Shannon Gibney
July 13, 2006
Shannon Gibney interviews poet Sarah Fox about her new book "Because Why," and about finding ways to integrate your writing with your life.
Sarah Fox walks into Second Moon coffee shop on a mild Thursday morning in June wearing faded blue jeans and a nondescript t-shirt. Her blond hair is pulled back into a loose ponytail; a few strands have gotten free and fall around her face in long wisps.
What I am struck by, in an instant, is how completely ordinary
she looks. There is nothing of the reckless meandering of her poems in her laid-back gait, not a trace of the hiccuping spaces that inhabit many lines of her first book of poems, Because Why
(Coffee House, 2006). Fox does not look at all like the kooky, postmodern poetess my imagination conjured while soaking up the gems readers will find throughout the collection. But as Fox will tell you herself, her work is polished but not premeditated, nonlinear but not deliberately so. For her, poetry Ė even postmodern poetry -- is quite an ordinary thing, as ordinary as blue jeans at the neighborhood cafe.
Does Because Why
have a subject? And if it does have a subject, is the subject the form itself?
Well, thatís really interesting, because a lot of the feedback Iíve gotten so far has really focused on the form of the poems. And Iím totally surprised that people think the book is really postmodern. Iím totally shocked by people saying, ďJust because you donít understand something doesnít mean itís not good.Ē
To me, the forms are just what comes up. Itís really not intentional at all. I used to write really different kinds of poems Ė much more traditional, much more of a one-focus metaphor, and rotating through this one thing with a narrative behind it. I guess that they were more imitative, but maybe more accessible. And when I kind of just said, ďIím just going to write the way Iím feeling, putting thoughts down the way I see them,Ē it was really freeing, and actually a lot easier for me to write.
Six or seven years ago was kind of when it started to shift for me. Maybe itís just a maturity, or an aesthetic shift that happens when youíve been writing for awhile, and you kind of start to find youíre voice.
So I have my own ideas about what the content of the book is, but I donít want to force them on anyone else. I donít believe that my ideas are that evident when you read the book. But for me, itís really about getting to a point where questioning is more important than resolving and knowing.
I would say that my primary character, if there is such a thing, is the fool. The one who is sort of at zero, and all of his knowledge has been eliminated, and heís just going forward with questioning.
The way that I hope that my poetry will continue to go is more in a spiritual direction. Not so much of this cold and ironic thing that seems very prevalent to me in contemporary poetry. I love Alice Notley and Theresa Cha and people like that, who are not doing that at all. Maybe itís a feminine thing. But being less worried about the trends and things like that, and just going from a really emotional and intuitive place.
Writing for me is very intuitive Ė and so is reading. When Iím reading a book of poems, I really try to get rid of all my critical faculties and intellectual stuff, and just let it happen to me. Not try to figure out, ďWhat is this poet trying to say? What does this even mean?Ē Because itís not linear. Poetry is not a logical, linear thing, necessarily. Itís really more like an organic, emotional experience.
I guess thatís where the form comes in. The form, for me, is more of a freeing of that. This doesnít look like it goes from A to B to C. Itís more sort of all happening the way thoughts happen.
How do we even theorize the postmodern right now, when it has become like so many other terms Ė it means so many things to so many different people? It seems like youíre resisting the primary descriptor of the postmodern.
Absolutely. I totally resisted postmodern poetry a while ago. I was like, ďThis is just so pretentious.Ē But then I realized that itís not just one thing. Itís not just postmodern poetry and traditional poetry. I mean, the field of postmodern poetry is huge.
Thereís so many different ways of thinking about language, and thinking about form, and getting it down.
Playfulness for me is really important. That childlike way of looking at the world, and thinking about it and talking about it, which is much more playful and not so self-conscious. Where itís like, ďI have to be smart, I have to say something. Or else I have to fool people into thinking I know more than they do.Ē
Which is where that image of the fool comes in. The fool is the one who says, ďI donít know whatís going on. Iím just sitting here, and things are happening to me.Ē
Absolutely. I just think you get more freedom with language, because youíre getting to a place where you can actually think about, ďOK, this is the way I speak to myself. This is the way thought sounds in my mind. And I can actually find a way to put that down on the page, instead of trying to follow a more conventional form.Ē And maybe conventional forms are the way that other poets find best expression. Itís really a personal thing.
Since the book came out, Iíve been more and more concerned with the whole element of accessibility. I didnít think about it... I thought, ďThese are easy. They shouldnít be a problem for people. Itís not that abstract.Ē But Iím finding that people donít get it.
Maybe itís the way it looks on the page, more than anything else.
Iím really concerned and hopeful that I can move into a place aesthetically that can be a lot more accessible. Because the kind of people that I primarily work with and care about are not in this tiny little community of intellectual poets who read this stuff all the time. Iím really interested in people who donít
read that much poetry, and including them in my ideal reader.
The poems Iím writing right now, naturally, are becoming even more abstract and experimental. I donít really want them to be, but thatís what comes out.
I almost think that if you havenít gone to school, if you havenít read anything, in some ways, postmodern poetry is more accessible to you, because you donít have these expectations drilled into your skull, such as: ďPoetry is Robert Frost.Ē Itís very narrative.
You kind of have to de-program people. Because the whole academic path is about deconstruction, and critical thinking, and analyzing things according to a method. I think that thatís one of the main things that overtakes me when Iím writing a poem Ė to really resist that.
I wish I could just say to people, ďDonít think about it. Just let occur. Let it happen. It doesnít have to be hard.Ē In fact, I would like to make it a lot easier. Because I donít care what meaning you get out of it at all. Anything is fine. Anything is good. I think that would be a less threatening way for people to approach poetry. To kind of own it like that. Own it as an experience that happens in their own mind, however they want it to happen. An experience more than an assignment.
I think poetry can really be a living experience, like ritual in a way, or prayer. Where you have this thing happen Ė itís mental, itís emotional, itís intellectual Ė all those things happening at once. Youíre not just sitting there in a very focused kind of way. Youíre actually opening to an experience.
So I guess the form in Because Why,
it wants to facilitate that. It wants to facilitate an experience, more than a more narrow way of approaching poetry.
Letís discuss your use of italics and indentations.
Iím trying so hard to just get down the way it sounds in my mind. Thereís definitely different voices coming up.
ďGuidebook for a Pleasant Stay,Ē for example, is sort of this accumulation of imperatives that I guess I was thinking about right around the time when Bush declared war on Iraq in March 2002. I was thinking, ďHeís just telling us what to do. And thatís what the media does, and thatís what parents do.Ē Thatís how youíre raised into perceiving the world Ė youíre following this whole imperative thing of, ďThis is the answer. This is the way it happens.Ē So I wanted to get that out of the way at the beginning of the book.
The italic voice to me seems like the voice of paranoia. The inner voice, listening to this stuff and becoming paranoid and anxious. Trying to absorb all this stuff, but really feeling oppressed more than anything else.
I guess the indentations are the middle-of-the-road voice Ė maybe the more objective voice. Itís so hard to explain because itís so intuitive. I think throughout the book, the italic portions are inserting more of the inner, personal thoughts, and commenting on what is happening in the poem. And inserting thoughts that are occurring while the poem is being composed. Like, hereís whatís happening, and hereís the language thatís like, ďOh! This just came up.Ē Or, ďI just thought of this.Ē
But itís also a way of delineating the different voices that are happening. Because thereís parts where I need to clearly differentiate the voices. How do I orchestrate that? How do I make an architecture that shows different voices? So Iím using italics for emphasis. Thereís not a set way; itís more intuitive.
With indentations, itís sort of the same. Using the space to actually see words. So, a blank space is part of a language, and it moves, and it has a body, and it has rhythms. I donít just write a paragraph and make it justified. I let it happen the way it does. The form is something that comes up naturally, whenever I write a poem. I try not to impose any approach on it when it happens. I donít even know why itís happening; I just let it happen. And then I can go back and say, ďOK, this is whatís going on. So I need to make it consistent somehow.Ē So the form is an extension of content. Itís another layer of interpretation, of whatís going on in the poem.
The poem ďLife on EarthĒ felt like a mantra and a ritual. Even the way that the words are spaced on the page add to that feeling.
Maybe itís syntax, too. I donít often like to use complete sentences, unless that seems to be what the poem wants me to use. When youíre using different kinds of syntax, youíre not completing sentences, youíre not doing that traditional kind of communicating, the spaces and the indentation and stuff like that really seem to matter. It becomes part of the voice in the poem.
That poem I wrote when I was teaching at the arts high school. I was teaching American literature, and my students had to write five papers, five critical responses. Because theyíre creative writers, I wanted to give them the opportunity artistically, too. We were reading Beloved.
For this one assignment, I said, ďIf you donít want to write a paper, you donít have to. Why donít you explore this artistically?Ē
I had one student who did a dance. A couple did paintings. Some wrote poetry, composed music. And I thought, ďWell, if theyíre going to do it, I should do it, too. I want to be part of the class. I donít want to be this figure.Ē So I wrote this. At the same time, one of the students in the class became my foster daughter. She had talked with me about her household, which was just horrible. Sheís from a very typical, suburban, very privileged household. Her parents were never around. And it was very structured like, ďOK, youíre going to take cello lessons. Youíre going to go to Breck. Youíre going to do all these things, but weíre not going to hang out with you, or be affectionate towards you.Ē
So, thinking about this idea of house: How do you find a way to feel at home? How does your body become your house, and how do you carry it around with you? Just all the ironies about family and house. The house is so important in American culture. You decorate it, and it isolates you from the community, and gives you this idea that thereís one definition of home and family. So all of that came up when I was writing this poem. I think the ideas about family and home and all the history that happens in a house and your concept of home Ė itís fragmented. Itís not always in traditional syntax. People have so many different ideas of home and house.
Shifting gears a little bit, letís talk about the role that art has in your life. It sounds like it has a lot of crossover.
I never really thought about it very much. I just went forward in my life. Iím pretty impulsive. I chose things that seemed to instruct or encourage this poetic vision, or this way of thinking about life as art. But it wasnít a conscious thing I was thinking about.
Iím a doula [one who cares for newborns and new mothers], and I teach. Another poet told me once,ďYour life seems so integrated. Mine is so separate. Iím a mom, and thatís one thing. Then when Iím writing, I have to leave that all behind.Ē And I started to think about it, and I was like, ďYeah. Thatís really important to me Ė I want it to be integrated. I donít want to separate my art. Even though I might not teach this poetry, itís always the lens through which I see the world.Ē And even when Iím not writing. Like right now Iím totally in a dry spell, not much is coming out. I want to bring my poetry to the classroom, where itís not even a conscious thing, where itís just what happens. I want to bring it to my house, my yard, everything, so that it is integrated. Itís more of a fluid thing in my life. I donít have to turn the poet off when I go to teach, or when Iím being a doula.
Itís spiritual. I donít want to sound too corny, but I think fundamentally, when I approach a poem, or being a doula or teaching, that it really comes from a spiritual place. Maybe thatís where it all comes from. And I think thatís really scorned, as far as the trends of postmodern. Especially among my generation. Itís scorned, and I really think that itís more of a fear, of being too vulnerable. The world is so terrible right now, just so awful, and I donít know how you canít address that in your writing. How do you encourage some kind of collective around healing in this time? I donít think itís by being distant and ironic. Itís really hard to break through all of that, and really collaborate with people to make it more of an interaction. I mean, in some ways, these poems arenít even mine Ė theyíre what I get from being in the world.
So it sounds like youíre talking about poetic consciousness here. But what does that mean, exactly?
Maybe it means metaphor. Maybe even looking at things in a mythological context. Not mythologizing whatís happening in reality, but really thinking about, ďWhat does this mean about our collective psyches?Ē And to get to that place in the mind where people can think about illness and healing, going beyond the media and material reality, and all this information. Weíre just bombarded with it all the time, and it doesnít feel useful to me at all.
I guess to continue on with this idea of community, I really would like to believe that thereís a possibility for a populist avant garde. My husband, whoís a poet as well (John Colburn), we have this vision of ďHow can we be populist, and still follow our aesthetic instincts?Ē
So for us, itís going more and more towards myth, or mysticism. Not that weíre mystic, but thatís what really interests us. For us, a really important metaphor is sitting around a fire. Just going to that really basic place with a community, where you have nothing else Ė youíre just looking at a fire, and whatever comes up comes up. So itís not linear, but itís community-based. Not being afraid of attempting a visionary life. I know that that may not be the trend, but thatís whatís really important to us.
Read a critical analysis of Because Why on mnartists in a few days, and then participate in a discussion about the book on the online forum.
Donít miss interviews with Graywolf Press leadership, as well as with author David Treuer, whose two new books are being released by the press in August Ė all featured on Thinking Souls next month.