AN Interview with Sarah Carey
What was your first piece of writing that you were really proud of and satisfied to have written? Why?
Although I can’t single out one particular poem, I can say creative writing has brought me deep satisfaction ever since I first started writing short stories as a kid, and poems in my early 20s. The poems I probably feel the most satisfied with are those I worked on over a long period of time, and resurrected after a period of dormancy to finally finish. I have a lot of poems like that!
Most of the poems in my new chapbook underwent extensive revision to arrive at the form they’re in now, and to be honest, the process of getting them to this point was exhausting. The work in revising individual poems was a bit different than the editing considerations and choices I made in tweaking the final manuscript, but the end result was a group of poems I feel maybe more than usual satisfied with, and very proud of.
Think of how we define satisfaction: what it means to satisfy, or to be satisfied. There’s the sense of fulfillment of one’s desires or needs, but there’s also the meaning that conveys fulfillment of an obligation: Justice done, or a debt fulfilled. Each time I write a poem that feels like it somehow successfully captures something I’m trying to say, or delivers a relatable snapshot of life I’m attempting through language to convey, I feel satisfied—as if I’ve met an obligation to myself, and maybe to others as well, because I’m finally communicating as clearly as I can. So hopefully people understand what I’m saying.
Poetry, for me, is, put simply, a way of making sense of the world and deriving meaning from it. The practice of writing poems is a way to resolve or come to terms with internal conflict—but also challenges me to engage more broadly emotionally and intellectually with the world outside of myself. All of these aspects make the process of writing poetry a satisfying endeavor in general. It is also enormously satisfying when I learn something I’ve written has managed to touch someone in a meaningful way.
While we can’t always know if our work makes a difference, for me, satisfaction is not just the personal gratification of bringing a poem along until it’s finally in the form it’s meant to take—that’s real, and there’s no feeling like it—it’s having everything that goes into that process be validated by someone reading and being affected by that poem.
The human connections that poetry makes possible have always been extremely rewarding to me, both as a way I could see into the worlds of others, and as a way to share my own world. Poetry allows me to bear witness to my own life and the lives of others whose being intersects my own, but also to the environment I grew up in. My poems are something I can leave behind, as well as look to for validation of my own memories.
In general, I find the poems I’m writing now are more satisfying than many of my earlier poems, because I’m writing with more intentionality now than I was then. I revise more; I think more carefully about language, musicality, cadence and metaphor. I give more thought to what I’m really trying to say, and I take more time saying it.
Tell us about your writing practice. Do you follow a specific routine? Do you have a favorite place or setting to write?
I write best when I’m at home, sitting back-against-pillow on my couch in the living room with my laptop, without distractions, or in the hour or two before I go to bed, during which I typically will move to the bedroom, shut the door, and work or read until I get tired enough to turn the light out and go to sleep. That window between 9-11 p.m. is probably my most productive.
I work fulltime, and when I come home, after getting dinner together, hanging out with the dog, dealing with whatever awaits me, I’m exhausted. So, I can’t really focus on my writing until much later in the evening. And if I’m not finding a lot of motivation at the creative well, I’ll go to the poems I feel are ready to send out, and focusing on submitting, or on reading the work of other writers I’m inspired by.
Congratulations on winning the 2018 Concrete Wolf Chapbook Competition for your manuscript Accommodations! Can you tell us a little bit about the chapbook and the process writing it? What was the most challenging part of putting the collection together?
This work is special to me for several reasons, which probably have to do with the fact that many of the poems in this collection deal with my father’s worsening health in recent years, culminating in his death in early 2017. Coming to terms with his mortality meant I had to wrestle with my own, at a whole new level. I think this collection reflects that struggle.
That period was just hard, both for me and for my husband, who lost his own father only five months before my dad died. I turned to my writing, as I’ve always done, to help me interpret and get through that surreal time. I think Accommodations as a whole reflects the intense desire I had to capture not just specific events that occurred during this period, but also relationships that came into sharper relief, and ancestral stories that arrived as a sort of extension of my own story.
The book also juxtaposes personal loss poems with poems about other things, frequently domestic, that were happening in my life around the same time. For example, there are poems about a remodeling project that took on a life of its own, and other day-to-day stresses that I think I felt more keenly due to the proximity of other major-life events and just plain sensory overload. The process of writing and assembling Accommodations was like holding a microscope to everything that happened to me in a relatively brief period of time, from my relationships to the weather! Actually, if I were describing what this book is about, I might say it captures both emotional weather and actual hurricanes. That would definitely be true.
How Accommodations came to be in book form is rather interesting. When I started trying to put together a full-length collection last fall (2018), I began working with a new editor I’d found in the Poets & Writers classifieds. I was still working with her when I read that the Concrete Wolf Poetry Series’ chapbook award competition was approaching its deadline. Although I’d been a finalist the previous year, I had decided not to enter anymore chapbook competitions, as I was focusing on the full-length, which had a lot of the same work. However, I had a change of heart at the last minute, and threw my hat—and my heart—into the ring once again. I’m so glad I did! I never thought I would win, because, you know, what are the odds. The final ordering of the poems I chose for the manuscript reflected a combination of others’ feedback and my own instincts.
Although I’d already had an idea of the arc the work should take, I didn’t really think of my first chapbook, The Heart Contracts, as having an arc. I did have some editorial help with the order, but most of the decisions of what to put where were based on some sense of what felt right and organic to me at the time. Now I am more aware of the importance of the first and last poems; of placing the stronger ones toward the front; and of having an idea of the themes I want to focus on, and choosing poems that best fit those themes when deciding what to include in a collection, regardless of the length.
As for the full-length collection I started: since my new chapbook contained about half of its contents, that larger work is still a concept in progress!
In what ways has personal experience figured into your own writing? Has it become more or less autobiographical over time?
My writing is largely autobiographical, and always has been, although these days I’m more conscious of metaphor and do at times take liberties with the truth, via metaphor as well as narrative, to make a broader point or statement. Although I routinely take personal experience as fodder for much of my work, I’m always aware that my truth—the way I perceive or interpret specific events or relationships—is not the same truth that, say, my mother, or my sisters, would have for the same events.
Although I write a lot of poems that have to do with death and loss, I don’t see my work as a litany of losses or sadnesses. I hope others don’t read it that way. I actually feel that navigating grief has brought me closer to hope and the meaning of life than anything else. I recently read an interview that the poet Jericho Brown gave to River Heron Review for its “Conversations” section, in which he talked about there being, even in the most dour poems, a pleasure that can be derived. “Hopefully some of that pleasure is derived from an idea that having read the poem, we can make for a situation that is less dour,” he said. I loved that.
At AWP in 2018, I sat in on a panel discussion where Ada Limón was a speaker. She talked about the importance of writing “joy poems.” I certainly have a lot of joy and gratitude in my life relating to many things, and it’s a goal of mine to focus more on writing those kinds of poems, for the same reasons I write other poems—to take stock of my life. To remember. To hark back, and to take heart.
How has place or the environment influenced your writing?
I feel like I’ve always created my own environment, wherever I’ve lived. I’m not outdoors as much as I would like to be, and I escape into my head and my writing wherever I am, whenever I have the opportunity. But I also probably take for granted the many trees, birds and critters that I’ve grown up around in Florida. In recent years, I’ve tried to pay more attention to my physical environment, and to capture aspects of it more consistently in my work.
Although I don’t write a lot of poems specifically about my physical environment, I’ve done a few persona poems in the last year or two that allowed me to do this, and turned out to be very rewarding ways to play with voice as well as forcing me to enhance my observation skills through metaphor.
Whether my poems are about my own body, a body of water, a hurricane, or a bird, about my family, my relationships, or something else, taken together, they do have a geography, a cartography: they’re going to organically reflect the sensibility of someone who has spent most of her life in a specific place, had a certain kind of life. At the same time, I like to think of poetry as a vehicle through which the ordinary can be transformed into the extraordinary. Language can work magically to render fresh understandings and perceptions of one’s place, time and environment.
The power of poetry to me is its ability to catalyze greater emotional well-being and stronger community, as well as to facilitate greater self-awareness and resiliency. Reading and writing poetry regularly provides me with a rewarding (and relatively inexpensive way) to travel the world; I’m calling poetry a destination vacation, ha! The arrival point is never where you think it’s going to be, which makes every poem unique, and uniquely satisfying.
What or where is your favorite place?
I’ve always been pretty much of a homebody, so not surprisingly to anyone who knows me, I’d have to say my favorite place is my home in Gainesville, where I live in a neighborhood full of trees, barred owls, red-shouldered hawks, crepe myrtles, azaleas, camellias and hummingbirds. A close second would be the beautiful and always-changing environment at St. Augustine Beach, where I visit often.
Is there an image that lingers in your writing—one that you keep returning to?
Not really a single image, but I do have recurring themes: grief and loss, but also my own identity as it has been, and will continue to be, enhanced, defined and questioned via ancestral migrations and stories. I write about my experiences as a daughter, wife, step-mother; as more-or-less lifelong Floridian and a lifelong Southerner; and from the perspective of someone who has for decades migrated through and between these different identities. I recognize that the self has many different threads that are interwoven to form one life. I use poetry as a way to weave these life-threads together, and to reconcile conflicts within myself at times when those identities, organic as they may be, collide.
I do think my poems do look back at life the way it once was, or I once perceived it, juxtaposed with what the anchor-points of my life feel like today. I wouldn’t necessarily characterize this as a longing to return to the past, but there may be a prevalent sort of wistfulness in my work, as it clearly reflects some of my personal observations and struggles to reconcile past and present realities.
I write more these days about periods in my life that were not as settled, nor as predictable, as my life feels so much of the time now: I’ve held the same job for 29 years, have been married to the same person for nearly 23 years. As I think anyone who writes poetry seriously knows, our interior worlds can remain ripe for exploration, and can have deep roots in other times, people and places. I’d like to think people reading my work will find themselves transported into not just my world, but some familiar corner of their own.
What writerly advice would you like to share with our readers?
Revise, revise, revise. My old poetry professor, the late, great, Van Brock, tried very hard to entrench this in my thinking when I was in college 40 years ago, and it actually took me longer than I’d like to admit to get it. Today, I continue to re-learn the art and power of revision, every time I’m convinced something’s finished, then get another set of eyes on it, (or even my own fresh eyes after some time passes), then realize what a gap there was between what that poem started out to say and what it could say with more attention to various components.
Having published my first chapbook at the age of 58, I’d also tell any writer who really wants to grow in their craft and publish their work, to never give up and not be beaten down by all the rejections that will come your way. Develop a sense of your own voice, and have faith in it.
I don’t view myself as exceptionally talented, but I am pretty determined and driven. I’ll go through periods when I don’t write, because I can’t focus, or for some other reason just having to do with other obligations … or just laziness. At those times, especially the longer I go without writing, I tell myself, if I write another poem, it’ll be a miracle. But, somehow I always manage to write another poem.
Read widely and often. Whatever you enjoy reading, read that. I read a lot of poetry, but I have to escape from it now and then, too, and frequently get lost in a thriller novel now or short stories in one of my favorite literary magazines, like Boulevard, The Greensboro Review, The Alaska Quarterly Review, and many others that regularly arrive in my mailbox.
If you’re a writer with work you feel is ready to send out, send it. You’ll never win any contest, or publish in any journal you don’t submit to. Submitting work to journals is a part of the publishing game, and, just like writing, can be exhausting. But it’s part of the process. The more you submit, the more you’ll learn, the more connected you’ll feel and the better you’ll get at figuring out which journals might be the best fits for your work.
What books or writers have impacted your writing the most?
I always struggle when people ask me that, but poets I’ve been especially moved and influenced by over the years would include Anne Sexton, Carolyn Forché, Naomi Shihab Nye, Jane Kenyon, Lola Haskins, Linda Pastan, Kevin Young, Steven Dobyns, John Ashbery.
Books I’ve bought this year include titles by Tiana Clark, Ada Limón, Jen Karetnick, Sonia Greenfield, M.B. McLatchey, Sidney Wade, Adam Houle and many others.
I’ve discovered a lot of new writers in the poetry community on Twitter, which I regularly pay attention to (and sneak-read poems during the day!).
Sarah Carey is a graduate of the Florida State University creative writing program. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Superstition Review, Valparaiso Review, Barrow Street, Potomac Review, Glass Poetry Journal, Carolina Quarterly, and elsewhere. She was the recipient of an International Merit Award in the Atlanta Review's 2018 International Poetry Prize competition and a finalist in Sequestrum Literary Journal's 2018 New Writer Award competition. Sarah is the author of two chapbooks, including Accommodations, winner of the 2018 Concrete Wolf Chapbook Award, and The Heart Contracts (Finishing Line Press, 2016). She lives in Gainesville, Florida, with her husband and her precocious black Lab, Finn.