Prose Feature: “Double Life: An Interview with Sarah Blake” by Emilia Phillips

July 17, 2015

Sarah Blake is the author of Mr. West, an unauthorized lyric biography of Kanye West, out with Wesleyan University Press. Named After Death is the title of her chapbook, forthcoming from Banango Editions. Her poems have appeared, or will soon, in The Kenyon Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Threepenny Review, and many others. She was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship for poetry in 2013. She is Editor at Saturnalia Books and co-founder of Submittrs. She lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband and son.

Emilia Phillips, Interviews Editor: I’d like to start with the role of silence in your first collection, Mr. West, a collection that, among other things, addresses and obsesses over the life, public and otherwise, of Kanye West. There are moments in the text—lyrics, song titles, etc.— that have been redacted. I assume that it’s related to copyright issues, but as I got further and further into the book, it made me feel like there was a haunt in the text: silence and, therefore, the ineffable. What’s unknown, what can’t be said. Here’s an example:

XXX

How do you read those passages? How have the redactions changed the poems for you?

Sarah Blake: Silence is where poetry lives for me. I read poetry in silence. I write poetry in silence. Still, my first reaction to this question was surprise. When I think of this book, I think of Kanye, and when I think of Kanye, I think of music. So the book is associated with sound—it runs alongside it. Certainly when I first included the lyrics in my poems, when they didn’t need to be redacted, the poems had a different kind of sound. This version of the book, with redactions, still feels new to me. (They are the result of copyright issues.) One of my hopes for the redactions is that it might make readers turn to the songs. That it might give the book two lives: one in the moment of reading, and one in the background of another art. But I definitely see how the book starts in sound, with poems like “Ha Ha Hum” and “Con Moto,” and moves more and more towards silence. Maybe it’s a moment of defeat. The book comes all this way, learns so much about Kanye, has spent years following him and his work, and is still faced with the ineffable, the unknown. The knowing has taught me above all else how the unknown exists. And so silence.

And there is such success in that defeat. My favorite success of the book might be tracing the space between people and embracing it, as the acknowledgment of it might be what truly leads to empathy and compassion.

EP: Interesting that you landed on empathy and compassion there, because I had it in the back of my mind to talk to you about those very things. The reason is, when I first heard about the book’s project, I admittedly had my doubts: would it be shallow, like celeb culture usually is? Would it be egregiously ironic? Would it push me out if I didn’t listen to Kanye? I found that none of these fears were true. Instead, the poems had an intimacy to them. I don’t want to say plainspokenness or earnestness, because both could easily be taken in a derogatory way. Rather, one might call them tender yet steadfast. In that way, they are meditative, and meditative the way the best ekphrastic poetry is: they push beneath the surface of image and root out the human maker, the human subject. So, two questions for you here: 1. Do you see these poems as a kind of ekphrastic project? and 2. Is the drive to empathize with someone who seems (to most of us) almost untouchable the kind of endeavor that is best suited for poetry?

SB: Tender, steadfast, earnest, and plainspoken. I think you can use all of those words! I feel as if there’s a certain style of poetry that’s like magic. You think it’s plainspoken as you read it, but can you imagine anyone actually talking like that? Ha! Maybe it would be pretty great actually to live in a world where more people went around talking a sort of plainspoken lyricism. But I’d miss how we do talk then, wouldn’t I?

But to get to your questions . . .

  1. The poems about songs are certainly ekphrastic. One art reaching out to another. But the poems that are biographical, and so the book on a whole isn’t ekphrastic to me. It might even be dangerous to call it such. Another bit of language that could flatten Kanye West to less than a person, even if it’s to a word we love, like art.
  1. To empathize with another person is perhaps one of the best things anyone could set out to do. Sometimes we don’t need a drive. Sometimes it comes naturally. At those times when we need a drive, because of some difference between us, then it might be all the more crucial. Is it suited for poetry? Yes! Is it best suited for poetry? That’s interesting to think about. I don’t know. I guess it depends on the reader/viewer. For some people a movie might make them feel something stronger than a book might. For some people a book of fiction, for some nonfiction, for some poetry. Maybe it doesn’t help to consider what does it best as long as it’s done over and over and over.

EP: The presentation of the text is often varied. You use italics, quotations, different size text (“Kanye’s Digestive System”), etc. It’s not distracting, but I’m wondering how you negotiated this formatting and its necessity.

SB: I have to say, I’m very happy I knew nothing about the production of a book when I was writing these poems. All of the quotes, the sizes, the italics, etc. came out in very early drafts of the poems. Even the long lines took on a different life on a smaller page. And the long right justified lines needed a mini-indent on the right that my production editor had never used before. But everyone at Wesleyan and UPNE supported all of the choices the poems had made on the page. I think they did an amazing job translating it to book form, and I’m so grateful for that and for them.

EP: I like this distinction of the text as a manuscript and the text as a book. I suppose it implies that some of us are never really writing a book. We’re writing the manuscript, and it’s the job of the publishers to “write” the book, so to speak. Once the first book came out, did it feel new again? Have there been any surprises in reading your own work as a book? Have any of the poems felt new to you or did they make you feel like “wow, did I write this?” I’m always interested in the ways that we celebrate our own work, and the way that our work has its own life.

SB: Every time I sent the manuscript out, I reread the first ten pages to make sure I still believed in the book. Sometimes I read the whole thing. So I spent a year being almost overly familiar with the poems. After I handed in the final copy to Wesleyan, I knew page proofs would be coming, so I tried not to read any of it. I didn’t know how to rid myself of the closeness to my poems, and I was worried that would make me incapable of proofreading. I think I spent three months completely away from it. When the page proofs came and I saw the poems again, saw them with new fonts on a new page, I pretended it was a new thing. And it felt like one. I convinced myself for a bit. When the book arrived, many months later, I didn’t read it. I looked at all the pieces—the jacket, the spine, the table of contents, the section breaks, the notes, etc. But I didn’t read the poems. It wasn’t until I was planning the first reading that I got back into it. After a few readings and interviews, I feel like I know the book better than I ever have. But I have the “wow, did I write this?” feeling about the whole book all the time just because I’m shocked I wrote a book about Kanye.

EP: Talk to me a little bit about the shock of coming to subject matter. For me, it seems more productive to be surprised by finding out what our obsessions are and how they translate to our poetic material.

SB: It’s funny because I’m never shocked about writing one or two poems about something or in this or that form. Years ago, I had the reputation in workshop of being the poet that’s hardest to pin down because of how different everything was that I brought in. (I can still see that in this book but the overwhelming constancy of the presence of Kanye smoothes it out.) But then I am surprised when a project keeps going, when it reaches book length. And maybe it’s because of my history of experimenting that I find that sustained focus so surprising. Actually, since this book, there’s been a real shift in my writing towards long poems. I think I learned something about myself, my mind, and how I can sustain something quite long when I want to.

But I’ve gotten a little off track here! I am shocked I wrote a whole book about Kanye for a few reasons. I’m surprised I went from liking his music to being a superfan that knows way more about his life and his work than is normal. I’m surprised I’ve positioned myself as an expert of sorts and now in interviews I’m asked not just about my book but for opinions on Kanye. I’m also surprised I’ve positioned myself as a pop culture writer. And really this is just general surprise at the success of the book—I wrote it, I found a press for it, it exists now as an object and also as my first book, my debut, the start of my career, officially, which means it is doing the entirety of the work to define who I am as a writer right now. I’m surprised that the little girl that was near silent in school for a good ten years is now an outspoken pop culture writer. The book is so much about the public vs. the private, but I’m feeling that divide in my life for the first time. My identity as author of Mr. West doesn’t totally align with my identity at home. I think that’s where most of the shock is coming from.

EP: I’m intrigued by your sense of identity as an author vs. identity of the self. Do you feel that in some ways we live double lives: one in the day-to-day, one on the page?

SB: I certainly feel like I’m living a double life. Though that sort of equates them in size. My life on the page feels so much smaller than my life day-to-day. Maybe just in terms of how much time I get to spend on it. Maybe because I feel a little lost as a stay-at-home mom. Though I also love it. Partly because it means I do get to spend a lot of time writing, marketing, and editing—at least compared to any other stage of my life. I spent most of my adult life working, through school and grad school, through temp agencies and adjuncting. I feel strange and wandering and wondering in my life as I’m trying to live it. I don’t even know how to talk about it. I don’t spend any of my day feeling like an author.

EP: Are you working on a second book? If so, tell me a little bit about it. I know that some feel like their second books have to do something different than their first. Others see the second book as a natural extension of their first book’s concerns. Do you feel like poets live book to book?

SB: After I finalized a draft of Mr. West and started sending it out, I started to write a long narrative poem, In a Wood, with Clearings, it’s Spring. It’s in second person so there’s no gender and no race to the speaker. The person is lost in the woods so there’s no internet or music or media. It’s the anti-Mr. West. I think it will be my second book, but I’m not sure. Which is all to say, I wasn’t thinking about what my second book needed to do. And I’m not sure what I think second books should do. I know I love falling hard for a poet’s work and reading all of their books in a row and watching how their work and their fascinations grew and changed. I know I have no choice but to do something different with my second book because I can’t write about Kanye West forever. It took quite some time to untangle how, when I thought about Kanye, I thought about poems, and, when I thought about poems, I thought about Kanye. The birth of my son could be called the great untangler, and I was grateful to have the huge external source of my son pushing me along in rediscovering myself as a centering, driving force in my poems.

With regard to whether poets live book-to-book, I only know that I don’t. I’ve started at least five very different projects in the last few years. I don’t know which project will race to the front in terms of some chronological order. I’m happy to wait and see what happens.

EP: Is there a poet whose arc across books you particularly admire? Why?

SB: Marie Howe’s books come to mind. All of her books are wonderful, and then the arc of the books captures her career and life as a poet in an amazing way. The Good Thief shows her becoming a poet, the lightning strike poems, compiled and arranged. What the Living Do is the book she had to write because of the death of her brother. The Kingdom of Ordinary Time is the book she wanted to write. There’s an ease in that book that I love. I’m sure I’m making assumptions and reading into things, but we’re allowed to do that as readers, right? It, no doubt, has helped me look at her books this way because then they mimic, on a larger, grander scale, my trip through writing. The poems came as they came through my time as a student until my grandfather died, and then I was pulled under by that and the poems came out from underneath it until it lifted, or until the poems lifted it, and then I wrote Mr. West in a state of relief and the book benefited from the whole journey that led there.

EP: Talk to me about your use of sections in a single poem, as in “I Want a House To Raise My Son In.” If you had to write a mini craft lecture on the function of sections, what would you say? What are the responsibilities of a sectioned poem vs. a sequence/series of poems?

SB: Oh my goodness, I was just thinking about this yesterday! I love thinking about the responsibilities of forms (and of poems). But I was specifically thinking about the responsibilities of the sectioned poem yesterday. Ok, if I were trying to be brief, I would say…

  1. A poet has to test each individual section for two things—make sure it’s not actually a poem on its own disguising itself as a section, and make sure it’s got enough going on, enough meat on the bone.
  2. A poet should test the order of the sections. Even if it will just be changed back, reorder it, listen to it. If a change doesn’t stick, it can still reveal a missing piece.
  3. The most important thing about the order is how the poem addresses its stakes. An unsectioned, short poem has a lot more freedom with the stakes. They can reveal themselves at the beginning, middle, or end. But in a sectioned poem, especially a long one, the stakes need to be engaged early. In the middle, they don’t need to be heightened, but they can’t be forgotten. At the end, they need to be both resolved and, either, heightened or deepened, a pivot is maybe the best way to describe it. (In first drafts, we often write to discover the stakes, leaving them towards the end of a poem, which is why it’s especially important to test out the order of a long, sectioned poem, to see if it can gain great energy in moving them back to the front and find great strength in making sure they’re addressed.)
  4. And maybe the most important thing overall is that the form is the right form for the poem. That the sections serve the content best. When I think of what sections offer, I think of multiple threads, disjointedness, space. I’m all for those things going in an unsectioned poem too. But I’m not sure how I feel about a sectioned poem that isn’t making full use of what sections can encompass and how they can move.

And a last note on the functions of a sectioned poem. I find I often use them to move through a story, a large or long story, that I want my freedom to move within and through.

Well, that wasn’t very brief at all.

EP: Is there something you’ve recently seen in contemporary poems—or writing in general—that really gets on your nerves? Any trends or ticks that stand out to you in a bad way?

SB: Ha! Everything. Nothing. I’m not sure it helps anything for me to publicly denounce the trends that bother me.

EP: Do you ever have to check yourself and say, “Oh, I think I’m doing that trendy thing in my poem.” I know I do.

SB: Yes! Almost a year ago I wrote a few poems that were all functioning in a similar way. I recognized features of poems I’d been reading. And I admired those poets and their writing but something felt off. Then I read Jenny Browne’s “The People Who Feel No Pain,” and it hit me so hard—the movement that I love and crave and want for my own work, and which I had somewhat forgotten in the reading list I’d become accidentally immersed in for a few months. It was so strange. And it’s probably happened so many times, times I haven’t noticed. It’s making me more mindful of my reading list. When I’m reading a new batch of authors, I make sure I’m also rereading an old favorite so that I remember where I situate myself.

Ryan Teitman*: Is there a contemporary poet out there who you wish was more widely known?

SB: Going through the process of selling a book, and finding out about marketing and sales figures, and learning more about how these things differ for different presses, and seeing how this same process is going for my fiction writer friends and nonfiction writer friends, and understanding the money and time and press involved—I want every contemporary poet more widely known. Honestly.

EP: Now, Sarah, provide us with a question to ask the next interviewee.

SB: How do you see humor functioning in your poems or poems in general? What’s the most interesting or crucial thing about humor in poetry for you?

Emilia Phillips, interviews editor, is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (forthcoming 2016), and three chapbooks including Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poetry appears in Agni, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. For more information, visit her website: http://emiliaphillips.com

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