From the category archives:

Interviews with Poets

Hustle by David Tomas Martinez Sarabande Books

David Tomas Martinez’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Poetry Magazine, Ploughshares, Boston Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Oxford American, Forklift, Ohio, Poetry International, Gulf Coast, Crab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, Academy of American Poet’s Poem-A-Day, Poetry Foundation’s PoetryNow, Poetry Daily, Spork Press, Split This Rock, RHINO, Ampersand Review, Caldera Review, Verse Junkies, California Journal of Poetics, Toe Good, and others. DTM has been featured or written about in Poets & Writers, Publishers Weekly, NPR’s All Things Considered, Poetry, NBC Latino, Buzzfeed, Houstonia Magazine, Houston Art & Culture, Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express News, Bull City Press, and Border Voices. Having earned his MFA at San Diego State University, he is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Houston’s Creative Writing program, an emphasis in poetry, and he is the reviews and interviews editor for Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts, after having been a Bread Loaf and CantoMundo Fellow. His debut collection of poetry, Hustle, was released in 2014 by Sarabande Books, which won the New England Book Festival’s prize in poetry, Devil’s Kitchen Reader’s Award, and honorable mention in the Antonio Cisneros Del Moral prize. He is the 2015 winner of the Verlaine Poetry Prize from Inprint.

Emilia Phillips, Interviews Editor: At risk of being obvious, I’d like to start with the cover of your book: Hustle, the title, in tattoo-ink script. After reading the book, I started down the path of making thematic associations between the idea of the tattoo and the poems’ approaches to their subject matter, their obsessions. What do you think about the idea that poems themselves tattoo experience onto the poet, maybe even the reader? By writing out of our own experience or, at the very least, out of what we may have witnessed of others’ experiences, do we needle memory into us with a kind of finality, permanence that mere recollection can’t provide? I guess what I’m really asking is, does the poem last when our memories do not?

David Tomas Martinez: I think that is a very appropriate and sonorous image, a tattooing of experience on the poet by the poem, leaving a permanent scar on the brain that is beautiful and unique. And a poet’s poems are the recognizable mark of their existence, their distinguishing traits that others use to identify them. Unfortunately, my decision on the cover of Hustle was much baser and ordinary than your eloquent explanation. Sarabande Books was gracious enough to give me the freedom to express my vision, and I know how rare it is for a press to allow the artist to make creative decisions during production. I wanted my tattoo artist to design the cover because I felt it was only fitting that he also decorate “my other body.” I wanted a different type of cover because I hoped Hustle could be a different type of book of poetry. Part of my goal in writing this book, which was based chiefly on my experiences, was to allow some of the people I grew up with, many who have been silenced by societal and internal forces, to have a voice. I don’t consider myself special because I attended college and wrote a book while others I grew up with were caught in the entrapments of our environment, especially considering some of the charismatic, intelligent characters I grew up beside. As far as your question, I think a poem is a type of permanence, like a tree—a seemingly fixed and static event that is actually moving and changing imperceptivity. I know what it is to stand at the base of a poem, and look up longingly at the branches hoping to climb to the top, just for the view. There are poets and poems that I go back to incessantly, those that their/there meaning or lines are engrained in me. Even if I know their permanence is an illusion, all sorts of reasons can push poems into oblivion; they feel forever to me, especially when nothing is permanent in our society. Memory is fragile.

EP: This slippage, this push toward change reminds of the moment at the beginning of “Motion and Rest” when you write, “stasis being the natural precursor of stagnation and death.” This poem is in paragraphs, unlike the rest of the book. It’s almost a paradox to say that lineation provides a kind of stasis for poetry, particularly across a collection, but I wondered how you thought of the prose poem’s function within the larger collection. Do you feel yourself ever needing to get out of something that “looks” like a poem—let’s say the prose poem, in this case—in order to write a poem?

DTM: The idea of “stasis being the natural precursor of stagnation and death” has dogged me my whole life. First off, we live in a society with puritanical roots extoling all things that exhibit good work ethic. That is part of our unavoidable programming. Both my parents got up and went to work everyday for long hours. Early in the morning, before I or the sun was up, or even me, my father got out of bed, and put on his boots, on and grabbed his tools. My mother kissed me than put on her lipstick before she went out the door. I walked myself to school, and I walked myself home from school. It was a joy to see them come home. For them, it was not joy when they got home but relief. Relief. My father would slip on his shorts and grab a beer, and my mother would begin cooking our dinner. My family was very affectionate, kissing and hugging freely. My father was not afraid to hug or kiss me, or tell me to go grab the belt. This is the experience of many people. My parents did not have to prod me awake to the world; as a child in elementary school, my toes tingled to the world. I wanted to know everything, somewhere along the line that changed. As I grew and began to hear other keys, I started seeing another way of life. A way of stasis—not working but hustling. Chemical dependency. Restrictions incurred by poverty. Disabilities. The things that I had been taught as a child were upturned. People didn’t have to always adhere to the societal norms, or couldn’t. All I had to do was step outside my door, and the stasis was there. But it was in my home too; but I had just never noticed it. I think somewhere around this time I began to be very malleable, as a person. So, Hustle, unintended at first, became a reproduction of my experience and personality. I am at times a bit rebellious in nature, so I wanted my poetry collection to be a bit unconventional. A few people told me that a lyric essay/prose poem couldn’t go in my collection. I never understood why it couldn’t. It was my collection. Now that being said, I can also be strangely anachronistic, towards what should “be” or “is” a poem, and this is something that I try and fight continuously, towards what should “be” or “is” a poem. But that is more just a function of my daily struggle to find balance. I am constantly changing, from hour to hour, filling and emptying various emotions, making a suicide soda of feeling that can’t help but influence my perception of the world, how I experience my day. I also have a tendency to be restless in nature, meditation has been helping with that, and Hustle has a sort of raucous quality that is exhibited in part by the various forms and modes employed through out the collection. My restlessness is also with poetry; often lineation is so difficult to control. A good line is hard to find. This form allowed me to do things that I couldn’t do in a poem. For instance, I was able to tell a small parable in the “legend” section. That was so fun to adopt the voice of such a rich tradition. Sure I could have done that in a poem, but it wouldn’t have had the same effect. I also thought of it like a sequence in construction, each part informing and supporting the others without linearity. Again my restless spirit.

EP: I’m so glad you put the prose poem/lyric essay in the collection! Were there ever any other things that teachers, readers, or editors told you that you couldn’t do in your work that you later did? I feel like this is a common experience for those who go through workshops. I’ve always felt like that was something we had to get over, to learn to resist. That was part of the workshop: to know when to reject advice. What do you think?

DTM: I have been fortunate to have wonderful teachers and mentors that I supremely respect, and I hope their influence shows in my work. A handful of awesome poets, of various ages and experience are generous enough to read my work and give me keen insights. Sarabande Books was outstanding to work with, giving me freedom artistically to create the book I envisioned. I have been surrounded by the illest my entire career. Or that’s what I remember. I have my memories of cultural, racial, class divides in workshop where I felt excluded because I am not the traditional creative writing student. My parents were working class and not college educated, so my milieu was not filled with fine art, but pop art, if any art at all. That being said, I’m very proud of my upbringing. I wouldn’t change anything in my life. The frustrations and setbacks I have suffered have proved my resilience. I’m proud of my accomplishments and grateful that my missteps weren’t disastrous. After writing strictly in metrical form for two years, I went through an experimental phase, in part, as a reactionary response to the two years I spent writing metrically, as if I could sit myself firmly into contemporary poetry by being the most radical writer instead of the stylistically conservative poet I had been performing as. All this is to say, Emilia, I am one obstinate mofo. I have an idea of the smell and sleekness of a poem, at least the poem I am trying to create at the moment because my idea of a “good” poem is constantly in flux. I try to never successfully recreate this idea of the platonically ideal perfect poem. What a fool’s task. But once in awhile I am saved by someone else’s poem. There is nothing better than reading a poem that I think shouldn’t work but does, often inexplicably. These mysteriously healthy poems only highlight my dysfunctional writing, my broken writing. And that is the conundrum, as fixated and self-involved I can be with my own poems and problems; it is the work of other writers that pushes me on, helps me persist. Early in my career I thought of workshop as a gladiator school, where my goal was to slaughter every other poet, and the professor, with my talent. To be the only poet standing. To survive. I wanted everyone, in any room I stood, to know that I was the most talented writer in the room, so I challenged every other writer and trampled their aesthetics, looking to raise my own banner over their poems. This competitiveness threatened to usurp my personality. At some point, thankfully, I gradually stopped this combative stance. Now I think of every journal or book I read as part of a large workshop, a grand conversation that has, thankfully, saw fit to include me. It’s hard to think of workshop negatively when so many poets are doing so many interesting things.

EP: You know, as I get older, I find myself becoming—and working at becoming—more generous as a reader. I think it’s easy, especially when we first start reading and writing poetry, to hem ourselves in, find a writer or a few writers that appeal to us and focus on how other writing is not the writing we admire. I think thoughtful skepticism is healthy in a reader, but I also think that polarizing aesthetics actually hurts poetry. And we need to do all we can to keep poetry relevant and alive.

I’ve been wanting to get my students to take poetry out of the classroom more and more by doing readings on the sidewalk or posting poems in public places. I’m going to ask my poetry students next semester to do poems in public project. If you were tasked with this project, what would you do? I’d love to share your ideas with my students.

DTM: That’s a beautiful idea you’re employing: love, inclusivity, thoughtfulness, fellowship, and harmony. I wish more people would join your tribe, so much of the news I scroll through feels filled with bile, brimmed with the reactionary fears of xenophobes. That being said, I am afraid of liking too many things in poetry, being inclusive of ideas of shoddy craftsmanship, faulty thinking. I am far from the sweetest chocolate chip in the cookie, but I worry why I like something just as frequently as I worry why I dislike something. That being said, part of my distrust of my predilections can be linked to my affinity to be receptive to so many ideas, which is a sort of refraction of Eliot’s opinion on personality. I have noticed a calcification in my thinking as I have aged in my personal life, but a loosening of my poetic aesthetics, but even then, again, I’m not sure if I just know myself and my motivations and fears better, in my personal life, or am I just becoming more conservative. And granted me becoming more conservative means I have slightly moved closer to the center from being fall-off-the-table to the left. In respect to poetry, I am really making an effort to, like yourself, read poems without trying to impose my aesthetic on them, though I’m not sure if that is possible, so it feels sometimes like I am playing a game of hide and seek with my own shadow.

I have done some poetry projects in the wild, so I have some experiential knowledge to back my answer to this question. I have done some poetry busking, showing up with a typewriter and writing poems by request for free. This experience can be amazing. It challenges me to not edit while I write and to let my words brew unfiltered. It can also be gratifying to write a poem and experience the reader, physically in front of me, actually enjoy the poem. Quite the feeling to see a reader beam with excitement over something you just wrote. However, there are also the people who feel entitled and that you owe them someone, people not respectful of the process or your time. Once, I was busking in a suburb, and a couple wearing socks and sandals, asked for a poem about the summer heat. I asked the couple what particularly about the heat they wanted me to write about, and the husband answered “Just write us a poem, guy.” Shit like this doesn’t sit well with me. So I entitled the poem, “Houston Summer Heat.” The poem consisted on one line, and is the only time I have used an ellipses in a poem. The line read, “Houston summer heat is like…”

I have always wanted to post guerilla poems on prominent American landmarks using projection equipment. Some of the poems could utilize video, but mostly just text on the landmarks. I also have always wanted to wheat paste poems across various cities. Posting tiles inscribed with poems on buildings is also on my bucket list.

EP: (“Houston Summer Heat”!)

You know, the “poetry in the wild” often forces poets to defend poetry. I really like that one article recently that suggested that no one would ever write an op-ed about “Is the symphony dead?” so why keep asking the question “Is poetry dead?” I think that putting too much emphasis on putting poetry in public places in some ways makes it seem or become ephemeral. (Think of ink running down a poem nailed to a telephone pole.) So, I think I’m of a mixed mind about it, too. Plus, I don’t want poetry to seem like visual noise—like billboards. I guess this discussion, in some ways, ends up being about poetry as a vehicle for social activism.

Do you think poetry can be political without politicized? What are the rewards and risks that poets undertake when using poetry for social activism?

DTM: I think that all poems are actively or innately political by their very nature, by being a poem, being an entity of the world about the world, written by something of this world. Poems are carbon based. Even poems that practice an askesis of purely nonpolitical agendas, overtly stating they are not political, are political in my mind. Every person is complicit to the larger body, the larger group, and not engaging in action is as meaningful as engaging. Because I recycle does not make me any less complicit to the ravaging this planet has, and continues to, endure. I think these are very important ideas that we as educated people know, but easily forget. I have to vigilantly attend my privilege as a man, or I will slip back into my training as a man, meaning misogyny and lesser forms of devaluing women. I consider my breathing politicized, especially if you consider the systemic violence to brown and black bodies, historically and contemporaneously. We are all political. That being said, I’m not marching down the street everyday, nor am I looking to free every goldfish from the bondage of the bowl. In poetry, often the larger political agenda forsakes the beauty of the poem, causing the text to go askew, for me. The quickest way to make me take the nearest pole holding the stars and stripes, and plunge into each of my ears repeatedly, is to announce that your reading will be political. This often epitomizes a lack of understanding of the nature of what is political, and by attempting to make a poem political, they often cease caring about the poem and become burdened by a message. Which is fine, all sorts of poems for sorts of audiences. But what does bother me, is poets that hide behind their politics. I think if you’re going to write political poems, or love poems— more power! But a poet must understand that these are difficult tasks, and writing with political subject matter, does not exempt a writer from criticism. Obviously there are sociopolitical angles, gender angles, class angles, and various other complaints and difficulties that arise from my perspective, which I concede; however, I do expect great poetry from my poets. Political or not.

Sarah Blake*: 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?

DTM: Well thanks, for pinch questioning, Sarah, and great interview BTW, and I really (gold)dig your book, Mr. West. Poetry is hard, man. I just threw shade on poets reaching for the political, and now I’m going toss vitriol at ironic writers who fashion themselves funny. Just jokes.

I think humor in poetry, isn’t as important as the greater function it serves in a poem or book, which is to set tonal variations within an established theme. One easily agreed upon axiom in poetry is Pound’s “make it new,” and while many will argue about what constitutes new in poetry, most would agree that introducing the surprising, the interesting is a way of “making it new.” Being funny is one way of making it new because it surprises the reader, introducing a slight variation in tone. Humor takes intelligence. Poetry takes intelligence. I like intelligence. For me, I lean towards themes that are important to me, thus my poems have a serious tone often, which for a whole poem or book, can make for an arduous read, so I mitigate slogging the reader with doom and gloom by having moments of lightness, brevity from weight of mind through a chuckle. I guess, in the end, what I seem to value the most is balance, a juggling of the heart and the brain. Humor embraces both the intellectual emotional facets of our personalities.

EP: Please provide us with a question to ask our next interviewee.

DTM: Discuss your process for creating an image in a poem. What is your favorite image in all of poetry? All of. Just one.

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:


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:


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:

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Ryan Teitman is the author of the poetry collection Litany for the City (BOA Editions, 2012), chosen by Jane Hirshfield for the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Ninth Letter, The Southern Review, The Threepenny Review, and The Yale Review, and his awards include a Wallace […]

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Brittany Cavallaro’s first collection of poems, Girl-King, was the Editor’s Choice for the 2013 Akron Poetry Prize and was published by the University of Akron Press in early 2015. Individual poems have appeared in Tin House, AGNI, Gettysburg Review, and the Best New Poets anthology, among others. The recipient of scholarships and fellowships from the […]

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Corey Van Landingham is a Wallace C. Stegner Poetry Fellow at Stanford University, and the author of Antidote (Ohio State University Press). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, The Best American Poetry 2014, Best New Poets 2012, Kenyon Review, Narrative, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. In Fall 2015, she will join Gettysburg […]