Death of a Naturalist

Interview: Sara London

Sometimes the right book falls into your hands at just the right time, and that’s how we feel about Sara London’s new collection of poems, Upkeep, which is released today by Four Way Books. The poems in Upkeep feel somehow like burnished stones, solid and familiar in the hand, yet full of surprising veins and glinting minerals. Every word feels perfectly etched just where it ought to be, making each poem feel so fully formed you can’t imagine them being written any other way.

Through these poems, Sara London traces the pain of losing someone dear, the paths to finding a solid grip on the world again, and the ways we can all be both strangers and neighbors to each other. As the poet Tom Sleigh put it, “…her work embodies what Seamus Heaney once called ‘the steadfastness of speech articulation,’ in which her care for language is continuous with her care for other people and the world.”

We are so delighted that Sara agreed to do an interview with us, and we are even more delighted that Upkeep is here in the world at last! Go get your copy, and then read it out loud!

Sara will be reading along with Sue Burton at the Fleming Museum of Art in Burlington, Vermont, on Thursday, September 12 as part of the Painted Word Poetry Series. This is a great opportunity to see two wildly talented poets in one great evening.

 
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Literary North: Upkeep begins with an epigraph from Seamus Heaney's “Clearances" and contains a poem titled “Letter to Seamus." The language in your poems also certainly shares a linguistic heritage with Heaney's poems (blunt, concrete, chewy, Anglo-Saxon vocabulary). Can you speak a bit about your connection to Heaney and his influence on this book and your writing?

Sara London: I love your adjective “chewy” to describe Heaney’s diction—those tongue-to-teeth words that afford so much pleasurable munching for the reader. His language dazzled me early on, the alliteration and percussiveness of the consonance, the imagery, his invocations of a rural Irish childhood amongst frogs and bogs. And his edibles, blackberries of course (“when the bath was filled we found a fur”), oysters (“The frond-lipped, brine-stung / Glut of privilege”), and milk’s “scuts of froth.” I love all his books, but Death of a Naturalist was a revelation to me as a young poet, and I still go to his many volumes and teach his poems routinely.

Within that lyrical feast, there are loamy, pitted layers of human complexity. It was a treat to hear him read on a few occasions, and when he and his wife Mary visited Smith College, I was able to join a more intimate afternoon chat with students. He struck me as a deeply generous, wise and unpretentious man. His sonnet cycle, “Clearances,” an elegy in memory of his mother, is one I return to again and again. And on the topic of language, in one section, he writes of his mother’s feeling of verbal inadequacy. “She’d manage something hampered and askew” — which makes the speaker “naw and aye /…relapse into the wrong / Grammar which kept us allied and at bay.” (Of course the Irish-inflected idiom is a famously rich dish, no matter the grammar!) I still feel sad that he’s gone—that big, profound poetic heart.

LN
: Speaking of language, we were struck (and comforted) by your use of Yiddish in several poems. Did you grow up with Yiddish as part of your language at home? Does it enter your poetry naturally? How does it feel to play with multiple languages in a poem?

SL: My grandparents and great aunts and uncles (all gone now) would sometimes spice their English with Yiddish asides. These were uttered amidst laughter for private commentary or as punchlines inappropriate for the youngsters around the dinner table. And they used endearments like shayner-kops (“pretty heads”) for my sisters and me. Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish was as thumbed through as any dictionary or encyclopedia in my parents’ home.

My father seemed to take special pleasure in the humorous application of Yiddish, and in translating for us. I’ve kept a note he wrote in Yiddish after making a quick stop at my house in Northampton many years ago. In part, it reads: “Ich hob zum der w/c (oo) geganger . . . Das ist alles. Pa!” The full translation he provided reads: “I came, I saw, I drank a glass of water, I used the facilities, I sat on the porch. Be well, I love you, thanks, that is all — Dad!” For me, my father will always be associated in part with that older world in which Yiddish commonly punctuated Jewish American conversation. (These days, Yiddish is mostly used among Orthodox Jews.)

I love the sound of the language, though sadly I know little of it myself. (For Yiddish enthusiasts out there: Philip Roth has a hilarious riff on the word “pupik,” belly button, in Operation Shylock, where he perfectly characterizes the “sonic prankishness of the [word’s] two syllabic pops…” And I recommend Aaron Lansky’s Outwitting History, his richly anecdotal account of founding the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.)

LN: The Martian poem series in the section titled “Fugitive You" is clearly about someone considered alien to our world or culture, but maybe not a true interplanetary alien. "Rain on the Red Planet," for example, made us think of the Jew as an alien in America. Can you talk about the inspiration behind the Martian poems and the interplay between Judaism and "Martianism"?

SL: So many thoughts converged in that poem. As we uncover more details about Mars, we come closer to “touching” the red planet, yet human touch comes with such serious liabilities historically and environmentally. There’s an apocalyptic note in that “hard rain.” And though I wasn’t making an explicit association between Martians (aliens) and Jews, I can see how one might decipher a link. The persecuted Jew and the Jewish immigrant hover as ghosts in some of my poems; they’re fixtures of my cultural and historical imagination I suppose. The Martian I’ve imagined, on the other hand, dwells in a sort of cosmic innocence—alien, yet safely so.

But the Martian series actually began as a sort of linguistic thought experiment: How might I describe both mundane and more profound aspects of human experience to “someone” who doesn’t know our world? It began with the playground swing—that universal apparatus of “escape” and “return”; children’s first release into “space.” I wanted to capture that uniquely kinesthetic sensation anew, “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” as Keats once put it. So the Martian became my test audience, but grew quickly “real” and complex for me, a being from afar for whom I grew increasingly affectionate. Not a god, but perhaps a sort of analogue of myself—a “nobody” in another realm of space and time, who became for me a pulsing “somebody” on the far side of my grief.

LN: The book includes several touching and personal poems about your father's death. What was your experience in writing these poems? How does it feel to be sharing them with the world (including your family)?

SL: Death is such a strange thing—there’s nothing commensurate, nothing like the thrust of close personal loss to so unsteady us. It’s a bit surreal. When I think of those days now, my father’s dying, I see it as a kind of cruel yet fascinating “magic” played upon the family, that “there/not there” conundrum. In that last phase, there’s an intensified physicality, as we note each breath; we lean in closer and closer, yet ultimately the very mystery of endings holds us at bay. We remain “outside” the experience.

An odd theatricality characterized my father’s last days—there was much that I couldn’t write about. Of course, there’s such a highly personal aspect to this sort of writing; a lot of raw emotion involved. One hopes that family members will understand that these privacies of grief are also shared, gleaming, human moments—they’re ours, yet also part of the sweeping mortal saga. I’m so grateful to have had poetry and family to help me through that time. And if my poems resonate with anyone, that’s a true bonus. The work simply flooded forth; never before or since have I been as prolific. The elegy is a vital inherited form, and poets’ lives are in some ways spent in preparation for a dip into these powerful waters.

LN: Did this collection begin with a specific idea or poem? How did the experience of writing this book—your second—differ from writing the first (The Tyranny of Milk, 2010)? What do you look for when you are gathering poems together to put in a collection?

SL: Unlike the first book, this one came together tonally, through elegy, though it took some time to get it all right. Organizationally, it was tricky; many poems focus on my father, but not all. And issues of tone created some challenges—the question of how to blend the humor, irony and sobriety in a way that would make for dynamic and logical reading and provide that desired “narrative arc.” I ended up taking out at least ten poems from the original manuscript (mostly more topical poems). And, at my editor’s wise suggestion, I placed the Martian poems at the front of the book rather than at the end, where they’d originally been. (They’re the most recent work in the book.) I think this reversal helped establish a more surprising, and, ideally, a more interesting point of view at the outset. I thought I’d go on to address this alien figure for a longer series (a couple of Martian poems were not included), but my weirdly extraterrestrial imagination proved finite. The Martian just stopped visiting. Nonetheless, I keep a glass of luminescent milk on my windowsill, in case my poem-pal returns!

LN: What are the simple things that you encounter in a day that might move you to begin a new poem? Do you keep a notebook?

It’s hard to say just where most of my poems come from, but reading good contemporary poetry inspires me to write; reading has always been ignition for me. But often a memory or a phrase will come unbidden, and I’ll write something down that might develop into a poem. Observation, experience, memory—all feed my impulse to write. And I’m always eager to get those initial pen scratches onto the computer. I’m an inveterate reviser; my first drafts are typically weak. But I try to nail that first inspiration quickly, so I don’t lose it, and then I work on poems for months. I make notes constantly—words, ideas, images, phrases, little sparks that could lead me to greater illumination. I don’t use a single notebook; I’m not that organized or particular, but I do put scraps in (paper) files, to keep track of poems when they’ve made it to the “in-progress” phase.

LN: The final poem in the collection ("New Worlds") feels so uplifting after many poems of sadness: "the heart's / pipes never yet wrung, old tubes, they play on." What was the source of this poem and how did you choose it to cap the collection?

SL: That poem, dedicated to the Ghanaian-born artist El Anatsui, was, in fact, unique in that I wrote it for a Mount Holyoke College Art Museum exhibition catalogue. As a member of the MHC InterArts Council, I worked with an interdisciplinary team of faculty members involved in collaborating on the Anatsui exhibition catalogue. His dazzling bottle-top sculptural pieces inspired the poem, and my own memory of collecting bottle caps in Mexico as a child helped me respond very personally to his process of trash-redemption. I was thrilled to meet him when he came to campus to talk about his work. And I wanted my book to close on a note of affirmation. I’m passionate about the visual arts in general, and for many years wrote arts journalism and reviewed contemporary exhibitions. I also love ekphrastic poetry (poems about art) and often teach it in my classes. I find that visits to art museums can be poetically soul-pumping.

LN: What is the most memorable thing you've read this summer?

SL: The most memorable book of poetry I’ve read in recent years is Tyehimba Jess’s Olio. The artful ambitiousness of that collection, its use of many forms and employment of technical acrobatics (his graphically sprung “syncopated sonnets,” for example), is truly inspiring. The poems are instructive historically, and awaken a world of voices from unheralded African American musicians and performers of the past. The book is a paean to lost artists, and a political statement so crucial to our moment.

As for what I’m reading now: a fascinating study of empathy in the primate world, Frans De Waal’s Mama’s Last Hug. This summer has been one of interruptions, so I’ve begun a number of excellent books that I’m still finishing: Margo Jefferson’s Negroland; Tom Sleigh’s new essay collection, The Land Between Two Rivers; Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light and Patrick Donnelly’s Little Known Operas. In these terribly distracting and very troubling times, stretches of reading are too often broken up. But I’m always eager for the kind of linguistic, intellectual and emotional pleasure that’s most reliably found amidst the pages of books. I treasure that simple task of scrutinizing words, roaming among lines of poems—like Heaney’s lantern of Diogenes in “The Haw Lantern” —for that one honest thought.

 
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Sara London is the author of Upkeep and The Tyranny of Milk, both published by Four Way Books. Her poems have appeared in many journals, including The Common, Quarterly West, The Hudson Review, Poetry East, The Iowa Review and the Poetry Daily anthology. She teaches at Smith College, and has also taught at Mount Holyoke and Amherst colleges. Sara is the poetry editor at The Woven Tale Press. She lives in Northampton, MA.