profiles in poetics: Sarah Maclay

Sarah Maclay


If you could create your own language, what etymology would you pull from? From what linguistic logos, from what pathological stain? Whose histories would you disrupt, three dimensional in language? Can we flesh our forgiveness in the subjectivity of object? Sarah Maclay is a poet who “[braids] external references and observations with a kind of voiciness that [pops], so the surfaces are a little more distressed and the journey is less straightforward.” She quotes Paul Valery: “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees,” continuing with her hope that the poems emerge as her artist friend Kristi Hager once experienced them: “if my poems were butterflies, they were not trapped and pinned down, but the wings were still beating.”

The feminine/beauty conflation conundrum from Maclay’s perspective dissolves strict gender universals. She refers to recent poems of female friends:  “as with the work of many of my favorite male writers, [it] does seem to me, often, ‘beautiful’ or, to be more precise, ‘potent’— [is] in highly various ways, utterly alive—in its connections, its silences, its erasures and utterances, its senses, its dazzle, its dun, its restraint. So, in short, I think we may have been writing outside of that closed cycle for a long time.” Here we are able to “ultimately, [tumble] with some relief, into a state where boundaries seem to be erasing—boundaries between self and ‘other’ and between present and past and future, between waking and sleeping.”

Sarah Maclay is the author of Music for the Black Room, The White Bride and Whore (all, University of Tampa Press)—and three chapbooks: Ice from the Belly (FarStarFire), Weeding the Duchess (Black Stone) and Shadow of Light (Inevitable), as well as Fugue States Coming Down the Hall, collected in the Kostelanetz anthology Scenarios: Scripts to Perform. Her poems and criticism have appeared in APR, Ploughshares, FIELD, The Writer’s Chronicle, Poetry Daily, VerseDaily, The Laurel Review, Hotel Amerika, Ninth Letter, The Offending Adam, The Best American Erotic Poems:  1800 to the Present, and numerous other publications including Poetry International, where she serves as Book Review Editor. A Montana native, she received degrees from Oberlin College and Vermont College and has worked in the software and film industries. The recipient of a Special Mention in Pushcart Prize XXXI, a 2009 Grisham fellowship, and the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry, she teaches creative writing and literature at Loyola Marymount University and conducts workshops at The Ruskin Art Club and Beyond Baroque.

1.)    What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

I started writing as a child, inspired mainly because my mother read to us every night, so I fell in love with literature, starting with the great fairy tales. Though I can’t explain why, I think an equal inspiration was listening to a lot of Debussy and Beethoven as a very young kid, and staring for hours at a book of pictures from the Louvre.  Also, I lived in the country, long before computers, and with minimal TV and phone, so there was a lot of time and room for an active imagination. There was some kind of productive loneliness there. Starting in high school, Beckett, Anne Sexton, Cummings, Merwin, Lorca, and then later Gluck, Atwood, Valentine, Woolf, Djuna Barnes, Stevens, HD, Rilke, Transtromer, Edson, Sontag, Faulkner, Char, Eliot, Hart Crane—these were some early touchstones. And then later, Anne Carson, Barbara Guest, Celan, Mary Jo Bang, Linda Gregg, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, CD Wright, Zagajewski, Trakl, Emanuel, Bachelard, Salamun, Bowles, Durrell, Koetzee, Duras, Forche, Kelly, Greenstreet, Schutt, and a whole growing spill of writers, starting with the folks I’m about to mention.

2.)    Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

I was at Oberlin at a time when Franz Wright, Tom Lux and David St. John were all there,  along with David Young, Stuart Friebert and Diane Vreuls and David Walker, who are still there—and I also got to hear many poets and writers who passed through, among them Atwood, Rich, and Transtromer. When I got back into my own writing, many years later, I became a regular at workshops held at Beyond Baroque, The Midnight Special, The Church at Ocean Park and then Yellow Bay, Idyllwild, Squaw—so, everyone there and especially Bob Hass, who I run into more often, and Jane Miller and Carl Philips at Tomales Bay. I took generative workshops in LA with Cecilia Woloch, who kept on me to complete what became Music. . ., and I became part of David St. John’s ongoing master class. And then Ralph Angel, Mary Ruefle, Bill Olsen, Roger Weingarten were mentors at Vermont College. I also had some important conversations there with Jody Gladding, David Wojahn and Gillian Conoley, who pointed me in fruitful directions. Roger, along with my California and Montana poet/mentors Sandra Alcosser and Bruce Boston, encouraged me to write reviews. Ralph was the mentor who shepherded and believed in Whore as a book, and urged me to submit it to contests, which led me to my publisher, U of Tampa. I continue to study with David St. John whenever I can—he has provided me with profound ongoing mentoring and belief in my work, and I think he’s seen nearly all of it. And I think more and more about Lynn Blumberg, who I studied with in high school, and out of whose classes and crwr mag advising, a number of us are still writing. And recently I’ve gained a lot of inspiration from my various collaborator and braided reading poet-pals—Holaday Mason, Gail Wronsky, Louise Mathias, Molly Bendall, David Dodd Lee, Mariano Zaro, Brendan Constantine, and Elena Karina Byrne.

3.)    How has your own work changed over time and why?

In the 90s, I was able to isolate something about the poems I most revered that I also hoped for in my own work—that the poem was a form of transport, some kind of transport mechanism—to a place I somehow recognized, often some internal place but, to get there, as Camus says, “A writer needs things and flesh,” even though the space we get dropped into may be “the ineffable.” In my more successful work, as my artist friend Kristi Hager put it, if my poems were butterflies, they were not trapped and pinned down, but the wings were still beating.

And then this, from Paul Valery, became a fundamental key: “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.” So here’s the paradox: as writers, how do we do this in a naming art? Because when we start to practice this more and more consciously, letting the labels slide gives us a chance at bringing back the mystery and presence of what’s underneath them; we can get closer to that unmediated initial experience. This paradox began to pre-occupy me more and more consciously, not only in my own work, but in the poems that really got under my skin, and it keeps leading me to investigate the many ways poets move toward this point via both subtraction and addition.

The poems of Music . . .are earlier (begun between the 1970s and very early 00s), so they may still feel most accessible, and the prose poems of The White Bride (a return to a form I’d used decades earlier) felt like a necessary chaser to the poems of Whore. These prose poems often started as assignments that would slip into my brain as titles, sort of like lines sometimes slide in—and then I’d have to find a way to fulfill the assignments. Sometimes this took years. Other times, it happened right away. Etymology is at the heart of the poem “Whore” as a way to disrupt the stability of that word, and I also used it increasingly in the prose poems, often having to use multiple meanings of a word in the same poem. And there was also a sort of pick-up-sticks braiding of external references and observations with a kind of voiciness that would pop up, so the surfaces are a little more distressed and the journey is less straightforward. A lot of those poems are also ekphrastic or quasi-ekphrastic. Ultimately, there’s a psychological journey going on that can be traced, but I didn’t know I was doing that when I jumped into the first poems. It was deeply refreshing to turn my focus outward.

The touchstone I always seem to come back to and find myself wanting to access even more deeply right now appears in the titles of the classes I’ve been teaching recently: the poetry of silence, the poetry of night, the poem of the dream, the poem as dream. If I have to isolate the movements that continue to speak to me and seem to swirl around all of this, symbolism, surrealism and the work of the Deep Image poets (as well as the people they have translated) provide me with a continuing sense of home base. My sense is that some of the more elliptical work I am also drawn to now is also somehow connected to this.

Listening to, reading and writing about other people’s work is what has most moved my own writing, and continues to. I find it indispensable. As Bill Olsen says, “If you can’t write, read.”  Meanwhile, I think my poems have been growing more elliptical, the weaves more open, perhaps because I admire the spaciousness this creates in some of the poems of friends, and perhaps because I’m more likely now to feel claustrophobic if anything about a poem feels cramped.

4.)    Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

Different genres and different art forms, very much so—in addition to various prose forms (some of which I refer to above), music, film, the performing arts, the visual arts: Wenders, Lynch, Bergman, Herzog, Bertolucci, Malick, Laurie Anderson, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Eno, Glass, Rothko, Kandinsky, Matisse, Bonnard, Cy Twombly, O’Keefe, Kahlo, Cage, Cornell . . . Hope Sandoval, Gillian Welch, Moby, Gorecki, Arvo Part, Pina Bausch, Robert Frank, Rocky Schenck, Spaulding Gray . . . all of them have held me in their sway. And this is a partial list of course, but you get the idea. My experience is that aesthetics are not bound by genre or art form, but cross over, cross through. I was involved for many years in music (as a singer/songwriter, ten years of choirs, piano), theatre and film and performance art (“Fugue States Coming Down the Hall” was performed at Oberlin and Beyond Baroque and appears in Kostelanetz’s anthology Scenarios: Scripts to Perform, and there were also many years of working as a script analyst, in freelance development, acting, some loose dramaturgy), and I’ve had just enough experience with drawing, painting and photography that they have given me the tools to understand and experience (with hand and eye) that Valery notion that so rocked me. My participation in all of the performing arts has increased my awareness of the power of silence, the power of stillness, as well as giving me a sense of the magic of anything that deigns to appear in an otherwise blank space, whether an image, a gesture, a sound, or a mark. Film—and in particular, the way its plasticity and montage allow for a fluidity that approximates dream, which I also see and experience in some modern dance—is an art form I feel particularly akin to, and I’m very intrigued by the poemfilms that are emerging now (including yours!).  A number of my poems have been infiltrated by the work, ideas, thoughts of musicians, artists and filmmakers, in particular—and I edit aloud, for music, or sometimes look at larger swaths of work with particular music in the background. Bergman figures in the making of some of the new poems (including “32,” below). Herzog once gave me a great editing tip. He said that he’d look at footage as though he’d taken it all out of the garbage, to see what he wanted to save. That allowed him to see it afresh.  It can be so hard to get distance from one’s own work. I think this is a good technique.

5.)    What are your plans for the future?

To get “She” into the world (my braided collaboration of 50 poems each with Holaday Mason). To return to my essays, starting with “The Root of Saying” (10/04 Writers Chronicle)—I want and maybe need to complete a book of them. To complete a tiny chapbook of tiny old poems. And to see what begins to open up as the next cycle of poems.

6.)    What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

It’s healthy, vibrant, alive, wildly pluralistic, burgeoning, and I’m thrilled to see women of all aesthetic stripes also taking the reins and actively propelling the present and future in every possible way, from forming presses to running reading series to leading writer’s organizations to writing significant criticism, to conducting workshops and teaching. It’s like watching some brilliant time-lapse explosion that seems only to continue, and that I think will be even more visible to us in 20 years.

7.)    Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

Oh, so, so many—it’s burgeoning. Most of the people I’ve already mentioned have more than one full-length out, and there are a lot of terrific poets with at least two, so I want to focus here on some who, as I write this, have released one or fewer: Louise Mathias, Natalie Diaz, Alison Benis White, Kelli Noftle, Anna Journey, Lynne Thompson, Dina Hardy, Mia Carli, Frankie Drayus, Stephany Prodrimedes, Yvette Johnson, Olivia Friedman, Maureen Alsop, Jan Wesley, Amaranth Borsuk, Marci Vogel, Beth Ruscio, Angela Penaredondo, Charlotte Innes, Hilda Weiss, Barbara Blatt, Alexis Orgera, Megan Kaminski, Jessica Fisher, Mandi Smith, Carrie Olivia Adams, Marsha de la O . . . and there’s another nascent wave I’m tempted to add here, but will wait.

8.)    If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

The Un-Labeler. One Who Is Pre-Occupied With Getting Below the Skin of Language. Below the skin, below the scrim.

9.)    The first three poems, in your work Whore, women’s bodies are cast in a palpable organic light. In “A Crescendo in Rain” we listen to lines such as “I am made of leggy petals / and you grasp them.” The female figure is represented in an organic nature, but she is also caught within the logic of her skin and the Patriarchal power structure under this codex. Speculative thinking which is intransient outside of knowledge seems to suggest freedom from this. How do you see your poetry reinforcing gender binaries or disrupting them?

Given any either/or choice, my tendency is always to want to kick the door open, to get beyond the realm of rods and cones and into full-spectrum color—so I’d say disrupting binaries and breaking silence and also wanting to get beyond even the either/or of a binary frame—that I want to write from some place on the other side of anything that feels self-limiting and into something that simply feels true; in this case, to celebrate aspects of the human body in a state of unusual well-being in a rare moment of intimacy, to celebrate the sacredness and joy of that connection, to try to come anywhere close to the suggestion of what those moments are like. If there is a logic of skin it is also a logic of soul, of spirit, of psyche enacted in the flesh as the boundaries begin to erode, which happens in the rest of the poem via association and syntax and rhythm and a kind of slippage between outer and inner.

It’s so interesting that you mention those first three poems—“feminine, winter, cold” is essentially figureless—it’s an existential poem focusing mainly on landscape, a deeply quiet, essentially solitary, nearly hermetic moment of at least the illusion of renewal, of having cast all baggage aside, of surrendering to these particular  “aspects of yin” which the title names, and though there is some sense of a lyric speaker, I think the poem would read the same way, whether read by a male or a female voice. The hint I will give about the second poem, which comes from a dream, is that there are no gender indications. People tend to read both dual genders and a particular type of intimacy into the poem, but it did not begin that way for me, and I like the preservation of that ambiguity, because I think it speaks, whatever the nature of the growing intimacy (whether friendship or a more traditionally “romantic” relationship) to both the excitement of discovering any type of genuine connection with someone as well as the actual oddness of an exchange which suddenly also comes not just with baggage but with an exchange of baggage, of histories, of pasts, of ongoing dilemmas. So you start with something magical and transporting and then suddenly you get the whole family in the hotel room—and then this is actually also part of the intimacy; it’s just not whatever you had, initially, in mind.

10.) Music for the Black Room, “Demeter Before the Return of Spring,” reads “I could watch / the delicate, unconscious strip of the tree / until the fifty-eighth of November, / the eighty-fourth of November— / this tree that stands on its hill like a prop, / letting go of its sewn-on leaves— …  because there will be no end to November.” The figure of the tree here is almost figureless in the values placed on the subjectivity of identity as object. The poem is dependent on the architecture of this listless system. In reference to the body as feminine and beauty, what does this speak to in terms of women’s bodies and in your opinion is there a way out of this cycle?

First, to the poem itself, for a bit of context: this poem came out of a deep and piercing grief, to the point that there was a sense in which everything perceivable seemed somehow unreal, dislocated, two-dimensional, “as if”—the day, the speaker observes, could be called “beautiful,” but the speaker cannot feel that but only observe that the day has qualities that others would name in this way—that it could be called “beautiful” is not a comfort, but a sharp jab of irony. The “light” delivers not warmth, but “cold.” The “park” looks like a “sandwich on a concrete plate.” The tree, its “toothpick.” The hill itself looks “manmade” and “shallow.” The tree “sheds leaves like crackers.” The speaker feels completely cut off, displaced from nature.  Nature itself seems cut off from itself, unreal. The only nourishment available, in this sort of hallucinatory search for metaphor and simile to get at the way things appear in this perceptual state, is sort of weirdly festive and manmade and processed—a giant, inedible sandwich festooned with a toothpick. It is only in the stepping out of its “red dress” and into eventual nakedness that the tree also resonates as specifically female—and this, I think, to some extent, could be seen as a momentary projection of the speaker, some kind of self-identification, as well as another search for metaphor.  The speaker can only imagine watching this process until the tree is “naked”—in this case, not a comfort, as it will be unprotected from winter. The speaker is immobilized in a place that feels both fake and bleak and cannot imagine an end to that state, or a way to leave.  Curiously, the piece did not start as a persona poem, but quickly became one, which allowed for its ending—which allowed, I suppose, the poem to have a way to end, even as the “November” seemed to refuse an ending.

And so, in this case, I’m not so sure that there’s a correlation being made between “feminine” and “beauty,” so much as the opening of some desperate and strange bundle of metaphors that allow the saying of anything at all that feels something like the feeling of this moment—in some sense, it’s expressionistic in its impulse, while confined to expressing through what it sees and the way what it sees feels.

But to the more general question of a way out of the feminine/beauty conflation conundrum, I cannot speak to the culture at large, but when I think of poetry (my own and the work of many of my female pals), the word “beauty” does not come up much, in regard to what we’re compelled to write about or write from, which is sometimes quite harrowing, except sometimes where it is problematized or else in response to some experience of the world/nature/a moment that strikes us that way (and the word “beauty” itself may not be used, in that case, to give us a sense of “beauty,” since the label most often diminishes that sense) but the work itself, as with the work of many of my favorite male writers, does seem to me, often, “beautiful” or, to be more precise, “potent”—in highly various ways, utterly alive—in its connections, its silences, its erasures and utterances, its senses, its dazzle, its dun, its restraint. So, in short, I think we may have been writing outside of that closed cycle for a long time.

11.)   Can knowledge exist without linear time? There is a tension of space between the sense of a self in persona and a search for a core identity or origin. In your work “32” from the “She” series, which debuts this month in Superstition Review there is a passage: “People held their clothing on, / Tightly / It was hard to know / What to hear / Was a film already empty / The script had been written / The sound of birds / Infiltrated me / A huge, swaying texture / Like Beethoven / Soaring out of the Schonbrunn / A moving curtain surrounding the windows / In and out of sleep / Walking silently through trees.” This is a conversation between the solitude of oneself and the connection to a larger discussion of “other”; the diversity of our ego states. So then is identity in your work a disintegration of self and how we connect or is there a self that we are able to grasp and hold onto? How do dreams interact in this exchange?

I imagine your questions here as signposts or triggers for further exploration  . . . perhaps they will lead me to a new map or to some endlessly unmapped and unmappable woods. But I think, basically, in this particular poem (which begins, “Because identity had gone / and no one was waiting . . .”), that it’s being written out of a state in which any sense of self as something that one could “grasp and hold onto” (in other words, some past self, or passed sense of self) has vanished, and so there’s a sense of freefall and foreignness—self-foreignness as well as the sense of being a stranger in an actual but unfamiliar (un-daily, un-quotidian) place, that then begins to blend (merge? fall?) into memory and fever-memory, so that, line to line, as it emerges, it is moving both forward and backward, as many of the phrases are multivalent—there’s a kind of spatial and chronological indeterminacy at the same time as it seems to be tumbling ahead. Perhaps, ultimately, tumbling with some relief, because into a state where boundaries seem to be erasing—boundaries between self and “other” and between present and past and future, between waking and sleeping.

And perhaps we can say that one of the thresholds of these places is the dream—where a boundary would be, there is actually an opening, a state of liminality not quite as porous as the hypnogogic state referenced at the end of this poem. If Bergson was right and we are always essentially in the process of becoming, dreams seem to me to be the harbingers of becoming, or perhaps the guides. There is something similar to the feeling of beginning a poem, not knowing what cargo it will haul up—not always welcome. But somehow true. The new truth. I am thinking, as I write this, of a teacher of mine—Peter Flood, rather brilliant—who once pointed out that an old meaning or root of the word “weird” was “what we are becoming”  (Old English: destiny; to become). So there is this sense of strangeness, of lack of familiarity, caught in the experiences that we label with this word that we ourselves are not immune to. Perhaps the act of putting them into words begins to reveal what they might “mean,” sometimes immediately, sometimes a long time later. Meanwhile, the poem of the dream state, the dream realm, emerges as equal in potency to those that draw on other sources, in poetry as in other forms of art.