Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews: Sarah Etlinger

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Etlinger

Sarah Etlinger

is an English professor and poet who resides in Milwaukee, WI, with her family.. A Pushcart nominee, she has been published in a variety of literary magazines. Interests other than writing include cooking, traveling, and learning to play the piano.

The Interview

1. What inspired Never One For Promises?

The inspiration for Never One for Promises came from two main threads: first, grappling with questions of faith and how it manifests itself in our experiences; and second, the complexities of romantic relationships. Some of the poems arise from my own experiences with a particularly profound, powerful, and ultimately destructive relationship, while others address the concept more generally and examine the ways in which we experience love, its limitations, and its power. I think the book really asks questions about love and its limits, both from a grounded, everyday perspective, and a more divine, ethereal one.

2. The Christian Bible specifically Old Testament relationships, such as between Noah and his wife, are grounded in the actual complex modern relationship you describe.

Yes they are. And I think that’s a really nice way of thinking about it.

3. It somehow makes the OT characters more believable and less symbols, and widens the intimate, personal picture of the modern adultery. How long had you been working on the collection?

I worked on it for a year. It’s a long story. Two years if you count just writing the poems.  But now I have another one coming out too hopefully next month that I’ve also been working on for a year. I am a professor and a wife/mom so I don’t always get regular time to write.

4. How important is the natural world to your writing? I am thinking of the pear poem, among others?

I would say it’s integral. This whole project of writing poetry began because while I was driving in rural Indiana in July 2016, and marveling at the vast cornfields, farms, etc. a poem seemed to come to me from the heavens. It’s called “Crossroads” (check it out here, final poem in the issue: https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/9b8cac_e40708d596ee41718b8afa65a9f1b7e4.pdf)

But in my second book and in the ms I’m working on now, nature/the natural world is central because I see in it images of the divine, the spiritual, the contrast between the everyday and the extraordinary. In “Pears,” particularly, the pears are the catalyst for the memory, the reflection, the experience; I believe this is the case in many of my other poems, too.

5. Who introduced you to poetry?

Oh, I’ve loved poetry my whole life– as a very young child, my mother used to read me Mother Goose Rhymes and we memorized them, along with greats like Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss. So I think I’ve always had a penchant for it. Since I learned to write, I wrote stories and poems and things. But I started taking it seriously in 6th and 7th grade and continued to write and read throughout high school. In college, I stopped after a bad experience in a creative writing class, and really didn’t write much after that. Then once graduate school happened, I’d become too busy to write anything. So it wasn’t until I got the job I have now where I was able to breathe a little and come back to poetry. The poets I read come from my friends and my own background in literature. I know a few writers, too, who recommend things to me. Poetry chose me, though, and it has always spoken to me. It has saved me more than once in my life.

I credit my return to poetry to two friends, one I met in high school and who encouraged me to write; and one to whom I no longer speak, but who played a role in encouraging me as well as introducing me to writers like Erica Meitner, W.S. Merwin (my favorite), Merton, and Charlotte Boulay, among others. Merwin in particular has been a large influence in my writing as of late.

6. How does Merwin influence your writing today?

Merwin is a virtuoso of rhythm and language, and so because of him I’ve tried to pay attention to how language sounds when it’s together there on the line. And in most of his work, he has eschewed most punctuation, so he has to let the line and the line break do the work. That, for me, was a profound (though somewhat simple) insight, and in a few of my recent poems I have minimized the punctuation to let the lines do the work. I also love the way he writes so simply about nature. As the natural world is an influence on my work, I like to think I’ve imbued some of Merwin into my lines in the way that the natural world is both everyday and spiritual, beautiful and terrifying, small and too big to comprehend.

7. What is your daily writing routine?

Well, I do not have a set routine only because I have a demanding job (I’m a professor with a heavy teaching load), and a little boy at home, so I often don’t get the luxury of a regular routine. However, now that my son will be in school soon, I hope to have a more regular writing schedule. A good piece of advice I’ve gotten from the amazing poet Joanne Diaz was to treat poetry and writing as part of my job, not as a hobby. So, even when my son was much younger and I was swamped, I would carve out a few hours on a Sunday when my husband could watch him to write. I also meet with a coach/mentor at least 2x a month, which keeps me on somewhat of a schedule.

When I do write, I tend to write in fits and starts. I’ll get periods where I’ll do as many as 3 poems in a week or couple days; then weeks when I get nothing at all. I also tend to write a lot of lines down in the interim; when I’m thinking about something or when somebody says something interesting to me, I will write down the phrase or idea. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I can draft at least part of a poem on my phone (I’ve always got that with me so it makes it easy to write) in between other things.

As for the actual writing session, my routine varies depending on what I’m working on. If it’s writing the first draft of a poem (and I have time to finish it), I mostly sit down and type it out. Lately I have been using pen and paper because I love this notebook/journal my best friend got me from India, and I like to compose by hand sometimes, too. However, usually the pen and paper comes out only when I’m revising. If I’m revising the poem, I use notes from others or my own ideas, and try to work those in. But I find that this process has changed a lot for me over the course of the 3 years I’ve been doing this. I used to only write on my computer and revise there. Now I find I like the pen and paper, and cutting up a printed version of a poem to see how it works.

8. Who of today’s writers do you most admire, and why?

I like a lot of poets from the last 60 years or so; in particular, ee cummings, Williams, Kenneth Koch, Louise Gluck, Gwendolyn Brooks, Eavan Boland, and many others.

As I mentioned, I love Merwin, but I also love more contemporary voices like Erica Meitner, Kaveh Akhbar, Claudia Rankine,  and Kay Ryan. These writers are brave and autobiographical and technical masters. They use majestic, mythical imagery in simple language that transports readers to other worlds. Kay Ryan does things with line breaks and rhyme that I didn’t think were possible; Brooks can rhyme so naturally it almost is impossible to detect; and Eavan Boland’s blending of the everyday and the mythical is deceptively simple. I also love how Akhbar’s images are uncanny, sometimes grotesque, but so beautiful. Finally, as a Jewish writer, I appreciate Meitner’s voice and talent as well as her speaking to the Jewish American experience.

I think, though, that I admire poets who are dedicated to their craft and do not use images or phrases for the sake of using them. Many talented writers exist who do this, and it makes for strange reading, at least for me. What I admire most, I think, are poets who try to reach the truth of experience through powerful images, beautiful phrases, and/or particularly lyrical work.

9. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

I would say that you become a writer by writing. You have to keep at it. Do it as often as you can and get good feedback. Educate yourself as much as you can. But the writing is the most important thing. You’re going to have good days and bad days–lots of them–but every word written is progress. And you have to write a lot of bad stuff to get to, get at the good stuff.

I’d also say to find someone who’s a good reader of your work, who understands and respects your work for what it is, but who pushes you to see it differently and to grow.

But at the end of the day, being a writer is one who writes. If you’re writing you’re a writer.

10. Final question, Sarah: You said earlier that you use nature as “ the catalyst for the memory, the reflection, the experience; I believe this is the case in many of my other poems, too. “. Please can you expand on this in the light of  Never One For Promises and the present Ms you are working on.

Never One for Promises uses nature as a site for reflection, for understanding, for questioning. Nature is, in both books, the ultimate metaphor for existence at the same time it reminds us of our smallness within it.  For example, in the Geraniums poems, we see the speaker looking at her geraniums and remembering how she got them, or how her mother cut them back, and how they grew despite the long hibernation. She learns or is reminded of how life often works. In the second Geranium’s poem, the petals and leaves remind her of her lover’s body and how tender–or, implicitly, brutal– care is what nurtures us. In Two Fools the lovers marvel at the stars at night and their smallness in the world; through the metaphor of a cotton stem she comes to understand her lover will leave her. In Summer Aubade similar questions of our place in the world and among nature arise. And in Pears the act of slicing a pear for lunch– a simple, everyday act, yet one that is both intimate and sensual as we feed people we love, right?– becomes the fulcrum for memory and thinking about lost, unrequited love. There’s the ocean, there’s a chili pepper, the ashes from rituals, flowers…all things that come from the natural world yet are infused with the ultimate questions of existence.

In my second forthcoming book, similar threads are taken up, though the focus is much broader. We have meditations on sunrise, swimming as metaphors for missed communication, the stars and the sky, flowers, light and dark and the body with its unpredictable senses. We have a grounding yet we yearn to fly beyond it; we have the dissolution of matter and the ways our cells carry things with us. This collection is more sensual and carnal in all senses of the word, and I think it is a nice “sequel” to the previous one.

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