Sarah M. Sala Thinks You Should Embrace Curiosity
Author: Marty Correia
September 27, 2020
What does it mean to claim your space in a world that’s ending? Sarah M. Sala’s Devil’s Lake breaks open the American moment of unchecked gun violence, climate changes, and the growing rift between “us” and “them” with formal daring. Like a prism, this startling debut fractures into shades of possibility and memory, queering science, nature, and form to lay bare the colors of joy despite a world that seems intent on its destruction.
In this Q & A, writer Marty Correia interviews Sala; they discuss several poems from Devil’s Lake, Sarah’s obsession with science, and taking creative risks.
It’s hard to believe this is your first book. This writing is far more seasoned than other firsts I’ve read.
Marty, that’s a tremendous compliment coming from you. I revised the manuscript a dozen times, so maybe that’s why it doesn’t read as a first book. I felt like I could write and rewrite the book forever, but you finally just have to move on. The liminal space between being a finalist for publication and the push to materialize a book is intoxicating—it’s so full of potential.
This book spans many times of one’s life from childhood, to heartaches, to family issues (which are heartbreaking too), to getting married and the big questions of life. When were these poems written? How long would you say this book has been in the works?
Devil’s Lake took me over a decade to write—the oldest, “Tanager Street,” I wrote in 2007 as an undergraduate and the newest, “Nature Poem,” is a total revamp of an older piece that I wrote in January 2020 after visiting the Cornell Library Special Collections to see the Claudia Brenner papers on a road trip. Every six months or so I would remove 20% of the poems and write new ones. Finally, I started submitting the book in 2014 to force myself to finalize the book if it was accepted. To finally have to prioritize poetry over everything else in order figure out the more difficult poems was really rewarding.
The book’s three parts are distinct yet are connected much like the way you describe trees conversing via latticed fungi in your poem “Interior vs. Exterior.” Could you let us know your methods and ideas about the order of the poems?
Picking an order taught me so much about the different strategies of organizing a collection. Mentors suggested everything from performing chance operations to chronological or alphabetical order—and it worked splendidly for their own books. At first, I experimented with organizing the poems by themes, colors, images, or form, and none of it clicked until I identified the first and last poems: science poems that birthed the energetic universe and then continents that longed for unification in the end. From there, I identified the emotional peak of the book. That led to the three main sections: “violence in the American landscape,” “queerness in nature,” and the “lyric autobiographical.” The chapters are still permeable and allow the poems to dialogue across the collection. Robert Frost says the book itself is the “final poem,” so I tried to channel him as I laid out the collection.
While we are still thinking about “Interior vs. Exterior,” there’s a line tucked in there, “Gender isn’t something one is, but performs.” There’s a subtext in the rest of the poem that there were things humans didn’t know about plants and planets, and there are things we probably still don’t know about gender. Gender is at home in this book, as is nature, physics, etc. What are your thoughts on how poets can bring larger issues into their poetry and make it art, as you’ve done?
What a great question—I often think so many of our problems stem from the delusion that we understand each other or the world. There’s so much that we can’t wrap our brains around and that’s a good thing. Emily Dickinson said, “The Soul should always stand ajar” and I admire her ecstatic outlook. Why not entertain curiosity about something rather than fear it? Why lock gender in the binary? Why save math or physics for the classroom? If I think about the project of my life it’s largely giving myself permission to study anything I want regardless of my innate talent, and also to learn from everyone and everything I encounter. My poems often begin in the personal and move outward. Humans don’t normally care about an issue unless it’s affected them or someone they love.
From the details of science to the big bang, you take on the nuts and bolts of being, the leaps of existence and so much in between. Your work mixes and examines faith, science, humanism, philosophy, etc. How do you first visualize/conceive a poem? Is it sparked by the larger questions? The personal? Both? Something else? For instance, “The human heart weighs only as much as a can of Coke.” How did you nail that divine last line of “Aubade”?
I’m obsessed with science and I feel like I’m a magnet for surprising facts. I read widely—poetry collections about the periodic table of elements, peer-reviewed articles about invasive advertising tactics, or an art history book about the color green. Previous to “Aubade,” I was researching facts about the human heart and ran across that line: a human heart weights as much as a can of coke. When the Charleston Church Shooting happened, it overwhelmed me with grief and the two just fit together. Allowing a fact or an image to speak for me is much more powerful than trying to “say” anything at all. Poems begin in this deep emotional place and only then can I begin arrange the world around it.
This is not so much a poetry question, but just something that I always think when people say we’re “born this way.” In “On My Back” you write “my queerness is the most natural think I inhabit.” What do you think of the “made this way” argument of queerness? What do queer people gain from the idea that we were somehow “stuck” with this and can’t help it, so that makes it more acceptable to people who think queerness is wrong? Why can’t we just choose to be gay and it be fine?
Straight people are “born straight” every day, so why can’t gay people be born gay? For me personally, I prefer to embrace my queerness. It’s not going anywhere. I’m happily married to the love of my life. I wrote the poem “Nature vs. nature” as a way to say—listen, I was gay before I was born. I was gay before the universe existed. Humans are so short-sighted, when we can choose to be expansive. I think we can choose our level of “outness” or whether to openly love someone. But are those really choices?
“My voice becomes a skateboard ramp.” No question here. Just major admiration for that line! AND “American Ammunition” is poetry we can taste! A list of colors becomes feelings.
I love that you can taste “American Ammunition”! So, I actually have synesthesia—when I read electric writing I associate it with the color blue in my mind. Writing that’s drafty or imperfect appears orange. If I feel sick, my stomach seems grey. It’s a whole weird and exciting process that evolves into new color associations as I age. I deeply relate to colors, so perhaps that comes through in those poems.
Your poems create a world where the narrator wishes to be poems vs. being IN poems, where queerness is a kind of nature in itself. You even make being a lesbian and spotting another lesbian as a possess-able thing. Can you explain how your work explores how the self can “be” and “possessed”? It’s there on the page but I think people would RUN to buy your book if you answered this question.
When my partner and I walk in public places she’ll often say GAY in a deep voice under her breath when she spots a queer couple holding hands or walking their dog—as if we’re recognizing each other as part of a large queer family. Also, at a baby shower years ago a friend said to me, ‘wow Sarah, you ACTUALLY look gay today and it stuck with me for obvious reasons.’ What is gay? How does a lesbian who loves women look gay one day and not the other? Is gay a state of mind or dress or sexuality? Why does it matter? So much of writing this book was me coming into my own and sifting through the various spectrums and layers of queerness. Everyone should have that privilege.
The erasures poems are heartbreaking but at times funny. Each page has a black box where text is in white boxes, it’s light coming from a dark place. These visuals come from a focused awareness you sustained with these homophobic letters. Can you tell us more about these pages?
You’re absolutely right about inviting light into the dark places. Just months before our wedding, I got a letter in the mail imploring me not to marry my wusband because she’s a woman. Reading the letter felt like a private shame that I was supposed to suffer in silence. Instead, I did the only thing I know how: practiced artmaking. The blackout poem format allowed me to regain control of the narrative, but also allow existing truths to shine through. In the poem I’m able to honor the sender’s own difficult life, and their love for me. At the same time, now that it’s art, I’m able to be playful and fun with the text, too.
“Nature Poem” transforms the outdoors into a menacing backdrop. In its context “dark earth verged with wild azaleas” sounds like a grave. You visualize details here that show you thoroughly sat with this event’s violence. I’ve never been as firmly hit in the gut by the absence of punctuation than at the end of this poem. It’s still expecting a resolution. Can you talk about writing this poem and decisions you made about the form it takes and where it is in the book?
When I read Claudia Brenner’s memoir about the murder of her girlfriend, Rebecca Wight, while they were hiking on the Appalachian Trail, it rocked me. I wrote the poem after visiting the Cornell Library Special Collections holdings and sifting through two boxes of Brenner’s transcripts, newspaper clippings, TV clips, and speeches Brenner made for LGBTQ+ groups after the trial. I kept visualizing this spare poem with just room for two words to walk side by side on the page. I was forced to shed my lyric impulse—the undecorated facts are haunting on their own. The final erasure in the poem, is that the woman who survives, doesn’t even get to say goodbye to her lover. I’m haunted by that erasure of their romantic relationship. Folks think we’ve made so many strides in the gay rights movement, but a casual murder will bring you right back to fearing for your existence.
“Tanager Street” shows how amazing poets break the silence of life. Who are some of your favorite poets, writers, musicians, artists who also do this?
If you’re going to break the silence, you need to improve on it. That’s hard to do! Some of my favorite poets are Etel Adnan, Eduardo C. Corral, Gwendolyn Brooks, Crystal Valentine, Anne Carson, and Maggie Nelson. These are poets who I visit when I’m stuck, and they energize my thinking. Sufjan Stevens is a forever music muse and I love Mark Rothko’s moody paintings.
A takeaway from your book is that gender and queerness are never finished. This melds with the idea that naming of places and being matters. How do you manage to write timelessly about these moving targets?
What a great way to phrase queerness and gender—we’re always approaching understanding or being, but it’s neat that we never arrive. New generations of queer people are constantly defining and redefining themselves. Trans folks have never been more visible, and we can do so much more work to support inclusivity in our community. I just try to write from an honest place, and encourage people to never forget our past.
In “Sympathetic Headache” you write about cadmium being excavated by miners and then carry the element into the world of Miley Cyrus. Some believe that pop culture references in poetry is risky. Could you talk about taking these kinds of risks?
I’m have no real rules like that for my own writing. I was blasting her song “Wrecking Ball” while writing about Cadmium, which rolled into “We Can’t Stop.” I’m a sucker for big emotional ballads and sticky music. When Cyrus announced on Twitter that she’s genderqueer, it leapt into the poem. Everything we encounter in our daily lives is “stuff” we make into “exhibits” in our art. I don’t believe in “high” and “low” culture. I just want to create something new.
“The Image Surprises” uses realness as a portal, putting our arms in the sleeves of the next jacket you want us to try on for size. You are a professor, a spouse, a daughter, a sister, a friend and you live in New York City. How do you clear the noise of life to keep this proximity to your poetic super powers?
It’s hard to balance everything, but I have a wonderful spouse who also believes in putting art first. All the artists I look up to don’t separate their writing life from their regular life. When my teaching schedule and health work together to prevent me from writing, I just make sure I’m taking notes for poems, or at the very least paying attention to the world around me. In her book Syllabus, Lynda Barry includes this fantastic journal prompt where for two and a half minutes you list: things you did, saw, heard, and then draw a picture. I’ve gotten so many poems out of these simple observations. I’m horrible at drawing so it’s super fun to activate a different creative muscle. These small practices add up over time and suddenly you’ve written a poem.
Photo: Sarah M. Sala/Photo credit Talya Chalef