Interview with Sarah Nichols | She May be a Saint

Virga was very excited to ask Sarah Nichols, author of She May Be a Saint, a few questions about this new chapbook late in 2016. She May be a Saint was published by Hermaneutic Chaos Press, and is a collection of found poems. Sarah lives and writes in Connecticut. She is also the author of Edie (Whispering): Poems from Grey Gardens (dancing girl press, 2015) and her work has appeared in Emerge Literary Journal, Ekphrastic Review, and the RS 500. She serves as a co-editor of Thank You for Swallowing, an online journal of feminist protest poetry.

She May be a Saint, masterfully evokes the work of two of women whose poetry bridges the divide between 20th and 21st centuries. Sylvia Plath and C.D. Wright, both women who wrote from a visceral edge, are resurrected in Nichols’ book, a collection of Centos. But while these women are complicit in these minimalist poems, complicit insofar as the actual words are theirs, Nichols poetic sensibility distinguishes itself, arranging the words in such a way that the poems sometimes spin away from their muses, even as they embrace them.  For example, Nichols combines Plath’s poem “Wuthering Heights” and fragments of C.D. Wright’s intense work in One Big Self, Prisoners of Louisiana to create “Distances Evaporate,” a poem with a voice that, if not more vulnerable and demanding than the Wright/Plath poems from which Nichols borrowed, is at least as urgent, a voice that resonates throughout the collection.

 

Interview

V. Sarah, your chapbook is a collection of Centos. Can you talk a little bit about this form and what attracted you to it?

I learned about the form in 2009, when I attended the Wesleyan Writers Workshop. Ravi Shankar was teaching the poetry workshop, and provided examples of it. I thought it was so fantastic that something so old (the form goes back to ancient Greece) could be so modern. The word itself, I was told, is Latin for patchwork. I have always been very interested in collage, in the collision of seemingly disparate parts to make something new. Most of the visual art that I’ve done has been collage of some kind: for example, in 2011, I took a children’s book and painted and collaged over it so it became an illustrated book of Radiohead’s song “Myxomatosis.”  It took me awhile to think that I could do a sustained collection of centos or found poems. My first chapbook, The Country of No, was all non-found work.  For me, it’s a deceptively simple form and idea: taking the words of others to make a new poem. As I’ve gone along and made more of them, I’ve realized that it’s essential that my voice has to be present. It’s not enough to take someone else’s words and just rearrange them. I’ve written more than my share where I was absent, and those were unsuccessful.

V. The Plath and Wright poems you culled from span both poets’ careers and the gamut of their poetic obsessions; how did this collection condense for you? What was your process?

The first poem that I wrote for this collection, “Experiences, quietly humming,” was written in the fall of 2013. It was straight-up weird in my eyes, but it sounded right, somehow. I had faith in it. At first, I thought I would only use the Bee Sequence from Plath’s Ariel and Wright’s book One Big Self, but no matter how I tried to make that work, it wouldn’t. I then expanded to include all of Ariel and more of Wright. It still didn’t work; whenever I tried to write a poem, I was unsatisfied with it. I was not putting myself into it. In May of 2016, I sent “Experiences…” and another poem to Hermeneutic Chaos, and they were rejected. But the rejection letter that Shinjini Bhattacharjee sent me was so loving, and detailed in what she thought was right about the poems, that I decided to go forward with them, and then it went very fast. I decided at that point to use all of Plath, and what I could find of Wright in the library. I also made the decision to avoid, if I could, using the more famous Plath poems, like “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” (there is a line from that in one of the poems, though).  I just heard “keep going” in my head, so I did.

V. Why these two women?

Sylvia Plath has been in my life since I was 15 or 16. At that time, I was very much obsessed with the drama of her life, and of her death. I believed, for too long, that one had to self-destruct in order to make great or lasting art. It was only as an adult that I saw a woman with a phenomenal work ethic, one who knew what she had inside her. In 2009 I visited Smith College’s Mortimer Rare Book Room, and I had the opportunity to look at the drafts of “Elm,” which is one of my favorites of her poems. Draft after draft. Revising until it reached a kind of flawlessness. Seeing that made me focus on her work…it is devastating to me that she died when she did; she was becoming completely aware of her power as an artist, and there is no way to know what she would have created after But I also think that her pre-Ariel work gets short shrift. No, it doesn’t have that controlled wildness in it, but damn there is a lot of beauty there. I had to incorporate it. As for C.D. Wright, I knew nothing about her until I picked up the second edition of the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry. Most of the selection for her in that volume comes from the book length One Big Self, and I was drawn to its weirdness and honest voice, and so much of her work is like that: a plain spoken strangeness— it makes no effort to go into some ethereal place, but it does anyway.  After I wrote that first poem, “Experiences, quietly humming,” I showed it to a friend. At the time, I didn’t know that Wright had been her teacher at Brown. I was thrilled when she said that she thought Wright would have liked it. I regret not sending it to her.  In her journal, Plath wrote of Virginia Woolf, “her words make mine possible,” and to come back to the original question, “why these two women ?” I would say the same. Both are fearless in their artistry and determination. Their work sings. To try to have just a little of that in my own work would be huge.

V. Your chapbook’s title is evocative, a line from Sylvia Plath’s poem, “In Plaster.” Can you tell us a little about how this line carries your work?

I can try!  Rereading “In Plaster,” the line is “she may be a saint, and I may be ugly and hairy…”  I see it as I work with a lot of dark elements in my writing; call them ugly and hairy, if you want. All of that goes into creating this thing that runs alongside it: a poem that works, or an essay that connects with people. I don’t know that I use poetry as therapy, but I see it as an opportunity to look at, or work through, things that have preoccupied or obsessed me, or to speak of something that I’ve experienced. The poem, “She May Be a Saint,” is about my experience of addiction. I don’t think I started out with that in mind, but that’s what it became. To quote Emily Dickinson: “Tell all the truth/but tell it slant—“

V. Do you have any specific writing resolutions for 2017?

At this moment, yes and no. I tend to keep what I’m working on to myself until it’s more fully formed. This year I made the decision to submit to places I had never submitted to before, with varying degrees of success. Journals that I admire, and wanted my work to appear in, took my work. I probably wrote more poems than I ever have this year, and I’d like to keep that going. But there also has to be a bit of a hiatus period, and that’s happening now. I have another book coming out in 2018. If I can make another in the coming year, I’ll be thrilled. This is a thing that’s definitely on the universe’s time-table, not mine.

A big thank you to Sarah Nichols for answering our questions today! Her chapbook, She May Be a Saint is availabe now from Hermaneutic Choas Press. You can reach her on twitter at @onibaba37