Sarah Aronson is a Montanan by way of Alaska. Her debut collection of poems, And Other Bodiless Powers, won the 2018 New American Poetry Prize. She is also the host of the Montana Public Radio literary program and podcast, The Write Question.
Sarah and I spent one year studying poetry together at the University of Montana; I began my first year as Sarah began her second. Interacting with her work again was nothing short of splendid. After some consideration, we decided I would send the interview questions via e-mail, so her answers could breathe and evolve with time and space. After all, what is a poet without an expanse in which to ruminate.
Georgia Dennison: Sarah, thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions on And Other Bodiless Powers. This is your first book of poems and a collection that beautifully reminded me that “Nothing that happens to you in this life / is unnatural.”
Sarah Aronson: Thank you for taking time and care with the work, Georgia. I’m imagining you on a boat in Maine.
GD: The collection opens up with the poem “If Not Thirst” and ends with these lines:
Press my finger to the page,
the page folds, becomes the stalk of grass
I put in my mouth to whistle you back.
I love the idea of the poet bringing the reader into the book with a whistle or a call. It feels like the ringing of a bell, a commencement. But what I find particularly striking about this moment is not just the transformation of page to grass—we often consider the transformation of grass to page—but how the you is being whistled back, as if they have been here once, twice, many times before. I’m wondering how this poem came to be, but also how this poem came to open up your collection?
SA: About a third of the book coalesced the summer after I’d written my MFA thesis. It was a season of terrible forest fires, unrelenting loneliness and longing, and an elective tonsillectomy before I lost health insurance. That poem in particular is an attempt to hold the pain I carry as a hyper-empath and the horizon I’m always desiring. Like most of my work, I let the unconscious write the poem before turning to more intentional craft elements.
It was a late addition to make it the opener. While there are more accessible creekside poems in the book, this one felt the truest to begin with. I knew I wanted to start with strong images, the initial call to the “you,” and a particular landscape. This was the poem that felt like it could contain the rest of the book. If a stranger picked up the book and only read the first poem, I wanted it to be that one.
GD: In An Introduction to Poetry, authors X. J. Kennedy and David Goia insist that “The workhorse of English poetry is the quatrain.” This line has always stuck with me and inspired me to consider how other forms or patterns may move a poem forward. And Other Bodiless Powers often relies on the couplet as its driving force, as an elegant gathering. I’m curious about how these poems found the couplet or how the couplet found these poems? If the quatrain is a workhorse, what would the couplet symbolize for you?
SA: I am drawn to the dance of two. The relationship. In a couplet it seems the lines need to be both sturdy and delicate, speaking back to each other while creating momentum. Nothing can get lost in a couplet, every word matters, every line is nearly naked, save for the sheltering of its pair. I find the couplet manageable and aesthetically pleasing. I’m not an over-writer, and so compression and tightness soothe me. Also, I’m a therapist, and so much of my life revolves around the energy of two. Two bodies in the room, two psyches, two ways of seeing, knowing, and speaking.
GD: I find, tucked into many of these lines, small but significant love letters to Alaska. Do you think that is a fair assessment? Can you tell me a little bit more about your relationship with the state?
SA: Of course it’s fair, and I’m relieved that’s how it comes across. It’s difficult because I left Alaska two decades ago, but it remains my deepest preoccupation. I worry about sentimentality and nostalgia, about a child’s voice. But my poetic life was born in that landscape, my psyche was shaped by it. I call to Alaska like someone afraid of being forgotten, of forgetting.
Somewhere along the way I stumbled into this Bachelard quote: “To love a solitary place when we are abandoned by everyone, is to compensate for a painful absence. It is a reminder for us of the one who never abandons.” But I think it sums up the nature of my relationship with Alaska. I am, however, joyfully writing my way out of this stance with my non-fiction project about the urban glacier near my home and letting myself fall in love with other places and people. We’ll see…
GD: I’m wondering what the writing process for And Other Bodiless Powers was like for you? In an empirical sense—that is, where were you, how and when did you write, how and when did you edit, what were these poems born out of?
SA: Right. They were all written within five years, the bulk written from 2015-2017 during my MFA. I was a non-traditional student, who’d dropped out of my well-paying career to start “poem school,” which left me feeling disoriented and alienated. Also, I was returning to a town where I had established a shaky identity in my 20s and was now arriving with a more developed sense of self, except that I had just totally changed course. This is just to say, I was in the process of dissembling and reassembling my identity while at the same time trying to revive a writer’s voice I’d abandoned ten years prior. It was a mess. I fought hard for every word that made it to the page. I wrote by the creeks and from my second story WWI-era apartment near the university. The pieces were edited in workshop and outside of class with a few fine colleagues (including you). It took time for me to get the revisions to a place that felt like mine. Rather, it took me time to trust my instincts and craft and it took time to find peers I could trust.
GD: In “Expiration Blues,” I was delighted when, instead of naming “the first and eighth elements / bound in ice” (hydrogen and oxygen respectfully), you count them and place them in the periodic table. I imagined the small boxes, the tidy symbols, organized and tucked in beds of ice—these wildly expansive and inundating elements put in their place. I’m interested in how you came to this line, but I’m also curious about your relationship with some of these elements and how they exist in your nature? I’m thinking about other places this happens in the work: “Granite dolled up in hydrogen.”
SA: I can be seduced by science. I like the anatomy of space and land, understanding a glacier as both a relational object and a geologic one. At the same time, I identify as a Pisces; I’m drawn in by astrology and water elements. I want to hold the scientific with the magical, and finding fresh language to marry those excites me. Also, it’s true, I love the tiny, color-coded order of the periodic table.
GD: The poem “Desire Lines” grounds the center of your collection and comprises a whole section of the book. I find a lot of breath in this piece, between lines, but also before and after its introduction. This poem seems to risk more vulnerability than some of the others. I’m especially drawn to the devastating last lines:
A future came to us
and we turned against it.
from the meat of our backs.
If I metaphorically zoom-out of the book and think of it as a “bodiless” piece of work (opposing a body of work), I find the soul in this poem. Can you tell me more about the decision to center this poem within the collection, to give it more space and time?
SA: It seemed like the necessary hinge. Again, if a stranger flipped to the center of the book, I wanted them to land here—a longer poem, but not overwhelming on the page. “Desire Lines” is a primary theme in the collection because I am preoccupied with game trails and desire paths. They’re essentially the physical routes we and other animals take to get to our destination most quickly and easily. I love those defiant paths cut across curated lawns or the game trails scratched into the hillsides. I admire the visual of them and the symbolism of them. This poem is full of that kind of direct desire, fouled up by heartbreak.
GD: One of the more challenging things a poet can do is write about the natural world in a way that evades the boring “nature poem” we’ve all encountered at some point or another. And Other Bodiless Powers continually engages with the natural world without growing trite or relying on cliché. Can you tell me a little about your relationship with nature? How are you able to keep your metaphors fresh, alive, and completely your own? I find a lot of the more striking images are grounded in fragment. Would you say that has anything to do with the unexpected pleasure in a lot of these natural scenes?
SA: Oh, I like that! I think both unexpected pleasure as well as simply unexpected arrival. Anyone who’s flushed a grouse knows the way it can interrupt and arrest you. Fragment the moment.
I don’t believe I’m always successful at avoiding the nature poem cliché, but I am influenced by that poetic tradition. I am in that current. I work to use syntax that screws with perception and agency of the land. There is a mutual influence taking place—not just me enacting my life upon the land. I hope that comes across.
Many of my days are marked by what is happening in the non-human world. I am comforted by knowing and naming species and processes. This is how I am put together. The human world is stressful for me. The non-human world, less so. That said, I don’t necessarily believe in that dichotomy.
GD: I want to depart from the book for a just a few moments here to ask you about your Literary Program. You host and produce the public radio program and podcast, The Write Question. Can you talk a little bit about how that has influenced your writing? What do you enjoy most about hosting?
SA: My favorite part is speaking with authors and honoring their work. As I’m experiencing in this interview, there is a tender recognition when someone takes careful time to explore the work it’s taken a writer years of quiet to craft. It’s deeply touching. I think we should find more ways of doing this casually. Not in terms of workshop or formal interviews. Like, let’s just ask cool questions that remind us of why we do this lonely/private art.
I’ve certainly become a more sturdy and confident reader and writer. I do have to carve out more time for my voice. Again, as a therapist and radio show host, I can be easy to be consumed by the lives and voices of others. This is my current challenge.
GD: I’m wondering if you would talk a little bit about how you came to poetry? At what time? At what place? Who first inspired you start taking writing more seriously?
SA: I still have the dot matrix printout of poems I typed out in first and second grade. I began young as an aural, sensitive girl. Grief found its way into my life early, and geese offered themselves as an immediate salve. This was the concoction. Sound and language and expression of feelings just made sense to me. I developed poetry as a part of my identity all through grade school and undergrad. I dropped it like a hot stone in my early twenties out of a need to “get serious” about a career. Then, on a whim, I applied to graduate school in my thirties. It worked.
Poetry has always been a hunting ground for me because I could be deeply vulnerable and completely obscure at the same time. It was a perfect fit for my personality and needs for expression. As I write into non-fiction these days, I am forced into an uncomfortable place of expansion and transparency. It feels scary despite being healing.
GD: In my final question, I want to look at “The Auspices,” which lives towards the end of your collection. You pose the question, “What is space for / if not longing?” I’ve been haunted by this simple yet, somehow, daunting consideration. In a way, I think a poem is always an unfeasible space of longing—longing to dissect, to understand, to know. How do you continue to carve out space for that longing? What does that space look like for you these days?
SA: I think you nailed it. A good poem is an opening not an answer, just like a good moment in psychotherapy. In that opening is space and I am someone who, historically, fills space with longing and desire. In this collection I was preoccupied with finding a mate and exploring the question of maternity. I wandered into true love on the eve of the book’s release and so that particular heartache has, for now, quieted.
This is an interesting question in the time of COVID. I have both had more and less space. Time has expanded and contracted in strange ways. Initially, I found myself riddled with tension and unable to inhabit space in a way that felt creative or regenerative or restful. I walked the hills instead. Now, I’m beginning to understand the value of unoccupied, purposeless space.