Sarah M. Sala is a poet, educator, and native Michigander. Her debut poetry collection is Devil’s Lake (Tolsun Books, 2020). A chapbook of her selected poetry, The Ghost Assembly Line, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2016. Her work appears in BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Southampton Review, and The Stockholm Review of Literature, among others. Sarah is a language lecturer in the Expository Writing Program at New York University and lives in Manhattan.
Robin Gow: Before we get into the poetry and craft, I have to ask how you found the art for the cover which, for me, connects so clearly to the content and aesthetics of your book. For instance, the balance of the whitespace in the cover images seems to correlate to your use of white space in the interior.
Sarah Sala: When I imagined a cover, I thought about planetary art. I found Meesh Nah on Instagram and I was immediately obsessed with her work. Her pieces are vibrant depictions of chakras and their various layers, textures, and color schemes spoke to me. I wrote to her with a short explanation of what I was looking for in a commission and included a copy of Devil’s Lake. Meesh understood what I was trying to capture immediately. Her piece actually appears upside down on the cover, but it really works.
RG: I’m interested in how you employ form in the book—working between compact pieces and long-form work across many pages. How do you work with space when you’re making a poem?
SS: Very often the form leads me to the poem. For instance, the white space in “Nature Poem” is a symptom of grief. I’ll really struggle with a piece and then all of sudden I realize it needs to be right-aligned or horizontal or shouldn’t have any verbs and then it just clicks and it’s a poem. I also like to think of the book as an object that needs to be oriented and (re)oriented in space. There’s a rich tradition of queer poets who disrupt the 8 ½” x 11” page in radical ways in order to create space for new modes of existence.
RG: Throughout the book, you include both an undertone of violence and a reclamatory embrace of queerness in nature. I say “reclamatory” because queerness is often posited as “unnatural.” There’s an embracing of the natural world in your book. How do you understand nature?
SS: Absolutely—queerness in nature and violence in the American landscape are the book’s major themes. Leeanne Maxey is a painter whose work inspires me to create ekphrastic poems. Lee comes from a conservative upbringing, and her work reconciles queer bodies in nature. There’s this shameful idea that queerness is wrong or a choice, but “nature vs. nature” exists to say, “Listen, I was gay before I was born. I was gay before the earth existed. Whatever gay is—it’s part of the cosmos and people will be gay long after I’m dust.” I love the word you used—it is a reclamation—it’s finding my sense of belonging in the world.
RG: That’s so beautiful and important. I definitely felt that in the poems.
SS: To answer your other question—I’m sensitive to violence against marginalized folks, whether that’s black bodies, brown bodies, queer bodies, trans bodies, femme-identified bodies, people living with disabled bodies, etc. Something in me constantly patrols for danger. For “Nature Poem,” the story of Claudia Brenner and Rebecca Wight shook me because they were two women in love. They were grad students who met halfway between their homes to go hiking on the Appalachian trail, and this creepy mountain man stalked them for four miles, hid while they made love, and then shot them both, killing Rebecca. The gunman admitted to shooting them simply because “he wanted to join in.” Nature should exist for everyone, but traditionally, not everyone has access. I love how nature slows me down and feels meditative but, in some ways, I have to talk myself into feeling safe in those places.
RG: That leads me to another question, which is something I think about often: how do you approach violence when writing a poem? When you inevitably encounter violence in the news, is there a time you sit with it—how do you find words?
SS: Around the time I wrote “Blue Dog,” four school shootings happened in just two weeks in the United States. Teachers were on high alert. I was in the middle of teaching one day, and this person in a blue dog costume walked unannounced into my classroom. The mascot moved behind the door and gestured for me to continue teaching. Every student’s eyes in the classroom locked on me, and I thought: “Is this how it happens?” For two weeks I didn’t tell another soul. With violence and trauma, I often can’t articulate my experience until I have space from it. Slowly, in fits and starts, I began to write about it. When I read “Blue Dog” at an event, a woman came up after to say, “My dad taught at Oregon Community College. Thank you so much for writing about that shooting.” These poems are memorials, so we can never look away.
RG: I want to go backwards and ask how this book began. When did you realize these poems were a book?
SS: When Tolsun Books accepted Devil’s Lake, I’d been working on it for close to a decade. I graduated with my MFA in 2012, and two years later, compiled a version of the book to submit to contests. Every time I thought it was done, I would go back and rewrite 20 percent of it. In 2017, Subito Press Book Prize chose the book as a finalist. That helped me feel like I wasn’t writing in the dark—that was acknowledgement that maybe it was something. Then in 2019, New Issues Poetry Press Prize chose the manuscript as a finalist. In some ways, those two nods released me from feeling like I needed to enter contests anymore. Also, I’m the kind of obsessive poet who works on a book for a decade and then says I want to go through this book with a mentor before my press’s editor even sends me notes. Geoffrey Nutter and I met last summer and went through the book 10 pages at a time. It was a fantastic way to defamiliarize myself with the work, and he pushed me to think about my use of the lyric and intention behind some experimental moves. When I turned the revised manuscript into Tolsun, I worked with Risa Pappas, who helped me imagine the book globally. I didn’t fall in love with the order until the last minute. I edited the book up until the day it was sent to the printer.
RG: That’s such dedication to working with the poems and really giving them time to spin.
SS: I’m so grateful I was able to spend so much time shaping the book. I had the satisfaction of making it the best I could. I also felt relieved to let it go because I’d been working on it for so long.
RG: I often feel the character and the presence of New York City and Michigan in your collection. How did you conceptualize place in the collection?
SS: In one of the many older versions of the book there was actually a section called “Michigan” and a section called “New York.” I lived in Michigan for 21 years before I moved to New York City, where I’ve lived for 11 years now. I wrote poems in Michigan, but when I moved to New York, my writing exploded. There is so much artistic stimulation in the city. It’s interesting to be back in Michigan for a bit now that my teaching duties are done for the semester.
RG: How does it feel to have a book coming out while you’re home?
SS: It’s wonderful to commune with nature and spend time with family. It’s also interesting to experience home as an adult with a career and a spouse. I always felt a little like an outsider growing up. In terms of poetry, I think people assume every piece in the book is autobiographical or none of it is. Poetry is really about emotion for me. It is about story— I write about true events, but I’m also imagining the lives of others. When I write a poem, I want you to feel what I felt in the moment. Intense stories visit me, and I can’t turn away.
RG: You’re talking about poems being perceived as true and not true. Do you feel like you start in truth? What is the connection between you and your speakers and this question of what’s “true” in a poem?
SS: There’s a lot that’s autobiographical in the book and even when it’s not about me it uses the urgency of the first person. In the poem “A rain storm reminds me why I love,” there’s a line that says, “marriage equality didn’t exist until a year into our marriage.” That line is actually a mistake, but my editor pointed out that it’s a powerful emotional truth for so many queer folks. So many couples felt married before it was legally available to us. I met the love of my life a year before we could legally marry. As long as you’re true to the heart of the story, I think that’s what matters.
RG: I also had a question about how marriage comes to focus as a theme in the book, specifically queer marriage. I’m drawn to how you balance joy with the reality of the systems that work against queer love. Was balancing these realities something you thought about in the writing process?
SS: Definitely. I aimed to balance the weighty aspects with light: to juxtapose radical vulnerability and tenderness with the toll that violence takes on a population. In terms of marriage, chosen family can also hold us accountable to each other in beautiful ways. Queer relationships face a spectrum of discrimination and hate, which is exhausting. When my partner and I got together, we thought about how to set ourselves up for long-term success. How do we allow the other person to be an individual with big dreams and also support one another? How can we revel in each other’s successes? I think couples counseling can really help establish a strong foundation together.
RG: What is the role of science in your writing and how do you encounter and incorporate those themes?
SS: I’m obsessed with science! In the same ways I think queer people can reclaim the natural, I think people in the humanities can reclaim the sciences, too. It feels therapeutic to think about everything beyond us—we’re composed of vibrating atoms clinging to a rock hurtling through space. That’s fascinating. I also had a poet-teacher, Keith Taylor, who said it would improve our work if we weren’t just writers. Some of the best poets are also botanists, or lawyers, or birders, or welders, which makes total sense because then you have access to an expanded vocabulary and a whole alternate universe.