A Virtual Interview with Sarah Hackley and A. R. Rogers

Sarah Hackley and A. R. Rogers will be the featured poets on Thursday, February 12, 2015 from 7:15 to 9:00 at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) for February’s 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic.

Background

Sarah Hackley is the author of Preparing to Fly, a personal finance book for women leaving abusive partners, Finding Happiness with Migraines: A Do It Yourself Guideand the Amazon women’s poetry bestseller The Things We Lose.  Her poetry also has appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, including the The Bridges of America: Homeless Poetry Anthology, YARN, Rawboned, Crucible, and the Austin Younger Poets Award Anthology, and on the walls of the Umlauf Sculpture Garden. She is currently at work on her first novel.

A. R. Rogers is a poet and fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. This summer, she will graduate from ACC with an Associate degree in creative writing. In October 2014, her first chapbook, Tiny Nothing, was published by Raw Paw Press. She also co-hosts the Mind Maze reading series for Raw Paw at Malvern Books. Her work can be found in Peach Fuzz and Red River Review.

The Interview

CH: How long have you been writing poetry? What draws you to poetry as an art?

SH: I’ve been writing poetry since I was young enough to hold a crayon. I’ve always felt it was the only art form that offered the reader undiluted emotion, the raw experiences of a life fully lived. It is what I turn to, as a reader, when I’m searching for connection, and it is what I try, as a writer, to offer my readers.

ARR: I have my first clear memory of writing a poem around nine years old. I remember the line but I am only human. Like, what does a nine-year-old know about being human? I must have heard it in a movie or on TV. But even though I didn’t know what I was talking about, I was doing the thing I still do today: hear something, like it/attach to it, record it. So, I guess that’s about nineteen years of poetry.

What draws me to poetry? God. Um. The muses? The universe? Divine intervention? I don’t know. I feel called to poetry in a way someone might feel called to the ministry, with the same conviction that makes a person choose celibacy or fly an airplane into a building. From where I stand, I didn’t choose poetry, poetry chose me.

CH: Sarah, your first chapbook, The Things We Lose, was published this summer. Talk a little about the process of putting together this chapbook. What inspired you to put this collection together? How did you select this body of work? What prompted the choice to self-publish?

SH: Putting together a collection was something I’d wanted to do for years, but never truly felt ready to do. In truth, I was scared. As we grow in our craft, we find ways to revise old pieces. Once the collection is out, though, it’s set. You can’t make changes, and that thought frightened me. Still, one of my goals for 2014 was the let the fear go and take the leap. So I did, and as I poured over the poems I’d written over the past 10-12 years I realized that many of them had a unifying theme of loss. With the relatively recent death of my mother I decided that was a good theme for the collection. Once I settled on the theme, I spent time deciding what to include and playing with the structure, writing new pieces to fill in the holes that existed. Once it was completed, self-publishing seemed the obvious choice. I knew the theme didn’t fit with my regular publisher, and I didn’t want to search for a second one. Additionally, many poets self-publish their first chapbooks, and I figured it was the easiest way to maintain creative control of the collection and possibly make some money. So far, it’s all worked out exactly as I thought it would. I’m happy with the results, and I’m eager to start work on a second collection.

CH: The publishing industry these days is very focused on how authors can contribute to developing the market for their work; as a self-published author, all of this work falls on your shoulders. Your chapbook has become an Amazon women’s poetry bestseller. Name three things that have contributed to this success. What advice do you have to share with other authors, particularly those who self-publish?

SH: A ready platform, a coordinated launch, and William Hertling’s Indie & Small Press Book Marketing. I highly advise anyone who plans to self-publish to read that book.

CH: Prior to publishing The Things We Lose, you published two non-fiction titles Prepared to Fly, and Finding Happiness with Migraines: A Do It Yourself Guide. What influence has your non-fiction writing had on your other writing pursuits?

SH: Well, Preparing to Fly has been pushed back. I think the publisher plans to release it in March, but yes, the migraine book came out a couple of years ago. I love true stories, and I am an avid believer in the merits of creative nonfiction. In many ways, I am much more at home writing nonfiction than fiction, which is why I haven’t completed a novel yet – though that is my next project. My poetry stems from the same place as my books, the desire to speak the truth of our actual experiences and, hopefully, create a spark of connection, empathy, and change in the reader.

CH: A. R., Your first chapbook, Tiny Nothing, was published in October by Raw Paw Press. Talk a little about the process of putting together this chapbook. What inspired you to put this collection together? How did you select this body of work? What was the process of getting this chapbook published?

ARR: So, I knew my work was good, or at least getting better, and I had been wanting a little home for it for some time, but I didn’t feel particularly motivated to put together a manuscript I was proud of. And then I met Jen Rachid of Raw Paw at an event where I had been writing spontaneous poetry on a typewriter. She invited me over for a writing group at Austin poet-legend David Jewell’s house. She had hinted that they wanted to kick off a chapbook series, and as soon as she said it, I knew that’s what I wanted. David was largely heading up poetry for Raw Paw at the time, and one night, he asked me to read a poem I didn’t particularly want to read for whatever reason, and I told him I’d only read it if he printed my chapbook. The rest is history. So, basically I conned David Jewell into my chapbook.

When I went to arrange the manuscript, I tried to be really in control of the process, really heady about it. But what I ended up with… just wasn’t right. Many of the Tiny Nothing poems were in that original manuscript, but I knew something important wasn’t working. So, I tried again, this time letting the poems lead me. I had two people I really trust read the manuscript and give me feedback. I chose them: one a good poet (Wade Martin, an Austin poet you should know about if you don’t) and the other a close friend who is a skilled reader. They offered many valuable critiques, of which I took most, but not all. The manuscript was in flux right up until right before I submitted it.

The collection ended up being about my own personal smallness. We are all so very small. Our lives, while miraculous, are tiny and kind of meaningless in a way. What gives them their meaning is their intersection with other lives. So, Tiny Nothing is really about my nothing and your nothing, and how two nothings tend to make something.

CH: You’ve been studying at Austin Community College toward a degree in creative writing. What inspired you to take that path? Ultimately, where would you like to go with your education?

ARR: Growing up, I was praised for being things like smart and good. I had to be really mature, because, well, my parents weren’t. I graduated early from a small and strange private Christian school. (I was a very different person ten years ago!) I started my first college semester when I was seventeen, and shortly after, lost my mind. Quite literally. I tried and tried school on and off for several years, but I was really unhealthy in my early twenties. I could barely keep my head above water, dealing with addiction, depression, an eating disorder, and self-mutilation. Needless to say, I couldn’t handle school in the middle of all that. So, I worked retail and food service jobs for almost ten years, and subjected my friends to the bad poetry I was writing.

But even in the middle of all of this, the one small dream I had for myself was to be a writer and professor.

When I moved to Austin, I took my first Creative Writing class, and I met Charlotte Gullick, who is an instructor and Chair of the Creative Writing Department at ACC. She saved my life. She listened to my story, told me hers. Told me my work was good and that she believed in me, and wanted me to succeed. I wasn’t fully on board with this idea, but I eventually came around to it.

About a year and a half ago, I started busking poetry on the street. It was lucrative and horrifying and fulfilling, but most importantly, it was validating. Not only was Charlotte, someone who loved me (and knew a thing or two about words) telling me that I was good, but perfect strangers were telling me, too. That made me change my tune, and stop whining, and start moving toward the things I want. I want to go all the way. I definitely want an MFA. I haven’t yet decided if it’s going to be in poetry or fiction. It has been mentioned to me that I ought to consider a PhD, but that sounds crazy to me right now. We’ll see.

CH: What has been your favorite assigned reading so far in college? Your favorite writing assignment?

ARR: In an intro poetry and prose class (the first one with Charlotte), we had to read Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual. It’s a very small book that goes over basic principles of constructing a poem and what exactly one should do with it once it’s been created. Kooser also talks about the idea of being a poet versus actually being a poet. I highly recommend it. For prose, I fell madly in love some Annie Dillard essays, Living Like Weasels and Seeing. They’re magnificent. Read them as soon as you possibly can. Oh! And I read a short story by Lauren Groff, Delicate Edible Birds. It’s the kind of story that just invades your life. Beautiful and horrific.

For writing assignments, two things come to mind. In one of the first few classes of my last fiction class with Charlotte, she said very casually, “Everyone get out pen and paper and write your life story in five sentences.” Naturally, everyone grumbled, but we got through it. Then she said, “Do it again.” That exercise makes you approach your life from someplace else—  anyplace else—that isn’t normally your vantage point, makes you shed your disposition. Also, while in the middle of writing our stories, she asked us to write a letter to our main characters, and, in turn, write one from them to ourselves, the author. Those are always difficult letters, but they transport and inform you for better or worse.

CH: Talk a little about your writing process. How regular is your writing practice? What inspires you? Where do you turn when you find yourself struggling with your writing?

SH: I try to write something every day, whether it is a poem, a section of a book, an article, or a blog piece. I work best very early in the morning, but my toddler’s current schedule has made that a difficult undertaking, so I squeeze it in when and where I can. Currently, I get the most undivided time on Monday and Wednesday evenings and Tuesday and Thursday mornings. I’m inspired mostly by pain – my own but especially that of other people. I want to call attention to it, to investigate it, and to somehow make sense of it in a way that turns the tragic into a lesson, something we can all learn from and use to make the world a better place. There are poets who write primarily from a place of joy or exuberance; I’m not one of them. I’m more likely to be out living during those moments than writing. That doesn’t mean my work is depressing, just that it comes from a darker place than some. In many cases, I try to turn that pain into something positive on the page. Other writers also inspire me. When I’m feeling stuck, that’s where I turn – to books. I read and read and read, until an idea sparks and I’m flying. Walks also help.

ARR: My writing process is slow and often unpredictable. I might write five poems in a month or go months without writing a single one. As far as I can tell, I can focus on poetry or I can focus on fiction, but never both at the same time. I write (largely) from my own experience, to make sense of it because, apparently, I make a lot of choices that land me needing to sift through things. When a poem falls out of me, I usually tinker with it for several days or weeks, occasionally months. The more I grow as a writer, the slower the process becomes.

I think I might be inspired most by chaos. As a writer (and maybe a person), I’m attracted to impulse and the things that grow wild inside us.

When I’m struggling, I just wait. I bitch and moan about how I’m not writing (or not writing well), write some things that are truly awful, and wait for the better stuff to come. It’s not very efficient or proactive, but it works.

CH: Sarah, I understand you are at work on your first novel. Please tell us a bit about it.

SH: I’m working on two actually, and they’re very different. The one closest to my heart, however, is a book loosely based on a true story. It has a dark fairy-tale like feel to it, and centers around the emotional toll a child’s sexual abuse has on an entire family. The other is a feminist action-adventure that involves a search for Cleopatra’s tomb during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. That one is kind of a cross between Katherine Neville’s The Eight and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

CH: A.R., what are you working on now?

I’m writing the poems that are trickling in. But I can’t have an end goal in mind. It’s too much pressure; I feel too boxed-in working that way. I can feel my mind unfolding toward a space where it’s going to spit out a ton of poems, but after Tiny Nothing, attending school full-time, and the newly added responsibilities of an internship with the Writer’s League of Texas and being editor of ACC’s Rio Review, I’m not about to put forward another collection anytime soon.

CH: If you were to specify a particular identity as a writer, what would that be?

SH: I’d say I’m a female poet who also writes books. This has been an identity that took me a long time to claim, despite the fact that poetry has always been my first love and that I published poems long before I published books. For years, I felt I had to say simply “writer” or maybe “author.” I suppose I felt I hadn’t claimed the right to call myself a poet. That changed this year, perhaps because I finally released a collection. The female aspect of my identity is also vitally important, and gender norms and conflicts are an integral part of my work.

ARR: This is a huge question for me. One that’s always sort of tumbling through my mind. I had a total panic last semester because I thought I was falling out of love with poetry. I felt ready to walk out on poetry—my one, true love. I felt like fiction had walked into my life in a leather jacket, leaning casually against the doorframe, chain-smoking and brooding. And I’m a sucker for that sort of behavior. Writing is so much a part of my identity that it was incredibly jarring to be questioning what kind of writer I was.

But I am learning to carry both. I will always turn to poetry to make sense of my life. And I will look to fiction to be shaken. I guess you could say poetry, fiction, and myself are in a sort of open relationship.

I’m drawn to really quiet, unassuming poems, poems that land you with a quick blow you didn’t see coming. I want to be knocked off my feet by a poem; I want my head to spin. I like the opposite approach for fiction, perhaps. I like really loud fiction. Within the first few pages, I want to hear it say, “Are you ready for this? I’m coming for you.” I love a dense, complicated story, one that makes me marvel at the author’s ability to weave so much together so delicately.

CH: Where would you like to be with your writing in five years?

SH: I’d like to have completed the two novels floating around in my head, and I’d love to have several poetry collections out. I also hope to be touring more – reading and performing my poetry around the country, which is something I used to do and have had to put off over the past few years.

ARR: On my way to the moon.

I want to put in a lot of work. I want to learn a lot—everything. I’m so hungry to learn. I want to have really earned it, but I want to be great. And I’m okay with wanting that because I don’t think anyone that’s great ended up that way on accident. They wanted it; they moved toward it every day. I want to have published both a full-length poetry book and a collection of short stories, and also have completed an MFA.

I love that we have agreed upon language, and that we can use it to communicate about things that are utterly beyond words. Words are my most important contribution as a human, and I want to keep giving them.

CH: What are you currently reading?

SH: I always read four or five books at a time. Right now, I’m reading Caroline Knapp’s Appetites, Mary Oliver’s New and Selected Poems Volume One, Dorothy Allison’s Trash, Patricia Cornwell’s Flesh and Blood, and Welcome to Your Child’s Brain by Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt.

ARR: I’ve started reading Murakami’s The Wind Up-Bird Chronicle. I’m somewhere else when I’m reading it. It’s one of the most surreal things I’ve ever read. He makes me feel like I’m between worlds.

Over winter break, I read Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking. Amanda started off as a busker (street performer) and so did I. She’s probably the person who really deposited in my head that street-performing was something you could just wake up and decide to do. I think I’m still negotiating what to do with the urgent desire to be seen and understood, the desire to have an audience, and then what to do when people actually start looking at you. Amanda has things to say about all of this. It’s a good, soulful read for any artist.

I also finally got around to reading Carrie Fountain’s Instant Winner. God. So beautiful. She talks about the small things that make up a life, a lot about the home, and tending to it. She speaks my language.

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