Poet Sasha West will be the featured reader on Thursday, December 8, 2016 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX).
Sasha West’s first book, Failure and I Bury the Body, was a winner of the National Poetry Series and the Texas Institute of Letters First Book of Poetry Award. Her poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Forklift Ohio, Third Coast, American Poet, and elsewhere. Her awards include a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference fellowship, a Houston Arts Alliance grant, Pushcart nominations, and Inprint’s Verlaine Prize. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at St. Edward’s University in Austin, TX.
CH: When did you first become interested in writing? What is your first memory of writing?
SW: Writing has always been a way I’ve processed the world. My first memories were writing poems as a small child—maybe 6? 7?—to try and explain how I was experiencing little things in the world: watching the lights of my town come on at night from a friend’s house on the hill, the death of a zinnia in my garden. I wrote stories and plays in my youth, too, but those seemed to fall away as I got older, while poetry stayed.
CH: How did you become drawn to poetry? When did you begin to identify yourself as a writer? As a poet?
SW: Given the answer above, this took a really long time. I didn’t start to realize until after I’d graduated from college how unusual it was to always be writing poems, how much it marked me. It was so much a part of myself that it was invisible to me as something to identify. Isn’t that odd? So, it has been a way I know myself since I was very small. But I don’t think I learned to say that to other people, to call myself a writer out loud until I started publishing work in my mid-twenties.
CH: How has your educational background contributed to your work as a poet? Which pieces of formal education have been especially helpful in your growth as an artist?
SW: I gained a living appreciation for a wide range of styles and approaches by taking many literature classes with people who loved and studied eras that seem to be as dissonant as postmodernism and medievalism, for instance. That sense of being in a large and elastic tradition has been very valuable to me. I have also been lucky to have teachers in writing who opened up to me craft techniques and their own enthusiasms. Accessing poetry through the minds of some of my most admired teachers has changed me, given me a deeper ambition for what a poem can do and how it can last in the world.
CH: I was first introduced to your collection, Failure and I Bury the Body, at Poetry at Round Top 2016, and continue to be astonished by its landscapes of elegiac allegory. How was this manuscript conceived? Did the poems arrive from an idea for the book as a whole? Or did idea for the book grow from a series of poems?
SW: Thank you so much for saying this! I feel lucky to get to know that my work has a life for readers. I thought the book would be a single poem—maybe 6-8 pages long—about the speaker and Failure on a road trip in the desert. But the world kept unfurling and the characters started being sites of discovery for me. It grew piece by piece as I tried my best to listen to what it wanted to be. Every new thing I learned opened up other problems to solve: for instance, if this is a big road trip, what is the change, what creates the narrative arc? That answer led to the introduction of the Corpse and to a different relationship to the history of America, as his body is the site for all our violences to each other.
CH: What drew you to the allegory of Failure?
SW: Oh gosh, everything. Developing a relationship with failure is vital to being an artist—vital to our ability to risk and thus to find. Plus, I feel like our sense of self comes partly from the narrative that we give ourselves around our own failures. So I felt like I needed to come to terms with failure as a person and as an artist. Having Failure be a person, not an idea, deepens the speaker’s relationship with him, which allowed me to see the idea itself differently. As the book came along, I realized I was also really drawn to exploring how the U.S. deals with its failures—or really, doesn’t. Think about the water cannons being sprayed on protesters at Standing Rock in sub-zero temperatures just days before Thanksgiving. Can you think of anything stranger, darker, more ironic, more repetitive? The fact that those kinds of cruelties still exist is a sign that we as a nation have not developed a healthy relationship with our failures. We have simply tried to pretend they don’t exist. And so, we keep playing them out in new tableaus.
CH: The road trip with Failure that links the poems of this collection pulls the reader along, awake to the ruin and rot that strew highways everywhere. How did you arrive at the road trip as a central element in this book? Were there particular books, movies that influenced you?
SW: I wanted a way to talk about a lot of space. I love road trips and have been lucky enough to have annual pilgrimages across the American Southwest as a big part of my adult life. Starting in college, I’ve lived a state or two over from my families in Arizona and northern New Mexico for all but three years. That means the I-10 in particular has been a backbone of my holidays and vacations since I was 17—first arriving at it from San Diego and then traveling it across Texas. The landscape and sprawl of the horizon, the quiet of all that space against the small strangenesses that appear lives very deeply in me. There are days and days of my life in this book noticing small things out the windows. Plus, there’s something about the road trip that’s really American, right? I didn’t consciously go back to any of these, but I think things like On the Road or The Road or Easy Rider are a part of how I understand long travel, so they must be there somewhere.
CH: It was wonderful to encounter Failure’s Accounting of Influences, to see and feel the some of the cultural landscape that permeates these poems. How did you decide on aggregating this accounting, rather than relying on epigraph? What compositional strategies inform the inclusion of these influences in the work?
SW: This book wanted to draw on so many things. I wanted my speaker to be inside of a life always being built by other people, other things, information and poems and paintings and space—the way each of our lives is. But I also wanted those things to get their own lives in the poems, to be remade in them. When I see notes at the end of books that tell me where influences/collage starts and ends, those pieces start to feel other to the poem. I wanted readers to know the poems owed a debt elsewhere, but I wanted that knowledge to send readers back to the sources themselves. Maybe I was trying to make Frankenstein’s monsters but without seams? In terms of composition, I was thinking a lot of visual artists like Anselm Keifer and Joseph Cornell, and of poets like Marianne Moore—all of whom worked with a kind of collage—either with actual outside material or, in Keifer’s case, with media like sand and metal that one wouldn’t expect to find in a painting.
CH: How does your work as a teacher of creative writing influence your work as a writer? Were there particular teachers / classes in your undergraduate studies that inspired you in your current career path? Or did your vision for your career gel much earlier?
SW: I am lucky to get to spend a good portion of my time thinking about why poems work and where they could be sharper. That constant training—going back and forth between poems I’m teaching, poems students are writing—makes my mind stay alive in poetry. I couldn’t be more grateful for that. I guess I started teaching, on a very small scale, in junior high and high school, working with fellow students who’d immigrated and were learning English for the first time. Trying to puzzle through language together always felt like such a discovery. When I came back to teaching in graduate school, I re-recognized that human value in being in a room together, looking at the world. It felt familiar. While teaching very much feels like a calling for me, I’ve also tried other things in my adult life—working in non-profits or publishing or legislative editing. I thought for a while I wanted to be in something that was more public—as in: trying to impact the world more directly. But of all my work, I’ve loved teaching best, and I’ve come to accept that it’s probably the way I can best contribute to the world. I met Jorie Graham at an overseas conference once in Poland. We were talking about visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau earlier in the day, and I asked her how she felt the call to a public life, to the tragedies of history. She told me that she thought if she taught someone to read a sentence really well, it could change that person’s life. That was so exactly not what I would have expected her—or any poet—to say, but as I’ve lived with that over the years, I think I’ve come to believe that she’s right. Teaching is the gateway to empathy, to critical thinking, and thus to understanding. I feel so lucky to have that career alongside my writing life.
CH: Who are some of your favorite poets?
SW: I love so many poets that the answer to this feels constantly shifting. The poets I have gone back to most consistently across the years are probably Emily Dickinson, Anne Carson (especially her early books), Rainer Maria Rilke, Carl Phillips, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Claudia Rankine, and Jorie Graham. But I’m sure that tomorrow I’ll think of ten other people I’m forgetting to mention.
CH: What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?
SW: I’m in the middle of reading Eileen Myles’ I Must Be Living Twice and Emmy Pérez’s With the River on Her Face. Both are wonderful.