This is Sara Rivera, a poet and writer whose first poetry book, Lake Effect, I read over the summer, and then re-read, again and again. I have known Sara via internet and admired and enjoyed the writing on her blog, La Belle Dame Sans Merci . Her writing there hints at the poetry in Lake Effect, full of fierce and unique metaphors, beautiful and just right choices of words placed effortlessly to create the shadows or illumination desired. I relate deeply to Sara's love of specific words, the names of things- the details of this world. So many words that each are indispensable once you know them, as are the poems you fall in love with. Lake Effect is full of a passionate intelligence, a story told in steel and liquid, or as one review asks: Ever married the wrong man? There is a fury loose in these poems....
Sara was game to do an email interview, and after sending her the questions, I received back these beautifully thought out, honest replies. Thank you Sara!
1. When did you start writing poetry, and what do remember most about those first poems?
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember—stories, mostly, at first. I always thought I’d be a novelist, but I’ve got attention problems—I can’t make it past the first few pages. In high school I took my first creative writing courses. I was a rotten student—I think I graduated with a 1.8 GPA—and hated everything except choir, acting class, and creative writing. I wrote lots of flash fiction. I loved Cisneros’ House on Mango Street and thought I’d write a novel like that, in vignettes. Then somehow I ended up in Senior AP English and we were reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Mrs. Goldberg, our teacher gave us Yeats’ “The Second Coming” to read and it was like I was struck by lightning. I loved that poem. And then I wrote a poem about Persephone—first person, dramatic narrative—and came back to it as a freshman in college, before I started taking college-level creative writing classes. It’s funny, now, to think of that: Yeats’ blank verse was so powerful and musical and Persephone has been the story I’ve clung to throughout an abusive marriage and then my divorce. I started writing poetry ‘seriously’—I say that in jest now, because I was definitely serious then, but so young, and those poems were so awful and sincere and strident—as a sophomore in college, in poet Diane Seuss’ classroom. I wrote lots of confessional poems, feminist poems (I was also living in a women’s collective at the time), narrative poems. I’d attempted a short story class, but the professor was such a jerk, all film noir and masturbation, I dropped it after the first class. So I guess I began writing poetry because I loved Di’s classes, loved how poetry was synonymous with being my self. And it stuck.
2. What poets inspire you most, and what about their work specifically grabs you?
This has changed over time. When I started writing poetry seriously, Lucille Clifton, Mary Oliver, Charles Simic, Galway Kinnell were my favorites. Sylvia Plath. Then it shifted to poets who write about the landscape: Charles Wright, Katherine Stripling Byer, Jane Hirshfield, Robinson Jeffers. I was reading a lot of William Carlos Williams when I started writing the poems in Lake Effect. I love Sylvia Plath, obviously, but particularly her bee sequence poems, Eleanor Wilner and Marianne Boruch’s work, Mary Ruefle, though she’s so very different than I am. Laura Kaisischke, who’s another Michigan poet. Diane Seuss’s work. Roethke. What draws me to a particular poet is their use of image and metaphor, I think: I like things that verge on the surreal, poets that are ambitious with language and music, poets that aren’t afraid to write about really particular experiences. Diane Seuss and Laura Kasischke, for example, write gorgeous, surreal, musical poems about a particularly female experience. And they are fierce and lyrical and weird. And I’m drawn to poets, like Jane Hirshfield and Charles Wright, who write about the natural world. I’m obsessed with learning the names of things: scientific names for plants, folk tales about places. The most recent book of poetry I’ve fallen in love with is Kimiko Hahn’s Toxic Flora, which is weird and brilliant and based in science and nature.
4. Talk a little about your background as a writer- do you have a degree related to writing, are you involved in what you'd consider a 'writing scene' and if so, what is that like for you? If not, how have you involved yourself in the world of writing?
I have an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College, which I received 11 years ago, when I was a baby. The MFA Program at Warren Wilson is a low-residency model, which was the only kind of program I was able to do at the time, as my then-boyfriend, now ex-husband wouldn’t move and I didn’t feel like I could or should end the relationship to pursue a traditional MFA. However, it was one of the best things I ever did, and I was able to work with some really amazing writers and meet some of the best writing friends and writing community. After I graduated in 2002, I lost touch for a few years, but in 2007 I reconnected with the Warren Wilson community and it has been a huge—though remote—influence in my writing life. Every year the alumni hold a conference, and once my son was four years old I began attending them.
Particularly after having gone through a difficult divorce, and after a time where I felt absolutely isolated, the WW community made me feel like I was part of something, confirmed the “writer” part of my identity which is probably the most sacred, and most intimate part of who I am. And the part that the rest of the world doesn’t give a damn about, most of the time.
Kalamazoo, where I currently live, actually has a pretty good writing scene as well. I recently joined a writing group that meets bi-monthly, and has a number of prominent local (and nationally known) writers. I’m certainly not a star in the community, and being a single mother makes some but being part of the scene—attending readings at the local colleges and universities, but I love having a group of women to hold me accountable every month for producing new and quality work. It’s hugely important for writers to have a community. The other community that has sustained me is the blogging community. I started blogging in 2007, right after my divorce, as a direct response of having believed, and been told, for 10 years that my experience was invalid, crazy. I didn’t think anyone would read the blog, but having it public (ish) made me write more consciously, not like in a journal which can be, at least for me, rather indulgent. And that community of bloggers was the first to reach out, to make me feel part of something, to feel like my experience wasn’t so isolated.
Having a community—whether online or in person—has been instrumental in helping me rebuild myself. And it’s crucial to my life as a writer too. Because, after all, we write in order to be in communion with the world.
3. When you began writing Lake Effect, did you know it was going to be a whole book? Were you writing the poems as they came to you, or were you in a writing routine?
I don’t think I assumed it would be a whole book, but I’ve been working toward a manuscript since I graduated in 2002. At first, I thought my graduate thesis would be book, but those poems—mostly written during my early to mid-twenties—were indeterminate, almost there but unformed. I remember, actually, a fellow student saying to me while in graduate school “your poems will be really good when you figure out what you’re writing about”, which irritated me at the time, but she was completely right. Over the next ten years, I wrote poems, and published some of them. “Tree of Heaven” which is in the current book is actually a fairly old poem, maybe from 2003 or 2004. I started writing again in earnest in 2007 when I was going through a divorce and living on my own for the first time in my life. By 2010 I thought I had a full length manuscript called “The History of When” but it still felt—for lack of better words, squishy. I’ve always, always had an editing problem, unable to get rid of the dead weight.
Many of the new poems in Lake Effect were actually written between 2010 and 2012 and sometime at the end of 2012 I began to cut poems—so the manuscript went from a 53 page book to a 24 page chapbook. I decided to take all the poems in “A History of When” that mentioned Lake Michigan, which I found was a recurring theme—and which in real life is one of the only places that can calm acute anxiety attacks.
And somehow, by the grace of the universe, Karen Kelsay, at Kelsay Books, accepted the manuscript in February of 2013. I had been sending that manuscript, as well as the longer one, out for almost two years. I got the acceptance email when I was standing I the lobby of the post office, and I let out a scream, my knees immediately shaking. A little old lady rushed over and asked if I was okay, and I began crying and said “Yes! My book is going to be published!” I suspect she thought I was crazy, but she patted my shoulders and said “Oh, good for you dear.”
4. Why 'Lake Effect'?
If you live in the Great Lakes region, the term “Lake Effect” is a common weather term. Much of our weather around here is determined by the Lakes—as Michigan is on the windward side, our winters are determined by lake effect snow squalls—a phenomenon that occurs when cold air goes over the warmer lake.
If you’re not from the Great Lakes region, it’s easy to think Lake Michigan, or Superior or Huron, or the others, are just like all the inland lakes you know. Except they’re not. When I saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time this past summer, (I know! at 36.) my first comment to my boyfriend was that it looked just like Lake Michigan. They are remarkable. Sweetwater seas, they’re often called.
I also like the double meaning of Lake Effect—it’s a weather term, of course, but the Lake has also had a profound effect on my writing, and on my sanity. It, and the other Great Lakes, are huge, primeval, and that landscape near the shore—of sand and grass, water and sky—seems elemental, brutal, wild. During the first few years after my divorce, when I was struggling to piece together my life, I had an image of myself as being flayed by the wind off the Lake, until all that was left of me was bone—until all that was left of me was what was essential and strong. It’s the only place I can go, the lakeshore, that calms my anxiety.
5. The poems in Lake Effect feel pressurized, as if the careful accumulation of images and thoughts are in a pressure cooker, ready to explode. Did you feel this when writing them?
God, yes. So many of those poems were written in a hugely difficult time in my life. I’d been married for 10 years, and had gone through a difficult divorce that devastated me, lived on my own for the first time in my life (at the age of 30, with an 18 month old son). And then those six years where these poems grew out of were a kind of explosion.
I have never been good at revision: I’m always too in love with my babies. But something shifted in me, and my love of language, of the tension between sentence and line, of the way metaphor can bridge the gap between what we know and what we believe—and the poems felt like they were written in a crucible. And of course, my life WAS a crucible. I live in a town where I have no family, where at 30 I had to make a new life for myself and my 18 month old son, where I lived in fear of my ex husband, where I had to unlearn believing that I was stupid and irrational and useless. I sometimes think of poems as being Shrinky-Dinks—remember those weird toys from the ‘80s? Those plastic things you’d color and then put in the oven and they’d shrink down to thumbnail-sized. That’s what I began to want a poem to be. That’s how I felt my life was: barely holding it together, learning to feel anything for the first time in 10 years, being head over heels in love with my baby who I couldn’t protect, not fully, from the crazy of his father. And my own rage at how I’d lost myself, how I’d been had. The poems definitely came out of that, and it shaped how I was writing.
6. What is one of your favorite poems in Lake Effect? My own would have to be Family Vacation. The specificity of the setting grabbed me immediately, the uncertainty of both the driving situation and the bridge mirroring the emotional state, and then the brutal ending revealing what there really is to be afraid of. I love how the poem goes from walking to running, in the way the words create a sense of suffering.
It’s one of my favorites too, though I know it’s different than many of the other poems in the collection. I hate to say that writing poetry was a kind of therapy (because writing can be therapy, right? But sometimes therapeutic writing isn’t always the most artful writing) but I remember writing that poem. I was living in beautiful city apartment—first place I’d ever lived in alone (with my son, o course) and I had no money, at all. My ex had taken everything in our bank account when I’d told him I wanted a divorce, and at the time I was paying rent and the mortgage on our house. When my ex would take Jonah, our son, I had zero distractions but Mr. Bill, my idiot dog and the cats. I had no cable, internet, nothing. I would sit at my desk in the living room, and write madly. I wanted to write the truth of everything. Only a few poems survived, but that was one of the ones that I liked the most.
I think my favorite poem, though, is the last poem, Instructional Design, which I’d originally thought of as a love poem. There are a lot of years between Family Vacation and that last poem—I’d been through a number of failed love affairs, my son had grown from a toddler to a boy, I’d bought a house and moved upwards in my career, and fallen in love with another writer. But it didn’t turn out to be a love poem, per se, but a poem that declared independence. I was happily surprised to see it do so, and though I am still with my writer partner, I realized I didn’t want the collection to end with a love poem but with a statement of self.
I remember when I was seven or eight, and I was best friends with two neighborhood girls who were both a year ahead of me in school, and popular and pretty—anyway, I remember catching sight of the three of us in the vestibule of one of their houses. It was a terribly 1980s hallway, all mirrors and white lacquer. Anyway, there was our reflection, all three of us red-cheeked from the late-fall chill. And I remember thinking, being completely amazed: “I have a reflection, just like them!” There was nothing to mark me as invisible in that reflection, and yet I always felt like I was the invisible one in the room, for years. So when my ex husband told me I was crazy of course I believed him. And when a series of not-the-greatest boyfriends told me what was wrong with me, I believed them. Until one of them, with whom I’m still friends, said something along the lines of how he saw my marriage as being a kind of performance art. And I held onto that comment too. So much of the writing of this book was an assertion of self-in-the-world, or so it felt, so by the time I wrote the last poem, which is probably one of the last poems I wrote—and I had a partner, still do, who loves me just for being the messy person that I am—I found myself writing a love poem not to him, but to myself.
7. What are you writing now? Do you have a writing routine? I know some writers take breaks with a lot of reading in between working on poems, novels, essays- whatever they are creating.
I’m always writing. Even when I think I’m not writing—which I often despair that I am not writing—I am writing. I wish I could be more disciplined, write for X amount of hours a day/week. But I’m a single parent, and I work full time, and I write in the margins of my life. But it’s the non-negotiable part of my life. I write all the time: in the spaces between Little League games and parent-teacher conferences, when my own students are writing, after my son has gone to bed at night. I don’t have much of a social life—my partner, for now, lives 2,000 miles away, and most of my friends here are young parents and have as much time as I do to socialize—which is to say, not at all. Up until this year, I didn’t even have a television. Sometimes, I get up at 5 AM and write for two hours before my son wakes up, watch the sun rise over the reservoir woods in my back yard. But that’s mostly drafting. I have to be more awake to do any significant revision work.
These days I’m writing a lot of prose poems, which was a conscious decision of mine, after Lake Effect was published. I realized in that process that my long lines would necessarily be altered when published in a non 8/11 format, and I needed another kind of thing to write. I’ve been writing creative nonfiction for ages-on my blog mostly, and for online magazines—but wanted to see how a prose poem would affect my work. I thought it would be a one-off assignment for me, but it has become a project. I am also deeply tired of writing about my first marriage. It sucked, it defined the first decade of my adulthood, but Jesus Christ. I’m tired of it. So in theory, I’ve got the first half of the second book done, much of it prose poems. But I don’t know what the final product will look like, and that’s okay. Hell, I don’t know what my life is going to look like 6 months from now.
8. Where do you like to go online to read poetry and essays? What about in print?
I wish I could say that I have regular subscriptions to literary magazines, but I don’t. I read Poetry, The Cortland Review, Blackbird, and I am constantly ordering new collections of poetry to read on suggestion of my friends or other writers I admire. But I find myself turning toward places online like Jezebel and VIDA’s website at the end of the day. Oh, and internet kittens and the HuffPo and weird science blogs. I like reading everything, to be honest. I read novels like they are oxygen, and have been obsessed over the past three years with biographies and memoirs and science writing. But I love the stuff that Beloit Poetry Journal publishes, and I love reading poets from Ahsahta Press because they are so different than I am. H-ng-m-n is another good site for poetry unlike the poetry I’m writing. I devour Mother Jones and The Atlantic and love picking up local, small town newspapers when I travel, particularly in Northern Michigan, as Michigan still feels like a foreign country to me (I’m from Chicago, originally). And one of the things I love about Facebook is that my writer friends always post when they get work published, and a link to the site. It’s one of the best ways I know to read new work, get acquainted with new literary magazines, and discover new writers.