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Art Maker: Sara London, poet

  • Poet Sara London, seen here last fall at the University of Vermont, teaches creative writing at Smith College and also writes and reviews children’s books. Her newest poetry collection is entitled “Upkeep.” Image courtesy of Sara London

Published: 1/10/2020 9:04:08 AM
Modified: 1/10/2020 9:03:29 AM

Raised in California and Vermont, poet Sara London begins her most recent collection, “Upkeep,” on an unusual note: with confessions to an Earth-visiting Martian who becomes a witness to the speaker’s grief. The new book, in fact, consists of elegies “whose solemnity has been upended by humor and the nuanced interrogations of the daily rituals that heal us,” according to publisher’s notes.

London, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who now teaches creative writing at Smith College, is also the poetry editor at The Woven Tale Press online magazine. In addition, she’s written two children’s books and reviews children’s books for The New York Times Book Review.

Hampshire Life: How do you know when your work is finished?

Sara London: How to end a poem is such a mysterious thing, and for me, it’s crucially linked to matters of meaning. When the mystery is solved, and a poem ends well, there’s a kind of magic that can draw the reader back to reread again and again. I labor over endings because that closing note is so important, and at times remains so elusive.

Sometimes I wonder if I hold the tail end of a poem up to unhelpfully high standards of effect. Yet I still find that the distinctly satisfying “wholeness” of a poem (linguistic, conceptual and emotional) is not there unless the ending is right. Paul Valery famously claimed that “A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned.” Perhaps that’s also true, but there’s a point of “separation,” when a poem is equipped enough to be on its own. That’s what I aim for.

HL: Have you ever had a “mistake” — a project that seemed to be going south — turn into a wonderful discovery instead?

SL: Mistakes are common in my process, and I’m a relentless reviser. I’ve spent months on poems that I’ve come to realize are failures to be set aside. I’ve also excised viable new poems from decaying old ones. I once spent a week hiking in the rainforest of Olympic National Park in Washington, and I was struck by the fresh new growth — ferns and saplings — springing up from the massive husks and guts of ancient fallen hemlock and spruce. It’s kind of like that at times with writing: new spores can reanimate a discarded body of words.

HL: Name two artists you admire or who have influenced your work. What about their art appeals to you?

SL: Seamus Heaney has been a poet of endless nourishment for me — a giant of the ear, mind and heart. There’s the famously sonic power of his diction; but his images of nature, labor and play on the farmlands of his childhood are among my first inspirations in poetry. Heaney “tends” to life through language, with a certain voracious yet tender facility, and with such a wise, probing, knowing mind.

Robert Frost is a lyric cousin of sorts to Heaney, with his rural New England sensibility, and he was also an early favorite. Farm labor, mall towns, apples, stacked wood and stone walls, the starkness of his metaphors — all these elements deeply resonated with me. And the notion of swinging a bendy birch tree and getting “away from earth a while” — that’s still a heavenly vision!

HL: What’s the most recent event by another artist that you’ve attended and enjoyed?

SL: At the New Hampshire Poetry Festival last fall, I heard Chen Chen read from “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities.” I was enchanted, and immediately purchased his book. Though emotionally dark, his poems are leavened by an earnest joy and a wonderful sense of humor. There’s copious “thinking” in his poems, and playfulness with language. His perceptions and posture of inquiry — on topics such as love, and sexual and cultural identity — seem born of a notable, life-spiced wisdom.

HL: What’s your go-to snack while you’re working?

SL: Nuts and popcorn are staples, but when I’m really immersed in writing a poem, the appetite disappears and the world shrinks down to verbal morsels, to foraging for just the right word.

HL: What do you do when you’re stuck?

SL: I’m frequently stuck. And when that happens, I get up, leave my desk, and abandon the poem to marinate without me — as I stew! And sometimes I go to poems by poets I love to regenerate. I find that reading the work of others refreshes my ability to find language; it gets the wheels turning toward a destination again, helps me wrestle myself, and ideally my poem, out of the mud.

— Steve Pfarrer

Sara London’s website is saralondonwriter.com. She’ll read from her work on March 31 at the Smith College Poetry Center.




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