Poet Spotlight: Sarah Blake on leaving earth and finding home in poetry

Sarah Blake - poet

Sarah Blake is the author of three poetry collections, including Mr. West, an unauthorized lyric biography of Kanye West from Wesleyan University Press; Named After Death, a chapbook from Banango Editions; and most recently, Let’s Not Live on Earth, a full length collection, also from Wesleyan.

She lives outside of Philadelphia and travels to participate in readings throughout the year. She is also the author of a forthcoming novel, Naamah (Riverhead Books), a reimagining of the story of the wife of Noah.

Let's Not Live on Earth by Sarah BlakeLet’s Not Live on Earth is your most recent collection of poetry. Tell us about the project and how it came into being.

About a year after my son was born I started writing a lot again, but I didn’t have any ideas about what the poems could be doing together. During that time, I wrote “The Starship,” a book-length poem told in second person narration, all about leaving Earth. When it came time to put a book together, I knew I wanted “The Starship” in it. I looked through years of poems to find the ones that were in conversation with “The Starship” and that’s how the book found its shape.

Your collection includes the epic poem, “The Starship,” in which a woman shifts her perception of existence when a spaceship suddenly casts her home in shadow. What is your process for writing longer form poetry? How do you balance the narrative arc of the poem with a sense of poetic immediacy?

The process is very similar to writing a shorter poem for me. The poem is all encompassing and it’s hard for me to do much else. I found myself writing pieces of “The Starship” on my phone at the Y and in bed. With a shorter poem, it’s ok to have one strange day like this, but with a longer poem, I have trouble sleeping and find myself constantly thinking about the poem for weeks. I’ve resisted writing longer poems since “The Starship” because of how it wrecks me.

I balance the narrative arc with poetic immediacy by building the poem out of small sections, which each get the attention of a poem. I love experimenting with the gestures language can make that feel satisfying, in just a few lines and across a book-length work.

Named After Death by Sarah BlakeYou have two other collections of poetry that have been published, Mr. West (Wesleyan University Press) and Named After Death (Banango Editions). Did you have a different approach in writing these collections?

Yes. Named After Death are poems I wrote after my grandfather’s cancer diagnosis and after his death. They came out of me quickly and they grew out of my distress. When Banango accepted it, I asked them if we could make an illustrated activity book to go along with it and that process began from there.

Mr. West is a hugely research-based collection about Kanye West. I started writing those poems, pretty much burying myself in research, to allow myself to stop writing about my grandfather’s death. Mr. West became a lyric biography of Kanye as well as an exploration of my pregnancy, and still has a few poems about my grandfather.

Mr West by Sarah BlakeHow did you get started as a writer? Why do you personally write poetry?

I’ve been writing poems since I was 10. In college, I found out that you can go to fully funded graduate programs for poetry. I told myself, and my parents, that I would keep being a poet for as long as I was funded to do so. It’s not the most romantic story but it got me where I am.

It’s hard to describe why I write poetry because it feels somewhat out of my control, but I know I need poetry to move through the world and my life, and I’m extremely grateful that poetry is the form that feels like home to me — even if it’s a scary home that I find riveting and that I feel extremely vulnerable in.

As someone who also writes fiction (with a novel, Naamah, forthcoming from Riverhead Books). Do you find it difficult to transition from poetry to prose? In what ways do you find writing fiction to be different from writing poetry? Do you think being a poet influences how you approach writing fiction?  

I find it very difficult to transition back and forth. I didn’t write any poems when I was writing my novel. All of my creative energy went towards the novel.

Writing fiction is so different from writing poetry for me. While writing poetry leaves me feeling a little electric, writing fiction calms me down. There’s no way you can finish a novel in a day, or even a few weeks. You have to let go of the idea that energy will get you through the process. So I settle into it and the habit of it in my daily life.

I think my interest in language and image might be attributed to my background in poetry, but I know a lot of fiction writers who are similarly drawn to language and image. But I’m definitely a strange writer, and I carry that into any genre, with my obsession with narrative, my disinterest in staging scenes, and my complete and utter lack of outlining or planning ahead.

What’s your preferred writing space?

My desk, my couch, and my local coffee shop (I don’t drink coffee, but the pastries are boss).

What are you currently reading?

I just read Caroline Cabrera’s Saint X, which is terrific.

Name one poet no one knows but should.

This is a difficult question because I’m in a community of poets online and I forget who are the people “no one knows” outside of that bubble. Catie Rosemurgy is my mentor and dear friend and the more people that know about her poems, the better.

Do you feel community is important as a writer? How do you stay connected?

I do, but I have trouble staying connected. Sometimes I feel connected online but then it becomes clear that those aren’t very strong connections. I’m trying now to give more attention to a smaller community of writers and they keep me going. Email is a blessing.

What advice would you offer to emerging writers?

To find opportunities outside of the most often talked about opportunities. There are a lot more paths to support than the ones I’m always hearing about.

What can the world expect from you in the future?

Naamah is the next book! I can’t wait for people to meet Naamah. I’m also working on a collaborative series of poems with Kimberly Quiogue Andrews about a sea witch. And then there’s another novel in the works. And there are always poems.


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