Poet Spotlight: Sarah Ann Winn on reclaimed fairy tales and the octopus in the jar

Sarah Ann Winn’s first book, Alma Almanac (Barrow Street, 2017), was selected by Elaine Equi as winner of the Barrow Street Book Prize. She’s the author of five chapbooks, the most recent of which is Ever After the End Matter (Porkbelly, 2019). Her work has appeared in Five Points, Kenyon Review Online, Massachusetts Review, Smartish Pace, and Tupelo Quarterly, among others. She teaches writing workshops in Northern Virginia and the DC Metro area, and online at the Loft Literary Center. Visit her at http://bluebirdwords.com or follow her @blueaisling.

Your new collection of poetry is Ever After the End Matter. Tell us about the project and how it came into being.

Ever After the End Matter is a set of hybrid pieces (although some works in it are traditional looking poems and flash fiction) trying to reclaim fairy tales/strip some of the sentiment away so that we can get to the meat of the stories, their (sometimes ugly) truths about human nature, the characters who deserve more than a glance, and what they have to say about themes of loss, survival and resilience. The sequence started as I was working on the hybrid pieces for Alma Almanac, my first book. The spine of Alma Almanac is a set of imaginary book appendices/plate descriptions labeled as figures, the way that a reference work might describe an actual illustration. My mentor, after reading one of these figures, based on scenes from my childhood, asked “Why tether these to a number at all? Why not label them ‘Appendix Brown” or some other evocative word? While I didn’t end up using her suggestion for Alma Almanac, because I felt the numbers somehow resisted clear boundaries of a title, and anchored each fragment of text in reality/truth, the idea would not let me go, so I wrote the first of these, “Appendix Red” imagining the figures from fairy tales instead of from my childhood, and the heart of the sequence was born.

You mention that these are primarily hybrid pieces. How do you define hybrid writing? 

I think of hybrid writing as an octopus in a glass jar, it’s a piece of living lyric text temporarily housed in a trojan horse mechanic, borrowed from other modes of writing in order to surprise, or delight, or make the heart of the poem beat visibly. The octopus can unscrew the lid from the inside, so the reader knows the structure is only temporary. It’s a matter of how soon it will happen, how cleverly she maneuvers, how beautiful her escape. It’s a kind of transcendence.

How do you decide which form to use when you approach a new piece of poetry or prose?

Usually it’s a matter of noticing where the piece seems to want to go. It was easy with the Field Guides, because the structure helped highlight the very particular habitat where I grew up — not just the physical place, but the emotional/impossible to really catalog grandparentland. I naturally veer towards cataloging, even though I hated that part of library school. At the time I despaired of finding the right “weight” to give each subject heading, but the great thing about poetry is how much you can/should trust the reader to gather meaning. As with any poetic form, if the structure I’m using doesn’t add to the meaning of the poem, or is too distracting, I revise it back out. Sometimes I’ve put a piece in hybrid form, and realized it was more of a brain teaser than a poem. It’s like a dropped stitch in knitting. The whole thing has to be remade or the work could unravel.

Can you share more about how you approached reclaiming fairy tales? How do you approach retelling an existing story? What draws you to this act of reclamation? 

I love the idea of fairy tales as a living text. I felt a deep connection to them growing up, and didn’t want to leave them behind in all their archaic and gorey beauty when I got older. The first movie I ever saw in a theater was Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and I couldn’t believe how far they strayed from the Hans Christian Anderson version, also problematic to me. Neither ending seemed perfect, the sea foam singing hymns all day? No. Married to a prince who easily could mistake me for someone else? No. While I adored Ariel’s underground grotto filled with dinglehoppers and thingamabobs, it was Ursula who intrigued me. I think it might have started then for me, trying to decide what aspects of fairy tales I could take away and add to my own version of the story. The act of reclamation is also one of invention/filling in shadows. I want to know about the characters who only appear for a moment, who are two dimensional catalysts. (Or even more two dimensional than the heroes and heroines in these tales.) They’re so often middle aged women, childless, clever. Witches and stepmothers and giant’s wives. I love them.

When it comes to retelling an existing story, I like to think of myself as a mudlark, someone combing ancient river banks for fragments and reassembling them into something related to the original, but more personal, or more particular to a different side of the story. I scavenge for bits and pieces, and play with their order/composition until something new emerges, even if it’s in the collaged meaning. 

How did you get started as a writer? 

I got started as a writer pretty soon after I had my start as a reader — I wanted to be able to work the same sort of magic from the books my grandparents read to me. I lived in a print-rich house, where I was encouraged to read, even if — sometimes — the horror — outside! I was an early reader, and my grandpa read to my sister and myself every night. I remember the first “book” I wrote at 7? 8? Which was about my mother watching from Heaven (my family was very religious). It ended with a page with a picture of a tree and something along the lines of “maybe one day I’ll be/stoic as a tree.” My grandpa gravely read it, and then asked me if I knew what stoic meant. I was so affronted that he’d think that I would use a word, a PERFECT word for what I felt, I think that might have been the moment I became a poet. 

What’s your preferred writing space? What materials do you prefer to use (paper and pen, computer, notecards, etc.)?

I love writing at my desk, in my office. I’m there at least a few hours every day. I feel like my office is the perfect reflection of my messy mind, but I think I work best when I have to build in time to unearth a poem I printed out, or when I re-discover something I set aside for later reading and forgot about. I love my blue Bic pens! There were so many blue Bic pen caps in boxes and drawers and bags when we moved that I thought I’d try ball points, if only to save some blue for the bower birds, but I just can’t give them up. I also really love college ruled composition books for messy manuscript planning. I write a lot of notes in my Moleskine planner, and use it as my journal/gratitude list keeper, image collector. It’s full of quotes/stickers/scraps of logistics and crossed out math problems and post its. I write most narratively on the computer, even before I get fully to a poem draft, thanks to an ex of mine reading my journal years ago. But these scraps somehow end up in poems regardless, so maybe I should thank him, for the ability to retrace my steps through these jottings to some sort of writing, sometimes well after the fact.

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

I feel community is essential to be a poet, because we’re human. To deny ourselves the pleasures and necessity of a kindred spirited tribe, struggling with the same things we’re struggling with is to impoverish your writing life, which is to say, your entire life. I have a couple very close writer friends who are my beta readers and my comrades in arms, and a wider circle of online friends, many of whom have become dear friends, as well as travelers on the same path. It’s what inspired me to start the “Catching up with Tinderbox” portion of Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and why I occasionally approach pairs of longtime poet friends to interview each other, so the fact of our small writing world can be celebrated. I hope people will find comfort and encouragement reading how these friendships have empowered and enriched the work of both poets.

Name a poet you would like more readers know about.

Le Hinton

What is something about you that people might find surprising?

I’m secretly shy person. I have a lot of anxiety in social situations. I think I’m so chatty most people don’t realize. It’s a good cover! Years of teaching have helped me put that mask on a little more easily, but it takes a lot of self-pep-talks to get me into a crowded room.

What can the world expect from you in the future?

I love teaching online, so that’s something I’m pursuing avidly right now. My students are fantastic, and teach me so much. I love each community microcosm that we build together. Other than that, I’m not sure! I’m standing in a writing doorway right now, with lots of projects beckoning, so I’ll be as surprised as anyone when the next thing reveals itself!

3 Replies to “Poet Spotlight: Sarah Ann Winn on reclaimed fairy tales and the octopus in the jar”

  1. Ms. Winn seems like a very creative individual – a necessity for a poet, I think. Her perspective on her own work is beautifully described, much like writing a poem about her own poetry.
    Nice interview!

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