About the Author:
Sarah Fox lives in Northeast Minneapolis where she co-imagines the Center for Visionary Poetics and also serves as a doula. She has taught poetry and creative writing at the University of Minnesota, the Perpich Center for Arts Education Arts High School, and to diverse populations in a variety of venues via the Loft, COMPAS, the Minnesota State Arts Board, and other community organizations throughout Minnesota for over 15 years. Coffee House Press published her book, Because Why, in 2006. She contributes posts on feminism, mysticism, astrology, and poetics to the multi-author arts and culture blog Montevidayo, and has won grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bush Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Academy of American Poets, and the Graduate Research Partnership Program at the University of Minnesota. Recent work appears in Conduit, Action,Yes, We Are So Happy To Know Something, Poetry City USA Vol 2, Spout, ElevenEleven, Rain Taxi, LUNGFULL!, and others. She performs poetry rituals and other acts of intersubjective communion in public and private spaces whenever she can.
Sarah Fox in conversation with Rachel Moritz
Rachel Moritz: There’s a journey in this book, though the experience of time feels more circular than linear. One thread, however, is the series, “Field Notes of an Advance Scout.” Can you discuss the kind of path these poems forge?
Sarah Fox: The poems in the book do side with a more elliptical expression of time, in opposition to Western instincts. I think of this nonlinear approach as an organic articulation that poetry, in particular, is able to facilitate. Paul Celan: “I try to reproduce cuttings from the spectral analysis of things, to show them in several aspects and permeations at once.” As I was putting the manuscript together, I wanted to focus, however ambiguously, on this idea of a journey—a subtle narrative arc—launching from the imperative form in the first poem (“Guidebook For a Pleasant Stay”) into a territory of questioning. Questions are infinite. Edmond Jabés, in his poem “The Book of Questions,” writes “knowledge means questioning,” and further, “God is a question.” Questioning allows for negative capability. The Field Notes poems hope to ground the journey through the gestures of awak- ening they transcribe. They are sequential, but that’s mostly by coincidence. The first poem finds the speaker in a state of bewilderment, on a kind of threshold, as in a Grimm character who says “I would like to learn shuddering. That is something I do not comprehend at all.” From there, the poems follow a course devoted to disempowering certainty and temporal concerns, permitting the “spectral analysis” as memory, image, idea, and utterance cross-pollinate. I obviously pay homage to María Sabina (and others such as Anne Waldman), out of a sense of apprenticeship to a poetic lineage, which for me finds its roots in a words-as-medicine approach to poetry. María Sabina chanted “I am a woman who looks into the insides of things and investigates.” The “advance scout” could be seen as one investigating the rim of consciousness. Celan again: “Instrange yourself, / deeper.” The poems were lifted from a single long piece I wrote during a somewhat heightened state—I was reporting back as the advance scout of myself! But transformation, or any path open to the potential for mys- tical encounters, is universally available. At least I think so.
Rachel Moritz: I’m interested in the baby as both a literal and symbolic figure. There’s something here about the feminine and poetry; while many contemporary women are writing about motherhood, I haven’t encountered as many poems about infertility, loss, or the choice not to parent (Ann Lauterbach’s “Nest,” is one that comes to mind). Some of your poems, like “Baby Shamanics for the New Millennium,” deal with the “real” child, and some, like “Imagining Girls,” work with the child as a representation of imagination and hope. Can you describe how fertility and barrenness function as literal and imaginative realities?
Sarah Fox: Well, I’m a doula, a mother, a teacher, and the oldest of six, so birth and children are powerful in my life. I have also had some struggles with miscarriage and infertility, which I sometimes speculate might reflect a larger ambivalence about having more children (my daughter is almost sixteen). Undoubtedly, it is more of a challenge to find time to write, to focus, when you have obligations as a mother. But the role is so tied up with identity that I find it inseparable from my role as poet. To be unable to conceive a child, on the other hand, eclipsed any ideology about it for me, and led me into a more extensive (and productive) creative energy around the body, its systems, and its reflection of the body of the world. During a birth I recently attended, accomplished by c-section, I actually saw the uterus, pulled out of the mother’s body for suturing. It’s a pretty impressive metaphor (in addition to being such an impressive organ!)—even the cave paintings in Lascaux, and elsewhere, celebrate its symbolic manifestations. I think any personal narrative going on in the book around these issues is incidental, though; what’s more interesting to me is how all of this plays into the broader yearning for fulfillment that underlies our relentless cultural distractions. Both poems you mention feel to me like momentary thought-bridges, wrestling with paradox when choice is not necessarily available. I wasn’t thinking of him when I wrote these, but I think now of Whitman’s “Children of Adam” poems as toying with notions of fertility/infertility from the perspective of poet-maker. “Imagining Girls” originated as a cut-up of Anne Carson’s Eros, The Bittersweet, the Gospel of Mark, and a third source that I can no longer remember. I was reading these all at once, and the texts naturally fell into each other. I cut out phrases and then recorded them randomly. Later, a poem occurred out of that experiment that appears to examine femininity, female inheritance, actual and possible daughters and/or selves, uterine longings . . . Also, the maternal conflict of accepting the child’s physical separation, and facilitating her emotional independence while also maintaining your own. “Baby Shamanics for the New Millennium” came out of a dream, and a challenge from my friend Steve Healey to write a poem with the word “onesie” in it. He has a onesie poem too, in his book Earthling (as does Dobby Gibson, in Polar). I think the possible babies, like little ghosts, are haunting for women, but I find their hauntings fascinating, and strangely comforting. All children represent hope, and imagination. I was in Bolinas a couple of years ago on the Fourth of July, and their parade included a float of children with a banner reading “I pledge allegiance to my imagination.” What better to pledge allegiance to?
Rachel Moritz: In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard writes, “The poet speaks on the threshold of being.” He also talks about poetic image as consciousness at its point of origin. Describe your own relationship with image and this zero point of consciousness/ origin as it works in your poetry.
Sarah Fox: I would say that poems begin to occur, for me, in image before language. I had a student once who claimed he could not visualize images. He could not, for example, call to mind the sight of “dog” if he was not looking directly at a dog. I’d never heard of this phenomenon, but since then I’ve met other people who experience it. I don’t know that my own poetry would exist if it didn’t have images in the mind to draw from. I can see the poem, in my mind, so that language and form are the architecture of that vision, on the page. I understand the movement of the poem through its images, all of which are connected, in some associative or material way, to the instant of clarity that made way for poetic impulse. So I agree with Bachelard that poetic image pushes against consciousness at its origins, and that the interior space is where the poem happens for both poet and reader. Writing a poem, in my experience, is always an exercise in mining for truth, even simply the truth of what is taking place in the mind at a particular moment. For me, this feels very much like being in a liminal space, where image serves as a portal to some undetermined realization the poem is attempting to discover. Thus, metaphor. Again, this goes back to a willingness to question, to interview the image. Archetypally, you might say that The Fool, or The Child, are most comfortable with this mode of being, and I think of the various speakers in Because Why as embracing these roles.
Rachel Moritz: One thing I experience in your poetry is a calling forth of community, of the living elements of the world and their interrelationships—human, animal, plant, spirit. How do you see the community of the poem mirroring the community of the world? And how do you conceive of experimental poetry as a space where these elements are brought into conversation?
Sarah Fox: Community is very important to my work and life; I cultivate it on conscious and unconscious levels. What is the commu- nity of the poem? I don’t know, but I do feel that my poems want to reflect my values of community—including poetic tradition. Ange Mlinko told me recently that my poems feel “populated.” It’s a conscious choice—not only to avoid solipsism or unearned irony, but to acknowledge the relevance of equanimity. A poem is rarely successful for me if it doesn’t have a generous spirit. My concept of the poetic “I” is more Buddhist than Catholic, I guess. When the Dalai Lama says “I am the center of the universe,” he means every “I”: animal, plant, etc. We share that location as an interconnected whole (Duncan: “symposium of the whole.”) Similarly, string theory suggests this interrelationship in scientific terms. As does ethnobotany—the study of a culture’s relationship to plants and plant medicines—which is also an obsession of mine. I envision plants as great communicators, and locating their language, or translating it—through a kind of poetic alchemy—is something I attempt in many of the poems in Because Why. My poems are more interested in that intimate space between connections than they are in divisions. And of course I write from my own experience, and my daily life is centered around this nurturing of community. I feel an innate responsibility to establish little versions of “home,” which are constantly being revised, in both my poems and my environment. Poetry, for me, is profoundly intimate. The most minute details of even a very domestic scenario can be radically subversive through poetic utterance. I’m encouraged by the work of poets like Alice Notley, Fanny Howe, Hoa Nguyen, Catherine Wagner—who write from domestic experience using unorthodox syntax, phrasing, form, collage. This is achievable through a practice of disobedience, especially important historically to women, but also synonymous with thoughtful resistance. Maybe this goes back to the notion of circular time, and its feminine components, which find traditional methods of communication limiting, unproductive, even passive. I’ve taken to calling this a “domestic avant-garde”—epitomized, you might say, by Tender Buttons—but really it’s just poetry; you take what works and aim for your own truest expression.
Rachel Moritz co-edits WinteRed Press, a poetry chaplet publisher. Her chapbook, The Winchester Monologues, won the 2005 New Michigan Press Competition. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, How2, Indiana Review, 26, and other magazines. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.