Interview With Sarah Nichols (Poet & Author Of She May Be a Saint, Hermeneutic Chaos, December 2016)

Congratulations on your third chapbook, She May Be a Saint, being accepted by Hermeneutic Chaos! What’s it about? What inspired you to write it? When does it get published?

She May Be a Saint is a project that started three years ago after I read a poem by C.D. Wright in the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry. I had never read her work before, and one of the poems included in the book came from her collection One Big Self, a hybrid work that took Wright to various prisons in the South. The inmates speak, and Wright meditates on their voices and their situation and how she filters it. I saw a line, "I had a headful of bees," and I almost immediately thought of Sylvia Plath’s Bee poems from Ariel. I decided to write a cento using lines from Wright’s poem in that anthology, and some of Plath’s Bee poems. It started out as an almost prose poem, but not quite. I showed it to a friend of mine, a poet, who told me that Wright had been her teacher at Brown. My friend said that she thought that Wright would like what I had come up with, and that was incredible to hear. I submitted that poem, "Experiences, quietly humming,"  that night. I waited almost a year to hear that the journal I’d sent it to didn’t want it. I wanted to do more Wright/Plath centos, because as I explored Wright’s work further, I saw many correlations between the two. I started two other poems after that first one, and didn’t like them. I put it away; I became immersed in writing my second book. Between 2013 and now, I reconsidered doing a book of Wright/Plath centos, but whatever I tried, it did not sound or look right. It was too much of them, and not enough of me. In January, Wright died suddenly, a few days after David Bowie died. Like many others, I was deeply upset by Wright’s death. I regretted not sharing that first poem with her in some way. I don’t live that far from Brown University; there is e-mail. But I didn’t. In May, I sent "Experiences, quietly humming" and another poem from the collection in to Hermeneutic Chaos for consideration for the journal.

Again, this work was rejected, but the letter that Shinjini Bhattacharjee, the EIC, sent me was so loving and encouraging about those poems that I determined to try again with a chapbook. There were a few open reading periods in June, and Hermeneutic Chaos’s was one of them. I wrote the rest of them (18 in total) very fast. In July, I was notified that it had been accepted, and that publication would be in December. What is it about? I think there is a bit of autobiography going on in it, but at the same time, I wanted to honor the work of these two extraordinary artists. I’ve been reading and obsessing over Plath since I was sixteen, not always in healthy ways. I see her as a writer of incredible will and power; dark laughter, and brutal beauty, sometimes all in the same poem. Wright also has this, but in a different key, I think. Because Plath’s work is so well known (or at least some poems), I worked to avoid some of her most famous lines (i.e.: "Daddy, daddy, you bastard…"). Her pre-Ariel work is gorgeous, and I wanted to give that its due, too.

 

I was awestruck by the poems you did for the 31/31 challenge for ELJ Publications based off of James Ellroy’s novel The Black Dahlia. They’re very spine-chilling and haunting. Can you tell us a bit about how you created them?

I’ll start with a memory. I have this clear image of my father reading the book when it was new; the hyper-stylized illustration of Elizabeth Short on its cover drew my eye, and I asked him what it was about. All he said was that it was "very violent." I don’t remember how old I was when I read it for myself, or if I knew about the reality of the crime. He was right; it is violent. In the intervening years, I’ve read quite a bit about the death and the investigation, and the various theories as to who killed her. I even had a copy of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon II for a while, which contains pictures of the crime scene and her body. But, turning back to Ellroy’s book, we have this inferno world (and which is elaborated on further the deeper you go into his work; it has this kind of "dare you see a soul at the white heat" quality to it for me, to quote Dickinson). As good a writer as he is, though, this woman is never given a voice. She has no agency. There are no flashbacks which flesh out her life, although in the Brian De Palma film adaptation, the audience is given these brief black and white "screen test" moments of Short, and which show her slide into degradation. She is a victim, a sexual fantasy, a kind of ultimate noir myth. In 2006, Ellroy addresses himself to this, but she remains an object to be investigated and speculated over. In 2012, Joyce Carol Oates published a story collection, Black Dahlia and White Rose, and the title story imagines Elizabeth Short and Marilyn Monroe living together, before fame for either of them hit. It gives voice to their private thoughts and grievances, but the voice that Oates imagined for Short somehow doesn’t hold up for me (I reread it when I started writing the poems).

This is an almost unbearably sad story. The case remains open sixty-nine years later. She was only twenty-two when she died! Before I started these poems, I wondered what the after-life would be like from her point of view. I imagined her angry at the men who speculated and fantasized about her, I imagined someone who wanted movie stardom, but who got infamy instead. Someone, who, in death, finally became herself. Towards the end of the project, I wrote two poems, "Elizabeth Short Dreams of Blade Runner" and "Elizabeth Short Visits the Black Lodge." Her story is a part of a kind of underground popular history, and I wanted to see her intersect with two things that I love, Blade Runner, which is set in the Los Angeles of 2019, and Twin Peaks, where Dale Cooper dreams of meeting Laura Palmer, who, even though she’s dead when we’re introduced to her, we see her in life, too. How would these women interact in this place which between 1990, when the show first aired, and now, has taken on a huge after-life of its own? Both Blade Runner and Twin Peaks are endlessly quotable; so I used a few lines of dialogue in both. Roy Batty’s line in Blade Runner, "I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe," struck me as particularly apt. As for Twin Peaks, the lines are almost too perfect: "She’s filled with secrets," and "sometimes, my arms bend back." I cited the original sources, but all of the words were also in Ellroy’s text.

July 29th was Elizabeth Short’s birthday, and this was noted by a Facebook post from the Deranged L.A. Crimes site. I mentioned my project in a comment, and Joan Renner, who runs the site, asked for a link, which I gave her. The next day, she featured the blog and one the poems from the series, "Just Another Girl," in a post. The last time I looked, that poem has been looked at over 500 times. I never imagined anything like that for this work. I’m so grateful for the response; these poems have resonated with people. Another part of my process for these poems was to not delve into the particular details of her death, or re-post post-mortem pictures of Short (these are all over the web). Those familiar with the case know what happened, and I didn’t need to re-emphasize this. I wanted to move beyond her death and give her another life. ELJ offered everyone who completed the challenge the opportunity to submit their work as a manuscript, and I just submitted it to them this past week. I had a lot of moments where the nature of the material just hit me. I was trying to keep a kind of critical distance, and found that I couldn’t. The project began with the offer to use a text that we thought of as a "guilty pleasure," and this expanded out to include all kinds of popular genre fiction; I questioned if I had made the right choice, and ultimately, I did.

The Next You by Sarah Nichols

Years later,
my killer

calls me up.

He thinks he’s
doing me a favor,

telling me about the
world, and how it

got on

without

me.

No one would know you,
he says.

No one would know you
without me.

I’m waiting, he says.

Waiting for the next

you.

Source: Ellroy, James. The Black Dahlia. New York: Mysterious Press, 1987. Print.

 

You also edit for Thank You for Swallowing. What kind of work do you publish there?

Well, I need to say at the outset that I am the East Coast editor, and that Michelle Quinn, a journalist, works as the Midwest editor. Ultimately, though, Thank You for Swallowing happened last year because my friend, Cat Conway, was just done in terms of the misogynist bullshit that happens in the literary world, specifically (at that time) the decision to include Bobby Parker’s poem "Thank You for Swallowing My Cum" in Best British Poetry 2014, and the Revolution John debacle. Cat asked me help to her with editing in December or January; I can’t remember!  Thank You for Swallowing publishes feminist protest poetry. It offers a home for voices who might not be heard, and about subjects that people might not want to deal with. I think, sometimes, that there is a notion, still, that poetry has to be this ethereal thing. To say that it doesn’t still feel like a radical act sometimes. I have read some phenomenally raw, uncomfortable poems in the past year, and that’s good. Poems that confront rape, racism; homophobia…the work that I’ve read challenges so much of what doesn’t want to be challenged. A few months ago, the decision was made to go with having themed issues, and so far, after two, this has worked well. It’s an honor to read other writers’ work. To hear their stories. At the same time, doing this work has also challenged me to be a better literary citizen. It’s fine to say that I’m a feminist, but what am I willing to do for that?

 

You wanted to be a writer since you were a child, though you didn’t know you wanted to be a poet at the time. What pushed you to write poetry?

I started off wanting to be a journalist, and when I was fifteen, I worked in the newsroom of my hometown’s paper (The Ridgefield Press; Ridgefield, CT). I helped to write birth announcements, wedding announcements, obituaries. I helped to organize the clip file. At that time, if you had asked me about being a poet, I probably would have laughed. In 1997, I took a general creative writing class--general in that we covered fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. My professor encouraged me to continue writing poetry, but I think I still felt a good deal of fear. In 1998 (I think!) I entered my college’s writing contest. I submitted a poem about Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, and it won first prize. I was stunned. It took an incredibly long time for me to say, "I’m a working writer." My first professional publication, in an academic journal, happened in 2002. Between then and 2007, I didn’t write any poetry, or much of anything else. Fear, coupled with arrogance, was lethal for me. I had no understanding of how this works. I thought, "Well, I’ve published, of course people will seek me out now." I really was the guy in the Stephen Crane poem who says to the universe, "Sir, I exist!" and the universe is like, but that doesn’t instill in me a sense of obligation. So I stared out the window, and didn’t write.

I also, for a long time, wanted to bea film critic, and for what it’s worth, I wrote reviews for my college’s paper in 2002, and went on to have academic criticism published. It was difficult to let that dream go, but I’ve found other ways to incorporate my love of film into what I write, like with Edie (Whispering), my second chapbook, which is a collection of found poems taken from the transcripts of the documentary Grey Gardens, or the Black Dahlia poems, which are obviously informed by film noir and its literary offshoots. I wrote a poem about my hatred of No Country for Old Men, once, too. In 2007, I took a workshop in memoir that was taught by a woman who became one of my best friends and a mentor, Sally Terrell. I showed her the poem that I’d gotten published in 2002, and she told me that I HAD to start writing poetry again. I still felt a great deal of fear. However, while I was taking that class, I made a suicide attempt and ended up being hospitalized. The staff took away the pens I had, the belt of a sweater. All I really had was my copy of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady and some paper that I found in a drawer. I asked if I could have a pencil. I wrote a poem about the experience of reading that book for the first time in a psychiatric ward. That was the beginning of what I have now, I think.

 

Writing can be an arduous, painful process. From your personal experience, what can one do to make it less so?

For a long time, I felt quite isolated as a writer. I didn’t know many people, and truthfully, I didn’t make much of an effort. I can be painfully shy, even with people I know. In 2011, I was given a remarkable opportunity; to be a resident artist (visual) at a fledgling gallery/community space in my town. I was given the space to create, but I also volunteered. I saw there the value of collaboration, and connecting with people. But I think I still held myself back; I don’t mingle easily. I would also say that being involved in social media has had an impact. When I first published in 2002, there was no Facebook. Online publications were still dismissed. This has radically changed, of course, for better and worse. In 2013, I participated in the Found Poetry Review’s National Poetry Month project, Pulitzer Remix. 85 people were on that, and I made incredible connections through that experience, connections that I still retain, and learn from. I met Cat Conway through Facebook, because of her work on Plath Profiles, the only journal devoted to the Sylvia Plath studies. I also belong to a few writing groups on Facebook, which has led me to larger communities and opportunities. I’m in awe of all of the writers that say, "I submitted this one piece 70 times and it was rejected," and then that 71st time, it was accepted, or was nominated for a prize, or got the recognition it deserved.  It strengthens my resolve. If you want to do this work, you have to be committed to the long game. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter that this is not work that one does by halves. You have to be all in, or all out, and the thought of that is sometimes hard to take. It’s better, for me, to break it down. In the "real" world, I have a pretty tight-knit circle of friends. I also live with chronic psychiatric illness (major depressive disorder and dysthemia) and chronic physical illness (fibromyalgia) and I’m a recovering addict. I have a therapist, and work a program of recovery. My work, and my dedication to it, has definitely sharpened since getting clean. I can be there for other people and their work, and I can be there for my own, in ways that I wasn’t. Having these resources has been vital to combating the difficulties of this job.

 

Let’s face it, most poetry isn’t happy. What makes us poets so drawn to pain and darkness?

To quote The Verve, "I need to hear some sounds that recognize the pain in me." That’s the semi-glib answer, but for me, it’s more or less true. Happiness is very difficult to pull off in a poem, or I’ve found it to be so. I can be happy with the process of creation, but transmitting that feeling to a poem, I don’t know. I think I’m attracted to the painful or dark poems because I want to know that it’s possible to write down those experiences and live. One could come back to me and say, "Well, Plath didn’t live, Sexton didn’t live, Berryman didn’t, etc.," and that’s legitimate, up to a point. But they, and others, show me how to do it. I need to know that there’s a way out without destroying myself (which for a long time, I thought was a prerequisite for being a writer). If I write about say, being an addict, or going through electroshock therapy (which I have), then there’s a record that says to someone else "I can survive this" even if in that moment it doesn’t feel survivable. The attraction to the dark poems becomes another way of not being alone.

Reaction in Neon by Sarah Nichols

In the silent
neon

my body is whole.

A radio,
clean and empty.

I filter the want,

bargain with hunger.

I turn in the red,

knowing the ruin.

Source: Ellroy, James. The Black Dahlia. New York: Mysterious Press, 1987. Print.

 

 

Sarah Nichols is the author of the forthcoming chapbook, She May Be a Saint (Hermeneutic Chaos, December, 2016), as well as Edie (Whispering): Poems from Grey Gardens (Dancing Girl Press, 2015). Her poems are also forthcoming in Emerge Literary Journal and Rogue Agent, and have been published in Noble/Gas Qtrly, Yellow Chair Review, The Fem, and Porkbelly Press’s Emily Anthology (2015). Nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2015, she is also the East Coast editor for Thank You for Swallowing.  She lives in Connecticut.