The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: The poems published in this issue explore a variety of forms, as well as themes. When you begin developing a piece, does theme dictate form, or are they developed independently of each other?
Sarah Hulyk Maxwell: The word “theme” hardly ever crosses my mind while writing a poem. I typically look for a thematic thread after a poem is drafted and then consider ways to beef it up–as long as the poem wouldn’t suffer because of it. In fact, I only truly think about theme while writing if it’s a manuscript, and perhaps this is why I struggle with finishing those because I think too much about forcefully connecting everything inside instead of letting it happen naturally.
For me, a poem’s form happens as the poem happens. As soon as I started writing “Driving at Night in the Rain,” it felt very natural for the poem to appear as prose and then once I reread it, the long lines, thick block still felt right, sort of drifting from one thought to the next, as one’s mind might do while driving.
I like to think about form more than I like to think about theme. I might go as far as to claim, form is visceral; theme is intellect. Line breaks, especially, are such a delight for me–I love examining who breaks what and where and thinking about why. Form also relates to sound because of white space, pauses, etc., and I appreciate poems that sound “just right.” I think there’s something kind of intuitive about it all–like, sure, I might be able to say, check out that assonance, but sometimes the only explanation is, three syllables here sounds better than two.
To answer the question, then, I guess form is more established by the mood/pace of the poem, and I identify/further develop theme after.
RR: “$25 Statutory Witness Fee” teeters between the strict form of legal-system language and the collapse of confidence following trauma. How did this piece develop?
SHM: I work at a law firm and was transcribing a letter. I became extremely distracted when the attorney dictated the word “spiderwebbed” to describe the cracked state of a windshield because it just seemed so wonderfully out of place in the world of litigation. (In fact, I just did a quick search in our firm database for the word “spiderwebbed” and that letter I typed is the only one that includes the word.) At first I wrote a poem that was just called “spiderwebbing and its variations” because I liked the sound of it, but to be fair, it didn’t make any sense at all. While poems don’t have to make sense, I decided I needed to believe in my gut and make some serious revisions to the poem. So then I thought, why don’t I place the word back into its original context, where it had inspired me in the first place? That’s how the setting of the poem became a witness deposition, where the person testifies what she has seen, and, because of reliving this tragedy, is compensated $25.00, the current rate for “non-expert” witnesses in these parts.
RR: What projects are you currently working on?
SHM: I’m constantly revisiting poems I haven’t seen in a long time. I like to remind myself how I used to write and then ask myself if I think I could ever write a certain something again based on changes of my aesthetic. So I suppose one of the projects I’m constantly working on is simply to remember my roots, call back to them, and try pruning some old poems to breathe life into them.
More concretely I have a chapbook manuscript (hey, I finished something!) I’ve just started to send out that examines what I would call imagination infidelity and any guilt or pleasure associated with that. On the creating front, I’ve been writing a lot of flash fiction lately. I tend to go through phases of writing, and December was the month of the prose poem for me and that has morphed into flash fiction, which started to morph into short story writing until the commitment of writing something over 500 words started hindering my creative thought. So now I’ve got three short stories started with no end in sight. I just like to remain in the beginning of things.
RR: “A lady never wears panty hose with runners.” deals with the concept of femininity intertwined with imagery of raw meat and torn clothes. What drew you to these images as you were writing this piece?
SHM: This poem has a little bit of a lot of things from my life at the time of writing it. I had just been introduced to Bhanu Kapil’s work and devoured Humanimal. I was workshopping poems in my graduate adviser Lara Glenum’s class. I was stepping out of a comfort zone of softer, gentler work. I was also making Easter cheese. All of these influences made their way into the poem, which ended up being a kind of prototype for a series of related pieces that could be interpreted to be about a cult of women running a restaurant, and possibly interested in the patrons for dinner. I say all these “could be’s” and “possiby’s” because the real challenge of that manuscript was ambiguity–how to be subtly raw. And subtle rawness is linked with gentle danger, these unsuspecting images that suggest a little bit of something more: raw meat (such a common staple in refrigerators and grocery stores but dangerous for your insides), torn clothes (the result of violence rather than violence itself), even a cheesecloth “twisted tight” are to be slightly unsettling, and I’d like to think that, at the end, you are both reading in horror and ready to strip and jump in with the collective “we,” marching naked and linking elbows.
RR: During a visit at the University of Mary Washington, Oliver De La Paz mentioned that many poets submitting more than one piece of poetry to a literary journal, himself included, craft a thematic portfolio as a tactic to entice the journal into accepting their collected work. What tactic would you say you see in submitting a diverse collection of work as you did, those being “25 Statutory Witness Fee”, “A Lady Never Wears Panty Hose with Runners.”, and “Driving at Night in the Rain”?
SHM: A tactic that I had never done before: submit very-unlike-each-other poems and see what happens.
I guess it’s not as simple as that. As I mentioned before, I often like to go back to older poems, and two of these were certainly products of that process. Your question, though, has me re-examining them and it seems suddenly as if all I write about is power and lack thereof. People in control becoming victims, and vice versa. (Does anyone really write about anything else?!) I suppose I’m fascinated in the much larger, philosophical question of who (or what) is really in control and what is out of reach of our own manipulation, and that finds its way into so much of my work, often on a concrete, everyday scale. I see that control and victim tension in all three poems.
Quite truthfully, I was surprised Rappahannock accepted the three of them together, but I also think that reflects the willingness of the magazine to accept work that all doesn’t sound the same. I also think it’s kind of fun to read three pieces that can be seen as different from each other from the same poet. Personally, I like to write in various ways and forms, as the spirit moves me, although your question has convinced me that they are more similar than I originally thought.
“A lady/never wears panty/hose with runners”, “$25 Statutory Witness Fee”, and “Driving at Night in the Rain” appear in Rappahannock Review Issue 2.2.
Sarah Hulyk Maxwell lives in Pittsburgh with her two cats and husband. She works at a law firm where her MFA from Louisiana State University is practically worthless, but she’s pretty good-natured about it. Her most recent work can be found in Salamander and Up the Staircase Quarterly and is forthcoming in NANO Fiction and Red Paint Hill.