INTERVIEW WITH SARAH SWINFORD
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We love the form and voice in “Landflucht,” with its controlled couplets and tension between the Auf Wiedersehens and the final goodbye coming after the caesura in the final line. Can you tell us how you approach form when you’re writing a poem?
Sarah Swinford: Thank you! Form is something I’ve been experimenting with recently. Originally, this poem was a few messy paragraphs with a single couplet as the penultimate stanza. The poem has changed so much since its first draft in 2019! Here, the couplets accentuate the dualities of space, language, and time. “Landflucht” has a tension between this beautiful yet haunting European countryside and the speaker’s desire for acceptance and belonging.
Other poems of mine start off as blocks of free verse and end as lines and words scattered across a page. The form often depends on the subject and tone of my poems. If I were to write a lyric poem about clear skies or a body of water, I might use white space more than I would with a narrative poem.
As for the caesura, I wanted to emphasize the bitterness and the finality of that last goodbye. I was really into slam poetry when I lived in Germany and so I try to place pauses (in this case a caesura) whenever needed.
RR: We read in your bio that you grew up in Northern Germany and later moved to the United States. In what ways does “Landflucht” relate to your personal feelings about the meaning of home?
SS: I actually moved to Germany when I was nine and returned to the states for my senior year of high school. Houston always felt like my hometown, but Celle, the city where I lived in Germany, became a second home and the source of so many childhood memories and lessons. “Landflucht” is a poem I wrote to say goodbye to the place I grew up. I’ve come up with so many “what ifs” and used to think that in some alternative existence, I could have moved into this old, bucolic, half-timbered farmhouse in Germany and spent the rest of my life there. In “Landflucht,” there is an attempt to banish that thought from my mind.
After living in a place for eight years, you have to ask yourself whether you should make that place your home or not. I was enamored with the English language as a teenager (and still am). Being immersed in a local school and community where English wasn’t the primary language was difficult. I spoke German fluently, but my mastery of German grammar and spelling was another story. So much of my identity was wrapped in my writing and I felt as if I would never reach my “full potential” (whatever that might be) unless I moved back to an English-speaking country. The lines, “I will remember the stories, / pages flying into brown slushes of snow, how the land’s / tongue began to rot in my mouth like mushroom-covered logs,” refer to my feelings regarding the German language and my own relationship with my writing during that time.
RR: What is your brainstorming process when you start working on a new piece?
SS: My brainstorming process honestly depends on whether I start a piece during a workshop or on my own time. When I’m writing for fun, my inspiration usually comes out of nowhere: a moth gnawing at an artificial plant or an old wallet that I hadn’t seen in a while. There is this voice in my head that starts spitting out lyrics and I have to jot them down before I forget them. One time, right before falling asleep, I came up with a line but was too tired to turn on a light or my phone so I whispered, “Hey Siri! Write this in the notes app!”
I usually connect these first images, lines, or prompts with something I’ve experienced or learned about previously. With “Landflucht,” for example, I thought of the urban expansion in Germany during the Industrial Revolution. The term “Landflucht” means “flight from the land” and was used to describe the mass exodus of farmers into the cities. I thought, hey! I can relate to that! and decided to write a poem about it.
RR: Where is your favorite place to write? Are you a morning dove or a night owl?
SS: If I could write anywhere it would be on a picnic blanket in the mountains with a cup of tea, strawberries, and maybe a thesaurus by my side. In reality, my poems are written on an unmade bed next to my cat, Sheba.
I’m a night owl, unfortunately. I worked a few graveyard shifts this past year and realized I want to make the most out of my days whenever possible. I could write all night long every night if I wanted to, but at the end of the day—or night—I miss seeing the sunlight peeking through blinds and being awake with everyone else. Maybe one day, I’ll be writing on a mountain at sunrise, who knows!
RR: What’s next in terms of your writing? Have you started planning any upcoming projects?
SS: I started working on a collection of poems during the latter half of 2019, but took a break when the pandemic began to shut everything down. I graduated from the University of Houston last year and decided to go to graduate school for teaching immediately after that. Somehow, my focus has shifted back to writing and I’m back to working on my manuscript. I hope to create a collection of poems that explore both a loss of and search for identity and home.
Sarah Swinford’s work in Issue 8.2: