INTERVIEW WITH SARAH ELKINS
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: “Body English” portrays the internal dialogue of the speaker as she assesses the threat of men in a public space. What influenced you to write this subject, specifically depicting the speaker’s fear of the men around her?
Sarah Elkins: I wrote “Body English” in March after the grocery store shooting in Colorado. At that point, I had only recently started shopping in person after nearly a year of having groceries delivered to my house. In that way, COVID is a silent backdrop in this poem. It’s also worth noting, the George Floyd trial was going on. So, the subject of violence, specifically that perpetrated by men in public, was “up” for me—well, probably for everyone. My anxious thinking was louder than usual on a particular grocery trip after having read the news of the shooting. But, to be honest, this poem is a confession of how my mind always works.
RR: This poem utilizes the couplet form. How do you decide on a poem’s form and how do you think form changes a poem’s impact?
SE: There’s an intimacy in the couplet form, I think. Somehow, it felt right for closing the walls in on myself. It made for a claustrophobic intimacy with this man I was watching so intently. The couplet and the relatively short lines also helped me to slow the pace. I liked, for example, the pause between “do you feel,” and “like killing people today?”
RR: We gravitate towards the poem’s use of imagery of hands and faces. Why did you choose to hone in on certain physical aspects of the body?
SE: As I mentioned earlier, this is how my mind naturally works. I spend a lot of time in fight or flight response. I read people closely, particularly men, to make sure I know what their next move is going to be. Adverse childhood experiences, as they call them these days, rewire a person in this way. It’s exhausting; I’m working on that. Of course, the other backdrop to this poem is that I played rugby for many years. When going in for a tackle, you just learn to watch the hips of the person with the ball. Their hands, where their eyes look, even their feet will lie. If you pay attention to that stuff, you’ll get juked. But Shakira was right, hips don’t lie.
RR: You have taught English and Composition for nearly a decade, from community college to federal prison classrooms. What has been your biggest takeaway during your years of school and career as an English teacher?
SE: I’ve probably made more mistakes than anything. I was only 23 or so when I was teaching at the community college level. I cringe when I think of some of the lofty crap I said in front of classrooms full of people who all knew more than me about life, if not grammar. I guess now my biggest takeaway would be that teaching is a huge responsibility. What we say to students, especially students who believe terrible things about themselves, is important. Say, “You are a good writer.” Say, “You have a voice people want to hear.” Say, “Your perspective is valuable.” Say, “You are powerful.” Say it enough and it becomes true.
RR: We noticed that you are currently working on a manuscript. Can you tell us about that project?
SE: It’s a manuscript about violence and family lineage, about what gets ingrained in the DNA over long histories. I have asked myself what it means to be a white person in these times, what it means to have come from a long line of white people complicit in the world’s worst atrocities. It’s a manuscript about the violence in me, my own bloodlust, and predatory instincts. It’s about the unraveling of that. It’s also about West Virginia, rivers that flood more and more frequently, and my son.
Sarah Elkins’ work in Issue 9.1: