CONTRIBUTOR SPOTLIGHT: INTERVIEW WITH
SARAH ANN WINN
The Poetry Editors, Rappahannock Review: How did you decide that the poem would be a cento? Is there something about the form that drew you to it for this particular piece?
Sarah Winn: The image of Holland Island has haunted me ever since I heard a news blurb about it on the radio, and hunted down the full story of this island in the Chesapeake that the Bay reclaimed. The first poem I wrote about Holland Island was not really tonally in keeping with what was so arresting to me about Holland Island’s story. In a workshop, a fellow grad student pointed out that there was so much in the news item that I wasn’t covering emotionally in the somewhat flip poem that I’d written. I had just read Steal Like an Artist during an independent study about the creative process, and one of the homework assignments involved taking a work that I’d struggled with, and revising it using a technique found in the book by collaging. I felt that the act of disassembling itself was true to what had happened to this house, and it might be a way to open up the poem using a route that I would otherwise be unable to access.
RR: How did you go about assembling the poems and lines you wanted to use for this poem? Was it a process you began when the poem was conceived, or was the idea of the poem born from a collection of lines and poems.
Sarah Winn: I decided to use this technique as one of revision, rather than one of creation. The form seems to naturally rely on poetic lineage, so I picked poets whose influence I feel at work in my writing, and skimmed the books of theirs that I’d read most often for lines which seemed to fit with the tone I was trying to convey. As a librarian, I struggled with the idea of using found language and reworking it so that the remnants became something all my own, so one of the constraints I gave myself was that the subject matter not coincide with my imagined poems’ overt metaphor. I stayed away from the many poems written about abandoned houses, and tried to rely on tone and clear image to as I gathered. I typed each line and credit, then cut up the 9-10 pages of strips of quotes, and rearranged them on my desk, rubber cementing them into place as the poem came together. In the end, once the poem was written, I found I had gathered much more material than I needed, but I also found that what was on the page seemed incomplete in a way that I hadn’t said all I wanted to say in that one poem, so I ended up writing an entire sequence from “Cento for the Last House on Holland Island, Fallen into the Bay,” which reflects the grief that was under the surface in the first poem that I wrote about this topic. I was able to view my own feelings more clearly having used this method, which enabled me to take a step away from what I thought I was trying to say and articulate what I felt.
RR: What is your connection to the Chesapeake Bay and the event you discuss in “Cento for the Last House on Holland Island, Fallen into the Bay”?
Sarah Winn: I have lived in Northern Virginia since 1996, and have read a lot about the impact pollutants and overfishing had on the Bay, so it was already a large figure in my imagination. The idea of rising sea levels and sinking land conspiring to swallow a former community was poignant. In a draft of another poem I’m writing about Holland Island, I talk about a man who really did buy the house on the island, which was then merely threatened by the rising sea levels, just to try to save it. This struck me as the kind of thing my grandfather, who raised me, and who has since passed away, would have wanted to do – to try to fight against nature to save something he loved. That’s probably where the root of the poetic sequence is for me, trying to hold onto things which are ephemeral.
RR: You’re currently a student at George Mason University pursuing an MFA in poetry. What advice would you give to a young writer in regards to grad school and writing in general?
Sarah Winn: My experience as a grad student hasn’t been typical, because it took me longer to work my way through the program, and I was the oldest student in the Poetry MFA. Mason seems traditionally to be filled with younger MFA students, and that may not be right for every writer. I had a professional life as a librarian for half the time I was at George Mason, and an active group of friends outside campus, so I had to make some hard choices about participation. My advice to all writers has grown out of this experience. Volunteer your time and energies to support your community of writers. It’s rewarding in many ways. When you feel overwhelmed by opportunities, chose the ones which you believe in. Vote with your time about what matters to you. To young writers, I’d give the same advice I’d give my peers – remember the writing world is very small. A reader on a student journal/Facebook friend today may be the same person you submit work to tomorrow. Cliques may be inevitable in a large enough program, but they are not only immature, they are counterproductive to life after grad school, when nobody is going to come knocking on your door looking for your writing. Be positive, submit often, and don’t be afraid of rejection. Celebrate your successes, and those of the writers in your community.
RR: What are you reading at the moment? Is there an author out there that people are missing?
Sarah Winn: I just had the second-Christmas feeling of opening the first box I had shipped back from AWP, full of books and journals and other fun swag. I’d been saving it til I finished my thesis as a reward. Right on the top was Kristina Marie Darling’s book, Vow, which has me riveted. Her already masterful economy of language combined with her use of white space as a visual stand in for the unsaid/unwritten conveys meaning artfully. There are always authors like this, which make me wonder as I revel in their language How could I not know about this amazing poet? Last year, this question echoed every time I would “discover” a “new” one – from established poets I felt I ought to know, to exciting new work in journals and online – Robyn Schiff, Sandra Beasley. The year before that Mary Ruefle. I highly recommend one of my poetry mentors as well, who is also an amazing educator, and who seems less known here in the east – Judyth Hill. If people don’t know these amazing poets’ work, they should! We’re living in the age of the VIDA count. I love #ReadWomen2014 for the work they’re promoting in the fiction world, but I think it’d be great if there was more list making and spreading the word about the great work being done in the poetry community on behalf of women poets.
Sarah Ann Winn lives in Fairfax Virginia. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Apeiron Review, Avatar Review, Flycatcher, Great Weather for Media, Lunch Ticket, San Pedro River Review, and Vector Press, and 111O, among others. Currently, she teaches poetry in public schools through a Sally Merton Fellowship. Visit her at http://bluebirdwords.com or follow her @blueaisling on Twitter.
Sarah Ann Winn’s work in Issue 1.3: