“I wanted a bigger I.” In conversation with Sara Quinn Rivara
I encountered Sara Quinn Rivara’s chapbook, Lake Effect (Aldrich Press) while reading books for the LNL Debut-litzer, and I was anxious for a conversation with the poet herself. I was most captivated by Sara’s language, the way she writes about personal subjects without sounding confessional. The Midwest landscapes in her poems were at once familiar to me, having grown up there myself. Yet the natural world of Sara’s Midwest is also re-imagined as a dark, somewhat mythical place, where her own reality as a mother and a wife to an abusive husband grows so unrecognizable, it hardly seems real any longer.
The opening poem, “A White Dress is Toxic, Much like Acid Rain,” begins by quoting Lynn Emanuel’s “Like, God,” “…you did not choose to be in the story of the woman with the white dress which was as cool and evil as a glass of radioactive milk.”
Sara’s poem responds directly, “Except that I did.”
JADA PIERCE: In looking back at Emanuel’s poem and thinking about this first piece as a frame of sorts for the other poems in your book, it brings me to a large, over-arching question/observation that many of the poems bring up about the complex relational roles between victims and aggressors, prisoners and their captors, men and women, parents and children, even more casual sexual partners. Many of the poems seem to be puzzling over the way we might fall into certain roles, just as your imagery fits pieces of the regional landscape and natural world into memory, but then you flip all expectations. “Last Date with Narcissus” is a more overt example of this, but even in the darker poems like “Love Charm,” “Tree of Heaven,” and “Family Vacation”, and in your treatment of Persephone and Penelope, there is a subtle questioning of accountability. In no way am I suggesting that you “blame the victim” in your poems (or yourself in the more personal pieces), but would you be able to talk about how/if the poems explore the way we might come to see ourselves like characters in the myths of our own lives, and in doing so, fulfill roles that might otherwise be unimaginable to us, for better or worse.
SARA QUINN RIVARA: The question of how responsible we are for our lives is central, I think, to the kind of performance art many women are forced to perform in our lives. How does a woman balance being a person and also a woman (which is to say, an object)? How did I end up married in my early twenties to a man I knew wasn’t right for me, how much was I responsible for that hell? How is it that I alternately want to be beautiful or thin or sexual, and also hate the ways that can define me as woman entirely? What story could I tell that would explain how difficult and complex all of those decisions and events were, what stories could I find that would make sense of my life?
As humans, stories are what we tell to make sense of the world, of what happens in our lives, of how our experiences measure up and mean something. The story I, and I suspect a lot of American girls (and in my case, white, suburban American girls raised on Disney and traditional heterosexual gender roles) is that up to a certain point, we are people—we should try hard in school, we should develop our intellect, we should get good grades and be nice and obey our parents. But quickly, we also learn that our real worth is this other thing, this female thing, this thing beyond our control—that we are pretty. That we are sexually attractive to men. That we will be saved only by marriage and a kind of capitulation of self.
I began writing the poems in this collection mostly after my divorce—the summer I turned thirty and lived alone for the first time in my life. Oh, of course I’d been writing before then. In fact, “Tree of Heaven” and a few others not in this collection had been published by various literary journals. I had my MFA. I was teaching and tenured. But I kept wrestling with the fact that I couldn’t reconcile feeling both like a victim and like I’d chosen my life. And both were true. And I felt like I was crazy. I had no idea which end was up; was I really the whore who followed Hades down the ravine or was I taken against my will? Both. The story of Persephone became increasingly interesting to me because she is both willing and trapped, because a choice she made as a young woman (was it a choice? wasn’t she dazzled by that man on the chariot?) also roped her into an existence in the otherworld. I’ve also been interested in the inverse arc of Persephone’s coming of age story—unlike the hero’s journey, where he goes out into the world to find himself, Persephone must descend into hell in order to become herself.
I also wanted to explore, too, the ways in which ‘love’ and sex and unbalanced relationships weren’t isolated from the world, but rather could be seen as magnified, extreme versions of a more conventional, ‘happy ending’ story. Persephone is swept off her feet, almost literally, by a king. She leaves her world for his. Of course, his world is hell, which changes things. But, in every princess story, we have the same storyline. Young ingénue swept off her feet by more knowledgeable, sexually dominant prince. The happy ending is marriage, is ending her life as a person and becoming Wife, Mother, princess.
And Penelope–that story has always bothered me. Why the hell did Odysseus think she’d be happy to see him? That he owned her still, after all those years? All those years she kept the suitors away, perhaps not out of loyalty, but because without them, without her husband, she could be herself.
You know, I write from a very specific point of view: I’m white, I’m a woman, I grew up in the fancy suburbs of Chicago, I have blue collar roots, but grew up very comfortably. I went to a good school. My “I” is hardly universal, but I spent an awful lot of time believing that because it was so particular it wasn’t important. I grew up in Chicago, went to college, and then detoured; fell down the ravine into poverty, into anti-feminism, into a place where pornography and racism and drugs and being referred to as “my woman” were normal. Where our neighbors burned a swastika in the street one summer evening, where I believed I was making up what was happening to me. If I only wanted less, I would have been okay. If I only could be a good wife, I could survive. I did not speak up when people around me were hateful, used racial epithets, hit their girlfriends. Told me I was a whore. I was scared, yes; but I was also a college professor, a writer, a self-proclaimed feminist. I was scared and ashamed of my temerity. I wanted to be Walt Whitman and thought I was a failure because I couldn’t be; I wanted a bigger I and felt shameful that my I was so small.
None of it had to do with being a person.
Of course the victim is to blame. Of course she isn’t. Of course the road to that place was pot-holed, rocky, overrun with weeds.
JP: Okay, I think that was the most difficult question of the interview. I want to say that I really appreciate the way you write about sex and desire (and lack-thereof… “Drought 1 & 2,” etc.), especially as someone who was reared in the Bible Belt. I found “Bible Study” to be oddly refreshing: the honesty of the “tampon flung on the sand” and the final proclamation that “I, small girl, got laid,” make the poem feel dirty and celebratory. I think the landscape in poems like “Bible Study,” “Last Date with Narcissus,” “Lake House,” “South Haven,” “Drought 1,” “House Full of Bees,” and “Drought 2” is imbued with this sexual longing. Maybe you could talk just a bit about the metaphorical (and sexual?) way you explore landscape in your poems.
SQR: The natural world has always been where I have been drawn–the Great Lakes, an open field, the beech-maple forests of the lower Great Lakes. The natural world was where I felt most whole. I’ve been drawn to the natural world as an expressive tool since graduate school, probably before. I love the language of nature, its particular names, its connection with the human, animal body. “South Haven” began with the place itself–a lake town on the Michigan side of Lake Michigan where I would often drive, walk out onto the pier and its red lighthouse, watch the waves and the great grey water stretch out around me. And the lake offers a vocabulary that I consumed, a kind of wilderness that is at its heart sexual and sensual, wild and dangerous.
That poem felt like claiming—not only of words, but of self. I wanted the speaker to claim a sexuality that was tied NOT to the other, to Hades who “clomps around the basement like an oaf” but to the wild elements. Women, good girls, aren’t supposed to be wild. On a personal note, I was writing out of a place where I had been alternately accused of being frigid and of being a whore (or sometimes, a “frigid whore”—which I’ve always figured is one of my apparent superhero powers). I wanted a speaker whose body, whose desires, were HERS. And the landscape—of South haven, of Mackinac Island, of the dark woods and a black pond–that’s where the witch lives in fairy tales. The wilderness, the wild power of the world: that’s where I wanted to put my speaker even though it’s terrifying.
JP: In general, can you talk about your approach to writing about sex and sexual desire as a woman, a single parent at that?
SQR: Writing about sexuality and desire as a single mother was also a dangerous concept. My son was one-and-a-half when I left his father, two when we divorced. We were inseparable, and in many ways being pregnant and giving birth gave me my body for the first time in my life—I wasn’t starving myself, I wasn’t concerned about whether my body was acceptable to the world around me. And in those years when I was single and raising my son, I began to tentatively date and experience myself as a sexual being who had the right to her sexuality. I wanted the speaker in my poems—who was at once Persephone and Penelope and me and someone else entirely—to tread there. For most of the writing of this book, I felt like I was finally able to stop keeping secrets. I think women are trained to be nice, to be appropriate, to be circumspect. To not be angry or unpretty, or sexual or wild. We should not be feral. We are good domestic animals. But Jesus, giving birth reminded me that we are all feral at heart. That we are animal, wild, broken.
And being a parent, particularly a single parent with a very difficult custody situation with a still-angry, still-terrifying ex has shaped what I write. I know that now, with my son being away from me for two months, in Michigan with his father, I am being forced to write without that identity. And no longer being a single parent, but now a married step-parent and parent? I’m not sure where that will take me.
JP: Who are your influences…writers or other artists?
SQR: Diane Seuss, with whom I studied as an undergraduate, was and is the poet I wish I could be, because there is a wilderness in her writing. A willingness to be present in the ordinary and the weirdness of the animal experience. Brigit Pegeen Kelly. Sylvia Plath. Eleanor Wilner. Robinson Jeffers. Lucille Clifton. A million others—I read fiction voraciously, read aloud to my son every night. And I read field guides and geological surveys and religious texts voraciously. I want to know the names of things, desperately. And finally, I think one of the biggest influences in my writing, particularly of this first chapbook, was my discovery of the blogs of other women—women writing about their ordinary, difficult lives candidly, without apology, without whitewashing. That was huge—that these lives were being given importance. I feel like I am desperate to name the world.
JP: Maybe the questions get easier as I go along here. This is a question about your use of language. Your use of verbs like “scaffolded,” “whipstitch,” “taxidermied,” etc., along with the unexpected, “ursine,” or naming of regional plants and animals, really sets your writing apart for me. I believe it’s actually the relationship between your imagery and the urgency of the language that creates the worlds within your poems. Could you talk a bit about your writing process: how do you arrive at this language? Drafting, editing, etc.
SQR: I love words, I love the tactile and musical quality of language. I am also fascinated by the ways that language fails us. That failure of language, to adequately express the largeness of the world, is what drives poetry. It is what makes imagery, metaphor crucial—because metaphor and expressive imagery point toward what we don’t know, what we can’t know fully. For example, and I’ve told this story to students forever, I grew up in a family of musicians. I’m a singer, two of my sisters are instrumentalists, and my other sister is profoundly deaf. How could I answer my Deaf sister when she asked what it sounded like when my clarinetist sister played the clarinet? If you are hearing, I can maybe explain that a clarinet has a clear sound, reedy, medium pitch. But if you don’t have the reference for sound at all? Does it make music or the clarinet any less real? Maybe I can say that it sounds like a moving body of water looks. Like a mountain creek on a sunny day. That’s pretty cheesy, I know.
Process-wise, I am often driven by music. I know I can make something SOUND like a poem, whether or not it means anything is often a matter of debate. I draft by hand, most of the time. Scraps, paragraphs, a rush of things. I try to name things as specifically as I can, make the image as compressed and fat as possible. I want images like ripe figs, heavy and fat and sometimes burst on the ground. Someone told me in grad school that he typed out every revision of every poem from the beginning, and I’ve tried to do that, both by hand and once it gets to the computer. I leave poems alone for a long time too—often this is necessary and not intentional. I have a short attention span. I avoid writing a lot of the time. I am enamored by a poem then I hate it to death—what an idiot I am! What pedantry! Etcetera.
JP: Finally, a couple of more personal questions: As a mother and teacher myself, I wonder how poetry and your writing life fit into your other roles and responsibilities.You obviously write about your role as a mother and write poems for or about your son.
SQR: I should say that I’m no longer a single mother, or a teacher (here’s the short version of a very long and dramatic story). In October 2013, I eloped with my husband, Rob, and the next day I went to trial to gain the ability to move from Kalamazoo to Portland, Oregon with my son. These days, I’m living in Portland and working as a dean, which has its own challenges (the evil empire!). But, for the first eight years of my son’s life, I was a single mother, a full-time English instructor, a part-time classical singer. I was the primary parent, though his father and I shared custody. But I was the one who went to school events, arranged viola lessons and art lessons and Little League and all that.
It’s not easy to find the time to write when you have children. But my son is the reason I was able to leave the hell I had been living in for ten years at that point. While I had felt hugely guilty for being selfish enough to be unhappy before he was born, I realized that I would never forgive myself if he was brought up in that life. And I’m very lucky in that he’s pretty good at keeping himself occupied, and that I have learned to write anywhere, anytime. When my students were doing in-class writing (a number of the poems in Lake Effect actually began with prompts I’d given my composition and creative writing students). After my son had gone to bed. In the thin pre-dawn hours at my dining room table, watching the sun come up over the reservoir woods.
Teaching was and continues to be hugely important to my writing life. I love teaching, though it’s exhausting and sometimes all-consuming (it’s hard to write when there’s a stack of eleventy million composition essays to grade). But it always felt like I was getting away with the best scam ever: that I got to spend my days talking about the things I loved the most, and got the privilege of reading my students’ works, seeing that window into their lives, their selves. I’m not teaching now, which is weird and probably not sustainable, but it’s also good to get a break from the deluge of student papers and have more time to focus on my own work, on where I want to go as a writer. And it’s good to have the opportunity to support faculty—I’ve got an awesome faculty here at MHCC—and be the kind of dean I always needed, someone to stand in my corner. In many ways I’m a lamb in wolf’s clothing here.
JP: So do you consciously sit down to write a poem for or about your son, or is it more of an unconscious “decision?”
SQR: I don’t think I consciously sat down to write a poem about motherhood, but it was a defining feature of the way I saw the world, and it was inevitable that it would find its way into my poetry. I have found myself writing a lot more about motherhood these days, more consciously. Part of this is because I feel the need to push back, as a lot of women are doing more and more, against the conventional tropes of motherhood and writing about children—it’s hard. It cleaves a person, to be a parent. It is further rending when you have to let your child go with a parent you don’t trust.
JP:And I have to ask, is that you as a young girl on the front cover of your book? If not, who?
SQR: The picture is me. Probably around nine or ten, and I remember the recital. We were Spring, dancing to Vivaldi’s four seasons. I knocked over a giant wooden tree in the performance. My editor had originally suggested a more placid lake photograph—not Lake Michigan, but an inland lake (I’ve learned since moving West that people who haven’t seen the Great Lakes can’t really imagine them at all). My husband saw this picture, which my aunt had found and I’d posted to Facebook, and suggested it would make a great cover for the book. It embodies, I think, the kind of kept anger and weird relationship with self and sexuality that are in the poems. I so desperately wanted to be a ballerina when I was nine—it was what every girl was supposed to aspire to be. And yet, once you put me in that pink leotard and blue eyeshadow, I also felt like an imposter, a caged thing.
SARA QUINN RIVARA was born and raised in the Midwest, but now lives in Portland, Oregon where she is dean of the humanities division at Mt. Hood Community College. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blackbird, 32 Poems Magazine, Cream City Review, The Cortland Review, Bluestem and elsewhere. She has written about feminism and relationship trauma at Her Kind. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College. Lake Effect is her first chapbook.
JADA PIERCE has taught English and Humanities at the secondary and collegiate levels for the past fourteen years. She earned an M.F.A. in poetry at the University of Oregon, spent many years playing rock-n-roll, and now rears two young’ins in Portland, Oregon.