Sonya Vatomsky and Sarah B. Boyle
Charting the Body: Sonya Vatomsky and Sarah B. Boyle in Conversation
Sonya: Hi, Sarah. Hi, Menacing Hedge.
Sarah: Hi, Sonya! And hi to everyone reading!
Sonya: We've both recently had chapbooks published by Porkbelly Press—What's pink & shiny / what's dark & hard (you) and My Heart in Aspic (me). These titles go rather well together, and I absolutely adore your poetry. It's a particular pleasure for me to be doing this interview with you, as you were actually the first person I interacted with when I crawled out of my hole and started trying to publish my poetry last fall. So. Let's begin, shall we?
Sarah: Oh, god! I can't believe how much you have written and published since that essay series on rape and alt lit! I was thinking about how our poems talk to one another, too, particularly how we're both cooking with fire. Here's you, in "Dame à la Capuche": "Here in the trenches we cook with tears over fires of our own making/here we burn eyelashes for coal." And here's me, in "Morning after": "I/strike a match/Fingers close to the flame/I cook on this fire I make." We both are interested in what we can make of the shitty things that life has delivered to us. You, however, do a much better job of actually cooking things, which is something I wish I could write better about. I love food writing. I love cooking. I love baking. On our best weeks, we eat homemade soup with homemade sourdough bread for dinner and the kids eat homemade granola bars for treat. But for the life of me, I can't figure out how to write about any of that food. You, obviously, have no such problem. My Heart in Aspic really is a book about food and love and the magic alchemy that fuels them both. Your poems make blueberries into survival food—"legs scratched up bloody & nothing but blueberries to eat for months"—contain fresh dill that is "the forest you bury him in," and suggest "paprika, to repel a shadow's stale breath." How much cooking do you do in your real life (as if poems aren't real life)? Is food one of your writerly obsessions, one of those things you just can't let go of?
Sonya: I cook a lot. A lot a lot. Both for nourishment (obvi) and because it helps with my depression—I can get really in my head, you know, and the physicality of handling meat and chopping vegetables and adding herbs tethers me to my body in a very necessary way. As for whether it's a writerly obsession . . . I don't know yet. My full-length collection, Salt is for Curing, is actually structured like a five-course dinner, and I just wrote a collaborative poem about borscht with fellow Russian poet witch Gala Mukomolova, so it's definitely still on my menu, so to speak, but I have no idea whether it will stay or rotate out. For the moment, it's definitely my thing. What would you say your "thing" is, and how do you feel about that? Is it a thing you would have chosen for yourself, or did it come unbidden?
Sarah: I love that borscht poem, by the way. My thing is definitely my body. And I can't say that I exactly chose this topic, either. I know it often puts me on the far edge of what people are comfortable with—especially because when I say my body, I mean my lived experience in this body not some eroticized and soft-focus sex doll incarnation of myself. And that's pretty much why I can't get away from the topic. I walk around in my topic every day.
I've written about having sex and not having sex. I've written about my miscarriage—in fact, the poem that came out of that miscarriage was my first reentry into writing after climbing out of the postpartum hole, and it was published right here at Menacing Hedge. The poems in What's pink & shiny/what's dark & hard revolve around abortion. Unsurprisingly, it was really hard to find good homes for many of these poems. I can't tell you how many times "September, That Year" was rejected before it got picked up by Cheat River Review. (And then they nominated it for Best New Poets!) I suspect that part of why that poem was rejected one billion times has to do with its frank description of a medical abortion. And—surprise! —people really don't want to confront anything about abortion. Ever. Especially not when you talk about blood, pills, and Planned Parenthood maybe having to clean out your insides. (Thank you, Planned Parenthood, forever and ever amen.) I know you've talked about how your favorite poems are the ones that have had the most rejections, too. Which of your poems has been the most rejected? What about those poems do you suspect pushed editors out of their comfort zones?
Sonya: I just pulled up the spreadsheet where I keep all my submissions organized and my most-rejected poems are about alcohol dependency/mental illness, what sex looks like right after trauma, and how some people only started taking my ptsd seriously after I fainted from it, respectively. So. Yeah. Those poems all ended up being accepted by explicitly feminist publications. Though the first one (which is my most-rejected poem thus far!) is also kind of about a Russian salad the name of which translates to "herring under a fur coat"—so maybe what really pushes editors out of their comfort zones is layers of potato and mayonnaise and beet and mayonnaise and, finally, herring; who knows.
Your book has such a physicality to it. The spacing-as-syntax, the words on the page and then the rat-tat-tat of an inner rhythm as you read: "I neuter you at night I make that meat / coupler between your thighs a downy patch / a ken doll crotch covered with a crosshatch / of pretty pink scars Then I watch the beat beat / of your heart in your concave ribs in the heat / that hangs thick in the air Beads of sweat hatch / from your protruding ribs pool and catch in your body's hollows". It's like an incantation. It took significant effort to end the quote, to find the line where I sever it and leave an excerpt rather than a full poem. This is what good poetry is to me, when so much else is this constant uphill battle on a bicycle, pushing the pedals past every word. I don't know. My attention span is very poor.
Sarah: I love that you quoted those lines from "Chapter 10: Dream"! I wrote the first draft of that poem in my sophomore year poetry class, Poetic Forms I. The poem has come a significantly long way since then. In college, I took four semesters of Poetic Forms with Greg Williamson, a seriously crackerjack formalist. And though I'm not the formalist I once was, all those rhythms and meters and rhyme schemes, which began pretty much here in this exact poem, still steer my language choices.
Sonya: My favorite poem of yours, though, is one that's not in this chapbook. It's one you sent me that's half in pidgin Old English, and I looooooooved it, but you, um, had some concerns about whether anyone else would love it. Sometimes the Venn diagram for x and y and a center of "people who will like this poem" seems kind of sad, like the poetry equivalent of when you've got an amazing joke but literally one person will get it besides you and then what is the quantifiable value of that or of anything etc? All of this to say: it sometimes feels like if there's any "barrier to entry" in literary work by women or other marginalized groups, everyone just gives up. Like, there's people who see a word or concept they don't know and excitedly grab a dictionary, and then everyone else is just like fuuuuck this and closes the tab. How do you feel about these so-called "barriers" in your writing? Is it ever appealing—like, you're able to both share something and sort of keep it secret because it's not immediately comprehensible? Do you like that your work is the most revealing to people who are, so to speak, up for the reveal?
Sarah: Yes! Barriers! I'm a poet who loves her OED, which ranks as about the best birthday present EVER, which leads to some high barriers sometimes. And I still have some concerns about who will like my pidgin Old English long poem about a wolf-god and an ifrit. I don't know what to do about that except keep writing what I want to—I can't control the audience so I won't try.
As a teacher in search of a job (I have an interview tomorrow!), I do value barriers between my content and at least part of my audience. I don't think I have ever written for a "general audience," which it's now clear to me is white, middle-class, and comfortable with the patriarchy. I definitely write for women. Maybe that is why I like the barriers. Because I know many women will recognize my body filtered through the Old English, or through folktales, or through the spacing and meter—the reveal is waiting for them. And I don't have to worry if other people are going to cotton onto my politics because even if I were more explicit, they still wouldn't get it. Honestly, What's pink & shiny baffles a lot of people I know, and it is (often) quite explicit in its content.
And now I want to go back to the idea of pushing a bicycle up a hill, because one of the things I love best about your poems is how each one makes it way ever faster and more clearly towards its end. Which is to say, by the time I get to the end of a poem, I both had no idea what was coming and know that it couldn't have ended any other way. "Moon Cycle" ends so beautifully—with a perfect pun. After you set up that "Liars look up/and left," you end the poem with "until left was where I was/I was the lie, was left." So much happens so fast in that poem and all of it is spot on I know it's logically sound and I could unpack it, piece by piece, but I don't want to. My sleeping brain feels it's true, so there's no need for my conscious brain to do the work. The fact that you can make those endings happen after a half hour of concentrated writing is amazing to me. Seriously, "Chapter 10: Dream" isn't just a poem from a dozen years ago, I've been revising it for a dozen years. (Granted, that's an outlier even for me.) What is the creative process like for you? I know it's significantly different than my own grueling process of revision and fiddling and revision and stewing and relineating ad infinitum.
Sonya: I keep hearing that the writing-poems-in-thirty-minutes thing is weird but honestly I don't know how to write any other way! It's baffling to me that some people spend hours. Hours! On a few tiny paragraphs. I think ultimately those kinds of poets and I are crafting pretty different things—I'm two minutes of screaming over a faint guitar and they're an elaborate progressive rock track.
Sarah: I do have quite an affinity for prog. Srsly, can never get enough. Also, orchestral pop. And concept albums. No matter how many times I listen to it, I can't get over how Of Montreal's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
Sonya: I identify a lot with PJ Harvey—especially her earlier work. With talent and intelligence being overpowered by a raw velocity. There's this Manic Street Preachers song that opens with a J.G. Ballard quote—"I wanted to / rub the human face in its own vomit / and then force it to look in the mirror"—and that's basically what I'm trying to do. Except with my vomit. In a nice way.
That's also why I'm so into Shannon Perry, my tattoo artist here in Seattle and the cover artist for My Heart in Aspic. Her technical skill is ridiculous, but she's got this kind of shit aesthetic (I mean that in the best way) that sublimates her work into a completely inimitable thing. I don't know. Jenny Zhang has this essay I love on sadness and ugliness and poetry (that someone on Facebook literally unfriended me for posting) where she says, "I sincerely don't know why poetry can be mortifying but tattoos can be cool." Which, yes. Exactly this. To me the best tattoos and the best poetry are utterly mortifying, and that's what makes them cool. I like the unabashed crystallization of something that was meant to be transient. And I want my poems to read like that—to read like you're being transported to the moment where I'm just rocking myself back and forth with pain or love or whatever. "Moon Cycle" I actually can't look at anymore because it makes me a little nauseous.
Do you have poems like that in your collection? Or does spending a longer time with them kind of dull the nausea, or create more closure? I also want to talk about your cover art! I know Nicci (Mechler, of Porkbelly Press) shot the cover herself, but what was the inspiration behind it?
Sarah: Yeah, not a single poem in my chapbook nauseates or mortifies me, at least not anymore. I have long lived with these poems—and I love them! —but they are so far removed from my personal history because of the time spent in their crafting. I was just talking about the idea of catharsis with a non-poet friend. She wondered whether sitting for long periods with my painful past was, well, painful. And I suppose it is—sometimes I even put on Volcano Choir or, if I'm feeling super masochistic, Sarah McLachlan's Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (also a perfect album) while I write—but when I'm really writing well, I enter some kind of fugue state that obscures how long I'm actually sitting inside my pain/my brain. And then, when I'm done, I walk away from my desk and jump right back into my everyday life. This all sounds really cold, like I'm a cold and calculating poet. But I'm pretty sure the poems do affect people who aren't me. I hear that harsh intake of breath, the occasional "goddamn" muttered under the breath, when I read them aloud, so even though I've revised my own emotions away, I know the emotion remains in the poems themselves.
And oh, my cover. My cover is so great. Nicci picked peonies out of her own garden but failed to get them into water soon enough. And what else should she do with slightly rotting flowers but plop them right onto her scanner bed and turn them into my cover? I love them because they are pink and dark and call to mind the rotting flowers of "September, That Year": "The calm of fixing/with each layer of glue/petal to page. One day to fix the final dead petal/hold every bud/bound/beneath the mucilage."
I think the two of us could write this interview pretty much endlessly for the next 60 years. So, let's end with this question: What do you want to write about next?
Sonya: Oh, wow. Well. I'm working on more deliberately discussing mental illness. And gender. I'm nonbinary, which isn't something I mention publicly, really, and I want to be better about that. This September I turn 30, and I've been saving up vacation days for forever so I could rent a little apartment in Paris for three weeks and just write. I'm trying to allow myself a sort of fallow state until then—poetry-wise, at least. And then I'll write whatever comes. Probably about mental illness, though. I'm reading Kate Zambreno's Heroines right now, which deals a lot with the intersection of mental illness and writing/literature, and it's just great. It resonates so much: "The idea that one must control oneself and stop being so FULL of self remains a dominating theory around mental illness, and, perhaps tellingly, around other patriarchal narratives, including the ones governing and disciplining literature." It's still such a taboo topic for women and gender non-conforming writers, which makes me nervous, but then I think about how much clarity and guidance and belonging I've gained from the art of people willing to risk that and think, yeah, it's worth it. So more "dark" stuff, probably—sorry, mom.
Before I ask you the same question—what comes next? —I want to say thank you to you for this conversation, and being generally wonderful and challenging and inspiring, and to Kelly Boyker and the rest of Menacing Hedge, who have been so supportive of my work and the work of others I really, truly admire. So. Yeah. Thank you. What's next?
Sarah: Next for me is the slow journey of writing what I think is a full-length manuscript of long poems, each about a different woman fighting a different battle in a different universe. This is the bigger project that Margaux and her Old English wolf-god belong to. I've also got a dystopic western in the works for this book, too—a poem that is sure proof that my brain has gone round the bend but it's just so much fun to write! And then, more generally, the future looks like trying different ways to write. I have a tendency to think a lot, revise a lot, consult many reference materials, and just generally take forever to finish a poem. I'm trying to learn how to write silly or fast or nonrecombinated confessional—anything to diversify my methods.
And now we arrive at the end, and I say back to you: thank you. Thank you forever. If I had to do this past year over again without knowing you, it would just suck. Your vacation sounds perfect, and probably every writer reading this is now wildly jealous. And lastly, thanks to Kelly and Menacing Hedge, too, for giving us this space to geek out.