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Author Q&A: Sarah V. Schweig

Sarah V. Schweig‘s first book Take Nothing with You was published by the Kuhl House Poets series at the University of Iowa Press. She is also the author of the chapbook S (Dancing Girl Press). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in BOMB, Boston Review, The Iowa Review, The Literary Review, Pen Poetry Series, Slice, Tin House, The Volta, West Branch, and elsewhere. Follow her here.

Photograph by Franck Bohbot.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Sarah V. Schweig

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

How would you say your writing career began? Was there a single event or time in your life that was the catalyst, or did your ideas of becoming a poet foment during your time at the University of Virginia and Columbia?

For a long time my writing was an utterly private impulse I had. I used it to make sense of things or escape what felt like inescapable facts. I always liked that, unlike my mother’s painting or my brother’s music, writing required almost no tools or instruments. Almost no contingent loss or misfortune could tamper with the tools I needed.

But I think my “writing career” began when I didn’t mean to be a writer at all. I was starting college and I signed up for an art course that I didn’t end up liking, so, on a lark, I went to another class to fill the spot. This happened to be a poetry writing class taught by Peter Kline at the University of Virginia.

Rather than letting the class write whatever we wanted, Kline said on that first day that he would assign only exercises in the classic forms—sonnets, pantoums, sestinas, villanelles. Through that course I realized that I could be an apprentice to an impossibly difficult craft, that if I was lucky and worked hard, I could earn the right to say I was writing poems, rather than just pouring my soul out.

From this class, and then the poetry program run by Lisa Russ Spaar at UVA, I started to realize that poems have this ability to live self-sufficiently in the world. Poems aren’t sheer self-expression. They are these incredibly intricate systems that tap into universals to beautifully unfold for the reader, like a gift.

I became much more combative with my own work. It wasn’t just about making sense of things anymore, but being able to also give something away.

Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? In what ways has your writing evolved throughout your career?

The topics have tended to start with particulars—a particular loss or anxiety—and become more broad and universal. I’m probably not alone in this pattern.

More specifically, some of my earlier, serious poems started with the notion of lovers living in a larger context, like a city. Lovers, I think, because they are us at our most vulnerable, and the city because it’s where our vulnerability is most dangerous, where the outside world is most indifferent to us.

Then, I moved to the iconic city which had been the model of the city of the poems. I spent years squaring the ideal version of a city with its reality.

I fell back on reality, but the reality of the language I found there, delving into the words and colloquial expressions.

Then I became interested in what constitutes a relationship to a larger world, and I got interested in contingency, the absurd, the idea of perfection.

When I’m stuck, I circle back to previous themes, revisiting them in hopes to move them forward.

What/who are your greatest literary influences? Do you have any specific New York literary influences, or just things in Brooklyn that inspire you day to day?

Paul Celan, John Berryman, Dickinson, Tolstoy, T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage.” Heidegger. Nietzsche. The following quote from Kant: “Human reason has this particular fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.”

As for New York City, that’s just become the regular everyday. I still live here, but it doesn’t inspire me the way it used to. Maybe this is true of any city you live in for almost a decade. Now I feel about Naples, Italy the way I once felt about New York, before moving here.

Every successful poem I’ve written has come out of a moment that I was desperate to capture related to someone I care about, or a conversation I had with someone I love. This may not be an influence in a traditional sense, but it appears to be a necessary condition.

Your first collection of poetry Take Nothing With You is due for publication in November of this year. Can you describe the creative process or routine that you undertook to prepare the piece for publishing?

When I first got to Columbia in 2007, a lot of people were already planning their first books. I was surprised, since I thought a book was something that just happened to you once some divine and perfect force decided you were good enough. Under a kind of pressure to publish that was all around New York, I would assemble manuscripts. But I discovered that what I really loved about this assembling and dismantling was seeing how the poems spoke together, and what argument they suggested.

Then almost a decade passed. I’d assembled and reassembled the book so many times I didn’t know what to do. Thankfully, my editor Emily Wilson helped me sift through over 300 pages of work. Finally we cut it down to what is included in Take Nothing With You. It would not be the book it is without her help.

Take Nothing With You will be published by the University of Iowa Press, as part of the Kuhl House Poets’ series. Can you tell us why you have chosen this particular press? What factors do you look for in approaching different publishers?

During a snowstorm in February of 2015, I was eating a quick dinner in an empty and freezing Mexican restaurant in Bushwick. Around the corner, in the basement of some stranger’s house, I was about to give a reading. I remember this moment so clearly because I was seriously doubting the worth of doing what felt like an indeterminate string of readings for years, and this one seemed like far more trouble than it was worth. Each step on the ice-covered sidewalks felt perilous, and the wind was so bitterly cold, and I’d probably have to end the night paying for a taxi.

But I did go. There were about ten people in attendance, and I already knew about half of them. But one person I didn’t know was one of the other readers, Emily Wilson. After the reading that night, she and I started a conversation about art and poetry that resulted, over a year later, in the publication of this book.

I’d sent out different versions of this manuscript for years. I spent a fortune on contest and reading fees. That said, I was careful to select only the presses that I felt would be appropriate for the work. I did this by reading a lot, and reviewing other books of poems. I ended up with the pipe dream: being a part of the Kuhl House Poets series at the University of Iowa Press. Giving a reading to a nearly empty room ended up being really important.

As this is your debut collection, perhaps you can give us some insight into the difficulties for young writers trying to get themselves established on the literary scene? Are there any top-tips you have for appealing to publishing bodies?

As soon as we try to appeal to publishing bodies with our writing it becomes something other than art, so writers must be careful. One of the powers of poetry is to refute and subvert the threat of becoming a coherent, appealing, digestible brand. The only thing we can do is try to do good work; to do the readings we don’t feel like doing; to write everyday; to put one’s whole heart and mind into it.

It’s also our responsibility as writers to define the literary scene in such a way that it becomes accessible to society. That means, I believe, going beyond referents that are insular. The edges of what constitutes any given “scene” are always shifting, depending on how we are thinking about it. One of the best things that ever happened for my writing was teaching The Sun Also Rises to a classroom full of adults returning to school to get their college degree; another was getting a 9-5 job at a criminal justice think-tank, where I worked for four years.

You have been a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers Workshop in 2010 and won, amongst other accolades, the David Craig Austen Award. Which of your experiences of literary recognition has meant the most to you? How, if at all, has it changed your writing method?

These votes of confidence were, of course, very encouraging and I’m very grateful for them.

But the recognition that’s really meant the most (and been a necessary part of my development) was the necessary precursor to these accolades—the recognition of my family and friends. If these people had told me I was absolutely crazy (they may very well still think this, but they never told me), none of the other recognitions would have been possible. I probably wouldn’t have ever tried to get my writing published.

There were a lot of failures, too — but I try not to mention those in my bio.

From Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things to Heidegger on Rilke and Hölderlin, poetry has long had a strong connection with philosophy. How do you understand the relation between the two? Is there a point where philosophy stops and poetry begins, or is it essential to combine the two, however difficult?

At a certain point a few years ago, I realized that I could not write another word without understanding the history of thought. This came at a point when all my poems seemed to be about the same things—loss, abandonment, dissolution of family, dissolution of ideality. I started feeling deeply skeptical of every phrase I wrote. I started reading Wittgenstein instead of Keats. I wondered about the ethics of using metaphor. I wondered whether crafting an image was, in fact, arbitrarily changing the subject. I realized that if I ever wanted to get out of this, I would have to study philosophy.

Maybe I can try answer this question—which is at the heart of my writing and thinking right now—with an anecdote. When I was in a workshop run by Marie Howe, I was very nervous to turn in the first poem of the semester. I turned in a poem that sounded perfectly like a poem. The images were in place, the particulars giving way to vast emotional claims. There was the line: “Love is a gorgeous shipwreck” (I’m embarrassed to admit). When I read that out loud, Howe said, “No it isn’t.” And I thought, yes, she’s right.

Western philosophy is founded on dialogues. (It is in dialogues that Plato claims that the poets must be banished from the ideal city.) Poetry should be subjected to the same level of scrutiny involved in philosophical argument. Of course we cannot assess poetry based on logical arguments but we must be able to see a poem’s inner logic. Even the most absurd poem will, when successful, have some structure that lets it stand. Perhaps it’s not fashionable to believe that the real concern of art is truth, but I think I still believe that.

I’m not a philosopher—I wish I had the patience and stamina. And I hate to sound like I instrumentalize philosophy for the sake of poetry, or recede to poetry when I become bored with philosophy (though that might be true). I just couldn’t see the necessity of doing philosophy without coming to a particular lack in my own poetry. I couldn’t fall back on poetry without coming to a particular lack I feel in philosophy.

How important for you is the revision and editing of poems? Do you think about the themes and structure a lot before setting pen to paper, or write in a flurry to which you’ll perhaps return to and amend later?

I don’t intentionally think a lot about themes or structure beforehand. This risks crushing the spontaneity and play of art. In this rapidly accelerating world, art is one thing that can and must take time. Sometimes a poem will come out spontaneously and won’t change. Other times, a poem takes a tremendous amount of work. I’ve had everything happen.

I think Gadamer gets it right that “the decisive thing is not the emergence of a product, but the fact that the product has a special nature of its own. It ‘intends’ something, and yet it is not what it intends…. [T]he work of art refuses to be used in any way.”

Can you give us an indication of what your next project might be? What areas do you think you’d like to explore poetically?

Because I spent so many years writing poems with no thought about where they’d end up, I have hundreds of them—some ended up coming together into another manuscript, which I’m now tweaking in hopes for the future.

I’m also working on a novel. But I’m always working on a novel, only to find it’s collapsed by its own weight. This is perhaps the eternal struggle of the short-form writer. Even though I’ve said this before, so I’m skeptical as soon as the words leave my fingers, “I have a really good feeling about this one.”

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