I recently read a new chapbook of poems by a former colleague of mine. I thought the poems were so intelligently constructed, so perceptive that I wanted to introduce them to readers of The Best American Poetry Blog. I decided the best way to do that would be to conduct an interview with the author.
Sarah Kain Gutowski's poems have appeared widely in such places as The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. She is an Associate Professor of English at Suffolk County Community College. She lives on Long Island with her husband and what she describes as "their circus of children and dogs." FABULOUS BEAST The Sow is available from Hyacinth Girl Press. This chapbook is part of a wider collection of poems for which she is currently seeking a publisher.
LE: The book is about a sow that can shift shapes and take the form of a human. (My favorite image is her as the farmer's wife playing at the piano). What special perceptions can you achieve by using a sow as the narrator? How did you come up with the idea of using a sow as the controlling image?
SKG: The sow character developed as a reaction. I didn’t want to write first-person lyric, sometimes-confessional poems anymore. There isn’t anything wrong with first-person lyric/confessional poems – in fact, that describes many of my favorite poems – but I’d been doing that too much. Or rather, I’d done that too much; I wrote the first sow poem after almost two years of relative silence. Occasionally I’d write, but those attempts felt lackluster. I was rehashing the same content with the same forms. I needed a change.
So the sow was my way of coming back to writing. I decided I would write poems about a character, in the third person. I gave myself an assignment; I knew, and know, that inspired writing rarely comes from assignments, but I needed a focus. Also, I stopped worrying about whether or not what I was going to write well. I needed to write, period.
I have a spectacularly terrible memory, and yet I can remember the moment I conceived the sow image, which tells me that even if no one else were to identify with these poems, this character was the right one for me: It was at night, and everyone else in my household was in bed, and I decided to take my notebook out on the deck, and sit in the dark, and actually think about a character. My first thought was to choose an animal – something physically very different from myself – and my next thought was of a pig. And then she was a female pig, and then she was waking up in the dark, and then she was there, outside with me.
I’m not sure about special perceptions, but the sow character allowed me to write at a distance from myself. Or, really, it allowed me to believe I was writing about something other than myself, even though it’s obvious, after reading the collection, that the opposite is true.
LE: The sow is in a sense at everyone's mercy--the farmer who will render her for meat, the boar (now there's a descriptive term) that fathers the brood, and the piglets she must attend to constantly. She’s even at the mercy of her own physical appearance. To what extent do you think this is descriptive of the existential condition of women?
SKG: That’s a good question. If you’re using the term “existential” to mean “pertaining to existence,” I don’t believe that the above description rings true, actually (in that the sow represents the existence of all women). I mean, yes, you’re right -- the sow in all of her different roles is at the mercy of those she serves – that entire list. But the human female is rarely at everyone’s mercy at the same time in the same way that the sow is at everyone’s mercy. Well -- the white, middle-class, female citizen of the United States in the twenty-first century is rarely at everyone’s mercy at the same time in the same way that the sow is at everyone’s mercy. It’s important to make that distinction.
If you’re using the term “existential” by way of the philosophy, existentialism, then yes, I think the term fits. I do believe that we are responsible for ourselves, and to ourselves, and that we are agents of our own existence – and I think the chapbook supports this.
Let’s put it this way: I think it’s important to acknowledge the very real difference between the human and the sow at the end of the collection. Yes, the sow’s story is an analogy for childbirth and the (my) postpartum experience, but at the end of the collection, this fable, we leave the sow after she’s changed into the farmer’s wife, and she’s holding the farmer’s infant son, who woke in the night. There’s a particular freedom in the human experience that she can’t find in the sow’s form, or with any other animal form.
So, ultimately, the sow can’t make choices the way a human female makes choices. Where motherhood is concerned, the human female is subject to her own choices and conflicting desires more than she is victim to (or governed by) any outside oppressive force. (But again – I’m talking about a very particular, contemporary female. I can’t speak very well to the experiences of women in other parts of the world, or of the experience of the female in our own country a hundred or more years ago.)
LE: The symbol of the farmer is interesting. Is it misreading the book to consider the farmer as a God figure? In one sense the act of slaughter fits, but in another the sow snuggles with him as his wife. That doesn't fit with a God figure neatly. Or does it? Who is this farmer?
SKG: I don’t think it’s a misreading to consider the farmer a god figure, but I suppose I was considering the relationship between the farmer and the sow as more symbiotic than the traditional Judeo-Christian God-Human relationship. (Although, to be honest, I don’t feel versed enough in any religion to make that statement definitively or comfortably.) I was striving to recreate that complex dynamic between caregiver and cared-for (the parent-child, the owner-owned, the lover-loved). It’s not a neat fit, no, but I believe it works.
Someone asked me once if the farmer was my husband, as if the sow was a stand-in or symbol representing myself, but that’s too “tidy” of a reading as well. Sometimes, yes, the sow embodies all of my own emotions (or ambivalence) regarding motherhood; at other times, I find the sequence makes clear the very real contrast between the sow’s predicament and the human female’s (my own). So for most of the book, the farmer is just the farmer – but his role on the farm, and in the sow’s life, is complex. He is kind at times, cruel at others, and he carries with him his own struggle with parenthood and the role of caregiver. And he has even less guidance as he navigates through this role than the sow. I don’t see him as tyrannical or despotic or a demon, and he’s missing the confidence and assuredness of a God figure. I have a great deal of sympathy for him, actually.
LE: The book in some sense reads like the sow struggling for an identity as a mother, trying to understand what that means. Do you think the sow finally comes to terms with the strange feelings she has as mother?
SKG: I think she begins to appreciate the role; I’m not sure there’s evidence that she understands it any more than she did at the beginning of the tale. This is, of course, a parallel with my own experience: writing the collection was my way of attempting to understand my conflicting emotions regarding motherhood. In the end, I’m not sure I’ve come any closer to an answer; this chapbook isn’t a decoder ring or an instruction manual, by any means. But through writing these poems, I’ve come to appreciate my role as a mother, which is difficult and inconsistent, and messy in its contrariness, but also weird and wonderful.
LE: What are your writing techniques? How long does it take to finish a poem?
SKG: Reading poetry, reading fiction, reading articles about poetry and fiction and the craft of writing-- and listening to the natural world, and to music -- help me find my way back to writing. My writing habits are not consistent and regular, and that’s largely because of my life right now – I’m the mother to three small children, one of whom is under the age of one, and I’m mid-level in my career (of which writing is, unfortunately, a much smaller part than I’d like to admit).
But as my youngest child grows older and falls into a more regular rhythm of sleeping and waking, and when I’m less embroiled in activities at the college, I’ll use reading as a way to challenge, inspire, and motivate myself to return to the page. At the moment, I’m writing only once in a while. I’m jotting down ideas for poems more than the lines themselves. When I arrive at the point where I can wake up, relatively well rested and in advance of my children, and then write for an hour or two before they rise – that’s when I’ll work on poems again.
As for how long it takes to finish a poem . . . a long, long time. Like, years. And not just because “a poem is never really finished,” an adage many people espouse but really use as a nice and convenient way to compensate for flaws in craft. (I’d rather just say, “Here’s my poem. It’s finished, and sure, it has some flaws, but it’s complete.” We are none of us without flaws, and that makes us interesting. Poems with flaws are interesting, too.)
Lately, first drafts of poems take hours, and that’s because I’ve moved from free verse to writing in meter. I realize that’s kind of backward for a poet, but that’s my path. And writing metrical verse takes intense concentration and, for me, an immense amount of reflection and listening – I have to reread the lines to myself constantly and really listen to them to make sure the music is right. So sometimes I leave my morning writing sessions, the better part of an hour or two hours, with no more than nine lines. And they might not even be good lines. It’s a risk and a challenge, particularly for someone who doesn’t have a lot of writing time at her disposal – but I’m enjoying the challenge, and I find the risk, so far, pays off. I’m learning a lot.
LE: Which poets have had the most influence on you?
SKG: It’s cooler and trendier to disparage the whole MFA program thing and proclaim loud and long about its flaws – but the poets I took classes with at New York University had an immense and lasting influence over me, and I recognize my luck, my sheer luck, in having sat in their craft classes and workshops.
I read Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, and Phil Levine when I was an undergrad at JamesMadisonUniversity, taking creative writing courses with Susan Facknitz. Then years later I was able to actually take classes with Kinnell, Olds, and Levine at NYU. How cool is that? How many people can study with the authors they’ve admired for years? And then there were the poets I was introduced to through the program: Derek Walcott, Philis Levin, Elizabeth Alexander, and Eamon Grennan. All of them -- some more than others, but all of them – left an impression on my writing and my psyche.
Contingent to my teachers are my peers. I continue to admire and be amazed by the work and accomplishments of Adam Penna, Aracelis Girmay, Cynthia Marie Hoffman, Ruth Irupe Sanabria, Adam Day, Stephanos Papadopoulos. My conversations with Adam Penna, in particular, have been incredibly formative. He’s been my sounding board for ideas and drafts of poems for years.
And lately I’m in love with Melissa Green (The Squanicook Eclogues) and Alison Seay (To See The Queen). Gorgeous, gorgeous work that has me thinking about the choices one makes as a writer, and about restraint (in subject matter and form).