Devil’s Lake


Interview with Sandra Simonds

Q: Your first book, Warsaw Bikini, took us on a rollicking tour of the body, of female sexuality, the seeming chaos of both being reflected in the book’s language. In your new book, Mother Was a Tragic Girl, we see a similar concern with the female body, but with a new element: motherhood. In recent years we’ve seen female poets writing about motherhood in a very unapologetic way. Do you see writing about motherhood as a political act, or simply a natural outgrowth of your poetic process?

… my writing about childbirth or motherhood stems out of my interest in other concerns: the body, biology, cells, science, terrible men, class struggle …

Well, I have this distinct memory of the last part of giving birth to my son Ezekiel. I must have been in the pushing stage of the delivery because my doctor was there and she only came in at the end to attend the actual delivery. Anyway, I remember telling her, in the midst of everything, “I bet there’s a woman right now giving birth in a field,” and she said, “I bet there’s a lot of women doing that.” So, of course giving birth and having children is political because it puts you in relationships you weren’t in before. Becoming a mother as a working class woman almost guarantees that you will lose a significant portion of your income to daycare, school, feeding and clothing your children, etc. But I suppose that I am mostly interested in the way that motherhood and class intersect and there are definitely poets who are mothers whom I feel that I relate to. Anne Boyer, Cathy Wagner, Susana Gardner, Danielle Pafunda immediately come to mind. But I think that my writing about childbirth or motherhood stems out of my interest in other concerns: the body, biology, cells, science, terrible men, class struggle—subjects that I concerned myself with in writing long before I ever got pregnant.

Q: In Mother Was a Tragic Girl, there’s a greater emphasis on landscape, nature, and place than in Warsaw Bikini. How do your environmental concerns surface in your poetry?

I grew up in Los Angeles, but my mom and dad are both really enthusiastic about the outdoors so I spent many weekends and vacations in my childhood camping and hiking in the Sierras. I would say that the rugged landscape that you see when you drive up from Los Angeles through Bishop, passing Mount Whiney on one side of the road and Death Valley on the other, cultivated an idea of “the sublime” or immensity that I strongly associate with poetry. I guess you could say that this is one of the landscapes of my youth. It’s probably for this reason that when I was an undergraduate at UCLA, I was so attracted to Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelly’s poems about nature. One of my favorite poems by Wordsworth is “The Tables Turned” where the speaker tells the young studious boy that he should leave his books and “let nature be [his] teacher.” But my absolute favorite line of that poem is “we murder to dissect.” I like the blend of the “Zen-like” yet didactic quality of this. In one sense, Wordsworth talks about how our overly analytical minds want to destroy. But he uses this word “murder” which can speak, albeit indirectly, about what we do to one another when we destroy our natural world.

You learn to look at the sky as a teacher rather than a blank-blue endless nothing.

I agree with Wordsworth and I believe that nature has something to teach us and that we have to be humble enough to accept its teachings. Take, for example, the Fukushima nuclear disaster. A Japanese poet wrote about a tsunami in 864 in Japan that killed many people. It took a paleontologist to find the poem, to understand the poem, and to see the relevance of the poem to what happened at Fukushima. In retrospect, it seems very foolish to have built a nuclear reactor in a place that is so seismically active. But these big corporations convince everyone that everything is safe and it never is. There are obviously many good arguments in favor of nuclear power, but why do we believe that we can be the masters of nature? So this is what I mean by humility. Nature teaches you to be humble. A smart person doesn’t climb a mountain when it’s storming. You learn to look at the sky as a teacher rather than a blank-blue endless nothing. When I think about the destruction of the natural world, I can’t help but think about how in doing so we destroy our spiritual lives. Last summer, my partner and I had a separation. One day, I went to the beach (Alligator Point) in Florida and I saw a hermit crab. I watched this little creature, most certainly dead for a very long time, but it is now in one of my poems forever. Forever language-gilded, little thing!

Q: Your poems are often centered around a contemporary speaker who is concerned with every day minutiae, yet the poems take us backwards and forwards in history, through geology, memorabilia, and more. What do you see as the relationship between history and your work? Of memory? Of nostalgia?

I write about the everyday (picking up toys, washing dishes, commuting, being on the internet, etc.), but I don’t think I’m that interested in “everyday” life in and of itself. I don’t think poetry is about the ordinary; I think it’s about the extraordinary. At the same time, I understand that the material circumstances of my life, in part, make up my life and I see those everyday experiences as a jumping off point for a poem. If I can start off a poem writing about picking up plastic dinosaurs and end the poem in paradise, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. Even ending up in purgatory would be fine. Or hell. That’s okay, too. I don’t want to pick up plastic dinosaurs for the entire poem unless I’m going on a really cool magic carpet ride by the end. But primarily I understand myself in terms of class struggle, as a historical being, and my poetry will always concern itself with the struggle of the working class because that’s where my heart is and it’s what I care about the most. So, when I write about my job in high school putting Chinese menus on people’s doorknobs, I’m thinking not only about my personal history, but also the circumstances that allowed that to happen. Now if the Chinese menus suddenly turn into flamingos, well, then I should apologize in advance for my chosen art form. But my hope is that I can do this political work subtly, that the political doesn’t become an aesthetic that overwhelms the delicate balance of forces of music and meaning that make the poems tick. I want to keep the flamingos and the stars and minerals, if that makes sense.

If I can start off a poem writing about picking up plastic dinosaurs and end the poem in paradise, I feel like I’ve accomplished something.

Q: You’ve written on your blog about taking time off from the internet, and specifically cited a desire to step away from using social media for self-promotion as a writer. You’ve also quit Facebook. What do you see as the relationship between poets and social media?

I should say that I’m not against people getting their poems out there through Facebook or Twitter or Blogs and I would be a real hypocrite if I pretended that I don’t do this. And I met a lot of really wonderful writers much more talented and intriguing than me on Facebook—more than I can count—and I’m totally thankful for the ones who are in my life. That said, I found myself on Facebook all the time and focusing too much on how I thought people were thinking about me. I found myself waking up to Facebook, going to sleep to Facebook, erasing my posts all the time and generally anxious thinking about Facebook even during the time that I wasn’t logged on to Facebook! If I’m honest with myself, there’s a huge part of me that’s really insecure and longs for praise and attention and approval, but there’s another part of me that feels confident about what I’m doing with my writing and my life and I feel that this part of my being is best cultivated off of Facebook. I want people to focus on the poetry that I make, not the image of the poetry that I make or my personality. Also, I care very deeply about my friendships. I keep friends close to me and for a long time (as long as they’ll have me, of course). I needed to give my friends more attention and I needed to give my family more attention, too. I think social media is good for networking and promoting poetry and good poets should put their good poems out there but I’d rather forgo that a little bit and spend that time making friends and poems and poem-friends.

Q: Can you talk a little about your current manuscript of sonnets? How do you see your sonnets in regards to the poetic history of sonnets? How are you interpreting the form, and to the extent that you are, how has that constraint affected your writing?

About a year ago, I team-taught a Shakespeare class with some colleagues and in doing so read all of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Then I read all of Sidney’s sonnets. Then I moved on to contemporary sonneteers like Bernadette Mayer. At the same time it was National Poetry Writing Month and I’ve been doing that every year for the last few years and I thought well, sonnets are short so writing a sonnet a day will be easy. But, of course it wasn’t easy. In fact, it was horribly difficult and I hated it at first. And I’m not even talking about the rhyme scheme, which I ignore in my sonnets. What ended up happening is that I started loosening up with the sonnets I was writing and tried not to be so uptight or “poetic.” The good thing about the sonnet is that you only have fourteen lines to talk. So, line fourteen is like a big “shut the hell up” which is GREAT for me because my big problem with poetry is that I tend to go all over the place. I’ll be talking about a rainforest one minute and Bill Clinton the next minute and then Martians the next for NO REASON. The sonnet has been a good form for me because it’s a way to control the madness. I know that people will say “oh a fourteen line poem does not a sonnet make” but I know my sonnets are bona fide sonnets; I did all my homework.

SANDRA SIMONDS grew up in Los Angeles, California. She earned a BA in Psychology and Creative Writing at UCLA and an MFA from the University of Montana, where she received a poetry fellowship. In 2010, she earned a PhD in Literature from Florida State University. She is the author of Mother was a Tragic Girl (Cleveland State University Press, 2012) and Warsaw Bikini (Bloof Books, 2008), which was a finalist for numerous prizes including the National Poetry Series. Her poems have been published in many journals including Poetry, The Believer, The American Poetry Review, Fence, Columbia Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Black Warrior Review, and Lana Turner. You can read some of her poetry online here, here, and here. She currently lives in Tallahassee, Florida, and is an Assistant Professor of English at Thomas University in beautiful, rural Southern Georgia.