An Interview with Sandra Simonds
By Krysia Orlowski
Sandra Simonds is the author of Warsaw Bikini (Bloof, 2009), Mother Was a Tragic Girl (Cleveland State, 2012), House of Ions (Bloof, 2014) and The Glass Box (Saturnalia, 2015). She lives in Tallahassee, Florida. You can find her online at sandrasimonds.wordpress.com
What does being a poet mean to you?
For me, being a poet has to do with a particular kind of engagement with the world. I’m using the term “engagement” the way Sartre uses it, so I’m thinking about being a poet as a conscious commitment to the social, historical, political, and cultural concerns of our time which develops through the very act of writing poetry. This usually emerges in my poetry as an inherently anti-imperialist, feminist, and leftist politics. I just can’t separate the political from the poetic—but this has been something I have grown more aware of as I have developed as a poet. Being a poet also means that you read a lot of poetry in order to understand and situate your own work within the social because poems are also arguments and positions about the world. Poems take sides and I think they should. I think that it is possible to be a poet and not write for months or even years (I’m thinking about someone like George Oppen here), and it’s also possible to be a non-poet and write a poem every day of your life. In this sense, being a poet is a serious endeavor, but writing poetry is also about play and love and sex—simply messing around with language to see what you can find and that is why I think that as poets we are always, on some fundamental level, amateurs, discovering what is possible. I probably hold a romantic view of the poet in the world which I should be embarrassed about.
Being a mother to young children and a writer is challenging. Yet you also manage to teach, blog, publish poetry, and put out new books. How do you do it all? What is your day-to-day like?
Like many working parents, my life is very busy. I have two children, a four year old son and a six month old baby daughter. I would say that I spend over ninety percent of my time between raising them (changing diapers, cooking, folding laundry, washing dishes, breastfeeding, driving to daycare, etc) and my work as a professor (committee meetings, grading papers, setting up Blackboard sites, making syallbi, going to class, commuting to the university). The time that is leftover, I divide between doing nothing and writing poetry. When I was younger and didn’t have kids, I spent a lot more time on my poetry and I needed to spend that time on my poetry, because I needed to work more on each poem because I was learning how to write. I used to spend hours and hours writing and most of what I wrote was terrible. But now, I don’t have that luxury of time so I have to make sure that the time that I spend matters, which is stressful. Here is a concrete example. In my new manuscript in-progress, the Natural History of Blood, I am writing a series of poems about teaching Humanities courses at my university. I recently had to put my two children in a supplemental daycare for a week because the daycare that I usually take them to was closed. In the poem I say, “It cost me $523 dollars to write this poem. Make it matter.” The $523 is the amount that I spent on the supplemental daycare for the week. I only quote my own poetry to sort of show you how my life and art intersect.
Mother Was a Tragic Girl is your second book. What was the process like the second time around for getting your manuscript taken and published? What were you doing and what went through your mind when you learned it had been selected?
When Michael Dumanis called me a few years ago to say that Cleveland State University Poetry Center was going to publish the book, I was really excited and really surprised for a number of reasons. I sent my first book, Warsaw Bikini, out to contests more than fifty times over the course of three years so I really wasn’t expecting my second book to be taken so quickly (I think I sent my second book to two or three places). Also, up until my second book, I really had mostly been publishing my poems in very small, handmade magazines put together by my friends. My friend Rebecca suggested that I should start sending my poems out to bigger magazines but I didn’t think that the poems would be accepted anywhere because I thought that I was writing poems that were too “experimental,” so I was surprised when my poems started to be accepted into these places. I was finishing the PhD program at FSU when I found out the book was going to be published, and it’s been fun to read books by the other poets. Off the top of my head, my favorites have been books by Emily Kendal Frey, S.E. Smith and Mathias Svalina. Michael has done an extraordinary job with the press.
In Mother Was a Tragic Girl two things that stand out for me are the titles and the sequencing of the poems, particularly the three sections. Okay, I'm packing two questions into one here, but can you describe your processes for titling poems and for sequencing this book?
I actually have very little insight into my writing process, which makes me feel foolish. I don’t even know when I write. I tend to write things from start to finish in one draft—I’m not a writer who really pieces language together to make poems. I usually have a feeling that comes from deep within my body and my soul that urgently wants to write a poem or tell a story and then I write that poem. I think that sometimes this process works and most of the time this kind of process utterly fails. I can usually tell (but not always) if a poem is a “keeper” immediately after I write it and then I work to revise that poem for many months after the initial draft. In terms of titles, what I usually do is find a good line from the poem and then just take it out of the body of the poem and make it the title. I wrote the first section of Mother Was a Tragic Girl first, the second section second and the third section third. This book was very easy to put together, unlike my first book—I really struggled over the sequencing of the poems in Warsaw Bikini.
I was so excited to read the manuscript for the forthcoming House of Ions. Hooray for sonnets! In an interview with Rebecca Hazelton for Devil's Lake you stated that “...people will say 'oh a fourteen line poem does not a sonnet make' but I know my sonnets arebona fide sonnets.” We all know the basic “rules” of the sonnet form, but what do you think is the true essence of a sonnet? In other words, what makes a sonnet, especially one that breaks the rules, a sonnet?
There are a lot of different ways a poet can make a sonnet work. I think of the sonnet as a form that you engage if you want to also engage with the history of the sonnet, which is a terrible burden because history is so full of horror. How do you “make it new” when the sonnet is telling you to “make it old”? I studied a lot of sonnets before I started writing them—Claude McKay, Shakespeare, Ted Berrigan, Bernadette Mayer, Ron Padgett—I tried to read as many as I could to internalize the “moves” of the sonnet. I’m not just talking about the technical aspects of the form such as the volta in an Italian sonnet, or the couplet at the end of an English sonnet but I tried to think about how Shakespeare takes you from “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes” at the beginning of his sonnet to the word “kings” at the very end. How many times does he use the word “state” in that sonnet and why does he keep playing on this word? So, I think some aspects of the sonnet that are important are 1. momentum 2. play and 3. rhetorical argument, and the poet has a very small space to handle all of these elements within a kind of template or pattern that history has already created. If you move too far away from this template, it’s not a sonnet. If you stay within the template and don’t deviate, it’s not a sonnet. What do you do? Nobody knows the exact answer.
Both Mother Was a Tragic Girl and House of Ions contain a number of poems that engage in the mundane, the everyday of domestic life—a distinct “I” immersed in Chinese food, diapers, sex, Sponge Bob, grocery shopping, plastic dinosaurs, lusting after the cashier, writing, breastfeeding, yoga. Yet they don't stay there. A poem that starts with a dirty diaper might end in mind-blowing contemplation of the complexities of nature. Perhaps it is more accurate to say the poems launch out of the mundane into some other fantastic sphere that is packed with history, science, nature, politics, the body, and more. This is all a very long way of asking, how do you view the role of the domestic in your work? Are there topics or things that are taboo for you in regards to your writing?
On some basic level, I use the material conditions of my life (both of my past and present) as a basis for my poetry and this, in itself, is a kind of politics. I am interested in certain kinds of motherhood—the motherhood of many of my students who are the working poor trying to go to school to make their lives better. I’m interested in the single-motherhood of my own mother, who struggled economically to raise my sister and I—I want to think about what it was like to have been raised this way. What did I learn about property, about renting about property relations, about class-consciousness from my experiences? I’m interested in the motherhood of working people because I’m interested in working conditions in general. I want to think about what it means to be a mother in the early 21st century inside capitalism with very few social structures to help us survive—what do we give up (in art) by having children? What do we gain? I was at dinner with some poets in New York a few months ago, and I was predictably complaining about the difficulties of writing as a full-time academic, and one of the poets at the table said “but because you have so much to do, it must make your writing more urgent.” Maybe, but I would also like the time and space to write. Even though I write about these issues, I don’t want to give up joy and the fantastic in a poem. I love that a poem can start with cleaning up a diaper and end up at the bottom of the ocean or in some remote corner of a spiraling galaxy. Why not?
Krysia Orlowski lives and writes in Cleveland, Ohio. Her poems appear in Dressing Room Journal and RealPoetik. When not reading poetry, writing poems or chatting with poets, Krysia herds cats and grills killer cheese sandwiches.