Paperbag Interview with Sarah V. Schweig

Sarah V. Schweig’s poems have appeared in BOMB Magazine, Boston Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Western Humanities Review, and Verse Daily, among others. She received the David Craig Austen Memorial Award from Columbia University for her MFA manuscript, and in the spring of 2012, she began the Emerging Poets Residency at Poets House in Manhattan. Her chapbook, S, is available through Dancing Girl press, and her poem “The Hunger Rooms” appeared in Paperbag 4.

Cathy Linh Che: Your poem “The Hunger Rooms” reminded me of two Charles Wright quotes: “I’m always looking at and thinking about how the exterior landscape reflects the interior and vice versa. And almost all my poems begin with something I’ve seen, something observed as opposed to some idea I have for a poem…” and “All forms of landscape are autobiographical.” How did this poem begin?—as a feeling, an image, or a concept?

Sarah V. Schweig: For me, writing often begins as a confrontation with something—or, perhaps more accurately, with nothing: a lack, an absence, a shortcoming, a disappointment—even boredom. The process of writing is also a confrontation with the possibility of saying nothing, of something going unrecorded, or of saying something in a way that doesn’t do it justice. This threat and challenge is often what starts me off.

I suppose this means that the poem started with a feeling. But feelings and ideas are very much intertwined, and images embody both feelings and ideas at once. I agree with Wright in that having an idea for a poem often results in an overly conceived, or belabored product; but having an idea that becomes a poem because, in order to exist, it has to—that’s another story.

It’s funny you should mention Charles Wright—I was lucky enough to study with him around the time I wrote “The Hunger Rooms,” and while the poem sounds very different from Wright’s work, I do think it shares that interest in exterior and interior permeating each other, and in landscape as autobiography. That’s definitely a reflection of his influence.

Paperbag: I love long poems/poems that operate as a series. What was the process of writing this series like? How did you know to move on from one section to another? For instance, why a series, rather than just one long poem? Or, why not write several medium sized poems to convey your ideas?

Sarah: How did I know to move on from one section to another? I really didn’t. I was the poem’s only reader for a long time, and its only critic; it was never workshopped. I had to trust my instincts, and as groundless as it sounds, putting it in sections just felt right. As it ended up, I think each section serves as a different facet of the feelings/ideas the poem tries to create.

Here’s where the jig is up: “The Hunger Rooms” is pretty old. If it were a child, it would be able to write its own complete sentences by now. It was the longest poem I’d ever written at the time, and it was, I think, the first poem I’d written in relatively lengthy sections. Because this poem was the first time I’d attempted something like this, I really learned from it. I think parts of it are slightly over-the-top, but I like that “The Hunger Rooms” bears the marks of a far-reaching ambition, regardless of some of its occasional overreaching.

Paperbag: Throughout the poem, time seems to be quite slippery, shifting from present to past to future, and I find that movement true to how our minds process loss or grief. There’s a kind of double or even triple living. It reminds me of Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay”: “I can feel that other day running underneath this one/like an old videotape…” Could you talk a little more about time in this poem?

Sarah: I think poetry can accommodate for the kind of time-shifting that comes with grief perhaps better than any other art form. Even film, with all its capacity for flashback and montage, is pretty married to a chronology. In this poem, I think time is almost a non-issue except for its capacity to contribute to loss (the more it moves forward, the more things fall away). The poem makes its own time, in a way, through the sections that are sort of episodic, and the reader’s movement between those sections is an experience of time, in time. It isn’t that there isn’t a chronology exactly, but the events described and their order are less important than how the movement of the poem resonates and summons up images, remembered or imagined or dreamt.

Paperbag: Are there any particular artists/writers you find especially compelling these days?

Sarah: Speaking of slippery time, I’ve been making my way through Proust, though slowly; I’ve just started the second volume, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. I’ve also just read Mamet’s Three Uses of the Knife, which is a really interesting analysis of our need to impose the structure of story and drama to the arbitrary events of our personal and civic lives, and Franzen’s The Corrections, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I’ve also been doing a lot of rereading recently. Forster’s A Room with a View, Beckett’s First Love, and I always keep Berryman’s The Dream Songs and Kafka’s short works close.

And while I’m pretty resigned to there being no real answers, I still crave explanations of how/why things are the way they are, so I usually keep some philosophy in the pipeline. I’ve been reading Being and Nothingness, though very slowly, and The Rebel by Camus.

And I’ve been listening to Scott Walker recently—and almost constantly.

Paperbag: What are you working on right now, or what ideas are you currently obsessed with/interested in?

Sarah: I’ve been mulling over this passage from The Rebel, among others: “The world is divine because the world is inconsequential. That is why art alone, by being equally inconsequential, is capable of grasping it. It is impossible to give a clear account of the world, but art can teach us to reproduce it—just as the world reproduces itself in the course of its eternal gyrations.”

I also go back to this passage from Susan Sontag: “The function of art isn’t to sanction any specific experience except the state of being open to the multiplicity of experience which ends in practice by a decided stress on things usually considered trivial or unimportant.”

Most recently, I’ve been interested in method acting. There’s an audition studio in the building where I work and sometimes I go and watch actors pace the hallways and get into character. It’s strange to watch people become other people and change back again.

I’ve also been working on last edits to my full-length manuscript, as well as writing some new work. The newer poems definitely don’t belong in this manuscript, similar to the way the poems of my recently released chapbook, S, didn’t belong there, and that’s encouraging. The poems keep inventing their own worlds; perhaps I haven’t run out of places to go.

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