Interview: Sarah Bloom
January 04, 2020
Hello Sarah, Thanks for doing this interview with Middle House. I know you from the University of Arkansas at Monticello but can you introduce yourself to the readers?
Hi, I’m Sarah Bloom, Associate Professor of English at UAM. I teach a variety of courses in the discipline, from Freshman Composition to creative writing workshops and literature courses in the major. I wrote my first poems when I was a child; I learned to read poems much later. I have published a handful of poems in some journals I respect, and I am in the process of writing a book about my father.
What are some notions you have about poetry writing? Can you tell us about some of the things that have stuck over the years?
When I was younger, I was often very moved by poems, but I was not aware that what moved me was the choice and arrangement of words. I thought, as I think many people do, that the emotions or experiences captured were moving in themselves, that if the emotions were strong enough or the experiences powerful enough, they would be communicated regardless of the words chosen. That is not quite right, the way I am explaining it, but I mean that as I get older, I become more aware of the power of language that is hidden or perhaps only partially known by both speaker and hearer.
How do you feel about the process of motivating the creation of poetry in workshops? Some teachers have students produce ten all semester some require students to produce twenty.
In general, I work with undergraduates who’ve not had many experiences yet with poetry, or fairly limited experiences. I ask these students to produce a good number and wide variety of pieces, many in traditional forms. My undergraduate students are not yet aware of what is possible in form or subject matter. Therefore, we read widely and discuss the work we read before I ask them to submit their own work. I’m sure every teacher has encountered the student who “writes poetry, but doesn’t read it.” Usually, this student is producing a very narrow specific “type” of poem that is limited in what it can accomplish. I show students what other poets have done and I require that they try their hands at a number of pieces, just for experiment’s sake, just for the sake of play. Some resist; some dive in.
Do you feel that it benefits the writer to work carefully say like Elizabeth Bishop or do you think that a poet can churn out quality work?
Yes and yes.
As far as accomplishing what you consider to be the best work, who are some contemporary poets who come to mind?
I admire Kay Ryan’s work; her poems are as tight and precise as some of Dickinson’s. I love Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars, with its existential questions and pop culture references. Some of her images – “like a gypsy glistening with jewels” – are fantastic. I love Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf; he grapples with telling the truth about himself. Danez Smith and Jericho Brown are important voices right now. Natalie Diaz has always moved me; she is one of the bravest poets I have read, with her lush lines and her extravagant stories. Joy Harjo, of course.
Who are the most influential writers/poets/professors to you personally and in your work?
The most influential poet in my own life is Anne Sexton. I absorbed – I really heard – Anne Sexton’s work when I was a teenager because somehow I got a hold of a cassette tape of Sexton reading her own work. That’s what did it for me, that’s what hooked me, the voice in my ear. I must have listened to that cassette dozens of times. She taught me meter and rhyme (“The Truth the Dead Know”); she taught me honesty and specificity (“Ringing the Bells at Bedlam”); she taught me the great reach and span of poetry (“Riding the Elevator into the Sky,” “Rowing,” “The Rowing Endeth”); she taught me how to pray (“Letter Written on a Ferry while Crossing Long Island Sound.”) That cassette changed my life.
When I was an undergraduate, we had a professor, briefly, Dr. Anthony Farrington, who taught us Eliot’s The Waste Land. That was the first time I had studied a poem seriously; that changed my life for the second time. When I went to graduate school at George Mason in the early 90s, Carolyn Forché taught me and directed my thesis; Carolyn was the third gift. I took a course with Carolyn based on her (at that time new) anthology, Against Forgetting: the Poetry of Witness. Carolyn was the first teacher I had to highlight the political and ethical implications of poetry, how language cannot be “neutral.” She introduced us to Brecht and Celan. We began in that class to recognize our responsibilities, the weight, of what a poet can — Carolyn would say must — do.
Writing advice you wish you would have received as an undergrad?
Read more. Read aloud. Don’t be intimidated if you don’t understand it the first time. If it’s in English, you can understand it.
First memory or project where you really committed yourself to the writing?
When my grandfather died, I was 12, I tried to memorialize him. I’ve been trying since.
Sarah Bloom is a poet, a teacher, a wife, a Christian, grateful for the chance to work.
See the poets I discussed, especially the contemporary ones. Look at Akbar’s Divedapper website; his interviews are fantastic and if you read the works of the poets he features there, you’ll be fed and challenged for many months.