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Interview: Sarah Sweeney

Sarah Sweeney's poem "Summer Strike" appears in the April 2010 issue of the Collagist. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from Quarterly West, Tar River Poetry, Waccamaw, The Pinch, Minnetonka Review, PANK, and others. A native of North Carolina, she lives and writes in Boston. You can find her online at www.sarah-sweeney.com.

Can you talk about the inspiration for “Summer Strike”? What was on your mind when you were writing this poem?

I wanted to capture children’s interpretations of and reactions to death, especially the death of another kid. Kids definitely view experiences through a lens of magical thinking that can be very consuming and alluring. This poem takes place in North Carolina, and is about an incident that occurred in the neighborhood I grew up in, so it’s very personal. I, myself, was one death-obsessed kid, and I remember my friends and I actually having séances in the woods and trying to lure spirits from the ‘other side.’ We thought it was that easy.  I remember being in grocery aisle with my parents and reading sensational tabloid stories about Elvis hiding out and being a secret operative for the government—and I remember trying to contact him with my brother, trying to gather this definitive evidence of whether Elvis was really dead!

Despite the subject matter, there’s almost a whimsy in this piece, and certainly an idealization: the mothers chattering in (I imagine) their long gauzy dresses, the fathers with their “winsome faces turned in the whiskeyed light.” They’re perfect people, far away from the event and from their children. Can you speak to the place of Parents at a time like this, or maybe more aptly, to how children may interpret their place or their feelings toward it?

I think that most times, a parent’s inclination is to protect their kids from death, perhaps especially another kid’s death—totally idealistic and, of course, unrealistic. Parents can only protect and shield so much; kids are intuitive and very curious, capable of understanding more than they’re sometimes given credit for. I think this poem addresses, in a lot of ways, parents’ treatment of kids, their hiding of the so-called ‘adult world’ from the kids realm. Kids have secret lives apart from what their families see, and I definitely wanted to showcase their inquisitiveness, their vagrant nature when they’re roaming the neighborhood alone and in packs, their will to investigate, and their fearlessness.

Though there’s just the one fatality here, the casualty count is high; this poem could be an elegy for all the neighborhood children. They all lose a big innocence, but the way they deal with it is so tender and all the more wrenching for it. You balance it well; it’s not too simple, not too sentimental. Were you apprehensive at all, taking on not just children and death but children on death?

I was freaking out, trying my damndest for this poem not to be sentimental. I fought and fought with myself while writing it, but the story is what kept me returning to and revising the poem. I was one of these kids—literally—but we all were in some way, right? Something happens to tarnish our innocence, to knock us down, that’s the way it goes.

It’s funny, because in the south, weather and the natural world dictate much of southern thinking, which can be totally magical and superstitious anyway—like the kids in this poem. I thought that if I could embed southern atmosphere or thinking into the poem that it would make sense, and almost certainly overshadow the near-sentimentality of addressing death in, say, a more rational way, not with kids trying to contact a dead person.

You’re a transplant girl, south to north. Do you feel that being in different locations has changed the way you write (this can mean method, what time of day, new voices or characters) or the things you want to write about? Has leaving a place made it seem richer to you, something more worth digging into?

When I was living in the south, I never wrote about the south. So moving away from my homeland has definitely had its advantages. I long for the south, sometimes so excruciatingly, that I honestly do feel like an orphan at times. It sounds silly, I know, but the displacement allows me to dig through my past a little more clearly. I even forgot about the incident “Summer Strike” is based on; it came to me one night when I was lying in bed, and I thought oh yeah! and scribbled a few lines down. I just can’t stop writing about that damned place.

What other writing projects are you currently working on?

I’m reordering the poems in my manuscript, Grace Land, which is about the south, and trying to publish them… I’m also working on a collection of somewhat comedic essays that trace my teenage years to my move to Boston. I oscillate between poetry and nonfiction, and right now I’m definitely nonfiction-minded. I just finished an essay that’s been years in the making about the time a friend of mine and I called—and two weeks later met—Adrian Grenier before he got his gig on Entourage. It’s crazy.

What great books have you read recently? Are there any upcoming releases you’re excited about?

I just finished Dylan Landis’ Normal People Don’t Live Like This. It was stunning. The way she portrayed these girls… there are no words. I didn’t want that book to end. Any good book ending is a sort of death. A month ago, I finagled an advance copy of Carrie Fountain’s Burn Lake, which is poetry also about a region (the southwest), and I’m still poring over it daily.

Reader Comments (2)

All blessings upon you and your work, Sarah Sweeney. I hope our paths cross so I can thank you in person.

April 29, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdylan landis

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