MINI INTERVIEW: Sarah McKinstry-Brown

Interviewed by Sean Dunn

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How did you get into writing?

When I was 19 years old, I wandered into a poetry slam team performance at a coffeehouse in Albuquerque, my hometown, and was hooked when I saw the team performing a poem about New Mexico’s history of Spanish colonization, layering their voices as they chanted, “Tell me which way to get to your America, your seven cities of Cibola, your seven cities of gold,” which then became the background as one of the poets pretended to make a long-distance call to god from a phone booth. The word was fully alive on that stage, and the poets were talking about issues that were central to our community and our cultural identity as a state. When I saw this, I was immediately engaged and electrified, and I remember thinking, “If this is poetry, then I want to write poems.” Poetry Slam was a kind of metaphorical gateway drug, which then led me to falling in love with poets like Sharon Olds and Li-Young Lee and Yusef Komunyakaa.

When did you first start writing This Bright Darkness?

I began working on the book during my two-week artist’s residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in 2012.

Do you write in short quick bursts or slowly and surely?

Both. Sometimes the poems come quickly (usually when I don’t want them to, like when I’m in the shower or about to fall asleep); other times, I just sit on my couch, typing away miserably, feeling like I’m pushing on a figurative door that says “pull,” and, for some reason, I can’t see the sign. I find that when I loosen my grip and let myself abandon a poem to go for a walk or do laundry or whatever else needs to be done, then, if the poem really wants to be written, it will call me back.

Do you have a favorite topic to write about?

I love writing about human relationships, particularly romantic ones; I’m fascinated by how our desire to be needed and loved can bring out the best and the worst in us. People are messy, complex, and full of contradictions—perfect material for poems.

What is your favorite book?

I can’t pick just one. My two favorite books of all-time are Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids.

What is the hardest thing about writing for you?

In terms of craft, I’m terrible at describing landscapes. I once had a mentor who pushed me to read Elizabeth Bishop poems because she thought it would help me learn how to write about nature and animals. It didn’t. I’ve come to terms with the fact that, when it comes to my writing, I’m simply much more interested in exploring our internal worlds/landscapes than this, external one. In terms of the writing life, what I find to be most difficult is the fact that 99.9% of our time is spent laboring over work that may never see the light of day. Pursuing a life of writing requires a ton of faith, patience, and humility; you also have to be a little bit crazy and arrogant and delusional to believe that the words you’re putting on a page will, in some way, acquire enough weight to justify the decades you’ve spent in front of a computer, pouring your whole self into a page without any promise of money or recognition or publication. Much like raising children or any other kind of meaningful work, you have to write because you love it and/or because you need it to make sense of the world, to make sense of yourself. The American poet, H.D., wrote, “I go where I love and where I am loved, / into the snow; // I go to the things I love/with no thought of duty or pity.” As frustrating as writing can be, whether I’m writing poems or listening to them or reading them, poetry is where I love and where I feel loved. And, even when I’m feeling like I want to walk away from writing, I just can’t. One of my favorite singer-songwriters, Liz Phair, has a lyric that perfectly describes my relationship with my writing: “Nothing feeds a hunger/ like a thirst.” My thirst for knowledge and to know myself is what feeds my hunger as a writer.

What advice would you give aspiring writers?

I’d say try not to let the business of getting published, which can be incredibly frustrating, ruin your relationship with your work. Write because you’re a writer, and remember that the publishing business/industry is separate from your inner-creative life and should not get tangled up in your motivations for writing. When you’re ready to send your work out, send it out to places that publish writers who you want to be in conversation with. I think of journals and anthologies and presses as rooms, and I try to imagine who I want to be in the room with. Who excites me? Who baffles me, but in a good way? Whose writing makes me feel less alone in the world? I mean, I just came off of a really brutalizing few weeks and I read a poem written by a woman who died in the early 1960s, and I swear, it kept me afloat. It was a great reminder that whoever I’m writing for may not even be alive right now. Also, if you’re not getting rejected by journals, etc. then you’re not doing your job because it means you’re not sending your work out. I also think often of a great quote an old friend passed onto me, which is the poet Jaime Sabines’ advice to “Live. Then write. In that order.” I’m trying to get better about taking that advice, because it’s a special kind of hell when you get so wrapped up in the writing and producing writing that you start to treat the people around you like they’re getting in your way, as if your real life is on the page and not, you know, happening all around you.

And what suggestions might you have for young writers growing up in Nebraska?

Work your ass off to get your work in conversation with the people in your community and your state, and then work your ass off to get your work in conversation with writers across the nation. Or vice-versa. Be deliberate about your growth. Bloom where you’re planted, but then figure out a way to scatter your seeds, your voice, far beyond your immediate community. I think it’s important to do the work that will enable you to see whether or not your voice is resonating outside of the figurative four walls of your town or city or state, but more than that, I think it’s important for you to figure out what success looks like to you so that you’re not chasing someone else’s dream; I also think it’s important to remember that what success looks like is going to shift and change as you evolve as a writer and a human being AND that you should totally take ownership of the particular circumstances of your life. Remember, to someone on the east or west coast, reading about a person’s life in Nebraska could be the most exotic thing in the world. Whoever you are, wherever you are, lean into it because that’s your true superpower: no one can be you or write about your own experiences better than you can. One of my favorite quotes by the writer and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, is all about his call for us to “succeed” at being ourselves. He says: “Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves. They never get around to being the particular poet or the particular monk they are intended to be by God. They never become the man or the artist who is called for by all the circumstances of their individual lives. They waste their years in vain efforts to be some other poet, some other saint…They wear out their minds and bodies in a hopeless endeavor to have somebody else’s experiences or write somebody else’s poems.” Don’t waste your time trying to have somebody else’s experiences or trying to write somebody else’s poems.


 

Sarah McKinstry-Brown is the author of Cradling Monsoons (Blue Light Press, 2010) and This Bright Darkness (Black Lawrence Press, 2019). Born and raised in Albuquerque, Sarah is the recipient oftwo Nebraska Book Awards, an Academy of American Poets Prize, as well as a Sewanee Writers’ Conference Tennessee Williams Scholarship in poetry and a Nebraska Arts Council Individual Artist Fellowship Award. An Editorial Board Member for Spark Wheel Press, Sarah’s poems appear in RATTLERuminateSmartish Pace, South Dakota Review, Sugar House Review, West Virginia’s Standardized tests (a beautiful irony given that she was, is, and will always be, a terrible standardized test-taker)and elsewhere. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska with her husband, poet Matt Mason, and their two sharp, feisty daughters.