Getting to Know Sarah McCann and her New book Rose Fear
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover you wanted to write poems?
I first encountered poetry in my home, having been read poetry by my parents since I was a baby. Actually, we still share poems in my family, through notes, over the telephone, in limerick-writing challenges, and more. I found that I wanted to write poems after encouragement from various teachers along the way. I never heard things quite right; in fact, my parents took me to get my hearing checked as a child. But, really, I was reorganizing words and sounds in my head all along. I heard things how I wanted to hear them. When I found I could create those sounds and images on paper to share with others, and that others would take some joy or solace in my writing, I couldn’t stop.
I began reading poetry in translation long before I translated. Neruda was a favorite of mine in high school, though I was learning French. I read him bilingually as best I could, and noted the choices being made. Fascinating stuff. Now, when I am having trouble writing my own poetry, I turn to translation (I only translate from modern Greek now). It allows me to get other rhythms, vocabularies, and voices inside my head, often opening up my own writing. Translating, for me, is like a spring thaw for my own poetry.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I’m a keen listener and a note-taker; I’m always composing lines in my head. I have great lists of lines, and I find ways to assemble them. I must be alone when writing, revising, or translating, because I am too easily distracted. As that keen listener and note-taker, I am constantly tuning in to every sound, every sight. The only company who helps with my writing is my dog, Murray. Having a hand on him reminds me to be a present companion to a reader. Plus, our walks together get my mind energy flowing.
I spend the most time on my own poetry revising, when I type the lines from my notebook (or phone) into my laptop. Revision is also my greatest writing joy—watching how things come together to form something new and meaningful. It’s like cooking. Or maybe more concocting.
With translation, I have my source text out on the table, my literal translation, my dictionary, and my thesaurus. I use it all. From the literal, I return to the source text (what I am translating) to read how it sounds, how it is of one piece, what colloquialisms are there, etc. Then I have to determine the best way to bring as much of the original into the target language (English) translation. It’s terribly fun to try different avenues. I love puzzles, and that’s how I approach translation (not always successfully!).
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
My poems, as I noted before, usually spring from an image or a few words to a line that occur to me, that I mishear somewhere, or that I read. When I am stuck and nothing is surfacing, I turn to old notebooks and start digging. If I wish to force myself, I decide upon a form and give myself requirements (include an orange peel, two pieces of dialogue, etc.). Sometimes my best work comes when I have no idea, but I simply sit down to write with formal restrictions of some sort. Time constraints sometimes help; I have a few poet friends with whom I exchange poems regularly, on certain days of the month. Once, I sat down for a four-day weekend with the imperative to write sixty poems. And I did. Some were awful, but I was able to cull things from almost all of them for later, decent, revised poems.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
Probably the poets I first read in high school were the most influential: Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Pablo Neruda. In college, I had a fantastic course on British Romanticism and loved those poets. However, I think I read them wrong. I found them ecstatically hilarious, though I imagine now they might have been more sincere than I had hoped at the time.
I have since fallen for poems more than poets. Larry Levis’ “The Smell of the Sea” has been my favorite poem for years now, and I always carry a copy of it with me. I will never not find something new and useful and kind in it. I would put Taha Muhammad Ali’s “Revenge” down as one of my favorite poems as well, and I especially love the recording of him reading it with his translator, Peter Cole. Wow.
What's the significance of the title? Are there over-arching themes? Did you have a process and was it a project book?
Rose Fear by Maria Laina (translated from the modern Greek) was begun as a project during my Fulbright year in Greece. I was given a grant to translate contemporary Greek women poets, as not many have been translated. The title could have been Rosy or Rose-Colored Fear too, but those two descriptors in English imply something more light-hearted than I believe Laina intended. Yes, there is the beauty of the rose, the feelings that accompany such a weighty flower, and there is the fear that comes with the love it signifies, and also the fear of the thorns that can’t be divorced from the flower or the feelings. So I settled on Rose Fear. The book weaves multiple threads and many voices. It is a composite, full of modern sketches as well as mythology. Still, it has an even and assured tone. There are moments of quiet and times of prophetic fervor. It is in sections, and my favorite is the one entitled TRAVELS. Laina’s poems in this section take place in Egypt, in Japan, in England, in the Caribbean, in Greece, and beyond. Somehow, these voices unite in sincerity and emotional truth. Many of them remind me of the English Romantic poets, but Laina’s images are much more concise and strange, and, in my mind, more powerful and memorable.
Read an excerpt from her book here:
as "beauty is not something eternal"
words I heard from my mother
We arrived by the night train
glued to each other
sleepless the whole hot night.
At some point sleep took us;
then day broke
and the delicate water rose to the hills.
Swarms of colors took aim at us from the tree branches
and in one rippling island of sand
a milk-white ibis was walking.
No one would ever see this place again in the same way;
I pictured time as a fine dot
unmoving, as we slid by.
Let's see it for what it is, I said,
for God's sake
let's see it for ever.
"Let's now describe the city
where the poet has the chance again
to become a poet"
This then is the land of Sarnath
here greedy dreams and uncontainable forms were born
and here forgotten bones bleach
things that once had flesh that sang with a loud voice
these slopes went down head over heel to the sea
and when the wind blew the deep-shadowed forests trembled
imagine the forests of santamo tree and aloe
here birds fluttered alee, and here
the river gurgled, its bed coral-rosy,
see that the roads hold onto some of their natural nobility
walk the halls, the stoas, the galleries
the suction of the sole on marble
stay until you hear the wind's sweet arousal
and smell the well-wishing willow and its freight
spices, silk, and amber
look how smoothly everything thickens on the horizon
gold and purple and green and blue
remember words the light erased
remember the names of those passing and speaking to you
touch linen clothes that were removed
kiss and embrace
come closer, lift the baskets full of figs and strawberries
drink a little of this tame wine
wine from Sarnath who traveled for ages
without fear of death from white wave
or perplexed red sky
ill-fated and triply ill-fated, she
the beauty, blue-green born
floating now as a scrap of paper, as an irresolute eye
that, come closer so it sees
oh come closer so you see,
the soft dark crumb of her soul.
Ever since the rain that day
the weather changed.
The footpaths hunched
among shifty broken boulders
and the gentle iridescence of the mornings
sheltered under perfidious wings.
On the north shore, where I called out,
the scent of the sea and the aroma of the flowers
were cut off suddenly, and the house was rebuilt
on its own.
Ah the pleasure of the garden at dawn
where my cruel master buried me;
this beauty sounds like harvesting.