getting to know sarah sousa and her new book split the crow
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
I began writing poetry in my early teens. Emily Dickinson was the first poet I read and I was drawn not only to what seemed to me odd, arrhythmic, contemporary poems, but the sense of power that shot through them. I wanted to achieve that power, an utter control of, and through, language. Emily Dickinson still seems like a timeless poet and spirit to me. If I believed in time travel, I’d think she was a time traveller. I have a hard time imagining her restricted to the mid1800s.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I don’t have a daily routine. My routine might look more like a novelist’s. When I’m working on poems that I sense belong together, I write every day, sometimes more than one poem per day and I’m very intense and focused. When I feel a sense of completion with that “set” of poems I enter a less frenzied phase of revision. During this time I’ll keep writing poems here and there but don’t feel as driven. I also have weeks where I don’t write anything, though I’m happiest when I’m writing. I primarily write in the early morning, on my laptop, in my study. If I’m working intensely on a project I may go back to a poem throughout the day.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
My poems have come from all those sources. I’m drawn to vintage photos and have several poems that began with images in photos, I’ve also written poems based on the paintings of Maine by Andrew Wyeth. I lived in Maine for many years and both my sons were born there. Wyeth translates the sense of stoic loneliness, something stronger than melancholy, stronger than sadness, alongside the old-soul-ness and hard beauty that coexist in the landscape and air of Maine.
Sound plays a big role in my inspiration. I’m drawn to repetition and accidentally poetic turns of phrase. I’m intrigued by history and I write a lot of persona poems. I find a great deal of freedom as a poet in writing from another person’s point of view, in finding the place where my experience and my humanity intersect with those of my “character”. Everyday situations will often come out during a writing session. I never plan to write about anything. Sometimes there’s an image that I know will work its way into a poem, but I don’t push it. The poems get created in the moment, without any prior agenda. I like to work intuitively.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
Emily Dickinson (more recently her “Master Letters”), Louise Gluck’s early work, Claudia Emerson, Laura Kasischke, Jack Gilbert, Franz Wright. I could go on and on.
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was is a project book? etc.
After feeling critical of ‘project’ books for years I went and wrote one! Split the Crow is historically and culturally themed. The book is organized into two sections which are ordered more or less chronologically. The first section begins in 1600s New England during the ‘contact period’ when European immigrants and Native Americans were clashing over cultural differences and dwindling space. Native New Englanders were the first to be pushed from their ancestral land, assimilated or eradicated by European immigrants. This was a time of “Indian” raids on villages, culminating in kidnappings and forced marches, as well as ongoing fear, brutality and mind games on the part of European settlers. Poems in this section cover King Phillips War and the captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson, the cosmology of Native Americans, burial rites, etc. There are many persona poems in both Native and European voices. The second section moves forward in time and south geographically to cover the forced expulsion of the Five Civilized Tribes from their ancestral land, forced schooling of Native American children, assimilation, essentially the struggle and loss of a culture and way of life. I tried to approach the poems from various angles. There are fairly straightforward narrative poems, which move the overall narrative of the collection forward, telling the smaller stories around the epic cultural story; the lyric poems seem to hold a space for meditation and reflection. I didn’t want to write poetry as history lesson, I wanted to tell a story but, most importantly, create a piece of art. The cosmology, daily approach to life, death, relationships, and art of Native Americans of the time gave me a way to write about history but also transcend the material, the concrete, to honor the metaphorical and mythological. I wrote the poems over about a year’s time beginning with the Mary Rowlandson poems, which are in her voice. I wanted the collection to remain in early New England but quickly realized that idea was too narrow and constrictive and would lack Native American voices. Most early Native New Englanders who wrote in English and whose writing is still in existence were Christian converts, called ‘Praying Indians’ at the time. In that way, and in most others, they had assimilated in order to survive or succeed in the new culture and I didn’t want to restrict myself to their views. Once I realized that I was writing about two different time periods, the poems fell into place. I did a lot of research, have dozens of books still on my shelves, but historic research for poetry is a curious thing. As I said, I didn’t want to write history. I would generally read at night, underlining and starring stories, images or language that resonated with me, and write based on those images in the morning. After a while I realized there was a balance between narrative and lyric driving the collection forward. The title Split the Crow is both a play on Emily Dickinson’s “Split the lark” line and a comment on the way European immigrants treated the Native inhabitants they found here; with fearful curiosity, as non-human, as something to be studied, dissected, controlled and rendered harmless. I feel this is most evident in the poems about Worlds’ Fair exhibits, where Native Americans were arranged in a kind of diorama for visitors to observe. What’s ironic and heartbreaking is that the way of life depicted in these living dioramas was extinct at that point, wiped out by the people running the show. The only way European Americans were able to acknowledge Native American traditions, culture and cosmology, was in a miniaturized, emasculated state that they controlled. It’s the sad truth of our country’s foundation.
Read a sample poem from Sarah Sousa and listen to an audio recording here:
Her Moods Caused Owls
To say the great horned
sits like a mask
in the tree. To say false face,
death mask, implies
I know the story.
The little snowy, light as powder
on a branch, is capable of cruelty
when her mood demands it:
ten torn crows turn up,
black feathers from bones.
To say the hollow bones were dead limbs
in a blow-down, sticks
strewn three miles wide, her moods
violent bursts, implies
I hold a story,
or that stories demand:
we want what is real
we want what it is real
don’t deny us.
Once there was a girl who spoke
garlands; blossoms unspooled
from her mouth. Confused,
she tried to flee her own fecundity.
And her fear caused gardens.
I’m swallowing a story
that ends with blood-stained snow.
I know how this looks.
It appears to be true.