Thursday, July 15, 2010

Before OnStar

Day 157 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and I have been reading Before OnStar, a poetry chapbook by Sarah Carson, from Etched Press. Sarah is an editor with RHINO and a communications specialist with Switchback Books. She answered some of my questions by email, and here they are:

Sarah, your book just came out from Etched Press of Wilmington, North Carolina. Can you tell us a little about the press, and how you got involved with it?

I found Etched Press in the Poet’s Market when I was looking for a publisher for the chapbook. The mission statement of the press is "writing that remains." It actually goes against the nature of chapbooks, because chapbooks aren't meant to last forever, so the goal is to publish writing that remains in the reader's memory. The chapbooks come from open and solicited submissions, and both are completely free.

Are all Etched Press chapbooks this handy 6 ½” by 4 ¾” size?

All of the chapbooks are supposed to be 5" x 7" J But, yes, they are all in that same, handy size. J

[I guess I am ruler-challenged, as well as math-challenged in general. 5” x 7”—yes, that makes sense. Sigh….]

The book is “for GG—who has been fictionalized in these poems.” Can you tell us a little about GG and your inspiration for the poems in the book?

The poems are all semi-autobiographical about growing up in Flint, Michigan—a city that’s undergone a massive shift from prosperity to poverty in the past few decades. GG is my grandmother, and she appears in one of the last poems in the collection: “In Buick City.” In the poem I tell the story of her being robbed at gunpoint but then depict her as afraid to continue with her normal routine because of it. I make a point to say she’s been “fictionalized” because the real story is that while she did get robbed three times at gunpoint at the same grocery store, she still goes and gets her groceries there every week. The inspiration for these poems (and what I hope readers take away) is that same spirit—that unwillingness to give up on yourself even when it seems like everything that was once familiar is lost. I think there’s something beautiful about that desperation to move forward.

They are all prose poems. What drew you to that form for this book, and what are your thoughts on prose poetry in general, its distinction (if/when there is one) from “flash fiction,” and the blurring of genres we often see these days in poetry?

I’m not sure what ever drew me to prose poems. I know I tend be drawn to them both as a reader and a writer more than traditional poetry, and for the types of stories I like to tell, the prose form seems to fit well. My poems tend to be narrative, but I think they differ from flash fiction in that I pay a lot more attention to rhythm and density than I think a flash fiction writer is required to. I always want the reader to understand the story, but I let the reader fill it in for themselves from one image to the next. I also pay a lot of attention to the way my poems sound—which I think is biggest distinction between the two genres: a poem is about the music, and I hope there’s music in my work even if it’s written a paragraph.

I see in this book a lovely, tender, gritty truth about “lives of quiet desperation.” I care about the people, even as I cringe at some of the behaviors, and wish it would work out for them. So I see the book as expanding my compassion, which is one of the reasons I read. What are some of the reasons you write?

When I was writing the poems in this collection, I feel like I was probably writing out of an instinct towards self-preservation. When I left Flint and went away to college, I often felt out-of-place and homesick for the kind of lifestyle and culture that I eventually began to write about. I would read books about factory life or Midwest poets like Philip Levine, so when I began writing seriously I tried to imitate the spirit of those writers who I thought really wrote about the heart of living in the Midwest or in industrial/de-industrialized places. Even now as my poems are becoming less autobiographical, I think the heart of the work is always to share something about my experience with a reader—which is the same reason I read, to share in the experiences of others.

Do you think poetry has any special tasks in our world right now? Are you drawn to poetry, or prose poetry, over other forms—fiction, essays—for reasons you can identify?

I think I’ve always been drawn to poetry in general over other forms of writing because of its capacity to do so much with so little. Both as a writer and a reader, poetry gives me the opportunity to find new ways of looking at the world. People become so consumed with such stupid stuff; we need more people who are looking for beauty and meaning in unlikely places. I think that’s what a good poet does—uses language to open a part of us up to something we’ve never thought of before.

Your writing is very accessible, which I appreciate. Sometimes these days “accessible” is a bad word in poetry, as if only the hard-to-understand stuff is really worth reading. And some poems are clearly not meant to mean in the usual ways, or not meant to mean at all. This is a big topic, but what are your thoughts on this as they pertain to Before OnStar? I find each poem quite subtle and provocative, along with its accessibility!

When I was writing these poems I meant for them to seem accessible—meaning that they contained a story that was easily understood, but that there would be more under the surface if you went looking for it. I had some grouchy people in writing workshops tell me they were too accessible and that they didn’t get the point. I wanted to tell a story with these poems, not try to make people solve a riddle. Personally, I find poems that are intentionally confusing pretentious and annoying.

Each time I read it, I am moved by “Us at Fifty.” Did you observe an actual couple walking hand in hand, eating peanuts, or did this happen in your imagination as you wrote? How did you know the poem was finished? I think the ending is perfect: “something must happen in the future that changes everything.”

I did observe this couple. I was pulling into this seedy little grocery store and this couple was passing through the parking lot. This doesn’t come through in the poem, but they both looked incredibly weathered—sunburnt, as if they walked everywhere. I was struck by how happy they seemed to be together. When you’re young you often get distracted by things that end up not mattering very much. I think the poem used to end “or maybe they were just having a good day,” but that seemed too snarky for that moment.

Likewise, I was moved (and gasped!) at finding the book’s title quietly hidden inside “In Buick City.” Was Before OnStar always the working title of this chapbook? Or did you discover it as you were writing “In Buick City”?

Before Onstar was always the title of the chapbook. I named my master’s thesis (in which a lot of these poems appeared) “Before Onstar,” as well as my portfolio that I wrote as an undergraduate. In the poem “In Buick City” the phrase is used to describe the time that preceded the current situation in “Buick City”—one where a woman who has lived her whole life in that town is now afraid to go get groceries because some people have become desperate. I always thought the phrase worked well to set up the poems as a collection. Probably “After OnStar” is a more fitting title since all of the poems take place in the aftermath.

I find that Sarah Carson's Before OnStar evokes that whole "before" period in both Flint, Michigan and American culture, even while presenting the stark aftermath. You can hear Sarah slinging her words with Wordslingers on WLUW at 88.7 FM in the Chicago area Sunday night, July 18, 8:00 p.m., or stream live at

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