Sarah McCartt-Jackson was selected by TBR’s Editors as the first Center-Featured Series Poet. Her series poem, Calf Canyon, is stunning in its emotional-depth, grit, and seamless merging of nature with the human experience. Read the 8-part series poem, Calf-Canyon, in the Fall/Winter 2010 Issue of Tidal Basin Review. Meanwhile, check out TBR’s interview with Sarah McCartt Jackson below!
INTERVIEW WITH TIDAL BASIN REVIEW SERIES POET, SARAH MCCARTT-JACKSON, AND TIDAL BASIN REVIEW POETRY AND MANAGING EDITOR, MELANIE HENDERSON
(Interview conducted via email correspondence)
Melanie Henderson: First, Sarah, thank you for sending your work for consideration. It was the pleasure of our editors to select your submission, “Calf Canyon” for the first Tidal Basin Review Series Poet Center Feature.
Sarah McCartt-Jackson: Thank you, for providing a gallery for “Calf Canyon” and other artistic works.
MH: When crafting this call for series poems, our editors considered how often our own poems tend to follow a sequence either in form, style, content, sound, and/or sense. Tell us, how intentional was your process in creating the series poem, “Calf Canyon?”
SMJ: “Calf Canyon” was very intentionally written as a series poem. As I was writing it, I referred to successful long poems to guide my process of long poem cohesion. I tried to create a sense of unity throughout the work while also establishing distinct scenes that could live separately. The culmination of the poem requires not only the scenes, but also the combined tension of each moment. Thus, the sequencing process proved to be the most revelatory for me. Repetition of sound and image (particularly in the women of the hills and repeated water imagery) represented instants that could ground my reader in the arrangement. I also wanted the seriation (especially in the second sequence) to show the cyclical nature of the focal concern within the poem.
MH: Part of the appeal of “Calf Canyon” is the symbiosis of the word placement and meaning. For example, Stanza 2 of Crossing:
the spider’s heart a bruise,
each chamber a stitch that nicks the copper blood
as it rushes through, each valve sighing out
like the hush that hung
hung physically and lyrically hangs at both the end of the line and the stanza. In this way, the effect is maintained whether read on the page or aloud. How important is this sort of visual demonstration to your work?
SMJ: I realize there can be an excessive use of visual and white space on the page, so I try to balance the idea of visual and experimental form with traditional form. Here, I tried not only to highlight lines or phrases by indention or emphasis but also to propel or pace the poem. I hope that each line stands alone as a moment in the overall story. Even more, I intend for each indentation or dropped line to burrow into another frame of the narrative. The issue is a complicated one that I did not think could exist in the iceberg-tip and rest-of-the-iceberg dichotomy. I saw the narrative as sedimentary in its telling. The fact that the unborn child cannot live is complicated by the fact that the unborn child might not survive. I hope the form reflects this complication.
More importantly, I would not have been able to write this poem without a freedom of form. Where I had been writing in relatively uniform (visually speaking) stanzas or lines, I tended to restrict myself. To extract the precise feeling and complexity of the situation, I had to give myself space. I had to force myself to extend a line, drop a line, or move a line visually where I typically would not. While I didn’t spill my words onto the page confessionally, I tried to allow myself more area to let the narrative and relationship speak for itself. But to make this a good poem, I had to edit the form obsessively. So the poem would not exist if I had not let the form gallop; conversely, the poem would not have worked if I had not pulled in the reins.
MH: Some might consider the flush right placement of line 6 “like the hush that hung” experimental, as it is slightly non-traditional in form? Do you rejoice in or reject the idea of producing poems that show elements of an experimental aesthetic?
SMJ: It depends on the level of experimentation. Some poets embrace a plane of craft that sometimes discourages indulgent experimentation. I could not have written the poem without personal experimentation, but I also could not have written it without training and commitment to conventions of the poetic craft. So, I rejoice in experimentation during my writing process but also in the importance of revision.
MH: There is a certain music that radiates an undertow of sound, like a backdraft that continues to build throughout the poem. This sound music is predicated on the juxtaposition of words or certain clusters of words. What is the music that you want the reader to hear?
SMJ: First, I want the reader to hear the sounds surrounding the narrator. I want the reader to hear the “tidal bulge dragging” and the dusty fossils being plucked from a dry shorebed. I also want the reader to hear how the narrator narrates what she experiences, how she chooses to animate the inanimate. I hope the reader hears how an ocean roar translates into her roaring womb or how the narrator’s supposition of the unborn child’s voice as a “resin gurgling just beneath the surface bark” functions as an extension of the creaking rope of a tortured woman. I hope the undertow of sound carries and sustains the reader from one section to the next and creates subtle, cohesive links between the sections.
MH: “Calf Canyon” is speakerly, at times, using the straight line to carry the series forward. You effectively merge moments of plain speech with others that are highly imagistic and sparse. If we consider that poetry is the economy of words that aims to say much and impact greatly in the most minimal amount of space, how do you negotiate these speakerly moments? How comfortable are you with this negotiation of poetry and what might be considered prose? I am glad they did, but I am interested in learning why and how the speakerly moments survived the revision process?
SMJ: I maintain those dense moments of narrative to build tension and intensity. These are times that cannot be described sparsely that need to work as a heavy stone; these moments submerge the bucket, but reel water to the well lip. There are others (like the bat’s brains) that can—and should—happen rapidly. I negotiate it this way: sometimes we think in poetry, sometimes in prose. I wanted to portray when the speaker might think in poetry, and when she might think in prose. Sometimes the narrator’s medium to express her experience happens plainly, but other times she uses more scientific or cartographic language. The emotional resonance would not reverberate without each word the speaker reveals. I wanted to imply that though she is in this situation, she is capable of mindfulness.
Habitually, I try to balance these narrative moments with the more lyrical ones. My poetry tends to be dense with images and words at once. The best advice I have received about my work is: “Let your poetry breathe” and let the readers take a breath. I try to pull readers into a story, compel them forward, and provide a sense of catharsis or resolution without losing them. Therefore, I have to tell my reader when to breathe. In “Calf Canyon,” especially, I tried to use the form, the sections, commas and colons, and the “spare” line for breath. For me in this poem, it was not so much about the “economy of space” as the density of the complex story.
MH: The speaker’s voice is firm in its address of the sentimental. Tell us more about her and who you have crafted the speaker to be. How closely do you relate with the speaker? If ever, how often do you draw on personal experience?
SMJ: The speaker is a woman dealing with domestic violence. She is capable of admitting the harm to her but unable to admit the harm to others in her very immediate family (namely, the unborn child). Her ambiguity of her own life mirrors her ultimate ambivalence towards her own unborn child’s life. While she might love the child, she believes she can never have her because of her situation. The poem is her lament—and desertion—of the child.
Generally, I try to balance my sentiment by not writing from personal experience. While many of the places, events, and images in “Calf Canyon” are factual to my personal life, I think the most auto-ethnographic aspect of this work shows through the way I describe the events as how I experience the world around me. The diction, the images, and the organization reflect my personal worldview—how I organize the way I see and struggle with the intricacies of human experience.
MH: “Calf Canyon” deals with the grating memory of an unborn child, a seemingly wanted child who never breathed. Though the woman alone deals with the physical loss, I admire that this poem addresses the emotional loss of the man and woman. When writing about so sensitive or emotional a topic, there is a fine line between too much information and too little, too much sentiment and not enough sentiment to attach to a breathing person. How do you achieve the balance?
SMJ: I have a dual mind: at once scientific and creative. I am both objective and poetically subjective. I have attempted to attach the brass rings of all those worlds. The story I recreate in “Calf Canyon” is never just her story or his story. I titled the series in a way to emulate the phases of meiosis. Two cells merge to create one zygote. Two people determine what occurs after that. Keeping this in mind throughout the process kept me objective while also maintaining her point of view.
Because of this predilection toward science and poetry, both ends of the spectrum (or asterisk point) inform the other. Where I see science, I see poetry. Where I see poetry, I see science. Therefore, sentimentality (to which camp I unabashedly belong in real life) becomes tempered by science, query, and theory. With my diverse backgrounds in anthropology and creative writing, ranging from archaeology to some viticulture, I try to balance my poetry in today’s ecological landscape and the human role in nature.
MH: There is a moment in “Calf Canyon” which uses the epistle to facilitate an interior dialogue with the unborn child we just mentioned. This form allows for the intersection of the “real” and “unreal.” How important would you say form is to your continued development as a writer?
SMJ: Originally in “Calf Canyon,” I did not let the speaker directly address the unborn, but that impulse seemed too objective. Introducing the epistle allows her to attempt an explanation for her child while also allowing the reader to glimpse inside a private moment. The entire poem might be a private moment, but the apostrophe to the unborn opens the speaker and, ultimately, the form.
To my own work, the blur between the real and the unreal is why I attempt to write poetry. Not that I am trying to emphasize this blur, but I do try to construct my poems in a way that reflects how the “real” and “unreal” materialize. Where a sun god myth might be “unreal,” its purpose and manifest functions are “real.” Likewise, where a poem or unborn child might be “unreal,” the emotion is real. My development as a writer relies on a constant oscillation between hot and cold—whether my work remains at the extreme or somewhere in the halocline.
MH: Nature is beautifully interwoven with the narrative thread throughout your series, “Calf Canyon.” These references to nature create a concurrent text and seem to play an equally imperative role in this poetic exploration. Where does your knowledge of nature come from? How does nature influence your creative process? How have you managed to use nature as a literary device?
SMJ: If I were going to list my creative influences, I would first be obliged to nature. Raised to love the natural world in a reciprocal manner, I cannot imagine my life without a tree. Some describe “dog people” and “cat people.” I like to think of myself as “plant people.” Like poetry (and poetry crafting), nature fluctuates, pulses, and sustains life. I can only offer reply to its influence by suggesting it in words through my work. Rather than a literary device or metaphor, I mean to represent nature as the truest expression of the human-planet experience.
MH: What experience should the reader take away from the poem? Would you say the language, the music, the connotation or all three? Explain if you can.
SMJ: From the poem, I hope the reader takes away the music and the connotation. Without one, I do not think the other would exist successfully. I wanted the music of the words to enhance the narrator’s perceptions and attitudes. I hope each section successfully presents the narrator’s struggle, whether it be in emotional or physical terms. Most importantly, I hope what she says in the end reveals something about the way our culture views—or even advances-women in her position.
MH: Who are your creative influences?
SMJ: First, I have to say the poem would not exist without Judy Jordan who encouraged me to break free of rigid poetic form. She offered me the advice to let my readers “breathe,” and she also helped me let my images breathe. I wrote and rewrote the last line at least thirty-seven times because Judy taught me resolve and patience. Judy’s constant guidance embeds my poetic river without damming it. Other literary influences include W. S. Merwin, Davis McCombs, Amy Randolph (for her lyricism), and the poets I have been fortunate enough to work with throughout my studies in poetry, especially Young Smith, Frank X Walker, Allison Joseph, and Rodney Jones.
MH: What do you hope your work will contribute to contemporary poetry? The American landscape of literature?
SMJ: One goal I hold for myself is that I hope my poetry can successfully merge scientific rhetoric with poetic conventions—and that people will enjoy such an aesthetic—because I believe in the beauty and irony of classification, taxonomy, and the idea of hypothesizing truth. More importantly, I would like to be able to promote the world of poetry to a wider audience range. Sometimes, it is easier to say, “I’m a student/teacher/folklorist” than it is to say, “I’m a poet.” Many people follow the latter with, “Oh, that’s nice” and a pat on my shoulder. Contemporary poetry offers people more than I think many realize. Lastly, I would like my work to explore the craft and act of poetry in terms of its contribution to the articulation of cultural human worldviews—how we say who we are.
Sarah McCartt-Jackson is completing her Master of Fine Arts at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and her Master of Arts in folklore at Western Kentucky University. Her work has received honors from the Academy of American Poets, Copper Nickel, NANO Fiction, Friends of Acadia Journal, and Saxifrage Press.
Melanie Henderson is a poet and the Managing Editor of Tidal Basin Review.