How does a heartfelt poet know they’re turning out the right stuff to get published? In Sarah Aronson’s case, part of the prep came simply by asking “The Write Question.”
Montana book-lovers who know Sarah well as host of the aforementioned Montana Public Radio literary-interview program can now stand, applaud and enjoy her striking debut poetry collection, “And Other Bodiless Powers,” winner of the 2019 New American Poetry Prize. Far, far from her radio chats with peeps, Sarah’s poems speak lovingly of the bodiless powers of weather and nature. Here’s a sample:
Solitude of Ether
All day women come and go from my office. Build
her nesting place in safety. The gloom burns off
from the waist down. Warblers hook their tiniest
songs to fog. This time of year I nurse wet hair.
New crusts of mud form around the legs
of dead grass. The nights come to us singly, the cold
has told me to give up. If only I could hear your voice.
Before runoff, a river otter begins wringing out dirt.
I was aloft and marching across the town’s only bridge
When someone called to ask what kept my attention.
Lovely and evocative. Perhaps it’s time we ask the “write questions” of this Missoula prizewinner, starting with her birthplace:
“I grew up in Juneau, Alaska. My parents moved up there in the 1970s because of the oil boom and the land rush, and then my father worked for the State of Alaska and my mother was a teacher. Clearly, I identify with it still. It imprinted on me. I feel like I am part Alaska. The maritime environment and the ice age. The joke that I have with a friend of mine here is that it’s still the Holocene. It can still feel really ethereal and magical and ice age-like, although things are really changing dramatically.”
Did you write as a kid?
“Yes, I tell people that poetry was my first language. I used to sit out from recess in the second grade and write poems, and they were largely about what I still write about, which is a lot about beasts and the natural world. It’s definitely part of my core self. I just knew that I had to do it to survive.”
“I had a very clear guide: my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Allen, who made us learn and copy poems every day, I think. I think what was unique about her is that she didn’t just rely on kids’ literature; I remember William Carlos Williams as being like the first real poet that I attached to as a kid. I think it’s easy to let poetry fall by the wayside, but for kids, it’s like nursery rhymes, right? And then you start adding depth and emotion and image, and for me, it just worked.”
An Irish-American dual citizen, Sarah Aronson earned her Bachelor of Arts at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. in 2002, her Master of Social Work at the University of Montana in 2007, and after working a decade as a psychotherapist with Western Montana Mental Health Center (2008-11) and Montana Academy (2011-15), she jumped into private practice, earning her comeback MFA at UM in 2017.
“I pursued creative writing as an undergrad and then threw my hands in the air at age 21, saying there’s no future in poetry, and became a psychotherapist. So I returned as a late bloomer to the MFA scene and came back as like a 35-year-old. So I have that follow-your-dreams success story, which is it’s never too late; you don’t have to be a 22-year-old grad student.”
Do you have kids?
“No, I don’t, and that is one of the preoccupations that I have in this book: what does it mean to be a mid-thirties woman who is not having kids or choosing to have kids or going to have kids, and how do you make sense of that.”
When did you write the poems in “And Other Bodily Powers?”
“I would say that 70 to 80 percent were written in the last three years, and then that last little fragment, probably the earliest goes back four or five years. But the way I’m thinking about it is, it’s the culmination of 13 years of solitude; I’ve been living alone for that long and these are the conversations that I’ve been having internally, and then being in an MFA program allowed the space for them to be crafted.
Just to complicate your breakout debut, the press discovered another Sarah Aronson, the popular kid-lit author of “Just Like Rube Goldberg,” all over the web.
“The other Sarah Aronson! (laughs). That’s the sad comedy of my life, that there is a gorgeous red-haired woman who is also named Sarah Aronson and does all kinds of other things. I haven’t met her, but this is the second time in a month that I’ve been confused with her, and it’s a challenge to figure out how to be my own Sarah Aronson.”
How did “The Write Question” opportunity fall into your life?
“I inherited it from its progenitor, Cherie Newman, who had been doing it for 10 years (on Montana Public Radio), and it was a very, very happenstance moment. I had said that I was interested in doing a music show on the radio, and she brought me in to watch me do an interview and then asked me to do one, and then basically hand-delivered the program to me unexpectedly. That was about three years ago. “
Was your music-show idea an interview show?
“No, no. The music show, I just wanted to be like the invisible force behind the sound that comes out of your transistor. I didn’t want a program to host or be an audio producer, so I fell into that about the time I was getting my MFA.”
Was it radio or writing that got you into “The Write Question?”
“Oh, it was radio, absolutely. That’s the kind of sick joke about it; I wasn’t a very voracious reader and the program has made me read well over 52 books a year. But in a good way!”
Another loaded question: Do your psychology skills come in handy on air?
“The things that I share across all three disciplines of being an interviewer, a therapist and a poet are the element of creativity and the element of honoring voice. I tell people all the time when they think that if you’re a therapist, you’re always on call, that I’m not interested in spending my whole day in therapist mode. That would be rude to myself. Unless you’re paying me $100 right now, I’m not interested (laughs). It’s just using the skills I have around noticing and bringing forth their truest voice, that’s what I would say.”
Let’s give our readers another sample of your work.
Woman Standing in Front of the Mendenhall Glacier
Warmth and recession are not to be
feared. Chattermarks in bedrock,
What if you were not my only reason
for being here? If you advance, what
Might it take to surrender. Pressed
my whole torso into the wind shear,
everything felt elemental. Inside,
I could barely stand the weight
of accumulation. Downwasting
to relieve some of the pressure.
In the barren zone I could tell you wanted
to be touched, but coiled back. A cold stream
in your withdrawal. My heels
rocking in the wet footprint.
Written by an outdoors woman, yes?
“Yes, I think I consider myself that. In the summer, I’m definitely hiking and swimming and fishing, and in the winter, I’m cross-country skiing and hiking. And all year around, I’m playing music, the guitar mostly, though I was raised doing band and trying to play the bagpipes. Landscape is my native home. It’s just such a funny title in Montana, you know, because I would say I am not in the performative outdoor experience. I’m not interested in claiming things or bagging peaks. I’m interested in like melding rather. It’s not about domination for me; it’s about submission and blending in.”
How does one write about “bodiless powers”?
“I tied to show up and be receptive to them. I would practice certain kinds of form; the couplet is clearly a place I like to go. I was working with different inspirations and professors and mentors. And I was negotiating my relationship with Alaska, so some of it is an homage to that life of mine. But in some ways, it’s like my job as a writer is just to show up and then try to craft from that place. I don’t often work top-down cognitively; I kind of work from the source back on up.”
Where do you think the ancient art of poetry is headed today?
“That’s such a good question. Because I’m inside of it and also outside of it, I can see it a couple ways. There are a ton of really great small presses right now and gorgeous books out, and also I think it could be argued that there are still the same types of problems in terms of whose voice is elevated with what authority and supported by whom. And also, the way that poetry is shared in the public forum is so different from the ways we might have done it 150 years ago. When I introduce myself as a poet, people have no idea how to react, because it feels like either a niche thing or old-timey or quaint, like ‘Oh, you’re the poet!’ Or you might be a starving masochist. So I think poetry still has a reputation that doesn’t fully give it its life and breath.”
Here’s your own “write question.” Do you have plans to write other stuff?
“Yes, I am pretty well invested in a non-fiction book right now, and I’ve done a number of fly-fishing poems and articles; so there are those elements. My relationship with poetry, who knows? I don’t think it’s my job to try to muscle it. For me, life is radio in the early morning, psychotherapy in the afternoon and poetry at night. I love it. I have an office. I’m very much an old-fashioned person.”