Poetry is Made of Atoms: Sarah M. Sala Interviewed by CAConrad

The poet on writing against queer erasure.

Devil's Lake by Sarah M. Sala

It is so hard to stop reading these poems for all of their astonishing courage and beauty that the phone gets ignored. It rings again, ignored, in a room far away. Sarah M. Sala’s debut poetry book, Devil’s Lake (Tolsun Books), is a beautifully realized, wrenching collection about U.S. violence and empire. Her poems reveal the love of queer community—and the terror against that love—in a world where queer people get killed and erased. And yet, she knows how to take the small gifts of our lives and push them together until we cannot believe how abundant they are. I am changed and very grateful. Devil’s Lake shook me awake!



CAConrad I am so glad we can have this time to talk about your amazing new book. How are you feeling about Devil’s Lake arriving as part of the conversation with the current world we’re in?

Sarah M. Sala I’m unbelievably honored to get to talk with you about the book! It feels surreal—both to see the manuscript in print, but also for the book to enter the world as we fight for social justice amidst a pandemic. Devil’s Lake identifies and reckons with the status quo—presenting and reimagining how we treat “the other” in the United States. It’s my hope that the collection also models how we might practice radical vulnerability and tenderness toward one another.

CAC The poem “Woman” is an extraordinary map of radical vulnerability. It startles; it is so visceral that we feel it. In fact, I’m feeling the poem while writing about it now. Later you have three erasure poems of a homophobic letter. Can you talk about the ways you unsettle and reinvent the message of violence?

SMSI wrote “Woman” to render the terror I felt when a mundane action like riding the train suddenly became unsafe. The distance between action and reaction is the unsettled space. I think a poem serves to expand and inhabit that liminality—so you can feel what I felt.

Erasures are unique in that they reveal multiple truths in the same text. They can be super playful and cathartic with heavy material. I feel so lucky to be a practicing artist—how else do people cope with the world? When I received a handwritten letter advising me not to marry my fiancé because we’re queer—whether intentional or not—the letter delivered a private shame that I refused to take on. While the first draft of the erasures was personal, the series quickly universalized into a larger dialogue about the microaggressions, erasures, and trauma “othered” folks are often encouraged to face in silence. 

CAC Recently, the US Supreme Court ruled that employers are no longer allowed to discriminate against or fire employees for being LGBTQ. On June 14th, 2020 it was legal to fire queers in thirty of the fifty states. On June 15th, no longer, and I know we have a long way to go, but I am still excited! Your book feels so much part of this moment where democracy turns on its hinge a little closer in the direction of its ideal. As a queer poet who has just finished this extraordinary book, how do you feel about such changes and your poems speaking alongside these forces at work?

SMSIt’s validating to see these queer experimental poems published on the coattails of the Supreme Court upholding the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Yet, I still think our next battle is to ensure queer and trans folks’ access to quality healthcare. Every few months a well-meaning person will lean in and say something to me like, Oh, everyone celebrates LGBTQ+ people now, right? As if the struggle for civil rights is linear. We’re seeing incremental changes, thanks to our ancestors, mentors, and QTPOC family who came before us, but as you suggest, there’s still a lot of work to do. My hope is that poetry is a call to action: that it incites fundraising, protesting, and listening deeply to each other.

I also have to tell you, CA, when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, I was really frightened. Then I ran across one of your social media posts contextualizing the pandemic with the AIDS crisis, and how we’ve survived this kind of world-upending virus before. I went from feeling alone in my apartment, to instantly upheld by community. Your poetry, activism, and work as a healer make mine and so many others’ lives better.

CAC Thank you for saying this, and I am very happy to hear it. I feel very fortunate to have been with my oldest friend Elizabeth during this epidemic. We had many friends who died of AIDS, and for over 100 days this spring we did daily healing rituals. We all need one another. In an early version of your marvelous poem, “A Rain Storm Reminded Me Why I Love,” you begin with a quote from Emily Dickinson, and I wonder if you could talk about this connection? I love how you adapt this conversation in the poem between strong queer voices centuries apart!

SMSA hundred days of healing rituals sounds like exactly what we need right now. The other night I caught a news story about the 1918 flu where the news anchor said something remarkable like, It’s very American to forget our history—to move forward as if nothing ever happened. I never thought of forgetting as a distinctly American trait. The etymology of the word “forget” means to “lose care for” a thing. With diseases like AIDS or COVID-19, people are eager to resume “regular” life, but my hope is that we continue to pay attention.

The same concept of maintaining care applies to keeping queer history alive. In undergrad I spent a summer studying in The New England Literature Program (NELP) where I met a fantastic Dickinson scholar. She taught us to close-read Dickinson’s work, but also presented images of the handwritten fascicles and relayed the poet’s life and publishing journey. Dickinson was writing to the love of her life, Susan, but her editor literally erased Susan’s name from the text to make it saleable! In a letter to Susan, Dickinson writes: “We are the only poets and everyone else is prose.” I wanted to invite the passion and lastingness of their love to co-mingle with my own love story. Now the book itself opens with an epigraph from Dickinson as an homage to her life.

Sala Author Photo

Photo of Sarah Sala by Talya Chalef.

CACThat is beautiful, sharing a space for love, regardless of the heterosexual violence of poets like Billy Collins. He posthumously rapes Emily Dickinson in a poem because—as he said to Terry Gross on her radio show Fresh Air—he wanted to prove that she was not a lesbian. A former Poet Laureate of the United States said putting his cock inside lesbians will make them straight!

Madeleine Olnek, the director of Wild Nights with Emily, has spoken in an interview about the use of infrared technology to authenticate Susan’s erased signature finally and thoroughly. Whatever doubts Billy Collins and the other dude poets have told their students, we can now say that their “concerns” are nothing more than violent bigotry! 

SMSYou’re so right that any “speculation” about Dickinson’s sexuality at this point is either driven by bigotry or erasure. I love the film Wild Nights with Emily because it refuses the drab story we’ve all been fed and breathes hilarity and verve back into her biography. Molly Shannon is so good in that role! I felt a sense of wholeness watching the film—now we can celebrate Dickinson’s life, legacy, and poetry together. So many young queer poets can find a home in her story. This is why Collins’ casual violation of Dickinson’s queer body is grotesque. Why seek to erase the epic love she had with Susan? Why transfer your boring fetish onto her majestic legacy?

CACNow feels like the right time to discuss your poem, “Nature Poem.” Everything about what you do on the page makes me gasp as you relay the violence done to these lesbians who were trying to enjoy a beautiful hike. Could you please talk about this startling poem and the choices you made for its content and layout? 

SMSIn “Nature Poem,” I sought to preserve the queer romance between Rebecca Wight and Claudia Brenner—two grad students who met on the Appalachian Train to spend a weekend hiking and making love. After Wight’s murder, how can queer folks ever feel safe in nature again? As I researched their story, just one or two lines of striking description or dialogue from news clippings were enough to launch lines of the poem. My instinct with the form was to position the sparse stanzas halfway down the page to signal disruption, like a flag at half-mast. The two-word lines appear side-by-side down the length of the page to embody two women walking together. The poem spans fifteen pages in the center of the book—it’s a re-wilding of their aliveness. The intensity of the trauma forced me to strip away my lyric impulse.

CACOne of the things I admire about your work is how much you trust your readers to get it as we go along. Can you talk about the form and placement of “American Ammunition” in the book?

SMSThat’s great to hear. I often resist scaffolding because we’re taught very early to “decode” poems—line one adds up to line two which allows us to grasp line three. But that way of thinking implies an artificial rigor, as if the poet resists understanding. Poetry is made of atoms! A good poem will make us feel something. Sure, we should close read carefully, but I like grey areas, too. 

I positioned “American Ammunition” as a gateway to the collection in the sense that it memorializes the Pulse shooting, introduces the experimental formatting that forces the reader to literally re-orient the book, as well as a lyric urgency that replaces bullets with blossoms. That piece is also an erasure: I felt compelled to reduce a six-page poem down to thirteen lines to bring out its most essential elements.

CACIt is so brilliant how you make us shift the physical book, to reorient, like you say, in order to actually read this poem. To reduce six pages to thirteen lines sounds like it comes from many years of studying your own voice’s timbre and range—all the possibilities of your tools. Can you give us a window into how the poet you are today evolved? 

SMSPerhaps other poets are more efficient at drafting and editing than I am—a complicated piece will take me four or five years to distill. I’ve only been a poet for a little over a decade, so I consider myself a perpetual student of the craft. Three years into the draft, I got frustrated and wrote out the strongest lines on a single page—then dropped in section breaks. While wrestling with this poem I took a community craft class with Gregory Pardlo via Poets House, did a Sundress for the Arts Residency, and founded a free poetry workshop called Office Hours. I was “stuck” on the poem all that time, but for me, seeking out good readers of your work who hold you accountable to the craft is invaluable. The dramaturg Matthew Goulish said, “Each work contains at least one [moment of exhilaration], even if by accident.” In editing these poems, I tried to be as generous to those moments of exhilaration as possible. My task as the writer is to focus on what’s working, not what’s failing.

CACIt makes me so happy to hear you talk about being a perpetual student. I have been writing since 1975 and feel the same way. Believing there is always more to learn is real, and knowing this fact keeps the suspense of poetry’s possibilities at the forefront! If Devil’s Lake is the best example of what was working, not failing, how has this focus and work given you a frame for what poems you will create next?

SMSDevil’s Lake taught me to dream big and trust that I will land. No one knows how to write a book for the first time, but you have to keep listening to the voices who urge you to keep going. The next project I’m working on is called Migrainer, a radical exploration of my experience living with chronic migraine. The poems exist for the reader to slip in and out of my altered consciousness. Migraines are so weird—I can hallucinate music, colors suddenly interact with me, and I often lose all sense of my body in time and space. Why not attempt to translate that overwhelm into art? Devil’s Lake gifted me fearlessness in insisting on my vision for the work, so I want to deepen that experimentation.

Devil’s Lake is available for purchase here.

CAConrad is the author of 9 books of poetry and essays. While Standing in Line for Death (Wave Books), won a 2018 Lambda Book Award. They also received a 2019 Creative Capital grant as well as a Pew Fellowship in the Arts Award, the Believer Magazine Book Award, and the Gil Ott Book Award. They regularly teach at Columbia University in New York City, and Sandberg Art Institute in Amsterdam. Their books, essays, recordings, and the documentary The Book of Conrad (Delinquent Films) are available online here.

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