Wednesday, November 9, 2011

An Interview with Sarah Gorham, by Rachel Andoga

Rachel Andoga talks with Sarah Gorham about her newest collection, Bad Daughter.

Rachel Andoga:
The relationship between mothers and daughters is central to the book-what is it about that relationship in particular that drew you to launch a book-length investigation? Did you know that the book would organize itself around mothers and daughters? What surprised you as you investigated this bond from both sides?

Sarah Gorham: I'm the eldest in a family of five girls, had two daughters, one of whom has two daughters herself. Suffice it to say, I'm surrounded by daughters and mothers, and have now experienced all identities: daughter, mother, grandmother, and hopefully great-grandmother! My last book, The Cure, focused on a family recovery from alcoholism (among other things); it was clear to me as soon as I finished it, this would be the next step.

RA: In "Salon," the speaker struggles to remain "polite" despite the "foul water / stir[ring] under her 'nice' membrane." Many of the poems in Bad Daughter seem to celebrate what Poe called "the imp of the perverse," that impulse to indulge the worst in ourselves, especially in the context of female relationships or "feminine" environments like in "Salon." What draws you to this idea and how does it play out throughout Bad Daughter?

SG: "Bad" behavior is interesting to me, when it's not the result of mental illness. What strains will play out in continued difficulty through adulthood, what strains will make a more rounded, successful, assertive woman. If you speak to anyone in my birth family, they'll have stories of my terrible behavior (biting, scratching, bullying, shouting, shirking of responsibility) at home. Some of that acting out allowed me to take the kind of risk in my later life that led to successes. I love the language of bad behavior itself: permission to say the unpredictable, the utterly honest, even the mean. It's also where I've found my sense of humor.

RA: You play with form so compellingly throughout the collection, sometimes dipping into more traditional, classically recognizable forms like sonnets or prose poems and, at other times, turning these forms on their head, as in "Scaffold for a Sonnet," which not only plays with form but also comments on it. What is your relationship with traditional form and how do formal conventions operate in Bad Daughter?

SG: I managed to get through high school, college, and grad school without writing a single poem in form (this was definitely the era of free verse). My husband Jeffrey Skinner suggested I write an acrostic, then a sonnet, then a villanelle, when I was having trouble starting up again after grad school. What I love is the forced march towards something new: form yanks you away from the stuff you always write.

RA: Similarly, you seem to work with rhyme in these poems as a way closing or undercutting a striking moment. What role does sound play for you in your free verse poems?

SG: I think I have a good ear and love toying with music in all my writing: poetry and prose. Writing that lies flat (sonically) on the page is just not doing enough, not employing all the possibilities. You can obviously hear the difference when a writer reads her work. When I rhyme or alliterate (is there such a word?) I'm moving the line along as if it were a refrain, but also celebrating similarities between words. Then comes the verse, so to speak, which should sing out in a new key or everyone will get bored.

RA: Many of these poems seem to revel in the grittiness of the physical realm (both of the human body as well as natural landscapes). For example, "After the Accident" details the specific injuries and an operation following a car accident and the epigraph for the third section of the book explains how fetal cells can continue to exist in the mother's bloodstream dozens of years after she gives birth. What appeals to you about this kind of physicality, especially as it relates to the book's central concern of mothers and daughters?

SG: Here's a secret. My husband and I had a motorcycle accident out in the country. He was more seriously injured than I was: eighteen rib fractures, collapsed lung, chest tubes, then MRSA from his several operations. He nearly died. I cracked my chin, broke my toe, knocked my teeth back (and pushed them in place myself!) and suffered road rash in areas you'd never want it. So, I stole much his hospital experience and fused it into mine.

That said, the minute focus on body, the specific details are just another expression of the sharp honesty I was hoping for in this book. Also, all these women in my life are linked by DNA, which can appear to be gentle as braided hair or stringent as piano wire. What are we but a collage of body parts, something borrowed, something new.

RA: What have you been working on lately?

SG: I've been writing essays for the last ten years and have assembled a collection, called Study in Perfect. It's a natural progression from the longer lined poems I wrote for Bad Daughter, not to mention the subject matter. Some titles include: On Selfishness, On Lying, On Sentimentality, etc. And Study in Perfect (a segmented essay spread through the collection) of course, which is really a study of imperfection. They've all been published in good literary magazines. Now the trick is finding a book publisher for this kind of thing. You think it's hard in poetry!

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Rachel Andoga is a poetry candidate in the Masters of Fine Arts program at Arizona State University. A graduate of Davidson College, she recently received a first-place award in the Academy of American Poets’ Katharine C. Turner Prize as well as runner up in Yemassee’s 2011 Pocataligo Poetry Contest. She has forthcoming work in an anthology titled …AND LOVE…, published by Jacar Press in 2012.