Sarah, with friend Alice
by Jon Riccio
Sarah Sarai’s poems remind us to savor the esoteric in tandem with the “true real.” As to the prognostic, The Future Is Happy (BlazeVOX [books], 2009) relieves our guesswork-addled culture through such seers as Jack Kerouac, Emma Bovary and Bill Knott, each delving into a chronology that transitions from a sky’s hindsight to the “stew of snowflake christenings.” “Every fate has rotations,” Sarai writes, her work espousing how best to adjust the knob when happiness crosshairs onto the safe deposit’s dial.
Jon Riccio: The titular poem tells us to accept connection. Is serendipity the key to a happy future?
Sarah Sarai: Serendipity is a word born in a fairy tale. The Three Princes of Serendip’s characters were, according to Horace Walpole, who coined the word in 1754, “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” Serendipity is a blender-drink of fortune, happenstance, toy parade, fresh pineapple, ice, and vodka. However, you, Jon, ask for the “key” to a happy future. While I have considered becoming the sort of person able to respond to such a question, I am still in training to be a guru. Though I observe that making oneself available – open – to beneficent fortune, good luck, kind fates, the occasion of a good thing is serendipity. I heard someone say, “the future is happy” as a motto to keep himself going and knew it would be the title of my collection. Some misunderstand—think, assume or pretend to assume it is sappy. Those are the same people who start singing songs containing my first name when we meet. Don’t bank on anything but the now, although it wouldn’t hurt to put money aside for a vacation.
JR: Per your poem “The Brave One:” “Humanity’s an abrupt artform, tolerated / by the pageant and caught, a filigree in / the pretty scrapbook, amber, held to / sparkling effulgence.” Are we in more of a draft or revision stage?
SS: That’s a subtle distinction. Isn’t a revision the becoming of, or, an actualized draft? A draft is passive but certainly not dead, more like passed out on the page from the exhaustion of composition, or life. Even joy is exhausting. Even good times need the grounding of a cup of hot tea with milk. A draft is a lady-in-waiting to the writer. A revision has the daring to better itself as we writers dare to embellish, experiment with, and improve – which we do or don’t but we change the work and certainly we fail better over time. Also: palimpsest: let the word hang here.
JR: Your book features God, angels, Shiva and saints. To what degree do world religions influence your poetry?
SS: The Future Is Happy also makes mention of Jodie Foster, Spinoza, Descartes, Aristotle, Denzel Washington, Count Basie, Ingmar Bergman, Jimmy Carter. By “your book features” I take it you mean that The Great Else, the Cosmic Lunacy, God, are given a greatest weight in the collection, something I like hearing yet which makes me nervous. I’ve more or less always been a believer in The Awesome Power. Alas, being a believer is like loving a career criminal, or being one of those women who takes up with the incarcerated. Do dykes do that? You are giving me ideas! Sometimes I am disinterested in poetry that doesn’t reach for wisdom and sometimes I am annoyed with myself for falling into a pit of cleverness. Once a Swedenborgian, on hearing my mother was a Christian Scientist and my father was Jewish commented, “You were released to wander.” Nailed me, in life and writing.
JR: “Mirage or not, tales of healing palms/ lure pilgrims to our vastland./ The springs of Baden Baden?/ Miss Piggy Bubblebath soothes as good.” is a planful pitch for the shrine-inclined who occupy “Monarch of the Desert.” What happens when pop culture and the organic meet?
SS: Pop culture and the organic don’t meet so much as speed date. They have been acquainted with one another since forever. Poetry is drawn from the organic insofar as emotion and lived experience are organic, which, organic, I may be confusing with real. Who knows what will continue to sound authentic and compelling in a hundred years. Some lucky guesses but no one knows. Right now all contemporary poets are pop (is a theory one could postulate). Segue. Do you think little kids re-enacted the battles of the Iliad and/or designed costumes for the pageant? Play turns the classic into pop. Who was the Grecian Athenian action figure mfg.? Another response is simply that art is a synthesis or mash-up. By the way, Miss Piggy Bubblebath is a bathing-my-niece-and-nephew memory. And it is Miss Piggy. And it is bubblebath. A perfect storm of soap and poetry.
JR: Who are some essential poets for remembering the less-than-commendable moments of our past, moments collective memory needs, nonetheless?
SS: Right now I’m reading Ernesto Cardenal’s Golden UFOs: the Indian Poems (Indiana Univ. Press). He takes on the task of remembering the before of colonial empire without missing the post-colonial. Swinging back to your question on spirituality, here is a Cuna sage on Euro-religion, from the title poem: “‘Nobody has seen God. We know nothing about Him.’” And a garden of Eden that was lost: “The traditional here is revolutionary.” The oft-touted ‘economy’ of poetry, and some presupposition of our knowledge of history, allows Cardenal to describe a group of people, now; in the near past (of the poem), such as when Hilton tried a landgrab for a hotel; when Columbus and his band of sickos landed; and before Columbus. Before Columbus. Fifteen pages and it’s all there. Poets right now are doing similar: Claudia Rankine, Rigoberto González, Jericho Brown, Timothy Yu, Naomi Shihab Nye, Kazim Ali. Michael Broder’s online anthology on HIV, as well as his poems. These names came quickly. There are many many others. Ai, Akmatova, Brooks, Szymborska, Kuyumaka, Doug Anderson, Tagore.
JR: Would you rather live “in the melancholy beehive” with its “hot gold and warm honey,” or remain in your current base of operations, New York City?
SS: I divide my time between the two. I do long for the beehive and beauty of its melancholy. It is without the sometimes smallness of NYC. But also without the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, which stare at me with delicious disinterest nearly every day. I check rentals in little, sunny towns around the country, looking for little honey pots to live in with a honey pot. But right now I’m here.
JR: “I have no mythology” you state a third of the way through the book. What’s the quickest way to acquire one in the social-media age?
SS: I don’t have an only-one-most-high mythology. So that’s that. The Information Age gave way to the Disinformation Age as funded by CEOs and many-star generals and politicians who rake in omni-fortunes from the omniwar. We’re habituated to seeing soldiers who adapt to use of artificial limbs because they were “serving their country.” Bless Snowden, Occupy, BlackLivesMatter, and others who helped move us towards the Age of Transparency and Accuracy and bless social media for expediting that. And for friendships with writers I haven’t met but know through the mysteries of cyber intuition. And for books I learned of through s-m (social media). Happy face. There is a lot of input in NYC. It’s good to get a more inclusive perspective through the web that is world-wide. It’s here and I make use of it and media that socializes us.
JR: There’s a passage in “Everywhere Woman Is Born Free” about your own personal purgatory serving as “a beta test for a new way of salvation/ for all mankind.” Beta to meta, what were the results?
SS: Meta is a ways off in this poet’s life, and also I am not sure of your concept of a progression of beta to meta, as if we can test our way into some communion. The new way of salvation has actually been around for a while. Be kind, feed the poor, don’t lose awareness of the gift all this is. But the new way of salvation is that the future, which is now, now being all we truly have unless we can shape shift and time warp, is, you should pardon the expression, to be happy, happy enough. The Future Is Happy Enough? No one has to seek out grief.
JR: The phrase “corporeality of life” appears in the book’s final poem. Is this the best outlook for present-day happiness?
SS: Bodies are a hell of a problem. And I’ve fought to have one. My training was “there is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter . . . matter is mortal error” – which is part of the Christian Science partyline. My mother also bequeathed great gifts of fancy and imagination, intelligence, oneness of humanity. My love for her is impossibly strong. Still I wasn’t allowed to see doctors and lived day-in/day-out with her illusions, which was like living with a Transcendentalist on crack. My father was my father. He had to leave college (Columbia) in his last year because my grandfather lost it all in the thirties. He was a remarkably interesting person. Perhaps less booze would have made him even more so. The final stanza of that poem, “Incorporeal,” answers your question. I adore “a thing as pine boughs shaken/ by burning cold winds when/ we’re all alone and looking up.” I land on the simple spectacular of life.
JR: You end “Emily Dickinson Is Jewish” with “Poems as long as one letter, rise.” Your one-letter poem? Why?
SS: Quite a while back I encountered the poet Nelly Sachs in my reading. She and Paul Celan were friends and correspondents, like Bishop and Lowell but different. Celan was forced into a labor camp, as you know, and Sachs made it to Sweden a day before she would have been swept up in Germany’s horror. I no longer have the collection of hers I’d referred to, O the Chimneys. (She was awarded a Nobel in literature.) In “Emily Dickinson Is Jewish” I reveal a somewhat regrettable tendency, and great empathy, to imagine the worst possible and then care-take whoever is in those circumstances — in this case death camps although now I am thinking of the so so many people unjustly cruelly held in U.S. prisons. While you (the indistinct you) may not have the opportunity and privilege to write a poem, still, even the thought of a poem matters. Thought artwork and ashes of the imprisoned are seen by The Vast Distance.
And there you go. And now here I go. Thank you so much for asking great questions, and asking me.
Sarah Sarai’s poems have appeared in Ascent, Pool Poetry, PANK, Boston Review, Threepenny Review, Yew, Ping-Pong, decomP, and many other journals. Her short stories have appeared in Tampa Review, Gravel, The Writing Disorder, South Dakota Review, Storyglossia, and others. She has appeared in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Santa Fe. Her personal essay, “The Changing of the Guides,” (spirit guides, in her case) is in the forthcoming anthology of odd experience, In Case We Die (Unknown Press). She studied psychic healing in Los Angeles, the work of Edgar Cayce in New York, has an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. Her collection, The Future Is Happy (BlazeVOX), can be ordered through Amazon or SPD. She blogs at My 3,000 Loving Arms. And works as an editor.
Jon Riccio studied viola performance at Oberlin College and the Cleveland Institute of Music. An MFA candidate at the University of Arizona, current and forthcoming poems appear in Really System, Split Rock Review, Cleaver, Futures Trading, Hawai’i Review and Carbon Culture Review, among others. He serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review.
by Laura Madeline Wiseman
“You put your thumb on a button and somebody blows up 20 minutes later, says Ronald Regan,” writes Dennis Etzel, Jr. in the closing poem of My Secret Wars of 1984, a book that examines the words written and spoken by cultural figures like Ronald Regan during the culturally significant literary year of 1984. For Etzel, 1984 was the year he entered high school from middle school, the year his mother came out, and the year he played Dungeons and Dragons, while also reading books that appeared that year such as Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars. Etzel’s secret war reads like a chorus, for the voices here with quotes arranged alphabetically in 366 sentences for the leap year of 1985 include bell hooks, Lyn Hejinian, George Orwell, popular culture writers and editors, and the national weather service, for this storm of language also alludes to an ice storm in Topeka, Kansas, one that sheathed the city in cold, left over 80% of the population without power, and destroyed hundreds of trees trying to bare the weight of two inches of ice. Arranged as blocks of text, the poems offer voices that echo and complicate, layering meaning as they seem to reflect and trouble who spoke that year and why. Etzel writes,
An unspent lunch money becomes a sustenance of comic books. And a number of pages were excised by that agency head there, the man in charge, and he sent it on up here to CIA, where more pages were excised before it was printed, says Ronald Reagan. And as soon as we have an investigation and find out where any blame lies for the few that did not get excised or changed, we certainly are going to do something about that, says Ronald Reagan. And as the heroes watch, they are watched in turn. And each evening the pace back home matches the sun’s setting. And I start high school at my lowest. And now we are putting up a defense of our own, says Ronald Reagan. (23)
Here, former president Reagan’s quotations work as a sort of troubling reminder of the cold war tactics that pitted capitalism against communism, of the way politicians speak in the doublespeak that Orwell described in 1984, and of the concerns of teenagers finding imaginary superheroes and imaginary powers a solace amid troubling growing years, as much as the lines remind that Reagan lost his mind as so many do due to Alzheimer’s, a disease that eats holes in the brain and excises what one thought they knew by swapping it with others. The rigorous constraints of My Secret War of 1984 make this first full-length collection an enjoyable and creative read, part of the pleasure reading for how the poet turns each sentence against the ones before and after it, how the poet moves through the alphabet as much as he moves through the spoken and written thoughts produced during that year, and how such lines move against the sweeter, more innocent lines and references such as those like “Please come to my rescue, Atreyu. Please let me find a place to hide” (61), for they remind how the social and cultural world shape us, shape our children, and shaped our younger selves. My Secret Wars of 1984 show how such youth and youthful pasts are full of thinkers, individuals who question and trouble the stories told about war, government information, and gender norms. For example, Etzel quotes hooks, “Feminism defined as a movement to end sexist oppression enables women and men, girls and boys, to participate equally in revolutionary struggle” (34), a line that suggests a powerful and necessary, if secret, war against which the protagonist of such a memoir in verse struggled, one that empowers such a revolutionary poetry of resistance. Collections like My Secret Wars of 1984 that speak resistance through poems retell and reimagine the historic moment, taking on the fragmentation of information and layering it into something whole, complicated, and smart.
BlazeVOX Books (2015): $16.00
Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of over twenty books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her most recent book is Drink (BlazeVOX Books, 2015). She teaches in Nebraska. www.lauramadelinewiseman.com