An Interview with Sarah Maclay

 We’re living in a moment that is not so much definitively regional or strictly hierarchic as it is kaleidoscopic.

Sarah Maclay


Sarah Maclay is a poet, critic, and teacher. She lives in Los Angeles, but draws experience from a life spanning the United States and Europe. She has written three books of poetry, is working on a fourth, collaborative book, and her poems have appeared in over 70 publications. Sarah Maclay, welcome to the California Journal of Poetics!


Music for the Black Room is your third book of poetry, after Whore and The White Bride. In these volumes, you’re not scared off by taboo sexual subjects or verboten vocabulary, rather, you confront them directly. Do you think your work has become bolder over the years? What motivates you to approach these topics? Is there anything you won’t touch?


The poems in Music for the Black Room were begun between roughly 1975 and 2002. I continued to tweak them (formally, mostly, as some of the early versions felt too cramped on the page) until late 2010. So even though this is the third book to be released from U of Tampa, it may make most sense to think of it as a prequel, though a number of the poems are Whore-concurrent. I’d tried several versions of what became Music for the Black Room (under other titles) before all of the poems were written, and finally realized, in 2002, that I was going to have to see what belonged in Whore before I could re-address this other work. Once that was clear, the series of prose poems that begin The White Bride began to emerge, and that became the creative trajectory for the next few years. So it was only after The White Bride had finally found itself that I returned to the older work that is now the newest release, and I returned in part because a few poet friends kept nagging me about it—wasn’t there another book? Where was it? I’d been a little afraid that the poems would no longer hold up, but in fact it was refreshing to return to them after some distance. I did a few road tests with readers who weren’t familiar with the poems, and was assured that they were worth releasing. And so I hate to disappoint you, but it appears then that I’m not actually getting bolder, at least in regard to subject matter, since, though it has emerged third, it’s more like a first book.


Many of the poems were written after a long hiatus from writing, during a time in which I wasn’t even sure I’d write poems again. Some of them, clearly, are love poems, or love-hopeful poems. Some are poems of loss, of frustration, confusion. Some are just grateful for moments of being, of joy. Some tap dreams. Many, I wouldn’t even try to categorize. I was given the task of daily gardening during the period in which I wrote or revised many of these poems—mainly trying to keep the plants alive for other people—and it was also a deeply therapeutic activity for me, so if you notice a hyper-alertness to nature and especially to water, this is partly why—and of course it also becomes metaphorical, but it’s based in trying to keep things from dying. My hyper-alertness to nature also comes from growing up in an agricultural landscape, which meant that I was always going to be tuned in to plants and to weather—partly because these were elements that had to be dealt with on a daily basis, and partly because there was an absence of people, of buildings, of the bustle of the city. This forms my basis for seeing, my original frame.


I had no idea what or how I’d be writing or how it would be received, and so my deal with myself was simply not to second-guess any of that, because I’m quite good at stopping myself. And I’d had a health scare that was ultimately very focusing. It took all my energy to walk into the workshops at The Midnight Special (a now-defunct bookstore) and Beyond Baroque, and then I went to two workshops a week. For a few years I put several encouraging quotes on my refrigerator door, and read them every day, like a credo. One was the famous “keep the channel open” advice from Martha Graham, which I’d typed out a few years earlier (on a manual typewriter) while reading her book Dance to the Paper. One was from the gospel according to Thomas (“If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”) One was a clipping from an interview with Sharon Doubiago—she talks about this necessary sense of drawing water from an inner well, regardless of whether that’s harrowing. And finally Beckett: “Fail. Fail again. Fail better.” And so it wasn’t that I was planning to write about anything in particular, but that I felt that in order to survive (literally), I might very well need to be sure that I didn’t prevent myself from writing whatever it was that was tapping on my shoulder to be written.


Whether or not there’s anything I won’t touch—it’s hard to say, hard to predict, because I don’t feel as though I can will a poem into being without its arriving stillborn—I still have very much the sense that I don’t choose what to write, it chooses me. I can tell you, though, that there are some things I’ve written that I will not publish, and that’s a reasonable choice, I think, for writers to make—it seems important not to stop the flow of whatever’s coming up, because there’s no telling what it will lead to. But you don’t have to publish everything.


For better or for worse, there is a way in which poems are oracular (even if this is not intended or part of one’s conscious aesthetic and even, for instance, when working with OuLiPo techniques or other methods that would seem to skew such a possibility)—it’s not that they tell the future but that they tell the present. And sometimes they tell the past. In their own chosen language, in their own emerging sequencing, and even in the process of listening for revision, they tell a truth—not necessarily a welcome one.


I don’t feel as though I can will a poem into being without its arriving stillborn.


In my review, I note “the black room” could be a place of life and creation as well as a place of decay. How would you describe the black room?


I very much like that gloss, Lisa, and think it’s true. On a literal level, the black room I had in mind in the title was the black box theater at Beyond Baroque, where a number of these poems were read aloud and workshopped for the first time—some new, some old. But that also represented a phase, as well as a place, and during that time some of the poems went through this same thing elsewhere—places like the Midnight Special and The Church in Ocean Park. (There are a few poems in the book that emerged even later, in workshops with David St. John and at my time at Vermont College. The earliest were begun in Montana and Oberlin.)


I think there was, in the very act of doing the writing and workshopping and giving of readings, a kind of healing and re-creation that was going on. And perhaps it was only looking back on this work that I understood how truly dark so much of it was, and how difficult the passages which it records.  But there are also moments of renewal and hope and inklings of a movement beyond narrow concerns—and the beginning of a kind of understanding.


Music for the Black Room is divided into 6 sections: Shadow, Ice, Blue Trumpets, A Mirror, Neon, and Ash. In terms of their content and style, the sections very clearly speak to each other, yet the section list is surprising and unusual. How did you see the section titles embodying each individual section and connecting to one another?


I need to start first with the book title and then get to the sections. I’d gone to hear Jeanette Clough read at the Ruskin. Somehow, in the coffee line afterwards, “the black room” slipped into my head as an answer for the title, and it solved a lot of problems, because how do you organize the mess of poems that have been accumulating for decades, yet seem to want to be together, and that may have been inspired by a number of people? And so it was around “the black room” at Beyond Baroque and all that occurred at that time—this process, this place, this time of writing new poems and revising old ones. But just those three words were not enough—for one thing, a quick search online revealed that they were titles of other books that had quite different contexts. And “Poems for” or something was flat. But Music for felt completely right—and then what was actually quite literal became completely right metaphorically—the sense of these poems as sorts of healing spells for a dark space, music emerging within and for a dark place.


Some of the poems had appeared in chapbooks as well as in journals, and so the section titles came, in part, from very shortened versions of the chap titles or projected chapbooks that had not appeared, and these single words or very short phrases now also felt fresh and suggestive yet un-“done.” One was derived from a part of a title idea I’d once had for the book as a whole. Blue trumpets appear in one of the poems, as does ash, but those section titles also feel aligned with their contents, tonally. It’s interesting and somewhat reassuring to see that these sections feel in conversation both in content and style, and I do now have that sense also; but when I was putting the book together, the variations in style and approach and sometimes tone seemed so large to me that I thought the whole thing would collapse on itself if, say, it was organized into three sections, or even four. Also, this is the longest of the three books, and I thought long sections would become exhausting. Six sections was the perfect answer—they are short enough, for me, at least, that they’re not exhausting—the reader can take a breath. And even though tone and approach shift, section to section, I do think now that the whole also coheres.  


You’ve worked with Beyond Baroque in Venice, California for a number of years now. Not only did it provide inspiration for your title, you dedicated the collection to its patrons. Can you talk a bit more about the organization, your involvement, and how it has informed your writing?


Beyond Baroque has been fostering the literary arts in various ways for more than 40 years. The organization started in a surfboard shop on what’s now Abbott Kinney, then moved to the still-current home on Venice Blvd. I’m tempted to send you straight to so that you can get the history from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. It had been recommended to me for years as a place to workshop my poems. I went once in the 80s, got scared, and then returned and really plunged in, in 1996. For three years, I was a regular at two workshops a week. The whole phase was really encouraging—Fred Dewey asked us to put a workshop anthology together, and Jessica Pompei, who was leading the workshops then, and Holaday Mason and I ended up with the editorial tasks and everyone in the workshop was pitching in. Nate Scoble, one of the workshop poets, designed what became templates for other BB books, too. And it was here and at the Midnight Special that I started to do readings again, and then eventually I became one of a number of facilitators of the workshop. For a time, I was also helping with a monthly reading series there—doing some curating and hosting. And I’ve gone to many readings and one-off workshops (some by visiting writers) there, too—it’s been a kind of life-saver for me and it allowed me to climb back into my own writing and test the waters and re-orient myself, and from there, I began to branch out. I also made some lifelong friends.


It’s as though, often, the first lived-in region creates a lens through which all other places are seen, are refracted. Or maybe a later region or experience shatters that lens.


You’ve also served as artistic director for the THIRD AREA, which organizes readings in Los Angeles. How often do these poetry readings take place, and what are they like? What is the dynamic between the readers and the audience? How has working with other performers affected your work as a poet?


It’s a gallery-based series, with a sort of soiree atmosphere—light refreshment, booksellers on hand, different art almost every time—it began with an invitation to create a series for Pharmaka, in downtown LA, and then when Pharmaka closed we were invited to move to Frank Pictures and then Rosamund-Felson at Bergamot Station. So there’s the immediate sense of one art form in conversation with another, and the sort of relaxed yet hyper-alert distillation of attention that is possible in a gallery the way it isn’t, say, amidst the noise of the cappuccino machines, but at the same time it feels less stuffy than certain academic situations and less formal than a stage. And, remarkably, what we’ve noticed almost every time is that, especially by the end of the reading, it’s as though we’ve experienced a kind of conversation among the readings/readers—a lovely communing/communion that just seemed to happen naturally. We also noticed a real sense of cohesion develop between readers and audience, and often an audience full of poets as well as people who’ve never been to a reading before, so there’s a salon-like atmosphere with a growing sense of exploration and mutual appreciation—an audience that always feels both smart and open, with a lot of readers coming back to hear fellow poets read, and with poets feeling safe enough to try out new or risky work. We did a reading per month in our first year, sometimes two, and usually there were four readers, though in one case, to celebrate an anthology, we had eleven (reading briefly). Now it’s more like eight times a year, and the series has moved to three readers a night. What we have in mind is a different aesthetic bouquet each time—and a combination of poets from near and far, from emerging through very established. So each night is very distinct.


About the impact of other performers—it’s interesting that you put it this way, since it means I have to go further back and get broader. I guess I’m like a sponge, and have been for a long time, so I’ve been watching and participating in all kinds of performance since I was a kid, including singing and acting and dance and playing the piano and flute and guitar and even doing some clowning and mime, as well as exploring things like tai chi and yoga. All of that has somehow gotten distilled into my own sense of how to read my own poems, which is basically just to be with them—be present with them, present to them. With any luck, that will end up feeling both dramatic and intimate. I don’t like to put the overlay of a proscenium arch on top—there’s a kind of “bigness” that sometimes I think people feel obliged to move toward, but it usually just feels fake to me when people do that, unless it’s completely organic—and I’ve been blessed to witness a number of poets reading for whom it is not only organic but actually astounding; otherwise, a “bigness” that feels obligatory can distance me from the experience of a poem. I like to just really be with the words, and with the moment, and with the audience. The words are like a score—a rhythmic score. I read without eyeglasses so I can connect to the audience and to the words. I’d rather whisper than yell. And I’m not sure how or if any of this has influenced the poems themselves—I just have to stay open to the moment they announce themselves, the moment they tap on my shoulder.


Each poet reading in the series, of course, has his or her own distinct voice and style—Wanda (Coleman) will go into these amazingly wild bursts of a kind of howling/singing; Ilya (Kaminsky) does that Russian chanting thing that makes me weep; Brendan (Constantine) is a consummately present performer of the bold and surreal with impeccable comic timing, powerful eyebrows, an active foot and wild hands; Rick Lupert is the king of deadpan droll; Ralph (Angel) (“the god voice,” as he’s been called) can slip between impish humor and self-deprecation in his intros into utterly sublime, elliptical poems that relish silence and stillness and space; Nikola (Madzirov) moves between two languages, Macedonian and English, riveting in each, as does Mariano Zaro (Spanish and English), as his work moves from dashing and dramatic and revealing to lyric to funny and self-deprecating. Marsha de la O is cyclonically intense (in a good way). Gail Wronsky has this way of using brief and rhythmic pauses (and also sometimes showing us the punctuation with her hands) that forces us to hear both the humor and the pathos and the quirkiness of new connections/frames; David St. John is both smooth and ironic, poignant and alluring, compassionate and self-deprecating, and reads with a voice of almost whiskeyed warmth—from somewhere in that crack between velvet and pain; several poets worked with jazz or other music, sometimes bringing their own musicians. I could go on and on. I think there’ve been about 150 readers so far. It becomes ever more obvious that the key thing, on the page and on the stage, is not to clone but to core—not to try to copy what someone else is doing but to go further and further into our own essence, our own authenticity—to trust that that’s what’s going to be valuable, however much we adore and respond to what someone else is doing, however much we doubt ourselves. And then of course we can’t help what we absorb osmotically. That’s just going to happen, as it always does, with love.


If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.


In a recent conversation between Jericho Brown and Rita Dove, Dove says that while the Internet is shifting cultural power away from the East Coast, the attitude persists that East Coasters lead the US in poetry, literature, and criticism. As a West Coast poet and critic, how do you respond to that? Do you think the scales have balanced at all?


The writers I know seem to find their way to highly individual frames of reference—they are most influenced not by one particular set of established critics or writers but by a sphere of living and dead voices and visions that magnetize to sensibility, and not only from one art form or one nation, let alone one region. Valery, for instance, is very alive to me as a critic, just as alive as some of the living critics I admire and learn from, some of whom are also poets. I might be equally and importantly inspired, say, by Rilke, Lorca, Rothko, Lynch, Sontag, Arvo Part, Laurie Anderson, Lucien Freud, and any number of living poets who happen to live in State X but may also have lived in States Y and Z.


The question of region becomes increasingly difficult to nail down, even as region moves through individual sensibility in ways that are often tangible and definitive, as I’ve just been talking about again in regard to Tranströmer and the way literal light and darkness move through his poems and how tuned this is to climate and weather. It’s as though, often, the first lived-in region creates a lens through which all other places are seen, are refracted. Or maybe a later region or experience shatters that lens. But if a poet has lived in, for instance, Italy and California and Montana and Virginia, then is that poet a West Coast poet or an East Coast poet, an American poet or a European poet? Does region or hierarchy (however it happens to stand at any given moment from whatever point of view) become then simply a handy placard?  Am I even a West Coast poet and critic? I’ve lived in California for a long time now, but also lived and studied in Ohio, Montana, Vermont, London, Washington . . . you see what I mean?


That said, I do feel very deeply “western,” but that is almost visceral, experiential—a relationship to geography and, by happenstance, a history. I have a need for space, for sky. But people move around a lot, by necessity or by choice. At any given moment, I’m sure it’s possible to say that there’s a nexus of industry, of money, of the power to award or canonize, that seems more established in places x and y than in places z and q, but I’m not sure that has anything to do with the act of writing, itself, or with writing poems that will become essential and necessary to some as-yet unknown reader.


Last year, some of the most essential books I came across were written in Colorado and Israel and Macedonia, published in the northeast and in England. And a book of translations from the German, translated in Ohio and London, published in Michigan. Regardless of how we choose to think about region, what happens to be true in this particular moment is that all living writers are writing in an era informed by myriad tradition and experience and massive potential to connect at the same time as systems and economies are falling apart and re-inventing themselves. Perhaps that’s the best place to begin. We’re living in a moment that is not so much definitively regional or strictly hierarchic as it is kaleidoscopic. And within that potential for broad awareness, we can observe the flora and fauna of each region (figuratively and literally) creeping into the poems of individual writers—but not in a way that puts one regional stamp on style.


Between your work at LMU, Beyond Baroque, THIRD AREA, and as the book review editor for Poetry International, how do you find time to write? Do you have a new book in the works?


Second things first: I do have a new manuscript in the works, and it’s at the tweaking stage: “She” (and yes, the quotes are as important as the pronoun) is the collaboration I’ve been working on for the last few years with Holaday Mason, who I met at Beyond Baroque in ’96 and who has become a good friend as well as key workshop-mate over the years. For whatever reason, we have always had an ear for one another’s work, some kind of intuitive connection. And so we’ve been good readers and sparring partners for one another, and we each get terrible fits of “poem envy” when confronted with one another’s work—in the end, we take this as a good sign. We began work on this in late 2007. The manuscript is now fifty poems each, braided. A midlife passage—in stereo. Perhaps it’s some kind of spiritual cousin of the qasida, if not formally. We’re still trying to understand what it is that’s spiraled out of us—it’s exciting and a little terrifying. And probably very strange.


And I’ve been darting in and out of something I think of as The HD Sequence—a concordance. I suspect it may become a section of something, or a chap. Don’t know yet.


It’s gotten harder and harder to find the time and psychic space I need to write. I think of Hass’s advice: time to drop a responsibility. Now that the 3rd Area series is established, I’ve handed the baton to my capable and talented compadres. And I’ve often been at Beyond Baroque to facilitate in June, but not every year, and it’s not something I can combine with the semesters. So it’s not as though I’m doing all of these things all the time. But this is where workshops, or trading work, or conferences and retreats like Squaw can help—I respond to deadlines, even soft ones.

Music for the Black Room



More Sarah Maclay:

Visit her website.

Read our review of Music for the Black Room.

Buy Maclay’s books from U of Tampa Press.

Buy Maclay’s books from Amazon.

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