An Interview with Alumna Sarah Pemberton Strong

Posted on Sep 15, 2015

(Photograph by Daniel Shkolnik / Daily Nutmeg)

Sarah Pemberton Strong (poetry) graduated in July 2015. She is a recipient of the Friends of Writers’ Barnhardt Family Fund, which covers room and board and other residency costs. Her poems can be found in The Southern Review, Poetry Daily, Rattle, The Sun, and many other publications. She lives with her family in Connecticut, where she works as poetry editor for the New Haven Review and teaches creative writing at the University of Hartford.

 

Before studying poetry at the MFA program, you had three books published: two novels, Burning the Sea in 2002 and The Fainting Roomin 2013; and a collection of poems, Tour of the Breath Gallery, also in 2013. Your pursuit of an MFA after those publications strikes me as very humble and, for lack of a better term, grown-up (I often envision the publication of a book as the crowning achievement promptly followed by my sweet and easy retirement). Would you talk a bit about your decision to apply to and enroll in the program?

I like your use of the word humbled, because that’s exactly what happened. For me, the fantasy of book publication as crowning achievement, after which everything gets sweet and easy, was exactly that—a fantasy. Yes, publication was very validating, and the realization of a personal goal I’d had for years. But what happened after my first novel came out? It got some great reviews, I had a wonderful book party, I got a bit of fan mail, and then…nothing. No big royalty check, no fantastic sales, no Oprah’s book club (we all fantasize about that, right?). Nothing but the blank page of the next project. And writing my second novel turned out to be more difficult than writing the first. All that was humbling.

Then when I started writing poetry in earnest, I realized how very much I didn’t know about craft. I would read poems by poets I admired and try to understand how they had achieved certain effects, and many times I just couldn’t figure it out. That was humbling too, and eventually I thought: I’ve been writing seriously for twenty years, I’m going to be writing seriously for the rest of my life, and there’s a level of mastery I want that I’m not going to get on my own—I need an MFA program.

I applied to Warren Wilson not so much for the low-residency schedule, although that was a consideration, but because I liked the program’s focus on craft and individual mentorship. Now I don’t want this to sound like a commercial for Warren Wilson, but truly, going through the program changed my writing life, which is to say it changed my life. My two years there gave me what I longed for—mentorship, a new vocabulary, a community, directed study, and a rigorous practice of reading and responding to the work of other writers. Not only did I get somewhere I could never have gone on my own, I got to places I didn’t even know were on the map.

 

How is poetic inspiration different from fictional inspiration, if at all? 

In the case of novel writing, my inspiration has always come from a combination of character and situation. What would this person do if placed in situation X? Then I have to write the novel to find out. When I’m writing a poem—hmmm. Honestly, Adam, I’m not sure. I’ve written over a hundred poems in the last two years, and I’m not sure. Which says something about the mystery behind that perennial question: “Where do you get your ideas?” I do know that in both fiction and poetry, I generally start by simply freewriting, just writing writing writing longhand until I happen to write something that interests me. I glimpse a relationship between ideas or objects or emotions that I hadn’t seen before, or catch sight of some little flash of narrative, or maybe it’s simply an image that seems to have some light coming off it, and then I pursue that.

 

What creative needs and artistic impulses does poetry satisfy that fiction does not?

I think that in all fundamental ways they satisfy the same needs and impulses. But as your question implies, the two genres are different animals, particularly given that the fiction I write is long. Long novels. If a poem is like lighting a match and then blowing it out to watch the smoke curl, a novel is more like building a big elaborate bonfire—collecting the wood, setting it all up, inviting a bunch of people over, watching the conflagration for hours, cleaning up the mess afterward. About ten years ago, I got more interested in the action of the match and felt less compelled by the big bonfire. This shift may have had to do partly with practicing Buddhism for many years, which encourages you to pay close attention to what’s happening in the present moment, and to be less engaged with narratives—a kind of attention more suited to poetry. But another answer to your question is that, logistically, poetry works in my life in a way novel-writing doesn’t right now. It took me six years to write my first novel, and twelve years to write my second, and that was before I had a partner and a child. I just don’t have the stamina right now to begin another decade-long project. Poetry, on the other hand, is more amenable to fits and starts. Not that it takes less time to write poetry—if you’re going by word count, it actually takes much longer. But it is possible, on a good day, to get a rough draft of a poem written in under an hour. Then you have something that is a whole unto itself. It might be a mess, but it’s a complete draft of a mess.

 

Speaking of partners, children, stamina, time: How was it incorporating the MFA program into your life? Were there any surprising or difficult life/program negotiations you’d be willing to share with us?

I’m very fortunate to have a partner who is enormously supportive of my writing life. Together we decided that our daughter would need to be in kindergarten before I began a graduate program, the idea being that she would handle my absences better once she had begun school. Until recently, I was self-employed, and when I began the program, I cut back on my hours somewhat so that I’d have more time for school. I didn’t want to spend the time and money and energy of going to grad school and then just try to fit it in around the edges. I was fortunate to be able to make the work of the program a central part of my life, even as having a family and earning money were also central.

I do remember that my second residency was a difficult one in terms of being away from my family. My first residency was a summer one, and my daughter, who was then five, was doing all sorts of fun summer things and spending a lot of time with her grandparents, whom she adores. She seemed to handle my first ten-day absence quite well. But during my second residency—the infamous January residency of the subzero temperatures and bursting pipes—both my partner and my daughter had a harder time with my being away. You know, they were in the grind of school and work in New England in January; it was freezing cold, and dark all the time, and they’d come home and I wouldn’t be there, and they missed me, and wanted to talk to me several times a day. Totally understandable, except that my strategy for being at residency was to completely focus on being there and blot out the rest of the world for those ten days. It’s such a precious time, and so overwhelmingly intense. And that residency in particular, with all the challenges of the ice storm and the extreme cold, was especially exhausting. So I didn’t feel particularly emotionally available to talk on the phone four or five times a day, and I was sort of brusque and crabby whenever they called. It got a little tense, and there were some tears on all sides. About halfway through that residency we decided that we would talk at eight in the morning and eight at night, every day without fail, and that those were the only times we would talk. After that, it was pretty smooth sailing. We kept to that routine for all of my subsequent residencies and it worked out fine.

 

 As of this writing, you graduated a mere 7 weeks ago. My own immediate post-graduation feelings and impressions have faded already after only nine months—maybe because they were so overwhelming and confused. So, while you’re still in the just-graduated haze, how does it feel?

The part that feels like a haze is the part having to do with my daily writing practice. Once I sent in that final packet last May, I went on an unplanned hiatus from writing for about three months. I was just completely exhausted. My final semester was my most difficult, and my most productive, and when it was over I needed a rest. I’ve only begun writing again in the last several weeks, and am not quite back in the groove, particularly as I’ve just changed careers. I’m teaching at the college level for the first time—Introduction to Creative Writing at the University of Hartford. I love it, and it’s a career switch I’ve wanted to make for several years. I’m still getting used to it, though, and figuring out how to balance the writing part of my brain with the teaching part.

One post-grad experience that feels terrific is the discovery that what I learned at Warren Wilson has proven essential to how I teach. I already knew that the program had changed me as a writer. Now I’m learning that my experience in the program directly informs what I do in the classroom as well. From a poem I annotated in my first semester, to a faculty lecture I’ve listened to over and over, to my supervisors’ influence on me, to the joint efforts of students and faculty to heighten our awareness of culture, diversity, and representation in our understanding of pedagogy and craft—all this makes me a far better teacher than I otherwise would have been, no matter how many books I’d published.

 

 

Adam Jernigan (fiction, January ’15) received The Carol Houck Smith Scholarship in July 2014. He lives in Black Mountain, North Carolina.