Sarah Pemberton Strong is the author of two novels, The Fainting Room and Burning the Sea, and a poetry collection, Tour of the Breath Gallery, winner of the Walt McDonald First-Book Prize. Her writing has appeared in many journals, including The Southern Review, RATTLE, River Styx, The Sun, Southwest Review, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Promise Award from The Sustainable Arts Foundation and the Elizabeth Matchett Stover Award from Southwest Review. She lives near New Haven, CT, U.S.A., where she is a poetry editor for New Haven Review and runs a one-person plumbing company.
Geosi Gyasi: At what stage of your life did you begin to write?
Sarah Pemberton Strong: I’ve always written. As a child I was always writing stories and poems and songs. At eighteen, I began writing a novel. I never finished it, but I worked on it something like four hours a day, five days a week, for several years. I was very dedicated. Then when I was twenty-three, I started work on Burning the Sea, my first novel, which was published in 2002.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you shed lights on how you got “Burning the Sea” published?
Sarah Pemberton Strong: First I had to find an agent. Back in the late 1990s, there was no internet to speak of, but there was this enormous doorstop of a book that listed every literary agent in the United States. I decided I’d just start at “Z” and work backward, figuring that most people would start at “A,” and so agents whose names began with later letters in the alphabet might get fewer queries. I was really flying blind. I finally found an agent whose last name began with “N,” so I made it through half the book. She sold the manuscript a year or so later. You can read reviews of all of my books on my website: http://www.sarahpembertonstrong.com
Geosi Gyasi: Tell us about your work as poetry editor at New Haven Review.
Sarah Pemberton Strong: New Haven Review is a literary magazine showcasing writing from New Haven and from around the world. We publish poetry, fiction and essays by all kinds of writers, from Pulitzer Prize winners to writers appearing for the first time in print. It’s interesting to be on the editorial side of the desk after years of submitting poems to literary magazines. My favorite part of the job—I’m sure I share this with most editors–is discovering a poem in the journal’s inbox that I think is just wonderful. The hardest part is having to reject most of what we see. It’s never fun to have to turn down someone’s batch of poems.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you know when a poem is good?
Sarah Pemberton Strong: I think that what’s good is partly a subjective judgment, but as a generalization, I’d say that a poem is good when all its parts—its music, its content, its formal shape—are working well together, the way, say, a troupe of acrobats must work well together if they’re going to pull off the act. But it isn’t quite that simple: there are a number of famous poems that are extremely accomplished formally, but that I don’t personally like, poems that leave me feeling bored or shut out. And there are poems whose formal chops may be quite a bit weaker, yet the poem has so much juice and urgency that it speaks to me quite powerfully. Ultimately, a good poem rewrites the definition of why a poem is good.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever had your own work rejected?
Sarah Pemberton Strong: Of course, over and over. I receive many more poetry acceptances now than I used to, but even so, when I send out work I get probably six rejections for each acceptance. And The Fainting Room, which has been the most commercially successful of my three books, was rejected by editors something like twenty-five times. Luckily I have a fantastic agent, Cameron McClure, who believed in the manuscript and kept sending it out. When it was finally published, the reviews were almost all excellent, and it continues to sell.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you earn any income from writing?
Sarah Pemberton Strong: I earn some royalties from book sales, and occasionally I earn money from winning a poetry competition or from a paid speaking engagement. But I won’t be quitting my day job any time soon.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about your day job. What do you mean when you say you run a one-person plumbing company?
Sarah Pemberton Strong: I’m a licensed master plumber, self-employed. So in addition to being the plumber, I’m the driver, bookkeeper, and receptionist. Like many writers, I’ve had many jobs over the years—waitress, bartender, teaching assistant, political canvasser—but plumbing has been the best fit for me. When I was in my early twenties, I read a quote by John Gardner to the effect that, because it takes a long time to become a good writer, young people who want to be writers would be well-advised to learn a trade. I took that to heart. I enjoy working with my hands, and I enjoy some key differences between writing and plumbing. The labor of writing a book is a long, solitary one, and its product—the finished book—is generally a matter of indifference to the world at large. By contrast, if the toilet is broken and no one can use it, the product of that labor is greatly appreciated, and rewarded in a very tangible way. That said, the personal satisfaction I get from being able to fix a broken toilet or hook up a dishwasher ultimately pales beside the satisfaction I get from writing. Writing is soul-satisfying.
Geosi Gyasi: Did you read lots of books as a child?
Sarah Pemberton Strong: I was constantly reading. I would walk around the house bumping into things because I had a book up in front of my face. Once when I was about twenty, I missed a flight because I was so deeply engrossed in the book I was reading that even though I was sitting right at the gate, I didn’t hear the boarding call. I looked up half an hour later and saw the place was deserted.
Geosi Gyasi: Your poetry collection, “Tour of the Breath Gallery” won the Walt McDonald First-Book Prize. Could you tell us about the book and the prize?
Sarah Pemberton Strong: The Walt McDonald competition is an invitational: the series editor, Robert Fink, invites a number of writers who haven’t yet published a book of poems, and whose work he’s seen in journals and liked, to submit a manuscript for consideration. When I was invited I had enough poems for a book, but hadn’t got them into book form. The invitation was the catalyst I needed to get the manuscript finished, and then I was fortunate to win that year’s contest. Tour of the Breath Gallery was published in 2013 by Texas Tech University Press.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it difficult to write a book of poetry?
Sarah Pemberton Strong: Well, I don’t sit down to write a book of poetry, I sit down to write individual poems, one at a time. Then when I’ve written, say, seventy or eighty poems, perhaps thirty or forty of them might cohere together to make a book. So I tend to think of assembling a book of poetry rather than writing it. But if what you mean is, “Is it difficult to write poetry?” I would answer, Sometimes. But in the end, it’s more difficult not to. It’s like exercising, or practicing a musical instrument—it takes a certain amount of dedication and focus to get myself to begin and then keep at it, but part of what motivates me is that not doing it just feels terrible. If I don’t write for an extended period of time, at first the free time feels great. But then, after a while, I begin to feel as if I’ve left my house and left something cooking on the stove, and the stove is my writing desk. I need to get back there and attend to it, make something and be nourished by it.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about critics when you write?
Sarah Pemberton Strong: Only my own internal critic, whom I try not to listen to until it’s time to listen. I do care about audience, but that’s a different set of concerns.
Geosi Gyasi: Which writers have most influenced you?
Sarah Pemberton Strong: Robert Hass, Peter Matthiessen, Marguerite Duras, Derek Walcott, Raymond Chandler, Jane Hirshfield, Virginia Woolf, Lucille Clifton, Vladimir Nabokov—Oh, I could go on and on.
Geosi Gyasi: And what are you reading right now?
Sarah Pemberton Strong: American poet Claudia Rankine’s new book Citizen: An American Lyric. The book is part poetry, part lyric essay, and it examines Black Americans’ experience of racism right now, in the 21st century. Rankine takes the reader through all kinds of situations, from the world of professional sports to a lunchtime conversation with a university colleague. Her gaze is intensely personal but also like that of a camera in a documentary film. As a reader, I found myself being taken to a place I’d never experienced quite so intimately. And formally, it’s a brilliant book, and an important book. I hope it wins a major prize.
Geosi Gyasi: You are the recipient of the Promise Award from The Sustainable Arts Foundation. Tell us about that award?
Sarah Pemberton Strong: The Sustainable Arts Foundation awards money to artists and writers who are also parents. The awards are intended to help parents keep their creative passion alive in the midst of the demands of raising a family. When I won the award, my daughter was five years old. I was thrilled to receive it—sometimes there are long stretches when nothing is getting accepted or published, or stretches when not much writing is getting done, and winning the award was very affirming. It’s nice to have someone who doesn’t even know you say that what you’re doing matters, and that it’s worth doing, and then award you some money so you can keep doing it.
Geosi Gyasi: What concerns you as a writer?
Sarah Pemberton Strong: This is a funny question for me, because often I’m not aware of my concerns at the time of writing—it’s only in retrospect that I look back and become aware of themes. For example, on the surface my two novels are very different. Burning the Sea is set in the Dominican Republic, and its two main subjects are how colonialism plays out in relationships between West Indians and white Americans, and how people become estranged from both their culture and from their own bodies. The Fainting Room is set in Boston and is about a failing marriage between a Boston Brahmin and a working-class ex circus performer and their relationship with a teenage girl. But both books have a main character who takes refuge in pretending to be someone else, both plots are driven by clashes between people of different class backgrounds, and both are interested in sexual politics and power dynamics.
What concerns me as a poet seems to cover somewhat different territory. Most of the poems in Tour of the Breath Gallery were written in the first few years of my becoming a parent. Looking back, I can see how that experience shaped the book, which explores humans’ relationship to the body, to family, and to spiritual experience in daily life. I was particularly interested in what it means to be a spiritual person if you don’t have a firm belief in God. The book contains a number of poems written from the points of view of various biblical characters, poems in which God himself, or herself, is not present, and the characters do whatever they do simply in the company of one another, usually family members.
My new book of poems is just starting to take shape, so it’s a little early to speculate about it, but I can say that many of the poems in it are powered by my alarm at the climate emergency. The poems in this book seem to be investigating what we consume and what nourishes us.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you think poetry has a place in the modern world?
Sarah Pemberton Strong: Absolutely. More so than ever. I think we often make the mistake of thinking that if we can’t see the measurable effect of a particular action, that means the action has no effect at all. But everything we do, speak, and perhaps even think has an effect, whether or not we see it. Poetry shows us connections and patterns we hadn’t seen before, and helps us to slow down long enough to really see what’s being shown. Poetry can make us experience the transformation that comes from being inside someone else’s heart and mind. All good writing does this. To be affected by some words on a page to the extent that someone else’s experience and world becomes your own—that’s a powerful instance of empathy. That doesn’t mean good poems have to be serious. Some of my favorite poems are very funny.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you satisfied as a writer?
Sarah Pemberton Strong: Well, I’m always keenly aware of how much I don’t know, how much there is to learn, and how much of the time I feel I’m completely flying blind, particularly with poetry. That’s not a satisfying feeling; on good days, it’s one of humility, and excitement about all there is to be discovered. Whereas on bad days, it’s a feeling that what I have written falls terribly short of what I wanted to write.
But I feel deeply satisfied that I’ve been able to make writing so central to my life. That’s due to a certain amount of privilege, although it’s also involved some sacrifice. I’m satisfied with a number of things I’ve written. And of course, getting published and connecting with readers is satisfying, but in the end, it’s not the finished product that brings deep satisfaction; it’s the practice of writing. When I’m writing, I have no sense of time passing. I’m neither happy nor sad, I don’t want anything, I’m often not aware of myself at all—I’m simply engaged with the material. That’s one of the most satisfying experiences I know.