Sarah Lindsay is the author of Primate Behavior (a finalist for the National Book Award), Mount Clutter, Twigs & Knucklebones, and Debt to the Bone-Eating Snotflower. She is a Lannan Literary Fellow and has been awarded a Pushcart Prize and the Carolyn Kizer Prize. She works as a copy editor in North Carolina.
Geosi Gyasi: Let’s begin from your poem, “Shanidar, Now Iraq”. What necessitated you to write this poem?
Sarah Lindsay: I knew about the Shanidar burial—one of the earliest known graves, with evidence of flowers—but learned much later that the site is in Iraq. A place where prehistoric people honored their dead lies in a land of war.
Geosi Gyasi: How often do you depend on real events to write?
Sarah Lindsay: Rarely, and more often personal than political. I like to happen upon an odd fact and go from there.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember the actual moment you became a writer?
Sarah Lindsay: I think it was gradual, but here are a couple of early memories. My sister and I were very young, making up a story aloud with ballerina paper dolls, when Mom, ironing nearby, said, “You should write that down.” And once I spent a school recess kicking three rocks around—two rocks in love and a cruel father. I was imagining a poem while I did this, but when I attempted later to write it down, the beauty of it was missing. That was an authentic writerly experience—a glow that doesn’t come out in the words.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you spend some time to talk about your fourth book, “Debt to the Bone-Eating Snotflower”?
Sarah Lindsay: The second section is marine creatures—mostly octopus, squid and whale, but also carnivorous sponges and the real live nonfictional bone-eating snotflower. In the third section, Aunt Lydia tries to work out some thoughts about the universe and metaphysics, but coincidentally she doesn’t know any more than I do. The first and last sections are “everything else.” I’m afraid it’s too long, but I had a good time with it.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you get your first book, Primate Behavior” published?
Sarah Lindsay: Through wonderful good fortune. The Georgia Review published two poems. Then I received an appreciative note out of the blue from someone named Kay Ryan. She gave my name to a friend of hers, who was a sort of poetry scout for Grove Press, and he wrote me asking if I had a manuscript. And by the way, Kay Ryan is a brilliant poet.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you keep a strict writing schedule?
Sarah Lindsay: The schedule that has worked for me lately is to write a poem every Sunday afternoon and rewrite an earlier poem every Friday. The other days are for catching ideas and sticking feathers on them. This doesn’t work every week, but having a routine helps.
Geosi Gyasi: You received the 2012 Carolyn Kizer Prize. Could you tell us what this prize is all about?
Sarah Lindsay: Carolyn Kizer was a smart and strong poet who co-founded the literary magazine Poetry Northwest. The magazine awards that prize every year to something/someone they’ve published.
Geosi Gyasi: What about the Pushcart prize you received? Do prizes matter to you at all?
Sarah Lindsay: A prize means that at least one respected person read something I’ve written, and it worked for them. And a prize is something to put in a cover letter, or bio, or introduction, a little flag to wave that says, “someone took me seriously.”
Geosi Gyasi: Who is the “Elizabeth Bishop” you were talking about in your poem, “Without Warning”?
Sarah Lindsay: She’s meant to be the actual poet Elizabeth Bishop, with her termite-riddled table, based on an anecdote I read about her.
Geosi Gyasi: What influenced your poem, “Zucchini Shofar”?
Sarah Lindsay: The second violin in our string quartet is a good friend and storyteller, and I’ve used quite a few of the ideas he’s given me. He does wonderful creative things and downplays all his accomplishments. One day before we played Haydn, he demonstrated the vegetarian shofar he’d made from a zucchini stem.
The girl playing a half-built house like a trumpet is my mother. She actually did that.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a favorite among all the books you’ve written?
Sarah Lindsay: No.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a favorite among all the poems you’ve published?
Sarah Lindsay: No, but there are some I particularly like to include in readings—Zucchini Shofar, The Blessed Elias and the Worm, Laser Palmistry, World Truffle, Cheese Penguin, Origin, and Adaptive Behavior are a few.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the importance of poetry to mankind?
Sarah Lindsay: Language used strangely and playfully is good for the mind. Working words into an accurate and truthful shape is a moral task. Poetry is also a treatment for anguish.
Geosi Gyasi: Does your family approve of your writing?
Sarah Lindsay: Oh, yes. They’re very encouraging, and only tease me a little.
Geosi Gyasi: Who reads your works?
Sarah Lindsay: Some of my friends, some students who’ve had it assigned, Copper Canyon readers, and even people I’ll never know. A UNCG professor told me that she had taught some of my elephant poems in West Bengal. It pleases me enormously to know that.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you know when you’ve come to end of a poem?
Sarah Lindsay: Often I have the last line, or at least know what I’m aiming at, before I know how I will get to it. Sometimes I don’t know how to end it, and that means the rewrite will be like beating laundry on a rock. As for knowing when the rewriting is finished, I can’t claim to be sure, but when the tinkering isn’t causing any improvement, it’s a good time to stop.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your plans for the future?
Sarah Lindsay: I plan to rewrite a poem on Friday, and write a new one on Sunday.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you sometimes struggle completing a book?
Sarah Lindsay: I write and rewrite poems, and when I have a nice pile, I tussle with what to put in and what to leave out. It isn’t harder than completing a poem, but on a larger scale.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any formal education in writing?
Sarah Lindsay: St. Olaf College had a Paracollege program that let me design my own major in English and creative writing. A few years later, I earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from the University of North Carolina – Greensboro. It was sort of formal.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, “Tell the Bees”?
Sarah Lindsay: I was grieving over my father’s death when I read about the beekeepers’ tradition of telling their bees important news. I wished the whole mostly oblivious world could know that it should mourn the loss of something good.
Geosi Gyasi: I am tempted to believe you might have a question for me?
Sarah Lindsay: Could you teach me your secret for finding the time and energy to do so much reading and blogging?
Geosi Gyasi: When I was a small boy, my grandmother did a great thing by getting me registered in the community library at Koforidua. Ever since, I’ve been living with books. As a teacher and librarian, surrounded by books at all times, there is no excuse not to fall in love with reading. I started blogging because of my love for reading and I wanted to share my views on the books I read.