June Sylvester Saraceno is author of the poetry collection “of Dirt and Tar” released in 2014 from Cherry Grove Collections, as well as Altars of Ordinary Light and Mean Girl Trips, a chapbook of prose poems. Her work has appeared widely in journals and anthologies including Southwestern American Literature, Tar River Poetry, Steel Toe Review, Smartish Pace and many more. She is a professor and English Program Chair at Sierra Nevada College (SNC), director of the Writers in the Woods literary speaker series, founding editor of the Sierra Nevada Review, and founder of the annual Tahoe Poetry Slam.
Geosi Gyasi: Let’s begin with your poetry collection, “of Dirt and Tar”?
June Saraceno: The title is a phrase from one of the poems, and also a nod to my rural North Carolina working class origins. Many of the poems are experiments with persona – an older Nancy Drew in an Alzheimer’s ward, Socrates’ wife complaining about his low earnings, Mrs. Robinson’s predatory musing – but their voices are not so different than ones I heard closer to home.
Geosi Gyasi: What is your relationship with Cherry Grove Collections?
June Saraceno: I have a good relationship with them and appreciate their publication of this collection.
Geosi Gyasi: Was it difficult getting “of Dirt and Tar” published?
June Saraceno: Well, that’s sort of a funny story. I submitted my first collection to Cherry Grove, but there was some email snafu in their acceptance, and I never got it. So when another press accepted it, I wrote to withdraw it from consideration. Only then did I learn it had been accepted by Cherry Grove, too, but I already had an agreement with Plain View. Kevin Walzer at Cherry Grove was wonderfully understanding during this exchange and very kindly said if I had another book, he’d be willing to look at it. Seven years later I finally had another book and I contacted him. I actually kept his email all those years so I could *reply* as a way of reminding him of the offer, probably a good thing given the memory-eroding length of time it took me to put a second book together.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you actually start a poem?
June Saraceno: Different ways – sometimes an image surfaces, sometimes a phrase – I follow with other words and sometimes a poem happens, sometimes it doesn’t.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it difficult putting together poems to form a collection?
June Saraceno: It is for me. I’m really hoping there’s not a seven year stretch before I’m able to construct my next collection. Really, I don’t think there will be. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had some writing residencies where I’ve had the time to focus on a third collection and I can see the shadowy impression of its architecture. What’s hard is excising the poems that don’t have a place, especially if I like them. I have this weird feeling like I’m abandoning them, as if they’ll be orphaned now and it’s my fault. Crazy, huh? With “of Dirt and Tar,” I was lucky that my friend, the amazing poet Laura McCullough, pointed out some breakthrough insights on sequencing the poems. She looked at it with her sharp editor’s eye and helped me work out the blueprint.
Geosi Gyasi: Why did you become a writer?
June Saraceno: Well, the ballerina thing wasn’t an option.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced as a writer?
June Saraceno: Writing. That may sound glib, but I’m dead serious. I’ve never done that thing that writers need to do, that is – plant my bottom in a chair every day for a certain number of hours and write. I’m a binge writer. I’m hugely inconsistent. There have been times I “gave up” writing, because I just wasn’t doing it. I hate those times. But – I also very often hate writing, too. It’s a conundrum. The one thing that has helped has been going to writing residencies. Somehow that works for me – I get into a groove where the words spin out – it’s what I’m there to do and I do it. Now why can’t I do that at home in my regular life?
Geosi Gyasi: Does your family approve of your writing?
June Saraceno: I don’t think it would occur to any of them to approve or disapprove. It would be like disapproving of my nose. It just is what it is.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you happy as a writer?
June Saraceno: Interesting question. I’m trying to think of being happy as a writer, specifically, as distinct from being happy in general as a person. What would it mean for me to be happy as a writer? I’m not sure I know. Maybe that I write more consistently, even daily? Then I would approve of myself as a writer? I don’t think I am happy as a writer, because I’m not content with my writerly habits. I’d need to think about that more, but I think it’s safe to say I’m not particularly happy as a writer.
Geosi Gyasi: Where do you often sit to write?
June Saraceno: I most often write at the computer.
Geosi Gyasi: When do you often write?
June Saraceno: I prefer mornings, but not brutally early, cup of tea first. By evening my brain turns to mush.
Geosi Gyasi: Who are your literary forebears?
June Saraceno: Many of the writers who are most meaningful to me are story tellers – Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, William Faulkner and Dorothy Allison. Poets who have influenced me include Sharon Olds, Patricia Smith, Anne Sexton, and quite a few others. My biggest influence is my mentor Peter Makuck who taught me pretty much everything I know about poetry and provided me with rich reading lists that included James Dickey, Peter Everwine, Galway Kinnell, Charles Simic and more. Peter is a brilliant poet and story teller. I have everything he’s ever published. Aside from being extraordinarily good, his books are like maps for me. He has a precise and light touch, never too much or too little, a master craftsman. He makes you laugh while you’re crying. I’m aiming to be as good as he is one of these days, got a long way to go before I even get close to that ballpark, though.
Geosi Gyasi: How long does it take you to write a single poem?
June Saraceno: It depends. Some poems come out almost whole and I just have to prune them a bit. Others take years. There’s an elegy for my mother in my first collection that I worked on for years, trying to get it to feel right without it becoming too maudlin.
Geosi Gyasi: What are you plans for the future?
June Saraceno: I’m looking forward to this third collection taking shape. I really think it’s going to be far, far better than the two previous books.
Geosi Gyasi: Are there time you feel like not writing?
June Saraceno: Every day.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us about “Altars of Ordinary Light”?
June Saraceno: “ Altars” has poems from distinctly different phases for me as a writer. Frankly, I’d say the collection is a bit uneven. Still, it meant a lot to me to get a book published. It was the type of validation I needed at the time. I worked with Susan Bright who founded Plain View Press and who has since passed away. She was a generous and encouraging editor. I couldn’t have had a better experience in terms of the process of publishing a first book. Of course, when I look at it now all I see are things I would have done differently, edits I would make, that type of thing.
Geosi Gyasi: Did you intentionally seek to write “Mean Girl Trips” in the style of prose poetry?
June Saraceno: I did. In fact, I’d say I was obsessed at the time. I write fiction and poetry and I had been focusing on flash fiction pieces. The question I kept coming to was “what is the difference between a prose poem and flash or micro fiction”? I wrote prose that I called flash fiction and prose that I called prose poems, but the distinction seemed somewhat arbitrary, even though I had no reservations about which category I’d put those works in, so I set out to explore their borders. Of course, as with any question worth considering, there’s no real answer. Still, it was an interesting line of inquiry. Around this time, I went to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers poetry residency and Bob Hass was one of the workshop leaders there. Since he writes in verse and prose poetry forms, I asked him where he saw the line and he said something that has stuck with me ever since. He said for him, it’s in the music of the language – that’s what separates a short piece of prose from a prose poem. That was a very satisfying perspective. I’m not sure all my prose poems in Mean Girls would live up to that definition, but I found it very helpful to consider that gauge.
Geosi Gyasi: Fiction and Poetry: Which of the two are you often engaged in?
June Saraceno: Love them both. Couldn’t make a Sophie’s Choice between them. I have a short story collection that I’ve been working on for decades and I’m very engaged with the character that links the stories, Willie. I’ve had more publishing success with poetry, but I love fiction equally. Fingers crossed that I one day I’ll find a publisher interested in the short story collection. Many, if not most, of the individual stories in the collection have found their way into print.
Geosi Gyasi: You received an MFA in creative writing from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. What do you remember most about your days as a student?
June Saraceno: The most important thing to me about that time was the friendships I formed with fellow writers. Marisella Veiga, David Weaver and his buddy, this wild man Al Maginnes who was constantly getting kicked out of bars, even the divey ones we tended towards. Those are the memories that stay with me. Al assures me he doesn’t get kicked out of bars any more, but I’m not so sure I believe him. In any case, those enduring friendships have helped sustain me as a writer. They’re often the people I seek out for feedback on my work or to commiserate with in my blank page spells.
Geosi Gyasi: You’re the founding editor of the Sierra Nevada Review. Could you tell us about the work you do there?
June Saraceno: Ha! I was the founding editor and oversaw it for two decades, but there’s a new editor in town. Laura Wetherington agreed to take custody of it two years ago. I cannot overstate how happy this makes me.