Behind the Words: Sheila Black

Posted by on Apr 8, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Sheila Black

Sheila Black is the author of House of Bone and Love/Iraq. A third collection Wen Kroy is forthcoming. She is also co-editor of Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, an ALA Notable Book for Adults for 2012. She is a 2012 Witter Bynner Fellow from the Library of Congress for which she was selected by Philip Levine. Read her conversation with poet Leigh Anne Hornfeldt below.


Leigh Anne Hornfeldt: Sheila, your poem in the inaugural issue of Spry, ‘First Cigarette,’ is haunting and explores a difficult subject with lines such as ‘…I grasped that it was not smoke only, // but a space inside me, a vacuum that // hungered to be filled. Knew I would choose // that slow falling, carving away of breath to // feed that death inside me…’ Can you talk about the origin of this poem, how it came to you, what compelled you to write it?

Sheila Black: The restaurant in the poem is real. When I was a child I lived in Brazil and every year we drove from Sao Paulo to Imbituba, a small town on the Santos Coast where it was said (I don’t know to this day if it is true) that Einstein proved his theory of relativity because the sky there was so clear. There was a girl I would play with, and she was murdered as in the poem. I was thinking about that time and Einstein’s theory, and how relativity implies the possibility of return in some strange way—that we might recover lost time or space if only we could move like light; yet it also enacts the ways in which we are always separated or undone by the precise intersection of space and time—or is that space in time? That idea led me, in turn, to think about a child’s experience of being embedded in history and what a wrenching experience it truly is. Brazil, when I lived there, was very divided between rich and poor—much the way we are becoming in the US–a place of immense beauty, but also of great pain and violence. I was interested in trying to get at that experience of being conscious of living in a world that is inextricably divided and thus divides you. I have to say I chose to write about cigarettes because they are the only thing I have ever been truly utterly addicted to—they are bad for you, but, Oh, I loved smoking and giving it up was a bit of a heartbreak for me. I guess in the poem the speaker would like to be able to resolve what has happened, but can’t—there is not really any recovery possible, except in the sense of being able to exist in ways that acknowledge the divisions implicit in any act of being. Her feeding of the death inside her, for me, was a bit of an affirmative act, because to not acknowledge that death, or the presence of death, is also a kind of violence. The little girl in the restaurant was the first person I ever knew who died, and no one would tell me directly what had happened, but I knew—as children do. We had played kind of beautifully together, and it was a terrible and—at least when I was a child—unspoken thing. A first death, a first cigarette. Yet the Brazil of my childhood was also a kind of paradise—certainly one of the most simply beautiful places I have ever been. I hope some of that is in the poem.


LAH: What’s your process when you approach a poem? How do you first tackle your subject and then, what is your process like? Are you methodical in your writing process or do things get messy?

SB: Methodical—no! Messy—yes? I know I often begin with some kind of kernel of lived experience. I write my first drafts in a big headlong rush. I often don’t know at that point what in the world the poem is doing or what it is about. Sound is very important to me and, though I write my first drafts quickly, I often spend months afterwards making very small changes—taking out a word, redistributing a line, just testing the fabric of the poem to see what shape feels right. That slow process is usually where I uncover what the poem is trying to get at. The longer I write the more I understand—writing really is revising.   I struggle with form—I don’t know that I will ever stop struggling. I like poems that have a surprising shape or argument—I like that authority of a clear argument, but I also hate it when the emotions or ideas of the poem feel too smooth or predictable. I would love to be a poet who used less words like my friend Joni Wallace or could mount a clear, incisive and lyrical argument like my friend Connie Voisine. But I am the kind of poet that sort of has to keep things a little messy. I have learned this about myself only through hard trial and error. My process is usually write a lot, cut, cut, cut, and then put back in enough to make the poem breathe again. I love that poem of Sylvia Plath’s—“Stillborn” where she mourns all her failed poems, I think anyone who is serious about poetry has felt that so many times—those poems whose “little foreheads bulged with concentration.” and when she says “ It would be better if they were alive, and that’s what they were/But they are dead, and their mother near dead with distraction,” I always want to stand up and cheer. It is horrible that one’s process sometimes gets just that messy, but I do feel it is a risk or gamble you have to be willing to take or, put another way, I don’t think art works on a rational economy like, say, stacking wood where the harder you work, the more wood you stack. I think it is more mysterious—an economy of wild surmise and the occasional bloody sacrifice.


LAH: You co-edited Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Could you talk about this project and what set it in motion?

SB: Certainly. In my last answer I made writing—or at least writing poetry—sound awfully difficult and austere when, actually, one of the rewards is that sometimes you write a great poem almost effortlessly, and sometimes a project—even a really ambitious project—comes together with an almost magical facility. I met Jennifer Bartlett and Mike Northen at the 2009 Denver AWP. I had organized a panel to talk about “disability poetics,” which was then kind of a new idea—though not to us. During the panel, someone asked if there was an anthology of “disability poetry” we would recommend and later over cocktails—where so many great decisions get made—we decided that since there wasn’t one, we should make one.

I can’t quite explain how the book came together so quickly—less than a year. Jennifer, Mike, and I had different poetic interests and spheres of knowledge but we shared a desire to create a high quality anthology, and also to be open about our questions about disability— questions like “What is a disability? ‘What makes a person be called “disabled”. These may seem simple questions, but really they are very complicated. For example, Jennifer Bartlett, who has cerebral palsy, and I, who have a condition called XLH—a genetic illness that manifests like nutritional rickets and is a form of dwarfism–were born with our “disabilities;” we really never felt them as “negative” or “bad” until we saw how other people reacted to us. My co-editors and I wanted in the anthology to explore why disability could seem to us insignificant in one moment and so overpowering the next. We were interested in social construction and also in challenging the “abled” world view of disability, which tends to be very monolithic. We were certainly, I think, driven by our sense of how much the abled world oppresses people with disabilities, but also by a desire to explore the range of disability experience.

Poetry was a great way to look at these questions. We pulled in a diversity of poets, all terrific, extraordinary poets—and focused on exploring their poetics and considering how these poets’ experiences of disability influenced their poetics or way of crafting a poem. I feel that was the big leap we made, because in the process of piecing together the anthology, we were able to trace how disability, or the experience of alternative embodiment, fueled other ways of seeing and thus writing. By focusing in this way, the anthology was able to reframe and shift people’s ways of understanding “disability,” and also open up the poetry community to viewing certain writers through a disability lens in ways they had never done before. We were so lucky in the writers who contributed, and in our publishers, Bobby, Lee, and Johnny Byrd of Cinco Puntos Press—who did a fantastic job. I’ve never worked so furiously, and my co-editors worked equally hard. I think we were all driven—and also enriched—by the idea that we were working on something larger than any one of us. I don’t think you often get to feel that. I grew so much through the experience, partly because I read and thought so hard about all the poets in the book—Tom Andrews, Robert Fagan, Denise Leto, Laura Hershey, Jim Ferris, Laurie Clements Lambeth, Danielle Pafunda, Norma Cole—the list goes on—and Jennifer Bartlett, who has become one of my closest friends, and has an extraordinary book Autobiography/Anti-Autobiography just out from Theenk Books.


LAH:Where do you draw inspiration in your writing?

SB: Where don’t I? Someone on Facebook posted a quote I disagreed with by Anais Nin. Nin said “Ordinary life doesn’t interest me,” and I knew what she meant, but I think the opposite. I think the most common things are often the most interesting, because it is so hard to see them. Philip Levine, one of the handful of times I met him in person, said something that inspires me. He said “a poet should be able to use every word.” That inspired me, because I don’t know how to do that—I have words I favor because of their sound or because they feel right to me—and I tend to use them perhaps too easily. I try to use now the ones that do not feel proper or fitting to me. To use every word—what a task!–that gets me up in the morning. I draw, also, on the often foolish-seeming idea that writing is, in some sense, about justice. I don’t mean that all writing should have a political message—though what doesn’t?—but rather that writing speaks for the perennial sense of dispossession wefeel at times in this unfair and cruel world where we all fail and fail again. At the same time, and right up alongside this, I do think art is about joy. The joy even of simply super-charging experience through language. I was really thrilled just this morning to read this few lines from Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems—so perfect, so frivolous, so true:

oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much

Well, who hasn’t felt that or wouldn’t want to write something just like that? I better be careful though or I’ll want to start smoking again….

Of course, I draw inspiration from reading. Contemporaries, but also people who write from completely other worlds. At the moment I’m a bit obsessed with the odd combination of Stevie Smith and John Clare. I’ve also been chewing over Far District by Ishion Hutchinson and When My Borther was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz—both first books by prodigiously gifted young writers.


LAH: What projects are you currently working on? Where can we hope to read new work in the future?

SB: I have a new book Wen Kroy just out from Dream Horse Press. Two years ago I moved from New Mexico to San Antonio where I direct a literary arts center called Gemini Ink ( I have an amazing staff, and our project together often feels like a writing experiment—how do you teach writing, how do you create writing communities , how does writing change or charge community?. It has been quite a ride—and often a challenge to keep writing poems or writing them with as much rigor as I’d like. At the same time—that struggle—money, time, the public/the private–feels productive because it is forcing me to be a little tougher with myself about when a poem needs to be—or what I want to say in my poems. I find myself mainly stripping back words more than I used to—which might be hard to believe given how many words I tend to use in answering these questions, for instance (!). I am working on a new book—tentatively titled The Hairpin Bone; it’s close to done, but I keep fiddling with it. I call it my love letter to the desert—I lived a long time in New Mexico, but the dryness, the lack of water always frightened me. Now that I’m gone I miss that fear—that sense of the pressure of the land and how you could not live in it without grappling with notions of survival. I guess I am also writing about middle-age. I am fascinated by this subject primarily because my own experience of it was so NOT what I expected. I thought I would feel more in control, more confident and knowing and in full command of myself—but instead it was a little bit the opposite. In my late forties, I found myself almost in a second adolescence—high-running passions, major loss, a sense of tumult and upheaval. I could just have a terminally romantic (capital R) temperament, but in speaking to many women my age, I found they were going through the same thing—as if every stage of life demanded some sort of tough metamorphosis Middle age from a female and feminist perspective feels particularly fraught. I am interested in exploring that—and my obsession with New Mexico—I keep trying to write my great Roswell poem, which keeps morphing into something else—feels like a good way to do it—that landscape of thorns, dust, sky. I don’t know what the next project will be. I do know I always feel the need to divine some new way of making a poem. Who was it—perhaps Donald Justice? –who said that when he discovered a new kind of sentence he discovered a new landscape of feeling? I think that’s true. I think it is interesting how hard it is to find that new sentence—or even to use new words. I love that it is hard because that’s the mystery of making the language live. Why is so hard? Why is it so difficult to bend or shape the way one uses words and to work against oneself in this way? I don’t know, but it is what makes poetry the work of a life.

Leigh Anne Hornfeldt, a Kentucky native, is the author of East Main Aviary (Flutter Press, 2012) & The Intimacy Archive (ELJ Publications, 2013) and the editor at Two of Cups Press. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, as well as the recipient of a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. In 2013 her poem “Laika” placed 2nd in the Argos Prize competition (Dorianne Laux, judge) and in 2012 she received the Kudzu Prize in Poetry. Her work has appeared in journals such as SpryLunch TicketFoundling Review, and The Journal of Kentucky Studies.

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