Sarah Browning is author of the recently released book of poetry, Whiskey in the Garden of Eden. She is also co-editor of D.C. Poets Against the War: An Anthology, a founder of D.C. Poets Against the War, and coordinator of Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness. Sarah has received the People Before Profits Poetry Prize and an individual artist grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
WW: Tell me a little about yourself and how you got into poetry?
SB: I started writing in high school and college, but then took a long break when I was a community and political organizer. I had this ridiculous notion that poetry was a bourgeois indulgence -- especially for a middle-class white girl. Finally, I realized that I was going out of my mind not writing, and left a high-powered political job so as to put poetry back at the center of my life. I was almost 30 at that time.
WW: High powered political job? For a candidate or a nonprofit?
SB: I work now on integrating these sides of myself -- the creative and the political -- coordinating DC Poets Against the War. I was the Executive Director of an organization in Boston called Citizens for Participation in Political Action (CPPAX), a multi-issue, progressive, statewide citizen activist group.
WW: How did you come back to writing?
SB: My partner, now husband, Tom Hertz, wanted to pursue a doctorate in economics, so we moved to western Massachusetts so he could go to UMass Amherst. I was lucky enough to land in a creative writing workshop with a poet named Pat Schneider, who is especially brilliant at helping writers get past blocks and silence the "internal editors" we carry around in our heads.
I had some very stern editors, who especially told me not to risk sentimentality -- that brush with which women's writing is so often tarred. The result, I think, is that we don't risk emotion; we don't risk telling the truth. Which is just as fatal, if not more so, to poetry as sentimentality.
WW: How did you overcome your editors?
SB: Pat's workshop method provides a very safe environment, one in which writers are encouraged to take risks. Participants write on the spot, from some exercise provided by the workshop leader. Then writers who are moved to read what they've written and the group responds only with what they like or remember. There's time for critique later -- but this writing is brand new and we don't want to be worry about what someone across the room is going to think. This process works incredibly well. I've used it and seen all kinds of writers produce astonishing things in 20 minutes -- children, women living in housing projects, PhD "writers." You can read more about it in Pat's book, Writing Alone and With Others. It took me about a year and a half in Pat's workshop before I stopped writing tiny, cramped, self-conscious poems that we're afraid of exposing anything.
WW: Much of your poetry is very serious. It doesn't seem necessarily sentimental, although there's not a lack of sentimentality either. How do you communicate the emotional side of your creative self?
SB: Well, I hope that each of my poems will touch someone emotionally. Different poems will speak to different readers, of course. But it is when I am moved, that I am moved to write poetry -- whether it's by the beauty of a crystal clear morning in my back yard or by the news, as we had today, of a man who lost his entire family in a bombing in Iraq. Or, both at one time.
WW: Let's step back for a minute. Are your originally from Massachusetts?
SB: No, I grew up in Chicago. But then went to Massachusetts for school and ended up staying for many years, until I had the good fortune of moving to DC.
WW: Good fortune? How do you mean?
SB: DC really feels like home to me. I've been so welcomed here. I've had the great privilege of finding and being welcomed into a rich, diverse community of poets and activists that has sustained me through these past several years.
WW: Where did you first find your passion for activism? Chicago? Boston?
SB: I was raised in an activist family. One of my first memories is marching down State Street in Chicago with my father, protesting the Vietnam War. He was a member of Veterans for Peace and I have very warm memories of those times together, hanging out with the other vets. So, it's who I am.
WW: Tell me about Whiskey in the Garden of Eden and how that merges the two worlds you described--poetry and activism.
Whiskey in the Garden of Eden is my first book, so it includes poems from many of the past 10 years or so. The first section, called "Wild Peace", contains poems I've written since being in DC. They grapple with the changing city (and being part of that change...), the war, and the challenges of raising a child in a time of war. They often entwine the personal and the political.
Other poems in the book reflect on my Chicago childhood in the late 60s and early 70s -- another time of rapid change and war. And other poems are about motherhood and love and loss. But because of who I am, as someone introducing me once said, the world always is present even in the very personal poems.
Look for the second part of Sarah Browning's interview in a few days. In it she discusses how she approaches writing and how publishing has impacted her work.
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