Sarah Fawn Montgomery on the opportunity to obsess

In her essay “Why We Wear Masks” in Poemeleon, Jeanine Hall Gailey writes, “Slipping on the mask of persona might not afford the anonymity it promises, but it does allow for fascinating glimpses into the process of writing, the concept of self and collective consciousness, and allow the writer to, for an instant, take imaginative creation to new heights.” You are the author of two chapbooks, Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide (Finishing Line Press 2017) and The Astronaut Checks His Watch (Finishing Line Press 2014), with a third chapbook, Regenerate: Poems of Madwomen, forthcoming this summer from Dancing Girl Press. Talk about self and collective consciousness, persona and imaginative retelling in poetry, especially as it pertains to your forthcoming work, Regenerate.

I began as a nonfiction writer, which requires me to share personal stories within a collective context in order to engage with readers. When writing memoir or personal essay, for example, I use research to include other voices and situate the self within a broader social or historical frame. I was drawn to poetry—persona in particular—because it allows me to actually embody these voices if I desire, to research a person or place and then tell the story as it is recorded, but also as I imagine or as I hope it might be told. Persona poetry allows—in fact, requires—me to get out of my own way, to put the personal aside and risk, imagine, learn. And as Gailey mentions, persona poetry also necessitates great empathy in order to consider other ways of thinking, feeling, and existing in the world—to understand an addict in The Astronaut Checks His Watch, for example, or those who settled the Great Plains in Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide.

In Regenerate: Poems of Mad Women, persona allows me to explore a collective history of women’s madness, taking to task inadequate treatments and medical attitudes towards mental health, and interrogating how gender roles and restrictions impact this legacy. I include poems from the perspectives of women undergoing electroconvulsive therapy, as well as famous patients like Bertha Pappenheim (her case study was included in Freud’s Studies on Hysteria), because what we know of these women comes largely from the perspective of medical texts.  Persona enables them to speak from personal, nuanced positions. I also write from the perspective of physicians like Silas Weir Mitchell, the inventor of the Rest Cure, and Dr. Walter Freeman, who performed the first frontal lobotomy in the United States. These physicians were widely published, so persona enables me to question their public narratives, exploring the ways social and cultural contexts shaped their mistreatment of female patients. Finally, poems from literary madwomen like Edna Pontellier from The Awakening or Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre allow me to question the ways popular literature influences our attitudes towards mental health. I am less interested in using persona to mask my own experiences with madness—I also include personal poems—than in redistributing power and rewriting patriarchal narratives of mental illness. My purpose is to deconstruct the pervasive images of madwomen, and persona allows these women to speak against history, rewriting the narratives that cast them as “crazy,” and reclaiming their illnesses while simultaneously suggesting that the real “madness” exists in the treatment (medical or otherwise) of women.

One of the things I admire in your forthcoming chapbook Regenerate is the surprise such voices offer as they, as you say, “speak against history.” Debra Spark talks about surprise in poetry and fiction, quoting Robert Frost’s “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” in her essay “Surprise Me” in The Writers Chronicle. She concludes her essay considering Frost’s assertion, “But that isn’t entirely true, is it? Sometimes you surprise yourself…; sometimes the outside world surprises you and you use that surprise in your work…; and sometimes you very intentionally think about how to surprise your reader…” (88). Talk about surprise in poetry and nonfiction, in the work you read and the work you write.

I tend to write poetry spontaneously—when I come across a weird science fact, when I remember a lovely meal, when I read a powerful line (Safiya Sinclair, Danez Smith, and Lily Hoang are writers I’ve recently loved). I try to draft in a single sitting and then put it away until I’ve forgotten the specifics—when I come back to a poem, I want to experience it like a reader. Editing from this perspective keeps the poem from becoming overly crafted or too rehearsed. Ted Kooser once told me that it’s easy to spot a poem trying to be “clever.” This becomes a distraction, as if the poet is waving a flag to announce her skill, which, according to Kooser, “is not clever at all.” I write to surprise myself, which I hope prevents me waving a flag over my craft and instead allows my poems to go in strange and wonderful directions.

With nonfiction I write to uncover. I circle around a topic, examine it from many angles, and reflect and research until I figure out what something means (even if my conclusion is ultimately that I don’t know what something means). While I use elements of craft to surprise the reader—scenes and facts to guide a reader towards a particular emotion or conclusion—much of my writing is driven by my own surprise. That is, of course, the nature of the essay—to replicate the wandering of the mind and put the delight of discovery on the page. I used to stick to a clear outline for guidance and rely on found forms as a way to impose meaning, but writing about madness—particularly in my forthcoming mental health memoir—has required I give myself over to surprise. In order to articulate the ways madness resists conventional ways of thinking and being, I can’t stick to a script or rigid outline. I have to embody madness in my writing—which is disjointed in some places and lyric in others, linear while also replicating missing or forgotten time, visually disruptive and frantic like my anxiety, while also repetitive and circular like my OCD—so the prose is constantly surprising me.

How do you define chapbook? A short collection or piece of poetry or prose whose meaning is created as much by the physical object of the book as it is by the writing.

What makes a good chapbook? Cohesion of writing and physical form. The chapbook sometimes gets described as a place for poems that haven’t found homes in full-length manuscripts, but the chapbook is actually an opportunity for writers to tackle projects of a certain scope. Chapbooks should be as unified as a full-length manuscript, but approach purpose in a more selective and streamlined fashion. In addition, it’s also important to find a publisher that designs the book as an artifact readers engage with on the page and in the hand.

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days?  I always love the chapbooks that Dancing Girl Press puts out because of the mission of the press—publishing diverse women’s voices, attention to craft and artistry of paper goods, and a reasonable price point. Glass Poetry Press has also published some wonderful writers recently and their use of the platform to speak about social justice issues—publishing a journal issue in response to the Pulse Nightclub shootings, donating chapbook proceeds to the ACLU—elevates the purpose and potential of the chapbook. Finally, the chapbook box sets put out by The African Poetry Book Fund are incredible—individually, the chapbooks are powerful, but together they resonate.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? I typically have a project in mind, either a story or place or concept that I’ve been working through in a few poems and want to devote more energy to in a longer set of pages. With my most recent chapbook, Regenerate, I’d been working on the project without realizing, but my first two chapbooks were deliberate projects I set for myself—I had just one or two completed poems before I decided to pursue the chapbook form. In addition to a central theme or issue, I also like to use chapbooks to explore particular elements of craft—I explored narrative poems in my first chapbook, place-based poetry in the second, and persona in my most recent.

How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? I’m trying to complicate the range—voice, perspective, form—that can be contained in a collection while still remaining cohesive. I like the intense challenge of a chapbook because its brevity means that every poem counts and arrangement is essential.

What’s next for you? I have a mental health memoir forthcoming from The Ohio State University Press and I recently finished a poetry collection about gender and survival on the Great Plains that I’m circulating to publishers. I’m also in the early stages of a new poetry collection and a new collection of essays—I love the uncertainty of not knowing where they will end up and the freedom to follow the writing wherever it leads.

Current chapbook reading list: I recently read SJ Sindu’s I Met You Once, But You Were Dead and Photographs of our Shadows by Steven Sanchez, and I’m looking forward to diving into Carly Joy Miller’s Like a Beast and Leila Chatti’s Tunsiya / Amrikiya.

Number of chapbooks you own: I recently moved across the country, so I’ll let you know when the boxes are unpacked.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: Too many to count.

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: Buying chapbooks, sharing chapbooks, geeking out over chapbooks, teaching chapbook poets in class, assigning chapbooks as part of your courses, encouraging students to write chapbooks, inviting chapbook poets to do readings, organizing chapbook panels, creating and supporting chapbook contests and presses, inviting chapbook poets to submit work to Prairie Schooner or Vida: Women in Literary Arts.

Your chapbook credo: Opportunity to obsess.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: Buying books, of course.

Your chapbook wish: That more literary journals reviewed chapbooks—I’m always searching for chapbook recommendations and so few places publish them.

Residence: I recently relocated to the Boston, Massachusetts area from Lincoln, Nebraska, and was nostalgic for the Great Plains as soon as I began to drive away.

Job: Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University.

Chapbook Bio: Sarah Fawn Montgomery holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from California State University-Fresno and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she has worked as Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor since 2011. She has a memoir forthcoming with The Ohio State University Press and is the author of three poetry chapbooks, Regenerate: Poems from Mad Women (Dancing Girl Press 2017), Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide (Finishing Line Press 2017), and The Astronaut Checks His Watch (Finishing Line Press 2014). Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Fugue, The Los Angeles Review, Nimrod, The Normal School, North Dakota Quarterly, Passages North, The Pinch, Puerto del Sol, The Rumpus, Southeast Review, Terrain, Zone 3 and others. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts.

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