Sara Burnett on why write poetry, the play and craft of creation, and motherhood

You are the author of the forthcoming chapbook Mother Tongue from Dancing Girl Press available here. You also blog about motherhood, writing, and art here. You discuss in one post the inspiration and strength you draw from the transcribed lecture by Natasha Trethewey, “Why I Write”: Poetry, History, and Social Justice published in Waccamaw. Talk about why you write and specifically, how you came to write Mother Tongue.

On some level, I think how can I not write? But I didn’t start writing what I would consider poems until my late twenties. Even then, it was to turn in to someone else. It took me a while – many years – to write without a goal in mind, to write for the sake of writing. And I’m a poet because I feel like writing poetry is the best way that I can question the “thorniness” of being human among other humans. And I’m also a poet because I love words, the sound of them in my mouth, and the music of a line that conveys the “realness” of what’s felt or imagined.

I didn’t set out to write Mother Tongue as a chapbook. These are poems I’ve been writing for years. Just as Philip Levine said (as quoted by Natasha Tretheway in her essay), “You write what you are given to write.” Some of these poems were poems I’d written in my MFA program.  Some of them were written after I graduated. Writing about Cuban immigration, my own sense of bi-racial identity as it has played out for me – as it crosses in and out of the borders of language, class, gender, race, and so forth – was and will probably always be one of my “subjects.” It was such an integral part of my early development. The fact that so much about my mother’s Cuban immigration experience – the family’s trauma and triumph – was both something to be proud of and ashamed of – something made public and something kept private, depending on the context. I struggled with these contradictions. As I got older and had more life experiences, I increasingly questioned them. Poetry has freed me to examine these questions and contradictions, hold them up to the light, fraught as they are. Perhaps that’s why my initial reaction to the question was how could I not write?

In the last two months before my daughter was born, I had the time and space (that I knew I would not have for some time) to sift through my poems. I had a natural deadline looming, her due date, and this pushed me to sit with my legs extended or raised, or squat on the floor sorting, editing, tossing, taping papers to the wall, etc., before I saw a shape of chapbook. Already, in the womb, she was pushing me.

I want to say as well that being around other poets at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, just three months before she was born, encouraged me also to make this chapbook. It dawned on me that I might have something of importance to say to others in poetry, that people might enjoy it or receive something from it, just as I have received so much from reading poems by other poets. It hasn’t ceased to surprise me that this is what I’ve needed most to hear and know at various points not to keep writing, but to share my writing.

There is magic in the repetition of sound, image, and phrase in your poems collected in Mother Tongue. Your poem “El Regreso” begins:

Under the orange glow of the flamboyan tree, they talk of el regreso while sipping espresso from paper demitasses and at a roundtable after dinner, after dominoes

they will talk of el regreso.

Of old Cuba, of old Havana, of all things old at a roundtable after dinner, after dominoes Do you remember the lechón? Do you remember tres leches cake?

and your poem “Pupusas at St. Camillus Church, Maryland” begins:

Some of us have been singing hymns this hour while thumbing through the hymnal’s worn pages because we like its weightiness in our palms, while others have been staring at colored tracks of carpet threads worn thin and patches of light slanting in from tinted windows; and while some of us have been bowing our heads and bending down on the frayed kneelers, others have been mouthing the words by rote, not missing a response or sign of the cross, and still some of us have been distracted by the squirming baby in the first pew, whose timed screams in every silent space of Mass have been impeccably precise.

Can you talk more about poetry as a vessel to address subjects like immigration, cultural identity, race, gender, and class? How does the use of poetic language enable deep reflections? When you write, how does the use of poetic craft invite a turning to and away from the big ideas that haunt the poem, sequence, and chapbook?

Even as someone who loves language and word play, I take for granted how much it shapes the way we see the world and are in the world. Poetry expresses possibilities that I can have trouble seeing. While every word matters greatly in a poem, I may land on a word simply because of the sound, or an image before it or a requirement of the form or the music of the line, or all of those reasons etc. Some of that is unconscious, but it’s working on the level of the line, on the level of a word. For example, I wrote the phrase “paper demitasse” in “El Regreso” likely because of the word espresso that came before it – the sound drew me, but that phrase says so much about class, immigration, hope, nostalgia, etc.

A lot of these poems do hold together as individual poems and also as a chapbook because of the repetition of images, sounds, and phrases. I think that may be a reflection of how the mind, or at least my mind, works to create patterns. I think that repetition is also fitting for conveying the elusiveness of memory and history, individual and collective. Sometimes I’m very conscious of my use of repetition if I’m working in a form, for example. Sometimes it’s just a way for me to keep pushing myself to write in more depth, which is what happened there.

There’s something about what’s happening on both conscious and unconscious levels in poetry with regard to craft and language that both encourages me to think through it and prevents me from thinking through it entirely. I don’t set out to write a poem on these subjects, but they are essential to the way I see and am seen in the world. This comes through in the poetry I write with likely more authenticity and ambiguity than I am able to convey in prose.


In your blog you discuss motherhood, the difficulties of achieving balance, and “the will to create” through writing. What’s the best thing that happened in your writing since you became a mother? Who are the creative mothers and parents that you admire and who inspire your courage and strength to create?

When I started the blog, I wanted to push against my own limiting notions of mother or writer, or of mother and writer, as if one moment, I was one and not the other. Since I became a mother, my writing is more urgent and I am less careful of perfection. If a poem isn’t working out, I’m more inclined to move on to the next poem and let that one go. I don’t have the luxury of obsessing over a poem, for better or worse.

I try very hard to consider it a success that attempting to write is writing, no matter the outcome. Naomi Shihab Nye said in an interview on On Being, that “very rarely do you hear anyone say that when they write things down, they feel worse. It’s an act that helps you, preserves you, energizes you in the very act of doing it.” I make it the priority to write something down once a day, most days, and that has honestly given me clarity and balance in my daily life. So other things don’t get done — or done as well, and I accept that. I acknowledge too it is a privilege to say that there are other things – other jobs that are secondary for me at this time in my life.

I have found Sarah Manguso’s work to be inspiring for me creatively, and also practically. In her essay “The Grand Shattering,” she describes the urgency of writing now as a mother, but also “the quality of attention of this new mind, the mind of someone who is responsible for a helpless person, is different — more distractible and therefore more desperate not to be distracted.” I think my writing reflects this state of mind both in content and in form. I’m distracted by the news and events in a way that I have to write about them. I move more quickly in my poems. I don’t overwrite as much as I used to. I experiment more. I read a lot and absorb inspiration. I read in front of my daughter, to my daughter, after Elmo says I Love You, and before Goodnight Moon.

I come back often to Sharon Olds, Rachel Zucker, Lydia Davis, and Gwendolyn Brooks among so many others for inspiration and support. When I was at a used bookstore with my daughter and she was about 8 months old, I picked up the Selected Works of Gwendolyn Brooks. My daughter was starting to fuss and I said something like “just let mommy look at one more book” and there on the inside cover, was a dedication that read “to all parents who read to your children ‘hold on!’ Love and Respect Gwendolyn Brooks March 10, 1987.” Sometimes, the universe conspires to focus your attention.

How do you define chapbook? A chapbook to me are poems that hold together intimately like a small bouquet. They are small gifts.

What makes a good chapbook? A good chapbook to me is a work of art in and of itself. It is sonically, linguistically, and visually woven together.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? This is my first chapbook, but overall I look for unity among the poems and a bit of dissonance.

How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? Read more.

Current chapbook reading list: Shields & Shards & Stitches & Songs by Dan Beachy Quick

Number of chapbooks you own: 10

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: 20

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. It’s an entirely new community to me so I don’t know yet.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: Reading this website, buying other people’s chapbooks, going to readings when I can.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: Probably buying more books and a nice chai.

Your chapbook wish: Not so much a wish but a curiosity as to how it might resonate with others.

Residence: Silver Spring, MD

Job: Mother full-time, freelance jobs in education, teaching, and writing some times

Chapbook Bio: Sara Burnett is the author of Mother Tongue (DGP 2018). Her poems have appeared in Barrow Street, Poet Lore, The Cortland Review, and elsewhere. She holds a MFA in poetry from the University of Maryland and a MA in English Literature from the University of Vermont. She is a recipient of Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference work-study scholarships to support her writing. She lives in Silver Spring, MD with her family and blogs on writing, art, and parenting at


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