Midwestern Gothic staffer Lauren Crawford talked with acclaimed poet Sarah Busse about Wisconsin landscapes, how she’s helped create a home for Wisconsin writers, and more.
Lauren Crawford: What is your connection to the Midwest?
Sarah Busse: Not quite as deep as big bluestem, but close. I was born and lived in Iowa until I went to college. College and graduate school years in Minnesota, and now the past eight almost nine years in Wisconsin. Took time out in between those chapters to live in Seattle, WA and San Mateo, CA, but mostly, yeah, the upper Midwest. On the other hand…while my dad grew up in Indiana, my mother’s family has lived in Maine since just after the Revolutionary War. (“As soon as we started stealing land in this country, our family got some of it,” is how she puts it.) I believe I have strong echoes of those Maine ancestors in my writing voice as well.
LC: In what ways has the Midwest influenced your writing?
SB: How hasn’t it?
I think I’ve been aware for a long time—at conscious levels now but in earlier years maybe not even articulated for myself—that as a Midwesterner I needed to write and speak my own truth or else it would get scripted for me by people who knew little about the region. A stranger on an airplane once told me I didn’t seem “like I was from Iowa.” “Why not?” I asked him. “You seem…more sophisticated,” he said. Whatever. See?
Those outside scripts are dangerous in their simplification and tendency to caricature. The Midwest to me is a multi-layered, complex environment. Prairie, savannah, deep woods. Lakes, rivers, drought and flood. Severe weather in every season. Rust belt and farm belt and strip mall. Shifting populations and ethnicities…I love it all. We think of the Midwest as a place of rootedness, but I see the region rather as profoundly restless. The winds—real or internal—never stop blowing, populations and individuals pass from here-to-there by one wave and another, people moving in all directions. Some of them stop and put down roots, then the next generation grows up and moves on. Sometimes we come back. We keep our eyes on the horizon, pray to sky, try to build something while we’re here.
I also want to say something about growing up “Midwestern nice” and how that is a difficult inheritance for a writer… it is one of my particular inheritances from the region. There is a subtle (or not so subtle) tension between the Midwestern culture of nice and the honesty a writer needs to do her work. With each iteration, I have struggled with this—am still struggling with it. I don’t know if I smile hello at everyone, but I feel like I should—and should is a dangerous word.
LC: Your first full-length collection, Somewhere Piano, offers a whimsical glimpse into your life and your experiences as a mother, poet, and Midwesterner. What inspired you to write about these themes, and how did you begin assembling them cohesively?
SB: Well…I write about what life hands me. I am all of those things: a mother, a poet and a Midwesterner (among other selves that maybe I will write in the future). And I dare to insist that a person who has that life also has a life with moments interesting enough to be worth a poem or two.
Those identities of mother, Midwesterner, poet…they provide the setting for my poems, perhaps more than the themes. I think my themes are the same as most: love, and death, anger and desire and the shifting spaces between those big words. What else is it to find yourself human in the world?
As for any kind of cohesiveness—I think of myself as stitching pieces and fragments together—one of my poems is titled “Landscape Quilter” and that’s a trope I return to for myself. Within that piecework, however, I try hard for ragged edges, rupture and interruption, for gap—to allow the white space and the unspoken equal opportunity. I think it’s important to leave space for the reader (sometimes more than the reader wants). It excites me when you can see some of the needlework in a quilt. The human, fallible trace.
LC: Wisconsin’s landscapes play a major role in many of your poems, setting tones and helping to construct vivid imagery. How did you come to embrace this region and its often overlooked beauty?
SB: Maybe it’s a question of paying attention to the not-beautiful, to the ordinary, outwardly mundane moments and finding the numinous within. This is something one is more or less forced to do growing up in the Midwest, in a landscape which we are told is not sublime, not extraordinary. Of course, growing up here, we all have experienced the extraordinary, the sublime, the terrible, as every child does…so we have to figure out how to convey that without betraying the understated contours of our place.
I don’t think I’m doing anything unusual here. A poet tries to catch at moments usually overlooked—in the landscape, in the conversation patterns, on the bus ride home. It’s our job to keep our feelers out.
LC: A lot of your works draw parallels between two seemingly disparate themes—one benign, and one stirringly austere. An example of this is showcased in “We’re About to Boil the Eggs When,” which involves your children helping to make the eponymous snack while you clandestinely watch a crow attack a rabbit’s nest. Why do you think it’s so important to delineate the quotidian and the dramatic simultaneously?
SB: It’s interesting that you (and you’re not alone, by any means) see this poem as two very separate realities—I wonder which you would label “benign.”
Actually I think this points out a common misunderstanding of my work, when readers assume that a domestic scene is “benign” in any way. That is not my experience or understanding.
Nowhere is there more pressure—constant, unyielding pressure, than within the private walls of the household. When I think about it (and my kids are 13 and 9 now) parenting makes me break out in a cold sweat. It keeps me awake at night, if I let it. The job is harrowing.
I guess what intrigued me in this situation in the poem enough to write it was the parallels. We all have to eat. We all have to kill to eat. The rabbit mother was working on sheer instinct, just like I was in the kitchen. And she made the only choice she could make, to try to save her only remaining kit. And yet, by driving off the crow–actually five crows–she only delayed her baby’s death, gave her kit a few days of blind pain. Did she make the “right” choice? And what about me? Do I make the right choices? How will I ever know?
I guess the point I am trying to make, in this statement and in the poem, is that the quotidian IS dramatic. Life and death, blood and fur right out the window. Eggshells in the kitchen. It’s bloody. Let’s not lie about it.
LC: Much of your poetry employs a childlike fascination with the world around you, as if you’re discovering something for the first time after living with it for millennia. This technique allows your subjects and themes to be infinitely rich and diverse, whether you’re looking out your kitchen window or watching autumnal leaves fall, as in “Flicker.” How did you first begin to develop this skill, and how have you primed your eyes to see beyond the obvious?
SB: I feel like I do discover the world every day. It’s a privilege to see sun hit the leaves at a certain angle, or to overhear the cadences of conversation between two people on the street. I wonder what the alternative would be—we go around once on this big blue ball and every day is a series of amazements. If we don’t acknowledge that, we’re squandering the main gift, not to mention our senses and our intelligence.
Reality has layers—and to see multiple layers at once is a poet’s job and also the work of a lifetime. I’m not yet as good as I could be, as I would like to be. Every day I go back and try again.
LC: You and fellow Poet Laureate of Madison, Wendy Vardaman, have long worked together to establish a home for Wisconsin writers, most notably through the creations of Verse Wisconsin and Cowfeather Press. Why did you feel compelled to build these unique podiums, and what have you learned from this group of writers?
SB: It’s important to me to recognize that Wendy and I inherited a project from Marshfield WI poet Linda Aschbrenner—she published Verse Wisconsin’s precursor, Free Verse, for 11 years.
That magazine was eye opening for me. When I moved to Wisconsin, it provided almost immediate community for me as a writer. And these were poets whose work I could read and who I could meet around the state. Suddenly I realized I was reading a poetry magazine cover to cover because I knew these writers, and wanted to see what they were working on in the new issue… This made me completely rethink what I thought I knew about “worth” or “value” in writing, about community and a writer’s needs and how a writer relates to community.
Other people than me have made the point that strong communities inspire great writing—think of Bloomsbury, or the ex-pats in Paris, or the Beats, or contemporarily Cave Canem, Kundiman, the list goes on and on… We spur each other on. And by encouraging each other to raise the bar on our own work, we raise it for everyone. Wendy and I wanted to insist that good—important—work can be done and is being done right here at home. When we inherited the project, we kept this belief, and a focus on “community” front and center in the project.
LC: You describe yourself as a “feminist, a flirt, and a restless heart,” all of which are demonstrated in your writing. You negate monotony while exalting the everyday; you watch your children grow and your seasons change. You connive beautiful contradictions that somehow, when tacked together, become a complete, cogent whole. Why did you choose those three words in particular, and what word would you add to the list, after having written Somewhere Piano?
SB: Well, again it gets back to my penchant for bringing together disparate ideas and leaving the gaps between them to speak for themselves…to leave space for the reader to interpret the distances (if there are any) between those terms. To list each of them together complicates the ideas, and (I hope) the individual they describe.
What would I add now? I would say I am still a feminist, a flirt, a restless heart… and also a fiction.
LC: What’s next for you?
SB: Ah, there’s the question. I look forward to living the answer. Wendy and I still run Cowfeather Press—we’re bringing out two anthologies this fall. But mostly in this season, post-Verse Wisconsin, I’m enjoying just having a little more space in my life once more to work on my own writing.
This person you interviewed, Sarah Busse, doesn’t write much any more…I’ve started using the name Sarah Sadie, as a way to shift into new territories and see what else I had to say—my poems appear now and again (a big thank you to all the tireless editors and readers doing the necessary work to keep the literary community (and communities) healthy and growing). And I blog about the intersections of poetry and theology at patheos.com, at a site titled Sermons From the Mound.
It’s a grand adventure, all of it—and I’m so grateful to you for asking these questions and giving me an opportunity to mull the answers.
Sarah Busse is one of two Poets Laureate of Madison, Wisconsin (2012-2015). She co-edited Verse Wisconsin from 2009-2014 and is one half of Cowfeather Press. Her full-length collection, Somewhere Piano, published in fall 2012 by Mayapple Press (Woodstock, NY), was awarded the Posner Award by the Council for Wisconsin Writers. She has been awarded the WFOP Chapbook Award, the CWW’s Lorine Niedecker Prize and a Pushcart Prize. She teaches at the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival and online at the Loft. She publishes under her own name and also as Sarah Sadie, and currently blogs on the intersections of poetry and theology at patheos.com, in the Sermons from the Mound column.