Saturday, October 22, 2011

Former Algonquin Publicity Assistant/ Genius Sarah Rose Nordgren talks about her new writing fellowship, Paris, and the writing life

It's no secret how I worship all the gods and goddesses at my publisher, Algonquin. Sarah Rose Nordgren, as publicity assistant there,  booked my flights and my hotel, held my hand when I panicked, and made sure I never had to get up too early or leave too late from anywhere at any time. Sarah just won this amazing writing fellowship, and I wanted a chance to celebrate her so I asked her to come on my blog.  Thank you, Sarah, for being on my blog, for being on my side, for being my friend, for everything in the world I can think of.

You've won this extraordinary Fellowship in Provincetown. Tell us about it--and is it strange going from a fulltime job to being a writer full time? 

The winter fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center is an artist’s dream. Each year ten visual artists and ten writers are awarded seven full months to devote exclusively to their art. The Center provides living and working space and a small stipend, and the only criteria is that the recipient spends the fellowship months here in Provincetown creating. The Fine Arts Work Center has been around since 1968, and has hosted a parade of amazing writers including Louise Glück, Michael Cunningham, Denis Johnson, Marie Howe, Ann Patchett, and Nick Flynn (the list goes on and on!). The community and support provided by the FAWC is invaluable, and Provincetown itself is a wonderful place to write. At the very tip of Cape Cod, the town is surrounded by ocean, and the fellowship year begins just as the last tourists are straggling out of town. The winters here are windy, dark, moody, and isolated, which makes it perfect for writing as long as you keep your head screwed on tight. As a Returning Fellow (I was also here in ‘08-09), I know what I’m getting into, and this time I brought my fiancé (poet Michael C. Peterson) and furry feline (Yuri) along with me to fend off insanity.

Three weeks into the fellowship, I’m still getting my sea legs, as it were. The transition from working fulltime (and I had an exceptionally busy summer) to being a fulltime writer again does feel very extreme! I’m trying to be patient with myself as I loosen my grip on the clock and relax into a more writerly schedule. It’s impossible for me to just jump in and start producing poems when my brain has been tuned into work and schedules and wedding planning and moving… I have to clear away the mental clutter gradually so my writer-brain can wake up and emerge from the waters. 

You were this remarkable publicist at Algonquin and I owed my life to you so many times--how did you manage to write while always been available to other writers?

I liked my job at Algonquin precisely because I had the opportunity to work with other writers. Even though we were usually communicating about practical things like schedules and press materials and tours, I enjoyed feeling like I could contribute to the success of a book, and help writers have a positive publishing experience. The world of publishing for poetry is usually quite different than for fiction because there aren’t big tours, and the books don’t sell in large numbers, but if and when I’m lucky enough to have my manuscript published, I’ll be thrilled if I have anywhere close to the support and care that Algonquin gives it’s authors.

While I do think it’s possible to write and work a day-job (many people are doing it as I write this!), I’m sorry to say that I’ve personally never figured out a satisfying way to balance work and writing. My brain goes into productive/schedules/to-do list mode, and it’s very difficult for me to slip into a more open and spacious mind-frame in the evening or on a Saturday. I wish I could give some advice about this issue. Perhaps someone can give me some good advice!

When --and why--did you first start writing? And why poetry? Do you also write fiction?

Like many writers, I fell in love with words early and hard. I was fortunate to attend an alternative school (Waldorf) from preschool on through middle school, and one of the pedagogical strategies there is to do a lot of memorization and recitation. We learned and recited poems by Blake and Emerson (my 8th grade class learned the entirety of The Raven by Poe), read stories and poems aloud, studied fairy tales and Bible stories and Norse and Greek mythologies. It was the perfect education for an artist! In elementary school I began writing several novels which I never finished (the first clue that I’m not a fiction writer!). These novels usually revolved around some young girl who had a terminal illness or other major tragedy in her life, and her wild Arabian horse. Then in middle school and high school I started writing poems and never stopped.

Besides one foray into a fiction workshop as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence, I’ve known for awhile that my heart is written in verse. The “stories” I wrote in that one fiction class were more like extended prose poems under the influences of Lydia Davis and Hans Christian Andersen (I’m making them sound way better than they actually were). The big tip off was the conversations in workshop. Students wanted to discuss “what happened” in my stories, and politely requested more character development and dialogue. Plot? Character? I looked at my classmates like they were Philistines. “But what about the mood?” I asked. “And did you notice my syntax?”

Where do you want to be in five years? (Besides in Paris, writing in a cafe!)

Only there and nowhere else! (Add husband and lovely future children to the scene: Michael and I can alternate days so one can write while the other cavorts in the park with our dear son, Marcel, and daughter, Joyce. We can meet for lunch in the café, where Michael and I will drink café au lait and the children will have steamed milk and sandwiches.) 

What's obsessing you now?

I’m reading The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin and India by Patrick French, and thinking a lot about pre-history. Today I also started reading The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale (a college friend whom I recently became reacquainted with), which seems like it could be a nice compliment to the other books. I don’t know where these lines of thinking will take me, but probably somewhere!

What question didn't I ask that I should have asked?

“Where can people read your poetry?” Well, online you can read it here and here. Also look out for my work in the Best New Poets 2011 anthology which pubs in November, and in upcoming issues of The Iowa Review and Pleiades.


Seré Prince Halverson said...

All four poems...gorgeous, gorgeous. Wishing a happy, productive season of writing to you, Sarah.

Sarah Rose said...

Thank you Sere!

mvbowles said...

Great interview! Especially the mood and syntax:>)

carl said...

i've read lots of sarah rose's poetry and can't wait to read more.