An Interview with Sara Quinn Rivara

By Caitlin Friel & Jessica Henson

Sara Quinn Rivara is the author of two collections of poetry, Lake Effect (Aldrich Press, 2013) and Animal Bride (Tinderbox Editions, Fall 2018). Her work has appeared in Blackbird, RHINO, cream city review, 32 Poems, Split Lip Magazine, Superstition Review, Dunes Review and many other places. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

West Branch: What is the relationship between domestic violence and the natural world in Lake Effect?

Sara Quinn Rivara: This is a great question—surprisingly, I don’t think I’ve ever thought about this relationship directly, but I can’t write poems if I don’t get outside, don’t run in the woods, go to the Big Lake, or now that I live in the Pacific Northwest, the Pacific, the Gorge, the temperate rainforests. I am drawn to the natural world because it is wild, and that feels like an extension of the wilderness of the self, all of the secrets I had kept for so long.

Lake Effect was written in the aftermath of the birth of my son and the calamity of my first marriage. I got divorced when I was 30—I actually filed for divorce on my 30th birthday. When Jonah, my son, was born, I knew essentially and to my core, in a way I hadn’t seen previously, that I was in immediate danger and that I could not bring up a child in the life I was currently living. During my 10 year first marriage, I was living in a place that was somewhat foreign to me—West Michigan (I’m from Chicago, originally) and the only place I felt free and alive was when I was outside. I tried to be outside a lot. I walked our dogs in the dune woods, I hiked along Lake Michigan, I learned the names of everything I could. This was on advice of one of my advisors in my MFA program—to get as specific as possible in order to see the larger picture. For most of the time I was married, I didn’t think I was in an abusive marriage. I went to graduate school, I got a job teaching English at a community college, I wrote poems. I thought that what was happening to me was normal, was what I deserved, wasn’t abuse. I started to believe I was crazy, was overreacting, was somehow broken because the inside of me and the outside of me were so far out of alignment. I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what happened in my ordinary life—the fear I felt when I went home, the shame, the fact I literally wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone about my life at home because if I did, I would have to pay for it. So, I took our dogs into the woods. I went to Lake Michigan so I could feel alive. When my son was born, I couldn’t figure out what was going on inside of me—my chest and body was on fire, was going to explode. And then I realized that I was feeling something. And then I realized I what I felt was love.  It felt ragged and wild and like the feeling of standing at the edge of the Lake in a squall—untameable, impolite, fierce. I was scared to death. I knew in that moment that I had to leave my marriage, that I had to make a new life. I had no idea how. I didn’t have the words.

Perhaps the violence of the wilderness–storm, earthquake, squall–helped me name the violence that was happening in the household. It gave me a vocabulary for the rage I didn’t know I had, but also for the complete and utter wonder and awe I felt at the birth of my son, the reclaiming of my life, and the naming of what happened in my marriage.

I started writing these poems in those first few years when I was on my own, a single mother, a college professor, having never lived alone in my life, terribly lonely and deeply tired of keeping secrets. Lake Michigan and the woods continued to be the places I felt wild, felt safe, felt myself. It’s a Romantic trope—the landscape as a mirror or lamp of the emotional landscape of the self. Think of Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher­—how the storm rages as the house and Usher family completely fall apart. Or in fairy tales—the women who live in the wilderness are witches, are magic, are dangerous. The landscape is wild, is untamed, blooms and dies and adapts despite what we do, even if we know the names of the plants or not. Wildness is not something that is encouraged in women. Wildness is chaos, is fierce, is animal. It has become a way for me to explore what it means to be a self, a woman, a particularly female in a poem.

WB: How does the wildness interact with your female I? Does this female I interact differently than a male I in nature?

SQR: Maybe an easy answer: it feels rather traditional to see a masculine I as being a self of the mind, of reason, of intellect, of imposing order upon the chaotic natural world, of elevating itself above base nature; of being hierarchical, omniscient, singular. The feminine I  therefore is left in the margins, in the bush, in the uncontrollable, emotional, animal, bodily places. The masculine brings a gun to the wilderness and attempts to tame it; impose itself on the world as superior, singular, omniscient. The feminine “I” is the wilderness itself, vining up from the burned field, purple loosestrife blooming after the field has been plowed and stripped, the earthquake after oil has been fracked from the bedrock. A masculine I is the walled garden, the feminine I is the snake in the grass.

Like most women, I’ve often been told I’m too emotional, that I need to calm down, that I am irrational. The controlled, expansive, masculine I is one that keeps the world at a distance. The overflow of great emotion recalled in tranquility, to paraphrase Wordsworth. I don’t want that distance. What I want, I suppose, is to unsettle.

When I asked my history professor in college why we didn’t study the lives of women in my medieval history class, his reply was to say matter of fact, Ms. Rivara, to study the history of women is to study the history of a dog. What he meant, of course, was we don’t pay attention to what doesn’t matter. In my women’s literature class, I learned how the female self is inherently marginal in literature, in politics, in everyday life. The wilderness at the edge of the known and charted map.

In graduate school, a teacher (not mine, but a well-respected man in poetry) told me to be careful about what I wrote about. “Domestic” poems, women’s poems, poems about “breast feeding and bread rising on the counter” weren’t important enough to get published in important places. I was probably 22, he was old (though now, I realize he was probably my age). What he meant was: don’t write poems from a particularly female experience. Details from a particularly female experience are uncouth—menstrual blood, tampons, breastfeeding, stretchmarks. Poems should be universal, he said. Read male. Read: whatever the I was that I experienced, it was other.

I realized in my twenties that the natural world was a locus of meaning for me. But it wasn’t the staid, controlled landscape of the nature poets I was familiar with (and loved, love still): Gary Snyder, Charles Wright. The Landscape is something tamed. What I wanted was the wild place. The dirty puddle, invasive flowers in a disturbed field, the uncontrollable.

Adam wants to name everything in creation. Eve wants to become it, damn the consequences. Adam wants to control the wild, domesticate it. Eve wants to be what is forbidden, take it inside of her.

I want the self and the wilderness not to be set apart as mirrors, or foils, but I want the I of my poems to interact with the disorder and chaos of the wilderness, which isn’t really disorder after all.

The landscape is a prescribed story; the wilderness is uncontrollable. The landscape says men do this and women do that and the wilderness says burn it all down.

WB: How does Greek mythology function in your work?

SQR: Myths–Greek and Biblical and fairy tales–have given me a framework of meaning against which to lay my own experience. The story of Persephone, in particular, felt particularly resonant when I found myself at 30 in what felt like a free-fall–divorce, single parenthood, living alone for the first time. I was definitely glad to be out of a damaging relationship, but I also felt ashamed that I got divorced. What kind of woman was I? Persephone, and her descent into the underworld, her escape to daylight, made sense to me. Myths offer us, as a culture, a way of making meaning of our experience. Think of the Hero’s Journey, and the way that narrative has shaped how we define the protagonist of any given story–the hero/I is masculine, a do-er, physical, he goes into the unknown and faces challenges and brings back his knowledge to the tribe. But what about the women left behind? What about those of us who have made our lives outside of that narrative. As a child, I loved reading mythology and fairy tales and the creepy illustrated bible in my parent’s bookshelf. I scoured them for female characters, hoping to see something of myself in their stories.But the stories they gave me didn’t feel right, they felt warped. The ending was always marriage and happily ever after or the abnegation of the self. Or so it seemed.

What did it feel like to be Persephone, to be Penelope left behind, to be Mary or Ruth or Snow White? Feminist retellings of myths place women at the center of the story, redraw the boundaries.

At a practical level, working with these archetypes–those that have shaped my ideas of what a woman should be, what a good person should be, how to manage belief and faith–has helped me push, I hope, my poems, expand them. It’s easy  think i have nothing to write about, because our lives are so ordinary, or because the things we want to say feel inappropriate, taboo, against the cultural grain. Allowing these other voices into my work, trying them on, seeing how it might make the quotidian suddenly shine, is exciting. I’m still doing it in my upcoming book, and poems I’m writing now.

WB: “Family Vacation” is the only poem in Lake Effect from a third person point of view. We understood this as a way for you to distance yourself from the subject matter, just as the woman in the poem “imagines water” to cope with her trauma in the moment. What other strategies do you use to write about personal experience?

 SQR: I think, first and foremost, I need some distance from my personal material. In practical terms, that usually means time. It’s really difficult, at least for me, to write poetry about the immediate with any kind of craft or tension. Creative non-fiction works better in that regard, and I’ve used a personal blog to write about some of the more immediate stuff in my life. You’re also correct in assuming that using the third person can also be a way to create distance in a poem–it’s not a point of view I have used a lot in my writing, but one I have been more drawn to in poems I’m working on now.

Using personal material can be really powerful for a poet, but I also think a writer needs to be prepared to lie, to make things up, to deviate from the literal truth in order to serve the poem. I know we as readers want to read the I of a poem as being the literal, actual I of the poet, particularly with poetry that feels more Confessional. That’s a dangerous assumption, though. The poem is its own landscape, its own world. Writing poetry that takes material from our personal lives is not the same, obviously, as a simple documentation of our personal lives. Nor is it poetry-as-therapy. There is, of course, benefits to people writing about their lives for therapeutic reasons, but that generally doesn’t result in poems. Poems are crafted, are made things. I caution my students not to feel yoked to the truth in order to tell the truth–just because something happened doesn’t mean it translates as meaningful or useful to the poem.

WB: Do nature, identity, and personal relationships figure in your new book as they do in Lake Effect? How is the new book different?

SQR: I think nature, identity and personal relationships are going to exist in all of my poems, if not forever, at least for a long time. The natural world is as close to a muse, or at least a place of sanctuary, as a thing gets. I love learning the names of things, am obsessed with birds and plants and animals and ecosystems. And identity is something I have struggled with my entire life. Lake Effect was generated in trauma–the poems felt messy, chaotic, angry. I hadn’t allowed anything like anger to creep into my work before (or much of my life, to be honest). Lake Michigan, and that particular phenomenon known to the Great Lakes region, “lake effect weather” offered a language to channel and shape that rage and that chaos. The new collection, Animal Bride, still finds its imagistic heart in the Upper Midwest–the frozen winter Lake, beech  maple forests, Great Lakes schooners. But I also wanted to look unsparingly at what domestic abuse and poverty and motherhood looks like, in a way I hadn’t been capable of when I was still reeling.

There are myth poems in this collection too: Persephone, selkies, mermaids, brides, Jesus, Mary. I began with an obsession around the trope of the animal bride–the bride who doesn’t marry a monster, but is an animal herself, and who returns to her animal form. I wanted to explore and inhabit that space where a speaker discards the costumes and identities that no longer fit, the identity the world wants her to wear, and inhabits something more feral, more wild, more true. What does it mean to be an animal, something wild, and be a mother? To come to terms, or at least grapple, with what it means to be in a body and to also be of a spirit? It always felt weird to me, as a child, that being born into a female body came with it certain expectations, treatment, limitations, that felt arbitrary, that felt like inevitable traps, that had little or nothing to do with what I knew was me, but which have shaped my experience nonetheless. I’m a woman, my experience has been decidedly female, but who I am is also something else. So, this book tries, at some level, to speak to that. It was also written as I was changing my life completely–falling in love, moving across the country to the West Coast with my son, becoming a blended family, becoming a stepmother. All of these things changed me, obviously, and changed my poems. I’d like to think they’re getting better.

WB: Which authors are you reading now? Who do you most enjoy teaching to your students? What writers have been influential in your work?

SQR: I’m reading, as usual, a little bit of everything–Ada Limon’s Bright Dead Things, Donnika Kelly’s Bestiary,  Ijeoma Ulou’s So You Want To Talk About Race, Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires about Laura Ingalls Wilder,a book about the Great Lakes, a great chapbook from Glass Press, Bad Anatomy by Hannah Cohen. And most nights, my son and I are reading aloud Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, first in his new Book of Dust series. I’m also excited to start reading Leni Zuma’s Red Clocks–I got to hear her read from it last year when she was a guest writer at the college where I work. Oh-and I have at least three field guides on my desk at any given time, and a giant dictionary my mother gave me when I got married the first time, and a book about miracles. And running magazines. And home and garden magazines. And a guide to backyard chickens.

When it comes to teaching texts, I was really lucky as an undergraduate and high school student to have teachers who were willing to go outside of the canon in my classes, and expose the class to writers that weren’t the same old dead white guys. However, if there were gaps in what i was taught, it was definitely poetry. Not until my undergraduate creative writing courses did I realize that poetry didn’t have to be simply a puzzle to solve, or be stiff and formal and antiseptic. Books I come back to, again and again, though have been Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song, anything by Diane Seuss. In fact, I think the most influential writer for me has been Di–she was my first poetry teacher as an undergraduate at Kalamazoo College, and her classes invited a kind of weirdness, a kind of othering, a refusal to look away and to look closely at the ordinary world for what is magic, bizarre, holy. If you haven’t read her work, you must.