Interview with Sawnie Morris by Catherine Strisik

On these cold clear winter days I am continually warmed by the good poetry of others, and in this small vibrant community of Taos, New Mexico there are many poets who year after year are honored with one award or another, and one of them is Sawnie Morris who just happens to be Taos’ first Poet Laureate. We’ve known each other since the mid 80’s sharing words in some of the early poetry groups here in Taos. When you live in Taos you learn about a person, and yourself as a writer sharing vulnerabilities, frustrations, the excitement of language, and of teaching one another about other poets’ work, and the thrills of having a book published. Sawnie Morris’ collection, Her, Infinite was awarded the 2015 New Issues Poetry Prize after having placed as finalist in 15 other contests. This is in her bio in the book. This is why I have chosen Sawnie to interview because of her perseverance, and well, she is a fearless poet both in her use of language and subject matter. This is an invitation to Sawnie Morris and Her, Infinite.

C.S Begin with the book’s title and your cover image. How did you choose each? What three words immediately come to your mind when summing up or describing Her, Infinite?

S.M. Thank you, Cathy. I am grateful to you and to Veronica, as the editors of Taos Journal, for your interest in my work.

In answer to your question, the title, Her, Infinite arose from what were originally the final lines of “When the Poisons Begin Doing Damage.”

evenxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx the beer and wine bottle
shardsxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx the butts and shot gun shells ––
that under the usual spell xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxagitate

find their rightful insignificancexxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx slight signature
of clawed feetxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx in the corner of
her, infinite.

The title evokes the Divine Feminine or Gaia, a force I like to think infuses nature as well as embracing us, and will outlast us many times over, despite our great folly.

Later, ‘Annah Sobelman recommended that I move those final two stanzas of the poem –– including the phrase “her, infinite” –– to the front of the book, to serve as an epigraph. This resulted in an equally good if not better ending for the poem and provided an enhanced entry into the book. Bless ‘Annah!

With regard to the cover, New Issues Press is hosted by Western Michigan University, which is also the location of Frostic School of Art, which has its own contest. It is my understanding that the winner of that contest has the honor of designing the cover of the winning poetry book. Although the artist creates the design, they want the poet to be happy. The initial image included barbed wire and had a broken-world feeling that I did not believe accurately represented the whole of the book. The image with the feather was then produced and I loved it instantly. The feather, the desert sand, the stick, the delineating shadow line of the stick and shadow of the feather – all of that in combination with the title suggested to me the feeling of a strong female presence living close to the earth –– and, when necessary, a fierce female presence, a force of resilience. The first line of an Emily Dickinson poem comes to mind, “She staked her Feathers –– Gained an Arc – / Debated – Rose again –.”

The book is roughly half poems regarding human-caused environmental degradation and half love poems, including overlap, and with an awareness of the presence of the Divine Feminine or Gaia woven throughout.

C.S. What were you trying to achieve with your book? Talk about the world you were trying to create, and who lives in it.

S.M. I wasn’t trying to create a world the way a novelist creates a world. Poems accumulated that were written in response to events happening in my immediate environment, in relation to people I love, including people I worked with at that time in northern New Mexico. The first section of the book addresses human caused environmental disasters, primarily that of Los Alamos National Laboratory, located up-wind of where I live and where scientists, driven by fear and in a hurry to create the atomic bomb, knowingly tossed radioactive waste into nearby canyons and arroyos. That radioactive waste eventually began reaching the Rio Grande, which flows all of the way to the Gulf of Mexico. The first section of the book addresses community efforts, politically and spiritually, to address the situation. For example, “Da-Ma-Te, Demeter” was written after a visit made by activists, myself among them, to a clean-up site at Los Alamos National Lab. The aim of the site-visit was to see whether containment efforts for radioactive storm water discharges were effective. (They weren’t.) Two of the activists had Geiger-counters; the experience described in the poem of walking across the field and having the numbers spike into the danger zone, was my own. Likewise, “For the Record” was written after I attended a public hearing, from which I left in tears –– and I am certain I was not alone in my reaction –– after listening to people speak whose lives had been catastrophically altered by nuclear testing and the effects of an oblivious white lab-culture on the surrounding Pueblo and Hispanic people and cultures. Later, I added research to my effort and after reading Kai Bird and Martin W. Sherwin’s biography of Robert Oppenheimer, wrote “It is Documented,” in which I attempted to weave language from Buddhist texts, the language of historic poets, and the magical properties of poetry into the devastating language of nuclear history, as a way to argue, to enlighten, to create wholeness. Where the first section of the book deals more in the public realm, the second and third sections reveal a more intimate response and by the end, I like to think, a sense of recovery and possibility.

C.S. Can you describe your writing practice or process for this collection?

S.M. I do best to work in the mornings, when I’m still close to the fluidity and freedom of dreaming. I tend to write directly out of my own life and the given moment. Some of the poems in Her, Infinite were written fifteen to twenty years prior to publication of the book –– long before it was conceived as a manuscript. “Cochiti Lake, 1989,” was written in 2007 and provided the centrifugal force around which a manuscript could begin to coalesce. It pulled existing poems to itself and inspired new ones.

C.S. Do you have a favorite revision strategy?

S.M. Every poem is different. I mean really different. But in general, revision involves a tight back and forth between the language and the evolving form. The poems that interest me most are those in which I am attempting something new, at least new for me. When I recognize that I’m employing a similar strategy to a previous poem I’ve written, I feel a little ashamed, like I’m being lazy – and I tend to become bored with the poem, so I’ll try to go deeper with it in some way. Most of my poems spring from free-writes, done by hand. Editing begins when I transcribe the written poem to the computer. When I get stuck I will sometimes haul down prose works from my shelves that I think might contain interesting images or language in relation to what I am working on. Dictionaries are integral. Revision is taking longer and longer, now. I don’t know yet if that is a good thing or evidence of too much perfectionism.

C.S. How did you order the poems in the collection? Do you have a specific method for arranging your poems?

S.M. Initially, I had only the vaguest idea of how to go about it. A story in my mind and /or the associative leap from the end of one poem to the beginning of the next. That was it. To give myself a deadline and gain insight, I attended Joan Houlihan’s Colrain Poetry Manuscript Writing Conference, which was a milestone and terrifically helpful. Within a year, the manuscript became one of four finalists in a contest judged by Anne Waldman. I continued to work with the order, add new poems, remove others. At one point – I must have been complaining – Forrest Gander said to me that the ordering of a manuscript was an art in itself and was absolutely crucial to the manuscript’s success. A little electric shock went through me, like the gods were giving me a hint by way of Forrest! At that point, the manuscript had already been a finalist twelve or thirteen times in national contests, but I contacted two poets whose work I admire and with whom I had exchanged work in the past. Valerie Martínez came up with a wonderful new order –– I loved it. At night, I imagined the newly ordered manuscript –– which was lying on the chest of drawers in my bedroom –– to have the glow and shape of a gold ring. I was able to see the poems in an entirely different light, and this was very exciting. After a bit though, I could feel that the gold ring, embracing as it was, wasn’t what was needed. I needed an order that was more piercing. I did an exchange with Lise Goett and she came up with exactly that. As soon as I saw her suggestions, I knew she’d nailed it. Of course, I made changes and added one or two important poems, but for the most part the order she suggested was the one I went with. I learned a great deal from Valerie and Lise and am always going to be grateful. I recommend having reliable others provide a suggested order for one’s manuscript even if you don’t choose to use the order they provide. The process offers such enlightening perspectives on the work.

C.S. In Her, Infinite the poems have many shapes, and the use of space on the page is deliberately strengthening each poem’s voice and need. Please talk about this process of creativity.

S.M. For Her, Infinite, shaping the poems was almost always the last step and often, though not always, long after the poem was initially considered finished. I would think to myself, this poem needs something else, what is it? Spacing and shaping is the result of my desire to break up a rhythm or add to it, or reflect in a visual way the physical attributes of what is being expressed. For example, “Da-ma-te, Demeter” is in the shape of a field. The line breaks and movement down the page of “Fallen Moon in the House of Speech” suggest switchbacks along the Rio Pueblo leading to the Rio Grande, as described in the poem. “Life Stories, And Other Possible Endings” is in the shape of a bristlecone pine, which in some cases has had a life-span of as many as five-thousand years.

The most complex experience that I’ve had so far evolved over a period of years in relation to “The Baby Albatross of Midway Atoll.” I wrote it in response to a photo image created by Chris Jordan of two baby albatross chicks whose stomachs had exploded as a result of being fed plastic by their parents. The parent birds mistook plastic objects floating in the sea for food. That image and what it reflected about human disregard for life was so disturbing that it took me two years to approach writing the poem and then I had to do it under the pressure of a poem-a-day workshop in which I had only a few hours one night to write the poem. I resorted to collage, pulling several books – philosophy, art books, etc. from my shelves and jotting down language, very fast (along with pages numbers) that jumped out at me, and visiting a few websites and doing the same. The initial draft used a lot of white space with stanza blocks on both sides of the page, but the spacing was still fairly conventional. I was concerned about keeping track of sources for the collaged language, so I transcribed the full sentences from which I had pulled fragments, then bolded the fragments within the sentences. Then, I named the source in parenthesis and separated each quote with double slash marks. I did this one sentence and source after another, so that when it was done it looked like a long prose poem, except that the effect of the bolding and periodic parenthesis and slash marks created a visually textured effect that I had not expected. I really liked that and thought to myself that the notes were a poem all of their own! Immediately, a less encouraging voice in my psyche pronounced: no one else will think so. The end. I couldn’t see how I was going to be able to get the poem and the notes published in a journal. Thus, the poem sat, going nowhere. Eventually, with some encouragement from ‘Annah, I decided to send the poem to Lana Turner: Journal of Poetry and Opinion. I knew I had to do something that related the notes to the poem, before submitting it. I thought about those horrible plastic gyres circling in the oceans and this gave me the idea to put the notes in the shape of a gyre. I hired Hoody at Custom Graphics in Taos to help me with it. She told me later that I should be glad she didn’t live on the second floor because working on that poem she might have jumped. Eventually, we came up with a shape that looked enough like a gyre. One of the two editors of Lana Turner, Calvin Bedient, responded by saying that he wanted to publish the gyre, that the gyre was the poem, so after all someone did “think so.” Later, Dana Levin said it looked like a finger-print and I thought that was appropriate, too.

A further surprise occurred when I read the poem aloud at the book release. The word “slash,” repeated intermittently, took on a life of its own and gave an implication of the violence human beings –– often oblivious of the fact –– are doing to other creatures. I did not know that was going to happen until it was happening, in the midst of the reading.

C.S. Please share lines or a stanza or a poem from Her, Infinite. Why did you choose this to share with me?

S.M. (see #19)

C.S. Do you think as a poet you have a responsibility to respond to what’s happening in the world? Her, Infinite addresses an environmental concern and the voice, intelligent, is excruciatingly intimate, erotic, impassioned.

S.M. Responding to what is happening in the world is unavoidable. Everything we write reflects the time and place, the givens and assumptions of our historical moment, even if we are writing about important events from a previous era, even if we are writing about a lost red-shouldered hawk landed in the apple tree outside our window. It is important to ask: responsible to whom or to what? So far, the effort to write a poem about social justice or environmental justice issues or any ill is driven, for me, by the need to offer a form of prayer or homage or witness. I write the poem in order to come to terms with myself in relation to disturbing events, in order to cope. If that isn’t at the core of the poem, it will fail. Once it is written, a poem may inspire or inform or wake a reader up and that is important, obviously, but it isn’t what initially stirs the poem into being.

In the case of Her, Infinite, I was very much writing out of the immediacy of my own life. I fell in love with a man who was an artist and wilderness guide engaged in stopping a tailings pond from being built next to the Rio Grande, a river I have known intimately since childhood. He and I joined forces as advocates for the river and as grassroots organizers. Across more than two decades and with the support of many many dedicated people, we created an organization that continues to do the work of protecting the rivers of New Mexico from environmental degradation –– with an impressive list of successes. Somewhere along the way my partner-in-crime and I moved in together and married. Some people assumed our work on behalf of the rivers was fueled by anger, in fact it was fired by eros. During the years in which I was writing the poems in Her, Infinite, I was also focused on my relationship with my lover and husband and our work together as artists, as well as our work protecting the rivers. All of that informed the poems. I also experienced a long bout of illness at one point –– my “couch years” –– from which I am completely and gratefully recovered, but wrestling with a chronic debilitating physical challenge and its impact on my life and relationships also informed some of the poems in no small way and doubtless contributed to the intimate voice you note.

Back to the topic of responsibility, though. At a certain point in the evolution of Her, Infinite, I did begin to feel a responsibility to the people whose lives I was depicting, in addition to my own. A responsibility to get it right. Before attempting to publish “For the Record,” I contacted two people whose testimonies I had shaped or collaged into the poem –– Ana X. Gutierrez Sisneros and Irwin Rivera –– and arranged to meet with them. In each case, I explained my project and how I had been moved by their testimony and their courage. I read “Cochiti Lake, 1989,” followed by “For the Record,” aloud, in their respective offices and gave them copies. I also explained my choice to leave their names out of the poem: I wanted a reader to imagine themselves in the circumstance of the protagonists, to literally fill in the blank with their own name rather than thinking of this situation as someone else’s problem. Ana and Irwin’s names appear, instead, in the Acknowledgements and readers can learn where to find the original written testimonies in the Notes. I wanted the people whose public testimonies I incorporated into the poem to know what I was doing and I wanted to know of any input they might want to provide. They were each very generous listeners and received the poems with emotion, support, gratitude, and encouragement, for which I was very thankful. We were in it together at that point and the poem went forward into the world.

C.S There is a feminine cadence in Her, Infinite. Can you talk about this.

S.M. I am unaware of that, though I am glad you think so. Prior to falling in love with my husband, my primary erotic relationships were with other women, going back into the late 70’s, the 80’s and early 90’s. In writing the poems in Her, Infinite, it was important to me that my lesbian and gay friends not feel left out of the poems, so I made an effort to keep the speaker as gender-neutral as possible. When “Cochiti Lake” won the Poetry Society of America Bogin Award, Hettie Jones, the judge, told me that after she made the selection, she and one of the staff had speculated that I might be a gay man. I was pleased by that.

C.S. Her, Infinite is a great contribution to the world, with a distinct voice that is both spiritual and mortal. Would you like to elaborate?

S.M. Thank you, Cathy. We are spiritual and mortal beings.

C.S. For you, what is it to be a poet? What jolts you most about being a poet?

S.M. It’s easy enough to understand that language reflects consciousness, that what we say reflects our level of awareness. But many philosophers and also poets believe that language is consciousness. If I weren’t a poet, that might seem implausible, but as a poet, I have a sort of visceral inarticulate sense of what may be meant by that statement. When we are open and a poem spills onto the page, the poem often contains much that we were not consciously aware of, even things of the future, or the past, or the meta-present, which we had no way of knowing. The poem speaks to and through us the way a dream might, rather than our simply orchestrating the poem to meet our own ego-driven ends. What does that imply? Maybe language is consciousness (speaking?).
My first awareness of myself as a poet came on a summer night at my grandmother’s house. I was young, I don’t recall how young. A teenager or possibly a little later. The windows next to my bed were open. My grandmother lay breathing and snoring lightly on the other twin bed. I was lying between freshly cleaned, pale pink sheets. I got up and began to write about the bed, my grandmother, the open windows, the night outside, and all on mauve-pink sheets of writing paper I had purchased earlier that day at the drugstore. As I wrote, the words unspooled fluidly and everything was in relationship to everything else –– the sheets on the bed and the sheets I was writing on, the dream world that is the night –– all of it came alive with an inexplicable vividness and as though a current was moving through me or I had entered it. I understood that there was something unique about what was happening and that it held my fate. It was something I needed to nurture and protect.

C.S. What are you working on now?

S.M. Individual poems. I have not yet identified the centrifugal force necessary for a book. Or if I have, I haven’t wanted to rein myself into it yet.

C.S.  Sawnie, how did you come to poetry?

S.M. By reading other poets. I was living in a tipi on the east side of Kerr Gulch Road outside of Evergreen, Colorado, in my very early twenties. One afternoon I crossed to the west side of the gulch and climbed into the trees. From there, I had a different perspective on my daily life. I carried with me, on a whim, my mother’s copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass from when she was in college, and I opened it for the first time. It was possibly the very next day that I enrolled in a creative writing workshop in Boulder. The instructor came on to me and I was too young and naïve to be able to separate his actions from a valuing of my work; this set me back for a number of years, but eventually, I reenrolled in college and fell completely and madly in love – as in love as with a person – with literature. I had the good fortune to land in the first ever “Women Writers” lit course taught at the University of Colorado. The game-changers for me were Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde. Reading and discussing their work was a radicalizing experience. I tried to write a poem or two during that time, but my efforts were terribly awkward and self-conscious and came to nothing in themselves. I have Natalie Goldberg to thank, years later, for showing me a way out of that self-consciousness, and still later, Marge Piercy –– not one to mince words, and not wild about my efforts at fiction –– who, after reading my poems, looked at me hard, declared me a poet, and encouraged me to continue. I believe it was Virginia Woolf who said that all courageous acts require mirrors. Writing a poem is a courageous act and those who go before us are our mirrors.

C.S. Do you remember the names of your early influences?

S.M. Sharon Olds was crucial. I was raised by very loving parents, truly, but my father was an alcoholic who on a bad day, and under pressures that were apparently unbearable for him, would turn physically violent toward his kids. Olds opened a door on what could be felt and said, and how to hold the extremities within oneself and on the page, and do so with clear-eyed formal beauty. Also, Judy Grahn, and her magnificent, “A Woman is Talking to Death.” And Joy Harjo’s “The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window.” The 1983 edition of She Had Some Horses. The poems of those three poets were life-savers and served as models for my own successful first efforts.

C.S. Sawnie, what keeps you writing as a poet?

S.M. I am going to quote Lee Upton, quoting Kafka, in her recently released, Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy: “The existence of the writer is truly dependent upon his desk and if he wants to keep madness at bay he must never go far from his desk, he must hold on with his teeth.” As far as keeping madness at bay, it might be nice to be able to say otherwise, but underneath the relative stability of my life, what Kafka says, I suspect, remains true for me. Writing is an intimate circle of light in the midst of chaos and darkness. The other truth is that writing poetry provides the pleasures of hard work and is a delight to me. It surprises me, it makes me laugh, when things are going well it offers profound aesthetic pleasure and satisfaction –– exhilarating pleasure and satisfaction –– and even when things are not going so very smoothly it makes for intellectual challenge and is ultimately –– if one truly shows up for it –– a meaning-making activity, replete at every turn with existential force as well as spiritual connection.

C.S.   What do you love to find in a poem you read?

S.M. I love it when I encounter a poem whose meanings I can only glimpse, but that I understand instantly and viscerally because it is grounded in some form of consensual reality and truth. I read a poem by Susan McCabe in Lana Turner #11 that struck me in exactly that way, full of electricity, yet I could not begin to give a line-by-line paraphrase. I feel that way about Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s poems, as well, though it’s different. I’m reading along, the language and meanings are very clear and elegantly articulated, suddenly the poem takes off or curves and morphs into something of extraordinary yet not quite graspable beauty. I don’t feel left out of the poem, rather I feel a kind of awe. What happened?! What is that gorgeous floating possibility, just out of reach? Berssenbrugge’s poems offer a visionary experience of our place in the natural world. It’s the same with many of Emily Dickinson’s poems. When reading, I become aware of the limits of my own brain without feeling a lack of intelligence. I’m being asked to comprehend out of more than one kind of intelligence. Bodily, perhaps.
On the other hand, there is a poem in The New Yorker this week by Ilya Kaminsky that is very direct, very accessible – you can’t miss its meaning –– and it also hits me in a deeply visceral way. Kaminsky’s poem addresses racial violence in this country and connects the weird disconnect some of us experience between our daily life and what we hear on the news. I’m living one life “In a Time of Peace” and someone else in my country is being forced to live in a kind of hell at the exact same time. It’s impossible to walk away from a poem like that without asking yourself, “So what am I going to do about this? What can I do to help change it?” I can’t say that I “love” Kaminsky’s poem, but I’m grateful for it. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Robin Coste Lewis’ Voyage of the Sable Venus come to mind as collections that manage to accomplish both kinds of experiences I have mentioned here – the elliptical or visionary poem that touches us in ways that are less definable and the more direct poem that reflects, informs, and provokes while offering moral commitment and solidarity. Poetry can hold all of that.

C.S.  What do you love to craft into a poem you’re writing?

S.M. Surprises.

C.S.  Perhaps being of Greek ancestry I respond emotionally and viscerally, and quickly to any language that carries me back to ancestral homeland. Your poem, “From Here To There: Imagining Into The Ruins” is one of those poems, its setting, movement, details, naming of what is familiar to me. I love this poem, and the lines that strike me again and again are:

In the Ierapetra museum a statue of Persephone
from 2AD holds an ear of corn in her left hand
her head crowned by a small altar encircled
by snakes
When I call them they come
she says
xxxxxxxto no onexx inxx particular.

Let’s end this interview with why you chose to write of particulars of ancient civilizations of Greece, and the opening title Da-ma-te, Demeter. I am invited into Her, Infinite immediately with Let us go then, you & I. Thank you, Sawnie, for this invitation.

When I call them they come

S.M. I love this question. It is at the heart of so much.
During the same decade in which Amigos Bravos (the non profit advocacy organization my husband and I co-founded) and coalition partners were suing Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Justice for radioactive waste reaching the Rio Grande, my husband and I took a break at one point and went to Greece for a long-postponed (eight years) honey-moon. We spent two weeks living on Crete, nearby the village of Ierapetra, which had a tiny one-room museum with the Persephone statue referred to in the poem. You could say he and I were on a pilgrimage. There is no evidence on Crete of warfare for over a thousand years during the Minoan culture and not one weapon was found among the ruins. Yes, it is true that the Minoans are known to have ruled the seas; still, no weapons? Between that and the empowered position of women, a unique and remarkable flourishing of art occurred. In the museum in Heraklion, the art is presented chronologically. You can see quite clearly the shift from a more peace and art oriented culture with an empowered feminine to the later Mycenaean war culture of the Homeric heroes, and the even greater distance that exists between the Minoan Snake Goddess of 2,500 B.C.–1,400 B.C. and who she had become as Persephone by 2 A.D. “From Here to There: Imagining into the Ruins” is an attempt to bring all of that together –– and in Her, Infinite, it serves as a counterpoint to issues of continued environmental degradation as a result of war and the bomb-making that took place in northern New Mexico –– in effect, a more pernicious form of ruins. I mean the poem to suggest that alternatives can exist, that there is hope.

But my relationship to Crete on the one hand and nuclear weapons on the other, goes back further. The final poem in Her, Infinite references Janson’s 19th and 20th Century Art and the sculptor, Louise Bourgeois. When I was in college, only three images of work by women appeared in that thick tome of male artists: Louise Bourgeois, Georgia O’Keefe, and –– in my mind this image was linked to the other two –– the art of the Minoan Palace of Knossos in Crete, specifically the dolphin paintings. We don’t know if Minoan women painted those images, but human figures that appear in the art of the Minoan culture suggest it is quite possible and even as a young college student, who knew nothing of Crete, the presence of the feminine in the frescoes –– created by males or females ––was viscerally apparent to me. The images in the Janson text and the artists who made them have participated in the weave of my life in ways too complex and numerous to elaborate on here, but because of that, they inevitably showed up in Her, Infinite. It may be interesting to know, however, that Louise Bourgeois, by way of her son Jean-Louis, ended up funding a significant percentage of Amigos Bravos’ work. Likewise, our strategic planning retreats were held at Ghost Ranch, where Georgia O’Keefe painted for many years. And, finally, Amigos Bravos and Communities for Clean Water won a settlement that has resulted in our team and the LANL team working to good effect together to stop the flow of radioactive waste into the Rio Grande. This is how poetry moves, this is what a poem ultimately can do, and how creativity manifests in our lives.