Poet in the Mirror: Sarah Carey
Sarah Carey has been a generous guest for our Poet in the Mirror series, where we explore the strange profession of which we all aspire—today we learn about Accommodations‘—her latest collection, winner of the Concrete Wolf Chapbook Contest—acceptance journey, the fait publication requires, and the resources she found helpful along the way.
Sarah Carey: I would say it took me the better part of two years to find a home for this work, although the poems were evolving constantly. I was encouraged by having it make the long list of a press I very much admire, and even more so when it was named a finalist in the 2017 Concrete Wolf chapbook competition. I decided to throw my hat in the ring one more time for that contest, and was thrilled when I learned the manuscript had won.
I believed in the poems, for sure. I knew they were better when the book landed than when I first started submitting it. But I also remembered how long it took my first chapbook to land a publisher — probably close to 15 years, although I wasn’t submitting consistently — and, if I’m honest, part of me wondered if this new work had what it took to land a home with a solid, reputable press. Was it strong enough, craft-wise; was it unique, compelling enough to stand out in a sea of submissions? How would it fare, in competition with other work by all the wonderful poets I know are out there, sending their manuscripts, hoping for good luck and the right editor, just as I was?
Overall, though, I had more faith in the poems in Accommodations, more confidence in my own voice, than I did when I began submitting my first chapbook in the early 2000s. At a gut level, I knew I was a better poet than I was even a few years ago. Why that was, I can’t exactly say, but I had definitely become more engaged in the poetry community; I was more active on social media in seeking out other poets; I was certainly looking for writers to follow and read, and I was reading a lot more work by others than at some other times in my life. I was more focused, and was writing more consistently than ever before.
Many of the poems in Accommodations deal with my dad’s worsening health and death, and were part of my attempt to get those memories down before I lost them. It was an obsession, really. And I do think this book reflects something of the fervency I felt when I wrote it.
One thing I’d like to mention is that after the second year of rejections, I decided to work with a professional editor I found in the Poets & Writers Classifieds. Ever since my former professor David Kirby recommended P & W to me — many years ago, when there was no website, just a hard-copy section — I’ve found it to be a hugely valuable resource. I began working with this new editor in an effort to produce a full-length book, and was ready to stop submitting the chapbook altogether. She actually suggested that I not send to more chapbook competitions, that we should concentrate on the full-length work I aspired to create.
The Concrete Wolf deadline approached again, and on the spur of the moment, I decided to send it off one more time. I figured I wouldn’t win, but if I did, having half of the contents of my hoped-for, full-length book be published in chapbook form would not be a bad problem to have. I got lucky, but as for the full-length … that’s still a work in progress!
On Becoming Poet
It’s so funny to hear my passion for poetry described as a professional endeavor. Is that because I’ve had a few journals pay me something for a few poems? Because I’ve sold a (very few) books, and have published in a respectable group of literary journals now? Because I received some copies as part of my book prize; have had a couple of book launch parties; have done a handful of interviews, and have a website?
I laugh, but I do like this question a lot. It makes me think: What does it really mean to be a professional poet? I guess I always tried to honor the part of me that felt I had something to say, and usually found a way to say it. I had my first poem published when I was 22, and went years without writing or sending work out at all. I can say it took me a very long time to start occupying that poet-self as fully as I occupied my job/career self, and to start thinking of my poetry as other than just a hobby or a creative outlet.
Most people I interact with day-to-day are more apt to think of me as a professional communicator, as that’s where my work/job life lies. But as poets, we’re communicators as well, and I feel like these facets of identity and commitment reinforce each other. I’ve been fortunate to work in a job — one I’ve held for 29 years now — that lets me tell other peoples’ stories, which I have a passion for. I always knew I didn’t want to teach, but after getting a master’s in English many years ago, I felt my options were limited, and started building my career in journalism. That later led me to academic communications. When I was younger, I didn’t necessarily think, “I want to be a poet”; I just sort of was one. I did think: “I want to have a job that lets me write.”
One thing that helped me build confidence as poet would include having work accepted and published by journals I tried and tried unsuccessfully for years to get into, and experiencing the gratification that comes with knowing those efforts had finally paid off. Not only is it a magnificent feeling to see your work in print, or online; it is also enormously rewarding to feel oneself a part of a journal “family,” and in many cases, to develop meaningful relationships with journal editors, who support and promote your work. The network I have now is one I feel genuinely fortified by, and am so grateful for. Knowing that others see me as a poet and are, sometimes at least, genuinely interested in my experiences with writing, or the writing itself, reinforces my identity in that regard.
When Finishing Line Press published The Heart Contracts, my first chapbook, I was 58. To suddenly find myself working with a publisher, and the whole process of design, editing, proofing, and of course, marketing, was very intense. It was a job! I’ve learned a lot by virtue of having gone through these experiences — twice now, with the two chapbooks — and I think all have contributed to my level of confidence as a poet. I also tend to think more “big picture” now; I consider an overall vision of a body of work, whether it’s mine or someone else’s I’m reading. I never used to do that, which probably means something, though I’m not sure what.
On Her Award Winning Chap Accommodations
I mentioned that it took two years to find a publisher for Accommodations. In the scheme of things, that’s not that long, but for me, at almost 62, I am ever mindful of time. I thought I was so lucky to have had my first chapbook find a publisher three years ago, and I think a part of me doubted that kind of luck could happen to me again. So I was surprised that it happened so soon.
The aftermath of manuscript acceptance, however, is the next phase of working with your publisher to bring the book to final fruition. I learned a lot from my experience with Finishing Line when my first chapbook was accepted, so I had a sense of what the expectations would be, and anticipated some deadline stress. Working with Lana Ayers, publisher of the Concrete Wolf chapbook series, was an absolute pleasure, and I couldn’t have been happier with how the book turned out. Still, I was surprised by how exhausted I was at the end of the process. I had to take a break from even thinking about what might be my next big project might be. I’m still kind of recovering, to be honest. These days, I’m focusing on individual poems, but without a clear sense of where I need to go next.
On Finding the Energy
I’ve learned from experience that if my muse isn’t working for me, I can’t make it do so. If I don’t feel like I can write, I don’t force myself, but I do at least try to keep poetry in my head…and remember that the muse has shown me, over time, that she’ll l always come back.
I may read the work of other poets I admire if I’m seeking a diversion from myself and my own writing, or I might read something completely different from poetry — a good mystery, or maybe an Alice Munro short story (her work always seems to center me.) I might take a walk. Or, I might focus on submitting to one of the many fabulous literary journals that are out there.
While I don’t have a ton of work at any given time, simply because I write slowly and take my time with poems, much more so than I used to, I’ll go through periods where I sim-sub a batch to several different publications around the same time. I’ll build a reservoir of submissions! I think of this aspect of my poet-life as a sort-of psychological buffer to the rejections I know will be coming. I expect those — rejections are part of every writer’s life — but when they happen, I like to know that I’ve still got work out there that has the chance of resonating with that just-right editor.
I have to have balance in my life, and enough rest, or nothing flows the way it’s supposed to. For me, the non-poetry part of life — my commitments to family, friends, my awesome dog, (he’s a 5-year-old black Lab named Finn, in case you’re wondering), my volunteer projects — are important to return to and cultivate when the creativity isn’t sparking. This is something I try to remember as a way to divert my frustration when I’m not producing or revising poems to the level I’d like to be.
On Bright Poet-Moments
Wow, there’ve been several. I don’t think anything could quite compare to getting word of my first chapbook’s acceptance, after so many years of sending my work out. It had taken me so long to accumulate enough individual poem acceptances to feel like I might have a body of work, even a short one, that was worthy of publication as a collection, so I was in disbelief when I received an email from Finishing Line that they were interested in publishing my work. I thought the editor had to have made a mistake!
Publication of The Heart Contracts was a truly pivotal event in my life. My passion for writing poetry reignited, and I experienced a rush of emotions that ranged from deep gratitude for the acknowledgement, to an obsession with wanting to improve my own work, to feeling the need to network more meaningfully with other writers.
I joined Twitter, and started following a variety of new-to-me journals and other poets. In 2018, I attended my first-ever AWP meeting, where I experienced the phenomenal book fair and had the opportunity to sit in on some wonderful panel discussions.
At AWP, I found editors at journals that had taken poems that appeared in The Heart Contracts and thanked them for their support. I even found the Florida Review booth, and told the folks there that my first-ever published poem appeared in their journal, back in 1981. They were able to call up a digital image of the issue in which my work appeared! I was in absolute heaven at that conference, and was delighted to be asked to read from my work by the editors of SWIMM Every Day and Rise Up Review at a joint reading they co-sponsored offsite. It was such a treat, and I came home uplifted and inspired.
On Resources to Hone Poetic Strengths
For me, reading interviews with other poets and fiction writers about their work processes is both enlightening and enjoyable, and a way to better understand my own work and place in the writing world. To read what others who write seriously view as their challenges, as well as what they say about how and what they teach or believe, who their mentors were, what they aspire to — all of those things are interesting for me to contemplate and offer a break from the stuck-ness that can emerge with too much self-preoccupation.
At times, I’m asked to talk about my own work processes and approaches to poetry, and while I may have a concept in mind, I might not have the language to express that concept. I seldom have the perfect, ready answer, but reading what others have said about their work helps me focus my own language and messaging at certain times when I’m maybe less comfortable with “winging it.”
I’ve loved reading interviews in the River Heron Review’s Conversations series, in The Paris Review and on Kaveh Akbar’s Divedapper site. I also have enjoyed listening to authors speak on New Letters On The Air and on Rachel Zucker’s Commonplace podcast.
Twitter can be a great “listening post” for information. It’s amazing to me how often I’ve seen poets and editors —very busy people with extremely full lives — generously share their knowledge within the poetry community to lift others up. Recently the poet Airea Dee Matthews tweeted an offer to share reading material and other recommendations for poets without an MFA who sought deeper engagement with poetry. She had hundreds of takers, including me. Her list was so impressive; I proceeded to order a few craft books she recommended that are shipping as I write this.
Working with a good professional editor at different times in my writing life has helped me a lot. To writers seeking to get to that next level of achievement in their craft, if your budget permits, I would highly recommend seeking out, or at least exploring, professional editorial help. I’ve found that one can get such help at different levels, ranging from broad overview feedback to comprehensive line editing. Poets & Writers Classifieds helped me identify my last editor, and I’ve used P & W often over the years to check on calls for submissions as well.
Some literary journals (including Frontier, at times!), will offer detailed feedback on submissions, for a reasonable fee.
Sarah Carey is a graduate of the Florida State University creative writing program. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, The Heart Contracts (Finishing Line Press, 2016) and Accommodations, winner of the 2018 Concrete Wolf Chapbook Award (Concrete Wolf Poetry Series, 2019.) Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Glass Poetry Journal, Superstition Review, Atticus Review, SWWIM Every Day, Palette Poetry, Carolina Quarterly and elsewhere. She works in veterinary medical communications and lives in Gainesville, Florida, with her husband and her constantly-counter-surfing black Lab. Visit her at sarahkcarey.com or on Twitter @SayCarey1.