Creative Honesty and Being True to the Writer Within: A View From the Visiting Poet Michael Sarnowski

InterviewsAt Kingston, we have tried to foster a creative community not only for our students but for other authors who come to visit our University. The Kingston Writing School had the pleasure of welcoming visiting poet Michael Sarnowski to do a reading on February 28th 2013. Michael received his MFA in 2009 from Vanderbilt University. He read work from his thesis Mapping the Catacombs, introducing the KU audience to his entrancing, tactile poetry. In a brief chat with student Amber Koski following the reading, Michael expressed how important honesty is in all writing; the interview below supports his conviction to authenticity. 

Amber Koski: How was your time with the KU faculty/ staff, what did you take away from your conversations and interactions with those members? 

Michael Sarnowski: My time at KU was fantastic. The faculty and staff were warm, welcoming, and unflinching in their support. Not only was it a pleasure to re-immerse myself in a graduate writing program, but it was inspiring to see the framework that had been established for the writers. You could tell that there was a balance of support and trust with the students, a guidance that recognized each writer for their individual strengths. What has stayed with me has been the sense that as much as KU is offering a writing program, they’re offering a community for writers. Beyond the classroom there is a wealth of readings, exposure to publication opportunities, and writers enthusiastic to engage.

AK: What reactions/ commentary did the KU students have after your reading (if you can recall)? You have been a helpful and valuable mentor to me upon your return to the states, what benefits can this sort of support have for new writers? Do you have past tutors who still give you advice, perhaps from your days as an undergrad? 

MS: After the reading I was able to speak with a handful of students and faculty, and the focus shifted away from conventional questions regarding craft and towards more specific poems or concepts that intrigued them. This one-on-one interaction gave both parties the opportunity to really extract something meaningful from topics which may be less likely to appear in a workshop. For example, discussions were broached regarding the nature of honesty and vulnerability in writing, and how to approach delicate content without overstepping the bounds of sentimentality. There were also comments on individual poems that had resonated with people. Personally, the most rewarding aspect of a reading is establishing a connection with someone. Not only is creative writing an opportunity to experience the world as someone else, but it’s incredible when those ah-ha moments crest when we realize we’re not as alone in the world as we had thought.

Open lines of communication between writers and mentors are extremely important, particularly because of the inherent solitude of writing. It’s an act that tends to happen in quiet moments, in time that you have carved away from work, sleep, or whatever else fills your days. So there’s the initial gain of receiving feedback, but the collateral benefit of influence and inspiration for both the writer and mentor. If we become too isolated, it becomes a necessity to have someone around to help you “kill your darlings,” to quote Faulkner (or Quiller-Couch? Or whoever else that phrase has been attributed to).

I’ve been incredibly fortunate and forever indebted to have worked with tutors like Mark Jarman, Rick Hilles, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil. They have all put in plenty of overtime in their support and cultivation of my work. If I can repay a fraction of the support they have shown to others, I’ll be on the right track.

AK: In what ways can international students use their new surroundings to inspire their writing?

MS: I can’t speak on behalf of international students since I haven’t been one myself, but I can unquestionably speak to the correlation between writing and finding inspiration in new surroundings. Although I’ve often been able to use my home life in my work, I’ve always found travelling to new places and meeting new people to be incredibly inspiring. The unexpectedness (or perhaps predictability) of what you’re drawn to – trying new food, admiring ornate architecture, a conversation interrupted by last call at the bar – is amplified when you’re in a new place. There’s a sense of being a little more alive when you’re abroad. I don’t know if there’s a word for that, but learning to recognize those moments is a responsibility.

AK: As an American student it was beneficial to have a visiting author from the states come to KU to speak and share his work. Do you feel the multi-cultural influences are vital to all university student experiences? How would it help up-and-coming writers? 

MS: I don’t think the value of multiculturalism can be overstated. Being insular is counterintuitive to the purpose of academia. Whether you’re a poet, fiction writer, essayist, or work in any other medium, the opportunity to engage the voices and worldviews of those who differ from your own is indelible. In some ways, this clash of influence echoes an argument in the poetry world from almost a century ago, with T.S. Eliot’s collective unconscious and the tradition of influence vs. William Carlos Williams’ championing of the American Idiom. They raised the questions of whether we should embrace global and historical influence, or push to write in the diction and rhythms of one’s normal speech. Overall though, I think this issue of multicultural influence is another way of talking about listening, and how it is a practice that extends beyond comprehension to empathy, self-awareness, and global consciousness. I’m constantly learning how important listening is to the act of writing.

AK: What advice do you give to young poets/ writers struggling to find their ‘voice’?

MS: I see the writer’s voice as something that is in constant development, but I think you’re more likely to start hearing that voice clearly when your observations are extracted from fresh source material. The simplest advice I can give is to read and write as much as you can. Find writers that you make you love literature, but know that you need to be the one to write the type of work you want to read. To quote Terrance Hayes, “Everyone was at war / With what it meant to be alive.” Though I’m taking these lines out of context (and they’re too good to apply only to creating art), if you appropriate them for the struggle of writers, I think it’s important to identify your respective wars and chase them to their ends.

AK: Are you inspired to write during your travels? Where do you enjoy writing most? 

MS: A thousand times over, yes. The opportunity for reflection always feels strongest when I’m outside of my comfort zone. So, to add to a stockpile of lines, concepts, and loose ideas for development, if I’m somewhere without a computer or pen and paper, I’ll record voice notes on my phone. Once the idea is generated, much of my writing happens at home late at night, primarily because I read aloud while revising to play with phrasing and linebreaks.

AK: Intrigued by Ludwig Börne’s 1964 essay, ‘How to Be an Original Writer in Three Days’

 I ask Michael about his ‘off’ days. 

Do you ever have ‘off’ days, where you do not do any work on your writing at all? 

MS: Far more frequently than I’d like to admit. Most ‘off’ days are the result of having to devote time to work because that’s what pays my rent. Perhaps like most writers, my time to create has always been contoured to a schedule where writing has been a reward. Despite the occurrence of these inactive times, rarely a day passes without thinking of my writing, reworking lines in my head, or leaving notes for when I do have time. I think it’s healthy to give your work some space, to be able to give it fresh eyes after you’ve finished a draft. The tough part is to not let ‘off’ days become too routine. If there’s a day you don’t get to write, it can still be productive if you’re putting yourself out in the world and getting inspired. We all need life to provide us with material, but it’s up to us to go out and find it.

Words, Pauses, Noises will return with more next Sunday, so stay tuned. For more updates, follow the Words, Pauses, Noises Twitter page.

The essay above: (TRANSLATED BY LELAND DE LA DURANTAYE and based on Ludwig Börne’s Sämtliche Schriften, revised edition edited by Inge and Peter Rippmann (Düsseldorf: J. Melzer, 1964. Translation for this interview sourced from the Harvard Review pp. 63-70)

1 thought on “Creative Honesty and Being True to the Writer Within: A View From the Visiting Poet Michael Sarnowski

  1. Pingback: Poet Michael Sarnowski Shares His Thoughts with Me | A.N.Koski

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