Carrie Causey: In your poem, “A Sudden Tilt of the Head,” your speaker inevitably must “explore connections at the synapse/ that abstract the direct/ blur…” Could you describe your writing process a bit? Specifically, how do you take advantage of and navigate that moment when the muse visits?
Michael Sarnowski: My poems tend to begin in a position of not knowing. I’ll often start with a single image, phrase, or conflict, and then build until unforeseen turns provide a sense of direction. There’s usually a secondary conflict that is revealed, and the complexion created with this minefield approach is what I find intriguing. “A Sudden Tilt of the Head” pivots around the idea of reading into a situation, and the tendency to magnify or memorialize events in our lives. By interrogating this instinct alongside an inherently dramatic image, there are competing interests in the poem. How the poem is interpreted from there is out of my hands, which is usually for the better.
Once a draft is relatively complete, revision is a crucial part of the process. The decision to make “A Sudden Tilt of the Head” one sentence (an atypical choice for me) and to focus on a single moment in time directed the revision towards brevity, concision.
CC: Is there a question about the world that overarches your work? What historical, social, or personal question do you seem to respond to or follow the most?
MS: I have an irrepressible desire to better understand the world. I wouldn’t say there’s a specific question I’m attempting to answer, nor do I think I can resolve the unknowns that intrigue me, but rather I hope to more clearly understand individual circumstances.
I’ve always found small scale interaction to be much more meaningful, and similarly, each poem is an opportunity to explore how a concept impacts the individual. If the individual experience is dealt with honestly it will become universal.
CC: You are a musician as well as a poet. Do you find that your style of music parallels your style of writing in any way?
MS: I don’t think I’ve ever viewed the two mediums in the same light, but now that you bring
it up, to some degree they have mirrored one another over time. Through my teens and early twenties both my writing and music veered towards the brash, dense, and loud. In recent years, there’s been a shift towards simplifying and trying to make impactful moments through more relatable, even domestic, scenes. Instead of veiling an idea in ambiguity or complexity, my poems are now more likely to occur in grocery stores, the doctor’s office, or in the case of “A Sudden Tilt of the Head,” at the bedside.
CC: Where do you go for inspiration when you need it? What writers or activities can you rely on to renew your creative process?
MS: Seemingly, the most common sources of inspiration, or at least the prompts that tend to be most fruitful, tend to come from research, travel, or a moment that forces me to reevaluate who I think I am or some facet of human interaction. I suppose the relationship between those sources is that they allow me to step outside of myself or my comfort zone, ask questions, and perhaps most importantly, listen. I’ve always been quiet, and though that presents its own complications, I think listening, observing, and trying to understand the worldview of others is far more important than being the loudest in an attempt to get my point across.
So as not to ramble on catalysts for creativity, I’ll limit myself to five active examples. I’ve
really gravitated towards the poets B.H. Fairchild and Kim Addonizio, the fiction writer Alan
Heathcock, the films of Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories), and Mad Men. There is an addictive honesty to each of these, and in most of them, that which goes unsaid only amplifies the conflicts rumbling in the undercurrent.
CC: How has your writing evolved since finishing the MFA program at Vanderbilt? Any advice for beginning writers in the process of evolving/ honing their craft?
MS: My time in Vanderbilt’s MFA program was fantastic because there was community of
great student writers and faculty like Mark Jarman and Rick Hilles who helped shape my work towards clarity and purpose. I’d like to imagine that that trajectory has continued, but with a wider range of subject matter that comes with each passing year.
For beginning writers: read, write, become proficient in dealing with rejection letters, then keep reading and writing. The world isn’t going to run out of beauty or confusion.
CC: What projects are you working on now?
MS: My top priority is to keep writing poetry while I find a home for my first full-length
collection, which has the working title A Map to the Catacombs. The manuscript is complete, but will continually be revised until a deadline tells me it’s done. Developing more gradually is a collection of short stories, a collection of tour journals, and some critical work on literature of trauma and displacement.
Carrie Causey is the author of the chapbook, Ear to the Wall, newly released from Ampersand Books. She has appeared in Plume, Ploughshares, and Sycamore Review and was named First Runner-Up for the 2011 Wabash Prize for Poetry. She is a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she teaches Literature, Composition, and Humanities at Baton Rouge Community College. Currently, she is working on a full-length collection.