Sarah Chavez interview, with Julie Brooks Barbour
What drew you to the epistolary form for these poems?
At the time I wrote the first “Dear Carole” poem I hadn’t made this connection, but thinking on it now, it seems that I’ve always been drawn to the epistolary form. When I was a sophomore in high school, I discovered Alice Walker’sThe Color Purpleand sort of fell in love with Celie. Despite the horrific circumstances in which she lived, even in the height of her loneliness, there was a tenacity in her relentless letter writing which resonated with me. There was a hopefulness that if she just kept appealing to someone or something, life would get better. The act of communication, even when her letters weren’t answered, was enough to keep her humanity and sanity.
People lament the loss of letter writing in the age of computers and smart phones: emailing, texting, and tweeting. And I would agree that letter writing in that respect has changed, but really only in form and medium. Instead of a three to five page narrative of life’s happenings and inner thoughts, now people send out three line “updates” or a couple phrase-long texts. As a culture, the drive to connect and share remains strong, we just seem to have less patience. There’s an urgency to current communications.
I think in the “Dear Carole” series there is a mixture of that early to mid-20thcentury narrative and 21stcentury urgency. Epistles by their very nature highlight loss and desire, and as a genre are directed to people who are or seem far away. Either physically the person is out of reach or emotionally there is a disconnect which causes verbal communication to fail. The speaker’s loss and desire are not only directed to Carole who is no longer with her, but also to the life they might have had, and the person she was when they were together. In retrospect, I can’t imagine these poems existing in any other form.
In one poem, the speaker wants to release Carole’s “phantom pressure,” and I find this a very accurate description of the way a person’s presence remains with us in our daily lives. The speaker addresses Carole when recalling a domestic setting, while sitting on an airplane, even in the middle of performing what might be a bad habit. I wonder if, like Celie in The Color Purple, the speaker addressing Carole in her daily life gives her hope.
I have never thought of the speaker’s consistent desire to address Carole as being hopeful, but I certainly like that idea. I guess, as with Celie, the letters act like a kind of lifeline, a need to reach out, and in a way I suppose the speaker’s and Celie’s reaching out is an entreaty for divine intervention for the situations they find themselves in. Celie’s is specifically divine, while the speaker’s is more supernatural or other-worldly; quite literally other-worldly in the sense that Western culture often thinks of death as another plane of existence or as a separate realm, but also because Carole is of the world the speaker used to know, but no longer feels connected to. When the speaker is remembering and reaching out for Carole, she is also reaching out for a part of herself that feels lost. Rather than understanding the letters as primarily grieving for what once was, maybe they can also be read as hope that the intense (if sometimes dysfunctional) love they had for each other that represented belonging and feeling home is something the speaker will be able to someday feel again.
One of my favorite poems in this sequence is “Dear Carole, in my dream last night.” It takes place in the kitchen of a house where the speaker once lived. One part of the poem reads,
" ‘Open concept’ is a funny phrase fancy people use / to mean no boundaries, as if it’s healthy or desirable / for everything in life to converge in one wall-less mess.” We find out that speaker insists on walls, even having her mother’s boyfriend “put up / particle board from ceiling to floor.” This idea of boundaries arises again in “Dear Carole, I’m waiting in the Houston airport for my connecting flight,” but in this poem, the boundaries are broken and the speaker welcomes the closeness of the person in the neighboring seat on an airplane. Could you talk about this change in boundaries for the speaker?
I think about boundaries and borders (borderlands and borderlines) a lot. Partly because as I got older and spent more time away from my family and the people I grew up with, and more time in, well, “nicer” professional circles, I discovered that I had a problem with boundaries; which was that I didn’t have any. I mean, I didn’t grow up feral, but in a small mobile home with insulation-less walls and two moody females, there is nowhere to go. Not having physical borders which dictate this room is yours, this mine, can also translate to a kind of borderless, boundary-less mental and emotional state. When there is little to be had, everything is shared, whether that is the last box of Hamburger Helper or anger at being catcalled on the walk back from the bus station, the one bed, or joy over a small kindness.
When I began writing the “Dear Carole” series, I had recently moved away from the only home I knew and my loud, chaotic, always-in-your-business family, to a place of politeness. There were polite street conversations, polite distances in the grocery store, and even politeness amongst new friends. In this new space there were things you weren’t supposed to talk about, like money. I didn’t realize it was rude to ask how much money people made or what they paid in rent. I’d begin to tell a story about something in my life before moving only to find the new people mildly horrified. A story I thought was funny and “normal,” others found dysfunctional or embarrassingly personal.
When I was a kid, I always wanted privacy and my own space (physical and emotional), but when I got it after moving away, I found myself missing the closeness that “wall-less mess” fosters. Growing up and entering more normative spaces, I found out people don’t hug as much. They don’t sit close together or touch hands or arms in a friendly fashion. It became easy to say the wrong thing and saying that wrong thing didn’t just end in a cathartic yelling match, but would quietly fester until it poisoned a work environment. I think it’s that tension between the desire for space and personal agency and a grieving over the loss of physical and emotional closeness that the speaker in those two poems is experiencing. In the series overall—from the chapbook, All Day, Talking, to the newer poems which will be comprising the full length manuscript—I think the issue of boundaries and closeness becomes more complicated by the speaker’s movement from the working-class environment and intensely-emotional world she shared with Carole, to a more socio-economically privileged space she hadn’t really imagined being in, like the plane rides the speaker takes. That space is liminal because it can only be accessed by the kind of people who have the money to travel, who would normally keep polite differences, but the physical reality of the cramped space forces intimacy that mimics what many working class people live in.
Are these poems part of a larger sequence? If so, how do they connect to and expand upon these poems?
These poems are part of a larger sequence, one I’m working on making into a full-length manuscript, currently titled This Dark Shining Thing. When I first wrote the “Dear Carole” poems that became the chapbook, I thought I was done writing them, as if I’d worked it out of my system. The reality ended up being that I couldn’t stop writing them, even when I wanted to. So instead of fight the impulse, I gave in. As they stand now, the poems expand on a lot of the issues that are represented in the poems Connotation Press is graciously publishing. There’s a lot about dreaming of the dead and the past, grappling with desire and grief and acceptance, and more about trying to negotiate one’s past self with the present self and how it’s possible that life keeps going after such tremendous loss.
Dear Carole, In my dream last night
“to shuffle from room / to identical room / . . . amendable to death’s / preliminary offers”
- Julio Marzán “The Old Man
I was in the kitchen of the mobile home. It was dark,
but I could tell where I was by the soft spot
in the linoleum where the wood beneath had rotted,
the pipes below having leaked a consistent trickle
no one caught or cared about until the day I crawled
under the house to drag out the neighbor’s dog.
Even though the spiders dropped into my hair
like brown snowflakes (at least that’s how I assumed
snowflakes fell having never seen or felt a real one
at the time), I crawled back under with a roll of duct tape,
but it was too late. The damage was done, and some
damage is too costly to fix.
It’s there that I found myself, even in the dream
stepping over that fucking spot, feeling the plastic
veneer of the counter top and following its curve
out the kitchen to the living room.
Open concept is a funny phrase fancy people use
to mean no boundaries, as if it’s healthy or desirable
for everything in life to converge in one wall-less mess.
Now, like then, I insist on walls – it only took three
months of being mean to my sister and complaining
for my mom to make her boyfriend put up
particle board from ceiling to floor, my own 5x10 cell
just seven feet in front of the kitchen. We put that couch
in front. My waiting room, you called it, where you would sit,
watch me brown ground chuck for Hamburger Helper.
You aren’t in the dream though, no one is. I’m alone,
groping my way to the sliding glass door,
the door whose track I kept clean so it’d slide
real quiet when I pushed it open at 3 a.m., when the sadness
built up in that metal box of a home, growing so thick
I couldn’t breathe. When I reach the six inch handle
with the slide lock latch hook, and push the glass
to the right – still so quiet – I step out, but don’t feel
the scratch of green plastic porch turf on the bottom
of my feet. It’s the smoothness of linoleum. Another step
and I’m one foot straining the dip in the kitchen floor.
Panic presses my throat, but I keep going. Arms reaching
for something else, I run into the counter; make my way
back to the sliding glass door. But it happens again. And then
it happens again, and it happens again, and it happens again.
In this dream, on the endless cycle back into that broken room,
the panic is replaced by the surrender I almost forgot
lived below my gut. That old, comfortable capitulation,
the realization I’d die without ever having moved forward.
Dear Carole, I’m waiting in the Houston airport for my connecting flight
I guess I’ve
come to like
I do it a lot
on the rest
between seats –
Dear Carole, I’ve had too much caffeine today
seems so urgent.
My heart beating
the barricade of sternum,
typing two hundred
words per minute,
and with all this
all I do
but it’s like
my body can’t
on anything other than
and what is usually
a dull ache
or on good days
too far back
in my mind
to be noted,
is pulsing sharply
at my temples
like a goddamn pickaxe,
trying to crack
fissures in the skull.
I want it
to shatter through
the temporal bone,
your phantom pressure.
Dear Carole, I’ve begun sucking my fingers
While thinking of you.
Neither of these actions
I’ll be checking emails
and next thing I know
I’m chewing a pinkie,
staring out the window.
At first, I’d yank the fingers out,
the sharp edge of an incisor
scraping the fatty pads.
It was like I thought you’d catch me,
or someone would;
like what I was doing was wrong.
I don’t know if it’s wrong
but after a while,
it occurred to me
you will never know
and maybe you wouldn’t care.
You will never catch me at the café
three fingers cupped comfortably
around my jaw, pinkie
slobbery from gnawing.
No matter what town I’m in,
summoning the image of your face
will never summon
the material of your body.
Straining in the bustle of subway noise
I will never
hear your voice
and by now, all this time passed
I can’t remember
if it was high or low.
Rich or thin.
I only remember the quiver
of what still feels like love
the marrow of my bones.