“Form is the means by which subject matter comes to life”: A Conversation with Sandra Lim, curated by Lisa Olstein

Sandra Lim’s latest book of poetry is The Curious Thing (W.W. Norton, 2021). Her previous books of poetry are The Wilderness (W.W. Norton, 2014), winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize selected by Louise Glück, and Loveliest Grotesque (Kore Press, 2006). Her writing has appeared in a range of literary journals, including The New York Review of Books, Poetry, The New Republic, The Baffler, and The New York Times Magazine, among others. Her poems and essays are anthologized in Counterclaims (Dalkey Archive Press, 2020), The Poem’s Country (Pleiades Press, 2018), The Echoing Green (The Modern Library, 2016), and Among Margins (Ricochet Editions, 2016). 

Sandra’s honors include a 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship, a 2020 Arts and Letters Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the 2015 Levis Reading Prize for The Wilderness, as well as residency fellowships from MacDowell, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Getty Foundation. She is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and also serves on the poetry faculty in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers.

Lisa Olstein: What questions or obsessions urged this particular work into being or revealed themselves in it? 

Sandra Lim: Some of my usual preoccupations show up in this book: the emotions in solitude, romantic love, an interest in female interiority, eros for literature and writing and the nature of art, and a philosophical interest in First and Last Things, but I think the collection is also very much cut from the period we call “midlife,” with all the fears and excitements therein. 

I consider myself a somewhat slow writer, but when I look back, this book was composed in concentrated periods of great haste and fluency with some difficult silences in between; and I think that sort of urgency sprang from the time of my life, both in idea and in experience.

LO: “Form sets the thought free,” says Anne Carson, and I believe her. How did form and thought co-evolve in the unfolding of this work?

SL: It’s difficult for me to separate out form and thought at all vis-à-vis a poem: I suppose the form is the means by which the subject matter comes to life, is exercised or engaged. In many ways I think of each poem as a metaphor of the whole mind writing; the poem for me is a way of connecting all of my deepest feelings together. 

LO: What felt riskiest to you about this work? 

SL: I always want to write out of vision and imagination, rather than mere will, and so with every work there is that fear that a heavy-handed will is the only thing that might be left on the page in the end. But with this book in particular, I wanted to be able to write about my particular experiences of pain or self-division or love inherent in being, and also touch upon those things that have been there, for every generation, in those stories themselves.    

LO: How do the book’s aesthetics inform its ethics, or how do its ethics inform its aesthetics?

SL: Curiosity is an ethic for this book, and I think it is an attitude that can hold oppositions and imbalances together in a provisional, and sometimes radiant wholeness. Many of the poems want to embrace seeming oppositions such as vulnerability and skepticism, or terror and beauty, or sensuousness and abstraction together in the same image. 

I also think a sense of basic curiosity helped me to feel through the qualities of voice and straightforwardness that I wanted for the poems in this book. The idiom tells us that “curiosity killed the cat,” but in my book I wanted to be as dégagé as a cat with respect to the act of writing. 

LO: How does time operate inside this work and across the experience it creates?

SL: Many of the poems in THE CURIOUS THING are engaged with memory, or the act of remembering. I hadn’t realized how much until I started to organize the poems into a collection. But I think writers always play a complicated game with time: we are always recalling it or suspending it or reinventing it in some manner. In this collection, I think the notion of time comes through most vividly in the self-consciousness about narrative or storytelling in several of the lyrics. In some of my poems, there is also the sense of personal destiny that is amplified or lost in archetypal destiny—that kind of time; in yet other poems, I think time is felt because we have an intuition of its resolving force in the image of some human limitation.

LO: What kept you company during the writing of this work? 

SL: This collection, more than any other, I feel was informed by my (pre-pandemic) quotidian life—dinners with friends, phone calls, TV shows, books, boring and exciting trips, work, conversations with strangers, assignments, abandonments, horoscopes. A major love affair finally ended; I wrote some essays; my threshold for boredom got a little higher. And everywhere around me, people making tiny changes of position in their lives filled me with respect.