“Nightfall Marginalia: A Conversation with Sarah Maclay and a Portfolio of Poetry” — curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Sarah Maclay is the author of Nightfall Marginalia, due out from What Books Press in late 2023, and four prior collections, most recently, a braided collaboration with Holaday Mason: The “She” Series: A Venice Correspondence. A recipient of The Tampa Review Prize for Poetry and a Pushcart Special Mention, and a finalist for the Blue Lynx Prize, her work has been supported by Yaddo and an Individual Artist Fellowship from the City of Los Angeles. Book Review Editor of Poetry International for a decade, her poems and essays also appear in APR, FIELD, Ploughshares, The Writer’s Chronicle, and The Best American Erotic Poetry: 1800 to the Present, among others. A Montana native and graduate of Oberlin and VCFA, she currently teaches at LMU, in Los Angeles, and conducts periodic workshops at Beyond Baroque.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Congratulations on your forthcoming collection, Nightfall Marginalia.  What are three things you’d like reader to know before they delve into the work itself? 

Loosely, it’s a book of nocturnes and ekphrastics, of imagination and influences and reveries and experiments, with many poems embedded partially in dreams—or in the dreamlike. The structure it finally found is more symphonic than, say, chronological. The poems collected here were begun over the course of more than four decades, though most emerged in the last ten years—some of those years being extremely sparse, like tree rings tight together in a drought.

KMD:  Can you tell us about the meaning of the title? 

There were several things I had in mind: first, the sense that simply living itself has had to be the main thing, the main focus—the core of things—and that whatever writing emerged around the edges of that—the marginalia, however squiggly—would be the writing from this time; writing had to be somewhat decentered, though it was often a refuge. Also—that most of these poems, and certainly the process of finding the orchestration, were happening in that sort of twilit time beyond youth, and yet I don’t yet feel ancient—so I’ll admit to borrowing that classic dusky late-in-the-day metaphor for this time of life, as it moves toward the inevitable snuffing-out, as well as the way so many of the poems are unfolding in a kind of dreamtime or dream-light. It’s autumnal and nocturnal.

Also, more frightening, is the way this coincides with living in a world, and on an earth, increasingly endangered in multiple ways that seep into and inform the edges of these poems, and sometimes their centers. And finally, there’s this self-admission, this awareness, that I’m writing from the margins of my own time, and sometimes in dispatches from the hinterlands of place, both actual and metaphysical—for instance, that these poems are not canonical, not mainstream, and feel outside of or fly in the face of more celebrated narratives. As an analogy, in the story of Adam and Eve, these would be Lilith. In the story of some national history, they would not exist. They would be completely negligible, or buried, however much at the mercy of national conditions. More broadly and consolingly though, even if they were not flying so far under the radar (which can be a great place to be, because it allows so much freedom), in the grand scheme of things, all of our scribblings, over eons, are marginal—our tiny flecks on the universe, all we can do.

So, there’s that kind of existential reckoning, maybe built more into process and awareness than into any obvious subject matter. Nonetheless, I am here. And I am making poems, or they are emerging, somehow. And so it was from this consciousness, as well as from my ongoing fascination with writing from a more liminal space, from dream, from the not-so-strictly-diurnal, from spaces not yet verbal as they come into words, that the title came—and also suggested a process, or a relationship to whatever was going to come up in the poems. These poems are attentive to detail, as an approach—but they may not feel biographical in a typical way—they’re not necessarily a standard presentation of the life, per se, even in moments of nakedness. But they’re informed by and drawn from this life, and attentive to what comes up, at this time, around the margins of the life, however seemingly disconnected or imagined or collaged or in concert with other art forms.

KMD:  Relatedly, I’m intrigued by the way you foreground and celebrate paratextual spaces.  The poet Myung Mi Kim once said that the margins are rife with possibility for risk and transformation, because there is less pressure on them.  What is the significance of these paratextual spaces for your practice as a poet?  

I love this— “risk and transformation,” both! Yes. And I can see that I’ve already started talking about this.

For a long time—like, I think, many poets—I’ve been most drawn to poems and drawn toward writing poems that hover over what cannot quite be said; that dwell there—poems that grope toward a way of making that presence more visible—or felt. To go back to that Valery quote: “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.”

So even though language is inherently a naming art, for me, a poem is most transporting when the relations of language and pacing and movement and space deliver us into an experience that eludes being absolutely pinned down by language. I love entering this paradox, whether in reading or hearing poems or, with any luck, moving toward this place in my poems. I love the way ambiguity and metaphor can lead us into a chord of emotional resonance, rather than insisting on one single name for emotional experience that might entirely truncate and preclude the experience itself.

Sometimes maybe we can trick ourselves into this space, or at least toward it. I’m thinking a little of the making of “Before Us” and “Beginner’s Daybook,” both of which began as something I call “exploded OuLiPo,” and continued to morph. I was working with some variations of N+7, where you switch out nouns for other nouns, except when I do it, I’m switching out everything. “Before Us” began after a workshop with Kathy Fagan Grandinetti, where she ended the day by offering up one of her own poems as a text for an N+7-like exercise. I had begun my version in longhand and had it in my office on campus, and it kept getting buried beneath other papers; then, maybe a year later, I’d dig it up again. I’d been giving myself too many possible variations. Then I realized I like them all. I didn’t have to choose. I only needed to embrace them. That was the key to being able to complete the poem—that and the way parrots, and then other things, began to enter. There was a point where the poem broke off from its original form and syntax and began to write itself. The embrace of sound, of runaway language, creates a kind of equivalence for me of the way certain life experiences felt, with language that feels mostly more metaphorical than literal. I had to trust that the language would lead me to the feeling for what was beneath it. “Beginner’s Daybook,” similarly, was an obsessive way to honor and study a Sylvia Plath poem. This took days, and then later trims and revisions. It happened because I’d been assigned Plath’s study at Yaddo—no pressure! —and so for the first time was reading The Colossus, which I borrowed from the library there. Many of those poems were written during her stay there. In my long walks, I found some of the things that had ended up in her poems. Sort of like translating, there’s an almost spooky connection with a text when you spend this kind of time with it, so the poem was about honoring her work while the process also acted as a kind of 8-ball that pulled up and illuminated some of what I was grappling with at the time, apparently under the surface. The process leads you to these things—it’s not the other way around. Most weirdly, though, the poem seems to prefigure my mother’s death, which happened, unexpectedly, while I was there.

I’ll say a little about one aspect of “A Mirror of Leaves” because of the way the relationship between figure and ground really shifted for me as I was writing that poem in a sort of squall of intensity over two or three days of a weekend. I had been drawn to the Varo work already, and my poem might have lost most of what keeps it interesting without the happenstance of doing this on a weekend where I’d had to be photographed—in this case, by an architectural photographer. What became really clear from that experience was the way, in a portrait, the space was at least as important as “the subject” (in this case, me). So, as I kept looking at different online registrations of “Les Feuilles Mortes,” later that day and into the weekend, I noticed more and more details of the pictorial room, and it became a third character in the poem—an ekphrastic persona poem. And the details are strange. Ominous, mostly. And though this is a work from 1956 (and some of its pictorial details feel centuries older), it also feels as though climate change has already entered the room—perhaps literally—which put me in mind of some of the incursions into spaces we try to keep clear of—bugs, mold, fungus. It’s as though the room itself is about to fray.

I think, in many ways, the poems in this collection could be characterized by “utsoroi,” though I would not have thought of this without coming back recently to that wonderful Lynda Hull poem of the same name, but it sort of applies: a “Japanese spatial concept that causes the self/space boundary to blur . . . gradual and inevitable change from one state to another. It can also refer to reflection or projection of one thing onto another. Both meanings suggest that nothing is reliable, and everything is ephemeral. . . Utsuroi is often used to describe landscapes and symbolize changing seasons. It also describes the moment in which the peak of an event is passing. For example, if Utsuroi is used to describe cherry blossoms, it means that the flower’s petals have just started to fall.” (Penguin Environmental Design). Line by line, without having thought of this word at the time, I realize that this is the state of things in almost the entirety of “In the Late Gabardine of the Trees ~ Cadenza,” which traces, at the same time, a space so entered and mentally crosshatched by certain moments of Pawlikowski’s Cold War, a film all the eerier in these last few years of encroaching autocracy–and, equally, full of a rare and almost transcendental intimacy.

In other poems, I think often I’m just looking for some kind of refuge, or antidote. A way to be able to breathe, a little space. It’s been heartening to hear when pals have something like that same experience from reading them and seem to need that respite too. I’ve been thinking about how, regardless of subject matter, I have this same experience, unaccountably, with artists as different as Joseph Cornell and Susan Rothenberg. Those assemblages, even when they feel cut off from so much of his biographical life, living with his mother on Utopia Parkway, always, consistently, transport me—it’s hard to say where, but they provide immediate solace and cut off those screaming ropes of inner narrative we can sometimes carry around. With Rothenberg, it’s in the gesture, something about the line, the way, with such economy, there’s a moment that travels, even while the figure is partially occluded. I don’t know how to talk about it yet. But it connects. Below what I know how to say. This gives me tremendous hope. I don’t know why.

KMD:  Along these lines, what is the relationship between conceptual risk and social justice for you as a poet?  

I’m thinking especially of the process of writing “Real State,” which began as a project for a fellowship here in LA. We writing fellows were tasked with presenting a group of new poems at a downtown reading event, and there was going to be some presence for us, along with the visual artists in the group, in the Barnsdall art museum. My poems would be primarily ekphrastic, but I knew this one was going to be more of a documentary, more journalistic, full of shards and fragments from all over town, with some boots-on-the-ground research—weirdly enough, even to Rodeo Drive, which I’d never explored, to catch that end of the really extreme disparity at the heart of the poem—as well as what I was already seeing, especially the housing precarity that has only gotten more extreme since then. There was this inflection point, this eruption of a wider spread of housing precarity—more people living on the street, at the same time that concrete floors had become coveted features in multi-million-dollar homes. Like many people I know, my own housing situation was also in flux, but I was never in danger of outright losing shelter.

At that time, there was still this tendency to look away—especially from those most affected. I wanted to bring things closer. It hit me to try a version of the poem as an installation where it would be presented on something that looked like concrete, and to write the poem with my fingertips while the material was still setting, so that it would be invisible unless you got close enough, and maybe you’d even have to touch it to really get it. You couldn’t accurately see it, from a distance. This would have been massive, and there were weight and dimension considerations just to get something through the doors, so I had to figure out a lighter and affordable material, and I worked with an artist friend to see if there was a way to approximate this effect with drywall. It turned out that we writers wouldn’t have installation capacity, but in just doing this initial work, there was no way to avoid seeing a connection to “The Tablets,” and that’s where all the “Thou shalts” came from—as though some mad god was arbitrarily commanding all these individual fates with a roulette-like finger: you, over here; you, over there. In an instant, everything can fall apart, even beyond all the structural reasons for these mismatches of need and access, which are sometimes catastrophic. The poem is like a birds-eye glimpse of striations of hardship, juxtaposed against random niches of luxury, and though this is a very LA-centric poem, it’s a crisis grown way beyond these borders. If it felt slow-moving at that time, that’s no longer the case.

KMD:  An early version of your manuscript was honored as a semi-finalist by a prestigious contest before finding a great home, and your first full-length collection was a finalist and semi-finalist in a number of contests before winning one that led to the publication of your first three books.  Can you speak to the value of persistence?

It’s one of the few things we might absolutely have. It’s crucial. And it’s also hard. First of all, any nod or handshake from the seeming void, any accolade, any acceptance is like a breadcrumb of hope. It helps a lot to think of every submission as the starting point of a conversation—with an editor or reader, for one, but then beyond. This may be a little harder now, in the world of mass submissions and mass rejections, than it was in pre-digital days, but sometimes it’s faster, and this can be a help. . . and, finally, you do get to have at least a few extended conversations, some of which go on for years.

In the case of those close calls, specifically, I found it very encouraging. It meant that there was something consensual going on—at least some of what I was up to was hitting a chord. One plus was that I could do a bit of magical thinking with erroneous math—the story problem would be: If there are 50 semi-finalists, and each one submits a manuscript to 50 contests, then can each semi-finalist win one? Of course, left out of the story problem is that each contest will draw a different number of manuscripts to readers and judges with varying aesthetics, and I knew that. Still, it was encouraging, as was having marching orders from my mentor Ralph Angel to send that first one out to “all those contests in the fall.”

Beyond that, these two things can help a lot: keep a consistent workshop going or have a consistent first reader or two. Over time, you become one another’s first readers, and there’s terrific investment in this, as well as the not-so-subtle prod to keep going.

A few years back, my poet pal Iris Cushing and I were thinking about poets and poems as a kind of apothecary or an endless selection of herbal remedies. You never know when you’ll need to reach for the one that turns out to be just the right thing. Some of these, we’ll need and want all the time, and that will not change. Others won’t be right until a certain moment, and then they might be crucial. So, as poets, we need to keep the doors open. And we need to trust that our contributions to the apothecary will be the perfect thing for someone . . . in a time and place beyond our own control. If we don’t make them, they won’t be there.

KMD:  What’s next?  What can readers look forward to?  

A little more play with OuLiPo-inflected stuff, though I tend to bend the rules, and there’s always some other kind of hybridity or obsession going on. Also, there’s a chapbook manuscript that feels ready—the titles are mostly from phrases in the middle of HD’s Trilogy, which sort of saved me during a rough patch. I was writing scattershot from them—many beginnings of poems, all at once, and then, years later, had to revisit them, mostly from calmer waters, which is a bit of a strange dance. And there’s a draft of a video-poem I need to re-approach. I’m not sure it will work, but it feels like a companion piece to Nightfall Marginalia.