To no one but my heart or it to me: A Conversation with Sarah Arvio about Cry Back My Sea — curated by Tiffany Troy

An in-person interview conducted at Kent Hall on Columbia University campus, November 11, 2021

Sarah Arvio is also the author of night thoughts: 70 dream poems & notes from an analysis, Sono: Cantos, and Visits from the Seventh, and the translator of Federico García Lorca in a new edition called Poet in Spain. She is a recipient of the Rome Prize and of fellowships from the Bogliasco and Guggenheim foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts.  Cry Back My Sea (Alfred A. Knopf, 2021) presents poems of love, obsession, loss, and the desire for a renewed self.

Tiffany Troy:  How does your first poem, “Small War,” foreground the world introduced in Cry Back My Sea

Sarah Arvio:  There was no plan, there’s life that’s the plan and the feeling that’s the plan. At a certain moment, something happens and I feel a certain way, and I sit down and write my poem. The order of the book is the order of writing, because life itself makes an arc.

TT:  You use a lot of idioms in Cry Back My Sea, and you turn them inside out and you play with words.  You use a lot of repetition, playfully.  Do you want to tell us something about your craft and how you put together a poem when you are writing and absorbing life and reflecting on it?

SA:  When I was young and trying to write, I wrote the same poems over and over, and put them away and took them out again and again.  I felt that I wasn’t succeeding in making them leap. 

Then I went into psychoanalysis because of some fears and phobias that were bothering my life.  I began to write down my dreams, and to free-associate from them—using a traditional dreamwork method.  And the whole, painful, crazy process loosened up my mind.   I began to write whole poems straight out, or several poems, in sprees and splurges. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t later change them a bit. 

I learned that when I was trying too hard, nothing would work.  Only the poems that splurge out of me seem like poems.  I throw some away—I tuck them away in a file.  But when it’s time to make a book, my editor always asks for the outtakes.

TT: What’s an “outtake”?

SA:  In cinematic language, an outtake is what you’ve thrown away.  It’s the scrap of film lying on the floor of a film studio, after the film has been cut.  The outtakes are the poems that I write down but then don’t like; they may seem glib, or exaggerated, or overwrought, or express a feeling I think I don’t want to express. 

TT: And do you agree with her, eventually?  Does her wanting to put one of the outtakes in the book change your perception of it?  

SA:   When I write a poem, I love it.  Or I can love it and hate it at the same time.  If I take that same piece out of the drawer a long time later and share it with a fresh pair of eyes, then I can fall for it again.   “Heart” and “Nest” were both outtakes. 

TT: How about “Shrew”—a poem I love.  That one is also a heart poem.

SA: “Shrew” was one of the keepers. What do you like about it? It’s about feeling loathed and maligned, and needing to say to myself, I am good.

TT: I was having a period of self-loathing so this poem spoke to me in a way that an uplifting poem would not.  The poem says,  “It’s hard to call my heart it   speaking of / part of me   that is almost all of me.” “To no one but my heart or it to me.” 

SA: You asked me about repetition and variation; I don’t think I answered that.

TT:  You didn’t.  Let me see if there’s an example.  Here’s the start of the poem “Aguántate”:           

Did I want a glove                    or was it love 

a globe of love a lobe     no not a glove

I wanted a globe   a world              I got a glove

There’s a lot of repetition in Cry Back My Sea, but each configuration is different and uncovers something new.  And then you have killer lines that really drive home the feeling.  Take for example, “I’m all beat up / Too much to bear.” 

SA: It’s like a spree of language in my mind, a mind-spree, and it comes flying out like that.   I have to write as fast as I can to catch my thoughts. I follow the drift or direction of the sounds.  My poems are a lot about playing with words.  I guess the poem plays between the sound and meaning of the words.  When I end this poem, “Oh beglovèd boy,” to my surprise I’ve merged “love” and “glove” into the same word.

TT:  Catching your thoughts and writing them down as fast as you can, that’s a wonderful process to have. You vary the registers of your speakers. For instance, in “Whorl”  you have “Here here   I mean will you have me here” and “I didn’t say you whored me, no not that.”  In “Crow,” you have, “You like / to chant / chant cant chant cant.”  The speaker uses varying registers — like a baby cooing or a lover arguing — I am wondering what the voices of the speaker represented to you as you were writing these poems?

SA:    These are the voices inside my own mind.

TT: How do you conceive of the narrative voice as you write?  Is it a singular voice, which varies in address, register, and tone?

SA:  We all have voices in our minds, a talk we’re having with ourselves, don’t we?  I’m playing all parts of the conversation.  I’m speaking to myself. I’m asking myself questions.  I’m speaking to him or about him, or I’m invoking some god, or some unidentified other.  I say something, I say something back to the first I.  I’m pleading, I’m arguing.  I’m saying I love you; I’ll go with you anywhere; what the hell is up with you; why are you raging.  All that makes up the feeling texture of the poem.  

TT: It’s fascinating, that talking to yourself and to the beloved—that texture and back-and-forth and playing with language.

SA: I’ve always needed to write.  I read a lot of books when I was a little girl, lots and lots.  I recall the day I noticed that I was telling my own story in my mind. I was saying, ‘now she turns the corner, and now she looks up—and now she sees the cherry blossoms.’  An extra fold develops in your mind.   A place where you live your life and narrate it, at the same time. That’s the beginning of writing, don’t you think?

TT: What does the animal mean to you and how do you use it in your sequence?  In “Small War,” you have the mice and the horses galloping, and then in “Rodeo of the Rose,” the horse is riding you instead of you riding the horse. 

SA: In “Small War,” those are small, galloping horses.  I was thinking of the beating of their hoofs and they sounded like the beating of a heart.

TT:  How did that happen, the evolution from the beating heart to the horse that rides you in “Rodeo of the Rose.”  It’s a really violent poem.

SA:  I’m lamenting that some people can’t live joyfully, and of course I’m referring to him, he doesn’t know how to do it.  The poem says—I say— “there are folks who can’t bear the joy—the rippling, riveting, enchanting joy.”  By that time, I had had it—I wanted to live a life of joy.

Yes, it’s violent.  The woman writing “Small War” still had passionate hope; by the time she wrote “Rodeo of the Rose” she was painfully cynical.

TT:  Throughout the book the speaker is the victim, isn’t she?  She is the one falling off the horse, and being ridden.  The idea of falling also suggests the loss of power.

SA:  I don’t like this thought; the word “victim” bothers me.  In life, I would never use that word to describe myself.  

TT:   What word would you use?

SA:  (Lifting the book.)  All of these words.

There’s so much pain in the world, and pain in love; I was devastated to write these poems of torn-up love, unkindness, psychological violence, heartbreak; and yet, writing them made me feel that I was giving something to life, a lament for all of us.  For women mostly—but trouble happens in all sorts of love configurations.  Nor are the poems really “about this.”  They’re also about memory and mind, and the way stories and songs move through our lives; I’m thinking of Sinbad and Rimbaud and a Mexican hummingbird and “Ring around the Rosy,” and Salman’s fatwa, and a visit to the Algarve, and dancing in the living room of my youth.  

Writing—creating—poems, songs, artworks—these are all responses to life that are empowering.  

TT: How do you choose titles for the poems?

SA:   I never think twice. I always grab the most important word in the poem and use it as the title. The poem spins from that word, but I don’t know which word it is until after I’ve written the poem. 

TT:  In “Heart,” you have these lines, “The truth is what I want/ —literal truth refusing metaphor—”  Can you talk about how metaphors take shape and form throughout the sequence?

SA: In this poem, I’m wondering what “broken heart” means: I’m playing around, but in fact, a heart can’t break. The real physical heart can’t be broken. It’s too plump and wet and probably gushy.  

TT:  The poem talks not just about the heart as an emotional thing but also a physical thing.  This sheds a new light on pain and emotion.

SA:  I was saying I have a real ache, a literal ache.

I might also be saying let’s use images, not metaphors.  Although many images become metaphors—or similes—, as when horses’ hooves are like the beating heart.  When I think about the word “metaphor,” I’m not sure what it means or whether or how I use it.  Many strands from different parts of the mind and the life go into creating a poem.

Going back to your question about animals:  The poem “Animal” is something else— a meditation on the difference between us and the animals.  Which I think is kind of cliché...

TT:  It can be thought of as cliché, but I think you rendered it in a different way.  

SA:  We were living in a country house, in Maryland by the Chesapeake Bay.  I walked in the fields almost every day, and there was a lot of wildlife—deer, rabbits, foxes, migrating birds...  In the poem, I’m lamenting that the world is so beautiful and that human beings inhabit it so badly.  The poem says,  

I was always nervous as an animal 

angling for its home  and then homing in 

toward a home but never finding it   I 

was that sort of lost animal   though 

animals are rarely lost...

I turn from calling myself a lost animal to the sudden understanding that animals are not lost, animals are alive in their environment in ways that we are not.  When I say, “did we come to its great beauty to mar / and obscure,” I’m wondering what is the cosmic purpose of this great population of people who don’t know how to take care of their beautiful home.  And I’m thinking about my own effort to live a beautiful life regardless of what’s so ugly about human life and what’s so hard to tolerate. I’m trying for joy and not getting it—but not for want of trying.  

But many of the settings and landscapes in Cry Back My Sea come from other parts of my life, and other memories, and from my literary memory.

TT: How do you choose the form of your poems? Some are left-aligned and in couplets, some are centered, some are onelets with a gulf or caesura within the line. You’ve already talked a bit about your process, and I’m noticing that the voice breaks at natural points.  Or do you consciously structure them?

SA:  I wrote the first few waves of Cry Back My Sea in triplets and ten-syllable lines—carrying on with the form I had used in my first two books.  But I was tired of that form, so I reshaped most of the second wave into couplets, and I used couplets and more experimental shapes through the rest of the sequence.

Most of my revisions were about how the poems lie on the page.

TT:  The shape of poems like “Sad (or de Sade)” or “Tanager” suggest something new.  

SA:   The lines still have the same sound structure; in these poems it’s disguised.

TT:  What do you mean by “disguised”?

SA:  I was changing the line lengths to sharpen up the look of the poems on the page.  I saw that “Tanager” had taken the shape of the tree—and maybe also of the dancer, Tanny LeClercq, who dances through the poem.  The shape seemed evocative, so I kept it.  But that didn’t change the underlying sound structure. You can see and hear that the opening line of the poem, “that was the year I saw the tanager,” is ten syllables, a natural-sounding line in English.  I’m not talking about meter, I’m talking about rhythm—the rhythms of my ten-syllable lines.  They are still there despite a different arrangement on the page.

“Sad (or de Sade)” is in onelets—true.  I like this new word.  A break after every line gives each word more space and emphasis.

TT: Who are some of your major literary influences?  I thought of Rimbaud; you have a poem by that name, which is a literary tipoff, but I don’t know the answer.

SA: Rimbaud presents as a person, not as a poet.  In the poem, I’m talking to my lover about his mother; like Rimbaud’s mother, she didn’t love him well enough...  A biographer, Graham Robb, tells us that his eyes turned white from walking through the African deserts under a bright sun.  (After he gave up poetry, Rimbaud lived in Abyssinia and ran guns.)  I say—the poem says—“you must walk your white miles / carrying the body of your offense.”  For an unloved child, the offense is having been born.

TT:  He became a character—but did he influence you as a poet?

SA:  We were all influenced by the Le bateau ivre, I think.  “The Drunken Boat” —the drunken poet.  Now that I say these words, I see that they led to the association—the kinship—between Rimbaud and my partner, Rigel, who was in that same boat.

I loved the poems of Merwin and Strand. Each had his own style of quiet understatement, Strand wryer and Merwin more plaintive.  I knew them both, and Strand was my mentor until the end of his life.  When I later wrote the poems that were my real, publishable work, they were nothing like the poems of those poets.  They sprang from somewhere else, from my inner life, mostly, and the thought-streaming, memory-riffing, free-associative process that I learned from the exploration of dreams. 

Tiffany Troy is a critic, translator and poet.