Saturday, February 25, 2006

Interview with poet Sarah Hannah: A Poet within “Longing Distance”

Sarah Hannah is an educator, a poet with a PhD from Columbia University, and a sometimes rock musician. Her poems have appeared in “Barrow Street,” “Parnassus,” “Gulf Coast,” “Crab Orchard Review,” and others. Her original manuscript which became her first poetry collection “Longing Distance,” was a semi-finalist for the “Yale Younger Poets Prize,” in 2002. Anne Dillard describes her collection as: “…an extremely moving work. I’m struck by her intelligence of emotion and her unmistakable voice…Sarah Hannah is a true original.” She currently resides with her husband in Cambridge and teaches at Emerson College in Boston. She was a guest on my Somerville Community Access TV show “Poet to Poet/Writer to Writer.”

Doug Holder: Can you tell us about the “Yale Younger Poets Prize” which “Longing Distance,” was a semi-finalist for?

Sarah Hannah: That was a sort of near miss. That was in 2002. That was the year Tupelo Press accepted my book. I found out I was a runner up by phoning the editor, (not the judge) who was W.S. Merwin. The editor told me he remembered the book, and it was a semi-finalist, and it was a strong book.

Doug Holder: A lot of folks claim a PhD can ruin a poet. You learn how to write academic papers, but you forget how to write poetry. This does not seem to be the case with you.

Sarah Hannah: It ruined me in the sense that while I was writing my dissertation, I felt that I didn’t have time to write poetry. But I think the PhD made me a better poet. It forced me to really study poetry deeply. You have to grapple with ideas that are foreign to you. You read more than just contemporary poets. You learn to become a better writer.

Some people become sidetracked. They go into a PhD program and they emerge as critics not poets. There are more people around than you think that are poets and scholars.

Doug Holder: How did you come up with the title for your collection “Longing Distance?”

Sarah Hannah: I was writing a series of sonnets about a messed up love affair. You know “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” an all those clichés. So I came up with a line while I was in the country watching my husband scale a rock. I thought of the line: “I keep you at longing distance.” I thought it was just going to be another sonnet in the sequence. I wrote the sonnet, but then wound up expunging it from the book. I kept “Longing Distance,’ as the title.

Doug Holder: From our email exchanges I get the impression you haven’t had an easy life.

Sarah Hannah: I lived a hardscrabble life. I’ve seen life disintegrate . I wanted to put back my experiences in more metaphysical or formal terms.

I grew up in Newton, Mass., in the Waban section. A lot of neurosis going on there. I would say seven out of my eight high school friends were bulimic. I was not. My mother was hospitalized at the same “summer hotel” Anne Sexton visited.

Doug Holder: How does your teaching at Emerson College fit with your poetry?

Sarah Hannah: It’s fitting beautifully because I am teaching poetry, as opposed to composition. I am teaching traditional form to graduate and undergraduate students. I teach a hybrid literature and writing course.

Doug Holder: Why did you move from the bright lights and big city of New York to the more provincial environs of Boston?

Sarah Hannah: I am a lover of the underdog. Boston is the underdog to New York. I felt I had to come back. You know: “My end is my beginning, my beginning my end.” I have always missed Boston. I am a loyal person that way. My husband and I purchased a house in Cambridge. It’s right in the Central Square area. It’s a very diverse city. I often write at the ‘1369” Coffee Shop or ‘Grendel’s Den,” in Harvard Square. I feel rooted here.

Doug Holder: How does the lit scene here compare to the “Big Apple?”

Sarah Hannah: There are a lot of readings here like N.Y. I lived in N.Y. for 17 years. It took me 8 years to get “out” there. It seems much faster out here. I have a book though, that makes a difference. I was worried. It took a long time for me to establish myself in New York City. But I didn’t loose my contacts because I maintained my connection to the journal “Barrow Street,” and now I am an editor there.”


Every so often I am dilated; the pupilsSwallow everything—a catchall soup,Two cauldrons, stubborn in the bald glare
Of bathroom light. They are hunting sleep—The sea grass, the blue cot rocking;In sleep I am a Spanish dancer,
Awaiting my cue at the velvet curtain,Now and then groping for the sash,Or on horseback, abducted, thumping
Through pampas. I sleep too much;I curl in at midday, sheepish,In strange rooms. Clouds are hurrying by—
The walls, a wash of white; still my eyesAre mazing through their dark gardens,The great lamp shut, the crescents duplicating.
It is only a temporary state of affairs.The sun boils behind the moon.

Sarah Hannah will be reading at the Newton Free Library Poetry Series March 14 7PM. 330 Homer St. Newton Centre, Mass.

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