Sarah Sgro’s chapbook Without Them I Am Still A Mother from Letter[r] Press is a hybrid manuscript drawing from science, pop culture, queer theory, and deeply personal memories and experiences; the book is a web of many different stories and kinds of stories, some of which are chat transcripts, which inspired the form of this interview (video chat). Without Them I Am Still A Mother is an incredible book, one that works beautifully as an art object (it’s gorgeously designed by the press, and hand-sewn), a text in and of itself, and as part of a larger project which you’ll be able to see if you purchase her full-length collection If The Future Is A Fetish forthcoming from YesYes Books. Sarah challenges a reader’s comfort-level and reasserts/readjusts boundaries thought to be static; in this way, the book is rebellious, strong, and ultimately victorious in its assertion of bodily autonomy above all. Take our word for it—we are two of her best friends. Pull up a seat and get comfy. Let’s chat about this awesome chapbook and the poetry community from whence it came. Because poetry is in so many ways both a product of and a precursor to powerful, radical friendships.
M: Maybe we could start by talking about how we know each other, considering we all live in different states across the country. Sarah, you & Baby K have known each other since when?
S: Since 2010 when we started at Hamilton College together, but we didn’t get close until 2014. Then I followed Kina and Marty (Cain) to Ole Miss, where I met beautiful Maggie and we bonded instantly. And we’ve all been inseparable since! I feel like that’s a good narrative.
M: We’ve talked many times about things that people tend to ask you or write on workshop pages that are frustrating, because they’re maybe not questions that a guy writing in a similar vein would get. How there’s an exhausting sort of shield you have to put up constantly by answering things you shouldn’t have to answer for. In an ideal world, what are the questions that no one would ever ask you again?
S: The first thing that comes to mind is the way people tend to talk about discomfort in my work. Discomfort is ubiquitous when writing about the body, but I hate the assumption that the work is uncomfortable because I say “tits” or that the work is uncomfortable because I say “shit.” I think that as a woman writing about shit I do tend to get that question more than, say, cis men. A specific question that I get a lot is “Is the presence of ‘shit’ here justified?”
K: When people say that, do they mean the word “shit” or the actual thing?
S: Both. I’ve talked to people a lot about this, about how I’m not interested in this stuff for the sake of shock value, which sometimes people assume. I’m interested in a logic and poetics of shit that thinks beyond shock. Shit is a legitimate academic pursuit of mine; I’ve written 15-page papers on sewage.
I also hate when people assume that me writing about my body is an invitation for them to ask me about my body. I think Jenny Zhang mentions this phenomenon in an interview. I’ve had people say to me after a reading “Wow, you really need to own your sexuality.” Or “I’m gonna buy you a dildo.” Knowing that I’m opening myself up to that sort of thing when I read and publish makes me think more closely about aspects of performance in the reader-poet relationship as well as in the relationship between vulnerability and empowerment.
M: I feel like that very contrast is at the center of most things that I write. I love writing poems about pining after people or unrequited love, and I love writing poems about my period, but in very self-conscious ways where I’m admitting like oh, the other day I thought this thing but I didn’t say it… I don’t know that I would call it empowering, but there’s something about it that feels like I’m giving myself a second chance to say things or do things that I wish I had done at the time, if my actions hadn’t been dictated by shame. For me, so much of that internalized shame comes from growing up in a culture of religion and growing up in the South where gender roles were very much enforced. But I don’t know, I feel like I don’t end up having to face the same kind of scrutiny or annoying shit that you do.
S: Why do you think that is? What particular scrutiny?
M: I’m thinking specifically about how much shit people give you for writing about shit.
K: It’s depressing! People are more offended by that than they are about sexual assault.
M: It’s like there’s this weird unspoken rule where if you’re going to write poetry it needs to be about something “beautiful.” That’s why there’s so many goddamn poems about birds. Or, if you’re going to write about something subversively beautiful, it’s gotta be about how “Ooh! Even this ugly thing can be beautiful!” But somehow shit cannot be included in either one of those because both modes are centered around some transcendent conception of “beauty” that’s complete bullshit.
S: Exactly. Also, just because the word “shit” appears in a poem doesn’t mean the entire poem is about me pooping. I’m interested in how shit speaks to bodily and environmental fluidity, what it has to say about location, how it relates to larger themes of rebirth and reinvention. So sometimes the physical image of shitting is important because of what it’s actually saying about like, my ex or my relationship with death. It can feel belittling how much people tend to get distracted by the word. Just because poop shows up in a poem doesn’t mean it has to become “the poop poem.” That’s what inspired me to write a creative nonfiction piece on it which felt like an apologia “in defense of shit.”
K: What piece is this?
S: It’s called “Night Soil,” and it includes some content from various scholarly articles on shit and waste, particularly a book by Dominique LaPorte called History of Shit. The essay discusses poop in a few ways; first, as a material substance–me shitting in my home, my experiences shitting in front of my partners, shit as it relates to food and what I put in my body, what I expel. Then, thinking about polyamory, the idea of holding two partners as equally sacred in the same way that shit is just as sacred as the trees. Fluid love like fluid ecology. And third, waste as related to rebirth–what can and cannot regrow. Shit versus the composting of bodies, for instance, particularly in light of my dad’s recent death. The essay felt like a mission statement regarding what I’m really interested in when I’m writing about shit which is sometimes shit-as-object, and sometimes something totally different.
M: And this is going to be in…what publication?
S: It’s going to be in Cosmonauts Avenue! (laughs) Anyway, to return to the idea of shame, Kina–I wanna hear you talk about this because you also write on shame and the body and bodily traumas often.
K: Well right now that balance, that shame/empowerment balance, has really not been balanced. Writing has been more difficult, for whatever reason. You have to keep at it. I think it’s okay to not always be one or the other–to not always be trying to empower yourself. I’m somewhere in there. Maybe I’m still working on it.
S: I think I am too. It’s not like, “Oh, I’ve re-written and re-appropriated this damaging narrative about my body through this poem and now I’m empowered.”
K: Exactly. It’s not that simple.
S: (laughs) I think my shame is often tied to past behaviors and events but it’s also very immediate. Often my shame is tied to the fact that I’m expressing shame, which is this hyper self-conscious mode.
K: Do you think the way you’re talking about being embarrassed about talking about shame has anything to do with the form of the chapbook? With all the different sections, and how it’s filtered through things like Google searches?
S: I will say certain parts feel like a more immediate and vulnerable embrace of shame, particularly with the more prose-like passages or narrative sections. But other pieces like the theoretical moments, the diagram, and even to some extent the g-chat conversations either pull away from shame momentarily or engage with it from a different angle. It’s hard to sit in a certain kind of shame for so long, in a certain density, and I think that’s why the chapbook is formed from a bunch of different vignettes.
It was a new experience for me writing in vignettes. It puts a new type of pressure on each poem. So much of the chapbook revolves around repeated motifs which interact with one another, which you don’t get as much in a single poem.
K: I think the vignettes also stand alone, but they take on new life when they’re put in this order, this form. The way that Travis (Sharp) did the design–
S: Travis is so amazing. Seriously. I love Letter [r] and Small Po[r]tions. They are so devoted to the book as a physical object. I can be such an intangible, impractical person, so it’s so good to have someone like that handling my work. That’s something you’re both really good at, making broadsides and book design and posters. I’m not a very visual person.
K: Well you clearly are, because your poems are so visual on the page!
M: Yeah! You think very much in terms of overall concepts and projects. I know I think more on a micro-poem level. I’ll write individual poems and then sometimes they feel like they’re part of the same thing and sometimes they don’t. Are you like that too, Kina?
K: Probably…I don’t even know. I write and then when I try to put things together in a book it feels like the hardest thing in the world.
M: Whereas I feel like Sarah will be like “OK! I just came up with an idea for a book!” It’s just interesting how people’s brains work. I don’t think I would notice how things are connected. And with large projects, sometimes you face the problem of “how do I break this giant concept project into individual units to submit?” I wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that Kina and I also like to design. I love designing stuff because it’s super soothing for me to focus on tiny little details. I wonder if those things are relevant to how we think of writing, macro versus micro.
S: That’s interesting. I guess I do tend to think about things in terms of larger projects, maybe because I tend to write around the same themes. I will say that when I started the chapbook, it did almost immediately feel project-y to me. It took on this momentum and energy that felt really different from my individual poems. I wrote the book in very condensed, intense periods. But I’m always afraid of being too prescriptive when I’m in a project mindset; I worry that if I have a product or project in mind, I’m limiting the scope of what I’m writing about.
In terms of the transition from chapbook to book, I really wasn’t sure for a while if the chapbook was a chapbook or part of a full-length. I was wondering how the chapbook content might fit in with my other poems, because they’re very related in theme and image. Have y’all read Khadijah Queen at all? Her book Fearful Beloved does this so well, where it has this titular thread that interrupts other sections and speaks to larger motifs of fragmentation and the trauma of re-experiencing the past. I was thinking about how a similar arrangement might dial up similar motifs in my own work.
M: I want to hear what y’all have to say about books in terms of their existence as like a physical artifact and also as a sequenced thing. What are your hero books? Which books have you encountered that do both so well you’ll never forget them?
Since I asked the question, I definitely have one in mind — Anne Carson’s book Nox, which is a book in a box that unfolds like an accordion. It’s an elegy for her brother and I love it because it incorporates all kinds of archival material. She has a PhD in Classics and translates Greek, so she goes back and forth between translations relevant to grief and loss and, say, an old birthday card that her brother sent her. I love that kind of documentary poetry.
S: I mentioned the Khadijah Queen book. You know I love Maggie Nelson because I think she is so good at writing theory into memoir without being isolating. Some of my poems get very theory-heavy, but I go to people like Maggie Nelson when I think of how these can be integrated without departing too much from the heart of the narrative. I’m also obsessed with Doug Kearney’s Patter. It’s about a miscarriage or failed pregnancy, and the book revolves around this shifting refrain — “I love your body / I hate it,” at one point expanding into a centerspread map.
K: I’m really drawn to book-length projects like C.D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining that use every inch of the page and are very much self-contained objects, often grounded in a certain place and feeling. Ginger Ko’s Inherit is one of those books you have to read in one sitting, which I love. It’s about history and generational trauma, the things we keep, the things we pass on. My other hero book is Natalie Eilbert’s chapbook from Big Lucks, And I Shall Again Be Virtuous. I hadn’t written any poems about trauma or sexual assault before reading that book, and I feel like it gave me permission to do that, and it was super powerful.
S: When I was first working on the chapbook, there was a lot of visual stuff involved. I don’t know what inspired this, but in the first draft, I found an old screenshot that I had posted of me on OoVoo-ing–remember that?–cropped it, and positioned it so I was OoVooing with the void. I was really interested in this tension between vanity and void, a phrase from Marguerite Duras, so I had that image in there which maybe prompted future sections with g-chatting and digital exchange. And then I used that same image to photoshop myself asexually reproducing a bunch of mini Sgros.
M: Oh my god, I forgot about that!
S: I turned it in and people were like, this is kind of cool, but the general consensus was that it was sort of goofy and less interesting than the other stuff. And like, am I really going to want this in my book in twenty years?
K: That’s so cool though because I feel like that goofiness is something that doesn’t usually come into the finished product, but it’s an important part of the process.
M: And some of my favorite people do that kind of goofy stuff all the time, like Steve Roggenbuck, and even Melissa Broder chatting with God in the text message format, which is beautiful.
S: I think I was actually reading Melissa Broder when I was writing those bits. The main visual piece that remains, the diagram of asexual reproduction, still feels really important. I found it as a public resource–it’s basically a found poem–but it really spoke to the repercussions of solitude and partnership. “Pros: no need to find a mate, which takes energy. Cons: All offspring are clones. If one gets sick, they all get sick.” And I’m interested in pushing further on that binary between solitude and partnership, especially regarding reproductive or marital couplings.
The bracketed image started mainly as a yonic symbol or a womb, but it came to serve many different purposes. First, it works as a section break. But it also serves as a symbol of fracture or fragmentation. I’m interested in the symbol visually–it’s both open and expanding and literally birthing, but also closed-off and sealed and hermetic. The brackets appear in different ways throughout the book too. Sometimes they’re heavily reproduced as though spamming the reader, sometimes they’re crossed out or repressed. What did you guys think of it?
M: Vulva. Is vulvic the adjective form of that word? If it’s not, it should be.
K: Did you guys ever, when going through puberty, look up pictures of other people’s genitalia? I feel like I was obsessed with that–there’s this Tumblr page, I forget what it’s called, just about the vast differences in genitalia which I think is an interesting product of the relationship between shame versus empowerment. I can get so down with it, but it’s also probably really scary for people after years of shame.
S: Something that I looked up a lot when going through puberty was a Tumblr page called “puffy nipples.” Most people probably looked at it as a fetish page, but I was always self-conscious about my nipples, and this site gave me so much strength.
M: That’s so interesting because I never did that and I think it’s because of the culture I was raised in. It’s embarrassing the age that I realized that not all women’s genitalia looks the same. All I learned was it was a big no-no zone. Don’t look at it, don’t talk about it, don’t touch it, don’t let anyone else touch it. Big censored X down there…. No specifics ever. It’s so weird that y’all knew enough to try to see what other people looked like. Everything I learned about my body and sexuality was so amorphous. You’re gonna start feeling strange things. When you feel it, just know…shut it down.
K: And that lack of information can be so damaging. They don’t explain to you in high school what your clit is, and you look at it and think what’s wrong with me?
M: And I never learned about it in terms of pleasure, so feeling anything pleasurable–I thought I was going to hell.
S: That’s very hard to shake. I felt that way too, and I wasn’t raised in a religious environment.
M: Both of you write a lot about motherhood–Sarah, this is literally in the title of your chapbook. What do y’all think about that in terms of how it relates to you as people, as poets?
K: I feel like that plays into questions that maybe you don’t want to be asked–readers asking you, so, do you want to have kids? When you’re writing about reproduction that’s really out-of-the-norm, is it okay for us to ask that question?
S: Actually, when people ask me about the book, they almost never ask me about anything related to motherhood. They typically ask about sexuality–the sexuality aspect overshadows the reproductive aspects which I think is interesting, especially since motherhood is in the title.
Personally, I’ve always imagined myself not only as having children, but also as bearing children. Part of writing this book was grappling with that desire and how it relates to ideas of queerness. Lee Edelman, the main underlying source for the chapbook, is fucked up in a lot of ways, but I was interested in engaging with his idea in No Future–that in response to heteronormativity and reproductive futurism, queer people should be like fuck that and embrace the death drive. I’m wary of this framework, as embracing death excitedly can be irresponsible in certain ways, neglecting the real threats posed against queer bodies. To some extent, it makes light of those physical violences, with queer and trans people being killed daily in this country and across the globe.
Also, for me, Edelman’s theory just wasn’t something that resonated. I was still interested in queering ideas of reproduction, but in a way that focused more on survival and endurance than embracing death. And maybe that’s why I started out thinking about asexual reproduction. In addition to the self outside of non-heteronormative, conventionally reproductive relationships, I was also thinking about the self outside of any romantics partnerships at all. I was thinking of the self partnered with the self, partnered with depression, partnered with the past, partnered with visions of the future. What does it mean to be a mother in that sense? Certainly memory can be thought of as offspring.
And in that poem in the full-length, “A Friend Calls Me Mama So I Call Him Son” the desire for motherhood was also kind of grounded in a greedy sort of loneliness, this impulse to say come on everyone, come into my stomach, into my womb, I’ll nurture you so perfectly that you’ll never leave! Which is an impossibility and, like, really stupid.
K: I feel like people not asking about motherhood in this book is another result of the way you write, the way it can scare people off. You’re not writing about motherhood in a way that makes people comfortable. This book “can’t” be about motherhood because it’s about shit and other stuff.
S: Which reinforces this problematic idea of the mother as an unsexual being. But actually, in the book, the child comes to represent a problematic antidote for the past, especially regarding loss of lovers or parental abandonment or pushing certain traumas into the past. What a ridiculous, unfair pressure to put on a child. And in thinking about that, I found myself really obsessed with my perspective on my imagined child and wondering what that means for their agency, which is why I have a section the voice of the child (“Hello from the future we have a voice / Hello from your child who is no object…”).
K: So the title, Without Them I Am Still A Mother, do you feel like the “them” in the title is children? That’s sort of the way I first interpreted it but I’d be curious if you have different ideas of what that could be.
S: I think it actually started as without partners. Basically, I don’t need a partner to be a mother. But also, I am a mother of things other than children. I’m a mother of my memories, of my past, of my imagined future. And I think them could also in a larger sense stand in for expectations of motherhood. Without all that bullshit, I can still be a mother.
Sarah Sgro is the author of the chapbook Without Them I Am Still A Mother (Letter [r] Press 2017) and the forthcoming full-length collection If The Future Is A Fetish (YesYes Books 2019). She lives in Oxford, Mississippi, where she serves as Poetry Editor for the Yalobusha Review and reads poetry submissions for Muzzle. She is from New York and previously worked as an editorial assistant for Guernica. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, DREGINALD, The Boiler, TAGVVERK, and other journals.
Maggie Woodward lives in Los Angeles, where she’s pursuing a PhD in Cinema & Media Studies at the University of Southern California. She is the author of the chapbook FOUND FOOTAGE (Porkbelly Press, 2017) & earned her MFA in poetry from the University of Mississippi. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlas Review, Devil’s Lake, New South Review, Scum Magazine, & elsewhere. Previously, she served as Senior Editor of the Yalobusha Review & curated the Trobar Ric Reading Series in Oxford, MS. You can find her online at www.maggie-woodward.com.
Kina Viola is a poet and book designer living in Ithaca, NY. Her work has appeared in “Best of the Net,” Yalobusha Review, Jellyfish, DREGINALD, The Fanzine, and GlitterMOB, among others. She is a chapbook editor at Big Lucks Books, and co-runs handmade chapbook micro-press Garden-Door Press.