As part of the launch of our Spring/Summer 2018 issue, Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts, we sat down with contributors to talk about their work in the issue and more. The following interview is part of this series. Please visit our website to see the complete list of contributors to Let Us Gather, to purchase the issue, or to subscribe.
Nimrod: “More Love,” “If You Are Tough Enough, Let the Thing You Love Rot,” “Rust Wilderness,” and “The Wait” all focus quite a bit on death and mortality. Were these poems all written near the same time as a result of a preoccupation with this topic, or do you find this is a recurrent theme in all of your poetry?
Sophia Stid: Mortality—an awareness of it, a grappling with what it means for our lives—is a persistent thread in my poetry, providing a skeleton or structure around which the body of each specific poem takes shape. Even when mortality isn’t literally in the poem, it’s there, I think—the same way that this is true of our lives. This contemplation of mortality is a part of one of my central questions as a writer—and as a person, really—which is, what does it mean to have a body? Our bodies are both fragile and strong, controlled by us in some ways but also completely outside our control. They make us vulnerable, and they also make us possible. They mean we will die, and yet they are how we live. We have a say, and yet we don’t, and that’s terrifying. Simone Weil says, “This world is the only reality available to us, and if we do not love it in all its terror, we are sure to end up loving the imaginary.” Or, as an elderly friend of mine—a fierce Mormon woman who could catch a rattlesnake with some rope and a PVC pipe—used to say, “I love mortality.” I’ve carried those words in some secret place ever since. I want to be able to say that and mean it, and I am writing my way towards that. Writing into questions of the body, or mortality, is my way of loving what is real. bell hooks speaks to this beautifully when she says, “Contemplating death has always been a subject that leads me back to love.”
Nimrod: Who are the poets and writers you find yourself frequently returning to?
Stid: Some of my touchstone poets are Marie Howe, Adrienne Rich, Carolyn Forché, Emily Dickinson, and Joy Harjo—I learn so much from returning to their work over the years. Recent books of poetry that I’ve returned to countless times are Carlina Duan’s I Wore My Blackest Hair, Eve L. Ewing’s Electric Arches, and Molly McCully Brown’s The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. I keep Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary on my desk—her books are very important to me, particularly On Being Ill, Three Guineas, and To the Lighthouse. I find myself often seeking out writers who work across boundaries of genre, and particularly love Claudia Rankine, Anne Carson, Joan Didion, Maggie Nelson, Terry Tempest Williams, and Rebecca Solnit. Recently, I’ve been coming back to notebook-style work that engages with the visual and the physical—especially Derek Jarman’s Garden, Anni Albers’s On Weaving, and the notebooks of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Nimrod: What’s your revision process like?
Stid: My revision process is revising itself this year, as I move from spending a lot of time in M.F.A. workshop to revising more on my own during the third year of my program, a year without workshop. I’m finding that revision for me is really a process of discernment or learning to listen. I get quiet and slow. For me, learning to see revision as another facet of writing itself, instead of an external after-the-fact process imposed on the writing, was a really crucial shift that empowered me to feel more at home in the return to my work. (I know that for some writers the exact opposite is true and it’s important to separate writing and revision as much as possible! I love how Richard Hugo points out this contrary nature of writing advice in The Triggering Town: “You’ll never be a poet until you realize that everything I say today is wrong. . . . It may be right for me, but it is wrong for you.”)
Nimrod: What tips would you give to new or aspiring writers?
Stid: This is possibly a very strange answer to this question, but something I really believe in is the importance of finding a physical practice that helps you learn to listen to your body—to listen to yourself. An important part of my writing practice is getting really sweaty in the gym once a day in workout classes with hilariously intense names. I know this isn’t possible or desirable for everybody, but it works for me. Discerning with my body in a really literal way—am I in the right form, is this weight too much, do I need to push myself harder or to be gentler with myself today—has helped me learn how to honor my own instincts. And even though writing can be very cerebral, poetry has always felt physical to me: rhythm, breath, image. Poems live in the body. And, finally, I’ll end with a quote from a letter Audre Lorde wrote to Pat Parker in 1985, advising her as Parker began a year off to write. This is some of the best writing advice I know—and said more beautifully than I could ever say it: “Beware all that hatred you’ve stored up inside you, and the locks on your tender places.”
Sophia Stid is a writer from California. Currently in the M.F.A. program at Vanderbilt University, she has received fellowships from the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Lannan Foundation. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in Image, Beloit Poetry Journal, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ninth Letter, DIAGRAM, and Crab Orchard Review, among other publications.