-by Bill Watkins for Bill’s Poetique 12/8/2019
Since I lost the seventy-two minute recording of my interview with poet Sara Berkeley Tolchin last night, I wanted to jot down what I remembered in a hopefully true and poetic way.
Sara is originally from Dublin, Ireland, and started writing poetry at nine years of age, after her parents gave her a lined notebook and writing set that seemed to her magical. It reminded me of my start in poetry at twenty-three years of age traveling through San Miguel de Allende, Mexico because of the “magic” part. I prayed for poetry to come, Sara was gifted it by circumstance, parents’ love and youth. The bottom line is that I see the magic in Sara’s work.
In last night’s call, we went over some poems in her latest volume, called What Just Happened (Sentient 2016), a title that of course with a question mark would be one thing, without the question mark another. We spoke of being reporters of fact and truth as we see and experience them plus beauty, the idea that poets are fancy journalists in some ways. We jot down facts, figures, and in Sara’s case sailing terms and Geological terms for ice formations—stuff she likes to look up and use in her work—then we throw them together in hopefully a beautiful or clever way. Maybe we exult, something to memorialize the moment, as she does with geese flying over a shopping mall in her poem “Swan Geese” on page 22 of the volume.
Sara has been prolific and has received lots of awards and recognition for her poetry. I found her in an anthology edited by Joan McBreen called The White Page/An Bhileog Bhan: Twentieth Century Irish Women Poets (Salmon 1999), searching through the poetry section at my local library in Pasadena, California. I was doing an anthology myself, before I considered the hard work of getting permissions, and I chose one of Sara’s poems, “Emergence,” featured in Ms. McBreen’s book, to be in my volume. I never published my Hooked on Poetry book, but I did contact Sarah finally last year, asking and receiving her permission to publish the poem on this website.
Having made contact with a poet I admired, I asked her to be on my podcast, Bill’s Poetique, which she agreed to do. Then my neck went out, and I had to postpone… Last night, we finally got together for the podcast… It was a great conversation and reading by Sara, and lo and behold: I used the wrong app, and though my phone told me it was recording our call, it was in fact not. That will make you sweat a bit more than you wanted prior to publishing a podcast that was supposed to feature an interview, and prior to going to sleep. Sara and I talked about sleep a little, a she shared she struggled with it; though a few years her junior, I presented my humble advice to she and all my podcast audience of how much help writing and sticking to a daily schedule has been for me.
Write your highest power or inspiration at the top of the page, then the things you want to do, decorate it all with love, and for goodness’ sake: write “Sleep” at the bottom of the page, something that will come as a welcome rest if and when the day you planned goes at all like you planned it! Horribly pretentious of me to advise anyone, but the daily schedule has been a great tool to help me out of alcoholism and suicidal depression—so why not insomnia itself!?
I loved talking with Sara about her work and life; she is a hospice nurse, which is something that instructs and informs her lines—both the self-admitted wrinkles that come with age, and the kind poets write! When we started with the first poem in the volume, What Just Happened, called “Cracking Open,” it was a revelation to me that the first stanza referring to “lines” did in fact have those two meanings, not just one. As a Shakespeare fan, I see “lines” and I get locked into poems and verse, but Sara had very cleverly used the word as pun to open “Cracking Open” and her whole book with an invitation to read both her physical signs of aging and her lines of poetry.
The woman is brilliant to me, and each compliment like that I make I’m patting my own back because I think we write and think alike… to a point. Her favorite poet is Dylan Thomas, which surprises me because I figure women will be inspired by women, men… men. My big three are Shakespeare, Longfellow and Frost. I love women writers and poets, but I commented with Sara last night that while I loved them, I cannot live with them. There is a limit and a roadblock to full emulation because I am a man, they women, and our experience is all so similar minus a couple things. Those couple things keep me dedicated to emulating and aspiring to those dudes, while Sarah and many other writers I’ve talked to about this are perfectly comfortable inhabiting the opposite sex’s point of view all the way.
In discussing “If I Met You Now” Sara and I spoke of sailing terms, and at first my being convinced she was a sailor herself after reading her material. In my second whiff of the interview, she said she was not a sailor at all, in fact didn’t like her only memorable experiences sailing with Dad (I think it was) in Dublin as a child. “Cold and uncomfortable” was her general experience with it… But as a poet, and someone who loves words, she dives into sailing terms and analogy, does so in “If I Met You Now” beautifully, connecting it with writing poetry, divorce, and a “certain call among girls” to do those things to be free and to “sail alone.” We spoke at length on this “call” and whether it was universally a female intuition to leave a marriage, and in Sara’s experience, she felt it was more a womanly thing than a manly thing to want to break free something like that.
I’ll say now that this theory of Sara’s may be like mine about men liking men authors, and women sticking with women! Both our theories might need more research and polling, as Sara and I agreed at some point! Writers deal in truth. What is true for us right now is what we need to write, express, and say. Therein lies our story, the “certain call” of all inspired poets from San Miguel de Allende to Dublin, Ireland… We jot down truth, add beauty and exaltation, even cleverness and a puzzle, of course metaphor and analogy. Sara does all of that, and so I think do I—why complimenting her is so narcissistic!!!
There is reference to futility and darkness in Sara’s work, why she said she started the book with the optimistic “Cracking Open.” “Sitting with the Art” has architecture and the Murphy’s Law-esque finale:
“You need proofs, and when they’re ready
you need to tear them up and start again.”
“Crown of Vines” exalts and expresses joy, also the very astute comment that “age is an earned reward, a shared joke, a consolation.” Sara and I talked at length about the “consolation” part of that, memorably for me that a life well lived heads toward a final, deserved rest. Our bodies change, break down slowly, but our wisdom, experience, even sense of humor can overcome those things. As a hospice nurse, Sara is in contact with “the other side,” you could say; has daily reminders and experiences with the body’s end, and her writing shows readers what she has gained by facing those challenges. The hardest things in life turn blessing, I reflect now… Last on that poem, the ending refers to playing music so that a neighbor joins your revelry! My recent living experiences in Los Angeles would always make me temper such thoughts with “Great, as long as you keep the bass on the music down please!”
“Outliers” deals with stuff, battles the darkness, fights off divorce and negativity, depicts the light in dark, and definitely the dark hiding under the light: “…the thunder’s always there lying low beneath the sunlit evenings.” More memory, aging, nostalgia, pain and love but never bitterness, thank God. There is always something celebratory and exalting under even the darkest depictions in Sara’s work that I’ve been blessed enough to study (more compliments and self-congratulations).
In “Sun and Standing Tall,” a great title, Sara refers to “caged birds” which I starred, as myself someone who fights for the rights of birds to fly and be free. Sara agreed that caging is no way to treat nature’s animals. In “Things That Keep Me Awake” and “King Tide,” we get some geological terms for ice formations and more hints at troubled sleep, that I pray like the rest of the cares that infest Sara’s and audience member’s day, “Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs, and as silently steal away.” (Longfellow, “The Day is Done”)
We skipped for a moment “What We Seek,” for I wanted Sara to close by reading that one. “Swan Geese” captures a moment when geese fly over a shopping mall:
…Something should arise
from their regal passage over
the cheap jewelry of Vintage Oaks
mall and parking emporium,
even if it’s only this.
Indeed, a wonderful reason to write a poem, take a picture, draw something, paint a picture. “Remember!” John Boorman’s Merlin told us in Excalibur (1981). “For it is the doom of men that they forget.” Yes, write it down, exalt and celebrate it; see where it might have something to teach us, tell us that story please! “Most nights are broken but the mornings mend them,” Sara goes on in the poem, “and who cares anyway what mad jumble the past has to show for itself?” All from geese over a parking lot and a pen willing to write…
I asked Sara to read “Sailing” and the aforementioned “What We Seek” to close our night of hanging out on a non-recording phone call that was supposed to be a part of my podcast. In “Sailing” Sara copes with her day to day as a hospice nurse, notes the pain she sees and feels, the types she comes in contact with and why. Her breaks and moments of peace are key to getting by, “a cello joins the piano solo in the house of their tomorrows,” reminding me of “Emergence” and its musical references, the poem that brought me first to Sara and that is on my website. She finishes the poem with another sailing metaphor, though when I first read her material I was, as I said, convinced she was quite the sailor!
Sara called “What We Seek” a divorce poem, but I just find it rather beautiful. Something brings her to depression’s cliff edge, she considers what all despairing humans consider, that fatal jump, but finds within herself a “true north,
the secret heart of all things,
and willed the red glimmer
of dawn to the tips of my wings.”
A great ending to a great conversation with Sara. Though my recording failed, we certainly did not! We covered a lot of ground, held a candle high for poetry, the “why we do it,” the “why it’s worth it,” and the “Why we have to do it.” Poetry is beautiful truth, I contend, and Sara embodies that as she scratches, claws, scrapes and glides ultimately sailing with a smile down the craggy cliffs of Dublin memory, family gifts and relationships with nature. People give and take, as some speak of God; nature the same. The light and dark, positive and negative, music and noise come all together poetic and perfect, in that effort we poets make to organize, make sense of and exalt the moment.