I first contacted Sarah in October 2021. I was one of the four translators in a project coordinated by the poet, translator, and critic Mark Tardi. The objective of Variants of Catching Breath was to bring five innovative American poets to Poland and present a selection of their works to Polish readers. More than a dozen people were engaged in the project, which included a series of group readings and the publication of an anthology of poems by Don Mee Choi, E. Tracy Grinnell, Nathalie Handal, Sarah Mangold, and Tyrone Williams, translated by Katarzyna Szuster, Małgorzata Myk, myself, and Natalia Malek, respectively. The book, published in March 2022 and entitled Odmiany łapania tchu, is the first of its kind in Poland, since it features a wide range of contemporary American poetics that explore history from all sorts of traditionally marginalized perspectives.
Three months after I started preparing a selection of Sarah’s work from her most recent book-length poem Her Wilderness Will Be Her Manners (Fordham Press, 2021), I was contacted by rob mclennan, who had had the wonderful idea of preparing a festschrift in Sarah’s honor and was gathering material for the volume. By that time I had been lucky enough to speak to Sarah at length about the passages I chose to translate, and I knew Her Wilderness was inspired by marvelous anecdotes and archival findings. Interviewing Sarah was only a matter of time – here are the effects of our talks, slightly abridged for the sake of the festschrift. Although Sarah never made it to Poland because of pandemic restrictions, the relationships established throughout the Variants of Catching Breath project will remain solid and surely enable a number of travels in the future.
Joanna Piechura: Rae Armantrout praised your recently published collection Her Wilderness Will Be Her Manners, calling it ‘poetry of preservation.’ You reference taxidermic manuals and various kinds of historical records. Why is the archive so important to your work?
Sarah Mangold: The archive and history has always been an interest of mine, but it hasn’t always been evident in my writing. I worked for many years in various libraries, public, private, academic, and am fascinated by the preservation and organization of knowledge throughout history. In Her Wilderness Will Be Her Manners, the historical documents help introduce ghost voices and opinions. Language not exactly current, but language that still expresses current sentiment around women working in science. The archive helps make a more complete or accurate picture of what was happening at a given time. When women’s stories are not present in history texts, they can often be uncovered in the archive.
JP: As a librarian, do you remember finding any ghost voices that deeply moved you?
SM: Officially I’m not a librarian since I do not have the Masters in Library Information Science (MLIS), but as a library technician I’ve felt surrounded by voices while working with different materials and books. Researching the women naturalists for Her Wilderness I found the published letters between Martha Maxwell and her sister worrying about the future for Martha’s daughter Mabel, and the letters Mabel Maxwell wrote to her aunt worrying about her mother, deeply moving. Both sides of the mother/daughter relationship were articulated so deeply, but never directly to mother and daughter.
JP: What was the most surprising archival research you conducted?
SM: I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend extended time with the original Dracula manuscript as part of my day-job years ago. The manuscript was thought to be lost for a century until it was found in a barn in Pennsylvania in the 1980s. What interested me was that it is one of the first typewritten manuscripts submitted to a publisher around 1890 and the evidence of the physicality of the editing process. The pages were full of little slips of paper with typed corrections pasted over the original typed sentences. It was more than correcting typos but full editing and cutting up of the manuscript and re-ordering of paragraphs. In my own composition strategies, I often use collage and cut-up methods. Most of my earlier poems are constructed with scissors and tape. Physically cutting up a poem or text and re-ordering is my go-to writing process. I was excited to see it in action from such an iconic manuscript.
JP: I feel these practices largely influence the form of your poems – you often experiment with blank spaces and cut-up lines, and your style could be described as “airy,” because of your proclivity for fragmentation. Why do you opt for such minute manual work when you could simply cross something out?
SM: I find the physical movement of the words through cut-ups liberating. It helps generate new ideas, unlocks set patterns and introduces an opportunity for chance associations I may not have seen if the words did not migrate. I do cross out words when editing final drafts, but in the building stage I like to leave it open. I also have a phobia of writing in books (I don’t know why), so the erasure of an actual book page sets me in a panic. I can copy pages and chop them up or gather words and phrases and retype them but never direct erasure on the original page.
JP: The book project of Her Wilderness Will Be Her Manners spans a decade of archival research and writing, and I presume its publication marks an end of a certain era in your career.
SM: I see each book leading to the next, so the publication is not so much an end but a release into the next book project. My subjects change but I’m continuing the exploration of embodiment, art, and “Women’s Work.”
JP: You’re currently working on a book of poems inspired by the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint, whose abstract works predated those of Kandinsky or Mondrian. How did you come across her paintings?
SM: I began researching Hilma af Klint the day I finished what I thought at the time was the final version of Her Wilderness in 2015. I was at a residency at Willapa Bay on the coast of Washington state. A painter friend, after hearing me talk about watching an Agnes Martin documentary, said I’d probably love Hilma af Klint. I had never heard of her or seen her work. I began with this idea of Hilma af Klint as a mystic painter with a day job but painting the unseen at night, and then was wowed by her paintings I first saw online. I began a deep dive into her life and tracking down any essays or catalogues I could find in English. I wanted to understand her influences and the way the science of her time is reflected in her work. I also began studying Swedish with the hope of eventually going to the Hilma af Klint Foundation to see her work and journals in person. To my surprise, the Guggenheim hosted a major Hilma af Klint exhibit in 2018 and since then Hilma af Klint research has been published in many languages and her paintings shown across the world. I traveled to New York to see the show in 2018 and was in awe standing in front of her paintings in person.
JP: A selection of your poems from Her Wilderness Will Be Her Manners has recently been translated into Polish and published in Odmiany łapania tchu (eng. Variants of Catching Breath, Dom Literatury, 2022), an anthology of innovative American poetry, alongside the works of Don Mee Choi, E. Tracy Grinnell, Nathalie Handal and Tyrone Williams. Four translators collaborated with five poets and the editor, Mark Tardi, to create the stunning volume. How do you feel about such collaborative projects?
SM: I am honored to be part of Variants of Catching Breath and to be in such inspiring company. I had the easy part of providing some poems, but the translators and editor did the bulk of the work translating and producing a beautiful book. I found the collaboration energizing. It is my first translation, and I enjoyed the collaborative aspect of translation and the way it made me think more closely about the English language or the way I used it in the poems.
JP: In the foreword to the book, Mark Tardi writes: “Sarah Mangold’s work manages to be concerned with the relationship between the human, nonhuman, and the environment while simultaneously and deftly avoiding being lumped into any caricature of ecopoetics.” What is the relationship between history and the so-called natural world in Her Wilderness Will Be Her Manners?
SM: Her Wilderness Will Be Her Manners is looking at the natural world through our written history, not the primary texts we are taught in school but the stories and women that didn’t quite make it into the natural history narrative we would see in a museum or science class. I wanted to confront the romantic othering of nature that is often found in nature writing and show actual bodies and women’s lives without a romantic lens.
JP: If you could add one book to your high school curriculum, what would it be?
SM: This one seems impossible to answer. I would have liked to have learned about the US Japanese internment camps, the Tulsa Massacre, and more history of the civil rights movement in the US. Our history textbooks consistently cut off after WWII so any books that extended the conversation of civil rights in the US would have been fascinating.
JP: Do you feel there is a similar problem with teaching contemporary literature in the U.S.? Young writers are consistently overlooked by the wider public in Poland because we aren’t used to thinking about new literature as culturally important.
SM: Outside of the university and the writing community, I don’t think literature in general is culturally important to most of the United States. At the university level new writing is taught and considered culturally important and some of that trickles out to the general public.
JP: What is the best writing advice you were given?
SM: The best writing advice I’ve received is to write every day, even if it’s just a few sentences or a fragment. I think I first heard this at a reading by the poet Naomi Shihab Nye when I was in graduate school. Writing everyday keeps your brain in practice so when the big inspiration or idea comes, you are ready to receive it. As a poet with a day job, I’ve found that building in a regular weekday writing routine has helped sustain my poetry and reduced the anxiety about losing so much time to my day job. It does mean waking up early and rescheduling even earlier if needed, but as long as I get it done before the rest of the day starts, I feel I have accomplished something for the day that will move my writing forward—even if it is just an idea or notes from something I’ve read.
JP: There is a famous Polish writer and artist named Józef Czapski whose journals are now being deciphered and published, volume by volume. The process is painstakingly long, because his writing is barely legible and he kept dozens, if not hundreds of notebooks throughout his life, drawing and writing in them in all possible directions. Right before his death, Czapski was recorded saying that he cannot start his day without writing a few sentences. Do you keep your own repository of notebooks as well?
SM: I do have a repository of notebooks! I have all the notebooks that were written around the writing of each of my books—notes on books to read, notes from source texts, ideas for poems, places to send work, day-to-day stuff. They are also probably illegible to others, but I refer to them during the final editing stages to clarify any missing citations. With the Hilma notebooks I like to go back and see the sketches I’ve tried out. For the last couple years I’ve been using the Fabriano EcoQua A4 notebooks. They come in bright colors and are light enough to carry in a bag throughout the day.
JP: I can’t help but imagine critics and researchers leafing through those notebooks some day… I know I’d love to do just that!
Joanna Piechura is a translator and literary critic based in
Warsaw, Poland. She has translated the works of Sarah Mangold, Nathalie Handal,
Anne Carson, Diane Wakoski, Mina Loy, Adam Dickinson, Forrest Gander, and
others. Her essays and reviews have appeared in various outlets, including Literatura
na Świecie (World Literature), Dwutygodnik (The
Biweekly), Przekrój Magazine or RIHA Journal. As an early career
researcher, she specializes in environmental humanities, genetic criticism, and
comparative literature. She is an editor at the Polish literary journal Wizje.