Pop Culture and Poetry: A Conversation with Sass Brown

This week on Moonshine Murmurs, we interview Alexandria, VA-based poet, Sass Brown. A D.C. native and a former George Mason University professor, Brown is avidly involved in the local literary community and the author of USA-1000, a book of poetry that won the 2014 Crab Orchard Series Poetry Award. Now she is currently at work on her next manuscript, but she took some time to talk with us about USA-1000 and her experiences as a poet in the nation’s capitol.

In your interview with Southern Illinois University Press (SIUP), you talked about the challenge of submitting USA-1000 to contests for seventeen years before it was accepted for publication. How did you approach the submission process, and do you have any advice for other writers?

  USA-1000  (Southern University Illinois Press, 2014)

USA-1000 (Southern University Illinois Press, 2014)

Sass Brown: I sent USA-1000 everywhere in the beginning. Eventually, I realized that some places consistently chose my manuscript as a finalist, while others never responded with a positive note. It sounds obvious now, but the best strategy is to keep sending to the presses that like your work and publish writing like yours. In order to do that, you have to be familiar with their aesthetics, which requires a lot of homework.

A few other things I learned from the submission process: if a press' website doesn't look professional, the press may not be professional either. I learned this the hard way, when my book was accepted twice for publication prior to SIUP, but the editors didn't follow through. And if you're getting good feedback, don't be afraid to keep sending the same manuscript to the same competitions. I was worried that my book would get stale, but the final judge is different every year. Ironically, after all those years of submitting my manuscript everywhere, my book won another publication competition just three weeks after it was accepted by SIUP! Sometimes it just takes tenacity and a little bit of luck.

How did USA-1000 evolve over the years from when you first started submitting it to contests to when it was published?

SB: I probably removed and replaced about a dozen poems in the manuscript, but the rest remained essentially the same. The main difference is in the order; instead of grouping poems chronologically or strictly by theme, eventually I ordered the manuscript instinctually. I looked at the last line of each poem and let it guide me to the first line of the next. I also put what I considered to be some of my strongest poems first.

I was surprised by how much I learned from the editing process once the manuscript had been accepted. I reworked passages in a few poems, but mainly I tightened the language. Having to read it over so many times, I noticed connections between poems that either were unconscious or I had forgotten. The editing process taught me so much about what I was trying to say.

MM: You’ve discussed the themes of USA-1000, which included consumerism, longing for connection, and the difference between image and reality, in previous interviews. Do you feel that you've said all you have to say about those subjects, or are you still coming back to them in your poetry today?

SB: I'm not as focused on the longing for connection anymore, now that I'm married... or rather, many of the new poems are about negotiating the intimacy of marriage. I don't think I ever will have completely exhausted the themes in USA-1000; I have to keep writing about my obsessions because passion makes for heartfelt poetry.

But the way I approach the subject matter today is different. My new manuscript is darker. I have been struggling with chronic illness for the past five years, and it has changed the direction of my writing.  Now I am researching and writing about my experience, as well as medical oddities, experimental medicine, perfectionism, and the strange otherness of the body— especially the aging, decaying, or sick body—and the risky things we do to keep it well and beautiful.

My favorite poems are those with a complicated tone, one that shuttles back and forth between humor and tragedy. One of my friends said that the experience of reading my poems is like having been slipped a mickey; they appear harmless and amusing on the surface, but by the end, they are deeply unsettling.

You've worked as a professor of creative writing and composition at several universities, including George Mason. How has your experience teaching affected your writing, and vice versa?

SB: From my days as a counselor at UVA's Young Writers' Workshop, teaching reminded me to pay close attention to detail, to see how poems ticked on a micro level. Often, I brought in other artistic mediums (film, visual art, music, and advertising) as prompts, since I draw much of my inspiration from popular culture. I really miss teaching because it allowed me to share my favorite writing. Unfortunately, I found that I spent so much time commenting on student work that I neglected my own. It can be difficult to silence my internal teacher, editor, and proofreader when writing a first draft, but it's absolutely necessary.

Are you currently writing full time, or do you have a separate job as well?

SB: I work at the Arts Club of Washington as their award administrator of the Marfield Prize, the national award for nonfiction arts writing. It's the ideal job for a writer—part-time, so there's plenty of time to work on my next book, and a great opportunity to interact with artists in different genres. What could be better than reading books and promoting the arts for a living? We just announced this year's winner, Michael Riedel, for his book Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway. I’ve been planning his upcoming visit to D.C., including a school visit and an interview with Washington Post drama critic Peter Marks on May 18.

You’ve spent a lot of your life living and working in and around D.C. When people not from the around here think of D.C., they probably don’t think of a thriving literary community. What has your experience working and writing in the D.C. area been like?

SB: I moved back to the D.C. area after receiving my MFA from Indiana University. I worked as a Visiting Writer-in-Residence at what was then Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, VA for one semester, and then I moved back to my hometown of Alexandria.

Growing up I had a misconception that the D.C. area was a cultural wasteland, but I was completely wrong. This is a great place to be a writer; the only drawback is that our area is so spread out that some events require a car. Some of my favorite places to hear readings are the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Library of Congress. Split This Rock just hosted an incredible line-up of speakers at their biannual festival devoted to social justice poetry. And with all of the universities in the area, you can attend a different writing event every night of the week.

Sass Brown will give a reading at Atomic Books in Baltimore, MD on May 12th at 7 p.m. She will also read at the Beatley Central Library in Alexandria on May 25th at 7 p.m. More information can be found on her website, http://www.sassbrown.com.