The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Sarah Blake about her new collection Let’s Not Live on Earth, questions in poems, monsters, and the challenge of writing a dystopia.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: I noticed in the early poems a lot of questions, meditations even, and I thought that set the book up to ask the reader to be introspective. Did you have that in mind when you ordered the poems?
Sarah Blake: No, but I became a little obsessed with questions in grad school because we had a lot of jokes about things you couldn’t have in poems anymore and one of those things was questions. So now I’m very skeptical of questions in poems and always trying to write a worthwhile question and thinking about what a worthwhile question is.
Brian S: It sounds like you’re saying that being told something can’t be in a poem becomes a challenge. That’s certainly how I’d take it. That’s how I wound up writing a not-good sestina in the voice of a marijuana-eating goat in grad school.
Sarah Blake: Hahaha.
Sometimes. Especially big, broad things like questions. Other things from workshop became untouchable. Like I’ve never written a poem with footnotes. Can’t quite bring myself to do it.
Brian S: I think I’ve written one poem with footnotes, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to send it anywhere.
Sarah Blake: Well, I find I start to feel bad sending hard-to-publish poems, formatting-wise. Sometimes I’ve gotten rejections that just said they wouldn’t be able to publish the poems I’d sent them.
Brian S: The first half of the book also deals a lot with the concept of monsters, beyond the long poem with that title, and with guns and violence. And I felt like one of the big moves you were making was to try to blur the lines between human and monster. Can you talk a little about what drove you in that first half of the book?
Sarah Blake: My son was getting surrounded by monsters. They were teaching him math in a cute show, teaching him his letters in a cute app, his books were about them. I loved and tried to dissect the way we’d made monsters cuddly. And then I tried to work backwards at how we could make monsters scary again. What features they required. And in all the back and forth I think you’re bound to find where the monstrous is versus the monsters and the humanity versus the humans.
Brian S: How old is your son in these poems? I have twins who are almost four and I found myself relating to those moments very strongly.
Sarah Blake: Oh, good question. He’s six now. I wrote “The Starship” when he was two, I think. And these poems in the first half are from either side of that. But obviously not in the last year or so, once the book was submitted.
Brian S: I was just thinking about how many of my daughters’ books and apps and games and TV shows and so on have monsters in them—mostly genial or just a little scary, but with a good heart in the end. But at the same time, you have a poem like “The World,” in which you write, “so bring out a gun and shoot it up let’s let it pour all over and force out the walls” and it drives home how the real worries are maybe the guy parked outside or beside you in the coffee shop or at the daycare. It’s maybe a little simplistic to say that man is the real monster, but he is all the same.
Sarah Blake: Yes, and I find myself far less frightened by monsters. Even zombies, which really freak me out. It’s like I only have a certain amount of fear and when one fear escalated, many more had to retreat to compensate.
Brian S: And guns are so front and center at this point that they take up a ton of fear space, at least for me. And I grew up around them—uncles hunted and so did pretty much every white male I went to school with—so that even though my family never owned one, I was never uncomfortable around them, but wow, I am now.
The title of your book drew me in, in part because I’ve been a sci-fi reader since I can remember, and because there’s something about it, not comforting exactly, but hopeful? I’m not sure that’s completely right, either—about the idea of just giving up on this planet and finding another one. It reminds me of Cummings’s closing line in “pity this busy monster manunkind not,” which is something like “listen. there’s a helluva good universe next door, let’s go.”
Sarah Blake: Yes. I find the title hopeful and hopeless. My son doesn’t like it at all. He only likes it if I also plan to write a book called “Let’s Live on Earth,” which I think he imagines as a sort of counterpoint. He can read now, but hasn’t read this book and hasn’t even asked me what it’s about, so this is all going off the title. I love that the title creates a little world all on its own.
Brian S: Like, there’s no way of knowing that where you’re going to end up is better—it’s probably going to be worse, if you read Octavia Butler or Stephen Hawking—but it’ll be different at least. And maybe it’ll be better.
Sarah Blake: Yes, I had to fight the impulse that it was going to be worse. I feel pretty doomed thinking about anyone’s luck, so definitely in thinking about an entire species’ luck. I had to commit to write into a “better” world, though it too had its complications.
Brian S: I was going to ask why you put “The Starship” into the end of this book, since it feels to me like you have material enough for two books here, but I think you’re sort of answering that question now.
Sarah Blake: To me, it is definitely two books. But they’re partners.
Brian S: “The Starship” sort of provides an answer to the book’s title, while the first half provides reasons why the title’s suggestion isn’t so far-fetched to begin with.
Sarah Blake: Exactly.
Brian S: Do you read much science fiction? And who do you read, if the answer is yes?
Sarah Blake: I watch a lot of science fiction. A lot. I used to read science fiction/fantasy, so I’ve read some of the famous titles. My husband reads a ton of science fiction so we talk about it all the time.
Brian S: Was there anything you thought of as inspiration for “The Starship”? I’m thinking thematically more than narratively.
Sarah Blake: I’d been thinking about writing a sci-fi narrative. Usually I get a tiny inkling like that and I keep going around saying that for years—I think I’m going to write a sci-fi narrative—and then all of a sudden it’s happening. But it’s not really all of a sudden because it’s been years. But it was just that inkling. No further part builds until it gets going. It’s a little hard to remember right now what set it off those years ago.
When I first started it, I thought she’d never get on the ship at all. That the whole long poem would take place on Earth, under the shadow of a ship where nothing ever happens. No attack. Only a ship.
Brian S: That’s interesting. I’m glad you put her on the ship and gave her the complications you did, but that would have been an interesting poem as well.
Sarah Blake: Maybe four years before I’d read The Road and there was a lot of other dystopian TV going on, and I remembered thinking a lot about how we react to scary things. I loved her husband’s reaction; I loved everyone buying water up. All the little details of what preparation and escape mean to different people.
Brian S: And it’s the complications that make the story, because you were committed to the “better world.” Otherwise you might end up with a utopia.
Sarah Blake: At a certain point it became very clear she needed to get on that ship. I’m a sucker for plot. It’s my main motivator a lot of the time.
Brian S: Plot is under-appreciated, in my opinion, especially in contemporary fiction.
Sarah Blake: I needed that, too. I needed it to legitimately be a utopia to some people, and for some people not. Rather than the standard utopia where it’s all a sham!
Brian S: I grew up in a church that promised utopia, a return to the Garden of Eden after Armageddon, so I’ve heard that story for a looooooong time now and I’m really uninterested by it. But this had me because it wasn’t simple, because there were some people for whom getting on the starship was the wrong call. And that’s really, really human—the same set of circumstances end up completely different for different people.
Sarah Blake: Oh yeah, that’s the other standard utopia that I often forget about! It’s either a real utopia and you hardly see this depicted, only talked about. Or the one that’s secretly horrible and the residents just don’t get that yet. Here, I wanted them to know what was going on and some people were okay with the sacrifices and strangenesses.
Brian S: Why did you commit to a better world? Why not explore a dystopia?
Sarah Blake: I needed a little hope. And finding hope in a dystopia, that’s what dystopian lit is all about.
That’s an answered question. How she’d find hope and happiness, real happiness, in a utopia—that was fascinating to me.
Brian S: That’s true. No one ever wrote dystopia like Octavia Butler, and she always had a little hope in her books, even if you had to turn your head sideways to see it sometimes.
What are you working on these days?
Sarah Blake: My novel, Naamah, also about a woman on a ship to a new world. (Har har.)
Brian S: Is that a Biblical name? It sounds familiar, but I can’t place it off the top of my head.
Sarah Blake: But seriously it’s about Noah’s ark, his wife, and the over-a-year spent on the boat. She’s not named in the Bible—a few texts name her as Naamah, but she’s given other names as well.
Brian S: Oh, I’m going to want to read that.
Sarah Blake: It’ll be out with Riverhead in the next year or two!
Brian S: I just googled the name—Naamah is also listed in Genesis as Cain’s grand-daughter.
Sarah Blake: I really love it and her, but in the context of “The Starship,” it does seem like I have a thing for women stuck on ships.
Brian S: I’m intrigued as to what you’re going to do with her as a character.
Who are you reading these days? Anything new we should look out for?
Brian S: Thanks for joining me tonight, and for this great book!