A tried and true rebel, Sarah M. Sala is a poet, teacher, and Michigan native turned New Yorker. Her recently published collection of poems, Devil’s Lake, is one of the rawest and most harrowing collections I’ve read of recent years. Some of the poems are short and playful (like “Hydrogen”), whereas others like “On Receiving a Homophobic Letter: A Series of Erasures” push queer representation to its limits.
Whether Sala is depicting the darkest parts of being queer—the microaggressions, the stalking, the murders—or the transformative power of living authentically, her work always reads as pressing, timely, and important.
I recently had an informal virtual chat with Sala over Zoom, during which time we talked about identity, language, and all of the in-betweens a human can be caught up with.
The Rumpus: You have Polish and Lebanese ancestry. It’s fascinating that I didn’t know that about you. Are you second-generation, third-generation? Does immigration affect your writing in any form?
Sarah M. Sala: Absolutely! My Grandma Sala was half Polish and half Lebanese—she was born in the US and raised in Poland. She grew up speaking fluent Polish and English, but never learned much Arabic. So, that makes me third generation for both lines. I’ve written a number of poems about my lineage because my grandma was a formidable part of my upbringing. It’s also always in my mind to be cautious about taking up sacred space in the already-homogenous literary world. Devil’s Lake worked best as a collection centered on queerness and violence in the American landscape. I would love to publish more poems about my intersecting identities.
Rumpus: Yes, and those are all very valuable points. As a person who is of Indian origin, I appreciate that understanding, which is sometimes rare in the literary world. So, let me change it to another label then. You’re an academic as well. Does that inform your writing? Do you sometimes fall into the traps of a lot of writers who are academics first, or do you write from a different space?
Sala: Above all, I consider myself a poet. When I teach essay writing it’s from the writer’s perspective. When I read a book I’m curious about what makes it tick. I’m lucky in that what I teach, expository writing, is a marriage of creative writing and research. I get to interact with subject librarians on the regular—they’re the best. For instance, I love doing blackout poems of old sexist advertisements that I’ve found in the archives.
Rumpus: How do you feel as a poet working in the academy?
Sala: I’m very lucky to make my living as an educator—I get to talk about writing with writers all day long. My colleagues are actively pursuing their creative and academic projects which makes for an electric atmosphere. However, the American higher education system is in crisis. The number of PhDs in the humanities graduating per year far outstrips the tenured job openings. The added stress of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to force some structural changes. Hopefully, for the better.
Rumpus: Is there a particular way that observing and engaging with students can be useful to the craft of your writing?
Sala: Definitely. I’m constantly filtering the texts we read, the art we analyze, and how we scaffold arguments—everything—through the lens of my own projects. There’s a Lynda Barry writing exercise where you write down various things you observe, overhear, and do each day, as well as create a drawing. The best part is that the entire exercise only takes seven and a half minutes. I’ve gotten more than a few poems from versions of that prompt. Actually, one of the poems in the collection, “Attendance: a catalogue of absences,” is literally a found poem of student emails one snowy spring requesting excused absences from class. Of course, one of the lovely things about living in New York is the plethora of museums. I miss visiting my favorite museums every semester for a creative infusion of new ideas.
Rumpus: The world misses that now, and other similar things. I wish I was living in a city like New York, where you could be in the center of the world every single day.
Sala: What’s it like living in Australia?
Rumpus: It’s not too different from the US, but also quite different. American life and culture is punctuated with that sense of independence and liberty. You can be whatever you want to be. Australia is still very socially homogeneous. I find it even more conservative than the best parts of India. In countries that are conservative like India or Egypt, there’s a very strong traditional core, but there’s also an element of the society trying to improve it. That friction doesn’t exist in Australia.
Sala: Australia’s conservatism is something I hadn’t expected. Well, America prides itself on our sense of liberty and independence but frankly American optimism is at an all-time low. There’s a real struggle happening between our democratic values and our autocratic leader. I think a valuable role educators play is to teach students to verify sources, but also admit when we’re wrong. I would love to normalize changing one’s mind as we gather better information.
Rumpus: So, how do you relax?
Sala: I’m a former semi-professional cyclist so I like to bike as much as I can on the weekends. I also have a new dachshund puppy who loves to hit the dog park. Mostly, I try to make time for my own writing and practice self-care through funny TV shows or picnics with friends. Since the pandemic, my wusband and I have been mixing some tasty cocktails.
Rumpus: Do you write better poems when you are in a calm mental space, or a frenetic mental space?
Sala: That’s a good question. Many of my poems come from a deep place of feeling. I often write from loss, but there’s also a real spark of joy, gratitude, and playfulness in my work. For me, it’s not so much about state of mind as—well, let’s say you’re standing in a field watching a cloud approach. Maybe the cloud rains on you, or you get struck by lightning, or it just passes calmly overhead. But the fact that you go out to meet it is what matters. Poems approach us in all sorts of contexts.
Rumpus: The question then is, can any artist reach the clouds? Can any human ever touch the sky?
Sala: Sometimes you luck into a poem, and other times you obsess over it for years.
Rumpus: You know I was just reading this book by Liz Powell called Atomizer; it was just released in September from LSU. It did a lot of what you just pointed out. I loved how unabashedly feminine it was—female in a way that I thought was not consciously female. She has a poem about the troubling effects of birth control. I never think about it because I was born in this male body. Of course, the status quo claims these things are not relatable because they only affect women. Yet, there’s so much policing of women’s bodies. Your own work embodies a standalone feminist voice, too.
Sala: When I see people complaining about wearing masks and how difficult it is to enforce wearing them, I instantly think about draconian school dress codes. If we can police young women’s hemlines and the width of their tank top straps in order to make males more comfortable, then there’s no reason we can’t wear a mask to save vulnerable lives. Just how far male-bodied folks go in policing women’s bodies is outrageous. The hypocrisy of how female bodies are governed on the legislative level is maddening.
Rumpus: Your partner is a playwright who also writes fiction, no?
Sala: Yes, she’s remarkable. She wrote a draft of a novel she’s been conceptualizing for some time during quarantine. What a beast! I’m much slower as a poet, almost by design. Poetry feels like sculpture to me. I like writing and then reducing line by line until you have it just right. A poem is like a vision test—its vision is either clear or it’s not.
Rumpus: But, that’s the fun thing about a poem. It can work in a very short space, whereas a novel can fall apart in any page.
Sala: True, but you can’t sleep on a poem either. I think that’s why many submissions get passed over in the lit mag submission process. If ninety-five percent of the poem is stellar, but five percent isn’t quite right, it’s most likely not going to get accepted unless the editor has the time or vision to offer an edit. Even then, you have to have the right chemistry between the poet and an editor.
Rumpus: But when you mess up a word, it can have different meanings, and it can still work somehow. Whereas if an author messes up a chapter in a book, it automatically destroys the novel. It’s daunting, really. There are so many ways a piece can fall apart.
Sala: For sure. It’s also not helpful to dwell on these imperfections. As a grad student I used to submit to magazines once or twice a year, get rejected, and not submit again for another year. After I graduated, I stopped caring so much. I got it in my head to submit to one hundred and fifty literary magazines in a calendar year. I made it to seventy-five submissions and got the most rejections of my life, but also the most acceptances. Since then, I submit pretty fearlessly.
Rumpus: While reading Devil’s Lake, I found this sort of rawness, this desire to represent queerness in a way that people rarely do. When we talk about queerness, we usually talk about it in a very romantic way. Like, why did this person reject me? Why can’t society accept me? But when I read Devil’s Lake, the poems were violent, brutal, and in-your-face. What was your mental space like when writing these poems?
Sala: I wrote all the poems as standalone pieces before I conceived of the collection. As I assembled the book, patterns emerged with respect to gun violence, queer life, coming of age, and nature. I often take inspiration from the news cycle, social media, and my own life. I’m also tired of catering to the mainstream. Folks often think the progress around gay rights is linear, but our protections are really dependent on the current social tide. I can’t turn my back on what haunts me. It’s funny how unabashedly queer and progressive people consider this book. I just refused to erase all the ways myself and those closest to me are othered.
Rumpus: Will you continue writing on these themes, or is there something else you’ll focus on in your next collection?
Sala: There’s a trope that a poet’s first book is usually autobiographical and the second is project-based. That happens to be the case for me. The book I’m currently working on explores migraines through the lens of chronic pain in the female body. I began writing the collection to make sense of the chaos happening in my body—out of the blue I was having twenty-one migraines in a thirty-day period. I’ve hallucinated music, lost feeling in my limbs and tongue, and since I’m a synesthete, colors sometimes jump off the wall and interact with me. Going to work every day means knowing when to push through the pain and when to rest. It’s been really gratifying to see some of the poems reach a larger audience through publication.
Rumpus: That’s something people go through almost all of the time, and yet we never think about it as people who don’t experience migraines. So, even when writing about something so particular, you’re writing about something so relatable.
Sala: I think the universal exists in the particular. Why write about war as an abstract concept when you can describe the shoe a child left behind when fleeing a war-torn city? We’ll all have a much better chance at writing a decent poem.
Photograph of Sarah M. Sala by Talya Chalef.