STARLIGHT, PHILADELPHIA seeks to cast a glow of starlight around the Philadelphia Poetry Community & its people.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


                                                         Sarah Heady has a wonderful collection
                                                         of vintage postcards.

by Sarah Heady

The roland at the center of the world
is self-feasting in a centrifuge dress.
Physics at the middle of a controversy:
American Barn rotting in its own brown mist,
a fragrance with the caginess of a gambling addict
basted with sutures in the blueberry patch.

You sent me a postcard of a risk assessor
perched at the edge of town, waiting
for mishandled rations, or singing to himself
while steaming out chiggers from the perennial bed—
I couldn’t tell which. My eyes were dry. When I reply

I will emphasize my miserable beach experience:
red grapes dredged in sand, wet sleeves.
November walked the plank too soon.
The ocean just there, in that dunk spot,
turned instantly ice.

Sarah Heady is a wonder of rare coincidences.  She is, in fact, one of the founding members of The New Philadelphia Poets, and I believe she was the super glue of that organization.  Because of her involvement & gusto, The New Philadelphia Poets transcended the typical role of most literary outfits, & became a group indebted to fight for the cause of the suffering independent bookstore.  Sarah planned readings & events to support Molly’s Books & Wooden Shoe Bookstore, & both of these events met with great success.

Sarah is the rare person grounded in the microcosm but aware of the macrocosm.  While she was in Philadelphia, she seemed to blend these two necessities in being involved in a community while benefiting from the awareness of the coincidences that breed poetic inspiration. 

Her presence is greatly missed here.  Not terribly long ago, Patrick Lucy, Carlos Soto Roman & I met up with Sarah at the Philadelphia International Airport, where she had a layover.  It was important to meet up with Sarah in this spot of travel & transition, as she bestowed gracious presents (like bags of granola) to us & updated us about her life.  I realized at this moment that Sarah’s energy & poetry share commonalities with airports.  Her work begs us to leave behind one moment to clear way for the next.  I hope you enjoy this interview with Sarah Heady.

Debrah:  Sarah, as one of my favorite collaborators, I am honored to begin with you on this project, Starlight, Philadelphia.  Your presence is still felt in Philadelphia. 

I am also moved that the title of this poem is "Correspondence," as this is part of what Starlight, Philadelphia aims to accomplish. What does Correspondence mean to you, and can you emphasize for me your miserable beach experience?

Sarah:  Thanks, Debrah! I'm excited to be corresponding with you. I miss the non-existent starlight in Philly. 

With this poem I was thinking about the seemingly straightforward act of corresponding with someone through the mail. I recently inherited a box of close to a thousand vintage postcards, most of which were postmarked in the 1940s and 1950s. I noticed that the handwritten messages reflected the type of social disposition we associate with that time--overly cheerful and optimistic, painting everything like it's peaches and cream. But there were also moments in which the writers were very candid about the disappointments of their vacations. Most commonly bad weather and bad food, but also things like: "I went to look up my friend at his downtown office and he was out of town for the week," or "We arrived right after the museum had closed for the day." The reverse serendipity of the just-missed attraction.

I'm interested in the space between our actual experiences and the kind of leisure time we think we deserve: the sun will be shining, the food will be delicious, the conversation will flow, etc. Often the real deal is less like an advertisement and more like a watershed, or maybe just one more normal day on earth. An earth that has rain and wind and seagulls eating your snacks, whether or not that was in the brochure. And the way we then relate these adventures back to others, the details we leave out because they're not pretty and can't elicit the typical automatic response to somebody's vacation story, i.e., "That sounds amazing...[I'm jealous]." But jealousy might never enter the equation if we had the ability to convey the ambiguities of our experiences. 

In terms of my own miserable beach experience, now corresponding with you from nine hundred miles away, living in a situation that often feels like an extended bizarro vacation, there is the sense that anything I explain to you or anybody in Philadelphia about what it's like to live in a rural southern town would be futile. Being here is both wonderful and horrible, but how to convey that succinctly? In poems, I guess. 

Debrah:  I am intrigued that you have created with this poem a replica, perhaps, of postcard interaction.  And you state this in the second stanza so eloquently:  "You sent me a postcard of a risk assessor / perched at the edge of town, waiting..."  This kind of slower-time interaction has begun to fade from human experience in this digital age.  Do you think poetry moves in slow-time or fast-time?  Do you think the effects of a more quickly-paced world has affected poetry, which is an ancient art form?  If so, for better, or for worse, or a bit in between?  Has the increased pace of life affected your poetry for instance?  Is the pace of Bell Buckle Tennessee fast or slow?  Has your poetry changed as a result of your relocation?

Sarah: It does seem that poetry moves increasingly in fast-time, and there are facets of poetry that are extremely well-suited to the digital pace. Poets’ desire to connect with an audience and with one another is much more easily fulfilled now. But I think poetry as an art form does suffer a bit from the medium of the internet, since living with poems requires one’s full bodily attention—something that is, by definition, absent when you’re online. I, for one, can’t stand reading poems (or really any writing of substance) on a screen, so the idea of keeping up with poetry blogs is exhausting to me. But I’m also happy that they exist: I know that they allow incredible poetic collaborations to occur both in the ether and in real life.

On a personal level, though, my attention span has been drastically shortened over the past five or six years, and I directly blame the internet. I’m constantly trying to wrestle my brain into stillness. I’m sure I’m not alone in this feeling of fragmentation, but I might have been poetically alone in Philly much longer without it. The fact of the matter is that you and I met through a craigslist posting you created in search of local poets. Everything is a trade-off.

I moved to Bell Buckle because I needed a boring, slow place in which to explore my own brain. In Philly I was attending and organizing lots of poetry events, but barely making time to actually write. There are only so many hours in the day. Here, where there are no distractions, I’ve been able to keep up a daily writing practice, the results of which have surprised and challenged me greatly. I think my consciousness as a writer has grown just as much in the past seven months as it did over three years in Philly, simply because I’ve spent more time with my writing self. I’ve got the luxury of nothing else to do, so I can go off on tangents that may or may not be fruitful. It sounds corny and reactionary, but being in a quiet, peaceful place where you can hear the birds singing and watch children ride bikes past your porch is intensely relaxing. I’m more tuned into the cycles of light, storms, fertilization, rotting, intoxication and hunger, which helps me cultivate attention and a sharper sense of time(lessness) in my brain and in my work.

Debrah:  Sarah, I am interested in your idea that poetry requires one's "full bodily attention."  Can you describe the process you feel the body goes through either in reading a poem or in writing one?  What kind of process did your body go through in the composition of "Correspondence?"  In the poem you say, "My eyes were dry."  Did you feel this sensation of dry eyes when you wrote that line?  Or did it exist in memory?  Or does that line serve as metaphor?

Sarah:  I think I need to qualify that statement and perhaps negate it.  My richest writing and reading experiences come at times when I can both concentrate on the text and allow my environment to influence it.  In your last interview with Greg Bem, he mentions the "external and internal factors derived from above" that shape his writing at the moment.  We're talking about the same thing.  To be able to feel my body in space, to be cognizant of sounds, to allow surfacing memories, vehicles, and people to pass through my consciousness are all very important.  In other words, a holistic way of accepting all possible influences on the poem as it's being written or read.  So really, the "full bodily attention" I talked about is not full, but fragmented.  This superficially resembles the internet brain (i.e. open to following infinite pathways at whim), but is actually so different in quality from the receptive and relaxed state I'm describing.  I think most practicing writers would agree that an empty white room with nothing but a laptop is actually a dead space for creativity, not an ideal haven.  The shut-out world is not the best one.  But all of this is very particular to the way my brain works.  I would love to crack open my poet friends' skulls and see what's up in there.

Lately my process has consisted of stream-of-consciousness writing on paper, to which I only return several months after the fact and clean up.  So I can't specifically recall the composition of "Correspondence," but I'm pretty sure it's the distillation of about five pages of crap.  It's also the middle poem in a series of three short pieces.  I do think I added the line "My eyes were dry" (which is to be taken literally) much after the fact, only in the final draft.  Although I avoid tweaking my semi-automatic (haha) writing too much, so that it stays fresh, I will stitch new lines in order to bring everything together.  It's very possible that my real eyes were really dry when I wrote the piece.  I wear contacts and I'm bad about changing them.

Debrah:  Haha.  I am also horrible about changing my contacts.

Thank you so much, Sarah, for all this wonderful insight into your poetry & thoughts about the world & process.  Now, for the final question.  Since this interview is for Starlight, Philadelphia, could you please highlight your favorite experiences about Philadelphia Poetry, as well as perhaps your not so favorite?

Sarah:  Wow, it's difficult to think of the negatives when I'm wearing the rosy goggles of distance.  But since you asked, I think what I would criticize about the Philadelphia poetry scene is something that could be said for any tight-knit group of artists anywhere in the world:  we all just need to continually remind ourselves that we are stronger when we work together than when we compete and quarrel over little things.  The scene is incredibly diverse, and sometimes that leads to antipathy and judgment, but that's also what I would say is beautiful about a small place like Philly -- you're bound to encounter poets that you wouldn't necessarily align yourself with, and you learn from them.

So as to avoid more generalizations, here's a list of elements that stand out in my memory as quintessentially my-three-years-in-Philadelphia-poetry, which is all I can speak to:

Poets huddles together in the shadow of poverty, City Hall cock, little shelters of Fishtown parks, late nite bodega ice cream, Dirty Frank's, bus up 3rd St. to now-defunct bar.

Poets slipping on wet tile mosaic floor at Magic Gardens, linty already-peeled hardboiled eggs, arguments re: alchemy, the empty frame of Ben Franklin's house, kissing his privy, too drunk on margaritas to network.

Poets on group sojourn to the Pine Barrens, Atlantic City, Port Richmond, Bucks County, Bainbridge at Fifth as smelly alley, empty 1.5 L wine bottles, Fergie's grilled cheese, Jamie loves pizza.

Poets doing one a.m. yoga on the kitchen floor of a 100K house, on the border of safety, faking tourist status for free continental breakfast at the downtown Marriott, someone fucking stole the seat off a bike.  But writing.

Debrah:  Such wonderful memories, Sarah.  Thanks for conjuring them for us all to share.

 A graduate of Oberlin College, Sarah Heady is a founding member of the New Philadelphia Poets. Since 2007, she has performed with NPP in such venues as the Philly Fringe Festival (Invisible Keepsakes) and the Bowery Poetry Club (Redemptive Strike). Her first chapbook, Eight-track Underwater, was published in 2010 by Splitleaves Press. Sarah recently relocated to Bell Buckle, Tennessee (pop. 451), where she lives in a drafty 'Joni Mitchell house' and attempts to grow things you can eat.