Friends of the Blog: An Interview with Columbia-based Poet, Ashley Sapp

ashley sapp wild becomes you
Ashley with her book in Folly Beach, SC

To celebrate the birth month of her first poetry collection, I wanted to share an interview I did with my friend, Ashley Sapp, shortly after the release of her book.

Ashley and I first met through the wilds of Twitter back in 2013. We found out later, however, thanks to the app TimeHop, that we’d been exchanging tweets at least a year prior to our first meeting at a low-lit Starbucks in Downtown Columbia. Before that, we were unwittingly following each other’s blogs in 2011.At the time, I went by Ren online. So that’s how Ashley knew me until I came clean about the preceding three letters of the name my parents gave me because my mom didn’t like Stephanie and my dad didn’t like Jessica.

Somehow they settled on Lauren Michelle, but in my college years I was eager to forge my own identity while still nodding to my birth certificate. Fortunately, being a writer, blogger, and English major herself, Ashley didn’t think my identity crisis that odd. If anything, she completely empathized with my inner dilemma. She’d considered publishing under her middle name, Antoinette, which was a legacy all the women in her family carried.

But, four years following our first meeting, what Ashley really wanted was to come into the world of publishing, however she had to do it, as her most honest self.

“Be honest,” she said to me one day. “Does it suck? Was this a mistake? Should I have kept my book to myself?”

“No, no, and no—even if it did suck (which isn’t true, because I happen to like your poetry, FYI) this is America, and in America you still have the right to publish whatever you damn well please, and if whatever you damn well please is to publish a work of poetry that allows you to clear the air on your mental, emotional, and creative suppression, then that is your right, your business, your only human inheritance really, to create something that holds value and gives meaning to the excess energy that caused you to write it in the first place,” I said, more or less.

“Okay, good. If nothing else, at least I know that this book is wholly and unerringly me.”

A sentiment I think we could use a little more of in our daily lives. And, honestly, whatever anyone thinks of an author’s writing, nothing can take away from them the fact that they wrote the book, the poem, the screenplay at all. There is courage in that. Ashley did something I may never build up strength enough to do, and I admire her for it.

Blue Bicycle Books Charleston
Blue Bicycle Books // Charleston, SC

Something I noticed after reading about a handful of your poems was how often the word ‘body’ appears in them, and how often you reference images pertaining to the body. Actually, beside “extinguished” on page 9 I wrote, ‘Very anatomical’ and beside “learning to swim” I wrote, ‘Everything goes back to the body,’ which it did. That seemed to be the big feat—how do we deal with this thing that is us and yet something we don’t always feel connected to? Had you intended to wrestle with the body as a poetic subject or was that something that unveiled itself throughout the writing process? What do you feel like you were trying to grapple with?

One of the first poems I wrote and wanted to include in this collection was also a poem that jump-started the title for me – this idea that our bodies are dragged through life with us and for us; how we treat them, how we identify with them, how we communicate with them all intrigues me, and I wanted to feel at home within my own body and therefore had to confront it. There is something untamed and primal about the body, and I find that exciting.

As I worked on different pieces, the body showed up time and time again, so it unveiled itself to me throughout the process. It was fitting that it occurred that way, I think, for I find that many parts of myself tend to get exposed without my conscious effort at times – I got to know more about myself via writing this book, how I felt about my body, my experiences, my mind and efforts. Writing about the body served as a means to connect with my being much more intimately and thoroughly than I have before.

Particularly as a woman, this was salutary, for it has taken me thirty years to begin reaching a place where I don’t feel apologetic for the space I take. Writing this book during the current political climate aided in a staunch approach that required an openness and resolve I could not, would not, atone for. My body has been used without my consent, it has been reduced to its sexual and reproductive parts as though I cannot (and should not!) claim them for myself, it has been discussed as though I am not a human, as though I am not a person inhabiting this skin, but rather a toy, a mannequin, to be touched and molded and owned for another’s purpose. Through this process, I felt as though I was taking my body back and owning who I am both universally and personally.

You also utilize parentheses a good bit, which I found intriguing. Because they’re like these containers of asides, mutterings under the breath, or internal pangs that would float above us in our interactions without ever being verbalized. It’s as though you brought the pieces of our minds that aren’t quite as eloquent, but no less significant, to the forefront of these poems, because the very fact that they exist within this parenthetical framing draws more attention to them. What did you want to be communicated in that space that couldn’t be conveyed outside of them? or struggled to be conveyed?

I wanted to touch upon the parts of our thoughts that are not necessarily verbalized, whether out of self-preservation or doubt or juvenile formation. We often have additional commentary in our minds during all aspects of conversation – with our body language, our intonations, our facial expressions. The parenthetical framing was utilized to incorporate that “otherness.”

There’s also a fair bit of gruesome description, notably in “here comes the bear.” Yet the cadence of the words make it sound quite musical when read. Especially in regard to the lines ‘a body on the / proverbial rack, skin sliding off, / meat clinging to bone.’ When you think of poetry as musical it’s often associated with a kind of twinkling arrangement, and of course this poem is, I think, very bloody. More so in suggestive language rather than any direct references. The words are, in a way, drenching the poem in it.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I remember you telling me this had been the poem you wrote after a bout of depression and a subsequent dry spell with your writing that you thought you would never resurface from. So I’m curious about how you interpreted this more violent aspect of the writing process. There’s a movement of writers who are attempting to take the pain out of necessary requirements for making good art, but pain is still an essential aspect of our lives we draw from when we create. How do you feel about pain as a part of process? Do you think there’s any way we can make art without it?

I’m not really a fan of the term ‘tortured artist’ because I don’t think a hard life is a prerequisite for creating art, though certainly a tortured life can help produce many works we admire and relate to. That being said, no matter what kind of creator you are, I do think pain is part of the process in some way or another. There are parts of my life that are difficult to draw upon, but that pain does get used in my work. To a different degree, however, the process involves pain even without reference to one’s life (or another’s) and the hardships we each face, the climates we endure. You and I have discussed this many times, how frustrating the process is. We feel uncertain and exasperated when writing, infuriated by the process of bloodletting oneself to create something outwardly, for it is never easy work.

However, the pain is even worse when we are not writing, particularly when all we want to do is write – and yet, for whatever reason (which could be many, simple, or complex), we cannot. We experience this over and over again, a repetition and a cycle of pain that we in fact find ourselves hungering for, feasting upon, until we produce…and then begin again. We do this, I think, so we can hopefully ease the pain of someone else. The keyword there is hope. We share ourselves so that we may help one another cultivate the hope and strength to carry forward, and I say carry because the process isn’t necessarily about leaving anything behind, but instead learning how to navigate our experiences and bring them with us. We only become more powerful in doing so, in acknowledging who we are in all the mess.

Novela San Francisco
Novela // San Francisco, CA

 

Now that I’ve posed the former question, I do feel like you answer yourself in “investment” when you say ‘Let me feed you my grief and lend me yours so we may not starve / in these bodies in need of another.’ That may be the real answer here. We’re tempted to keep our griefs to ourselves, but only in giving them to someone else can those fractures be supported and mended. And you talk about them as something to ‘savor,’ which I think is very raw and very beautiful.

Because even more than we disdain admitting our grief to others we sometimes are barely able to admit our griefs to ourselves. Yet, that seems to be how we create a majority of them to begin with. Where would you advise a person go from the painful event to savoring that grief, and offering it up to someone else as a kind of salve? Because I feel like that’s often the biggest struggle—that we don’t know where to take our bodies after we’ve been hurt. We don’t know what to do with ourselves mentally or emotionally, much less physically.

I agree – it is particularly difficult to be in a space of hurt and also wanting to remove oneself from that pain, wondering, “Where to from here?” All you know in those moments is the pain of it, and you are so magnificently and incredibly close to it that it feels impossible to separate and remove it from your being. I guess that’s the key, or at least it was for me – realizing I cannot completely move away from it for it is now part of my experience and therefore self. It also required the acknowledgement that I am not defined by those painful events. I may be a victim, but I am not the rape, for example. It happened, and yet I am here.

I think that’s the best advice I can give, to remember: you are here. You deserve to be here. No one, no thing, no event can take that from you so long as you hold it close. You are defined by what you think, what you do, how you participate in your own life – not by what happens to you. The road from there can be extensive, grim, and tough, most certainly, but humans are incredibly resilient. The ability to recover, to heal, to strengthen is coded into each of us as a counter to how vulnerable we can also be. I think it’s important to remember we are capable of being hurt, sure, but also of being mended. We have an active role in our grief, and therefore can be active in another’s. In sharing that grief, allocating our experiences, we nourish in being connected and thus are soothed in our humanness.

In “simply be” you write ‘I am wanting to feel safe within myself.’ This piece isn’t so much a poem as a confessional, as I came to regard them, because these longer prose sections are more stream-of-conscious. And they happen periodically throughout the book. How did you come to include them in the collection?

“Confessionals” is a good term to describe those prose pieces. When I was younger and before I really honed my poetry, most of what I wrote was stream-of-conscious confessionals and prose. I’m currently re-reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which in many aspects reads poetically and yet discards poetic form, so I think I was exploring my own sense of form at those times and perhaps nodding to authors I was studying at the time, such as Whitman. I came to include them in the collection because I wanted WBY to be a reflection of not only my literary journey but my personal one. I wanted to convey my vulnerability and that I was coming home to myself. What I had in mind with these inclusions is in line with what I state in, ‘existential crisis’: “To be more than skin / and bone, to be more / than muscle and atom, / I confessed.”

What many of your readers may not know is that you were raised Catholic. I mention this because you’re not actually a religious person, yet your writing beckons the upbringing. I felt this most in the prose ‘confessionals’ and also in “try again.” You utilize parentheses in this poem and touch on the idea of sleep as a constant reawakening into life, which it is in its most literal sense, but the lines ‘(heart gone, brain gone, / feeling gone) pulls us into this very peculiar form of nonexistence we endure in our sleep. It’s the one time in our day when we don’t have to be ‘on’ for something. But those lines also succeed this notion of depression. It gives me the idea that these parenthetical lines bridge the way between depression and sleep.

And, I’m getting really nuanced here, but depression can mean mental illness but it can also mean to recede or lower, both of which we can relate to the act of sleep, which is more of a non-act, because it can happen without the consent of our minds when our bodies are at their most depleted. And as someone who dealt with insomnia, I thought this was an interesting poem. For me, it said we have to be able to depress ourselves in order to heal ourselves. Am I reading too much into that? I’m probably getting very existentialist with this idea. It’s just hard knowing you and having read your book and not wanting to read into everything. It’s almost like a puzzle—what is she talking about here? what is she talking about there?

It’s great that you mention my religious upbringing here, because though I am now atheist, I believe Catholicism had a hand in framing the way I think. What I mean by that is I was taught about sin, about guilt, about confession and repentance very early on. Guilt, in particular, is something I experience often. Though, it’s always difficult to tell if I’m being overly hard on myself or simply being sensitive to mistakes and wrongdoings and wanting to correct them. Guilt is also an emotion I feel within the scope of depression and anxiety quite a bit – guilt over not doing enough for loved ones, of not practicing enough self-care, of not being my best self, etc. Therefore, healing, for me, does parallel with the depression of the self – whether it’s in the literal sense of allowing a blankness or nonexistence as you put it or in the sense of repentance and evolution, of navigating through the lows in order to reincarnate in a mended form.

So, moving away from the lengthy probes into your creative brain, I also wanted to talk about the publishing process since you self-published this collection. What was that like?

It was definitely a learning experience. Everything was on me to put together, finalize, and approve before publishing, which was both thrilling and anxiety-inducing. However, because this was my first collection, I really enjoyed being in control of what and how I was going to tell my story, so to speak. All in all, it was fun and I learned so much about publishing in taking the reins.

Where do you see yourself going from here? Do you think you’ll self-publish again or are you interested in working your way toward bigger publishers?

I see myself writing going forward, of course, but I’m open to all avenues of publishing. I think I’ll submit more individual and collected works and see where it takes me.

What do you hope people see in this collection?

Is it cheesy to say that I hope people see me? As I previously mentioned, I was in control of the narrative for this collection, so it left me feeling vulnerable (in a good way). I want people to read this work and maybe even see themselves in it. Much of the work in Wild Becomes You comes from raw, difficult experiences with mental health, with assault, with simply finding oneself in the uncertainty of your twenties. In fact, the body of it points to my life up to this point – so not only was it therapeutic to excise those parts of myself and reveal them, I feel heard and seen through this process. I hope in reading it, others can feel the same.

Lastly, what is interesting you now as a writer?

I’ve recently delved into podcasts, but specifically podcasts about the paranormal, true crime, and folklore. I listen to them and jot down notes about the people, experiences, crimes, or lore that stands out to me in order to later revisit and research a little more closely. It’s been a fun experience for my work since my previous collection was a bit more of an internal evaluation, so what is interesting me now is much more historical, deviant, and mythological.

You can acquire your own copy of Wild Becomes You from Amazon. Meanwhile, Ashley and her poetry can be found on Instagram and Twitter. Thank you for taking the time to learn more about Ashley and her lovely poetry. Images are from her rad Instagram account.

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