Back when I wrote poetry, I used it as therapy, as catharsis, writing about the things that bothered me in hopes that they wouldn’t be as much of a bother when I was done. It’s something that writer Meghan O’Rourke is doing as well in her third collection of poems, Sun In Days (hardcover, digital). Though as I learned from my conversation with her about this book, that’s not all we share when it comes to the poetic arts.
Photo Credit: Sarah Shatz
In terms of the subject matter and format, how would you describe the poems in Sun In Days?
The book is lyric poems and two “lyric essays” — a kind of hybrid genre that uses elements of the essay form, both pieces make an argument, along with strategies of the lyric poem — about the belated realization that we all live in a body. To put it more bluntly, it’s about being in your thirties, getting ill, and then getting better and having a child.
I think the biggest theme in the book is the question of what it is to be a person, with an individual consciousness. Because I had been very ill, I was haunted by lots of big abstract questions like, “Is existence a good in itself?” “What does it mean to be a biological self, whose mind is affected by bacteria and chemicals?”
The book also explores a sense of loss for the bacchanalian pleasures of youth, let’s say, and a growing sense of time passing.
Is there a reason you think that subject matter is best expressed by that form?
The book is making a kind of argument about what it means that our “selves” are embodied for childhood. It’s also a book about nostalgia for childhood — in my case, during the Reagan ’80s — and about wanting to be a mother. I chose to write two longer lyric essays as well as shorter poems because I was trying to explain my experience to myself and that seemed to demand a form that allows you to make an argument, and to roam around while doing so. I wanted those longer pieces to have a lot of white space and some silence and fracturing as well.
Does this have anything to do with why you chose to call the book Sun In Days?
“Sun In Days” is the name of the title poem, a long series about the Reagan ’80s. The popular hair product “Sun-In” is featured in the poem, and I liked the way that the title Sun In Days played with evoking that period in American pop culture and also a mood I was trying to capture in the book, a feeling that there was once sun in each day. The phrase itself seems a little nostalgic.
Sun In Days is not your first poetry collection; you released Halflife in 2007 and Once in 2011. But are there any writers, or other books of poetry, that you think were a big influence on some or all of the poems in Sun In Days that were not an influence on your previous collections or your style as a whole?
I’ve always been a huge fan of Anne Carson’s work, but I think this is the first time I tried explicitly to open my poems up to aspects of essay writing the way she did in “The Glass Essay.” That piece is definitely an influence on this book. So are other books of hers.
The poet Frank Bidart has also always been an influence, but I felt his presence here more in the way that the book tries to grapple really directly with some philosophical questions about what it means to be alive.
Proust, I have to say, is also an influence, for his attention to internal experiences that are hard to describe and not always written about.
How about non-literary influences, such as song lyrics or visual art; did any of them influence any poems in Sun In Days?
Yes, but they’re so pervasive a set of influences that I can hardly even identify them. There is a poem about Van Gogh. One shouldn’t really write poems about Van Gogh any more — it’s almost a cliche — but I was compelled to, because his images are so indelible in their combination of melancholia and ecstasy. I listened to The XX a lot while writing some of these poems. Also I wrote the two lyric essays in a café in Florence where they played Shaggy’s “Angel” and Naughty By Nature’s “Down With O.P.P” on seemingly endless repeat. Which worked with the book’s vein of nostalgia, I guess.
Some of the poems in Sun In Days were previously published in The New Yorker, The Kenyon Review, and Ploughshares, among other places. But are they the same versions, or did seeing them in print somewhere else make you want to revise them?
I’m always fussing with poems and books to the very last minute. The end of “Sun In Days” changed. I made a few small changes in the body of the poem too, mostly in response to readers who pointed out a few things I thought were worth sharpening. There was a little too much Philip Larkin in one section, for example. “A Note On Process” changed a lot; it just didn’t feel fully developed to me at the stage at which I had first published it. A writer I exchange work with also thought I should develop it more, and I agreed.
Back when I wrote poetry, I used to do open mics, and sometimes hearing them read aloud would prompt me to make changes in my poems. Do you ever do these kinds of readings?
Yeah, I give a lot of readings, and they definitely prompt me to make changes. It’s very clear if a line isn’t working when I read it to an audience. All those little moments that you tell yourself are “fine” — even though you know they’re not, really — stand out. I feel like readings are a great way to galvanize yourself if you’re being lazy about revising.
Finally, if someone really enjoys Sun In Days, they’ll obviously read your other poetry collections, Halflife and Once. But once they’re read those, what book of poetry by someone else would you recommend they check out and why that one?
Maybe Jack Gilbert’s The Great Fires, which is a beautiful book partly about mourning his wife. If they like lyric essays, maybe Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay” or Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. And Frank Bidart, whose philosophical tone infects my poems here.