Writer Sarah Ghoshal is a new mom, a college poetry professor, and a suburban wife. But before you dismiss the poems in her new book Changing The Grid (paperback) and her upcoming chapbook The Pine Tree Experiment (due out in July) because you think they must read like Hallmark cards, you should consider — as she reveals in the following interview — how she’s also been inspired by Jim Morrison, The Descendants, and not that most middle-of-the-road of rock stars, Kid Rock.
I always like to start with the basics. What kind of poetry do you write and why do you favor that kind over others?
So, here’s the thing: I write it how it comes out. Does that sound ridiculous? If I feel like a line needs to break, I’ll break it. Sometimes, I focus on a specific form or genre. If I’m blocked, I might pick a really hard form and try to crack it, like a sestina, just to get the juices flowing. Or I might go the total opposite direction.
Like, this chapbook is all prose poetry. At the time, two summers ago, prose poetry was really flowing and I was disenchanted with line breaks. So, I decided to write about a million prose poems. Right now, though, I’m obsessed with tercets. All of my stanzas are three lines long. I’m not sure how editors are going to feel about that. I’m really all over the place.
By law, I’m legally required to ask you about your influences. But what I’d like to know is who do you think are the biggest influences on what you write, and who do you think are the biggest influences on how you write?
Awesome distinction. What I write is poetry, in the most general sense of the word. So, if I’m going with general, my first real influence was Sylvia Plath. This could be true for many female poets. She was pretty kick ass. I think I was just enthralled with the way she wrote about possibly trite subjects — pregnancy, love — without it sounding like a Hallmark card. Of course, as an angsty teenager, we all want to write confessional Plath poetry.
For this book in particular, though, my biggest influences were Gertrude Stein and Barbara Henning. They’ve both written some amazing prose poetry, really giving it purpose in a world of structured verse.
As for how I write, well, that’s a tough one. I’ve taken advice and guidance from so many artists over the years that much of it has become mantra. For instance, my Arts High School teacher, B.J. Ward, told me a poem is never finished, so I’m a constant reviser. My mentor in grad school, Lewis Warsh, taught me how not to sound like a Hallmark card, so I’m always on the lookout for that kind of rhymey, mushy language.
What about influences from people who aren’t poets but are, say, fiction writers or lyricists? Cuz there’s a lot of people out there who would credit someone like Jim Morrison from The Doors as an influence.
Oh, don’t get me started on Jim. That man was my teenage muse, for sure. I’m also a big fan of the way the popular fiction author, Lisa Unger, uses language. And then there’s Brian Wilson. Ah, Pet Sounds. Just genius.
I also credit a lot of punk rock, along with the Beat poets, for making me feel like I could say stuff my grandmother wouldn’t necessarily want to read, and for showing me how to write about love without sounding too much like I’m writing about love. The Descendents, especially, taught me this.
Is there a theme to the poems in Changing The Grid?
I wrote all of these poems over the summer of 2013. It was the first summer I wasn’t working since I was 16 years old, and I felt like I had to do something. It was just me while my husband was at work — my dog had passed away, I wasn’t pregnant yet — and I wanted to finally write a book of poetry. Like I said before, I was pretty excited about prose poems at the time, so I would wake up, get coffee, and just write about whatever was there. I knew it was going to be a collection of prose poetry. The entire collection is actually over seventy pages long and Changing the Grid is a shorter collection from that larger collection. I’m not officially announcing this yet, but I think the full collection is coming out toward the end of the year.
So, that’s a really long way of saying I woke up every day and wrote. There wasn’t really a theme, but a genre I was focusing on. After I wrote them all, read a ton of prose poetry and articles and re-wrote them all, I put them in order. I only didn’t include two pieces because I read them and thought I might kill myself from the embarrassment that I had written them.
That actually brings up something I wanted to ask you. Along with being a poet, you’re also a writing professor at Montclair State University. When putting Changing The Grid together, did you ever consider not including a poem because you were worried that your students, or even your coworkers, would read it and find out you have a huge crush on Kid Rock, which is generally frowned upon in academic circles?
Ha! Kill me if I love Kid Rock. What a tool.
But really, this has always been a concern of mine, and I’ve just recently learned to let it go. I’m always telling my students how the author is not necessarily the speaker of the poem and that they shouldn’t make that assumption, so what kind of a teacher would I be if I ignored my own instruction? The thing is, it’s not all about me. I’m happy to offer that mystery. After all, I’m a writer. I make stuff up. Plus, you know, punk rock.
At Montclair State, you’ve taught such courses as “Introduction To Poetry Writing” and “The Art Of Poetry.” How often have you read a student’s poem and thought, “Dammit, they are so much better than me, I give up!”?
Really, some of them are so good. But no, I don’t think to myself that I’ll give up. I’m just happy to be with them on that journey. I take it as inspiration, stick a pin in my voodoo doll, and move on.
And how often have you read a student’s poem and thought, “Dammit, if I have to read one more ‘There once was a man from Nantucket’ poem, I’ll give up!”?
Not too many times. It’s more when they are writing poetry research papers and they all want to write about Poe. We get it. Poe was cool. Let’s move on.
You live in New Jersey, not far from where I grew up. And when I lived there, and was writing poetry, I used to do a lot of open mic nights and poetry readings, both in Jersey and in New York City. Do you do this as well?
I used to be a lot more active in the poetry scene in grad school. I went to LIU in Brooklyn, and interned at the Poetry Project, so the NYC and NJ poetry communities were right there for the taking. And I read a couple of these at the university where I teach, thought they went over well. That was really my first test run before I started sending them out. But now I live in the ’burbs with a new baby, so there’s not as much time now. It’s really just a time and location thing.
Though I am having a release party for this chapbook at the Bowery on June 28th, I’m really psyched about that.
You mentioned that you’re putting together a larger collection of poems. But you’re also working on a new book, a children’s book, which I’m guessing you were inspired to do because you just had a child yourself. What can you tell us about it?
The children’s book is complete. It’s actually a series of rhyming picture books — no illustrations yet — based on the dog I had for eleven years, Rigby Pigby the Pit Bull. I would really love to get a picture book out there that shows pit bulls in a positive light. The series shows Rigby Pigby having all sorts of fun adventures. It hasn’t been picked up after some serious trying, so some revision could be in order, but I won’t give up on that dog.
I’m also working on a series of poems right now that are about motherhood without sounding like they’re about motherhood. It’s hard to walk that line between serious and cheesy. As you can see from this interview, it’s on my mind a lot.
Clearly. So, finally, if someone really enjoyed Changing The Grid and asked you what book of poetry they should read next, what would you recommend and why?
Oh, read Barbara Henning. She is such an amazing prose poet. I could read her books — chap and otherwise — over and over. You, Me And The Insects is my favorite of hers.