March 22–28, 2021
Sarah M. Sala is a queer poet of Polish-Lebanese descent. Her debut collection Devil’s Lake is now out from Tolsun Books. She is the founding director of the free poetry workshop Office Hours and co–poetry editor at the Bellevue Literary Review. Her work appears in BOMB, the Southampton Review and the Los Angeles Review.
Blue Dog Blue Dog
Mid-sentence while teaching
a freshman seminar, a stranger
in a blue dog costume enters.
Blue Dog paces in eerily
without saying a word—
mimes his threadbare mitts
for us to carry on. I search
the shadowbox of mesh
beneath its battered plastic eyes
for any indication of what’s next.
Where an ID card should rest,
an empty plastic case swings.
When Blue Dog speaks,
his voice is crushed gravel:
One time I buried a bone.
I buried a bone, then I dug it up.
A part of me leaves my body.
When it’s over, he walks out.
Five days later, an Oregon community
college student shoots his English teacher
and nine others. The gunman says,
I’ve wanted to do this for years.
—From Devil’s Lake, Tolsun Books, 2020.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
“Blue Dog Blue Dog” captures the collective anxiety educators and students face as we stare down threats, violent acts and the prevalence of guns in America. In the two weeks leading up to this poem, the media covered three different school shootings. The poem acts as a vehicle for the reader to experience the terror and helplessness educators experience daily in the face of violence. The psychic burden teachers endure as we imagine how to protect our students is heavy.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on my second book, Migrainer, which dwells in the interstices of migraine and creativity. The collection is an experimental take on chronic pain in womxn’s bodies. It dramatizes synesthesia and provides a record of creating through debilitating brain fog. Furthermore, the book examines the body as a continual mystery. Some of the poems are featured in the Southampton Review and the Brooklyn Rail.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day is a clear day. My mind is sharp and my energy levels are up. Mornings are my favorite because they embody limitless potential and bottomless caffeine. In the summer, I love to write outside before the sun gets too hot. Or I go for a long bike ride with friends until my muscles are tingling. I can’t wait for the summer when more folks are vaccinated and we can all gather again.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
Love, of course! I met my wusband back in 2014 when she lived in Park Slope and I adjuncted at City Tech. I ran marathons then, and sometimes I ran all the way from the Brooklyn Bridge up to the George Washington Bridge during training—basically from her apartment to mine, fifteen miles. We purchased a house in Cypress Hills in January 2021. I knew we would be back to the borough—it felt inevitable as a poet. So many creatives I know and admire have called Brooklyn home.
Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
Cypress Hills is traditionally a neighborhood where first- and second-generation first-time homebuyers have settled in the borough. There’s a huge sense of neighborliness—when you walk down the street, everyone waves from their porches or stops to chat. We moved in hours before a blizzard in January and it felt like the whole block introduced themselves while brushing snow off cars and scraping their porches. There’s a posse of stray cats that roam our block and everyone leaves food bowls out for them. It’s a reminder that Brooklynites, and New Yorkers more generally speaking, really look out for one another.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
During a twenty-mile training run for the New York City Marathon, I tripped and totally went down hard on the Coney Island boardwalk. I ripped a huge hole in the side of my run tights, stood up, brushed myself off and kept running. All I remember is the feeling of the boardwalk beneath my sneakers, the sun on my face, the smell of the ocean, then bam. I went down hard. A small piece of the boardwalk tattooed my leg.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
Poets come and go geographically, but we constantly hold space for one another. We’re a year into a pandemic, so my community is entirely virtual. The small band of writers I gather with each week over Zoom have become much more process-oriented than product-oriented. We’re more forgiving of ourselves which leads to taking greater creative risks.
In a post-vaccination world, my wusband and I dream of launching the “Warwick Salon” in our backyard to provide space for Brooklyn poets to gather, share work and socialize with other writers and artists.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Poets who inspire me to write, who are unabashedly authentic, and keep me going in faithless times: Morgan Parker, Abba Belgrave, Aldrin Valdez, Jen Hyde, Aimee Herman, Omotara James, Audre Lorde, John Ashbery and Walt Whitman. Their poetry makes my own possible.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
In addition to the poets above, the following writers taught me to queer my gaze, define and defy my unconscious patterns, and practice radical vulnerability: Anne Carson, CAConrad, Gwendolyn Brooks, Eduardo C. Corral, Natalie Diaz, Maggie Nelson, Solmaz Sharif, Franz Wright and Catherine Barnett. No matter what, if I take down one of their books from the shelf I’m inspired to write all over again.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem blew me away. The poems are gorgeous and biting meditations on combating erasure with tenderness. I started reading the collection aloud with ten other poets over Zoom via the Office Hours Poetry Workshop, which was a truly transformative experience.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I limit what I’m reading to two to three books at a time to cultivate a sense of progress. When I’m working on a research project, I only read research articles or books that inform my writing. Focusing in on a single subject is intense, but really rewarding. As a writing instructor, I often assign texts I’m obsessed with or don’t fully understand so that each discussion deepens my knowledge of the conversation. I’m a furious note-taker—constantly filtering what I read through my own research questions.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
My goal this year is to write a fold-out poem! To push myself to write an epic, many-stanza’d poem that literally spools out from the book. A piece of this magnitude forces the reader to confront the text as an object. In an increasingly virtual world, a physical book reminds us of our own physicality. Our humanity and our sense of play.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Mostly, I write at home or in the notes app of my phone while in transit. I also love to read and edit at public libraries across the country. There’s a code of silence in libraries that is hyperproductive for me.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Just this morning I walked my dachshund through Highland Park with my wusband and sister, noticing the tulips are beginning to poke through the grass. A guy on a park bench engaged us in conversation about the usual colors that spring up and pointed to a whole field of them behind us. I also have such fond memories of drinking cheap beer in Williamsburg on fire escapes for poetry salons, wending through Prospect Park while racing the Brooklyn Half Marathon, watching Wild Nights with Emily at BAM, drinking whiskey at Ginger’s and scarfing killer breakfasts at the Fifth Avenue Diner in Park Slope. You can’t replicate Brooklyn’s expansiveness in any other borough.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate illumination
and what I magnify you unearth
For every quarantine whiskey that burns me as good balances you.
Brooklyn is poetry!