Brain in a Basket: Interview with Sarah Herrington

by Julie Chibbaro

A few months ago, I crashed physically: I couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t look at my phone or computer, couldn’t be near electronics of any kind, couldn’t even wear my step counter. I had been working hard—clearly, too hard—on my novel for months and months. I had forced myself to sit at my desk for 6 to 8 hours a day, crouched over my computer, churning out pages, even when I didn’t feel like it. I was angry that the book wasn’t coming as fast or as well as I wanted it to. And, maybe I was somehow punishing myself for not being the writer I’d imagined I would, and should be.

Later, huddled in bed with my physical pain, I realized I’d suffered a disconnect between my brain and my body. It wasn’t the first time that had happened to me. So I decided to talk to friend, yogi and author Sarah Herrington about how to approach the relationship between my writing and my physical body.

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Sarah is a yoga teacher and author of Wanderlust: A Modern Yogi’s Guide to Discovering Your Best Self; Om Schooled: A Teacher’s Guide to Yoga in Schools; and Essential Yoga. She is also a poet, and a fabulous journalist whose work has appeared in the LA Times, the New York Times, Interview magazine, Tin House, and Writer’s Digest, among many other publications.

Here are her thoughts on writing and the body, and other topics:

GLB: As a writer, I often feel like a brain in a basket, at times completely forgetting I have a body. You’ve written a number of essays on writing and the body. What does my body have to do with my writing?

Sarah: I have felt that way a lot! As a teen I had my nose in books and often forgot I had a body at all. When I discovered yoga it not only helped heal that split (the word “yoga” means “union,” after all), my writing practice changed. In fact, one of the reasons I started exploring yoga is that, after my first class, I felt a surge of creative energy and went home and wrote all night.

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In my experience it’s helpful to get out of my head and into my heart and body, where I believe the origins of stories live. The body records stories in the form of sensations, and to tap into their power before approaching the realm of language, to me, makes the words more true. And I want my words to be as true as possible. I often practice meditation or yoga before going to my computer. They both quiet my mind, so I can hear my spirit and gut, and hopefully write from there. Getting in touch with my body helps me sense my way into the subconscious as well, which has a lot of interesting writing material. I think writers’ minds are often on fire with ideas and to settle the mind through a body-centered practice helps you focus and follow through.

I’ll also say writing can be quite physically rigorous—think wrists and back. Dance, yoga, walking, taking a nap—something to get into the body—creates a sense of ease which then will hopefully let me write longer.

GLB: Your topics are wide-ranging. For example, you’ve written about ethics in yoga practice. That’s a fascinating subject! Why is this an important issue to write about?

Sarah Herrington

Sarah: Because there are questionable things—and worse—happening! And I believe in the power of talking, and writing, about what is in the shadows. As a woman in yoga and meditation spaces I’ve both experienced and been witness to other practitioners—mostly women—being touched inappropriately, complicated student/ teacher relationships, disrespectful language, and other potentially shady behavior.

I wrote about ethics in student/teacher relationships in particular for the New York Times and Yoga Journal before the #metoo movement hit, and I’m very thankful to see conversations expanding, and communities more consciously addressing this. All seekers, regardless of gender expression, have the right to learn and explore. Of course I feel the same about literary spaces, as well.

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GLB: Can you talk a little about what other writers have influenced you? What has led you on this particular writing path that you’re on?

Sarah: I think of the word “lineage” a lot, because it’s important in yoga and Buddhism, but also art and writing. I feel I’m part of a lineage of both women writers who I admire for using their voice in societies that tried to silence them, and of writers who practiced both Eastern contemplative practices and creative ones. For example, poets and writers like Anne Waldman, Jane Hirshfield, and Allen Ginsberg both meditated and wrote. These people moved between silence and language, and that’s my jam. Then there’s Walt Whitman- great yogi poet who explored the interconnectedness of things. Emerson and Thoreau, whose Transcendentalist work drips with yogic philosophy. There’s also my mentors: Francesca Lia Block, who encouraged heart-centered creativity, and Susan Shapiro, who fired me up and helped me fall in love with essays and being more honest in my work.

There are so many writers, dead and alive, who feel like family, and depending on what’s going on in my life, different ones speak to me in different ways. In this way I’m never alone.

BIO: Sarah Herrington’s essays have appeared in the New York Times LATimes,  Poets and Writers Magazine,  Tin House, Interview Magazine, Slice, San Francisco Chronicle, Writer’s Digest, Yoga Journal and other outlets, and she was selected as one of eight emerging women poets by Oprah Magazine. She is the author of a collection of poetry, Always Moving (Bowery Books, 2011) and several nonfiction books, including Om Schooled (Addriya Press, 2012), Essential Yoga (Fair Winds Press, 2013). She worked as editor/co-author on Wanderlust: Find Your True North (Rodale, 2015).  She has worked with Girls Write Now mentoring teen girl writers, Gotham Writers Workshop offering student support and coordinating events, and found family at the Bowery Poetry Club. She has been a visiting writer at UCLA, The New School, University of Central Florida and other institutions. She currently works at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

 

Let’s Get Political

by Kristen Holt Browning

Politics and writing: do they mix? Up until recently, I would have said “no.” I thought works of fiction and poetry that overtly articulated political opinions or worldviews were artless and heavy handed. 

But it’s 2018, and regardless of whether you’re liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between, politics is everywhere. A very smart teacher recently told me, “All poets are contemporary. You write in the present you live in.” Her point was that your work has to speak, both formally and linguistically, to your era. If it doesn’t, it isn’t honest, or relevant. And if we live in an era saturated by politics, how can our writing not absorb and reflect that reality?

On the face of it, the new novel Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg has nothing to do with contemporary politics. It’s presented as the memoir of Jack Sheppard, famed eighteenth-century thief and jailbreaker, who served as the inspiration for The Threepenny Opera’s Mack the Knife (or, maybe you know him from the Bobby Darin song).

Jack is raised as a girl, although, upon reaching adolescence, he (his preferred pronoun) takes to wearing male clothing and taping down his breasts. Bess, his lover, is a prostitute of South Asian descent. This is a multicultural, polyglot world, where people decry, undercut, and push against the social, economic, racial, and gender constraints and categories put upon them—something that is happening as urgently as ever in the twenty-first century. Confessions of the Fox is a propulsive story that encompasses grand themes of identity and individual self-determination, and that also happens to couch its plea for a rethinking of our ideas about gender and diversity in gorgeously inventive language.

Good poetry pushes language as far as it can bend without breaking it completely. It’s the opposite of bland and simplistic political sloganeering. In Morgan Parker’s collection There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé, pop culture intertwines with urgent political rage to present a wide-ranging overview of black womanhood in contemporary America, as in the opening of “Poem on Beyoncé’s Birthday”:

Drinking cough syrup from a glass shaped

Like your body I wish was mine but as dark

As something in my mind telling me

I’m not woman enough for these days

Parker offers a wide historical range of black female experience, as when she writes a poem on the Hottentot Venus that manages to take in slavery, capitalism, and white domination of black bodies:

No one worries about me

because I am getting paid.

I am here to show you

who you are, to cradle

your large skulls

and remind you

you are perfect. Mother America,

unleash your sons.

Everything beautiful, you own.

Rosenberg and Parker are both expanding the inclusive limits of writing. Their work is political in its topics and obsessions, in the stories it chooses to honor and represent. This, I think, is how politics is best embedded in writing: by incorporating the entirely of one’s world, insisting on the necessity of one’s desires and concerns, and thereby expanding the worlds of others.

Reading Like a Writer: Poetry Every Day

by Kristen Holt Browning

When the poet Lucie Brock-Broido died in March, I felt a pang of shame. I had never read her, even though throughout college and grad school, I read lots of poetry. Heck, my MA thesis focused on the poets Anne Carson, Louise Glück, and Jorie Graham. And before that, I wrote way more than my fair share of crappy adolescent poetry.

But…I graduated. I got a job. I moved to the city. I read novels, I kept up with The New Yorker. And poetry seemed so much less relevant to the everyday. Once my life expanded to encompass a husband, a house, and kids, there was even less space for poetry, which looked by then like a rarified, obtuse genre, suitable only for college campuses and late nights.

I stopped reading poetry around the same time I stopped writing. I realize now this was probably no coincidence. I stopped making time and space for poems, and without that hot language pouring into my mind, it seemed I stopped being able to produce my own words, too.

The day after Lucie Brock-Broido died, I bought her first book, Hunger. That night, before bed, I read the first poem, “Domestic Mysticism.” Actually, I read it four times in a row. Every time, my heart swelled against my ribs as I read the final lines:

Everyone knows an unworshipped woman will betray you.

There is always that promise, I like that. Kingdom of Kinesis.

Kingdom of Benevolent. I will betray as a god betrays,

With tenderheartedness. I’ve got this mystic streak in me.

Poetry can be intimidating, it can appear inscrutable. But for the last several weeks, almost every night, right before I go to sleep, I’ve read a single poem. Sometimes Brock-Broido, sometimes someone else (if I may plug a GetLit regular, I’ve also been reading Ruth Danon’s latest book, Word Has It). As it turns out, poetry doesn’t exist on some purely celestial plane; it fits quite well into a life already crammed full of deadlines, appointments, and PTA meetings. No time for a 500-page novel? Let me suggest you try “Parable” by Louise Glück tonight. Or, if you’re up for something a little longer, maybe Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay.” And don’t think that poetry has nothing to say about the political world of now: read Morgan Parker’s “If You Are Over Staying Woke” or Danez Smith’s “Two Movies” to see how poets are speaking poetic truth to political power.

As a writer, there’s  value in this practice: in my last moments of consciousness each night, I absorb pure, essential language. I like to think the words are burrowing into my mind, and supporting my own writing in some unknown, unseen way.

One poem, every night. Why not give it a try yourself? Whatever kind of writer you are, let poetry infiltrate and influence your relationship to language. Couldn’t all of our stories—hell, all of our lives—use a little more poetry?

Poet & Essayist Cynthia Cruz

By Flora Stadler

In this series, I’ll ask writers a question about “the one.” That one thing could be about their writing process, their personal experiences, or even writers they admire. The idea is to focus on a detail that (hopefully) reveals more about their writing life. My first installment in this series is with a friend and writer who I greatly admire, Cynthia Cruz. She is a poet, essayist, professor and critic who seems to flow seamlessly between many forms of writing. I first met her nearly 20 years ago as a poet, and that lyricism has always felt like the backbone of her work. This is why I asked her:

What’s the one thing writing poetry gives you that essays or prose cannot?

“I write about things I don’t know the answers to—both with essays and with poetry—but that doesn’t mean I come to any clean conclusions or answers in the end. Both allow me to pursue questions I don’t know the answers to, to move a tiny bit nearer to knowing. Having said that, poetry allows me to use gaps, ruptures, and space which in turn allow for a folding in of hesitation and silence; a kind of troubling and haunting that prose does not allow or at least does not allow to the same extent.

What has consumed me from the start is the question of how to write about experiences either personal or historical that cannot be said. Here, I am thinking of experiences that can’t be articulated either because they can only be expressed through space, gaps, or ruptures. Trauma, for example, fractures and fragments experience by definition. Any attempt at explaining trauma through concise syntax in which there occur beginning, middle and end, will fail. Prose insists on the complete sentence. When it does not, it veers into the lyric which I call poetry.

So poetry, like visual art, with, for instance the montage or collage or film still, does allow for these fragments and stutters, these ways of simulating silence or stammering. Poetry also allows for what I call a haunting—for allowing a space or rupture for what cannot be articulated but must be acknowledged. In my forthcoming collection, Dregs, for instance, I am using space on the page, as well as iterations of the stutter or other hesitations to enact these places where what must be said but cannot be must remain as gaps to allow for the acknowledgment of their absence.”

Find samples of Cynthia Cruz’s poetry here, and look for her fifth book of poems, Dregs, this fall.