Author Q & A with Sara Burge
by Christine Nessler
May 10, 2023
This week’s Author Q & A is with Sara Burge. Burge is the author of Apocalypse Ranch, and her poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming from Virginia Quarterly Review, Willow Springs, Prairie Schooner, The American Journal of Poetry, Passengers Journal, River Styx, and elsewhere. She is the Poetry Editor of Moon City Review.
Burge’s poem, Mugshot, is featured in Issue #11 of The Good Life Review.
Tell us about yourself.
I grew up in the rural Missouri Ozarks, so cows and dirt roads tend to pop up in my poems. I earned my MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and teach creative writing at Missouri State University, where I’m also the poetry editor for Moon City Review.
If I could, I would save all the animals and plant all the flowers and spend every other available moment on a river.
What inspired you to write Mugshot?
My mother sent me an article about two men arrested for stealing catalytic converters, though she didn’t say why she was sending it to me. When I realized one of those men was an old boyfriend of mine, I felt both shock and a deep sadness. The poem is pretty loyal to the back-and-forth my mother and I had. The whole situation made me think about how much older and different we are. And when my mother rhetorically asked what had happened to him, it made me wonder what his life had been like over the years.
What message do you hope reaches your audience through Mugshot?
At its core, it’s about the complexity of people. Even if someone has done a “bad” thing, that person isn’t necessarily a “bad” person. Each of us is a universe of complexities. We all have moments that haunt us, that change us forever, and we can’t know how changed we will be. It’s about how grief never truly leaves us, though it manifests in different ways for different people.
What impacted you most when writing it? How was the process therapeutic?
The ending surprised me, honestly. I didn’t know that was where the poem was headed, which is a lot like how we don’t know when traumatic moments will tap us on the shoulder. I’ve written about my brother’s suicide in other poems, though not in a while. “Mugshot” isn’t about him, and yet, it is. I can’t separate that old boyfriend from my brother, as he was the one who found him.
Tell us about the work you have done or do that makes you most proud.
I am proud of my first book, of course, but I’m most proud when people are affected by my poems. When I give a reading and someone takes the time to tell me it impacted them. Maybe they felt that way, too, but were afraid to write about it, or a poem made them laugh. When I move someone, I get that buzz that makes me grateful to be a poet.
What is your writing process? How do you make it a part of your daily life?
I always write a few days a week. I don’t set a strict schedule for myself so that if I can’t write that day, I won’t beat myself up. Any time I get the kernel of an idea, I write it down somewhere. I have a huge list of ideas in my notes.
Most importantly, I have a small group of writers—people whose feedback I trust—I exchange poems with each week, and our deal is that if we don’t send a poem by the end of the week, we owe the other members $10. That will make you churn something out, even if it’s half-baked. We regularly send each other word lists, too, because poets love words. A good list of words can breed a poem, even if you sit down with zero ideas.
How have your life experiences impacted the way you write?
I wonder about that all the time. How would I write if I grew up in a city instead of traipsing around the woods? Or if we’d had more money? Or if I’d been a boy? Or if I hadn’t experienced awfulness at a very young age? Would I even be a writer? The subjects I return to are misogyny, classism, disillusionment, and grief. But I like to laugh, too, so there’s usually some gallows humor thrown in there. And a cow pond.
How do you encourage your students to draw on life experiences for use in their art?
The main thing I stress is to not let fear silence them. That fear can come from not wanting to open up or from being afraid of writing a “bad” poem. The poem doesn’t have to be perfect–what is a perfect poem? I also make sure they know they don’t have to write about anything they don’t want to. I tell them to lie whenever they need to because we’re poets, not memoirists or journalists. They can write persona poems to explore personal topics. I stress that their experiences are unique, so even if they are not drawing directly from their own lives, their perspectives will affect how the poem communicates–what it sees and how it speaks to an audience.
What is your favorite type of poetry to write? Do you write in other forms as well?
I don’t have a favorite type, per se, though I love formal poetry and narrative poetry. But I also write lyrics and use experimental structures. I love sound and repetition in poetry–my favorite form is the pantoum, and you can’t beat a good litany.
How has writing poetry impacted your life?
It’s allowed me to meet a lot of fantastic people I never would have met otherwise, whether through my MFA program or getting to know other writers and editors through the submission process or at conferences. I’d probably be making more money if I hadn’t been a poet, but who knows.
What part of the artistic process do you consider to be the most difficult, as well as most satisfying, and why.
The blank page is the most difficult. Can I do it again? Do I have anything to say? Throw in a little imposter syndrome, and that fear can be paralyzing. But I just put a word or image down and keep going.
The most satisfying parts are the revision process and the live reading. When I find the way the poem needs to exist–whether it’s finding the right image or metaphor, the right form or pacing, the right ending or way in–it’s a full-body sigh of relief. I’ve created a dream a reader can slip inside. Poetry, ultimately, is communication, so when I finally get to perform poems in front of people and they respond positively (that’s key), it’s electric.
What advice can you give to beginning writers?
Read. Write when you read something that makes you tingle. Find an element of poetry you love–sound, form, image, whatever–and focus on making the strongest image you can, which will lead you to explore diction, experiment with syntax, find the best turn of the line to make that image come off the page. Most importantly, don’t be afraid.
What do you think of when you hear the phrase, “The Good Life?”
I’m in a canoe, paddling home. There are cats purring all over the riverbank. One of them is frying me up some catfish and later will help me plant some flowers. Everyone I’ve ever loved is there.
Wonderful answers, Sara, and great advice!! Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions and for contributing to our journal. We wish you the best on all your writing (and life) endeavors.