By Cameron Crowell // Staff Writer
I first met Sara Woods when I went to a reading series at an Anarchist Zine Library in Berkeley, California earlier this year. Sara read from her books, “Wolf Doctors” and “Speckled Flowers,” and I was instantly intoxicated by her voice. The way her language seemed to fly off the page like she was singing these seemingly epic pieces of prose, I could feel a spectrum of emotion, but remained surprisingly comfortable grounded in my armchair inside of a completely still room. These poems were written before she had come out as trans. Now she has a new book coming out, “Sara or the Existence of Fire.” I sat down to talk to her about the book, the move to Portland, reading aloud and coming out.
PL: How has the move to Portland been?
SW: The move was great. You caught me when I was in Oakland, but I flew out from Chicago to San Francisco, did a few readings, then flew out to Portland with just a suitcase and a backpack. I slept on couches for a month and half, before finding the place I live now. I’ve been doing some freelance for work.
PL: What kind of freelance have you been doing?
SW: I did a book cover for Big Lucks Press, a video for this dance-poetry project for a Kickstarter, and some technical writing for this attorney friend of mine.
PL: Can you tell me a little more about the Kickstarter video?
SW: Yeah, Stacey Tran is a poet here in Portland; she and this choreographer, Danielle Ross, are doing a reading series called Peer Surface where poets read their work while a dancer interprets it. They recently did a piece called “Togetherness” together, and needed someone to edit the raw footage for their Kickstarter project.
PL: Awesome. So what inspired you to move to Portland?
SW: Things weren’t going well with my job, I was sort of losing money because my rent was higher than what I was making, so it was just this sort of slow bleed. Also, my partner and I were breaking up and I had just come out as trans, so I wanted a fresh start to sort of transition to a place that was new and exciting and comfortable for me. I had visited last fall and fell in love with it, so I decided ‘Fuck It’, cashed in my pension and booked a plane ticket.
PL: I think a lot of people would find it super inspiring to just drop everything and do what you want:
SW: Well I mean it’s been tough. I’ve definitely been super broke, I’m on food stamps and the money situation is not super stable, but it’s been good. I love it here, and I’m so glad I moved.
PL: So, you have a new book coming out (“Sara or the Existence of Fire”). Can you tell me a little about the inspirations behind it?
SW: I started writing it in 2011 after reading C.A. Conrad’s “Book of Frank”; in it, he has written a series of these little blocks of prose that are moments in this character Frank’s life that ultimately add up to reveal something. I wanted to try that, so I made up a character named Sara and started writing spontaneously these little moments about her. A lot of times a word would come to mind, or I would ask someone to give me a word and I would write a poem about it. Eventually, my ex-partner told me that if I put these in a certain order I could have a narrative. Once it was put together I realized it was echoing a lot of things going on in my life that I wasn’t really talking about with a lot of people, like my marriage, mental health and my gender identity.
PL: Yeah, the character’s name really guides the reader to a more personal feel to it.
SW: Yeah. I took the name Sara because I had written all these things about this character and I realized a lot of this book was about me wanting to be allowed to have this space to write about a female character that was an extension of me. It all came out without me really intending it to, and that felt really good to me. Poetry has always been a way for me to talk about things I don’t necessarily have the words for yet.
PL: I know a lot of our readers are students that would like to try their hand at getting published. Do you think you could tell us your experience with submitting to small presses?
SW: My entrée into the literary world started with the reading scene in Chicago, where one of my good friends M. Kitchell had started publishing and one of his poems got picked up in Artifice Magazine, so when they asked him to do a reading I went out with him and met some of the people involved with the magazine. From there I just kept doing readings, and made a lot of friends in the Chicago literary scene, while voraciously reading anything I could get my hands on and taking note of where these were being published. I started just being really brazen about sending out anything that I had written to anywhere I thought looked interesting at all. Eventually some stuff got picked up, and I started to meet more writers and learn about more small presses.
PL: What has the reading scene been like in Portland so far?
SW: The reading scene in Portland has been fantastic. It’s also very different from Chicago, which is a much bigger city and has a lot of MFA programs for poetry, so there are a lot of readings around the people involved in those university programs along with people doing their readings independently. It seems like in Portland there’s one big literary scene, rather than having 20 little poetry scenes that all vaguely overlap. It’s just different, not necessarily better or worse; it just seems like there’s a bigger sense of community here.
PL: Where have you been reading around here?
SW: My first reading I did here was at a series run by Robert Duncan Grey called “á reading”; Robert also hosted a few house readings. Last fall I read at a series called “If Not for Kidnap” that was run by Stacey Tran. I have my book release coming up that I’ll be reading at (Nov. 14).
PL: Do you have poems that you won’t read aloud?
SW: Absolutely. Some poems just work better on the page, some I feel like I haven’t found the right setting to read them at, some I write that are sort of sparse and pretty in a way that’s compelling to me, but in a live reading setting there’s just not enough to hang onto whereas when you’re reading it on a page you can kind of sit with it. The logic of the poem can be a little too convoluted to come across without having your eyes being able to look at the sentence. In my new book the main character, Sara, writes a short story that I tried to read aloud once, but just found it was really hard for me to make the language feel sincere because it’s written in a very different style.
PL: So, when you read is there a character that you get into to read?
SW: I guess taking on a character could be one way of describing it, but for me it’s more of finding a voice that is appropriate for the poem. I read a poem from “Wolf Doctors” very differently from one from “Speckled Flowers.” “Wolf Doctors” generally was shorter prose poems, where “Speckled Flowers” were longer, first person poems that rely a lot more on momentum, and these long run-on sentences with a barrage of surreal imagery.
PL: So, do you have any new writing projects coming up?
SW: The current project I’m working on is a manuscript called “Your Various Hairlessnesses”; for $10 I’ll write you an epistolary poem to you entitled “Dear Hairless (your name)” and I’m going to compile them all, with all the money going to laser-hair removal, which is the first step in my transition, ’cause that is really expensive.
For more about Woods and her poetry go to saramountain.tumblr.com