This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.
Saara Myrene Raappana grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, served as a Peace Corps volunteer in China, and now lives in western Minnesota where she teaches and is the communications director for MotionPoems.
Athena Kildegaard: How did you come to writing poetry? What is your genesis story?
Saara Myrene Raappana: I like this idea of a genesis story. I’d like to organize the genesis of me writing poetry into a story. Let’s say that in the beginning there was probably just church — my father’s a Lutheran pastor, so there was a lot of church, which is really just a lot of people reciting or singing the same poems every week, so I think that meter and anaphora and apostrophe and all that stuff just got rutted into my brain. I don’t remember ever not writing poetry, and maybe that’s why. I also read a LOT. I had no discipline (like, people think that I’m just being modest, but I’m actually showing my younger self quite a bit of generosity), and wasn’t huge on school, and the further I got in secondary school the worse I did, but I always read, and I always wrote. And I think all the kinds of writing teach you to write all the kinds of writing. Same with reading.
But to return to the conceit.
And in my 18th year, I drove to the local university extension and gave them $200 so I could take classes, for I had neglected to apply to college. And I said: let me not study poetry exclusively, for it is impractical. Let me additionally study things marginally less impractical (human development and literature) while devoting time to what’s almost as impractical. And there were punk rock shows, and experimental noise performances in basements and weird indie magazines and a lot of brightly colored hats. And I heard that it was loud. And there was evening and there was bar time — a second phase.
And I said: let me abandon a lifestyle of watching men play instruments with violent, enviable abandon. And I went to grad school and continued to flail around, undisciplined, and then I found myself with a degree. And there was graduation and reading reading reading reading writing writing reading writing. And I saw that it was better. And there was reading and writing and rejection and acceptance and books and books — a new phase.
AK: You grew up in Upper Peninsula Michigan. I’ve always thought of the UP as being similar in some ways to Maine: a place full of hardscrabble storytellers with their own regional twang. Has the UP voice made its way into your poetic voice and if so, how?
SMR: Well, yes, but not necessarily in a dialectish sense. I do have some poems where the voice — meaning phrases or names or syntax that’s particular to the UP — appears, but the voice of the UP that appears in probably all of my work is, to play on your word, a voice that’s both hardscrabble and gentlescrabble. By which I mean that the UP is difficult — physically difficult, especially if snow and ice aren’t your jam — but also that it’s beset by poverty and isolation and the garbage and spindly, empty, unused buildings and xenophobic ideas that tend to flourish in places like that. But it’s also beautiful — like, inspirational poster/Pinterest board beautiful; I mean, mind-searing, art-defying beautiful — both physically and in its crazy history and in the very particular, unique cultures (and languages and traditions and economies) that flourish there, in part because of their isolation. I grew up taking the beauty for granted and dreaming of living elsewhere, and I’ve left and lived all over, and now of course I often ache for the landscape and those unique particulars, and they’re in everything I write. Plus, I believe in writing complicated, difficult, highfalutin’ poems, but I want them to be accessible — I always ask myself if my grandparents (who were smart and valued reading but weren’t educated; they were miners and trappers and construction workers and housewives and maids) would be able to appreciate my poems, and if the answer is no, I revise. I believe in beautiful, demanding, democratic poetry, and that’s Yooper as hell.
AK: Your first book is the chapbook Milk Tooth, Levee, Fever. Sometimes first books are the result of many year’s work. Is this true of yours? How did it come into being? Why start with a chapbook? Would you recommend this to other writers?
SMR: Yes? I guess — especially if you consider that I did all that wandering around in the ’90s and ’00s, and those years are very much in the poems. One of the poems is actually a radical revision of a poem I wrote in grad school and two or three others I drafted for the first time soon after I graduated.
For years, I didn’t even consider putting together a chapbook. I’d always seen them as self-published and less-than, but either I was wrong or they’ve gotten much fancier — I’m not sure which. Probably both.
But putting together both chapbooks taught me a lot about what differentiates a manuscript from a bunch of poems. Milk Tooth, Levee, Fever happened in one way — I had a bunch of poems and realized that they fit together—and A Story of America Goes Walking was a series of poems written as a project, and each process was extremely instructive.
So in that sense, yes, I would recommend starting with a chapbook if you’re having trouble manuscripting. The smallness of it made it feel manageable to me in a way that a full manuscript didn’t.
AK: What do you think that first book announced to the world?
SMR: My understanding of that is limited and evolving, but I hope that it announced that I’m for the usefulness that can be found in what’s broken. I’ll stand for that any day.
AK: You use form sometimes. For example, “Winter Correspondence,” is a ghazal. Why are you attracted to forms? How does a poem take on a form in your experience — do you start out knowing you’ll write in a particular form or does the form reveal itself? If the latter, is this surprising to you?
SMR: At this point, I start probably 90 percent of my poems in form — if not in a specific received form, at the very least in meter and rhyme. It most often falls away in revision (or I move the lines around to hide it because I’m a weirdo like that), but I do love writing in received forms. I’m attracted to the way that they limit the field — without form, I have hundreds of thousands of words to choose from, and I don’t want the burden of that much freedom. I also love the way that writing in form connects me to other poets and the traditions of poetry. And I love the way that a finished line in a received form — or a line of free verse that’s still very formy — absolutely must be the line that it is. You can’t move the break or rephrase or remove words. Form reveals poems for the machines that they are.
As for how I start, whether I begin with a particular form, it goes both ways. I’ve heard people say that it’s ridiculous to sit down and say “I’m going to write a sestina now” — that the poem should reveal its form and or that certain forms are best for certain subjects. And I think that’s true — for example, I love it when an established rhyme reveals new content; that’s for-reals the dream — but I’m relatively new to form. I’ve always enjoyed it but didn’t start actively writing in forms until after grad school, so I feel like every time I write in a form I’m learning or relearning it. So sometimes I actually do say “I’m going to write a sestina now,” and then I write a lot of bad sestinas, and those bad sestinas teach me that, for example, sestinas expand where villanelle’s contract, that sestinas tend to want to be about circuitousness or obsession. Or sonnets teach me that pentameter can heighten drama — things like that. And once I’ve written enough bad versions of a form (and some of those bad poems eventually turn into good poems), that form will start popping up, which is usually a fun surprise. Sometimes, if I can’t get a poem to work, I’ll rewrite it in a few different forms, just to try different solutions.
AK: Your beautiful book A Story of America Goes Walking is a collaboration between you and the artist Rebekah Wilkins-Pepiton. How did you find one another? How did the collaboration work?
SMR: Bekah and I were in Peace Corps together. She and her husband arrived a year before us and lived maybe an hour’s train ride away. She turned two of my poems into broadsides for Shechem Press’s 2012 and 2014 artist broadside series. She’d done cuts and prints for other books for Schechem Press — Stephen Behrendt’s Refractions is a beautiful book — but for those, she wasn’t working with each poem individually. She contacted me and said that she wanted to do a project that was more collaborative — where each poem interacted with a print and vice versa. She’d been reading Thoreau’s “Walking” essay, and she asked if I’d be interested in working with it. I’m actually not very into Thoreau, but I’m about challenges, so yes! We both read the essay over and over and talked a bit about how Thoreau’s vision of America mirrored or contradicted both present-day America and the way we saw America while living in China. We both placed drafts (do visual artists call them drafts?) in a Dropbox folder. At first, she was creating images to go with my poems, but as things progressed, I was responding to her prints. In one case — “In the Women’s Hospital” — I had a draft, and I believed in the poem, but I couldn’t crack its form. Seeing her print of an ant trapped in water blight, I realized that it needed anaphora, and the rest of the poem fell into place. A lot of the process was like that — every time I got stuck on what to do next, the answer was in her work.
AK: You are a founding editor of CellPoems. Tell us about that poetry journal. Has this work influenced your own writing in any way?
SMR: It started with one of my grad school colleagues — he had the idea to start a journal of text-messaged poetry. So we text poems to people (140 characters or less, including the title and the poet’s name) every so often. We used to do it weekly, but our technology and budget haven’t kept up with our subscriber volume, so now it’s an occasional surprise thing.
It’s definitely influenced my work — not that I write tiny poems (though I sometimes do), but spending so much time with a Submittable queue has taught me a lot about the difference between a fine poem and a fantastic poem. I’ve learned to always consider both the craft and the stakes of what I’m writing, because one without the other doesn’t work, and if you have neither I’m just not interested, and I’m not saying that I’ve never written something I wasn’t interested in — I’m saying I try not to.
AK: For people who are not avid readers of poetry, how would you describe the “difference between a fine poem and a fantastic one?”
SMR: To some degree, of course, it’s subjective and magical — some poems just grab you for no reason, and you just slip away from others. Like, for example, for years I just couldn’t understand why people lost their minds over Gerard Manley Hopkins, and then one day I heard “Spring and Fall” on a podcast, and it broke Hopkins open for me, and now he’s one of my go-tos. So some part of it is magic and personal, and I can’t pretend to understand that. But the other part, I think, is something we don’t talk much about, which is the stakes of a poem. The ridic brill poet Anna George Meek told me once that someone had talked to her about how (and this is a paraphrase) you can write a perfectly good poem, a publishable poem, but until you enter the wilderness of the poem, it will not be a great poem. And I think that wilderness is where the ice of the poem starts to ride on its own melting or where the top of the reader’s head gets physically taken off or whichever other well-repeated metaphor everyone uses to refer to this unexplainability that I suspect is totally explainable. I know that it’s a combination of craft and stakes, about what the poem is willing to risk.