Sandy Longhorn is the author of Blood Almanac (Anhinga Press, 2006), which won the 2005 Anhinga Prize for Poetry. New poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in The American Poetry Journal, Copper Nickel, diode, Juked, Redactions, and elsewhere. She has also received an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Arkansas Arts Council. Her blog, Myself the only Kangaroo among the Beauty, can be found at http://sandylonghorn.blogspot.com/.
Here, Sandy Longhorn talks with interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about finding your way, maps in your head, and the challenge of the "I." Enjoy!
1. Could you tell us how you went about writing the first and second halves of “Autobiography as Cartography?”
Over the past several years, I consciously moved away from writing first-person poems as a way to move beyond writing clearly autobiographical poems. I began to create personas that allowed me to explore issues about which I felt deeply without exposing my own life. This was a reaction to continual discussions about the strengths and weaknesses of confessional poetry. Over this past summer, I began to question this distance and I challenged myself to go back to the “I” and reveal something I’ve learned. That’s the big picture.
The small picture is this: many days when I sit down to write, I begin by word gathering. I make word banks from the poems of poets I admire or from random articles, junk mail, and books on my desk. In the case of “Autobiography as Cartography,” a poet friend and I had discussed the word “gossamer” as one of those words that can go so wrong in a poem, so I had that at the top of my list. Then, I got “quicksilver” from the address on an ad for a book by Andrei Cordrescu. When I’m working with a word bank, I’ll list out 30 – 40 words and then number them. Using a random number generator, I “pick” words to be in pairs. When I get a dozen or so pairs, something has usually sparked on the page and the poem begins.
To return to the big picture, my childhood was filled with maps. My father was a truck driver, so folded maps were always in the car and he taught us how to read maps at a very early age, in part to keep us busy on our trips to my grandparents’ farm and to Minnesota in the summer. However, we also had the world atlas and a globe so that when we learned of something at school or on the news, we could find the geographical location that went along with the story/information. My parents are both the children of farmers, and I sense that this connection to geography is an extension of their connection to the land.
2. I love that these are two poems with the same title, but I’m curious: why did you decide to make them two separate poems, instead of, for example, making it one poem with two sections?
In part, there is a boring answer to this question. I was in the midst of writing a poem a day when these poems were drafted, and the poems were drafted four days apart. To extend this answer, I draft in fast bursts and most of my poems tend to be short (perhaps a reflection of my attention span?). I’ve never quite gotten the hang of writing a longer poem and working on it over several days or weeks.
Looking back at the poems now, I still seem them as distinct. The first poem is much more lyrical and global in how it reports the autobiography. The second poem offers something closer to a narrative with specific details that are much closer to what someone might record in a prose autobiography.
3. Do you see the speaker of the poems as writing herself into maps or as drawing the maps as she draws herself? The title seems to indicate it’s the latter, but I feel like the poems indicate the former.
What a wonderful question! This is not something I had considered and I’m delighted by your response to the poems. Maps are a complicated personal icon of mine. They represent direction and knowing your place; they represent never being “lost.” However, for me, they also represent the tool that took my father away from home during my younger years.
Later, the knowledge he and my mother instilled in me about reading maps and being able to navigate journeys of any distance benefited me greatly, as I was the daughter who moved the farthest from home. I left northeast Iowa and moved to Colorado, Massachusetts, Missouri, and finally, Arkansas. I lived in two major cities and several small towns before making my home in a Little Rock. In my mind, I still retain the maps of those previous cities that I tried to make into homes, the ones that never fit. Sometimes, I retrace those routes in my mind, just to see if I still remember how to get from the place I lived to the place I worked or the places I frequented. (Google maps are a blessing and a curse here!)
This is a long-winded attempt to figure out how to answer your question. It may seem a weak answer, but I think it is both. We write ourselves into maps as we travel and we write our own maps as we make our lives and have to learn new routes to new destinations. All of this works on a literal level and a figurative one.
4. What writing has caught you off guard recently?
I’ve long been a fan of Quan Barry, and her latest book Water Puppets set me back on my heels in the best possible way. I’ve recently begun Emily Rosko’s Prop Rockery and am dog-earring and underlining like crazy. Traci Brimhall’s Rookery rocked my world and I’m waiting, waiting, waiting (impatiently) for Our Lady of the Ruins to arrive.
5. What other writings have you been working on?
After a brief foray into these autobiographical poems, I moved on to a series of persona poems about a woman who is sick with a disease (perhaps both physical and mental) that resists diagnosis. While I still believe in exploring the closer, confessional “I,” this new speaker rose up in me in a way I’ve never experienced before. She caught me off guard and hasn’t let go. Poems from this series are forthcoming in North American Review, 32 Poems, and Crazyhorse.