Check out our interview with professor and contributor Sarah A. Etlinger! Sarah has the distinction of being chosen to end our first issue. The last work of a collection is, in some ways, the most important, as it is charged with leaving the reader with the final, lasting impression. Sarah’s “Crossroads of America” does just that. The poem gripped us and never let go. Its portrayal of middle America is both stunning and honest, grounded and somehow whimsical.
Brine Lit: Tell us about yourself. Who you are, where you are, what you’re doing. What got you started in writing? Why did you choose to pursue writing as a serious craft? What themes resonate deepest with your writing?
Sarah Etlinger: Sarah A. Etlinger—I have a PhD in English/Rhetoric &Composition. I work at a 2-year college in Rockford, IL, but I live in Milwaukee, WI. (It is one of the big loves of my life!) I’ve been teaching English composition and literature for almost 20 years and I still love every bit of it.
I have always written stories and poems and things; I think it’s just part of who I am. That said, it’s a long story about how I got started again two years ago with poetry, but suffice it to say that, after a decade of nothing (grad school, dissertation, teaching, family, etc.) the poem now titled “Crossroads” (and published in Brine’s inaugural issue!) almost literally came to me while I was driving in Elkhart, Indiana in July, and I chanted it to myself the 3.5 hours home. So, the poetry chose me, in this case. Why did I choose to pursue it as a serious craft? I’m not sure—but if I do anything, I do it seriously: I’m all in. So, if I wanted to write, I was going to try to get good at it and get it out there.
As for themes, I think the ones that most resonate with me are gaps in understanding (the things that we don’t often have words for but are common to humans); relationships at the moment of demise; historical and mythological connections to the present; and the beauty of nature to reflect reality.
BL: What is your writing process? Are you a “sit down every morning at the same time and get to work” kind of writer, or do you write more sporadically, when the feeling hits you?
SE: Since I teach 4-5 classes per semester, commute, and raise a 3-year old (plus dog) with my husband, I don’t always get the luxury of a set process. But, when the muse comes—and she must, or I can’t write a word—I am sporadic. I get it all down and then go back to re-read. I also work with readers and a coach.
BL: If you had to pick just one book, story, or poem that had the greatest influence on you and your writing, which one would you choose, and why? What about a work outside of your main genre (even outside of the purely literary—film, visual art, etc)? Are there any works of literature out there that you loathe for one reason or another?
SE: Eliot’s “The Waste Land” for poem. It’s so beautiful and haunting, and masterful. It made me want to write poetry like that. Obviously no one can match Eliot, but I think we can try. Formally, I’d say I’m influenced by Gluck and Merwin. Outside poetry, I love the fiction of AS Byatt, Philip Roth, and Michael Chabon. Film: Lawrence of Arabia.
I hate Harry Potter. Couldn’t get through it. Same with Gone Girl.
BL: And your biggest non-literary influence?
SE: Michelle Obama. She radiates brilliance, grace, and goodness.
BL: What is the biggest piece of advice you could give to newer writers?
SE: Keep writing. Do it regularly, and you don’t have to show it to anyone. That said, get good readers you trust. Find a class where you can share your work and get feedback. Read.
Avoid self-criticism. But know that nothing is perfect the first time and that you can always get better. Find your tribe.
People did tell me this, but I didn’t believe them, so I will put it down here: Have patience and keep doing it. There will be a lot of “crap”—don’t let that discourage you.
BL: What, for you, makes a poem really come alive and why?
SE: What makes a poem come alive for me is rich, lovely language. A good turn of phrase (interesting, surprising, lovely, heartfelt) can really make or break a poem for me. Sometimes it’s a purely craft issue (AE Stallings’ “Sine Qua Non” is sheer formal perfection and it’s sublime; Kay Ryan does things with rhymes and line breaks I didn’t know one could).
BL: How does the current Zeitgeist affect/inform your writing?
SE: The Zeitgeist informs my writing in that it gave me the courage to do something, to make something beautiful, especially amidst the hate. I really wanted to make art and create something so that it could be a solace, a catalyst for other changes.
BL: What is one controversial opinion you have (in regards to writing or otherwise)?
SE: Oh, I have so many. I think the biggest one regarding teaching writing is that, for the most part, there’s not much one can really do that will either help or hurt students other than support and feedback.
BL: Here’s your chance to give a shout out: do you have a website, social media, other publications, etc. that you’d like readers to check out?
SE: My book, Never One for Promises, will be out in 2019, so please check that out. I’m also featured in The Poetry Professors’ Podcast, episode 107, free on iTunes.