Five Questions: An Interview With Sarah Manguso

Sarah Manguso was born Newton, Massachusetts in 1974. She earned her BA at Harvard University and an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has won the Rome Prize form the American Academy of Arts and Letter, a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, and a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. She also taught at the Pratt Institute, Columbia University, and the New School. A common theme in most of her poems is embracing rhetorical failures, which makes her poem ambiguous, interesting and mysterious to read. Personally, my favorite, and first, poem I have ever read by her was “The Rider” from the the 2001 edition of The Best American Poetry series. The juxtaposition of numbers and poetry while describing some hidden message intrigued me, though even now, I’m still not entirely positive what the poem is about. Manguso not only writes poetry, she also wrote books like 300 Arguments, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, and The Guardians.

Sheena Zhou: I have read that “The Rider” was based off of your experiences in South Dakota. What usually inspires you to write your poems?

Sarah Manguso: The need to describe and understand a feeling I can’t otherwise articulate.

SZ: “Falling through a ring, in this case, would not mean falling through the center of the annulus—a planet floats there. Falling through the ring means falling through the spaces between the objects that together make the ring”. Here in this stanza from the poem “Love Letter (Clouds)”, is it referring to your wedding ring and how a close relationship is more than an object on one’s finger but requires dedication and patience? How do you write simple and deep stanzas like these that are easy to understand but can have many meanings?

SM: In those lines, I was imagining the experience of falling through a planetary ring composed of miles of floating ice chunks. I wasn’t thinking about a wedding ring, but I like your reading. Sometimes a reader sees something in a poem that the poet didn’t know was there.

SZ: I also really enjoyed reading the poem “The Movement of a Caravan Over the Landscape”. When thinking of Caravans, I think of the middle east, Aladdin, and the Arabian Nights, and those places sound mysterious and magical. I don’t know if that is what you intended but each line seem to contain their own story, and the whole poem a collection of stories. Was this poem based off of your own experiences or dreams?

SM: The playwright Mac Wellman told me that an early meaning of the word narrative translates to the movement of a caravan over the landscape. Thinking about that meaning, and about stories, inspired that poem.

SZ: Are most of your poems based from experience? Have you ever written any poems based off of just imagination?

SM: My poems are based on emotions, which are tied to experience or imagination or both.

SZ: What do you hope to achieve with your poems? Entertain? Console people’s minds? Encourage change?

SM: I write in an attempt to solve some personal existential problem.

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