Jessica Sabo is a former classical ballet dancer and writer whose work focuses on the intersection between eating disorders, trauma, and sexuality. Her poems and essays have appeared in publications by 805 Lit + Art, Inklette Magazine, and the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, among others. Her work has been anthologized with ChannelMarker Literary Journal, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Damaged Goods Press, and is forthcoming with Quillkeepers Press. Jessica was selected as a finalist for the Adelaide Literary Award in Poetry in 2020 and is also the author of a chapbook, A Body of Impulse, (dancing girl press & studio, 2021). A west-coast transplant and Virginian at heart, she currently lives in southern Nevada with her wife and two rescue dogs, one of which has wings. Jessica’s poem Death March was included in the Scary Poetry episode of the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast (Oct 2021).
Below is an excerpt from her interview for the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast. Listen to the full interview to hear Jessica recite a selection from her chapbook A Body of Impulse.
James Morehead: The very first line of your chapbook sets a raw and emotional tone “I have been for sale since birth”. How hard was it to share the emotions you capture in this book?
Jessica Sabo: “It was definitely a journey sharing those emotions. They came from a place that really took a lot of courage to bring to the forefront. There are certain poems that were easier to write than others. Each section is comprised of about five or six poems, and with that poem specifically I knew I had to make an impact. I had to set the tone for the reader. I wanted readers to know what they were getting into with that first line.”
James: Your chapbook also has dance references woven into multiple poems. For example you write “all bouncing curl and pointed toes”. How do you balance personal and even autobiographical experiences with pure invention in your poetry?
Jessica: “That’s a great question. My work comes from a place where I talked a lot about who I used to be as a dancer and who I am now as a former dancer navigating as an executive. I cover a lot of different issues and it definitely was a challenge trying to communicate my childhood, my adolescence, and my adulthood. I had to narrow in on specific events that shaped those different parts of my life, while also being creative with my words and create imagery from those memories, some of which were 20 to 30 years old. It was definitely a challenge, but I truly enjoyed it.”
James: I think what’s interesting about poetry is there are many autobiographical experiences that we weave into our poems, but there’s also mystery. Poetry avoids being explicit. Did you get any qualms about where you had to veer into invention to maintain the poetry and steer away from what actually happened?
Jessica: “My reality served as a huge source of inspiration. Some of the imagery was not invention, but some of the imagery was based on photographs from family members. Some imagery is based on experiences that I remember as a child, bits and pieces of memories that I strung together. A lot of the other poems in the chapbook are based 100% on memory. I recount specific events in my life where I remember every minute detail. I don’t want to say those came more easily, they were actually harder to write. I wanted to infuse every detail I could into the writing, sometimes that’s more painful than using imagery. So I think that the chapbook combined both types of poems and both types of approaches.”
James: You touched on this a little bit but let’s go deeper. What is your writing process? How do you go from an idea to words to a fully formed poem?
Jessica: “Writing is rewriting. My process depends on what I’m writing about. If I’m writing about something from my childhood, then I normally have a more casual process where I think about what I want to write about: the memories, what I was feeling at the time, and how I feel now as an adult looking back on those memories. My process for when I’m talking about my adulthood, where I have a very clear memory, begins with a loose outline. I’ll sit down and just write without looking too much at structure, grammar, or even the spelling. I just try to get the poem out so that I have a shell of a story that can be molded into something more artistic and creative.”
James: Your book is rich with beautiful and powerful lines, one example: “I never saw a shade of black like the one that wore you—deeper than the blooming bruises, heavy like the chill that crept into your home when I knew there was no saving to be done.” How do you decide when to stop revising and editing a poem? What are your sources of feedback and critique?
Jessica: “A very large source of feedback for me comes from my wife Shannon. She’s read every single poem that’s in this chapbook and has heard me read probably 70 or 80 poems to her. I value her feedback more than anyone else’s and the subject matter speaks to that as well. When I started out writing poetry about three and a half years ago, I knew that I wanted to be published as soon as possible. Not just for the publishing credits, but I wanted feedback from professionals. With the rejections I received, I got a lot of feedback from editors and poetry readers, which was hard at first. I looked at where I could improve my work and I would put a poem away for months so I could come back to it and be able to think more clearly.”
James: Structuring and ordering a collection of poems is challenging because in most cases the poems weren’t written with a collection in mind – they were written over time. How did you settle on the ordering of poems in your book, the sections, and how they were named?
Jessica: “This chapbook took a long time to piece together. I didn’t write these poems in order, so it was a daunting task when it came time to put everything together. The chapbook is about trauma and mental illness and what my journey has been in life dealing with both. It’s about living with an eating disorder and being faced with death but ultimately choosing life. I knew I wanted to have certain sections that spoke to those moments in my life. So, there are three sections of the book. First, Cradle, which is related to my childhood. Those are poems that speak to not only my development as a child, but also the development of my eating disorder. The second section is called Marrow, which is the meat of the chapbook. Those are poems that describe the war to survive while you’re slowly killing yourself, which is what I was doing. The third section is Clamor, poems that speak to the the unlearning you have to go through when you’re trying to survive an eating disorder. It also speaks to forgiveness, that you have to forgive yourself, which is definitely something that I work on every day.”
James: I imagine your poetry has resonated and connected with readers suffering from similar challenges. What have you learned from your readers?
Jessica: “The feedback that I’ve gotten from readers has been positive. People feel represented and visible. People suffering with anorexia and bulimia are often invisible, so it is important to have work that represents us. Society has its own ideas and preconceptions of an eating disorder, but everyone’s experience is so different. The feedback I’ve gotten from people who are in recovery, or who are struggling, or who have had disordered eating that may not fall into a specific category of an eating disorder, is that they appreciate my honesty and candor. I’ve always been really vocal about my journey because if I can convince one person that they aren’t alone and that someone else knows what it’s like to deal with this monster, then I’ve done my job as a person, as a poet, and as a survivor.”
James: What was your journey to have your chapbook selected and published?
Jessica: “I started writing poetry in 2018 and I knew in the long term I wanted to get some single poem credits and a chapbook, and then eventually a full-length collection. So, after about 70 or 80 poems, I thought to myself, maybe I have enough here to do a chapbook. I went through my entire collection, but I found that not all of them fit together. I knew I wanted to write about my experience with anorexia and bulimia, and how I came out the other side, but I didn’t have enough work. So, I actually put it on the back burner for about a year and a half. I started working on more poems that really addressed the different parts of my life, from childhood through adolescence through adulthood. I began to talk about the experiences that really changed how I looked at myself, my life, and my own mental health. So, it took about another year and a half to have a set of poems to be able to put together. Even though there are only 15 or 16 in this chapbook, it took a lot longer than I expected. But I’m really glad that I did because I think that it made me a better writer by realizing early on that I just didn’t have a good enough body of work.”
James: When did you know or have the confidence that you had a collection of poems that was ready to be published in book form?
Jessica: “I spent a lot of time looking at publishers whose goals aligned with my own. I wanted to make sure I went with a press that champions female writers. I wanted to go with a press that spoke to writers who are going through trauma. So, I narrowed it down to about five or six presses and submitted the chapbook to three presses. The manuscript ended up being chosen by dancing girl, which was my number one choice. I have a couple chapbooks from that press and the writers that dancing girl represents are phenomenal. I thought that I would fit really well in that group of writers.
James: Finally, what advice do you have for listeners who are just starting to write poetry or tempted to write their first poem?
Jessica: “It might sound silly, but embrace the poor writing that is going to be your first draft, your second draft, your tenth draft or 20th draft. It’s okay not to get it right the first time. That was something I didn’t really understand when I started writing poetry. I had been a memoir writer and an essayist, so I thought poetry would be similar in that I could just do one or two drafts and I’d get it, but that’s not what poetry is. You have to be okay in sitting with a sentence that just isn’t right and with a word that you just can’t think of and with a subject that’s just so hard to get out on paper. You have to be comfortable with that in order to improve as a writer, as a poet, and as an artist.”
The complete interview including Jessica reciting a selection from her chapbook A Body of Impulse is available on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.