Sarah Kobrinsky was the 2013-2015 Poet Laureate of Emeryville, CA. She is the author of Nighttime on the Other Side of Everything (New Rivers Press, 2019). Her poems and stories have appeared in Magma Poetry, Red Light Lit, Eleven Eleven, Monkeybicycle, *82 Review, 100 Word Story, Fjords Review, among many others. She was long-listed for the 2019 University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Prize. She was born in Canada, raised in North Dakota, seasoned in England, and tempered in California.
Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast host James Morehead interviewed Sarah about her book Nighttime on the Other Side of Everything; excerpts from the interview are included below.
James Morehead: What was your first memory of poetry catching your imagination?
Sarah Kobrinsky: “My parents have always been very playful with language. They were always using puns and my mom’s favorite pastime was changing the lyrics of popular songs. There was always a bit of that around me growing up. But my first memory of poetry would be the first poem I ever wrote in kindergarten. It was for my dad and it went something like, ‘My dad loves bad weather. My dad loves it when it rains’, and I drew a picture of my father under a storm cloud.”
James: Your bio mentions living in Canada, North Dakota, England and now California. How have the differences in these places influenced your writing?
Sarah: “I think because I’ve lived in three different English-speaking countries, I’m fascinated by regional idioms. Sometimes I’ll say things and people will look at me confused and I’ll forget that it’s something I picked up in England or that it’s something strictly Canadian. I love regional languages and idioms. I play a lot with the idiom in my book and that’s definitely a direct result of living in three different countries that speak the same language but in very subtly different ways.”
James: Humor can be deceiving and many times humor is a vehicle to communicate something much more serious; one example from “Lady-o-plasty”:
“ Next she’ll have her teeth, her hair, even her asshole, bleached for good measure. You can never be too beautiful, too clean, or too white.”
From your readings, and the Patagonia event is a terrific example where you engage the audience with humor, what effect does humor play in communicating your message?
Sarah: “Sometimes I can’t help it. I’ll try to be serious and some kind of joke or a reverence will emerge. When I grew up, my father was a pediatric cancer doctor. That world is hard and my father has the darkest gallows humor as a survival technique. Sometimes you just have to laugh at things because it’s a release or it’s the only way to swallow something really difficult. Being Canadian and living in the UK, they have a very dark sense of humor there. I’ve just been exposed to that. I grew up in an environment where humor was a survival technique to deal with difficult things.”
James: I thoroughly enjoyed your performance at the Patagonia Poet Laureate Celebration. How did you develop your approach on stage, which is very effective in making the audience an active participant?
Sarah: “I think that started a little bit before the pandemic because poetry readings can be dry. It can be hard to sit and listen to poetry, especially when you have an evening of four or more authors. It can be hard to give every poet the attention they deserve, so I love breaking it up. I think the first time I started involving the audience wasn’t with a poem, but with an essay I wrote when I was training to become a perinatal yoga instructor. We had to have a pelvic floor workshop and I was horrified at the idea that one could have a prolapsed uterus. I came home from the workshop and said to my husband that we’re never having kids because your uterus can fall out of your body. My husband grew up around animals, so that wasn’t a shock to him. He had seen that happen with cows all the time and he said that you just need to take a couple of sticks, put some sugar on the uterus to stop the swelling, and shove it back up the fallopian tubes. When I was reading the exercise, I led the whole cafe in doing kegel exercises. I found it fun to stand up and feel like you’re part of what’s going on. The poem is a piece of art, but the moment of telling the poem is also an art.”
James: What has been your approach to making the performance of your poetry build up the audience rather than bring them down?
Sarah: “I’m actually an incredibly shy person even though I hide it well. In a detective show, the person or the criminal who speaks very slowly is sometimes more scary than the person who is raging. The person who is more controlled and very quiet makes you listen. I will slow down what I’m reading sometimes. I’ve also been throwing myself into performance spaces since I was really young, like in the back rooms of pubs in England. My friend Betty, who was a poet, always said what she took from me reading was just slowing it down. I also like to look at people in the room and sort out how they are feeling. If I’m doing a reading, I don’t generally choose my poems before. I will have a general selection and then I’ll intuit the energy of the room.”
James: Many of the poems in Nighttime on the Other Side of Everything are compact, and impactful. In “X & Y Have Another Fight” the title provides critical context, and in “ Domestic Violence” you write:
“Her face reminded him of the red velvet cake she made that night. It was all he could do to keep from—”
When writing short poems do you tend to start with something longer, and then edit to a short poem? Or do you start with the intention of writing something short?
Sarah: “I’d say I do both. Sometimes it’ll arrive very short and sometimes it’ll be very long. I’m a big fan of paring down and I believe less is more. When I was first starting to write, I wanted to hang onto every word that I birthed. And now, I have a detachment where it’s just easy. If something isn’t working, I can put it somewhere else or throw it away entirely and having a bit of distance helps it not be so difficult every time.”
James: You also write about very personal and tragic subjects; in “The Great Pace” you write:
“And you were mambling under your breath, mambling, that was your word, prayers that made sense only for you”
Your observations of a family member battling addiction is very moving. How do you approach the revision and editing of such a personal memory? And how has your sharing this memory impacting readers facing similar challenges?
Sarah: “That’s an example of where my orthodox life came out and the stories that shaped my world. Jewish Orthodox men wear phylacteries, which is the leather that they put around their heads and around their arms. I always thought when they’re wrapping their arms and leather that they were prayer junkies. That image reminded me of my brother who was a recovering heroin addict. That’s an example of how my Orthodox background feeds my work now. I haven’t had anybody directly tell me about their own experiences with addiction or their relatives’ experience with addiction from that poem. Sometimes, we’re afraid to write about family or people close to us because they might see it or misinterpret it. I try not to think about that as I’m getting things down, and rather deal with the consequences later.”
James: You successfully placed many of the poems in your book, and then convinced a publisher to turn your manuscript into a book. Both are impressive accomplishments. What have you learned about publishing your poetry?
Sarah: “For a while, I worked at an architecture firm and I was in the interior design department. I wasn’t a designer and I’m not an architect, but I was there in an administrative / marketing capacity. This was a very large firm and there were about 80 people in the interiors department. There were some big experts on color and shape and things like that. Everybody would turn up wearing black everyday. I asked my colleague why, and she said that we are subconsciously drawn to color palettes that we are wearing. By wearing something that doesn’t have an obvious color palette stops you from doing that. That was a big lesson for me in terms of submitting works to journals or whomever. I imagine not all the editors are wearing their blacks and they’re wearing the colors of their emotional palette instead. I think that really drives their choices or what they’re drawn to. In other words, I try not to take it personally when I’m rejected. This person is drawn to whatever poem in that moment because of the emotional color they’re wearing.”
James: During your tenure as Emeryville’s Poet Laureate, what did you learn from the community you served?
Sarah: “I think it’s wonderful that a lot of city councils are choosing to have a Poet Laureate. I appreciate them recognizing that the arts are important and that poetry is important. Emeryville is a very unique place. They really value and cherish their artists, not just writers, but their visual artists as well. They have a big annual visual art show every year. Even though I’m not Poet Laureate anymore, I still do an ekphrastic poetry workshop every year where we go into the art show and write poems inspired by the art.
“One of the most challenging things was reading at official events. The toughest reading I ever did was the lighting of the tree where the only thing between the children and meeting Santa Claus was me and my holiday poem. Toughest crowd ever. I just didn’t know what a municipal poem could be or should be. Then I realized that you just have to stay true to what you’re doing. If you’re writing poems for official events, you have to stay true to who you are and the way you write. I also learned that when standing up in front of a room full of people, they will automatically hand over a bit of authority to you. They are automatically ready to trust you and believe in you, and that’s comforting.”
Hear the rest of the interview including Sarah reading selections from What We Do With our Hands on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.