An Interview with Sarah Trembath • Empty Mirror

I first heard Sarah Trembath speak at a literary conference in Arlington, VA. I was new to the literary world, and this particular panel was focused on the different ways to publish long-form work. Successful authors discussed large publishing houses and advances, and the collaborative (or not-so-collaborative) processes of editing and choosing cover illustrations. In the middle of all of that sat Sarah, who spoke with a quiet authority about her desire, her need, to stay true to her work. That her current project was too necessary, too deeply-rooted, to force it into a traditional publishing mold.

I got to know Sarah that year through her public readings, which were unlike anything I’d ever heard, and I quickly realized that her researched, detailed writing would change how I viewed history, feminism, and even personal relationships.

Sarah’s new poetry collection It Was The Scarlet That Did It came out this year with Moonstone Press, and her first book, The Past Was Waiting For Me, published in 2018 with Sankofa Love Project.

Sarah Trembath

HG: It Was The Scarlet That Did It just came out! It’s so personal, but also has a braided history and mythology that compels and even shocks us. Where and when did this collection begin to form in your mind?

ST: Thank you!

It began both as an extension of my history-based creative nonfiction and a reaction against it, a desire to branch off in a new direction.

I’m a research-based writer with a firm de-colonial worldview. My lens is global and historical. As you know from reading my first book, the material in it is very heavy, very political. I was advised to write a personal foreword to that book, I think by Ethelbert Miller, and I could only do it in the 2nd person narrative voice! As if it wasn’t my story. As if no one would recognize the autobiography of it. It’s not easy for me to be vulnerable in my writing, but I wanted to try.

Speaking in the first-person “I” feels too close, but that difficulty with intimacy was beginning to feel to me like a shortcoming in my writing.

So I honestly wasn’t sure I could pull off personal topics. I also wasn’t sure I could write anything short. As much as I love reading precise and airy poetic forms, my essays are enormous. It Was the Scarlet that Did It was, frankly, a challenge to myself to see if I could set aside the political/historical/lengthy/distant and speak to the essences of things in a way that would connect me to other people. So I went into some poems that I wrote about three laptops ago, and I got into revising some and creating others.

HG: I read Scarlet right after finishing This Past Was Waiting For Me, your multi-genre book, a combination of essays and poetry and denied history. In some ways, this new poetry collection feels like a personal extension of that longer collection. Or maybe I was just still on fire from learning things I’d never known before? How does your past writing inform your future work?

It Was the Scarlet That Did It by Sarah TrembathIt Was the Scarlet That Did It by Sarah TrembathST: You know how it is when you have a lens into something. Mine feels iron clad to me, and I can’t see hardly anything without looking through it. My lens is what would be called postcolonial, de-colonial, or anti-imperial.

That is: the hegemonies formed during the colonial era still exist and repeat and reverberate in various ways, and I write to expose and subvert them. These postmodern times we’re in are really epicolonial—an extension of the American or, for me, African diasporic, imperial/colonial origin. We can understand so much about this moment in time if we explore—through this lens—how some folk in less historically privileged positions on the hierarchy suffer unduly and frequently, gloriously, struggle against the thing, undermine it, and topple its towers, so to speak. I really see everything in this way, because I’ve studied it for like 30 years. So my lens into topics like gentrification, education, and race relations that make up the first book is still my lens when my topics are more personal.

For me, for example, when I’m writing about adultery, which I do in It Was The Scarlet That Did It, I’m seeing sexual seduction past the boundaries of a marital union as incursion and capture. The dynamics are similar. The consequences aren’t so dire, but they’re not dissimilar or benign: Broken homes. Retaliation and revenge murders. Sorrow.

There are many ways to treat that topic, but my lens has me zoom in on and interpret the intrusive aspect. The sovereign thing debased.

When I was writing the first book, the part on European colonialism in Africa and the slave trade, I read the work of the great historian Walter Rodney. In his research, he found a testimonial from a former slave named Esteban Montejo. Montejo is one of the very rare people in history who was born in Africa, captured, survived the Middle Passage, and became both liberated and literate. (Olouadah Equiano is another.)

And Montejo tells us that one of the ways in which the Europeans got Africans close enough to get captured was by waving a red handkerchief. Of course waylaying people and setting villages on fire was the other, more prominent way, so this handkerchief thing really fascinated me. Such a commonplace object to be used for such evil! The red handkerchief conflated with the red-dress woman in Nina Simone’s incredible “See Line Woman” song, a soulful and sympathetic portrayal of the prostitutes on the docks of slave ports. These two things together somehow shed light on all the adultery I was seeing all around me and was deeply saddened by. The handkerchief became the central metaphor in that series of poems on adultery. And the color-word scarlet itself found its way into the title.

There are many other ways that my prior work informed this book of poems. But I think that’s the most interesting way.

HG: Who are Safiyya, Naadira, and Themba?

ST: I love this question!

They are the creations of my mind that evolved out of meditations on two things: an image of a single rose embedded in a beautiful stained-glass panel that I once saw and the work of my dear friend, the photographer Zoe Strauss.

Zoe has the most compelling and deeply unsettling but wholly loving portraits of women that I’ve ever seen. She’s a Philadelphian, and she captures Philadelphia and Camden, NJ grit like no one else. But I never see squalor in her work, though it’s all in and through them. All of her portraits, in my opinion, convey love. Zoe loves her city, and so that comes through her camera lens. I don’t know how she does it, finds such beauty in the rough, rough circumstances in which she finds her subjects. I think it’s because she truly sees the beauty. She’s not faking it or exploiting people who struggle. We all struggle. She struggles. But her love and connection—especially to her female subjects, especially to Philly—are her actual and ideological/spiritual lens. So that’s what comes through her shutter when she snaps the picture.

At the time I was assembling this collection, I wanted to reclaim my love of women. I was having particularly difficult interactions with hostile women at that time in my life, and I wanted to reclaim a sense of connectedness to them, to us. I have a lot of good, kind, pure female friends, but my friendships have become distant in recent years.

My friendship with Zoe is one of the distant but pure ones; I don’t think we’ve ever even had a disagreement since we met in 1989. And I think, in retrospect, I honed in on her and her work during this difficult but extremely creative time in my life in order to reclaim my connection to women. (She doesn’t know this, so I’m glad you asked.) I’ve watched Zoe rise to a degree of fame over the past decade or two, and I’ve followed her work closely. I admire her process and her body of work. We talked about doing a book together—my poems, her photos—but it never quite manifested. The eight poems with women’s names evolved out of the initial effort. “Safiyya,” “Naadira,” and “Themba” are three of those poems.

I selected eight of Zoe’s photos and created eight women. They were hard-looking women, scarred and worn, but so gorgeous in nontraditional ways. I looked and looked and stared at those photos and imagined the women’s essences in relation to that stained-glass window I’d seen. It was of a rose in its vase, and it stayed on my mind for some reason. A rose can be a hackneyed image in poetry, but it was speaking to me through this meditation on the color scarlet and through a traditionally beautiful image enclosed in glass. Anyway, I wondered what the eight women would do in a room with that window. Where would their gazes land? How would they see/be the rose?

Of the three you mentioned, Safiyya asks, and asserts, “What is this pressing thing?/What is shaped like a vase: containment.” She’s stuck.

Naadira is “stem-like and skeletal/Debutante ready and/prepped for the snap and the plunk” into her vase. She’s stuck.

Themba just says fuck it, though, and rolls out. She’s not to be contained. She ends the book.

Her poem also opens my website. I suppose she’s the me that I am when I’m being the way I want.

HG: There is religion and mythology throughout this collection. Is this about personal belief or does it form a wider lens for your storytelling through poetry?

ST: I am a deeply religious person. I cuss a lot, so my religiosity is lost on some people. But it’s there.

Now that I think about it, the most autobiographical poems in this collection do indeed have a mystical, mythical, religious feel, don’t they? Both “Jazz Interaction with Symbols” and the poem dedicated to my best friend, who died in 2002, are quite religious in a way. They translate mystical experiences that I, as a praying, fasting, Bible-reading, potty-mouthed, interfaith Marxist Christian, had during extremely difficult times in my life. Extremely difficult times with lots of loss and separation. I felt God’s mercy as this very real presence. This unmistakable and all-powerful Spirit.

Omens and visions and images and a Voice expressed that presence, and the poems had to be about that. Neither could be about the death or the chaotic debacle that the “Jazz” poem is about. Not for me. My poems about sad and harsh things are really juvenile and self-indulgent, so I had to write about the Mercy.

HG: What was the hardest poem to write in this collection?

ST: The first four poems in the book are also autobiographical and spiritual. They came out of the sudden death of a lover of mine named Michael. These literally took 30 years. I just could not write about that. I tried several times. But when I was ready, they flowed out easily.

So the hardest one to write was the one about Pablo Neruda, “Blood Rising Under the Andes and Above.” This is going to sound petty and weird, but it’s really about me being pissed off that he cheated on his wife with Mathilde—his next wife and the subject of 100 of his poems. Isn’t that crazy? I don’t know either one of them. But I love Pablo Neruda so much, that I was oddly disappointed in his transgressions.

When I was in my early 30s, I carried his 900-page collection of his work with me everywhere I went for about a year. I hate waiting in lines and at bus stops and stuff, so I carried that collection around as a sort of behavior-control method. Instead of acting out, or whatever, I’d bust out this leaden collection of his poems and just be transported. I love Neruda so much that my only child was born on his birthday.

And I could relate to being Mathilde. In my youth and my cuter days, fellas wrote songs and poems about me. A few got really caught up! I miss that era of my life. But I’ve aged out of it, and I don’t really know how to be that Sarah I used to be and behave anyway. So it’s probably for the best that I’m a different Sarah. But something about those love poems of Neruda to Mathilde brings me back there. Safely, but potently.

So somehow or other, I learned that Neruda had cheated on his 2nd wife with Mathilde, and then he left that wife and married Mathilde and wrote all these poems to her. It bugged me. I couldn’t be transported by the love poems anymore after I found that out.

I already know that’s ridiculous. I’m really not that puritanical that I could stand in judgment of him. Or her. I’ve definitely crossed relationship boundaries. That’s what the “Jazz Interaction” is—very distantly—about. I fell deeply in love with a married man once and made decisions that that were not wholly ethical ones. They were partially and eventually ethical divisions, if that’s possible, and they all crashed in on me anyway. Half-bullshit tends to do that. You have one foot inside of something and one on the outside and think that’s going to work without hurting anyone. The “Jazz Interaction” documents, in mystical terms, my carriage away from half-bullshit living. But just because it was Grace that carried me, as opposed to, say, good decision-making, I’m not in position to judge. So my disappointment in Neruda, this hero of mine/that gushing lover of his wife Mathilde feels complex. I’m sure it’s all about Freudian projection.

In any event, that poem was hard to write because the contradictions in it aren’t resolved for me. I love Neruda’s politics, his martyrdom, his passion, and his unfathomably beautiful poems, and I get Mathilde. I wanted it to be an ode with a twist. I don’t know if it worked. I think the ambiguity emerged, but I don’t know if the deep, deep abiding respect and reverence did.

HG: What poets and essayists are you obsessed with right now?

This Past Was Waiting for Me by Sarah TrembathThis Past Was Waiting for Me by Sarah TrembathST: My wanderings away from anti-imperialist work was short-lived. Just long enough to eke out Scarlet, I guess. I’m literally reading about 10 postcolonial Business Relationships right now with a fervency that indeed feels like obsession. They’re all in my Kindle, and I flit back and forth between them. I’m re-reading Fanon, Friere, and hooks; and I’m all up into Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies and Chela Sandoval’s Methodologies of the Oppressed.

I studied the British actress and poet Michaela Coel the month or so before the postcolonial Kindle-fest. She’s fascinating. I wrote a chapter on her for a forthcoming anthology on heroines. I also just picked up Caroline Bock’s Carry Her Home, which is amazing so far.

In short: I read too much and am generally obsessed with words.

HG: I once listened to you speak on a panel about publishing. You discussed your experiences with larger, smaller, and hybrid presses and it was both informative and fascinating. Can you discuss that? How you’ve chosen the presses you worked with and what it was like throughout the publishing process?

ST: I love indie presses. I love their vision, their freedom, their passion, and their products. I work with indie presses. I don’t trust large commercial presses. For my next book, however, I’m going to get myself out of that mistrust. I believe that fear manifests the things that we’re afraid of, and I want this particular book to be broadly read. (It’s another revisionist history that seeks to replace the old crappy history books and Howard Zinn and James Loewen’s iconic books, which are brilliant but getting a little dated at this point.)

But my tradition, the Black literary tradition, is one in which the prejudices and biases of both mainstream and academic publishing have figured heavily. Throughout most of our history, we couldn’t get in, so we started our own presses. Eventually, we could get into radical presses. We could get into mainstream ones, if we were willing to allow our voices to be watered down. Which I’m not. Many, many times in my career as an educator and writer I’ve been pressured to change the facts to fit someone else’s comfort, and I can’t. It’s not in my personality. I would be depressed. So I follow the model of my mentors, one of whom is Sonia Sanchez. They built (presses, programs, etc.) from the ground up—whatever they needed—in order to bring their work through to the people. Or they linked with like-minded people who were positioned within already-built institutions. They didn’t squeeze their work into unfriendly places.

My work, the anti-imperialist work, is really relevant to many of the things that should be on all our radars as profoundly in need of repair. But it makes some people uncomfortable, so I worked with a collective of artists and activists to build the publishing arm for my first book. I’ve parsed out parts of it to smaller indie pressed who are willing to take a risk or who have similar visions. And then, I published Scarlet with an indie press in Philly.

It’s all been deeply rewarding, and the work has been well received. I’m grateful! But I’m ready to take a bigger step. TaNehisi Coates has opened up a lot of doors for people with our topics, and I’m ready to step in and believe in the goodness and openness of a bigger press who can more widely distribute my work. Wish me luck!

About Hannah Grieco

Hannah Grieco is a writer and advocate in Arlington, VA. She can be found online at hgrieco.com, on Twitter at @writesloud, and at Barrelhouse Magazine as an assistant fiction editor.

About Sarah Trembath

Sarah Trembath is a print poet, spoken word artist, and creative nonfiction writer whose work has appeared widely in literary journals and anthologies. She is a professorial lecturer in the Writing Studies Program at American University in Washington, DC,

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