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Everyone Can Write A Gloomy Poem, or At Awhitu There’s Just Walking and Resting, Writing, Reading

An Interview with Sarah Broom, Conducted by Ryan Van Winkle
Photo of Sarah Broom

Everyone Can Write a Gloomy Poem, or At Awhitu Theres Just Walking and Resting, Writing, Reading

Sarah Broom's first collection was completed after learning she had stage-four lung cancer in 2008. At twenty-eight weeks pregnant, she was given only months to live. When I met her in Auckland, New Zealand, in 2011 she had given birth to her daughter and was bravely writing her second collection, Gleam, while submitting herself to an exhausting regime of drug trials and treatments in Auckland, Melbourne, and Boston. She was effervescent, optimistic, charming, and generous with her time. The talent on display in her first collection, Tigers at Awhitu, was dark and haunting and I was attracted to her work before understanding how much of it was made through adversity. Sadly, Sarah Broom died on April 18, 2013, five years after her initial diagnosis. Gleam will be published by Auckland University Press in August 2013. Selina Guinness says, “It is a collection written in extremis, and contains some of the most beautiful and startling poems about dying I have ever read.” Broom is survived by her husband, Michael Gleissner, and their three children, Daniel, Christopher, and Amelia, whom she lived to see go off to school.

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Ryan Van Winkle: Tell us about Tigers at Awhitu.

Sarah Broom: I have this place, Awhitu. It’s a peninsula just south of Auckland. We have some people who have very kindly let us use their house down there whenever we want to. It’s about an hour away, so I drive down there. I find I don’t write very well at home. There are just too many jobs and kids and stuff, so I get away from email and everything. At Awhitu there’s just walking and resting, writing, reading.

A lot of the first two-thirds [of the collection] is relatively dark; there is a sense of menace, which is strange because I wrote the poems relatively quickly, and after eighteen months, I had a collection ready. Then I was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. And it got placed, and the publishers got back to me and said, “Okay, keep writing because we can’t publish it quite yet.” So I wrote the last third of the book. The strange thing is that a lot of [the post-diagnosis poems are] lighter in a way.

For instance, the first poem in the book, “Snow”:

 

Snow

It was as the snow started falling again
that she blurted it out, so they were all
just standing there gazing up, knee-deep
in snow, the little one thigh-deep
when they heard it, the news that slipped
out like a necklace from a sleeve,
not meant for the kids, not meant for here,
for the snowwoman with her pink hat
and old carrot nose, for the creaking
pines, the cracked plastic sled, the neat
rabbit tracks that shied all over the white
field. So they stood there, the little one
lost in any case in this too white world,
his too cold hands stiff in his wet wool
gloves, his feet stuck somewhere
miles down below. And once it was out
she wished she could call it back in,
like a dog you could whistle to,
but it wouldn’t, you couldn’t,
so they stood there in the snow,
and the big one asked, or course,
‘what’s that?’ and his dad just looked
straight back at her, his clove-brown eyes
soft with fear, the hound’s sour breath
hot on the nape of his neck.

 

Retrospectively people are reading the poem as being a diagnosis of cancer, but actually it was written a good six months before that, and I deliberately left [what the narrator blurted out] open and had a few possibilities in my mind.

RVW: Why do you think the book got lighter?

SB: I think that’s the mystery in some ways. I went through such a lot of trauma, but had such a lot of intense experiences in that first year: incredible highs and incredible lows. A lot of people say, “I never felt more alive than in that first year of diagnosis.” It’s almost a cliché, but it did feel like that.

RVW: Did you resent the earlier poems? Did you ever look back and wonder, “What was I so moody about?”

SB: In some ways I think my own conscience knew what was going on. I don’t know. It’s strange. A lot of them are very dark!

RVW: Do you have a dark life?

SB: No! Strangely enough. I’ve had some dark things happen, but no, I wouldn’t say overall. But what I like about the shift in my poetry in the last three years is that I’ve managed to get away from the melancholic poem that almost verges on sentimental. Everyone can write a gloomy poem in a kind of poetic way and I think something has shifted [in my work], but that’s for readers to judge. Retrospectively, I look back at some of the earlier poems and think, “That poem is verging on the romantic-melancholic...”

But I am lucky. I’ve got the most incredible three kids and not everyone has that. I have help; my husband is phenomenal. I also have a nanny to help out. What I do is this 24-hour escape thing: I just leave for 24 hours, and they cope. They’re used to it now.

A lot of poems I’m writing now are grappling with things spiritually, philosophically—the body, the mind, the spirit—a lot of them are still very rooted in places like Awhitu and the coastlines of New Zealand. I do a lot of these vaguely metaphysical poems.

One last one—this is called, “What the wind does”:

 

What the wind does

it hunts through the forest of mangrove roots

and what else does the wind do?

it tosses flecks of foam along the sand

And what else does the wind do?

it licks my bald head with a cold tongue

And what else does the wind do?

it lunges and whines under the overturned dingy

And what else does the wind do?

it shows me how much air is in the world

And what else does the wind do?

it ruffles the chest-feathers of the strutting gull

And what else does the wind do?

it whips around my face and tells me not to die

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“Snow” and “What the wind does” from Tigers at Awhitu
Published by Auckland University Press
Used with the permission of Auckland University Press

You can purchase Tigers at Awhitu or Gleam through Auckland University Press.

For the complete interview, you can listen to the original podcast at the Scottish Poetry Library.

Ryan Van Winkle is a poet, performer, and critic living in Edinburgh. These interviews are from his Scottish Poetry Library podcasts produced and edited by Colin Fraser. This team also produces the arts podcast The Multi-Coloured Culture Laser. He was awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson fellowship for writing in 2012.