Cracking Open Coalesced Confluence: Sandra Marchetti Makes Her Sundress Debut


The elegance throughout Sandra Marchetti’s debut full-length collection, Confluence, is the clear sign of an arrived artist, an artist not afraid of reinventing archetype for new readers. There’s suspense in Marchetti’s use of nature in ways that add copious intrigue out of so few words, building narrative from the music of a few sparse images that surprise in the way they shrink, swell, break, and sometimes ignite. She proves that in the right hands, a heron across water can tell a ghost story and a swallow in the hand can whisper love.

These poems have breadth, able to “articulate the realm that is the confluence of what Wallace Stevens called the real and the imagination,” as Eric Pankey, author of Crow-Work and Trace says. Sally Keith also says Confluence ” celebrates the intimate as ebullient, charged.” These compliments and the work itself prove that out of the most abstract of tools, a poet using mere words can transcend the ethereal and connect to an audience.

Sundress tracked Marchetti down via an Internet highway a) because we like roadtrips and Zebra Cakes and b) because we craved an explanation for such a rare, resounding debut collection.

Jacob Cross: A few of the poems in Confluence mention painting directly, such as “Sur l’herbe” regarding the French painter Manet and the way the narrator struggles to capture “a strange portrait.” In another poem, “Saints,” you describe the way the Dutch could accomplish arguably the hardest thing in painting: the composition of a glass of water. To what degree can you relate visual art to your work within Confluence?

Sandra Marchetti: First of all, thanks so much for these questions. As I said, this close reading really is a gift. Visual art is so important to my practice. I oftentimes go to museums to refresh my brain. As writers, we look at words always, and images “read” differently. They are like cool water to my eyes. I was an art history minor in college and visual art is a passion of mine. I like to think of my poems as sonic, but also pretty imagistic–some have compared them to photographs–and a visual helps me to create a story, even if it is just the story of a moment. I wouldn’t say I’m an ekphrastic poet in the traditional sense, but I do borrow imagery and ideals from artists and their subjects.

You’ve hit on two of my favorite schools in your question, the Dutch Masters and the Impressionists. The 18th century Dutch painters said, “We will paint perfectly, so perfectly these images will ascend beyond the natural. The more a viewer looks, the more she will see.” In fact, the cover of my book is a detail from Jan Van Huysum’s “Still Life With Flowers and Fruit,” 1715, which comes from this school. I love the detail. At first you don’t notice the flowers that are dying, the insects on the petals, and the dew, but the more you look, you begin to see. Mark Doty talks about this in his Still Life with Oysters and Lemon.

I used to stare at Huysum’s painting for hours at the National Gallery of Art when I lived in DC; I was earning my MFA at George Mason at the time. I loved the way the light played against the paint and the glass, the movement and momentum of the piece, the lavishness of it. I want the poems of my book to swirl, stay, and deepen in that way.

Seeing Manet’s “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe” in person was an epiphany for me. I remember sitting under the painting in the Musée d’Orsay for at least an hour, staring up at its hugeness thinking, “That woman looking out at me is Manet himself. He knows what he is doing is so controversial, and he doesn’t care.” And that’s why the French Salon rejected the piece–it was considered pornographic at the time. However, if you look at the picnic basket in the lower left hand corner, you see that Manet could be as delicate in his treatment of subjects as the Old Masters. Instead, he chose to be revolutionary instead–to show a real nude woman next to a fully dressed man, to challenge assumptions.

That’s bad ass, akin to what John Ashbery does in his poems, and it’s what I’m trying to do with my formal work. I want to tune the reader’s ear differently, but that all starts with knowing the masters. I believe in the revolution from within. So, there is a wealth of wisdom, manifesto, and joy in visual art for me.

JC: Also, in “Sur l’herbe” you write about the subject in terms of nature and an artistic process: “then muddle you/ toward the boughs to sway/ in wilderness already named.” Much of your work does blur human identity/emotion into wilderness phenomenon, and your command of transcendental and romantic themes in nature is pronounced and unique. However, the narratives and abstract leaps of the work keep Confluence from falling into either one of those specific camps. Was that what the above line refers to in the “wilderness already named?” How do you as a writer accomplish this balance between familiar themes and stark revitalization?

SM: That’s a really astute observation. Like so many of us, I read a lot of contemporary poetry, but the words that made me are those of the greats. Bishop, Dillard, Thoreau, Paz, Emerson, Hopkins, Dickinson, plus the visual artists mentioned above, are imprint on my poems. I believe taking constitutionals. I believe in finding beauty outside. There is still beauty to be found, even if it doesn’t look as expected. I write outside, en plein air. In fact, its very uncomfortable for me to draft a poem in the house. I will proudly claim my transcendental heritage here.

However, many of the transcendentalists, like Thoreau or even Dillard, pretended their perhaps menial home lives didn’t exist in their masterworks. I couldn’t do that with this book. Confluence is about awe, and awe can happen inside or outside the walls. Sharon Olds and the Bible taught me that human beings contain god, or that we are partly god, and of course we are natural bodies as well. Why not smudge that line?

On a lighter note, in reference to the last stanza of “Sur l’herbe,” I was actually thinking about my husband’s proclivity for mojitos at the time, and that delicious verb, “muddle.” I also thought about how our wilderness is largely “named” and catalogued, but the thing we can’t quite put our fingers on is the interaction between painter and subject; that’s something that can never be named or “tamed” as I hope the poem suggests.

JC: In the poem, “Island Park,” you give an aside in an epigraph concerning a local Geneva, Illinois legend surrounding a park’s railroad bridge and its position as a ground for numerous suicides. “What young/ comes lick-swift, dying/ quick off the two-tiered bridge./ A loud past flinches/ the nuclear edges,” you write, and what powerful, pronounced lines they are. How did you come upon this local story? To that end, how does research propel the writing of your poetry?

SM: Oh, thank you so much. This poem contains more folklore than research, actually. Geneva is a beautiful little town. Imagine it as a Cape Cod of the Midwest. Little shops, restaurants, and plenty of grandmas in pastel pants with shopping bags dot the sidewalks. But Island Park, a peaceful and beautiful daytime destination that runs alongside the Fox River in the center of town, becomes awfully menacing at night. The park has an electrical tower at the far north end and this looming two-tiered bridge accessible to trains on top and pedestrians underneath. I always get the chills when walking in the park after dusk, and refuse to cross the bridge for any reason.

I went with a friend once when we were in high school, and she told me this story–how she even knew one of the kids who died in the shallow, rocky river below. I couldn’t shake the image, and it became the poem that began this book. I found my “voice” in “Island Park,” and decided to keep churning on these poems with flip book imagery and jagged sound work. The pieces eventually mellowed, cooled and became Confluence. Also, to your question, I am working with research moreso in my current poems. And, I always have been an avid fact checker, so even if these poems didn’t contain more than a local’s knowledge when drafted, I make sure the facts are straight before they appear.

JC: “Blue-Black” and “The Washing” illustrate another distinction between your writing and that of a more common romantic/naturalist poet in the way you represent human intimacy. The two poems also show your range, your ability to mold perspective around similar subjects in totally different manners to great effect. “Curved like nautilus shells,/milk-white with golden ribbing,” opens “The Washing,” but what follows is a beautifully simple scene of bathing; in “Blue-Black,” an embrace stanza flows effortlessly into “Here in the night of it,/ an hour where dark weaves/ between the trees’ trunks,/ the black hooves/ of the earth.” Could you describe your creative process behind the themes of these poems?

SM: I wrote about falling in love for the first time, and what love is–the act of caring for another person’s well being holistically, whether that be a child or a lover. In “Blue-Black,” lust is involved in the writing of love, too! I am lustful toward the natural world–I wade in frigid rivers and roll down hills–so these things naturally go together for me. I think, as a Midwestern writer, I have always located myself as part of my landscape. Think of My Ántonia here, which is definitely a part of the midwestern canon. I am a miniscule dot on the horizon line, or I am the tallest object in my landscape, depending on how I see myself. This is what gives non-natives a sort of vertigo when they come here. However, no matter my perspective, myself and my actions are a part of the curvature of the earth. My previous collection, A Detail in the Landscape, really explores that theme as well.


JC: Another aspect of your process I would like to delve into is your arrangement of the music in your pieces, the lyricism of your work. I like the wealth of bird imagery in Confluence, because the way the stanza’s seem to touchdown fits so well with similarly graceful imagery, as in “By Degrees.” You describe a flying V of geese, “One slides from the isosceles/ right to angle in the back fleet./ Lock-swift symmetry.” There’s just enough consonant roughness to round out the assonance. The question: what goes into composing the sound of these very precise poems? Are there any personal constraints you set for yourself when revising that help to hone a poem’s lyricism?

SM: I am so glad you asked about this. I don’t get a lot of questions about my prosody, and I think it’s because we’re scared to talk about it, for fear of counting someone’s meter incorrectly, or putting a writer in the “incorrect” camp. I am trying to write a new meter, something that nods to our past but explodes current notions of “formal” and “metrical” lyrics. I love spondees, and I want you to tap your foot to my poems, to sing them, to read them aloud. They really go, I promise you! I do use some very specific techniques to maintain a sonic and visual symmetry in my pieces. I’m really geeky–I create sound maps that show the progression of vowels and consonants throughout a poem, I repeat words in palindrome fashion to create effects, and I mess with my linebreaks so it’s not always so obvious when things rhyme, etc.

If you’ve seen the documentary, “It Might Get Loud,” think of U2’s The Edge and his guitar pedals and effects. I want my poems to be steel girded sonically, to be honed. So, sound is where I funnel my perfectionistic tendencies these days! Draft after draft, I pare until I find the rock-polished center of the poem. This is metaphor even works its way into the piece, “Lattice,” in the book. Stay tuned as well–a blog post on my nonce forms is coming out on the Sundress Blog in April! I’m also teaching a class at SAFTA called “The Confluence of Rhythms Begins” in June. So, if you’ve ever wanted to create poems with these types of constraints and music-poetics, you’ll soon know all my secrets.

JC: With lines borrowed from William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Carl Phillips, and your mentioning of Annie Dillard’s skill in manipulating a “column of air, picking out flying insects,” you pay homage to a great many poets in Confluence. Were these assorted lines and assembled identities a preliminary goal of the collection, or rather pieces of your personal readings that kept you up at night?

SM: Good question. In fact, I didn’t have any goals for Confluence at all when I began it. I was just writing poems, in stark contrast to the projects I’m working on now. Harold Bloom says we need to divorce our mothers and fathers to create new and important literature. I understand that, and as I referenced above in regards to the Impressionists, they were revolutionaries that came initially from within the system. Confluence name drops my mothers and fathers in literature because they made me, and just like any child, I am of my parents but different than them as well. Many first books are a love letter to influence rather than a divorce from it, and I’m glad I got a shot at publishing mine.

However, lately I have been playing around with how influences can become more than just springboards, and how other poets’ words live in the new words I’m writing. Confluence was the beginning of this process for me, though the new work is now more guided. Students are often told to imitate the style of a poem they love as an exercise. My current work asks, “What if you could write a piece that’s in your own style but still clips branches from poets you love and places them on that altar?”

JC: While we are on the subject, who is your favorite writer to introduce your students to? Anyone you consistently feel you are almost, say, morally obligated to open their eyes to?

SM: I keep trying to share the gospel of Elizabeth Bishop, but students don’t take to her sometimes, at least right away. I didn’t as an undergrad either. Bishop is a slow burn. Once I got her, I never let her go. I like the intimacy of Li-Young Lee’s poems, and my students often enjoy him too, the sweetness of his descriptions of family, and the breadth of his surreal descriptions in poems like “The City in Which I Love You” always leave me agape. I do always introduce them to Sharon Olds. When I was 19 years old, Sharon Olds made me think I could do this poetry thing. I remember going to Barnes and Noble and gobbling up all of her books, feeling super guilty as a good Christian girl, but loving every minute of it. I then saw her at a conference and had her sign six books for me, right then and there. I don’t write like Sharon Olds now, though perhaps the poem that’s most like hers in Confluence is “The Curve.” However, she made me see myself as a poet and showed me what that could entail. I will always love her for that. If you’re a girl who is interested in writing poetry and in my literature or creative writing class, I am morally obligated to give you Sharon Olds. I might start you out with Satan Says or Blood, Tin, Straw.

JC: Also, do you have any advice for those assembling their first chapbook or larger collection? What went into the organization of the whole of Confluence?

SM: I do have some advice. Look out for my guest post on Chloe Yelena Miller’s blog for National Poetry Month where I discuss ordering a full-length collection. However, as a freelance manuscript consultant, I always stress that a book must have its own internal logic. Just like a sci-fi novel, the collection doesn’t need to be realistic, but inside the world of the book the ideas need to make cohere.

I sent Confluence out for five years to contests and open readings periods, revising the manuscript pretty heavily every six months during that time. I would revise it summer and winter, and let it lay fallow awhile, to sit with it. Every time I picked it up, I saw that there was a handful of weaker poems that should be removed and a handful of newer poems that needed to be inserted. It was the only project I worked on during that time, as my two chapbooks came from it, so I was laser-focused on writing poems in that aesthetic.

For Confluence, I knew the idea of “arc” would be hard to build, because so many of the poems are occasional, as we have been discussing here. So, my first instinct was to refuse to build arc, and then to do the opposite: to super-impose a really tight structure onto the collection. Not surprisingly, neither of these worked. I wasn’t sure how to reorder the collection until I met with poet Harryette Mullen on a residency at Vermont Studio Center. She said my poems seemed very staid to her, which came as a shock to me. I thought, of course, that they were bursting with life! She expressed that I needed to put a fire in the center of my book–a beating heart–and so that’s how I rearranged it.

I knew it was done when I said to myself, perhaps arrogantly: “This is a good book. Why shouldn’t it be published?” Less than a year later, Confluence was picked up through an open reading period, though the original press (that I loved) later folded. Sundress was fantastic enough to step in and tell me they wanted Confluence all to themselves. I am a lucky girl.

JC: When can we expect a sophomore collection to Confluence? What’s coming up for Sandra Marchetti?

SM: It’s tough to say when another collection will be out, because I am not a prolific writer and it takes so long for a book to be accepted and then published. However, I can tell you what I’m working on. I am about 15 poems deep into two different projects right now. They are both different than Confluence in that they are projects–ideas I had for books that needed poems to fill them out. Confluence contains most all of the poems I wrote for five years and at the end of the day they were similar enough to make a book. The book though was a fashioning after the fact.

Now I am writing one group of poems loosely titled, “Menageries,” because every poem in the book steals a line or a title from another (usually famous) poet’s poem. Sometimes the poets are even name dropped in the poems. So, it’s a continuation of what I started with Confluence, but in a more directed way. I am exploring whether or not imitations, or homages, can be real poems. It’s going pretty well. So far I’ve snagged Glück, Mark Strand, Li-Young Lee, and others for inclusion in those poems.

The other project I’m writing is a book on Chicago Cubs baseball and Wrigley Field. My father and I have been season ticket holders for years, and we are both die-hard fans (I’m a third generation fan). This is a book that I’ve always wanted to write. I’ve been collecting images and memories for years just waiting for the right time. With the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field passing last year and all of the changes in the Cub organization right now, it feels serendipitous to be writing these poems now. I’m doing a lot of research for the baseball set, and I’m really loving how story-filled they are, in contrast to some of the work in Confluence.

JC: What’s your favorite thing to do in Naperville, Illinois, where you hang your hat? Your least?

SM: Naperville is very suburban, and folks are surprised when I say that Confluence is mostly written about its landscape, which other naturalists might find uninspiring. However, it’s quite beautiful to me. Lots of trees, clean streets, and some sprawling fields and parks that are remnants of its last iteration as a farming community. I grew up here and “townie” is a label I’m pretty proud of. My favorite Naperville traditions? Walking on the Riverwalk at sunset, watching ice floes break up. Cheering on little leaguers from the stands. Taking a drive out to one of the fields on the southern end of town to look at the metoeor showers. A really good meal at Sullivan’s Steakhouse with my husband. Least favorite thing? How hard it is to get into Chicago for poetry-related events. I really want to come to your reading–I promise!

Confluence is now available for purchase at the Sundress Store.

Sandra Marchetti is the author of Confluence, a debut full-length collection of poetry from Sundress Publications. Eating Dog Press also published an illustrated edition of her essays and poetry, A Detail in the Landscape, and her first volume, The Canopy, won Midwest Writing Center’s Mississippi Valley Chapbook Contest. Sandy won Second Prize in Prick of the Spindle’s 2014 Poetry Open and was a finalist for Gulf Coast’s Poetry Prize. Her poetry and prose appears in The Journal, Subtropics, The Hollins Critic, Sugar House Review, Mid-American Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, Green Mountains Review, South Dakota Review, Appalachian Heritage, Southwest Review, Phoebe, and elsewhere. Sandy is a teacher and freelance manuscript editor who lives and writes outside of Chicago.

Jacob L. Cross lives in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. He studied creative writing and publishing at the University of Illinois Springfield, where he served as editor of The Popcorn Farm Literary Journal. His work has been featured in Still: The Journal, The Alchemist Review, and elsewhere. More recently, his poems are due for release in Clash by Night, a poetry anthology inspired by the punk staple, London Calling. He enjoys hiking with his wife, traversing Zelda dungeons, spoiling his dogs, and half-priced sushi.


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