On the release of her debut chapbook Impact, Sundress intern Annie Fay Meitchik and writer Sarah Renee Beach discuss themes such as forgiveness and grief. Here, Beach shares her insights about poetry as catharsis after tragedy.
Annie Fay Meitchik: Can you speak to the use of erasure throughout Impact?
Sarah Renee Beach: Excavating the past is tricky under any circumstances, but when you add traumatic memory to the mix, it’s an entirely different beast. It’s difficult to rely on your own account of what happened, so you go looking for corroboration where you can find it. I turned to documents to help ground myself—or to provide a fact from which to work—but the documents themselves present a challenge in that they can complicate, contradict, obscure, or compound what little memory you have. My hope is that the erasures throughout the collection mirror this process of excavation both its illuminations and its failures.
AFM: When dealing with traumatic content, were there instances of self-censorship beyond the stylistic use of erasure?
SRB: I’m not sure self-censorship is the term I would use. In any event, there’s a multitude of perspectives and experiences, which makes silences, retractions, and obfuscations necessary aspects of any writing and editing process. A complete and accurate account will always elude us. Poetry gives us the ability to point to these voids and to give them texture, rather than smoothing over them and delivering a polished point of view. I think it was important for me to incorporate that texture, because—while this was a collective experience that could have been told from many different angles—I have only my perspective to draw from. And even that is a flawed, warped, and biased thing.
AFM: What does an epistolary form allow you to achieve or explore that you wouldn’t have with a different form of writing?
SRB: I find that the epistolary form points to the relational aspect of writing and allows for a level of intimacy that can be harder to tap into when the intended audience is less specific. It highlights what knowledge is shared, what can be offered, and what one wishes to receive. In Impact, the epistolary form gives voice to a perpetually unmet desire to connect, to share knowledge, to give and receive, showing how traumatic events both create and sever connections between the survivors as well as the deceased. I’m sure there are other ways to communicate this, but I chose the form of letters and that seemed to fit.
AFM: Can you share the intention behind writing “New Normal” in two columns?
SRB: I wrote this one many years ago, so it’s tough to remember exactly. I know I liked how the physicality of the two columns mirrored the kind of schism being discussed in the poem. It also creates a kind of hallway down the middle, your eyes darting side to side as you make your way down the poem. I think all of that was accidental, though. I believe I set out to write a contrapuntal and that’s how it eventually ended up.
AFM: In the poem, “Lucky,” there is the line: “Her name means God’s Princess,” which subtly recognizes yourself in the third person. Could you speak to what informed this choice and who the “I” is in the final line: “The heart quivered each time I escaped over the sill and under the pane”?
SRB: This poem speaks to dissociation, so the third person narration hopefully highlights that kind of unembodied experience of trying to escape yourself and your surroundings. Even in the throes of this kind of self-destructive propulsion, though, there are moments of return. The “I” in the last line is indicative of a return to the present and the body and making a conscious decision to keep fleeing rather than turning back.
AFM: Impact explores forgiveness and grief—do you see these things as being distinct from one another or overlapping?
SRB: For me, they were not only overlapping but intertwined. Sudden and tragic loss triggers very complicated emotional combinations, all of which are compounded when the experience is collective. The lack of discreteness and the way blame and anger get absorbed into the communal grieving process necessitates a movement towards forgiveness as well as acceptance—the fifth and final stage of grief. I don’t see Impact as making it to this destination so much as gesturing towards it on an individual level, grasping for a resolution perpetually out of reach.
AFM: With the incorporation of legal questioning, do you see your book contributing to a larger conversation about the way people are treated in the legal system?
SRB: Our legal apparatus, the way it operates out of sight and out of mind for so many people, is fascinating to me. None of us really knows how impersonal and indifferent it is to human complexity and emotion until we are embedded into it. Your story, your memory, your pain all become useful in this necessarily dispassionate way. With this book, I only hoped to shed some light on that experience. In the aftermath of a tragedy like the one my book explores, this is just one of the many processes set into motion, a kind of churning survivors are pulled into and spit out of. Not the whole story, but certainly part of it.
AFM: Can you speak to the recurring references to Frida Kahlo’s work? How do they relate to the goals of your collection?
SRB: I’d been looking for a touchstone, for an example of an artist making art from tragedy in a way that resonated with my experience of it. What struck me most about Frida Kahlo—and what has me turning to her art and writing again and again—is that she isn’t translating an experience or telling a story so that an outside observer can understand it. Her art, to me, shows the incorporation of a tragedy into a lived life, one that has not been overcome but endured. That felt revelatory to me as someone who for many years felt rushed through processing and pressured to package the event as something I’d learned and grown from, a story I could quickly and succinctly recite. Frida helped me to resist the pull towards narrative reduction and to honor the complexity. As Hayden Herrera noted in her biography of the artist in the quote that serves as Impact’s epigraph: …the accident was too ‘complicated’ and ‘important’ to reduce to a single comprehensible image. I couldn’t agree more.
AFM: Who do you hope your collection reaches?
SRB: If not ourselves, we all know someone who has experienced tragedy, or we’ve read about something tragic that happened to someone somewhere. I hope Impact speaks to what we like to call “unimaginable.” Because, really, what’s more conceivable than human and mechanical error, violence, a fatal crash? It’s living in the aftermath that we fail to imagine and, thus, reimagine. In that way, I hope it reaches anyone who might otherwise struggle to behold another’s pain, to resist the urge to transform it into something beautiful or useful or meaningful.
Impact is available to download for free on the Sundress website.
Originally from Southeast Texas, Sarah Renee Beach completed her MFA at The New School. Her poetry can be found in White Wall Review, Rust + Moth, and anthologized in Host Publications’ I Scream Social Anthology Vol. 2. She currently lives in Austin, TX. More information about her work may be found at sarahreneebeach.com.
Annie Fay Meitchik is a writer and visual artist with her BA in Creative Writing from The New School and a Certificate in Children’s Book Writing from UC San Diego. Through a career in publishing, Annie aims to amplify the voices of marginalized identities while advocating for equality and inclusivity in art/educational spaces. Her work has been published by Matter Press, 12th Street Literary Journal, and UNiDAYS. To learn more, please visit: www.anniefay.com.