Sarah Marcus-Donnelly is the author of Nothing Good Ever Happens After Midnight (2016, GTK Press), the chapbooks BACKCOUNTRY (2013) and Every Bird, To You (2013), and the recently released full-length collection They Were Bears (2017, Sundress Publications). Of this collection, Rachel Eliza Griffith, author of Lighting the Shadow said, “They Were Bears gives us a world that is intimate, complicated, and lush in its raw, brutal meditation upon the complexities of Nature, both within and beyond our grasp as both human beings and animals. These poems by Sarah Marcus channel what the world demands of us, and our bodies as we are guided through a startling cartography of desire, trauma, and memory that is both refuge and wilderness.”
Marcus-Donnelly talked with Sundress editorial intern Cheyenne L. Black about this book, bears, the connections of wildness and women, the necessary work women still face in defying boundaries, the illusion of safety, and so much more.
Cheyenne L. Black: What led up to writing They Were Bears?
Sarah Marcus-Donnelly: Circumstances with family and lovers and growing up that often felt impossible. I think this book exists in a space somewhat suspended between feelings and facts. Before I could write these poems, I needed to process the pain of a difficult childhood and engender a spirit of forgiveness. Without perspective, I think writing can feel self-seeking instead of like an act of revelation and empowerment. When I write (and act for that matter) I always try to consider what I can give rather than what I can get. I am a work in progress, and I believe this book reflects that journey.
Cheyenne L. Black: There are definitely places where it seems as though you’re pushing against the boundaries of what so often feels safe in poetry. Can you talk about that a little? Were you trying to break down any walls or defy any boundaries in this work?
Sarah Marcus-Donnelly: This is an interesting question because in some ways it implies that certain topics (drugs, sexual abuse, & violence) are still taboo, which I think is, in general, an accurate assessment of our literary community. I’ve written a bit about the act of confession and how that label is often used pejoratively against women when it feels so vital to me. How else can we be truth tellers? How else can we explore the human condition or our shared experience? How do we start important conversations without danger?
Also, fuck safety. Safety is something I imagine straight, white, cis-gendered men must feel. Safety is not the experience that many of us have. It’s a narrative we’ve been fed. Something we are taught to desire. Something that always seems just out of reach. Even when we feel safe, is that real? Are we? If safety is the condition of being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk, or injury, who then is safe?
Cheyenne L. Black: Does this work make you feel exposed, and therefore less safe? Is there less safety in exposure/vulnerability than in restraint? What is your own sense of safety in all of this?
Sarah Marcus-Donnelly: My work makes me feel strong. I think the exposure reminds me of the value in striving to be a better listener and reader of other people’s work. I believe that if I am sincere and authentic, that I am safe and protected from other people’s thoughts and feelings. I would call that emotional safety. What my work seeks to reveal is the liminal space between emotional/spiritual safety and physical safety. I don’t think any of us are ever truly physically safe because humans are dangerous. More dangerous than the most ferocious bear.
There is certainly safety and comfort in restraint. There are times that I truly enjoy reading that kind of writing. You can’t have intensity at all times; that’s exhausting. But, I think the diversity of form and tone and topic is what keeps our landscape thriving. Without a variety of voices and experiences being published, we are doing the community a grave disservice. My own sense of safety is this: what other people do or say is not my business. If people support my work, that is wonderful. And, if they don’t; they don’t. My only business is to be the best version of myself and to write as clearly and effectively as I am able. This is freedom.
Cheyenne L. Black: So in many ways, what you’re pushing back against here isn’t so much the topics we consider taboo, but the idea that as women, we are told that we should be careful about how we share our experiences, that we should avoid confessional poetry or other stylistic choices which run contrary to the canon?
Sarah Marcus-Donnelly: Yes. So often in our workshops and by editors and publishers, we are told (by men especially) that our stories of violence, abuse, motherhood, sisterhood, etc. aren’t relevant or interesting to the entire readership. Or that the confessional voice is assumed to be melodramatic. Or that “no one cares about an experience that they can’t personally relate to.” I think that’s absurd. Men’s stories have been the status quo. Non-male identifying people have been required to accept those stories as truth and cannon and shared experience, but why? They are not the experience of at least half of us! Was Lowell somehow less theatrical than Plath or Sexton? It seems there’s this reluctance in mainstream poetry to appear to want to evoke an emotional response from your reader, but isn’t that why we read poetry? To feel something? To gain some new insight or perspective?
Cheyenne L. Black: Do you feel that the act of confronting some of these notions about female obedience helps to dispel them?
Sarah Marcus-Donnelly: At the very least, I hope the confrontation highlights our communal expectation of submissiveness. I seek to challenge our views of “good behavior” and where that gets us. If our narrators always did what was right or good or expected, would they not also experience this world’s devastation and heartache? No one gets to escape the pain of this life. It is a condition of living. So, what does conformity get us? I read something the other day that referred to discomfort as a form of currency. I believe it was something Lilly Singh wrote. She said that it was the price we pay to learn crucial things. As a greater literary community, we are driven by curiosity and a love of learning. If so, we should be making each other feel uncomfortable, often.
Cheyenne L. Black: The ecology in this book is detailed and rich. Appalachia, Alaska, the Alleghenies, and more—are the settings geographically specific in your mind or more generally based on places you’ve been? What is the connection to nature for the speaker?
Sarah Marcus-Donnelly: Some settings are specific (the road trips, especially) and some are general. They are all rooted in the same obsession to reclaim the wilderness or become wild once again. I think each place represents a departure and a meditation on indifference and our desire to create meaning or to believe in some natural orchestrated purpose. I like how these wild spaces mirror both the resilience and fragility of the narrator. How everything can change in a moment. The speaker feels closest to her truest self in the natural world and seems to be able to gain perspective there in a way that is less accessible to her in a city landscape. Everything is a bit clearer: her relationships and what it means to protect and to be protected.
Cheyenne L. Black: Tell me more about this speaker. She’s daring, bold, and maybe a little self-destructive? Where did she come from and how do you see her?
Sarah Marcus-Donnelly: Yes, like many addicts she can seem to fracture her perception that what is beautiful is also devastating. They must exist together for her; they cannot be bifurcated. I see her as the best and worst parts of myself and of every woman I know. I love her unapologetic, raw, unsettling bluntness and I felt swept away by her longing and almost constant aching. I see her as resilience and perseverance. What I appreciate about having been able to write this book is that a character that is so flawed and yet so admirable in her struggle to claw her way out is, to me, a heroine we can believe in.
Cheyenne L. Black: Earlier you used the phrase, “obsession to reclaim the wilderness” and this bears a certain intensity. Can you go a little deeper here? Do you experience this obsession?
Sarah Marcus-Donnelly: Definitely. On a literal and physical level, it’s no secret that our wild spaces are disappearing at an alarming and irreversible rate. This causes me and many others great anxiety. What will it mean when there is nowhere left to explore and be free? On a spiritual level, it comes back to the idea of submission, what is expected, what we are supposed to do and the damage that type constraint has on us. I think wildness and wilderness are true beauty. It’s the conscious decision to keep chasing those ethereal moments.
Cheyenne L. Black: There are some incredible books on this topic. Susan Griffin’s Women and Nature comes to mind. Do you read in this vein, and if so, can you recommend some titles to our readers who may be interested?
Sarah Marcus-Donnelly: There are so many! To begin with, I recommend Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Anne LaBastille’s Woodswoman, Doug and Andrea Peacock’s In the Presence of Grizzlies, and Charlie Russel and Maureen Enns’s Grizzly Heart. Also, who didn’t fall in love with Cheryl Strayed’s Wild?
Cheyenne L. Black: Let’s talk about the role of the bears. They’re covered as physical beings, figurative beings, historic manifestations, metaphoric vehicles, and even verbs. What is your connection to the bears? What brought them to your writing? And what are you hoping they convey here?
Sarah Marcus-Donnelly: This is something that I am always trying to better explain and yet feels more and more inexplicable as the years go on. I started writing about them out of a deep fascination and respect. I read and watched and listened to everything I possibly could. I try to have (safe and respectful) wild encounters with them as well. Whatever draws me to them is instinctual and intrinsic. They play an integral role in both of my chapbooks and full-lengths. I think bears, like women, are misunderstood. They are judged and labeled as too wild and too aggressive. They possess, like women, an incredible strength. They are the ultimate predator, but men fear them and their magic. And, because of this fear, they are so vulnerable and fragile. Like women, we are killing them because we don’t understand, or worse… we believe that they exist for us. They epitomize a lack of safety. Yet, my narrators always seem to be moving towards them, even trying to become them sometimes. Bears operate on instinct and need. They don’t judge someone’s character before they decide to attack in order to protect their young, they just do what they must to survive. They represent raw power.
Cheyenne L. Black: There’s that word again: Safety. It feels like you’re taking my hand and running me off into the wilds screaming, “Forget safety!” Is there a thrill for you in taking readers out into a sense of the unsafe? In proving to them they were never safe?
Sarah Marcus-Donnelly: I love this! I think that unsettling moment when you realize the danger is when true growth and transformation happen. Maybe the question that many of us are trying to answer is, “What’s the point?” To answer this, I must understand what’s at stake. When we live in an illusion of safety, this heightened sense of awareness is impossible. I was always taught that gratitude is an action, but how do you conjure a true sense of appreciation without exposure to calamity and peril?
Cheyenne L. Black: Speaking of calamity and peril, family plays a challenging role. Especially the female relationships of mother/daughter and sisters. Can you talk about the impact that writing this section had on you as a writer? Was that hard to write?
Sarah Marcus-Donnelly: It is always difficult to write about family. It’s complicated and controversial. It’s upsetting to many people. Anne Lamott gives the best advice, I think: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” This is, of course, an even stranger endeavor when dealing with poetry, which is never strictly biographical. I think the harms created and perpetuated– handed down through generations, even–are opportunities for growth and revival. How can we break these patterns if we can’t even name them? I’m so sick of silence and being silenced. I’m grown now. I love my family, and I also stand by what I have so painstakingly recorded.
Cheyenne L. Black: Your writing in this book certainly holds nothing back. Is that your usual style? Would you say its in your nature to write in this straightforward way which comes at the subject head-on? Or is this a new style for you?
Sarah Marcus-Donnelly: It is absolutely my nature. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on who you ask), it is really the only way I know how to communicate. This bothers some people. Others find it refreshing. I think we have such limited, precious time and energy on this earth that it seems silly to waste it on being anything less than direct. One time, a prestigious journal sent me a rejection letter that simply stated: “These poems are not subtle.” Touché, journal. I also consider a poem’s accessibility. I often think about who we are writing for and in service of what message.
Cheyenne L. Black: When you say that you think about a poem’s accessibility, what do you mean exactly? Do you write toward accessibility? Or maybe I should ask, do you edit toward accessibility?
Sarah Marcus-Donnelly: I edit toward accessibility. I think about how much work a reader will have to do to be able to follow a poem. I think about the clarity of my images. Can the imagery stand on its own? Can the dialogue? Will my reader be able to feel something even if they aren’t able to follow the narrative exactly? Does the imagery and sound and narrative have a similar impact or evoke a similar feeling?
I also think that there is a type of poem, a more complicated, denser poem, that the Academy tends to favor and teach to. There is value in this writing and in this exercise, but at this point in my life, I am more interested in clearly and effectively communicating a message.
Cheyenne L. Black: What do you hope sticks with your reader after they’ve finished They Were Bears?
Sarah Marcus-Donnelly: I don’t pretend to have happy endings and believe deeply in the value of allowing people to feel and process discomfort. I don’t think closure should provide relief or escape. I think closure should do the job of reinforcement. I hope readers feel a sense of connection. There’s nothing better than reading a poem while underlining furiously and whispering, “Yesss.” I love those moments, and I wish them for everyone.
Cheyenne L. Black: You talked earlier about your speaker emerging from her own strife into … into what exactly? Yet you also said you aren’t comfortable with happy endings. What about this speaker? Will she be okay? Does she stand a chance?
Sarah Marcus-Donnelly: I think she emerges into a clarity and knowledge that are often a stepping stone to action. Maybe she runs away to the backcountry never to be seen again. Maybe she becomes a bear and leaves it all behind. More likely, however, I think her natural trajectory (the book does end on “Revival, Revival”) would be to use her memory and experience and knowledge to finally be a bit more gentle with herself and others.
I’m not comfortable with happy endings because they always feel so contrived to me. To me, happiness is a choice, it’s an attitude. In my experience, happiness (to be maintained long-term) must be coupled with discipline, routine, and hard work. Understandably, most people are simply unwilling to commit themselves to this. This is not to say that we don’t experience periods of joy, but that to sustain contentment, one must take constant, constructive actions.
My speaker has all the tools she needs to make the best choices for her. Isn’t that all any of us really have?
They Were Bears is available for sale at:
Sarah Marcus-Donnelly is the author of They Were Bears (2017, Sundress Publications), Nothing Good Ever Happens After Midnight (2016, GTK Press), and the chapbooks BACKCOUNTRY (2013) and Every Bird, To You (2013). Her other work can be found at NPR’s Prosody, The Huffington Post, McSweeney’s, Cimarron Review, Spork, The Establishment, Cosmopolitan.com, and Marie Claire.com SA, among others. She is an editor at Gazing Grain Press and the Series Editor for As It Ought To Be’s High School Poetry Series: Gender, Identity, & Race. She holds an MFA in poetry from George Mason University and currently teaches and writes in Cleveland, OH. Read more about Marcus-Donnelly at https://sarahannmarcus.com
Cheyenne L. Black is an editorial intern for Sundress Publications, the editor-in-chief for Hayden’s Ferry Review at Arizona State University where she is an MFA candidate and Virginia G. Piper global fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, the American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and children.