SARAH BLAKE is an American writer living in London. She is the award-winning author of the novels Namaah and Clean Air and the poetry books Let’s Not Live on Earth and Mr. West.
NICKY ARSCOTT is an artist living in Llanbrynmair, Wales. She collaborates with writers from around the world and her poetry comics have been published in Poetry Wales, New Welsh Review, Wales Arts Review, Nashville Review, Berfrois, Red Ink, and MAI: A Feminist Journal.
Blake’s newest work In Springtime, illustrated by Nicky Arscott, is an epic poem of survival. In it, we follow a nameless main character lost in the woods. There, they discover the world anew, negotiating their place among the trees and the rain and the animals. Something brought them to the woods that nearly killed them, and they’re not sure they want to live through this experience either. But the world surprises them again and again with beauty and intrigue. They come to meet a pregnant horse, a curious mouse, and a dead bird, who is set on haunting them all. Blake examines what makes us human when removed from the human world, what identity means where it is a useless thing, and how loss shapes us. In a stunning setting and with ominous dreams, In Springtime will take you into a magical world without using any magic at all—just the strangeness of the woods.
If you enjoy this interview, be sure to check out our podcast series Life Lines: Poets In Conversation, which includes an interview with Jennifer Givhan as well as interviews with Abigail Chabitnoy, Brenda Hillman, Irena Klepfisz, and Kerri Webster.
Wesleyan UP: The writing in In Springtime feels like it straddles the line between poetry and prose
remarkably well. It’s spare, yet somehow rich with detail. You said in a recent interview
for your novel Clear Air, “I love seeing how little is necessary to get from one point to the
next.” The book is one long poem, and while concise in its writing, it builds a remarkably
complex world – with only one line sculpting a character, with one word shaping an
environment. How did you develop this unique writing style, and do you feel like you
challenged or changed your style for In Springtime?
Sarah Blake: When I started writing poetry, when I was a kid, my writing was mostly exercises in melodrama. But I think that’s important. You have to learn and practice the big gestures in order
to find the smaller gestures that produce the same emotions. And I appreciate the small gestures more as a reader (or watcher). Of course, I’m going to be moved if a character falls in love or if a character dies, but when more surprising things move me, that’s extra enjoyable. It illuminates a new part of myself.
What I’m trying to say is that most of my developing writing style feels like an editing-down of my previous style. A pruning and a fine-tuning. But it also changes based on the needs of a
particular book. And it changes because of my life. I wrote this book about a year after giving birth to my son. It was my first time writing anything longer than a few pages. That leap to a
book-length poem was completely unpredictable. I’m so grateful for it. (And yes, I published the book-length poem, “The Starship,” in Let’s Not Live on Earth in 2017, but I wrote that after In Springtime. That’s a different story!)
Wesleyan UP: You’ve written novels, poems, and short stories – what made you decide on the long-
form prose poem format for In Springtime?
Sarah Blake: I never start with a story. I start at the page. So In Springtime chose its own form. Even
when I’m writing a shorter poem, its form is dictated by its first few lines. I like trusting my gut,
and I’m terrible at planning things. Sometimes I try to plan my stories, but I always end up
changing them. The writing takes the story where it actually wants to go.
Wesleyan UP: In Springtime focuses on what it means to be human (and a living being) in a place
where humanity is irrelevant, where nature takes precedence. Your presentation of the
dynamics between the human and the animals provides a scintillating look at the
relationship between nature and humanity, between beings looking for protection, care,
and survival. Could you explain a bit about how you traversed writing about the animals’
and human’s intricate relations, thought processes, and power dynamics?
Sarah Blake: I think I’m especially intrigued by animal and human interaction because I’m allergic to
so many animals. I played with a kitten once and every place its teeth touched my skin turned
into a raised pink hive half an hour later. Once I had to leave a family dinner because I couldn’t
stop sneezing. I slept over my friend’s house, and before we went to bed that night, my eyes
swelled shut and I needed to go home. I rode a horse, thinking I would be okay if I showered right after, etc., and it aggravated my lungs so badly that I missed a week of school. As an adult,
I’ve been much more careful. I’m often surprised if I have an interaction with a furry animal that
doesn’t wreck me later. I think the attitude, which my allergies and asthma have crafted, is an
unusual one and puts an eerie edge on any human and animal interaction, a mix of awe,
respect, and fear.
Wesleyan UP: The use of second-person narration in this epic poem is a unique choice, but it is an
effective tactic, making the work universal and immersive for any reader. Why did you
choose the second-person narrative form for this book?
Sarah Blake: I love second-person narration. I like the imperative. I like the nearly-unknowable
speaker. I like the unclear positioning of the reader. And what I was especially curious about
with In Springtime was if I could resist creating a character, that you character. I didn’t want to
know the age, sex, race, height, hair type/length, eye color—nothing. I wanted, too, a place for
that character to exist where none of those things mattered.
Once I wrote that opening section, and I realized the whole poem would be told in second-person narration, what I wanted to achieve was slightly selfish, in this one regard—Can I do
this? Can this be done? To what effect?—but I always have a few writer-y goals driving me back
to the page with every project. I need those goals there to intrigue me and spark my interest as
much as I need a love for my protagonist and a curiosity for their story.
Wesleyan UP: You have worked with Nicky Arscott, the artist for In Springtime, for a decade. Her illustrations, placed at the end of the book, present separate representations of its main
characters in simple, dark depictions. Why did you choose to implement illustration in this work, and why at the end?
Sarah Blake: I think the illustrations tell their own compact story, like a micro-graphic novel. We did think about spreading the illustrations throughout the book, but I liked how the poem presents the story in its own way, and then the illustrations present it in another. There are also parts of this book that are so tricky to imagine. For example, I would bet that everyone imagines the
spirit of the dead bird in a different way. I didn’t want anyone’s imagining of the dead bird to be superceded by Nicky’s illustration, glorious as it is. The way we’ve landed on for the book, you can live with the dead bird as you imagine her, and then Nicky’s illustration adds to that.