Know that feeling when you read something so good, your eyes get wide and your jaw drops and you start swearing at your laptop, and everybody else at Starbucks stares at you like you’ve gone insane? Yeah, that’s what happened to me when I came across the poetry of Sara Hughes. From the tender mortality of “The Kingdom of Childhood” to the playful, coming-of-age eroticism in “The Makeout Party,” her well-crafted poems shine with wit, humility, and grace. Think of that famous quote from Emily Dickinson: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
Enter, Sara Hughes. This month, the dance of deadlines (isn’t that the name of a George R. R. Martin novel?) allowed us to include some interview questions, as well. So without further gilding of the lily…
Michael: Thanks for sharing your wonderful poems with us! I’m really intrigued by the tenderness and energy in your work so I thought I’d start with an obvious question and ask for some of your influences. Also, do you have any stylistic “rules” that you’d like to share?
Sara: Thank you for such a lovely compliment! My two favorite poets are Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay, but my greatest influences have been my teachers who have invested a great deal of time talking with me about poetry and are all fantastic poets: Anya Silver, Gordon Johnston, Judson Mitcham (Poet Laureate of Georgia), David Bottoms (former Poet Laureate of Georgia), Marty Lammon (former president of AWP), Beth Gylys, and Leon Stokesbury.
Regarding “stylistic rules,” I try to apply to my writing something my first poetry professor said when I was nineteen. He quoted Coleridge: “Poetry is the best words in their best order.” For some reason, that made sense to me. All other “rules” seem to be encompassed by that one.
M: I see in your bio that you’ve spent a lot of time in Georgia. Coincidentally, I visited your neck of the woods about eight years ago when I participated in the Georgia Poetry Circuit, so I’m curious to hear how that setting has inspired you. Put another way, I know that place plays a vital role in some authors’ creative process, whereas others find it almost incidental. Do you feel like there’s a certain “Georgia-ness” to your poems?
S: I was born in Georgia and have lived here my entire life, so it is difficult to separate my identity and poetic voice from this region. And you’re right—place does play a crucial role in my creative process, but not in the way you might think. The South is arguably the only distinct region left to discuss when considering Contemporary American Regionalism, so I feel responsible for representing the South in an honest, authentic manner. However, I sometimes feel so constrained by my roots that I am more prolific when I am away from Georgia. I wrote more poems in one month at a residency in Connecticut than I did in the two years leading up to it. The distance gave me room to breathe. My poems still reflect my Southern heritage, though. How could they not?
M: You earned a PhD in English with a concentration in Creative Writing from Georgia State University. These days, more and more writers are going that route. Do you have any advice for writers (especially poets) who have already earned an MFA and are trying to decide whether or not to pursue a doctorate?
S: I would advise those writers to ask themselves two questions: 1) Do you have four to six years to devote to a rigorous academic program? 2) What kind of career do you want?
I thought the coursework, comprehensive exams, and dissertation for the PhD would be comparable to my MFA, but they were much more intense. You have to understand going into a PhD program that it is a lot of work, and you have to make more sacrifices than you can probably imagine.
If you want to write and publish, an MFA is probably enough. If you want to be a full-time professor in a good English department, having a PhD helps. I love being in a college classroom, but I could only find adjunct work with my MFA. Even though an MFA is a terminal degree, the academic market is saturated with MFAs these days, and while some departments do hire MFAs with substantial publication histories for full-time positions, it seems to be rarer and rarer as time passes. Since I wanted to be an English professor, I decided to go back for the PhD. I am so glad I did. I feel more confident teaching literature courses having spent six years pursuing a PhD.
M: I noticed that in addition to poetry, you’ve also published reviews. That’s something I really appreciate because in my not-so-humble opinion, not nearly enough creative writers do that. Do you have a certain aesthetic or philosophy when it comes to reviews?
S: My main philosophy about writing reviews is that I don’t write negative ones. If I don’t like a book, I just won’t review it. Nobody needs that kind of negative energy floating around. Writers should support each other. I agree that more creative writers should write reviews. When my first book comes out, I want some reviews, so I’m doing my share of writing them now.
M: Any new projects in the works?
S: My manuscript, What You Must Understand, and my chapbook, Pretend You Don’t Owe Me a Thing, are both under consideration for publication right now, so I’m hoping for some good news regarding those two manuscripts. Right now, I am working on a new manuscript called Twin Speak. This book will address my identity as an identical twin, but it may also include several pieces about my breast cancer diagnosis and how that has impacted my relationship with my twin sister.
M: Just for kicks, if you could transform into any mythological creature, what would it be?
S: Is it too cliché to choose a phoenix? I love the idea of living a really long time and then being reborn. Plus, flying.
Photo By: Charles D P Miller