Poet Spotlight: Sarah Duncan

Sarah Duncan has performed and had her work produced in a variety of venues, including The Wild Project, La MaMa, The Cherry Lane Theatre, and The Gym at Judson. As an organizer, she has curated and hosted many poetry shows around crucial themes, and she co-created and organized three theatre festivals under the foundational title, Occupy the Empty Space.

Sarah Duncan believes there is power and freedom in the recognition that most (if not all) of the world around us is invented. By entertaining this thought, other important questions can be addressed: What does the prevalence of invention mean for reinvention? Un-invention? What can we make and unmake? 

How do you start a poem?

I hear a line in my head, and I stop and write it down immediately. I do this even if I only write down that one phrase -- and I'll write this anywhere, such as on my hand, an envelope, scrap paper, bills, folders, the insides of books... I also often text or email myself. Sometimes I do of course write in my notebook! But so often that isn't around when I need it.  


What does your process look like?

The basics of it are, I imagine, fairly universal: idea, draft, then edit. I get the measly first draft out, then edit it over and over and over. And over. If it's a performance poem, I do it for an audience and adjust lines and inflections depending on reception. But, for non-performative work, when I write down my first line, the writing that follows usually takes one of two paths: I edit it immediately in a locked, intense concentration, or I set the poem aside and come back to it later. At this point I usually ask myself, "Do I like this? Is there something here? Do I want to write this poem?" If the answer is yes, I turn it into something. If the answer is no, I put it down on my desk because I feel too strange throwing it out (and as such I have folders and stacks of loose poems that have yet to be transfigured into edited poems). There are also times when I like the way it comes out right then, as is. This is rare, but it is always very exciting when it happens! Ultimately, I write in spurts, and I always have. I live like that, too. 


At what point did you consider yourself a writer?

When I was a little kid, probably around 7 or 8 or some general elementary school age, I wrote a poem called "The Babysitter From Mars." And oh, I was extremely proud of it. I read this poem to many people (mostly adults who were very complimentary, bless them), and I particularly remember calling my Dad's house and performing the poem for his answering machine. It had happened -- I had fallen in love with writing, and then sharing, my creativity, thoughts, and feelings through poetry. I became a writer then. 


Which of your own poems is your favorite and why?

Well, I've always been "that kid" who couldn't pick a favorite color or band, so I'm going to behave similarly here, forgive me. Of my performance pieces, my poem "Christmas Present" is very electrifying to perform. I'm also really super jazzed by the recent untitled experimental piece on self-care and illness I did. For non--performance work, I'm proud of a piece called "Umpqua" (about the school shooting in Oregon), and two paired poems, "An Arrival" (about birth) and "A Departure" (about the death of a relationship.)


How do you know when a poem is not working, what do you do about it?

Would it be completely unhelpful if I said that I can simply sense it? And when I sense that, I either re-edit, or scrap it. And of course, I've had others read the poem. But usually, if a poem continues to not work, and I can't get it to work, I'll move on. There are always other ideas. 


How do you know when a poem is finished?

Oh, now I'm being repetitive, but -- once again, it's a sense for me. It's completely internal. I don't know if I could even articulate it. 


How do you accept critiques?

I take what I find helpful, I leave the rest. I trust friends and other writers quite a bit -- but at the end of the day, I trust me most. 


What’s the hardest part about writing for you?

Finding time to do it. I'm a kaleidoscope, I'm always living my life in passion pieces, different projects all the time (plus working full time!). It's deeply part of my nature, so I work with it, but I've loved the opportunities I've had when I've been able to write for weeks or even months, and I hope to have more of the gift of the time in the future.  


What do you do when you’re facing a writer’s block?

I simply go do something else. I work on a play or another kind of writing, I color, I go organize an event, I call my best friend, I read a book, I go to teach. I get on with it! It'll come back. Or if it's gone, something else will come to me. There's no inherent tragedy in being blocked, the way I see it. Other times, when I've been in the middle of a project and blocked, I've done the opposite: I've had a few cups of coffee and pushed the block until it breaks. It's worked so far. 


Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing?

Well, currently my idea of poetry is expanding as I experiment with cross-genre work. In doing so, I'm starting to break open my own habits and rearrange them, which I'm really ready to do. But to answer the question more directly, my understanding of the emotional power poetry has, and the tool poetry can be, has also greatly expanded over my short lifetime. I no longer see poetry as only an "outlet" for my own feelings. That is a wonderful purpose for poetry, but now I additionally see poetry as a universal tool for counseling, teaching, community building, and conflict resolution. Consequently, I am less and less enchanted with discourse around poetic merit. I'm much more interested in what a poem does for others and for the writer -- essentially, how it exists in the world -- than if the poem is deemed good or bad, which I find to be a boring discussion. So! I'll say my ideas around poetry are changing holistically -- purpose, rules, you name it. And thank goodness, right?  

For more about Sarah's work and upcoming events, check out her website and Facebook