Unearthing Surprising Moments: A Conversation with Poet Sarah Dickenson Snyder

Sarah Dickenson Snyder has written poetry since she knew there was a form with conscious line breaks. She has three poetry collections: The Human Contract, Notes from a Nomad (nominated for the Massachusetts Book Awards 2018), and With a Polaroid Camera (2019). Recently, poems have appeared in Artemis, The Sewanee Review, and RHINO. She has been a 30/30 Poet for Tupelo Press and was accepted both times she applied to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. One poem was selected by Mass Poetry Festival Migration Contest to be stenciled on the sidewalk in Salem, MA. Another was nominated for Best of Net 2017.

Sarah took some time to speak with me via email.

Frances Donovan: What first brought you to poetry?

Sarah Dickenson Snyder: The first time I saw a poem in a book and its intentional line breaks, I was hooked—I just loved how it looked. I was probably in 1st grade. I wrote and wrote even more when I realized that poems didn’t have to rhyme and that I could pour out a seemingly endless fountain of thoughts and memories. I ended up sending a stack of twenty poems to Bowdoin College as my college essay. 

Donovan: Did you study poetry at Bowdoin?

Dickenson Snyder: I took a few classes—there were only just a few in the English Department, certainly no writing classes at that time; I was a Religion major.

Donovan: Was there a particular poet whose work was really meaningful to you in those early years?

Dickenson Snyder: I loved Emily Dickinson, particularly her sparseness, humor, lively voice, and of course that her last name and mine are just a vowel apart.

Donovan: When did you start to take poetry really seriously?

Dickenson Snyder: I’ve always taken poetry seriously. To me it is the apex of writing, the kind of writing we reach for in the most important times of our lives (marriage, birth, death), the kind of writing that saves lives (Nelson Mandela having “Invictus” in his heart to endure twenty-seven years in prison). Poetry is about capturing the uncapturable, the ineffable. Poetry heals. My own work has always been serious as well, opening the portal to what I didn’t know I knew.

In terms of publishing my work in earnest, I didn’t really start sending my work out until I retired five years ago. I had taken workshops and classes and had been to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, but not until I could spend hours each day, did I see myself as a poet.

Donovan: Tell me more about where you’ve studied.

Dickenson Snyder: In the late seventies at Bowdoin College, there were very few opportunities for creative writing. For the first thirty-eight years of my life after college, most of my studying (The Bay Area Writing Project, an M.ED at Harvard, The Favorite Poem Project at BU) was in service to my teaching of writing. I did take poetry workshops with Barbara Helfgott Hyett (PoemWorks) sporadically for the years but never could fully invest while I was teaching English in high school and middle school full-time. It wasn’t until 2011, my first summer at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, that I immersed myself in learning, writing, and growing as a poet under the deft, gentle tutelage of Arthur Sze. Once I retired five years ago, I dived into the world of workshops, prompt writing groups, small groups of poets giving each other feedback, and going to readings. In 2017 I had two poetry collections published (The Human Contract and Notes From a Nomad) and was accepted again at Bread Loaf (I lived in the Robert frost House that summer). My third book, Wth a Polaroid Camera, came out this year. There are so many poet friends and good books, both collections and texts about poetry and writing, that have informed everything I do. 

Cover image for Sarah Dickenson Snyder's book With a Polaroid Camera
Sarah Dickenson Snyder’s latest book, With a Polaroid Camera, out now from Main Street Rag.

Donovan: How has your voice changed since your first two books?

Dickenson Snyder: I’m not sure how much my voice has changed. I’m still focused on unearthing surprising moments, surprising language. With a Polaroid Camera came out of a desire to connect my love of writing with a love of photography, specifically the immediacy of instant film. When I met Myke Simon, who invented color instant film for Polaroid, I knew that I had found a framework. 

Donovan: Did you come up with the overarching concept for the book before you wrote the poems, or did the manuscript’s structure reveal itself as you looked over what you had written?

Dickenson Snyder: The latter. Barbara’s comment about the title of my poem, “With a Polaroid Camera,” was the initial spark, and the interview with Myke Simon, who invented color instant film, gave me the idea of the six sections mimicking the process of instant film becoming a photograph. I had thirty or so poems published in magazines that I knew were going into this third collection (I have tried to get a third to a half of the poems in a manuscript published before I send the collection to a press). The remaining thirty poems came from the hundreds I have awaiting a home—I chose those given their connection to the different chapters. As it turned out I was able to get most of the sixty poems published in journals and reviews before the final collection was printed at Main Street Rag Publishing Company.

Donovan: It sounds like this interview with Mike Symon was really pivotal for you. Tell me more about it.

Dickenson Snyder: Babara Helfgott Hyett taught poetry classes at Lasell Village in Newton, a retirement community next to Lasell College. Myke Simon was one of her students, and she asked if we could have lunch with him one day so that I could speak with him. He was such a gentle man and was willing to share his life story with me. He had to rush off after about a half-hour to rehearse for a holiday choral presentation, which Barbara and I watched. All of it was memorable and lovely.

Donovan: So this was a personal connection rather than an interview you read in a magazine. No wonder it had such a strong impact on you.

How would you describe your aesthetic? Can you talk a little more about how it relates to the development process of a Polaroid camera?

Dickenson Snyder: Most of my poems spring from images or memories I mine from the timed free-writing I do every day with others or on my own. Like a Polaroid image, the poem gradually takes shape after that initial excavation for words and sounds and images. I like that a photograph is framed and bordered, becoming a captured reality to hold, to pocket the memory, a way to save it. And poems are like that for me. Often my pieces are spare. I love Kay Ryan’s work for that reason–the brief exhale on a page that uncovers a small or a big truth realized. 

When Myke Simon explained the way the rollers pushing against the film slipping out of a camera prepare the paper for exposure to atmospheric light–first the blue light, then the green light, and finally the red light–to perform their magic, I thought of the way revision and workshopping my pieces feel like that kind of magic. How another set of eyes sometimes sees what I don’t, reveals what the words are saying. And often the final poem is quite a surprise, the way you might have caught the shadow of something in a Polaroid image without noticing that beauty initially, or maybe the pain in someone’s eyes.

Donovan: That’s lovely. 

What does your writing practice look like today?

Dickenson Snyder: I carve out two hours a day for prompt writing, revision, or creating batches of poems to send out to magazines, journals, or reviews. I’m working on both poetry and fiction. Often I feel like an imposter writer and then every so often, someone wants to publish something I’ve written. That’s a brief bubble of joy. But mostly, I feel compelled to write and question if anything I create has quality. Have you read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? He taught me about the ineffable truth of quality. I’m always in search of that.

Donovan: I read it about 20 years ago. It was very deep book.

In the life of a publishing poet, there are three different kinds of effort: generative work, which requires the spirit of play, intuition, and the unconscious; revision, which requires analytical thinking (and a touch of intuition); and the po-biz, the business of poetry, which requires organizational skills and emotional intelligence. How do you balance (or juggle) these three kinds of work?

Dickenson Snyder: I like that kind of demarcation of places a poet spends her time. For me it’s more of 1) head and heart in a journal, 2) eyes and ears (on a screen and listening as a read my work aloud) and fingertips (on a keyboard revising), and 3) sending the work out into the world with a suspended feeling of hope. 

I spend the most time in my journal or on the computer. 

The final part that I haven’t mentioned is the hardest for me: selling my wares. I have boxes of my own poetry books collecting dust. It’s hard to market myself. Maybe that reluctance leans closely into the imposter thing.

I’m just a bad salesperson–unless I’m talking about my SodaStream. I was a terrible waitress, too

Donovan: It’s ironic that poets are expected to market and sell their books in a way that some prose writers are not, considering the stereotype of the sensitive poet who cares nothing for practical matters. I found myself without a job after the dot-com bust and ended up starting my own business just to pay the rent. It’s amazing what skills you discover when you’re motivated. Fortunately, I have a stable job now that leaves me with some time and energy left over to dedicate to poetry. I don’t know that many poets who make a living by book sales alone. What have you done in your life to keep body and soul together, and how have you balanced those quotidien responsibilities with your literary pursuits?

Dickenson Snyder: Congrats on re-inventing yourself creatively!

I’m not sure I have successfully kept body and soul together. But there are healthy doors that opened or that I opened after I retired. Before that I would say that I juggled teaching English full-time, being a mother of two, being a wife, a daughter, a sister, and lastly trying to write a bit–especially in summers–but never doing any of those things as well as I would have liked. For the last four years, my life feels slower, quieter. I wake without an alarm. I exercise every morning. I try to meditate every day. I write every day, at least two hours. I take watercolor painting classes. I have a letterpress set-up that makes me lose track of time. I am a hospice volunteer. All of that makes me happy and thankful and probably keeps my body and soul together in a better way.

Donovan: Congratulations on your retirement. It sounds like you’re in a great place right now.

Do you have any words of wisdom for poets who are just beginning to send out their work, or for those who are shopping their first manuscript?

Dickenson Snyder: Have a low bar and keep nudging it up in small increments, find joy in the acceptances, and send work right out again after rejections. I try to minimize submission fees by looking for journals and reviews that don’t charge. Trish Hopkinson’s website is a great resource, as is Erica Dreifus’s. And find poet people.

Donovan: Tell me how you got invited to be a feature at area readings. How did you get the contact information for the various venues?

Dickenson Snyder: PoemWorks has had a reading series run by Richard Waring, where I have read a few times because of my connection to the workshops I took with Barbara Helfgott Hyett. And the other readings I’ve done are in bookstores as book launches—two at Wellesley Books (Jane Stiles, who sets up events there is someone I knew through the school where I taught) and one at The Norwich Bookstore in Norwich, VT, a place I frequent and live near in the summers. Often it’s about just picking up the phone and asking about readings. 

Donovan: If someone wanted to connect with the PoemWorks community, how could they go about doing so?

Dickenson Snyder: Though Barbara’s tragic plummet in Alzheimer’s closed the door to her home and poetry table, other PoemWorks connected portals have arisen. Alexis Ivy, Grey Held, and Eric Hyett offer workshops and poetry trips. There is a regular reading at the West Suburban YMCA in Newton on the first Friday evening of each month. I’ll be reading March 6th.

Donovan: Best of luck with your reading! Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

Dickenson Snyder: Thanks for asking and wanting to know about me and my book!

Buy With a Polaroid Camera from Main Street Rag

Visit Sarah’s website

Author photo credit: Jenny Moloney

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