Karisma J. Tobin interviews Texas Review Press author Sarah Kain Gutowski
Sarah Kain Gutowski is the author of Fabulous Beast (Texas Review Press, 2019), and Fabulous Beast: The Sow, a chapbook (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2015). She has attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Sicily, Western Michigan University’s Prague Summer Program, and the Southampton Writers Conference Script Development Lab. She holds an MFA in poetry from New York University and a BA from James Madison University. Her writing has been published in various print and online journals, including The Threepenny Review, So To Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art, Painted Bride Quarterly, The Gettysburg Review, Verse Daily, and The Southern Review. As a professor of English at Suffolk County Community College, she has co-chaired the annual SCCC Creative Writing Festival for over a decade.
What books are you reading now?
I tend to bounce around a lot depending on my mood, so there are many books in progress and it takes me forever to finish anything, but the ones that have my attention currently are Maps of Injury (poetry), by Chera Hammons; Changing My Mind (essays), by Zadie Smith; and The Mutt: How to Skateboard and Not Kill Yourself (memoir), by Rodney Mullen.
How are you keeping yourself busy during social distancing?
I just finished teaching a full-time course load online while simultaneously guiding my three children through their own remote learning, so I’m now trying to be less busy. But I’m looking forward to creating a vegetable garden this summer, and reading a lot of the books stacked all over my house.
What does your typical writing process look like?
I draft poems in the early morning, before anyone else in the house is moving around, making noise, asking questions. Then I might revisit the poems later in the day, rereading them, editing, moving lines around, etc. If I’m working on anything longer than a poem—an essay or review or blog post or play—usually any prose—I need longer stretches of time. Pre-pandemic, I would reserve Friday mornings—usually three hours holed up in a corner of a Starbucks—for work on long-form writing. I’m not sure what my writing process will look like from this point on—being at home with three children 24/7 doesn’t allow for a lot of time inside one’s head. I will have to adapt, certainly—because I need to write. I don’t feel like myself when I’m not reading and writing regularly.
Did you like to read as a child? Were there any childhood books and authors that were your favorites?
I loved reading as a child, and that’s why I started writing. I wanted to engage in the conversation, to be a part of the larger picture I saw emerging, particularly as I began to study literature in high school and college. I’ve always loved narrative. But as a kid, I adored the Great Illustrated Classics, which somewhat surprisingly gave me a fairly solid foundation as a lit major later in life, and L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon series, Brian Jacques’s Redwall series, and anything Madeleine L’Engle. I think it’s safe to say I’ve always been a giant nerd.
Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?
They must do both, or I remember nothing, or very little, about them.
What’s your all-time favorite book?
What a truly impossible question! I could better answer: What are the books that have shaped you—or really rocked you, disturbed or disrupted you, in the best way, as a person and as a writer?
And I would say: Ariel, by Sylvia Plath; Live or Die, by Anne Sexton; Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris; Midsummer and White Egrets, by Derek Walcott; Across the River, by James Wright; Overlord, by Jorie Graham; On Poetry, by Glyn Maxwell; The Road and No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy; Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut; and more recently, Her Body and Other Parties,by Carmen Maria Machado.
Do you watch television? What is the last thing you binge watched?
I love television and movies. I still love stories and narrative in general, so I seek it out in all its forms. Schitt’s Creek is the last thing I binge-watched, and I’m so sad it’s over.
Which writers do you admire most, of those working today?
Aracelis Girmay and Danez Smith take my breath away with the ways they marry language and idea—there’s something very visceral about their poems, although they have distinctly different voices. However, when I read them, I have the feeling that each poem, each book they write is a gift. Their work is particularly relevant in the context of the recent public lynchings that have our nation—finally—in turmoil, but they will remain important in perpetuity. I don’t see how they can’t.
These writers are fresh in my mind for obvious reasons. But truthfully, there are many contemporary writers I admire, across many genres, whose work I seek out: Carmen Maria Machado (stories), Amy Leach (essays), Durga Chew-Bose (essays), Lucas Hnath (playwriting), Annie Baker (playwriting), Jessica Cuello (poems), Jamal May (poems). I like writers who take me out of my comfort zone, and who those create new worlds for me. I like the realistic and the fantastic in equal measure, as long as it makes me think.
Where is your favorite place to read? To write?
In bed, at daybreak, during the summer, with the window open, birdsong in the background.
What’s your favorite obscure book?
I just found out about this one through Maria Popova’s newsletter, Brain Pickings, and then I indulged by buying a gently-used first edition off of Abe’s Books: Nothing Personal, by James Baldwin and Richard Avedon. It’s a gorgeous pairing. Second to this is John Cage’s Silence: Lectures and Writings. (Maybe these books aren’t obscure, though. Maybe it’s just that I’m a generation or two behind?)
Are there any classic books you feel like you should read but just can’t?
Moby Fucking Dick. (I mean, I read it in high school, but I never will again.) Melville in general is such a pompous drag. Too much head, too little heart. Really, he’s just the worst.
Karisma J. Tobin grew up in the mountains of New Mexico and Alaska. She is an MFA and MA candidate at Sam Houston State University. Her work appears in Plainsongs (forthcoming), THAT Literary Review, Beacon, and Leonardo, and she is currently Assistant to the Managing Editor at Texas Review Press.