Vermont Arts Council

An Interview with Poet Sarah Audsley

For Sarah Audsley, to be a rural poet is to “claim belonging in a rural landscape.” While the average American may not associate a Korean American woman with the phrase “rural poet,” that sense of belonging has always been natural to Audsley. Raised in Woodstock, VT, she once aspired to be a mountain guide. She grounds her poetry in a reverence for the natural world while working language to claim a less straightforward part of her identity: that of a Korean adoptee raised by white parents.

Audsley received a Creation Grant in 2020 to support the completion of her first full-length poetry manuscript, as yet untitled. Mixing familiar and experimental forms, the book is Audsley’s exploration and invention of her experience as a Korean American transracial adoptee in rural Vermont. Poems like “On Meeting My Biological Father,” which first appeared in the literary magazine Pleiades, and “Crown of Yellow,” which first appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, evoke the complexity of this experience by attending to details of memory, place, and family.

“With this stranger I’ve just met, I sit

on the floor, share this meal. Gestures,

a smile here and there, is what I can say.”

—from “On Meeting My Biological Father”

“Never dress Asian babies in yellow, my mother tells me. Clashes with their skin.

I learned from you, she says.”

—from “Crown of Yellow”

Along with these traditional poems will be Audsley’s “invented letters,” poems in the form of an imagined correspondence between herself and her biological parents. Drawing from a myriad of historical records, Audsley plans to mold her invented letters using experimental poetic techniques including collage, bricolage, erasure, and redaction.

For Audsley, engaging with these experimental forms is a chance to push her boundaries as a writer and honor her commitment to the craft. Poetry has always called to Audsley, but she didn’t know it was her path until she turned 29. Since then, her commitment has been all-encompassing. She entered the MFA program at Warren Wilson College and graduated in 2019. To support herself as she continued pursuing poetry, she chose to work in arts administration with literary nonprofits. From 2012 to 2015, she worked as Program Coordinator and Assistant to the Director at The Frost Place poetry center in Franconia, New Hampshire. She is currently the Writing Across Media Facilitator at Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, and since February of this year she has been the Managing Director at Sundog Poetry Center, also in Johnson.

Growing up in rural Vermont, Audsley rarely saw voices like her own in the literature she read. Today she is a consummate rural poet and a pillar of Vermont’s literary community. She expects to complete her manuscript in progress by 2021, when she will submit it to first-book contests.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Desmond Peeples: Your manuscript in progress will include poems in traditional forms, but you are also working heavily with hybrid forms and experimental techniques. What has drawn you to these methods now?

Sarah Audsley: Well, most likely, that will not be the title that sticks, but it summarizes what I am leaning towards with new work I am developing for the manuscript in progress. The epistolary mode appeals to me because, as an adoptee from South Korea, I can use my imagination to create correspondence and invent letters to (or from) my biological parents.

A hybridized manuscript interests me right now because I would like to upend the expected adoptee narrative of “white savior” adoptive parents, and the simple expectation that adoption is the happy solution for all involved. In fact, I find adoption stories—mine and others—each contain their own specific complications and nuances. Finding the right language matters to me. Of course, there will be traditional poetic forms, but right now I feel compelled to interrogate adoption from other angles, including but not limited to legal and governmental documents, my adoption papers, journal entries, and more.

Examples of hybrid poetry collections that inspire me are, for example, Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Ghost of by Diana Khoi Nguyen, and Olio by Tyehimba Jess, to name a few. I don’t know if I will be able to pull it off, but I am experimenting to see how much my manuscript can hold.

You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that Mary Oliver was your “gateway drug” to poetry? Can you speak a bit about why Oliver’s poems are so powerful to you?

Mary Oliver has been a touchstone poet for me over the years and was, yes, one of my first poetry “crushes” or “gateway drugs.” What I mean by this is that her poems spoke to me deeply and provided solace at a young age, and still do today.

Her evocation of nature and praise for the natural world has significant resonance for me as I very much consider myself a “rural poet.” What I mean by that is how I claim belonging in a rural landscape—Vermont, specifically. As a person of color, a Korean American adoptee, this feels particularly important to me as others might not see someone like myself belonging in a rural or wild landscape.

Mary Oliver’s greatest gift to any aspiring (rural) poet is not her many volumes, to which I return to frequently, but it is her exemplary way she lived and sustained a writing practice over the course of her lifetime, which demonstrates what kind of commitment writing poems demands.

In your interview with The Massachusetts Review, you say you wrote poems as a child and in high school, and then you didn’t write again until 29. Why did you return to writing?

At 29, I looked at my life and, honestly, felt very lost. It was a year of self-reckoning where I really had to ask myself what I wanted to do with my life. I had always wanted to be a writer, but had never thought that was an actual possibility. Very naively, I had no idea that MFA programs, writing conferences, residencies, and etc. even existed. I guess I never put two and two together; I never made the connection between the books that I devoured and the authors behind those pages. I never thought it was something I could do.

I returned to writing because it was a deep calling, because it was the answer to my internal question of What do you want to do with your life? I think a lot of creative people wrestle with claiming the title “artist” or “writer,” especially if one grows up with any sense of scarcity; one feels compelled to pursue a path or profession to making money. Poetry chose me way before I had the nerve to choose it back. Now, I guess you could say I am committed.

Can you share a significant memory from one of your Warren Wilson residencies?

The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College changed my life, so it is difficult to isolate one specific memory from one of my residencies. I was a student in the program from July 2016 to January 2019 and it was a formative time for me. Working with renowned faculty, who are deeply committed to the craft of writing and their teaching, was an exceptional gift.

I came away from my MFA experience with a deep resolve to be a working writer for the rest of my life. To me, aside from reading critically, writing, and revising, this also means being part of a community of writers by supporting each other, continuing to share work with each other, and learning from each other through ongoing conversations about the craft of writing. The residency experience allowed me to form deep connections to those in my cohort and others who I overlapped with, now friends for life. Today, I still exchange work as well as read and discuss books with friends from my MFA.

How has working in the field of arts administration changed you?

My three years of working at The Frost Place, alongside Executive Director Maudelle Driskell, were extremely formative. I learned so much from working with Maudelle: organizational skills, program planning, a work ethic with a commitment to forthrightness and a dedication to excellence, and so much more. It was my first job that gave me insight into what might be possible as an arts administrator. It was also one of the first times that someone else saw, way before I did, my potential both as a writer and as a colleague in a nonprofit organization.

Now I hope for a long-term career in working in arts administration to uplift diverse voices across all genres. The work I am able to continue doing—at the Vermont Studio Center and at Sundog Poetry Center—is an extension of my own personal pledge to fully participate in the writing life. Being a good literary citizen means supporting each other. Working in the field is a deep privilege, and also a dream. I do not take it for granted. I love both of my roles and the work that I get to do. I hope to continue to provide space and time for writers to write and create new work.

How has writing about family affected those relationships?

If you are wondering how my family has responded to my poems, or if writing about family members has improved or impaired my relationships with family, then I can honestly say that I feel free to write whatever poem I need to write. My family does not dictate nor comment on my work. This is a freedom that I feel very strongly about protecting. Creative freedom, not being afraid to air the dirty laundry, so to speak, is imperative.

Can you describe your writing practice?

My writing practice is seasonal—I am a much better poet in November than in the middle of July. Being outside (hiking, biking, climbing, swimming) helps balance all the time at the desk, but means that I might not be spending as much time writing in good weather. With that being said, I feel like I am constantly engaged with language and the work, as I am a voracious reader. So when I am not writing I am reading. I wish I wrote every day. Sometimes I do, but it ebbs and flows and I have learned that is a good thing for me.

To generate new work I have often relied on a daily practice called The Grind, which was started by two Warren Wilson alumni, Ross White and Matthew Olzmann. It’s a commitment to write (or revise) one new piece every day for a month. I have participated on and off in The Grind for the past several years. I find that it gets me back to the page; at the end of the month I have a few new pieces to work on in revision.

You’ve brought up a few times now the idea of a commitment to writing. Is there anything else in your life that you’re committed to in this way?

To not sound crazy I would like to say yes, but at this time, no. There isn’t anything else that I am fully committed to in the same way that I am committed to writing. Maybe taking one’s creative life seriously demands that level of commitment? I don’t know. For now, I am pretty much only committed to my professional life as an arts administrator, and my work as a writer.

At a younger age, I aspired to become a professional mountain guide. I used to be very committed to rock climbing and developing the skills that are necessary to move confidently in the mountains. That wanderlust is still there and I have been slowly feeding the urge to climb and adventure again, but more peripherally compared to before. I just got a dog, so I’m pretty committed to caring for him. There will be walks and dog time to complement working and writing. I feel lucky, and I am grateful for my small life.