Interview with Steven Sanchez on “Photographs of Our Shadows”

Will Flaherty talks with Steven Sanchez about the influences behind his chapbook Photographs of Our Shadows (Agape Editions, 2017) and how he accesses vulnerability and strength through poetry.

WF: Your new Morning House chapbook Photographs of Our Shadows feels like a collection of moments that reveal themselves, or are memorialized, through poetry. Despite the episodic feel of each poem, though, the book does seem to create a sort of narrative about a single speaker or protagonist—not just the events he witnesses, or that happen to him, but things that he’s aware of in the world, things that shape him. Would you say that your own personal experiences influenced the crafting of these poems?

SS: Absolutely. Growing up, a lot of my English teachers explained how literature has these “universal” themes that are supposed to make people feel connected regardless of who you are. Sometimes, I felt like I was missing something, like I wasn’t reading the right way because I didn’t feel close to the characters the way I thought I should. Then, my senior year, I read Picture of Dorian Gray and A Separate Peace and I felt really excited—even though Wilde and Knowles didn’t explicitly state their characters are Queer, I totally saw my Queerness reflected in them. In undergrad, about 4 years later, I read an excerpt from Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez. It was the first book to ever make me cry. For the first time, I felt like my experiences had been validated, that it was okay to write about what some of my identities mean to me.

WF: Can you talk a little bit about any of the social and/or cultural influences that may have influenced you in bringing these poems together into a collection? Why are they important influences for you? How have they shaped your work?

SS: I’m not sure where to begin, so I’ll start with the poem I want to have tattooed on my left forearm—“Power,” by Adrienne Rich. In the poem, the speaker talks about how Marie Curie was such a badass—she studied radioactivity, did hands on experiments, and ultimately gained power through her research. At the same time, though, her research harmed her and ultimately killed her. The speaker wrestles with that tension, realizing that Marie Curie’s “wounds came from the same source as her power.” Whenever I start a poem, whenever I get stuck, whenever I get nervous, I think about that line. Marie Curie was willing to make herself vulnerable in her work, and I think that poem is urging writers to do the same. Some of my favorite writers, the writers who have had such a huge influence on me—Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Rafael Campo, and Rigoberto González, to name a few—push me into vulnerable spaces. When a speaker is willing to trust me with their vulnerability, I can’t help but trust them back as the reader. Queer writers, especially Queer writers of color, show me all the ways I can access my own vulnerability through poetry, which means they show me all of the different ways I can access my own strength.

WF: As I mentioned earlier, Photographs of Our Shadows has an almost episodic feel to each poem—you take readers through personal experiences like snapshots into another person’s life. What’s appealing to you, as an artist, about writing poetic scenes of specific moments in time? Do you have any particular hopes about what readers will take away from these moments, or what their experiences of your work will be like?

SS: Maybe part of it’s that I don’t need to worry about resolving any of the conflicts or issues that get brought up, because honestly, I’m usually still navigating those conflicts long after I stop working on a poem. When I write, I’m trying to understand something, whether it’s about myself, about the world, or about the people I love, and I feel like it’s easier to do that if I just focus on a single moment. As far as what I hope my readers get from the poems, I think my biggest hope is that they trust my speaker. I have close friends and family that don’t trust me when I try to explain systemic oppression and how dangerous it is. A person’s trust is really hard to earn, but if my speaker can earn it, maybe my poem is doing something right.

WF: Poems like “After Bobby Jindal Posed as White” and “Phantom Tongue” evoke a feeling of vulnerability in relation to racial identity and ethnicity. What do you think the poems in your collection say about the socio-political aspects of racism, and other forms of discrimination or systemic oppression in the world today?

SS: When I wrote these poems, I wrestled with understanding how systemic oppression can create self-hatred in a person. I want to believe that systemic oppression is something we can get rid of, or, at least, something we can eradicate from our thinking by acknowledging its existence. But, part of me feels like it’s a terminal condition, something that goes into remission, something we can monitor, but never fully get rid of, especially when the larger culture perpetuates it. These poems exist in moments of remission and moments of relapse because the speaker still has a lot of work to do. I do, too.

WF: What are you working on right now? Do you have any upcoming projects we can look forward to?

SS: My first full-length poetry collection, Phantom Tongue, is coming out next year with Sundress Publications and I’m really stoked about it! Right now, I’m working on some new poems and am looking forward to serving as the new poetry editor of Word Riot once we return from hiatus.

Steven Sanchez is the author of Phantom Tongue (Sundress Publications, forthcoming), selected by Mark Doty as the winner of Marsh Hawk Press’ Rochelle Ratner Memorial Award. He also has two chapbooks: To My Body (Glass Poetry Press, 2016) and Photographs of Our Shadows (Agape Editions, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo and the Lambda Literary Foundation, his poems have appeared in Poet LoreNimrodCrab Creek Review, and other journals.

Will Flaherty is currently pursuing a major in Creative Writing and Literature at Binghamton University in his senior year. He has enjoyed writing creatively for as long as he can remember. His passion for the written, musical, and performing arts is reflected through his extracurricular involvement on campus: his writing is published in student literary magazines, he performs at poetry readings, stars in student production plays, and can be heard through the airwaves as a college radio disc jockey. In his spare time, he enjoys playing and listening to music, hiking and camping in the Adirondacks, and playing pickup soccer.

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