Skip to main content

Sara Tracey: Poet Interview

Please join me in welcoming poet Sara Tracey to Poetic Asides.

Sara Tracey

Sara Tracey

Sara is the author of Some Kind of Shelter (Misty Publications, 2013) and Flood Year (dancing girl press, 2009). Her work has recently appeared in Vinyl Poetry, The Collagist, Harpur Palate, Passages North, and elsewhere. She has studied at the University of Akron, the North East Ohio Master of Fine Arts (NEOMFA) and at the University of Illinois at Chicago Program for Writers. Originally from Ohio, she has lived in Chicago since 2008.

Here's a poem from Some Kind of Shelter:

Donny Takes a Night Class, by Sara Tracey

There's no time to shower
between work and school; he shows up
in boots, Wendy's sack
in one hand, clipboard in the other.
He sharpens his pencil with a pocket knife,
folds like a love note
into a desk that wobbles, eats his burger
in three bites, wishes for beer.
He thinks the teacher's younger
than his favorite bartender,
not nearly as smart.


What are you currently up to?

Today, I’m putting the finishing touches on a new online workshop I’ll be teaching in March for The Rooster Moans Poetry Cooperative; it’s on found poetry, centos, erasures…experimental stuff that is very far from my usual writing habits. I’ve been having a ton of fun reading up on these forms and exploring a different kind of creativity. I’m also writing a narrative sequence that takes place in the 1940s and 1950s in Cleveland, Ohio, and tells the story of young mother whose husband is in prison.

As someone who grew up in Ohio, I could immediately identify with much of Some Kind of Shelter because of Ohio references and the working class themes. How much attention did you consciously give to locations in this collection?

I also grew up in Ohio (though I’ve lived in Chicago for almost six years) and I’ve always identified myself as a Midwestern or a Rust Belt writer. It was important to me from the beginning to capture a sense of place in these poems, and I very organically started using place names as titles (“Barberton,” “Medina Street,” “Garden Apartment, Tremont, Ohio”).

Location became even more important, though, when I received a Wick Summer Fellowship which allowed me to travel to Bisbee, Arizona for a workshop. I’d never been to the desert before, and the disorientation I felt being in this unfamiliar landscape made me ache for home even while I was having the time of my life. That sensation became an important part of the narrative arc of Some Kind of Shelter that was only intensified when I moved to Chicago.

Also, I love how these poems follow specific characters around. That, in combination with the first-person narratives, have me wondering where you stand on drawing a line between truth and fiction in narrative poetry. Are you more in favor of being 100% accurate or telling it slant?

I’m totally against accuracy. Or, rather, I’m against being controlled by it. That’s not to say there aren’t any true stories in my book—there are several—but I’m not terribly concerned with whether or not they’re recognizable as true.

People ask me all the time who Stella (a primary persona in Some Kind of Shelter) is. According to the narrative, she’s the cousin of the unnamed speaker of many poems (it’s safe to assume that speaker is a version of me). But in real life, I don’t have a cousin named Stella (this is especially confusing to people who know me and know my family, who try to place Stella in a real family tree), and if we’re being honest, many of the things that happen to Stella have happened to me.

I like to tell these people that Stella is my evil twin. But she’s not evil, she’s just broken. And for a long time, I romanticized the broken parts of me. Writing Stella gave me permission to lie, to make stuff up, and as a beginning poet, I really needed that.

These days, I tend to think of something Toni Morrison said: “facts can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot.” So, yes, I’m interested in the truth, but I don’t necessarily believe that truth and fiction are mutually exclusive.

Some Kind of Shelter is your first book of poetry. What was the biggest surprise in the process?

Before the book was accepted for publication, what surprised me most was how many possible books these poems could have been. I went through several titles, several sequences, several iterations of my first manuscript, many of which have surprisingly little to do with Some Kind of Shelter despite them being made up of the same poems. Each time I reordered the manuscript or changed the title, it felt like I’d made something brand new.

I noticed on your blog a post about student loan debt. I don't usually cover student loan debt on this blog, but I realize some readers are grad students—or considering that path. Could you give a snapshot of your experiences/thoughts on the whole process?

Oh, student loans! The bane of my existence!

I’ve been in grad school full time since 2005, and in that time, I’ve buried myself in over $100,000 in student loans (and I’m talking government loans, not those creepy private ones with super high interest). It’s embarrassing to say that in public, which is part of why I wrote about it on my blog (I know it’s counterintuitive, but I find the best way to dispel embarrassment is to make it public).

The thing is, when I started taking the loans out, I believed I was making a smart decision. I thought I had a sound financial plan. I’m almost done with grad school, and now that I’m faced with paying back these beasts, I realize I was misinformed. I’ll likely never pay them back. There’s a good chance I’ll never buy a house. I can’t imagine even being able to save for retirement, though I’m sure that’s just the fear talking.

I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me—I made my own bed, so to speak—but I do want people, especially those who are thinking about taking out loans to finance a PhD, to know what it feels like to have this financial albatross around your neck.

The system is broken—tuition costs too much and what grad programs call “full funding” just isn’t. That needs to change. In the meantime, folks who want to go to grad school ought to figure out a way to do it without borrowing against their future. At least that’s what I wish I would’ve done.

Which do you enjoy more: the writing, revising, or sharing of a poem?

I don’t think I can choose just one of these—they’re so very different, and I love them all. I think every poem is a tiny romance.

Writing a new poem is exciting; it’s like a first date: you don’t know how it’s going to go or where you’re going to end up. It might last 45 minutes and leave you with an awkward handshake outside a coffee shop in broad daylight, or it might go on until 3 a.m., kissing at the curb while a cabbie waits with the meter running.

Revision is like asking the poem to go steady. I know what I want from the poem, I know where I’d like us to go. But the poem has a say, too. Revision can be easy, a cause for celebration. But more often, it’s a negotiation. Sometimes it’s disappointing. The poem can’t be what you ask it to be and you have to let it go.

And sharing a poem? It’s like introducing your new sweetheart to your parents, or going “Facebook Official.” Everyone has an opinion, but most people will only say nice things to your face. It feels good to tell people you’re in love, and it feels good to offer up a poem I’m proud of so that others can read it. Hearing from people who’ve enjoyed my poems fills me with gratitude. I made this tiny thing and now it means something to someone else. That’s a miracle.

The thing is, you need all three. Can you imagine only ever going on first dates? Or asking someone to go steady and then never introducing him or her to your friends? Or going on a first date and changing your relationship status on Facebook while this relative stranger heads to the restroom? None of those scenarios is satisfying.

As a writer, I want to be in a relationship with my poems. I want the sparks in the beginning and the comfortable familiarity in the end. I want to walk into a party holding my poems’ hands and introduce them to everyone I know.

One poet most people don't know but should—who is it?

Jennifer Moore. Her poems are whip smart and desperately beautiful. Here’s a poem of hers that I love.

Who (or what) are you currently reading?

I’m reading Traci Brimhall’s Our Lady of the Ruins.

If you could pass along only one piece of advice to other poets, what would it be?

You’re a human first, writer second. Be part of the world. Yes, write and read as much as you can, but also: go to a roller derby bout, hang out with your sister’s kid or your spinster great aunt, have dinner with a friend and don’t once talk about literature, get a weird job working with weird people, walk a picket line, have a snowball fight. Then go home and write about it.

Life will bring you poems.


After life brings you poems, share them with the world!

How? Why with the 2014 Poet's Market! It's the best resource for finding publishing opportunities and filled with advice on the craft, business, and promotion of poetry. Plus, poet interviews, new poems, and more!

Click to continue.


Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer's Digest Writing Community and author of Solving the World's Problems (Press 53). Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer.


Find more poetic goodies here:

November PAD Chapbook Challenge

2022 November PAD Chapbook Challenge: Next Steps

Here are the final steps for the 15th annual November PAD Chapbook Challenge! Use December and the beginning of January to revise and collect your poems into a chapbook manuscript. Here are some tips and guidelines.

Valeria Ruelas: On Teaching Tarot, Brujeria, and Witchcraft

Valeria Ruelas: On Teaching Tarot, Brujeria, and Witchcraft

Author Valeria Ruelas discusses the process of writing her new book, The Mexican Witch Lifestyle.

What Is the Hook, the Book, and Cook Query Pitching Technique for Writers?

What Is the Hook, the Book, and the Cook Query Pitching Technique for Writers?

Find out what "the hook, the book, and the cook" are in relation to writing query letters and pitching books to literary agents and book editors. This post answers the question of what each one is and how to successfully assemble the pieces.

Romance Retellings of Literary Classics

Romance Retellings of Literary Classics

Author Chloe Liese makes a case for the romance genre being the natural home for retellings, and shares some tips on how to write a successful romance retelling of literary classics.

November PAD Chapbook Challenge

2022 November PAD Chapbook Challenge: Day 30

For the 2022 November PAD Chapbook Challenge, poets are tasked with writing a poem a day in the month of November before assembling a chapbook manuscript in the month of December. And now we're on Day 30.

Rae Meadows: On a Personal Passion Inspiring Literary Fiction

Rae Meadows: On a Personal Passion Inspiring Literary Fiction

Award-winning author Rae Meadows discusses how her lifelong love of gymnastics helped inspire her new literary novel, Winterland.

The Fae

The Fae

Every writer needs a little inspiration once in a while. For today's prompt, your character discovers that there are fae in their backyard.

November PAD Chapbook Challenge

2022 November PAD Chapbook Challenge: Day 29

For the 2022 November PAD Chapbook Challenge, poets are tasked with writing a poem a day in the month of November before assembling a chapbook manuscript in the month of December. Day 29 features our fifth (and final) Two-for-Tuesday prompt.

From Script

A Twist on the Holiday Romantic Comedy (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, acclaimed filmmaker Charles Shyer shares with Script his twist on the holiday romantic comedy in his new film The Noel Diary, and more.