Career Corner: How to be a Poet

Library TakeoutTeens D.C.

Career Corner: How to be a Poet

Pages in, pages out: Selam learns from award-winning poet Sarah Crossland the secret to becoming a good writer

This fall, the Teen Council will be interviewing local professionals for a series called "Career Corner." The goal of this series is to give teens the inside scoop on what it takes to get different jobs. In this article, Selamwit Weimer interviews Sarah Crossland, a poet who has won the Boston Review‘s 2012 Poetry Contest, a 2013 AWP Intro Journals Award, the 2013 August Derleth Prize from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the 2013 Pablo Neruda Prize from Nimrod. 

Photograph taken by Matthew MacFarland

Meet Sarah Crossland, a poet, teacher, past executive director at Indie Film Minute, and proud proclaimer of the "Pages in, pages out" philosophy! She has an incredible story and her love of poetry inks through every page of her life journey. 

1. What was your first encounter with poetry and was there a moment where you knew you wanted to do it for a living? 

For the longest time, I wanted to be a screenwriter and write, of all things, horror movies. It was a very long journey to poetry from there, which was mostly thanks to my high school creative writing program, the CFPA at Woodbridge Senior High School. (The CFPA has since moved to a new school.) I had to audition to be accepted into the CFPA, and once you were in the program, you took a set number of writing classes throughout your high school career. The first two years, you learned the "brushstrokes" of all four major genres: nonfiction, poetry, fiction, and script. After you completed the two survey classes, you finally got to take genre-specific classes. I signed right up for Script I and Fiction I, but I needed another class to balance out my schedule in the fall semester, so I picked Poetry I. That was the class that changed everything: I had a very tight-knit group of poetry friends in the class, and together we discovered the Beat poets. Totally life-changing. It was around that time that I realized that you have to collaborate all the time when you write screenplays, and I really hated having to co-write with other people. So script was out, and poetry was in. From there, I took a number of poetry courses in college, and went on to get my MFA in poetry from UW-Madison. 

Throughout the entire history of the English language, there have been very few people who have been able to make a living on poetry alone, to the point where you just come to assume you will need to get a "day job." I work as the marketing and communications director at New Dominion Bookshop in Charlottesville, the oldest independent bookstore in Virginia. Before the pandemic, I spent a lot of my job working on events for the shop, bringing poets in from all over the country (as well as novelists, short story writers and other artists). Working in a bookstore is actually a fast-paced job--hundreds of new books come out every month, and trends in publishing are always changing. Many poets I know have jobs completely unrelated to poetry, but I love how much poetry comes into play when I'm writing an email blast for the shop or--my favorite--recommending poetry books to customers. 

2. Where do you draw your inspiration from? 

A lot of my inspiration comes from reading. Since I graduated from graduate school, I've mostly been working on poetry projects inspired by history and/or folklore. Much of my work deals with "persona" poetry, or poetry spoken from the perspective of someone other than yourself. I see it as being similar to writing in the first person in fiction--you still need to develop your "I" speaker as a character and think about what they want, what's keeping them from getting it, and where they go from there. In college, I studied the classic epics, as well as lesser known ones like The Kalevala or The Mabinogion. I take a lot of my cues in writing from thinking epic-ly, across a book-length arc. I make things hard for myself, but that's part of the fun. 

3. What was your experience with your creativity in the context of a university? Did you feel that you had to fit your style into a specific box or did you have the agency to explore your instincts? 

I love to be rebellious with writing assignments, but I learned pretty early on that, as Wendell Berry says, "the impeded stream is the one that sings." Writing prompts can actually be freeing in a way, and they can encourage you to write in directions you would have never considered before. A lot of my writing classes used prompts, even in graduate school. Even if I liked what I was writing for prompts, I still always kept projects on the side that were completely my own, usually very long and narrative poems that didn't translate as well to creative writing workshops. At both UVA (where I went for undergrad) and UW-Madison (where I went for grad school), I never felt boxed in or limited by aesthetic. The best programs will always help you discover and hone your own aesthetic, rather than trying to make you conform to some ideal they have in mind. 

4. Do any opportunities, projects/pieces, exchanges, or people stand out from all that you’ve been involved in or had the chance to contribute? 

Working on a literary magazine has always been one of my favorite projects (though I'm not working for one currently). In high school, I was one of the editors-in-chief of our literary magazine, Eddas. It's an incredible opportunity for a writer and really gives you a lot of insight into the publishing side of things--you can gain experience with everything from critiquing your peers' work to editing the final pieces at the end. In college, I founded a literary magazine called Glass, Garden, which was modeled after McSweeney's. Each issue had a thematic design, like the "micro-magazine" we made during my fourth year, which had tiny type and came with a magnifying glass. In my twenties, I worked on several national literary magazines as well. It's one of the best ways to find like-minded people, and working together on a literary project gives you some perspective for your own work.  

5. How do you come up with your prompts? I specifically like the “etymologies” and “labyrinth” one. Do you have brainstorming methods or do they just come to you?

I actually haven't written prompts in quite a while, since it's been a while since I taught in a classroom. There's a saying out there--"good writers borrow, great writers steal." Some of my all-time favorite prompts are "stolen" from my creative writing teachers from past classes, though the ones on my website are original (though they still take wisps of inspiration from other prompts I know). For a lot of my originals prompts, I actually started with a poem I admired and then worked backwards from there. Sometimes I do this with my own work: latch onto a particular aspect of a poem I like, and then use that small spark to start my own poem.  

6. Who are some of your favorite poets?

My favorite contemporary poets are Robert Hass, Carl Phillips, Anne Carson, and Jack Gilbert. This time of year, I love to reread Galway Kinnell's book-length poem The Book of Nightmares. I'm looking forward to reading Eduardo C. Corral's new collection of poetry, Guillotine, which I just bought. And though some will scoff, there are few writers I admire more than Colin Meloy, the lead singer of The Decemberists. I also have a thing for John Keats

7. What was your experience like with the Indie Film Minute?

Oh man. I just really, really love movies, and it was so exciting to have my job be "movies!" for two years. It was such an honor to help promote little-known gems and to help bring more attention to women filmmakers and filmmakers of color. There are so many filmmakers out there doing groundbreaking work, but their films rarely get screened at the big theaters like AMC or Regal. Thankfully, there's a dedicated community of "underground" film-lovers who work tirelessly to keep indie film alive. While I worked for Indie Film Minute, I got to flex my writing muscles by writing some of the radio scripts. We recorded once a month, and towards the end of the project, I even did the voice-over for some of our commercials! 

8. What’s your favorite thing you’ve cooked? 

Such a hard question. A lot of my favorite dishes involve summer corn, and though I have a lot of summer corn recipes that I love, two really stand out. This Creamy Saffron Tagliatelle with Corn is my husband's favorite. By a very small margin, I love this recipe for Mini Lasagnas with Sweet Corn and Mascarpone more. During the pandemic, we have been learning to use our freezer to our advantage a lot more (stocking up on meat and baking too much bread!). This fall, I'm looking forward to lots of sweet potato and butternut squash recipes. Also, we always make a version of the Mount Vernon peanut soup that they serve at the inn there. We liked to top it with crushed peanuts, water chestnuts, and green onions. It's basically drinking peanut butter.

9. How are things going with your Winter Palace piece and what inspired it? 

I finished the first draft of The Winter Palace, my book-length manuscript about the Romanovs and Russian folklore, about a year ago, and it's been in the "fallow" stage since then. I've just started to pick it back up to revise the poems in it so I can get the manuscript in shape for book contests. (To publish your first book of poetry, very often you have to win a book contest run by a poetry press.) I labored over these poems a lot, sometimes waiting weeks for a particular line, and as a result, the manuscript feels more "done" than first drafts usually do. As I'm getting older, I am finding that I'm writing a lot more in my head first before sitting down at the computer.   

Strangely, I got the idea for the book back in graduate school, when I was teaching composition (essay writing) to freshmen. We got to pick themes for our comp classes, and I themed this one "fairy tales." The final unit of the class, I had the students write their big paper on a "fairy tale movie," and one student chose Anastasia. During her presentation, with the lights off, while I was filling out her rubric, I selfishly thought, I kind of want to write a book about this. It took me a while to get to the project, especially since I had to do tons of research, but it all goes back to that class! 

10. What’s one or a few pieces of advice that you would give to new poets? 

One of my creative writing teachers in high school said it best: "Pages in, pages out!" You will never write well without reading as much as you possibly can. And read everything: poetry of course, but also nonfiction monographs about the Oregon Trail, books about string theory, the copy on fashion retailer websites (um, Anthropologie), and anything else you can get your hands on. 

You heard it here! Go to your neighborhood library, check out the max of 50 books and start investing in your creative future. And while you’re at it, go check out Sara’s website, follow her projects, and like the Beat Poets anthem “first thought, best thought” so start getting those down on paper and see where it takes you!