Sarah Rosenthal

Sarah Rosenthal is the author of Manhatten (Spuyten Duyvil, 2009) and the chapbooks How I Wrote This Story (Margin to Margin, 2001), sitings (a+bend, 2000) and not-chicago (Melodeon, 1998). Her writing has appeared in journals such as ecopoetics, Denver Quarterly, Bird Dog, dusie, and Boston Review, and is anthologized in Bay Poetics (Faux, 2006), The Other Side of the Postcard (City Lights, 2005) and hinge (Crack, 2002). She is the recipient of the Leo Litwak Fiction Award and grant-supported writing residencies at Vermont Studio Center, Soul Mountain, and Ragdale. She has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University and Santa Clara University as well as privately, and writes curricula for the Developmental Studies Center. Her collection of interviews, A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area, was recently published by Dalkey Archive (April 2010).

What is (or has been) your favorite editing project and why?

A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area
Dalkey Archive Press

(Also available from Amazon)

My great-aunt Lisl didn’t know how to spell her own name. Or she hadn’t decided, by the time she died. Sometimes she signed it Lisl and sometimes Liesl. Maybe there was something about Germany in the early decades of the 20th century that offered that permission of deviant spellings. In the face of all the permissions that were removed, one by one by one. Till eventually the permission to live was taken away. That’s a nice way to say, she didn’t have a way to get out of Germany so she ended up in a mass grave with a bullet in her back.

When I say, signed her name, I mean that Lisl/Liesl was a sculptor and painter who made and signed works of art. She was an actress so maybe she signed glossies of her likeness too. I doubt that though because she was part of a troupe that for a time traveled around Germany in a caravan, which sounds more earthy than signing glossies would suggest. But I do have a head shot of her lying on a pillow, looking glamorous and sultry in a fur coat, her glossy hair spread around her head, full lips slightly parted. Almond eyes glancing at me from a slight angle.

The last picture we have of her is a passport photo. She was making one more effort to get out. She had a marriage of convenience in the works with a man who had a way of leaving. She looks pale, pinched. Evil is closing in on her and she knows. I don’t know if I believe in the concept of evil but I don’t know what word to use. “Death?” “Night?” “Cruelty?”

Why am I telling you about Lisl?

When I first moved to San Francisco after graduating from college, I had an urge to excavate my history on the Jewish side of my family. I got hooked up with the San Francisco Holocaust Media Project. A visionary woman, Laynie Silver, had started it in order to document the oral histories of survivors, many of whom were in their 80s, before it was too late. I received training in interviewing techniques. I learned: People are freaked out by the microphone but they forget it almost immediately. I learned: When you’re sitting across from someone who says, I smelled the stench of burning flesh pouring out of the smokestacks every day, you don’t say, How did that make you feel?

For a year or so, I drove around the Bay Area being welcomed into the homes of octogenarians who served me cake and tea and told me their stories. For many of them, this was the first time in their life that they had shared it. From beginning to end. The whole thing. It took hours. Sometimes they got tired and I’d come back a second time. Then I’d go home and outline the conversations on legal pads. The project people stored the tapes and pads in their archive. This was before Spielberg’s movie and his subsequent highly touted oral history project. This was just tapes and legal pads in a basement room at the Holocaust Library out in the avenues. Scholars could come and do research.

A couple years later I was teaching at a preschool started by proponents of the “Mills Method,” an early-childhood-education approach developed at Mills College focusing on social-emotional development. I had no idea what I was doing. I hadn’t been one of those naturals who love babysitting and to whom all the children gravitate. I was having dinner one night at the home of one of the founders, who’d been my brother’s girlfriend briefly when I was about 12. I was telling her I thought maybe I’d go to grad school in psychology and study attachment relations and I needed hands-on experience. A few weeks later I had the job. I spent the year that ensued trying not to do too much damage to the toddlers in my charge, trying not to make the two head teachers wince. About halfway through the year I got a grant through the school to interview all the teachers there. Every couple of weeks I sat down and tape-recorded a juicy conversation with one of these gifted, passionate educators. My experience in the classroom shifted. Lucas and Rachel and Sebo and Mira and Jono and the Twins and all the other two- and three-year-olds in my class started smiling at me and climbing into my lap.

Being around all these kids for whom every motion of pen across paper was simultaneously writing and drawing and pure discovery—I started writing, and acting. Eventually writing dominated, partly because a fellow preschool teacher said, You’ve got to visit this class I’m taking. It was a poetry workshop with Myung Mi Kim at SF State and it was like coming home. Myung knew how to listen, how to create a community of writers. I walked up to her at the end of the evening and said, Can I visit every week. I won’t talk. She nodded. I don’t think this would happen now. I’d been working part-time so I could stay home and scrawl every day for hours in huge journals, trying to inhabit the space of the toddlers. My favorite artist was Helen Frankenthaler. I saw her pictures at the MOCA in LA and understood how her painting was like a four-year-old’s pure expression in the hands of an adult master of the form. (Four years old, not three or two or five—I knew the difference by now.)

Myung has a way of giving you the sense that she deeply and instantly recognizes and honors your work. I kept hanging around taking creative writing and literature classes, with Myung and other wonderful writer-professors: Aaron Shurin, Gillian Conoly, Peter Weltner, Wai-Leung Kwok. Eventually I realized if I were to go to grad school the classes would be smaller and the passion quotient higher. I applied and got in.

I was right about the passion quotient. I had lots of peak moments in MFA land. Reading Gertrude Stein was a revelation. I saw how she was truly speaking her own language. How she was inviting you to bother learning hers so you could have a rich conversation. How she thought the conversation would be best if you were speaking your own. I don’t know if that’s what Gertrude Stein consciously wanted but that’s what her work called out to me.

There were many moments like this. And discussion was often integral to those experiences. Writing and reading challenging work in isolation could at times feel fraught—was I “getting it”? Was I “not getting it” in the right way? What were the questions, let alone the answers? But when I came together with others in workshops or seminars, others who’d been putting in their own solitary time—when we gathered and talked about what we’d written, what we’d read, the fruit was sweet. You may have thought you were wandering in the wilderness, but actually you’d been contributing something. Contributing your effort, your vision, your mind.

I had another little interview training moment courtesy of Myung. I was on the staff of one of the school literary magazines and was asked to do an interview with Aaron Shurin. I felt really confident because of all my interviewing experience. But Myung was the faculty editor and she was worried, she felt responsible. She coached me to extend myself in the questions, to place my own readings on the table and give the writer something to respond to. I felt insulted and curious. I tried it and obviously it was right. It opened up the interlocutor, invited lush responses.

By the time I graduated I’d already been working for an online magazine for a couple of years as a copyeditor. The editor in chief had encouraged me to start a monthly column called “Local Howlers” featuring Bay Area poets. Over the course of four and a half years, I featured more than 50 poets. I’d conduct lengthy interviews, as was my wont by that point, boiling them down to the magazine’s 1,000-word limit. These were the early days of web journals and no one was sure how much readers would actually read online. All that work, all that talk, for these little morsels.

Eventually I landed on the notion of a book of in-depth interviews with Bay Area writers. I’d focus on the experimental work I loved. I’d use my penchant for the dyad in the service of shining a light on one of the nation’s most vibrant communities of vanguard writers. I’d feature a collection of writers who represented various poetics within that community (Michael Palmer, Nathaniel Mackey, Leslie Scalapino, Brenda Hillman, Kathleen Fraser, Stephen Ratcliffe, Robert Glück, Barbara Guest, Truong Tran, Camille Roy, Juliana Spahr, and Elizabeth Robinson).

It took a long time, because for each interview I read everything I could find by the writer. If the writer mentioned some philosopher, I went and read that philosopher. Visual artist, I tracked down the art book. Etc. I plunged all the way down. And then when I finally sat down with the writer in his or her or my living room after X months it was like swimming around looking at all the tropical fish together. Waving each other over, look at this one. Can you believe. What life can make. Holy.

The process of making a book, especially a long nonfiction book, has many tiresome aspects to it. This book was like a child forcing me into patience. It didn’t matter whether I wanted to change one more poopy diaper, aka transcribe one more page, fix one more typo, track down one more bibliographic reference. It had to be done. There are rewards I never could have imagined. Like how going over the interviews gazillions of times to make them as clean and readable as possible made them part of my interior landscape. So for example a moment ago, writing the word holy, I immediately flashed to the conversations with Mackey, Hillman, Guest, Robinson, and Scalapino, all of whom talked about spirit and/or soul in their interviews. And then the conversation is between their differing points of view too. There are so many ways I am finding this project continues to yield. In the course of completing it I’ve written two creative books; I suspect that becoming intimate with the creative processes of 12 committed artists has enriched my own practice.

What mattered to Lisl? She sculpted plump women and children embracing tenderly, painted Brancusi-esque women and children placidly seated and standing and picking lemons in a garden. In a photo in my stairwell she’s standing in a German-hausfrau apron on a ladder in front of the mural she’s painting. I imagine she’s in a studio space provided by her merchant father in a bourgeois gesture of public reluctance and secret pride. My friend Dana’s daughter Una, labeling everything in my house with stickie notes one day, put one on that photo that says, “Some women.” Collapsing Lisl in with the women Lisl was painting and I like seeing it that way now.

I don’t know what her stance on art was, or if she had one. She was obviously modern. She seems to have loved the material and the craft and the discipline. She was her family’s black sheep yet in spite of her sinful, whispered-about ways, somehow wormed herself into everyone’s heart through her sheer generosity and joy. She taught the wives how to make flowers out of felt and told cool things about astronomy to the boys. I run my mind back and forth between the photos of her fully living her art and that last passport photo that failed to get her out. I make myself play the final days as I imagine them, right up to the bullet. A Jewish lesbian artist under Hitler’s shadow—it’s so easy to think she didn’t stand a chance. All I can make her is my angel. And then multiply that out. All the genocides. All the angels. Why do we make art.

from Lizard

Ovo-, vivi-,
she grips sounds
with her fused

She says no,
yes, someone
bites her neck
and she produces

Her neck heals
completely, she
falls fifty feet

Falls for color

One eye on making


Sometimes she
Sometimes self-
propagates. Progeny
true replicas. Study
any one of them. Each
mirrors her cell. Her
breath. Her deliberate
gait. Her fracture line.
Her frictional adhesion.
Her prehistoric.
Her salivate.
Her scale


A bad translation
has Lizard cutting
off her tail to spite
her fate. But she
grows a new one.
Steers with it.
Stores fat against
the slim days.
parts help L stay
cutting edge. She’s
working on her
head. Only her
belly is famously
hers and can be
stroked. She’ll turn


Farmers dig deep
placing seedlings
to sprout in time.
So Lizard. Rug
makers dream
baroque patterns.
So Lizard. Scholars
hang Do Not
Disturb from
the knob. See
Lizard. Singers
croon of hap-
hazard encounters.
Sigh Lizard.


Eight reasons
to change color:
emotion, weather
etc. Not a quiz,
she says. And
only sometimes
do I blend to

Wants to talk
strategy. Confined
how will you move
backward and
forth, she wants
to be asked. How
far will you see
your stranger

Knows frightened
and magical tricks.
Been known to
leave you holding
her shivered skin

My kind’s on
the exit list says
Lizard. I’ll miss
every bird, look,
high-branched nap.
No prehensile tail
will coil. No eye
swivel solo

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