interview: Sarah M. Wells

interview: Sarah M. Wells

{vixen of verse sarah m. wells discusses her practices, habits, and ideas about poetry. go ahead and leave us a comment! better yet, take her advice and google image or flickr search on an “emotion” word, write a reflective haiku (3 lines of counted syllables–5 syllables, 7 syallables, 5 syllables), and post it to our facebook page, or below in the comments! take a few minutes out of your day to make something, however small.}


when you picture someone reading your poetry, how do you see them? what do they think about, wear, and do? or, maybe a better way to say it: who do you write for? and how do you see your writing nourishing others?

My imaginary reader is reclining in a lawn chair with a glass of sweet tea, enjoying my poems accompanied by a summer breeze.  My hope is that I have written and write poems that are accessible to the non-poet and a joy to read, either by my mom or by the seasoned poetry reader and critic.  I aspire to be a Robert Frost kind of poet—I want to write poems that are beautiful and musical and fun to read, and which unfold like flower blossoms as they are magnified and engaged by a serious reader.  I write for myself, first—if I don’t enjoy the poems, then who will?—and readers like me.  I also write poems that I hope invite the reader in to experience the divine and holy in the every day – that each poem might be a little altar that I can gather around with my reader and worship, even in the ordinary.


how do you use poetry as a practice for spiritual exploration, discipline, or growth? can you offer any practical advice or sure-fire practices for folks interested in allowing writing to inform their spiritual discipline?

Using poetry for spiritual exploration almost always starts with a question or an observation I have that I’d like to know more about.  If there’s a verse of Scripture that bothers me or that catches my attention, I’ll often try to write a poem through that interest—what caused me to pause there? how does this relate to my life? what did it feel like for that person in Scripture to experience that event?  Other times, something will happen during the course of my day that I’ll want to meditate on to discover what spiritual truths can be harvested from that event.  Often, I begin these sorts of endeavors with an answer in my mind, and more often than not, the Holy Spirit surprises me with some new truth or awareness that isn’t at all what I had in mind.  And I love that surprise.  It’s one of the greatest reasons why I return to poetry over and over again—for those sudden insights and sparks from the spirit that ignite joy or revelation or simply recognition of a common human experience.

One of my favorite things about poetry is that the act of writing forces me to think in a new way about my subject matter, either by embodying the experience or by trying to work within a form, rhyme scheme, or structure.  Probably my most valuable practice as a believer and a poet has been to write from the perspective of a character in Scripture, especially characters that puzzled me or characters whose experiences paralleled my own.  One exercise I did was to write a poem based off of the seven last statements of Christ.  It was a powerful and enlightening exercise that really helped me to begin to understand some of the experiences Jesus had in his last hours.


when you approach your desk, journal, computer—where ever it is you tend to create—what are some of the processes you use? what’s going through your mind? tell us about your habits of writing, no matter how quirky, mundane, strange, or small.

I don’t have a ritual of writing every day, but when I have been this disciplined, the time is very fruitful, and I miss it when I depart from it.  I almost always write at night, after my kids have gone to bed, out of necessity.  This is the only time during the day that is available for writing, and it is generally brief.

If something strikes me as a good idea or a question I want to pursue earlier in the day, I try to write it down quickly in my notebook, but I don’t always get to that.  Other times I’ll tweet out something on Twitter – an observation, etc. – so that at least that thought goes somewhere, and maybe I can pull it up again when I get to the computer later.

With poetry, I tend to just jump right in with whatever it was that drove me to the computer in the first place.  Occasionally I write in a notebook, but notebook writing is so slow for me and I can revise and rearrange so much faster on the computer.  Usually about a third of the way through writing whatever it was I thought I was writing about, I discover what it is that I am actually writing about. Sometimes I have to start over or straight up delete the first third.  This is my Holy Spirit moment for me – when God steps in and reveals the truth and beauty I was hunting for.

I spend a lot of time Googling, using Word’s Thesaurus, and sometimes Wikipedia-ing my subject matter, especially if I’m using a lot of images from nature.  I want to know more than my surface knowledge about an object as I am writing, and I also want to unearth fresh terminology to add something new to my go-to vocab words.  I am a tech-junky and use whatever resources are handy.

Sometimes I write from images.  A fun exercise is to search or Google Images for an emotion and pick an image that pops up to write a poem from.

If I find myself stuck, there are a couple of things I do – I will read poems by poets I love, and I will read poems that I’ve written that I love.  That usually helps kick me into gear, but if not, and I’m just plain frustrated, having deleted the first line a hundred times, I’ll just start typing about what’s happening around me, and usually once the fingers start moving, the brain and spirit starts moving too.


when you go to revise work, how do you typically go about it? are there best practices you follow? give some wise instruction for those of us ready to get cracking on revision!

I revise like crazy as I am writing, and I tend to write longer and then go back through with a chisel to find the actual poem.  I’m long-winded and prosy as can be, and I have to cut a lot in order to get the poem to be any good.  This is also why I love the essay—I can go on and on and on and no one cares because the essay is allowed to do that sort of thing, it’s allowed to show the tangents and back-steps and U-turns I took in order to reach my final destination.  The poem doesn’t have time for all of that.

Give yourself permission to write out what it is that you want to say, even if it comes out clunky and ugly, because at least then you have something to work with.

 There’s nothing worse for me than that blank white screen of death.  I’d rather have a page of blather than a blank page.  And remember, you aren’t chiseling each word in stone as you write it.  In most cases, you aren’t even wasting paper (if you use a computer), so write it out.  And then cut and copy and paste with abandon!


what’s the best advice you can give to a person just beginning to write, struggling to write, or feeling stuck? what’s something you wish someone had told you starting out?

Write what you know and what is familiar to you, and be true to yourself and your experiences.  I think this is one way you can “find your voice” in poetry.  I used to, and still do, have a tendency to write out my poem and then end with some didactic statement to explain what I hoped the reader got from my poem.  I also love the adjective and the adverb, and these drinking partners can get you in trouble.  They get me all the time.  Rely on strong verbs and nouns before pulling out the adverbs and adjectives.

It seems to me that poets have a hard time getting into revising.  As a young poet who has poured her heart out onto the page, I can relate to that possessive feeling that any criticism or critique the poem receives is going to crack your soul.  It is important to remember that once the words are on the page they are now separate from you, their own entity, and as a separate piece of art you can tweak and fiddle and bend, cut, lop off and mend it until it breathes on its own, and that you are still a whole human being with a whole heart – perhaps even more whole after all of that work – with a fine new creation in your hands.


would you like to share a poem you’re working on or have recently finished and comment on how it was written in light of the comments above?  

This is a poem from my new book, Pruning Burning Bushes, that I wrote while I was pregnant with my third and last baby.  I knew that this would be my last baby, and I wanted to write about that experience and the mixed emotions I was having.


Last Born


My final incarnation,
word of hope made flesh
in me—the hour draws
nearer. Right now, you nudge
my ribcage with your hand,
or elbow, or knee. Season
of mystery, I drink
a glass of sweet tea
to feel you move in me…
if only joy always came
so easily. For now I am
indwelt, possessed
by holiness, but soon
I will be an open wound,
abandoned, singular but
whole. Every living thing
must grieve as its last seeds
leave, like me, aware
that any blessings after this
will just be birthed on earth,
miracles delivered everywhere,
every ordinary day. No more
my pulse so close to yours.
No more will come
from this womb—it is time
to rejoice, time to mourn.
You are my last born.

In this poem, I wanted to convey the bittersweet feelings of this pregnancy ending while at the same time capturing how holy and miraculous carrying a new life inside me felt.  I also wanted the poem to be musical and a delight to read and to hear.  There are several lines in the poem that help me to pull it from memory because of their music, their iambic structure – “WORD of HOPE made FLESH in ME” and “No MORE my PULSE so CLOSE to YOURS” – and similarly, rhyming words and phrases throughout the poem help pull me through the poem.  I also rely on a few references to Scripture in order to help illustrate the spiritual, Ecclesiastes makes an obvious appearance in the last few lines, “time to rejoice, time to mourn,” and then throughout the poem I employ spiritual language that the everyday reader can easily interpret as referring to the divine – word of hope, incarnation, season of mystery, indwelt, etc.

So there you have it.  :-)




Sarah M. Wells is the author of Pruning Burning Bushes (Wipf and Stock, 2012) and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce, winner of the 2008 Starting Gate Award from Finishing Line Press (2009). Poems by Wells have appeared or are forthcoming in Alimentum, Ascent, Christianity & Literature, JAMA, Literary Mama, Measure, New Ohio Review, Nimrod, Poetry East, Puerto del Sol, Rock & Sling, and elsewhere. Her essays have been published by Ascent and River Teeth.

Sarah’s poetry has been honored with two Pushcart Prize nominations. Her essay, “Those Summers, These Days” was named a notable essay in the Best American Essays 2012. She has received scholarships to attend the Key West Literary Seminar and West Chester Poetry Conferences.

Sarah serves as the Administrative Director for the low-residency MFA program at Ashland University and Managing Editor for the Ashland Poetry Press and River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative. Wells’ work is influenced primarily by faith, family, and nature. She resides in Ashland, Ohio with her husband, Brandon, and their three young children, Lydia, Elvis, and Henry.

One Response to “interview: Sarah M. Wells”

  1. grace says:

    sarah! loved this. especially liked your idea of “poem as altar.” very cool.

    thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on writing, poetry, process, and faith.

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