April 3rd, 2023
Back in January, UC Clermont had the privilege of hosting guest poet, Sara Moore Wagner. Wagner performed a selection of readings of her poetry in front of Clermont faculty and students. Wagner is the author of three full length books of poetry, Lady Wing Shot, Swan Wife, and Hillbilly Madonna. Our own staff writer, Shannon Wells, was able to chat with Wagner via email about her poetry and process. Here is their correspondence:
Shannon Wells: What influence has Gillian Welch, William Elliot Whitmore, and Neko Case had on your poetry?
Sara Moore Wagner: These songwriters didn’t influence the writing of any of my poems, but they are musicians I like, and I thought the quotes used to divide the sections set the tone and expanded on the theme of each section. They all sing Americana, which is what I wanted my book to feel like.
Wells: When and how did you realize you were meant to be a poet?
Wagner: It’s still a process. I feel like I’ve always had poetry in me, but who knows what I’m meant to be! It certainly was my dream from very early. I had some friends tell me recently that I’m one of the only people they know who is doing what they said they’d do at twelve.
Wells: The poem “Girlhood Schism” stood out to me, and I’m interested in what your message would be for young girls experiencing similar ordeals.
Wagner: A lot of the girlhood poems in this book, which is a book centered on girlhood and its transformation into something else, were written as ways for me to examine and explore the ways femininity was instilled in me, the ways it was stripped from me, and how it’s enforced and destroyed for other girls by often toxic parental and patriarchal forces. I don’t believe anything is easily solvable, which I think is true of this poem and of the book. It’s a struggle to assert the self when controlling forces are so strong—but we have to do it, or at least try. The message is: here is what happened, see it and maybe see yourself, too. The message of all poetry is you are not alone in a feeling. Experience this and understand something new about it/yourself.
Wells: How does the title “Hillbilly Madonna” relate to your message for society amidst the stated controversies in your poetry collection?
Wagner: Hillbilly is a term some find derogatory, but my dad wore it with pride. Me embracing my hillbilly always made him proud. The holy Madonna, on the other hand, is virginal, elevated—perhaps the opposite. I wanted to juxtapose this and make it feminine. Women who fall into addiction, who struggle, are not destroyed. There is holiness and redemption in all places, no matter what happens
Wells: What message would you want the reader to take away from the “Hillbilly Madonna?”
Wagner: I hope, genuinely, that everyone takes the meaning and message they need. I do not like to tell readers how to read my book or individual poems. I believe poems are meant to be personally understood. I do hope they challenge their stereotypes about women who struggle with addiction, who make choices outside of the path laid out, and about Appalachia.
Wells: I’ve learned that the geographical location of the Appalachian part of Ohio where you grew up is an integral theme in the “Hillbilly Madonna.” Which poem would you say captures the heart of the Appalachian and misconceptions toward it?
Wagner: I hope every single one of them does, and I think none can fully. All Appalachians are different. My experience is just one among many. I also know UC Clermont is in Appalachian Ohio, and many students are from the same areas. It was a pleasure to read to an audience who maybe saw themselves in my words, and who might now have the courage to tell their own stories.
Wells: How have the poets Anne Askew, Anne Sexton, Andrew Lang, Dante, and the writer Joseph Campbell influenced the style of your poetry?
Wagner: Well first, not all of these are poets! These writers are folklorists, protestant martyrs, etc. I got my masters in literature, so I am always bringing other sources, stories, and characters into my writing. I pulled from many of these, and many other texts (Homer, Grimms, etc.) to structure my book and poems. All of these writers are connected to these books in different ways, which is explained in each poem where they are mentioned, and in the notes of this book. Swan Wife is meant to examine classical ideals of what a woman should be. All of these writers do different things that triggered my need for words.
Wells: I see that the poetry collection “Swan Wife” is arranged in the order of “Free Flight,” “Mentor Study,” “Descent,” “Submerged,” and “Return.” What would the symbolic message be through the progression of the poems?
Wagner: Those sections are meant to mimic Joseph Campbell’s hero’s cycle, and the movements of a swan. I structured it that way as a subversive statement. I wanted to say that a woman’s story of self-discovery in marriage IS a hero’s journey. To not lose the self is heroic.
Wells: How would you compare “Swan Wife” to the Romanian fairy tale, “The Story of the Swan Maiden and the King?”
Wagner: It’s structured after the story. I meant for the poems to loosely tell that story, but my spin on it. In the tale, and in all swan maiden tales, the swan maiden takes off her swan coat and is taken as a wife. She has to lose her wild self; it is stolen from her. This really happens to women in marriage. The metaphor, mixed with the structure and the fairy tales in many of the poems, felt natural.
Wells: In comparison to the “Hillbilly Madonna,” how would the tone be different in this new chapter of your life?
Wagner: Hillbilly Madonna is more about place, and Swan Wife is more about texts. Swan Wife investigates stories from classic literature, myth, history, and folklore to find and examine the self and the domestic space. Hillbilly Madonna is rooted in the more physical space of Appalachia. They are similar in that they both focus on motherhood, on what’s expected of mothers, and they both end in births and hope. I have a strong desire to show hope, even though many of my poems are dark.
Wells: In what ways have your children and your husband inspired your poetry?
Wagner: They do, and they do not! My poems are not always confessional, so the husband in my poems is not always my husband. They inspire me by giving me the time and space to write, and by believing in my poems. If you’d like to read more about my process with Swan Wife, with my use of “I,” I have an interview all about the crafting of it published by The Rumpus here: https://therumpus.net/2022/11/28/with-sara-moore-wagner/
More information about Sara Moore Wagner can be found at her website, www.saramoorewagner.com.