Sarah Yang worked closely with the Diode team over summer 2022 as an editorial intern. On her way to a new semester at Columbia University, Sarah discussed surprises, her plans, and the best writing advice she's received from a mentor with Diode's managing editor, Zoë Donald.
Diode: What is a poem you return to often—one that you'd share with a friend?
Sarah Yang: Ada Limón's "What I Didn't Know Before." There's a boldness to the piece that I was immediately attracted to in its definite approach of love. And I think that's what poetry ultimately is—providing an absolute perspective to a vague and slippery world. The poem is sure of itself enough to not only not explicitly explain the details that it includes, but to share them with an audience that is not personally connected to such details. The poem declares its own experience of love, but also allows it to become a metaphor in itself. For example, the "long train from Red Bank" holds the value of a long train from Red Bank for the speaker in this piece, but could act as a metaphor for an object or idea in another person's experience. I think it really exemplifies a poem's power to carve out a private space within the public space of a train station, of love, of the world. I love returning to this piece for how it looks towards the future tense—for imagining the possibilities of what feelings like love and the human experience as a whole could be transformed into.
I remember we broke into laughter
when we saw each other. What was between
us wasn’t a fragile thing to be coddled, cooed
over. It came out fully formed, ready to run.
(Read Ada Limón's "What I Didn't Know Before" in Washington Square Review)
What a great poem to keep close. Its confidence reads like an affirmation between friends. Which journals, collections, or other projects are you reading?
I haven't been reading any poetry collections right now; instead, I've been primarily reading The Iliad as a required book for my upcoming college class. It's actually been refreshing and enlightening to read works that aren't contemporary because that’s typically all that I'm surrounded by. I haven't been writing new poetry right now, but reading The Iliad has been comforting to me by reminding me that the spirit of poetry very much persists in the act of being—the drive to speak is, in our essence, a drive to survive. I'm engaging in poetry everyday even when I'm not writing it.
What is the best advice, statement, or observation you received from a mentor?
It has to be that a poem, specifically your own poem, is always smarter than you—it always knows more than you. That comment really prompted me to begin viewing a poem not as a static and inanimate presence, but as having an individual consciousness and will. A poem is very much alive and contains a wisdom that must be learned by the poet. There's a reciprocal relationship between a poem and a poet—the poem relies on the poet as much as the other way around—and you must respect the poem as much as you would another human being. I've learned to lean into the idea that there's a trust that is necessary in writing a poem. Because the poem knows who it is before you do, you can’t try to deceive it by forcing a certain idea or incorporating techniques that won’t develop the direction of the poem. I love to think that the fate of a poem is set before you begin writing it, and the poet has the responsibility of being the only vehicle through which the poem can express itself.
Wow! Who is this mentor? And may I ask if this observation was shared within a workshop? What was the creative environment like?
This mentor was Richie Hofmann and he shared it during his Advanced Poetry Workshop led by Ellipsis Writing. It was introduced when Richie was discussing this idea of the "five geographies of a poem"—essentially the five ways into a poem. The creative environment was a very relaxed and quiet one. Not literally quiet because everybody was chiming in, but quiet in that I sensed that everybody had an intimate relationship with their work that they didn't need to describe out loud for another to understand that they valued their poetry. It was lovely and inspiring to see how engaged everybody was with cultivating a space where the poetry was first and foremost. I am so thankful for how forthcoming everybody was with their feedback and weren't solely giving out compliments—if a poem could be polished in specific areas, they would voice it. It was a very private workshop with only about ten of us, and I believe that each poet having the opportunity to enter a poet's personal space contributed to producing the work that I'm most proud about today.
What has surprised you about your own work?
My work surprised me with how they all end wistfully. All my poems' last lines/sections are not particularly optimistic even if the moment that the poem is about ended optimistically within me. It's always a sad wisdom that the poem arrives at despite not intending to. It prompted me to ask if a poem purely consisting of one emotion is possible, but, ultimately, I don't think so—one feeling can't exist or harness its strength without another.
How would you describe your process and sensibilities?
I resonate with a lot of other poets when they say most of the work they do is internal. I try to experience and listen as much as I can to what I'm surrounded by, but if, let's say, my mom says something intriguing, I like transforming it completely or fleshing it out into a potential line. I love creating metaphors on the spot.
As of now, I've put less pressure on myself to designate certain times for me to write and have just been writing and editing when I can approach my work and myself most honestly. When I do write, I work in spurts and find myself writing my best work when it's borne out of a workshop or group setting because I'm given prompts and a specific space where my most important responsibility is to write. When I feel as if a moment or an idea isn't ripe enough, I don't pick it out until I feel prepared to tackle it. The entire process is very inconsistent and intuitive.
What are your plans for the future (academically and creatively)?
I definitely want to pursue poetry beyond college and write professionally; the dream is to ultimately publish a full-length collection. As much as I view poetry as a serious hobby, I aim to primarily work in the editorial field of the publishing industry, specifically fiction books, and then do poetry on the side. I just know I want to work with words as long as possible.
It took me some time to realize for myself what you already know about creativity. You belong here—wherever “here” is—whether that's in the lines of Limón's "What I Didn't Know Before", within Hofmann's workshop, or within the creative landscape at large. Keep going! We're looking forward to your next accomplishments! Thank you so much for your time and efforts this summer with Diode.
Sarah Yang is a Japanese-Korean-American writer whose work appears in The Indianapolis Review, wildness, Rust+Moth, Barren Magazine, Up the Staircase Quarterly, and elsewhere. She studies English at Columbia University and reads for Farside Review.