Thursday, September 09, 2004

Interview: Sarah Mangold 

I initially got to know Sarah Mangold a bit through her journal Bird Dog, now in its fifth issue. The journal, which made the leap to perfect binding along the way, features an impressive blend of work with an emphasis on poetry and visual art that make innovative use of page space. Her first full-length collection, Household Mechanics, was published in 2002; in her latest chapbook, Boxer Rebellion, Sarah explores the intersections of family myth and American history. Over the course of the summer, Sarah and I have been conversing via email about her work as a poet and as a small-press publisher.

Chris McCreary


CM: Let’s start with a really general question about your journal: what originally spurred you on to found Bird Dog? Have your motivations changed over the course of five issues? Has your readership grown or remained steady from day one?

SM: First off I’m a journal junkie so it was probably a natural progression for me to start a journal. Bird Dog began as Scout in 2000 after we moved from San Francisco where I was in grad school to Seattle where we could afford to live. I knew people in SF who had started small presses and magazines so I had witnessed the real possibility of starting a journal. I had also just finished putting together my first book, Household Mechanics, and was interested in how poems interact with each other. Also I suspected there were lots of women writers out there doing interesting work but not necessarily being published regularly and I hoped Scout could be a place for them.

I ran into a fellow San Francisco State transplant at a reading and eventually brought up the idea of a starting a journal to her. So it began, 8 ½ x 11, stapled. My own work was composed for the page and I hoped other people who worked in similar ways might also find a place here. After two issues of Scout, my co-editor and I went our separate ways and Scout became Bird Dog. By the fourth issue of Bird Dog I switched to the 7x9, perfect bound format, with tipped in artwork. A little less work for me plus it is actually cheaper than the photocopying I was doing.

My readership is growing slowly as people find out about it. I have around 30 subscribers—two are libraries—plus a couple local book stores carry it on consignment.

CM: You said that the readership of Bird Dog has grown a bit – how are you trying to spread the word? how many copies do you think you sell vs. giving out? I’m always interested in these small-press housekeeping matters, because without SPD, say, handling distribution, I’m curious to know how editors circulate the “product” they’ve labored over…

SM: Bird Dog’s press run is 120. I send out about 50 freebies, contributor copies usually around 20, subscribers 30ish. And then a few local bookstores carry it, so that’s another 12 (which may or may not sell). And then the occasional one-off sell through the mail and I also take them to any readings I’m doing. I hope to one day break-even on the printing costs.

Spreading the word is a bit slow, I post on the Poetics List and asked for the website to be linked on a few poetry-related sites. For the first two issues I sent out flyers to all the MFA programs I thought might be interested. I also mention the magazine in my bio for any publications and at readings. So all and all a bit haphazard. I’m really looking into distribution now so it gets out there more and a little less housekeeping for me. The freebie copies are going into good hands so at least I know it’s being read by someone. Also I get the occasional letter from someone who “came across a copy” in some strange town I haven’t sent a copy to so the mags are traveling on their own a bit. A friend of mine who is living in Berlin, ran into a friend who had a copy of Bird Dog in Berlin. So that’s crazy. Actually it had a northwest connection. Her friend had written to Open Books in Seattle (a fantastic all poetry bookstore) and asked for some West Coast journals and they sent along a Bird Dog.

CM: Let’s shift to your new chapbook, Boxer Rebellion. Can you just give a bit of background on the project here? What got you started digging around the archives of the U.S. Naval Institute? To what extent is the poem the voice of Mrs. Smith vs. your own? I guess I’m mostly asking how you engaged the source text on a nitty-gritty level.

SM: Boxer Rebellion began right after finishing the manuscript that would become Household Mechanics. I was looking for another long poem project but wanted to get away from my normal writing process. The source text is a transcript of an interview my great-grandmother did with the Naval Institute. So, Mrs. Smith is my great-grandmother on my mother’s side—no one is picking up on that yet—I had hoped the picture in the front of the book and the dedication in the back might make the connection for people—but it’s not. But I don’t know if that makes much of a difference if you know it is a family story or not? On the nitty-gritty level, the chap is almost entirely the voice of my great grandmother (Rammy, aka. Mrs. Smith) with a few bits from me thrown in. I read naval etiquette books and other transcripts of Navy wives to come to some sort of conversation with my great-grandmother. It’s a personal project on one hand—since it’s family stories—but also a historical conversation. I reduced her comments presenting a mini-history of sorts. I looked to Reznikoff and Rukeyser to figure out how to approach the use of source material. In fact by favorite blurb for the chap came from a local poet/critic John Olson, “It’s like Reznikoff at a sewing machine”—which is just what I was after.

Oh, so no, I’ve never been to the US Naval Institute Archives. Possibly some day I will, there are other family papers housed there, but for now I’m happy to have the conversation in the little orange chapbook.

CM: I didn’t realize that the chapbook was in dialogue with a relative, either, but I love the idea. Was she someone that you actually had the opportunity to know when you were younger, or was her presence always known to you more as a part of family lore?

SM: I did know Rammy but in a kid sense. She lived in Newport, RI and every summer everyone from my mom’s side of the family would meet up there. My grandparents lived in the UK along with my aunts and uncles so that was the yearly get-together. We lived in the Midwest (Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma) and luckily my dad had a lot of frequent flier miles from work so I got to go one summer when I was six for a few weeks along with my brother but usually just my mom went. I grew up with a lot of confusion between “New England” and “England”. So Rammy was mostly family lore for me, especially after spending a few summers with my grandparents in England.

CM: You briefly mentioned Household Mechanics along the way, and it’s certainly something I want to discuss. One thing that’s great about the book is how coherent it is, especially its grounding in the long sequence “Blood Substitutes.” Did you originally conceive of the manuscript as a whole project, or did you realize that individual pieces were falling into place as a whole as you were plowing ahead on them?

SM: Household Mechanics is a reduced version of my MFA thesis (Operation Bird Dog) so there was a sense of building a book all along but also the sense of “it is what it is” because I have to turn in something. I did learn alot about putting a “book” together and how the poems interact etc. The long poem “Blood Substitutes” was the main project while in grad school and the other poems were written at the same time as something shorter that had an ending which was very satisfying while working on the long long “Blood Substitutes.” I’m a believer in the “you write the same poem your whole life” theory (Zukofsky) so I knew the pieces would fit together, just a matter of arrangement. I submitted the original thesis and then a reduced version to the book contests the year I won the New Issues prize. New Issues sent on the longer version to the judge (C.D. Wright), which she liked but thought was a bit long so they sent her the shorter version (HM) which she selected.. I feel very lucky to have the book out—it took three years to write and three years of constant submission.

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