Claiming a Seat at the Table of Belonging

A conversation with poet and educator Sarah M. Sala.

Sarah M. Sala’s debut collection, Devil’s Lake, explores American violence and its impact on marginalized groups, including her own queer community. In a range of poetic forms, including erasures, histories, and experimental lyrics, Sala meditates on the relationship between linguistic and physical violence, and asserts that language itself holds the potential for evolution.

Rooting herself in the history of queer people who have struggled to exist and love in America, Sala applies her linguistic gifts to create a powerful argument that we all belong. Exploring these confident, precise poems with their firm connections to community and love, we readers learn how we can better accept ourselves—and the people we might view as outsiders.
Devil’s Lake is a valuable book for a challenging time in America, and Sala’s experiences and craft make her a voice of authority.

In addition to her work as a poet, Sala teaches expository writing at New York University and runs Office Hours, a free poetry workshop that welcomes all poets, especially people of color, LGBTQ+, and those who identify as femme or womxn—poets who, in her own words, “continue to thrive in the margins of academia.” I sat down with Sarah (over Zoom) to learn more about how poetry can resist a culture of violence, how she views her own connection to her community, and how teachers can create more inclusive classrooms for students in this era of transformation.

 Sarah’s M. Sala’s poetry collection, Devil’s Lake, is available from publisher Tolsun Books and at many independent booksellers. Photo via TolsunBooks.com.

Amy Klein: Having a first book out in the world, I imagine it’s surreal and changes you at any time. But in this time of social upheaval amid a rising pandemic, what does it feel like?

Sarah M. Sala: In some ways, I feel like Devil’s Lake complements this current moment. The book reckons with violence in the American landscape, and it reckons with those we “other.” It’s a difficult book to read, and it’s a difficult time to navigate. But I feel like the collection forces us to pause and dwell in these painful moments in American history, not look the other way.

Releasing a book in uncertain times led to innovation. I wanted to have a unique book launch—inside an art gallery showcasing all queer artists. But that wasn’t possible, so everything went virtual. My friend Leeanne Maxey and her partner Ralph Emrick designed a virtual art exhibition, and we fundraised for organizations including The Okra Project and Immigration Equality by selling visual art and poetry broadsides by an array of authors. The whole launch felt deeply collaborative.

Amy Klein: I love that this spirit of collaboration came out of these trying times. I think that’s something that many artists and community members can relate to. As you mentioned, so many of your poems express resistance to the violence that threatens queer people in America. In “Nature Poem,” you reanimate the love felt by two women who are shot in a hate crime, and you honor the grief they feel in their separation. In “American Ammunition,” you build walls of blossoms to shield the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting. How do you think poetry helps people resist the culture of violence?

Sarah M. Sala: That’s a great question. I read a study that said people who read are much more likely to empathize with someone who has lived a life outside of their experience. I think humans can be very basic in terms of how we form relationships. If something hasn’t happened to us, we may not understand it. My hope is that when someone reads a book about violence against queer people, they might make a compassionate leap. They might realize, this is a couple who just wanted to go on a hike. Or, these people just want to dance at a nightclub.

There’s a poem in Devil’s Lake called “Stone (Butch)” where the speaker describes dressing in an outfit that feels good to them. They pull on a button-down shirt and cuff the sleeves. They have jeans that hug them in all the right places. They lace up their boots against the day. A friend and fellow queer poet read the poem and confided in me that she found it beautiful because she’s never felt able to celebrate her queerness in her own presentation. I was really struck and saddened by that reality. Representing these moments of joy is important to me.

Honestly, discrimination causes major negative health effects. I read a study recently that revealed LGBTQ+ people are 58% more likely to suffer migraines than heterosexual people. I’ve suffered debilitating migraines for six years now and felt so validated by this medical research. There’s extreme stress on our bodies when we operate inside a system never designed for us to thrive. Yet we deserve to live, love, experience joy, and be.

There’s extreme stress on our bodies when we operate inside a system never designed for us to thrive. Yet we deserve to live, love, experience joy, and be.

Amy Klein: In your poem “Aubade,” you explore queer domesticity—a home where love is connected to political questions, responsibilities, and actions. Waking up next to her partner in safety and comfort, the speaker remembers the shooting of nine Black parishioners in a church in Charleston. The poem quotes the Black poet DéLana R.A. Dameron: “Where do we go to live? Where do we go to get free?” Your domestic space opens to political questions of who gets to call America home. How do you define home?

Sarah M. Sala: Home for me is a level of intimacy where you can take a risk with a person and show them exactly who you are. I make my home with people who love me in all my complexity. I’ve built a wonderful family out of biological and chosen family.

When I came out as a queer person, I felt a painful separation because homophobia is woven into our culture. However, living as a queer person has also forced me to reckon with my own privilege and sensitized me to other forms of discrimination, especially racism.

Amy Klein: We are living in a time when violence against marginalized people is rising. The Covid-19 pandemic and the economic crisis have harmed many more Black and Brown Americans than white Americans, and police brutality continues to threaten Black lives. As a teacher, how do you create a safer space and a space where students can be open in the classroom?

Sarah M. Sala: We must recognize one another’s humanity. We have to recognize that every single person counts, and that means understanding that BIPOC folks are systematically erased in the United States. In designing syllabi, I try to consider how many BIPOC authors we’re engaging with, how many women and gender-nonconforming folks, and include many modes of expression. I learn a lot from my students’ own selection of material and try to expand my offerings.

Poets gather for Jericho Brown’s Craft Class at Office Hours Poetry Workshop at the Bureau of General Services––Queer Division bookstore and cultural space. Photo courtesy of Sarah M. Sala. 

But ultimately, I try to come from a place of curiosity and listen. I think that’s the most important thing that non-BIPOC people can do: just listen. If we weren’t born into a certain experience, there’s no way we can understand it. We need to recognize each other’s radical differences. Maybe my classroom is really just listening to voices other than your own.

I try not to position myself as an expert. I make mistakes all the time and have blind spots. Let’s do the best we can with the information that we have, and admit when we’re wrong.

Amy Klein: Let’s say it’s the beginning of the course, and you want to make sure that this is a space where the students are listening to one another. I’m curious what you might say to students.

Sarah M. Sala: I start with a paragraph in my syllabus, and take a moment to say, if we discuss any topics that feel sensitive to you, or you feel offended in any way, please speak up in the moment, or speak to me privately after class.

I have students who are all coming from different backgrounds. So, when we enter the classroom, we have to see where we are coming from, and what our common ground is. My goal as a teacher is for people to be kind to one another and recognize one another’s humanity. So, I’m not afraid of pausing in the classroom to ask someone where they’re coming from. I’m not afraid to say, let’s take a timeout, and let’s talk about insider versus outsider language.

Intention matters a lot, and creating that environment where people can say, “I was offended,” or, “I’d rather people use this category or term,” is helpful. There’s a big difference between just teaching what’s on the syllabus and cultivating an authentic experience that changes all of us in the process. I’ve learned to avoid being reactive and to approach questions with curiosity. Over the course of the semester, I try to step back more and more and allow my students to guide our conversations.

Amy Klein: On the topic of teaching, let’s talk about your work with Office Hours Poetry Workshop. When did you start the organization?

Sarah Sala: I started Office Hours in 2017 when I got laid off. The community college where I had worked purged all sixty of their non-tenured faculty and switched to an all-adjunct system. I found myself particularly devastated because I felt like I was at a crossroads, wondering, Do I not teach anymore? Is academia unsustainable? I taught as an adjunct for one semester, but I couldn’t even afford health insurance.

I started Office Hours as a free community workshop because I wanted these opportunities to be accessible to everyone. The pilot group was small. Eventually Office Hours galvanized, and we began receiving grants from Poets & Writers to pay our participants and instructors. We’ve offered craft classes with instructors like Jericho Brown, Catherine Barnett, Gregory Pardlo, Crystal Valentine, and Chen Chen—remarkable poets have taught classes for free to poets who RSVP. It’s amazing! Office Hours taught me that if you see a lack in your community, try to fill it.

Amy Klein: Your book builds community too. Emily Dickinson appears in an epigraph, and you engage with the work of the artist Leeanne Maxey via ekphrastic poems. CAConrad’s influence as a somatic healer enters the conversation. It reminds me that when Yanyi won the Yale Younger Poets prize, Carl Phillips wrote that there was such a community around this book and inside this book, and that community provided so much love and power and sustaining strength as the speaker was going through really hard experiences.

Poets Sarah M. Sala, Candace Williams, Omotara James, and Safia Jama meet at Office Hours Poetry Workshop at the Bureau of General Services–Queer Division bookstore and cultural space. Photo courtesy of Sarah M. Sala.

Sarah M. Sala: I completely agree. I’m a social poet, and communing with other creative people fuels my work. I’m constantly reading Gwendolyn Brooks, Anne Carson, Maggie Nelson, and Eduardo C. Corral for inspiration. I devour modern poets like Morgan Parker, Benjamin Garcia, Omotara James, and Ricardo Alberto Maldonado. All the poets we’ve ever read converse with us in our work. They also push us to figure out parts of our own writing life. I’m always trying to be in this constellation of writers, to join this chorus of conversation.

Also, anything to do with a book is a labor of love, especially if you’re on the emerging level. So many hands touched my own book. I think one of the best things that I did for my poetry was starting Office Hours. Because in serving others, I got to know so many people. One of the biggest takeaways I have is, help others selflessly. You don’t want to burn out, but you want to live your life in a way that you’re serving others sustainably.

Amy Klein: I love how many of your poems like “nature vs. Nature” and “Interior vs. Exterior” engage with global interactions. You write, “Before I was born, my original face was queer too / radiated light / weather / organisms / landforms / celestial bodies.” And another amazing line: “We are a vast assembly of nerve cells—the continents longing for each other.” How does writing about nature teach you about your own nature, and about your interdependence with others?

Sarah M. Sala: I love being outdoors because I feel like I can dissolve into nature. I feel like I’m part of something in a way that I don’t feel when I’m working too much, indoors all the time. We adopted a dachshund over the summer, and he likes to sit on the sidewalk, throw back his head, and sniff the air. And I would never think about the wind as much as I do [now]. 

For me, the pandemic has reinforced how interdependent we are. If someone else wears a mask, it protects me. If we can all social distance and keep the virus from spreading, we can save our most vulnerable populations. We are reliant on hundreds of people every week who might seem invisible. But if we stop and think, “Who makes our clothing? Who prepares our food? Who made the medical device that keeps us alive?” we can really honor the latticework of humanity, all the different people who connect us.

Earlier, we talked about, where is home? Nature is a coming home. We’re organisms made of atoms. I’m no better or worse than this tree outside. I think we get lost in our heads, and we humans think we’re vastly more important than we are.

In terms of “nature vs. Nature,” I wrote that poem in response to a family member who doesn’t recognize my queer marriage and thinks that being gay is a choice and that it’s anti-religion. I thought about it, and well, I’m not the first queer person. I’m definitely not just selecting a lifestyle. This is something that’s ingrained in me. I thought about how even before the birth of this civilization and this universe, this concept existed in some way—it is a natural principle.

Which circles back to Sebene Selassie’s idea that we all belong, even if we feel like we don’t belong in spaces; that is the greatest human need that we have. So, in order for my body to be healthy and for me to live a productive life, I’m claiming my seat at the table of belonging.

Amy Klein: I really love that. How do you think poets and educators can contribute to or push a little further this culture of interdependence for our country?

Sarah M. Sala: Just make it clear: Who are your inspirations for your writing? Who is your biggest mentor? Who helped you in your darkest hour when you thought you couldn’t make your book?

I love the practice of expressing gratitude—documenting things you’re grateful for that day, even if they’re very small. I’ll often begin class by checking in with students: What’s one thing you’re grateful for today? Let’s put it in the chat.

Amy Klein: Acknowledging who helped birth this book, are there any particular lessons that teachers or mentors gave you that have sustained you?

Sarah M. Sala: It took me a decade to materialize this book. In that process, I went from writing in an MFA program where I turned in a poem every single week, to working full time and living with chronic migraines. You mentioned the poet Yanyi earlier. When I interviewed him for BOMB Magazine, I was really curious about his process. He revealed his simple assignment to write down any thought that occurred to him in a dedicated notebook. It didn’t have to pertain to his project. In this way, he really freed himself from any expectations.

A lot has changed since graduate school, and we’re all juggling a lot of roles. I often joke to my partner that we shouldn’t “should” on ourselves. We tell ourselves, “I should be writing” when we most need to rest. Or “I should be more successful” when we’re working ourselves to the bone. What if we honor our progress instead? Let’s meet ourselves where we are.

Amy Klein is a poet, writer, and songwriter whose work explores the psychology of healing and identity. Her poetry has been published in PreludeSalt Hill, and The Harvard Advocate. She has also released several albums of original songs on the punk record label Don Giovanni Records—most recently the album Winter/Time. She holds an MFA in Writing from Columbia University and a BA, summa cum laude, in English and American Language from Harvard. Feel free to find her at @AmyRebeccaKlein on Twitter or @AmyTiger on Instagram.