Interview with Sarah Simon: 2019 Soap Haiku Winner
Annually, Whole Life Soaps sponsors the Soap Haiku Contest in association with the Wrightwood Literary and Arts Festival. We usually receive between 500 and 1000 entries. This year was no exception with 750 applicants.
After announcing the winner, we like to sit down in person, skype or email and ask the winner about the writing process.
Sarah, who currently lives in Peru, was gracious enough to respond via email. Her interview is below.
Whole Life Soaps (WLS): Can you tell me a little about your journey as a writer?
Sarah Simon (SS): Writing started as the most immediate form of expression to me. We all gravitate towards at least one form of creative expression, right? Now I’m improving my skills in different forms (music, dance, drawing, etc. – really just exploding over here), but writing seemed to be the only form that didn’t need approval from anyone. It didn’t need to be heard, didn’t need to be seen. All that exposure came later, and pretty early on – I have many friends who have written for years and don’t share much – thanks to encouragement from teachers and opportunities, such as joining the Poets’ Society in my college.
But beyond its intimacy, I think writing appealed to me because I’m a sensitive perfectionist. Over the years, I’ve become more okay with mistakes and vulnerability, but writing allowed you to get it “perfect” before anyone saw it.
WLS: You are currently living in Uruguay teaching and writing. How does this experience shape the content of your work?
SS: Do you know Rattle, the literary magazine? Well, they have this newsletter where they send you a poem every day. Recently, they included ed a poem by David James with this little explanation at the bottom:
“It’s interesting to see what you read influence your work. I read ‘Three Tall Women’ by Albee, and then I write a short play called ‘Three Small Men.’ I read about the holocaust and somehow those images begin to appear in my poems. I read Ghost Soldiers by James Tate, and I find myself writing these short prose poems. Inspiration? Imitation? Jealousy? I prefer to think of it as ‘standing on the shoulders’ of our heroes.”
Whatever you expose yourself to will filter through the cracks of writing. This is the whole premise of my poetry book, Core Collection: Poems about eating disorders. My poems echo my obsessive-compulsive practices, my simultaneous reliance on and aversion to the body and food. Why? Well, if you were to have stepped into my skinny body and head in the thick of it, you would have hummed with meditations of counting calories, comparing triceps, wanting to stop and not knowing how it was worth it.
In terms of how my life now influences my work, I’m writing more in Spanish. I’m hoping to explore that more while studying film. Who knows, maybe I’ll soon be making metaphorical comparisons between relationships and diphthongs, emotional clarity and depth of field.
WLS: Let’s discuss your winning poem. I loved the use of the Spanish and the English. Do you often mix the two languages? Do you work in any other languages? The mixture was what won me over, in the end.
SS: Yes, as I mention above, I’m starting to use Spanish more. Spanglish, though, seems to most reflect the experiences people have in the United States. But in Uruguay, I’m not in the United States, so we’ll see what happens.
The haiku I submitted ultimately plays with some of the silliest grammar points – false friends. Se me cruzaron los cables, my cables crossed. Years of speaking Spanish, more years of speaking English, and in conversation, I still might say sopa when I mean jabón.
It was beautiful to find out that the combination won you over, and that this linguistic diversity, a natural outgrowth of the past 400 years – will be sudsing up in bathrooms all over. Thank you for using the haiku to reflect on your teaching experiences, too.
I’m not planning on learning any other languages for now. Spanish is so rich; I need to read more.
WLS: Haiku relies on observational distance between the writer and the subject so that the reader can have the emotional moment. Considering your poetic observation, what emotional moments do you hope readers have when they see your poem on a bar of soap?
I’ve never heard that before, but it makes a lot of sense. When I think of an effective haiku, I feel an omniscient voice of little to no emotion, telling me about a moment that, regardless of whether it’s typically charged with emotion, makes me feel all the emotions. Right? Imagine the distant voice telling you about a tree. Why is the voice’s rendition of the tree making you cry all of a sudden? It’s like the space, the vacuum allows the reader to pack in and suck out what they need in that moment.
In terms of my haiku, I hope to communicate humor, irony, and appreciation for the body. A funny profundity. And if you don’t get it, well, learn at least three words in Spanish.
WLS: I’d like you to respond to something:
In her book Aware: a Haiku Primer, Betty Drevniok explains that the Japanese poet Basho believed many observations were a juxtaposition “of a something” that is compared, contrasted, or associated “with a something else” to complete a particular event. The reader responds emotionally to this something/something else relationship. How do you feel your poem measures up to this standard?
SS: I want my haiku to encourage the reader to nourish their body while challenging their mind. So, that something/something else relationship? The classic mind/body one.
WLS: Reading through your articles and your poetry collection, your focus on eating disorders is powerful. How has writing about this struggle shaped the future direction of your writing? I mean, do you see yourself shifting gears to another subject, or staying the course for now? Provide any context you feel you need to.
SS: Beautiful question. Although eating disorders form quite a niche, they reflect larger spiritual issues. Take a look at the lineup for The Appetite podcast, for example. It’s produced out of a food and body clinic in Seattle, and they have the insight and training to connect what develops in some as an eating disorder to external and internal causes that affect all of us.
My thoughts of where eating disorders come from has changed over time, but now I look at them as an identity crisis. Check out Anastasia Broder’s TEDxTalk, one of the most poetically elegant I’ve ever seen on the subject (and I’ve watched sooooo many of these talks of eating disorders). Unfortunately, I spent too much of my time identifying myself by my exercise, food, and appearance. I see a lot of my writings as ways to shed that identity. Maybe more writing in Spanish beckons in a new one.
WLS: Your soap haiku focuses on soap and soup, and how both cleanse the soul. This was a beautiful image to me. Can you tell me a little about your current relationship with food, and how it currently influences your writing?
SS: Thank you for asking. I feel loved when people who know of my eating disorder ask me how I’m doing. It reminds me that love and compassion trump everything, and to pass it on.
I still have my bad days. It’s holiday season, and I’m having anxiety not looking as small as I want to in some of the clothes gifted to me. I’m about to go to the store and return some for larger sizes, actually.
But as I told my dad a few weeks ago, it’s like I just “no longer have time” for eating disorders. Do you know how much mental and physical energy it takes to nourish starvation? It’s a full-time job, and I already have two of those.
So, me getting better is situational. I somehow came out the other side, still having love for other people and things beyond me. But it’s a spiritual growth, a recognition of mortality, a yearning to do good.
Life is hard. But at least now, every day, I have food and (not excessive) exercise to look forward to. These things help me improve my quality of life, now focusing more on people and my career goals than on myself and my weight goals. I have other, stronger identities. I want to be loving and fun, not cruel and irritable all the time.
WLS: In South America, where there is so much good food, and you being from New York where there is also so much good food, how does this inspire an appetite for you both physically and poetically?
SS: One major misconception of people with eating disorders – maybe of people with anorexia, in particular – is that we don’t love food. I can’t speak for everyone who has shared my diagnosis, but, eh hem, to the contrary. I am one of the biggest foodies you’ll ever meet. Even at my lowest weight, I would tag restaurants on Yelp that I wanted to go to, or spend hours scrolling food porn on Instagram. The only difference between then and now? I starved myself in anticipation and binged on the holy day. Now, I don’t starve, and I stay wary of my tendency to binge.
So, I still love food. Anyone who knows me will tell you I constantly chatter on about nut butter, eggs, and bread. My character in the Poetry Brothel, in fact, has sunny side-up earrings. But now, all of my hunger isn’t concentrated in and falsely satisfied by food; instead, I have developed a wider hunger for people and experiences. For example, when I’m eating in a group, I tend to focus less on the food and more on the conversation.
WLS: Finally, you are studying film while in Uruguay. What types of stories do you hope to tell through film?
SS: What stories do you know from Uruguay? I’m interested in documentary film-making. Maybe the first story you’ll learn will be one I worked on to tell you.
Sarah Simon currently works as a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Uruguay, where she teaches English and studies film. You can see many of her articles here and here. She has also published a book of poetry with Adelaide Books earlier in 2019, which you can purchase here.