Evolution of the Writing Process: A Conversation with Dr. Sara Pirkle Hughes

Sara Pirkle Hughes’s first book, The Disappearing Act, won the 2016 Adrienne Bond Award for Poetry and was published in 2018. Her poems have been published in Rattle, Reed, Entropy, TAB, The Raintown Review, Emrys, and Atticus Review, among others. Sara has received writing fellowships from The Anderson Center, I-Park Foundation, and The Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences. She is the Assistant Director of Creative Writing at The University of Alabama, where she also hosts the Pure Products Reading & Lecture Series.

How did obtaining an MFA and a PhD change the way you read and write poetry?

I entered my MFA program right out of undergrad, and it was at a university that was only 25 miles away from where I had gone to college, so it felt very much like an extension of my undergraduate program. I loved my MFA thesis advisor, and the supportive writing community that existed at Georgia College, as well as the added bonus of residing in Flannery O’Connor land. Earning my PhD, however, was much more influential in changing the way that I read and write poetry. My PhD program rigorously focused on the formal aspects of poetry. I learned how to break down poems and infer meaning from every caesura or line break that a poet employed. I no longer felt like I was just “feeling” my way through a poem. I began to understand why poets make choices that effect slant rhyme or simile and thus, the poem’s meaning. That education was invaluable to my writing.

Was there any event or circumstance that encouraged you to keep writing?

The biggest event in my life that altered my writing was my cancer diagnosis four years ago. I had just graduated from my PhD program a month earlier, and while I had generated 60 or 70 poems in that program, I hadn’t sent many of them out for publication in journals. My diagnosis made me feel an intense pressure to get my writing out in the world. As a result, I started submitting like a madwoman, sending poems to dozens of journals that I had previously been too shy to send my work to. And the wonderful thing is, because I was battling for my life, suffering from chemo side effects and feeling generally pretty crummy, I gained a new perspective on rejection. Rejections from literary journals no longer felt like a big deal because I was facing something much more serious. Losing my fear of rejection led to a windfall of acceptances, and I published about fifty poems in two years. And that is what encouraged me to keep writing, or more specifically, to keep sending my work out and ultimately, to submit my book to a publisher.

How long did this collection take to compose, edit, and assemble? How did you select the poems you included in the manuscript?

I wrote most of the poems for this collection while I was enrolled in my PhD program at Georgia State. While my PhD coursework and comprehensive exams were in literature, I opted to write a creative dissertation, which was a collection of poems. The Disappearing Act came from my dissertation, and I wrote the bulk of it at three summer residencies. So, the answer to the question of how long it took to write is difficult to answer, because the process spanned over six years, with an additional year of finding a publisher. I wrote most of the poems in three intense one-month increments. In between the residencies, I got a lot of feedback from various poets, that I really respect, who saw thematic links among the poems and helped me shape the manuscript and select which poems went in the book.

How does writing poetry compare to writing nonfiction and fiction?

I’ve written and published poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction, and these genres all have their obstacles. At any point, I could have said that writing poetry is harder but also, the easiest form for me to write. What is most difficult, perhaps, is getting an idea for something that needs to be written and having to decide in which genre it belongs. Is it a flash essay? A prose poem? A sonnet? A short story? I’ve written more poetry than any other genre, but I am still not convinced that I know when a piece of writing should be a poem instead of an essay or story.

Do you believe poets and writers “improve” over the years or do they simply write about differing topics?

Gosh, I hope writers improve as they age! If a writer isn’t growing, what is she doing? Writers are tasked with preserving an authentic representation of the human experience, and the older we get, the more life experience we have. Therefore, our writing should reflect that growth, offering deeper, more mature thoughts on various subjects. I would hate to think that someone reading a piece I wrote at 35 wouldn’t think it more insightful than a piece I wrote at 20. Some writers find what works and they mimic that style for decades. Those writers often become less relevant over time. I don’t ever want to feel like my writing has become stale, which is why I constantly challenge myself to try new forms, new genres, new subjects.

–Interview conducted by Van Newell