by Jake Uitti | Contributing Writer
Northwest writer Sierra Golden composes bare-knuckle poetry. Reading Golden, who was born in Alaska and spent summers fishing commercially, is like pulling up galoshes, throwing on a coat and preparing for a back alley brawl with the elements. Hers is a keen eye for worn things and linguistic gut punches. With her astonishing collection, The Slow Art, in tow, Golden has proven her poetic prowess through storytelling and unique details, which is exactly why we wanted to catch up with the author and talk with her about what she learned living on boats for months, how fishing informed her physicality, and if she ever felt in danger at sea.
Can you describe where you grew up?
I grew up in Maple Falls, which is 45 minutes east of Bellingham. It’s halfway between Bellingham and the Mt. Baker Ski Area. I often describe it to people as the last gas station before you get to the ski area. But I was born in Ketchikan, Alaska. We left there before I was a year old. I grew up most of my life in Maple Falls and my dad fished in Southeast Alaska, so I continued to spend time there.
Why did you dedicate so much of your creative efforts to fishing?
It just happened. They were the poems that I was writing and people liked them and I liked fishing. So, I just kept writing about it. I was writing about other things, too. When I put together the first draft of the book, it was probably only a quarter or a third fishing poems. I started sending it out ,and it didn’t get picked up. I look back on it now and I shouldn’t have been sending the book out at all. Over maybe four or five years of reworking and sending out and reworking and sending out, the focus just kept getting tighter and tighter until I realized eventually that it really needed to be almost completely focused on fishing. If you look really closely, there are some poems that aren’t. If you put them by themselves, they would have nothing to do with fishing—but when they’re in context, they make sense in that landscape.
What did you learn on the boats that worked its way into your poetry?
Well, in some ways, everything. But one thing that comes in mind is the work ethic of fishing. I really try to apply to it to my poetry life and my everyday life and my work life. But the landscape of fishing and the sense of community . . . I think that’s something I hope comes out in the book along with the sense of the physicality of the world that you can live in.
Do you remember a particularly important idea that came to you out on the boats?
Very little of that book was actually written on the boat in the sense of pen-to-paper writing. Of course, you know, I was always—I didn’t take a lot of notes, but the experience was really part of the whole writing process. If you get really literal about your question, one of the things that I did write and take notes about and play with on the boat was the very opening poem that’s before the first section. I heard whales sighing at night and I was like, “How do I write this out!” But all of the ideas I think came from being on the boat. I think about the poem, “Shame,” and that sense of, man, there is all this garbage and destruction that we’re creating and how do I deal with that and how do I process it and what is the emotion it’s creating in me? I didn’t know it was shame [at first], I just knew that I felt bad. Through the writing you discover that.
And in the poem, “Growing Up,” that was something I struggled to write about for a long time. When I was on the boat I journaled about that experience. And, I should say, all of the poems, I wouldn’t call any of them factual or biographical or even memoir but most of them have some seed that is “real” and I played with it creatively. “Growing Up” is an example of that. There was this instance that happened and we spilled a bunch of oil in the engine room and eventually it was put over the side of the boat. I was like, “How do I . . . ” I was journaling about how terrible it was and how angry I was and then it took me a couple years of trying to write about it. That was a poem I’d written all these terrible versions of and when I wrote the actual version, which is in the book, it came out almost complete.
There’s so much that’s tangible in your poetry: boxes, knots, anchors, bottles, oars. Did fishing help shape your idea of your own physicality?
Oh, yeah. Definitely. There’s an essay I wrote called “Prodigal Daughters.” It gets at that very question, along with a couple others. And yes, fishing totally changed the way I saw my physical self and what I thought I could do in the world in the sense of taking care of myself and being a strong person. I would come back from fishing and usually I was moving—I was in college and I would move every year and then I moved to go to grad school and just every year I was moving. And I really did all those moves alone. To come home and pick up these huge 50-pound boxes of books—it was just this sense of ownership of my body and strength and pride. But then there were also weird things. Like, I would come home and my hands would be really messed up and I’d have these big callouses. One year, one of my fingernails grew back weird and so I was trying to hide my hands in my pockets. I was really proud with what I had done [fishing] but then I had my hands in my pockets because I didn’t want anybody to look at them. So, it was definitely a way to reexamine who I was in the world.
Fishing, at its core, is about life and death. Did you ever feel in danger on the water?
I was not on the Bering Sea; it was not like Deadliest Catch. The water was pretty similar to the Puget Sound most times. There are really crappy days, yes. I always joke, “It’s definitely more dangerous than working at Starbucks!” And that’s how I think about it. I grew up around it, so I’ve always felt—I’ve been on commercial fishing boats since I was five years old . . .—so, I always felt very comfortable. It’s one of my safe spaces as a human being. But the longer I did it, the more I realized that that was maybe not the best way to think about it. The poem, “Predawn,” in the book, where I say, “The longer I’m on this boat, the more I think it’s going to sink.” That was it. The more I fished the more I realized everything around me, something could go wrong. And that if it goes wrong, it could have really catastrophic consequences. There were all these every day moments of feeling at risk. I started having night terrors. They were these really fast dreams. I would dream that we hit a log. Or, I would dream that we were tearing the net and putting a huge hole in it. I would wake up and scream, “No, no, no!” or “Stop! Stop! Stop!” But there was never a moment where I thought, “Oh my god, we are literally going to sink!” I’m really lucky to have worked on a boat where I felt safe.
There’s so much in The Slow Art about the universe, oceans, distance, and mist. How has your concept of space evolved over the years?
One of the things that I loved about fishing was this idea that sometimes the smaller your personal universe got in an external sense, the bigger your internal world would get. What I mean by that very simply is if you live on a boat that’s 58-feet long for four months and you’re with four other people—so it’s not even all yours—you have a very small piece of personal space. And you don’t really have a laptop and you don’t really have a cell phone. You have cell service sometimes and some people watch movies, but I didn’t really do that much. No internet, no movies. Small space. What do you do? Suddenly, your internal world opens up. I read a lot of books and journaled and went for long walks and hikes and canoe rides and we would sport fish on our days off. It was this quiet, beautiful space. I cooked a lot. And other people would start these crazy art projects. One guy carved wooden spoons all summer. Someone else was making duct tape roses. In some ways, they feel a little silly, but I think it’s really interesting what people choose to do when their physical space forces them to be creative about how they spend their time.
When you meet a new person in a small fishing town, what happens in your creative mind as you get to know them?
Hopefully, nothing. And what I mean by that is that usually the things I think I’m going to write about when they’re happening, I might write about them but they’re going to be really bad poems. The things that really get under my skin and maybe I forget about them for a while but then six months later, I’m like, “Oh man, that thing that someone said or that thing that I saw or oh that happened to me and still makes me angry!” Those are more interesting than the ones where I’m like, “Oh you’re a really compelling, interesting person. I’m going to write about you!” That doesn’t usually work.
In each of my Poetry Northwest interviews, I ask for a writing tip, something you’ve learned that’s helped you become a better write. What’s yours?
I think that it’s important to stay present to the physical world. In practice, I think that looks like doing things out in the world and touching things and eating things and meeting new people and doing things that scare you and doing things that give you joy. Because, at least for me, the poems came from the physical world first.
There are so many great last lines in The Slow Art. How do you think about endings in your work?
I think I usually write past them. I was thinking about that this morning, actually. I haven’t been writing poems lately because I’m working on another project, but I was trying to write a poem this morning and I feel like maybe I usually keep the first line but then I almost always write past the last line. It’s usually easy to see the last line once you give the poem a little while to live on its own. You can go back and see where the ending clicks. Then, it’s satisfying to cut away the junk and reveal the ending. When you get down to it, cutting is a lot easier than producing.
The book’s opening poem ends with the idea of a choice: whether to pass out berries or enjoy them alone. The book’s final poem has you passing them out. Why was this scene resonant for you?
I think that’s a question that I struggle with myself everyday: How do I spend my time and how do I spend my money and how do I—I don’t know—it’s just a life question. Do you hold what you love really close to your chest or do you share it? Slowly, I think I’ve come to the realization that if you share it, it goes around. There’s more of it. For me, one of the major themes of the book is love. And the more you try to control love or try to keep it tight to your chest or limit it, the more it shrinks. But the more you share it, the more there is.
Sierra Golden graduated with an MFA in poetry from North Carolina State University. Her manuscript The Slow Art won the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize and was published by Bear Star Press in 2018. Golden’s poems appear in literary journals such as Prairie Schooner, Permafrost, and Ploughshares. She has been awarded fellowships and residencies by Hedgebrook, Hugo House, and The Elizabeth George Foundation. Although she calls Washington State home, Golden spent many summers in Alaska, working as a commercial fisherman. She now works in communications at Agros International, a nonprofit working to break the cycle of poverty among rural farmers in Central America.
Jake Uitti is a Seattle-based writer who loves Tony Bennett, Amy Winehouse, and The Black Tones. His work has been featured in the Seattle Times, Washington Post, and The Monarch Review.