Commentary, Interviews, Recent

Interview // “The Poet as Perceptual Instrument & The Form as an Invitation”: A Conversation with Sarah Mangold

by Shriram Sivaramakrishnan | Associate Editor

This conversation has been long in the making. Sarah and I tap-tapped at our keyboards, across continents, time-zones, seasons, geopolitical crises, and more. The fact that we found a way to pull this interview along, one question at a time, is a miracle in itself, just like Sarah’s The Atom (Wave Books 2023). Part ekphrastic, part homage to the artistic verve of af Klint, The Atom is Sarah’s way of drawing a line, albeit a literary one, connecting the etheric and the aesthetic planes. So while Sarah successfully channelized af Klint in and through The Atom, I did the next best thing: I reached out to Sarah. 

As both of us are self-confessed admirers, if not fans, of Hilma af Klint’s work, I sincerely hope she is lording over us.  


Shriram Sivaramakrishnan (SS): I must begin by confessing that I have a fascination for Hilma af Klint’s work and her artistic theosophy. I was fortunate enough to come across Julia Voss’s definitive biography of the Swedish artist, which is why I must jump straight into the first few lines of the Notes & Acknowledgements section in your book, The Atom:

Hilma af Klint’s The Atom Series (1917) contains twenty drawings which illustrate two images of an atom on each page: one image shows the atom as it exists on the etheric plane and the other shows the atom’s state of energy on the physical plane enlarged four times. My twenty atom poems consist of af Klint’s original notation for each atom in italics, with my depiction of that notation’s state of energy enlarged four times on the physical plane.

What struck me in reading this excerpted section was that you have mapped in words the dynamic that af Klint had achieved between the images on the etheric and the physical planes. This informed my reading of the entire collection, as I read this section first. It made me think of The Atom as something other than an ekphrastic collection, as the poems don’t seem to arise from the images of The Atom Series. Instead, they function like rhizomatic appendages of af Klint’s notations, which brings me to my first question: what do you think is the role of af Klint’s notations? Can you take us behind the scenes, and show us how you moved from images to notations to your pieces? How did they arrive?

Sarah Mangold (SM): Happy to meet another Hilma af Klint fan! How did you discover her work? I am impressed that you read the Voss biography too. I am always on the lookout for new Julia Voss writing. Have you read the graphic novel illustrated by her husband, The Five Lives of Hilma af Klint?

I like your idea that my Atoms are rhizomatic appendages of af Klint’s notations. I feel her notations are part of the images, like a Cy Twombly painting, which is one of the things that intrigues me about HAK’s work, as further interpretations of the portal image created perhaps a guide to the portal entrance. Her use of language within her paintings was one of the first things that intrigued me about Hilma af Klint (and led me to study Swedish). I am fascinated by the science and art of her time, what she was reading and seeing, and how that made its way into her work or didn’t. Technically I do not think my Atoms are ekphrastic, as the poems are influenced by outside sources and not just the image, but I haven’t found a good definition for them yet. I knew I wanted to create “poetry atoms” in response to af Klint’s Atoms, but it took a few years to get to the published version. The Atoms incorporate language gathered from the books known to have been part of her personal library. As you’ve probably seen, af Klint’s Atoms are square, but I wanted to create the visual sensation of an atom floating through space. I had a few months where I thought I needed to create an accurate representation of the Atoms and created square blocks of text, but the circle shape won out. I also wanted the atoms to appear as circles but not as perfect circles. Between MS Word and Adobe, I came to the final form. With Jeff Clark’s beautiful design, the atoms became even more atmospheric, through his centering the notations and adding atom numbers on the page.

SS: Oh, that’s great. I didn’t know about the graphic novel! Bookmarked, thanks. I want to pay attention to one of the things you mentioned. Your decision to forge an “accurate representation of the Atoms,” which led you towards the current shape: an imperfect circle. I am reminded of this segment from The Atom. My apologies for quoting the text in a linear fashion, itself a distortion of the shape you have envisioned:

Be / careful to not / be so concerned / about rightness of form. / I have redrawn the garden. Tread a golden / circular path.

It seems to me that questions about the shape bleed right into the form. I can’t help but visualize each poem as containing outer electron rings guarding the central nucleus. Also, the shape/form is more of a golden circle. Would it be a jump too far if I read in it the mathematical, Fibonacci representation of the Pi Ratio, also called the Golden Circle, found in nature from nautilus shells to the swirl of a hurricane? Maybe the shape being referred to here is not an abstract notion or an aesthetic projection, but one with real world valances.

Then there is the prescriptive yet tender tone of that piece: “Be / careful.” It almost feels like you channeled the spirit of HAK, the way she did during seances in her lifetime. Why should I, as a reader/writer, not be concerned “about rightness of form,” when the work itself plays with the implications of the shape/form, at the very least on the page?

SM: Another great question! Yes, the golden ratio is in my thoughts and af Klint’s spirals and snails are very much in nature and golden ratios. I even bought a notebook with the golden ratio template on each page during the writing of these poems to help envision the writing process. I am glad the idea of Fibonacci Sequence is experienced by the reader in these poems. I feel as if I am in conversation with Hilma af Klint as I study and write with her work. The caution about the rightness of form is really a reminder to myself, and I wasn’t conscious of this connection with the Atom’s form until you pointed it out! My own mental process of figuring out the Atom and working through the form evidently made its way into the poem. It can also be interpreted by readers as a reminder to be open to different forms, rather than suspicious of a poem does not look like a traditional “poem.” It is inviting openness.

SS: You have mentioned that you gathered language from the books known to have been part of HAK’s personal collection. In a way, it is a bit like curating an exhibition from an artist’s oeuvre, isn’t it? There is greater accountability on the part of the poet to gather words, diction, idioms, figures of speech, etc. from the artist’s field of synthesis. HAK also wrote, predominantly, in Swedish. There are numerous words/word families to cover. Consider, for example, colors. We have the entire spectrum here, from violet to red. Can you walk us through the process by which you arrived at the verbatim for the project and its significance?

SM: Gathering source words to create a word bank outside my usual vocabulary is part of my writing practice so it wasn’t unusual for me to work in this way. It is also an obsessive/stalkerish process, wanting to find out what influenced HAK, what she was reading, and what was going on in the art and science worlds during her time. I wouldn’t say that the language is verbatim since it is a collage of my own thoughts along with snippets of source texts. The books in Hilma’s library were in Swedish, but I am reading the English translations or the original English versions which were later translated into Swedish.

SS: It is interesting to hear you refer to your creative process for this project as a collage. I would never have guessed it. Though, I am captivated by the presence/absence of “voice” in your work. It seems to me that the “I” functions as a semantic placeholder in these pieces. Consider the poetry atom under ‘N°8’:

On the page, a pronoun is less sticky, and hence more fluid, than a noun, which is more rigid due to the structures of language. In that sense, a pronoun provides something like a fire escape ladder for the voices to enter and exit from the “Perpetual / trap of forced continuity,” enforced by narration. I cannot help but think that this was only possible because of the aesthetics of collage. 

I sense this perforation throughout the project. Can you talk about your relationship with the voice(s)/speaker(s) in The Atom?

SM: The “I” and speaker throughout The Atom is me in the true confessional sense, but I love this idea of the ever changing “I.” Even though the language may come from a collage process, the poems reflect my own processing of spirituality, science, and even the idea of an “I” through the work of Hilma af Klint who writes in her notebook, “I is not really used in this symbolic language which will one day make sense.” It is unlikely I would have come to this series in a linear way, i.e.: “I am going to write about x and my feelings about x.” To quote one of my favorite poets, Rosmaire Waldrop, on the collage process, “Your concerns and obsessions will surface no matter what you do.”

SS: What were your chief concerns and obsessions when you started this project? What concerns and obsessions manifested once you started the project? Were there any surprises, moments where, to paraphrase the speaker from N°19, the line became electrical?

SM: The Atom was created out of an obsession with Hilma af Klint and her Atom Series and that obsession intensified as I was actively writing the poems. I became equally obsessed with experimenting with how to create a visual form that embodies the invisible; how to create the sensation of buoyancy while reading language on a one-dimensional surface; should the poems be square like HAK’s or round like an atom in our mind; and the historical fact of clairvoyant chemistry, that if one could look intently enough into matter, the invisible molecules would be visible, and recordable, a scientific fact. The book Occult Chemistry, Clairvoyant Observations on the Chemical Elements by Annie Besant, and Charles Leadbeater (1908) was a constant companion.

My surprise was the manifestation of the poems themselves that articulate my thought process while working on the individual Atoms. At the time of composition, I meditated on the painting notations and the images in the series from Hilma af Klint. I let the words speak and find their arrangement and try to stay out of the way. I love how words can be drawn to each other and identify themselves to magnetize to other language to create a visible coherent representation of thought.

The Atom manifests my obsession to create that “electric line.” Working on the series also amplified my love of concrete/visual poetry which I’ve always had since a kid and wrote a poem about horses in the shape of a horse for a class assignment. During the Covid lockdowns, I could not concentrate in a way to read linear text or poems, the words were too much, but I could read concrete poetry. The poems of Mary Ellen Solt, Andrei Monastyrski, and Uruguayan poet Amanda Berenguer were meditative portals that let my mind open.

SS: I like the idea of words being drawn to each other. If there is a force of attraction between words and if that force, as you say, is magnetic, then the output, that of a “visible coherent representation of thought” would be the poetic form, which makes the words themselves a form of matter. It is ironic that clairvoyant chemistry underlines the concept of looking. 

I can’t help but believe that this act of looking gives birth to the poet’s gaze. It is tempting to suggest that the poet’s gaze has the power to forge forms out of matter and harness the electric line to magnetize words for meaning, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. As you have stated, you were surprised that the poems manifested themselves to articulate your thought process. Maybe this is the clairvoyance the speaker is alluding to in section N°2:

But if that were true, and the poet truly becomes a perceptual instrument for the poem, one who must lose her agency to receive, akin to a vessel during a seance, what were some of the “decisions” you think you made during composition? And while you are at it, can you also talk us through the process of revision? Were there any choices that you re-evaluated while putting together the collection?

SM: I do believe the poet is the perceptual instrument of a poem. Not exactly an empty vessel, but a vessel that has been prepared to receive the poem. Some of my decisions were in the preparation to write about Hilma af Klint’s work: the art history and theosophical research, the gathering of source texts to incorporate, the writing and collecting of my own thoughts around HAKs work, and most of all setting the intention to write with and about The Atom Series. During the composition, some constraints were decided: that I would write twenty Atoms to match HAK’s series, that I would write in reference to each Atom specifically, while looking at the image of the Atom and HAK’s notes, and that the language would come from a mix of the source texts and my own notes.

The revision process happened over a few years. Besides tightening up sentences, I sometimes changed pronouns, deleted sentences and words, and edited for grammatical clarity. I spent a fair amount of time deciding and re-evaluating the final form of each Atom to create a sense of buoyancy and finally how the HAK notations should appear.

SS: I can’t think of a better way to end this interview. Thanks a ton for taking the time to respond to my questions with such poise. 


Sarah Mangold is the author of the chapbook The Atom (Wave Books, 2023), inspired by Swedish artist and researcher Hilma af Klint. Her poetry books include Her Wilderness Will Be Her Manners (Fordham University Press, 2021), selected by Cynthia Hogue for the POL Prize, Giraffes of Devotion (Kore Press, 2016), Electrical Theories of Femininity (Black Radish Books, 2015) and Household Mechanics (New Issues, 2002), selected by C.D. Wright for the New Issues Poetry Prize. She is the recipient of support from the National Endowment for the Arts, Millay Arts, Artist Trust, Willapa Bay AiR, Djerassi Resident Artists Program, and MacDowell. Raised in Oklahoma, she now lives and works in Edmonds, WA.

Shriram Sivaramakrishnan graduated from Boise State University’s MFA program in 2022. Some of his recent poems have appeared in Rivulet and DIAGRAM. A big fan of The Paris Review‘s The Art of Interview, Shriram believes that interview deserves to be considered as a literary genre. Shriram tweets at @shriiram.