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10 Questions for Brooke Sahni

First, we were taught how to spell
His name, then we were told to draw Him.
It was an exercise in metaphor.
The balls of paper amassed before me
while my class mates drew stars, maps of the Holy Land.
I thought I should color everything I could think of
—from "G-d, a Portrait," Volume 61, Issue 3 (Fall 2020)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
For as long as I could write, I have. I’ve always had journals, but one of the first “formal” pieces I remember writing was in 3rd grade—a short book called Chloe, about a golden retriever princess. My teacher, generously, told me she couldn’t wait to see my first book in a bookstore one day; this stayed with me.

The first poem I ever wrote wasn’t actually until I was an undergraduate, and I’m pretty sure I turned on the song, “Guilty Cubicles” by Broken Social Scene and tried to capture the song’s “essence” in a poem—it makes me cringe just thinking about it! Thank god for my poetry mentor giving us good models and telling us when our poetry was bad!

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Returning to childhood, I remember The Music of the Dolphins by Karen Hesse as having a profound impact on me. It was one of the first times I recall hearing and feeling the beauty of language. In my adult life Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon has remained a keystone to my writing life. I think it is a perfect, gorgeous, timeless novel. Same with James Baldwin’s short story, “Sonny’s Blues,” many of the stories in Stuart Dybek’s, The Coast of Chicago, Carson McCullers’ novel, The Member of the Wedding. Most recently I’ve been really into all the work by, Lauren Groff, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Catherine Lacey. And as for “my” poets, Robin Coste Lewis, Chelsea Wagenaar, Kelli Russell Agodon, Leah Naomi Green, Danez Smith, Leila Chatti, and Arielle Greenberg, are some of the poets I’ve been reading lately.

What other professions have you worked in?
I’ve had a lot of jobs! One of my favorites was working at an independent movie theater in Cleveland, Ohio, where I’m from. It was in this theater that I fell in love with film. I worked behind the concession stand most of the time, scooping popcorn, getting to know the characters that frequented the theater, and working until 1am one Saturday a month for Rocky Horror—I loved seeing all those nearly naked bodies in glitter and fishnets.

What did you want to be when you were young?
I never felt drawn to any particular job, and I wasn’t really aware of other, more artistic kinds of jobs until I was older. For a while, in high school, I thought about majoring in graphic design or interior design—I’ve always loved looking at aesthetically pleasing things. I took two years off between high school and college and somewhere in that time I awoke from a dream with the realization that I could study writing academically. It was something I had always done, but it had never occurred to me that I could pursue it formally.

What inspired you to write this piece?
“G-d, a Portrait,” is the second poem in my poetry chapbook, Divining. The poem that comes before, introduces this idea of absence, both in the body and in the word god—“g-d” is the way some Jewish people spell it out of respect—so I wanted to continue with that idea, in combination with the image of kids trying to draw god—what a fruitless task to try to get at the enormity of something that can’t even be named. Or maybe not, since this poem resulted in that experience from so long ago.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Cleveland, Ohio and my two homeplaces of the southwest—Arizona and New Mexico—definitely inspire my writing. I’ve lived in Cleveland the longest and came of age there, so a lot of my coming of age stories and poems are set to that backdrop. Cleveland as a grungy, quintessentially rustbelt city, with its cement and brick, contrasted to the lush green of summer, comes up a lot in my work. Arizona, for me, represents a different coming of age—the years I was in college and developed as a writer and student and fell more in love with rural, natural landscapes. In general, I don’t really identify as a sense of place writer, but I do find it helpful to have a clear image of where a story or poem is taking place and then letting that place inform the lives of the characters and vice versa. I also deeply love all these places, so they naturally come up.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
Music is a big part of my writing process most of the time. I usually turn something on that captures some kind of essence or mood of what I am trying to write. Like I mentioned above, Broken Social Scene’s album, Feel Good Lost is a go-to. Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Lhasa de Sela, and a long, seventeen minute Van Morrison jam I found on YouTube called, “Caledonia Soul Music.” But once I start writing, I turn all music off. I need complete silence.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
In my MFA, it was my lovely cohort, but now that I have graduated, I am lucky to have my good friend, poet and fiction writer, Tyler Julian, as well as a few other teacher/mentors whom I’ve remained close to as readers.

What are you working on currently?
I have a short story collection nearly completed, so I am working on fine-tuning a few of those stories. I am also writing new poems and just diving into writing a novel.

What are you reading right now?
I just finished Pew by Catherine Lacey and Deluge by Leila Chatti. Now I’m reading Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, with special attention to her “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” essay. I am also catching up on my Sun magazines.


BROOKE SAHNI’s poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in magazines such as Missouri Review, Nimrod, Denver Quarterly, 32 Poems, Prairie Schooner, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. Her poetry chapbook, Divining, is the inaugural winner of the Orison Chapbook Prize and is forthcoming in 2020.

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