Journeys, Scavenger Hunts and Memories: An interview with Sara Backer

Sara Backer is one of our members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association. She has numerous distinctions to her credit, including three years in Japan (1990-1993), as the first American and first woman to serve as Visiting Professor of English at Shizuoka University. You can visit her online at

Backer has also received fellowships from the Djerassi Resident Artist Program and Norton Island Resident Artist Program. Her writing has been featured in Poetry, Bamboo Ridge, The Rialto (UK), Carve, Crannóg (Ireland), Gargoyle, New Welsh Reader (UK), Southern Poetry Review, Poetry Northwest, Arc Poetry Magazine (Canada), PANK, The Seattle Review, The Pedestal, Turtle Island Quarterly, Waccamaw Journal, and many more. Her writing has received six Pushcart prize nominations. Her book Bicycle Lotus won the 2015 Turtle Island Poetry Award, and American Fuji was a book club pick of the Honolulu Advertiser and a nominee for the Kiriyama Prize. Her book Scavenger Hunt is coming soon. We had a chance to catch up with her recently:

Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get started as a writer? What was one of the hardest things for you to learn?

How I got started isn’t interesting. I was one of those kids who learned to read at age three and was writing at age four. My first poem publication was in the Happy Pages of The Worcester Telegram where kids could send poems and, if published, get paid $1. When I was six, that was six weeks’ worth of allowance. I thought the future was going to be fantastic: I could be a poet AND get rich! (Everything went downhill from there . . .)

Hardest things to learn: Self-discipline. Patience. How to handle rejection without getting hurt. I only really conquered the last one after I joined Duotrope. Seeing the stats of what got accepted and rejected where and how long it took made me see po-biz as a numbers game. Rejection feels personal but it really isn’t, so you just have to keep throwing poems at editors until you hit critical mass and get something accepted. I try to have a hundred submissions out at all times. (Keyword: try.)

What’s a poem you usually suggest for a reader who wants to read you for the very first time?

non-genre “The Badlands Spoke” (Turtle Island Quarterly)

genre        “After the Circus Leaves”      (Silver Blade Magazine)

Any time a poem is published online, I post a link on my blog:

SaraBacker2016 b

What’s one of your favorite memories as a poet over the years?

A heart-to-heart talk with Diane di Prima after her reading at U of California at Davis who told me she used to subconsciously choose lovers to father her children but after menopause chose a man she liked to be with–chose for herself, not her gene pool–and that was the partnership that lasted. She is so genuine and honest a person–no advice, no judging, no regrets–just sharing her insight that she didn’t understand what she doing in her youth until she’d moved beyond her hormones. She has no idea how much impact her words had on me  The men I found compelling in my youth were not viable life partners, but I avoided marrying them because I couldn’t help but ask myself if I enjoyed the sex more than the man.

Hiking Mt. Tamalpais with Gary Snyder and a group of students, identifying birds and trees and skat. “Coyote always shits in the middle of the path.”

Ted Kooser in Duluth telling his workshop group that his mother would never be able to understand paying $2 for a plastic bottle of drinking water. (How much that says about the Plains and the poet both.) How to become a poet? Notice five things every day.

Reading with Eric Paul Shaffer to a packed room in the Barnes & Noble in Maui, alternating poems and conversation and making the audience laugh.

And simply reading poems that give me that magical flash of connection that makes me less alone the world: poems by Ciaran Carson, Natalie Shapero, Elizabeth Bishop, Betsy Sholl, Susan Stewart, Claudia Emerson . . .


Who do you look up to as your literary heroes and heroines?

Too many to list! But I would have to choose the postwar Polish poets–especially Zbigniev Herbert and Wislawa Szymborska.  (So much so that I named my new cats Zibi and Vishi.) I am in awe of their intelligence, ethical solidness, and humor in the era of the double-whammy of Stalin and Hitler. How they survived, got past the censors, kept writing brilliant poetry. And–double bonus points–they wrote speculative poems!

You traveled to Costa Rica and Japan, experienced California, Oregon, and now life in New Hampshire.  These seem like very different places to experience as a poet. What has inspired you the most in each of these places?

In every place I’ve lived, the natural world affects me most and  looms large in my legend. I was born in Massachusetts and shaped by white pines, oaks, rabbits, chipmunks, blue jays, robins, and how snow fills fields and branches. Desert Oregon: manzanita, juniper, the gobsmacking number of stars in the night sky. Wet Oregon: a hundred different kinds of mist (no wonder it attracts so many SF writers!). California: watching the sun rise through eucalyptus trees while swimming laps outdoors in January. Costa Rica: sea turtles hatching and crawling into the great living soup of warm ocean, wild parrots, fields of sugar. Japan: steep slopes of green tea rows, tangerine orchards, the glorious taste of water filtered by Mount Fuji obsidian, the powerful pounce of typhoons, giant insects, every street corner a surprise (no wonder it appeals to so many SF writers!). And now, back in New England, I discovered that in the Pacific Rim half of my life I was really a competent tourist but not a native; here, I suddenly knew the names of all the birds and weeds, and East coast people think I’m funny (which I always secretly believed). I love the west coast, but it truly is irony-deficient.

What keeps you going as a poet?

My hardcore need to express the inexpressible. The samedi of the struggle, the bliss of total mono-tasking, the way hours vanish when I’m working on a poem.

If you could have any creature, fantastic or real, for a traveling companion, what would it be?

A Cheshire cat would be pretty cool, appearing and disappearing in tree branches with clever commentary. Low-maintenance and sarcasm–a can’t-beat combo.

Coffee or tea?

Yes, please! Mocha java in the morning, roasted dandelion at night.

What’s your advice for beginning writers who want to write poetry?

Write to write. Don’t try to get published until you’ve written at least 100 poems.

Read at least a poem a day and a book of poems each month.

Push yourself into new territory. Try to imitate poets who don’t write the way you do to stretch your technique.

Make poetry your life, and life your hobby.


What’s next for you?

I have a chapbook, Scavenger Hunt, on the brink of publication from Dancing Girl Press, and I’m working on a full-length collection while I pursue an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Wish me luck!

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