The Problem of the Now: A Conversation with Sally Ashton

Dinah Lenney interviews Sally Ashton


May 7, 2019

SALLY ASHTON IS a poet first: the former poet laureate of Santa Clara County, with three published books of poems to her credit; the founding director of the California Poets Festival in San Jose; and the editor-in-chief of the DMQ Review (an online journal featuring poetry and art) — but Sally writes and publishes across genre, and though labeled as poetry, her most recent collection, The Behaviour of Clocks, might just as well be shelved, so I first thought, with nonfiction, as a long-form lyric essay.

And I should have known better. Sally and I went to grad school together. I bet she remembers as well as I a story we heard, back then, from a member of the faculty about the time he’d been approached, after a public reading, by a verklempt fan. “I loved the poem about your sister,” she said. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

“I don’t have a sister,” he answered.

The lesson being, with poetry, anyway, that we mustn’t assume. And yet. I sent Sally my first round of questions, predicated on the belief that she is the speaker in her new collection. In parentheses, I wrote, “correct me if I’m wrong.” And so she did. “[T]he ‘I’ narrator feels authentic to me as the writer,” she wrote, “but a given piece doesn’t necessarily reflect factual or even my experience.” Later she mused, Poetry operates on a spectrum between nonfiction and fiction conventions in terms of point of view. Poets have no required allegiance to either.”

Point taken, of course. But can I just say — it’s not only that this book feels intensely personal: The Behaviour of Clocks is also, in the tradition of the essay, idea-driven and carefully researched, inspired by the laws of physics, the work of Einstein in particular. Taken together, these short meditations reckon with time, past, present, and future, as well as with place. So that’s where we started.

DINAH LENNEY: So many of these poems happen in faraway lands, or else en route. Which leads me to wonder when and where you actually wrote them.

SALLY ASHTON: I wrote these pieces over a period of a decade — certainly a formative road trip through Italy was nearly 10 years ago. Other pieces were begun later, and a couple were completed last year.

In general, my writing takes place in starts and stops, en route, at home, or locked in a studio somewhere. The Behaviour of Clocks was no exception.

Do you write well on the road?

I write very well while in transit. I love to write on my way anywhere, whether sitting in a light rail car on the way home from work, or on a road trip, or on a plane. I find myself longing to write in the middle of the ocean, maybe on a ship to Hawaii or across the Atlantic, though I’m afraid I’d be seasick on the high seas.

I do love cross-country flights, five hours interrupted only by someone asking if they can bring me something to eat or drink. Travel serves as a time and place where I don’t have to be anything else but “there.” Why is that different from working at home by myself? I don’t know. There’s something about being in that suspended — literally mid-air — space of no place, that I find frees my imagination.

To quote Theodore Roethke, maybe “I learn by going where I have to go.” That’s from his poem “The Waking,” and I do find myself strangely awakened while in transit. I don’t think his poem is “about” flying, but look at this stanza:

Great Nature has another thing to do  
To you and me; so take the lively air,  
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

That kind of sums up my experience, especially with The Behaviour of Clocks.

What about the memoir-ish sections — “family albums,” you call them — how did they find their way into this project?

Those pieces are from family stories, the kind told and retold throughout my childhood, often over old black-and-white photographs held in a hatbox. They’re the clearly nonfictional aspect of the collection, autobiographical snapshots of the unseen past that is always with us and profoundly informs the experience of any “now,” and even the trajectory of our future. Interspersing these memories is my attempt to acknowledge or enact that presence.

Back to Einstein, you might playfully think of the family albums representing the phenomenon of entanglement, what he dismissed as “spooky actions at a distance.” It’s such an abstract concept to explain. But I’m interested in how the past shadows or haunts the present.

And you’re mostly writing in present tense, aren’t you? As if everything were happening now. Can we talk about “Vespers” in Part Three? In the middle of the poem you say: “I don’t know if it’s possible to believe in nothing, but I will try for a while” — how’s that working out for you, I wonder.

Well, the speaker in “Vespers” is fictionalized.

Right. Sorry. There I go again …

Still, she does pose an authentic question, one I have faced in leaving a formal faith tradition. Can faith ever fully be abandoned? The idea can be, the practice can be, but faith itself? I still don’t know.

But is faith a way to stay present? Is there any such thing?

As staying present? No. There is no “now,” right? We’re constantly tumbling into the next moment.

I ridiculously went to a seminar at Stanford last fall on “The Nature of Time,” featuring psychologists, neuroscientists, philosophers, linguists. I took copious notes, which I still have, and came away a bit numb. But one of the speakers quoted that “the problem of the Now worried [Einstein] seriously. He explained that the experience of the Now means something special for man, something essentially different from the past and future, but that this […] cannot occur within physics.” In other words, “now” is theoretically impossible? Headache.

No kidding. But you explain in your preface that when faced with that brand of headache, Einstein played the violin. What’s the equivalent for you? How do you figure out what you’re writing about? When do you know?

From my understanding, Einstein often picked up Lina, his violin, to puzzle through difficult mathematical equations needed to support his theories. His music was a purposeful approach to problem solving.

Unfortunately, I play no musical instrument. But two approaches that seem to work for me when I’m stumped are walking — long walks — and free writing, a type of arguing with the work. Walking is closer, though, in that it requires body, breath, balance, an expenditure of physical energy and focus. Somehow by not struggling with language, I can often find the next word or phrase or approach to take while my body is busy and my mind adrift. But I wish I could say my equivalent to his violin was painting, which I’m also untrained to do.

As far as deciding what I’m writing about, as in the sense of a “project” — I tend to write poem-to-poem. Maybe I’m writing about Valentine’s Day; then I’m writing about the Moon. Then, my mother. Something from the news catches my attention. I come across a cool entry buried in an earlier journal. My daughter says something brilliant. At some point, though, I have to try to see what possible themes or narratives I can identify across the work I’m writing, and then shape toward that. Patterns emerge in retrospect. I do seem to have my obsessions.

And how do you finally put the whole thing together?

When I’m ready to put a book together, I print out all the pieces that seem to hold something in common and order them roughly around related themes, for lack of a better word. Then I literally tape every poem in this initial order across the biggest blank wall I can find. I call it unpacking my mind, like it’s all there in front of me instead of banging around in my head. Then I live with it, reading aloud, moving pages around, crossing things out, making edits, until something sensible emerges. Getting the work out of the computer for me is essential. The text becomes a physical presence that I interact with.

In this case, truly, struggling to comprehend Einstein’s theory of relativity helped me sort all this out. Also a last pass by my editor at WordFarm who made some final suggestions. God bless editors, whether friends or the friendly professional.

Tell me one more thing: Are you keen to get back on a train? To travel to someplace new?

Yes! I’m looking forward to getting back on Amtrak and taking a different route cross country because it’s just the best way to see the planet.

I do have a flight to New York coming up, but it’s the flight itself I’m anticipating for the writing time. I don’t really see myself as a travel writer. Maybe I’m more like Emily Dickinson’s arm-chair traveler. It’s just that often that chair is bolted down to a swiftly moving object.