To read Death and Exes, the new collection of poetry from Sarah Bridgins, is to grapple with emotions that don’t often come in such close proximity. As its title suggests, the poems within wrangle with questions of mortality and relationships, but they also abound with unlikely pop culture references and dizzying shifts in mood. I spoke with Bridgins to learn more about the collection’s origins and to zero in on some of the imagery that she uses in her work.
The first poem in Death and Exes references Whitney Houston, and late in the book you write the lines “I want to dance on/ champagne legs.” Am I reading too much into these lines by seeing them as an “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” reference? And, more broadly, what role does music play in your writing process?
Oh! I love that you made that connection. These lines are actually a reference to the movie The Saddest Music in the World directed by Guy Madden. Isabella Rossellini’s character has prosthetic legs made out of glass that at one point are filled with champagne. It was such a beautiful and bizarrely joyful image that I had to borrow it.
I can’t really listen to music when I’m working on something formal like a poem or an essay. I find it too distracting. I do listen to music when I journal though and am attempting to work out my feelings in a more personal, less structured way. My taste in music is pretty basic and female-centric. Lots of Fiona Apple, Taylor Swift, Lorde, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Linda Ronstadt.
Did you have the book’s title figured out before you began putting it together, or did it come to mind partway through the process?
I came up with it partway through the process. I couldn’t decide if it was incredibly clever or incredibly dumb. People don’t always understand the pun and I still have to stop myself from saying “Get it?” every time I tell someone what the title is.
Over how long a span of time did you write the poems contained in this book? What was the process like of both selecting and arranging them?
I wrote them over six or seven years, from when I was in my mid-twenties to my early thirties. If I’m being honest the selection process was really just pulling together every poem I published during this period until I had enough for a book. My work is all very tonally and thematically consistent so it worked out, but I didn’t start out thinking I was writing a book necessarily.
Were there any areas of thematic overlap that you hadn’t expected to find that you discovered as you put the book together?
The theme of consumption and indulgence as a way to process trauma. I make a lot of references to things that might be considered superficial or trashy: junk food, reality TV shows, knickknacks, clothes. I think there’s a common understanding that a reliance on these things when you’re going through a hard time is a way of masking difficult feelings rather than dealing with them. For me, going through this incredibly difficult time when I lost most of my close family in just a few years, I realized that giving yourself permission to enjoy whatever stupid or “unhealthy” things you take pleasure in can sometimes be what makes life feel worth living. There’s a point where this can teeter over into self-destruction and in addition to eating Cheetos and watching The Real Housewives I also went to therapy and started taking medication. Discovering what brought me comfort during my lowest point when I didn’t have the energy to self-police or judge myself as harshly as I might normally made me feel connected to myself in a way I never had before. I sort of put myself in the position of being my own overindulgent parent and just tried to be really kind and gentle with myself.
Reading these poems, I thought a lot about situating the poems’ narrator in time. How do you feel about the use of the past and the present in these poems?
I generally use the past tense for poems that are more narrative, where I’m describing a particular incident or event like going to the Mütter Museum with my dad or going to the hospital to see my mom. I use the present tense more when I’m trying to communicate a very specific feeling or state of being. A lot of the poems in this collection come from feeling stuck inside a dark fog of feeling and trying to write dispatches from this place. I titled a series of poems in the book after lunar mare, the “seas” that are on the moon, because the state I was in at the time felt so cold and otherworldly. These are all in the present tense.
You’ve also written nonfiction, and I’m curious — how does your approach to writing about life change when you’re writing poetry versus when you’re writing prose?
Non-fiction is a challenge because so much of it is about providing context and figuring out how much information you need to give the reader and how much you can leave out. Even if I’m writing about something very small and specific, for example this essay I wrote for Buzzfeed about going to 7-11 all the time after my dad died, I still need to give the reader enough backstory for them to recognize why what I’m writing about is meaningful. It can be hard finding just the right details to essentially distill your entire childhood and relationship with your parents into a few paragraphs. I have the same challenge with my poems that are more straightforwardly narrative, but with the poems that are more about communicating an emotion or state of mind there isn’t the same need to explain and make everything make perfect sense. Images or phrases can have an impact on their own through the associations they evoke and just the general music of the language.
One of the most striking moments in this collection comes from the lines “I sat across from you,/ my stomach full of flesh/ drinking the ashes of the dead.” Can you describe what it was like to come up with those lines and those images?
Oh man, I wrote this poem so long ago, probably more than ten years at this point, that it’s hard to remember. I just know I was in this new relationship that I was initially really excited about and thought had a lot of promise. It became apparent pretty quickly that it wasn’t ever going to be what I wanted and that this person and I weren’t compatible. I was too young and stubborn to fully admit this. This poem was a way for me to explore this feeling I had that the relationship was doomed while also knowing I wasn’t going to end it anytime soon.
Another impactful section, for me, was “He left, but I still/ have his shoes.” There’s a lot of talk about relics and objects here, along with a storage locker, and I’m curious — do you think that a poem can act as a kind of reliquary?
Absolutely. I love that idea and hadn’t really thought about it in those terms. The collection is about grieving and loss. All that’s left of so many of my loved ones are the objects they left behind: my grandmother’s jewelry, my mother’s cricket cage, my dad’s record collection. My parents in being cremated were themselves turned into objects. I have their ashes stored in little boxes in the top shelf of a dresser drawer.
There’s a particular line of thinking that an attachment to “things” betrays a certain shallowness or weakness of character somehow, but I find there’s so much comfort and meaning that can be derived from physical objects. And not just objects that are heirlooms or that have been inherited. My apartment is filled with silly things (a portrait of Lisa Rinna from The Real Housewives, a million stuffed animals) that I’ve bought or been given in the past several years that are meaningful because of the joy they bring me and the connection they have to people I care about.
Has the process of writing and editing Death and Exes had any influence on the work you’ve completed since then?
I wish I could say that it has, but I think my process is the same as it’s always been. Which is to say undisciplined and disorganized. Putting together and publishing an entire collection of poems has given me a certain confidence in my work that I maybe didn’t have before. I’m really proud of the book and excited for people to read it.
Photo: Maeghan Donohue