The Wise Owl talks to Sandra Anfang, a California-based poet, teacher, and artist. She has authored 4 poetry collections namely Looking Glass Heart (2016), Road Worrier (2018), Xylem Highway (2019) and Finishing School (2023). Sandra has been nominated for a Best Short Fictions award, Best of the Net, and a Pushcart Prize, as well as for aa AWP-sponsored 2023 George Garrett Award for outstanding community services in literature.
Tête a Tête: Sandra Anfang
(Rachna Singh, Principal Editor, The Wise Owl in conversation with Sandra Anfang)
The Wise Owl talks to Sandra Anfang, a California-based poet, teacher, and artist. She has authored 4 poetry collections namely Looking Glass Heart (2016), Road Worrier (2018), Xylem Highway (2019) and Finishing School (2023). Her poems have appeared in numerous journals including Rattle, The New Verse News, The MacGuffin, and Spillway. She’s won many awards, most recently in the Ina Coolbrith Circle Poetry Contest, The Soul-Making Keats Contest, and the Poets’ Dinner Contest. One of her haiku took second place in the San Francisco International Haiku Contest.
Sandra has been nominated for a Best Short Fictions award, Best of the Net, and a Pushcart Prize, as well as for aa AWP-sponsored 2023 George Garrett Award for outstanding community services in literature. Anfang is founder and host of the monthly series, Rivertown Poets (established 2013), and a poetry teacher in the schools. In addition, she produces a radio program devoted to poetry on KPCA.FM and hosts a YouTube channel called Rivertown Poets.
Hi Sandra. Congratulations on your latest release, Finishing School and thank you so much for talking to The Wise Owl.
Thank you for the invitation, Rachna. I’m delighted to be having this conversation with you and to share the spotlight with some of my friends, colleagues, and many fine poets whom I admire.
RS: You have authored 4 poetry collections and your poetry is regularly featured in many prestigious literary journals. For the benefit of the readers, please tell us a little about your journey as a poet.
SA: I began to write poetry and memoir in my junior year of high school, thanks to a special Honors English teacher who required us to turn in a portfolio of original writing every month. At first, my poetry was a vehicle for my adolescent angst. In college, it took off in various directions. I’ve written throughout my adult life, although in the last ten or twelve years, writing has become a daily activity and a passion that drives me to experiment, express challenging ideas and emotions, and communicate in new ways.
RS: Our readers would love to know what you love most about the poetry genre and who (if any) were the creative influences in your life? Do you have any favourite poet (traditional or contemporary) who inspires you?
SA: I grew up with Frost and Whitman on the East coast, in the land of snow and birches. I think many of us memorized “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in third or fourth grade. In college, I discovered Gary Snyder and the Beat poets. Snyder’s imagery was a strong influence in bringing me out west, where I spent summers camping and hiking in the Sierras. I have also been strongly influenced by Sharon Olds (especially her odes), Ellen Bass, Dorianne Laux, Ross Gay, Major Jackson, and many others.
Poetry is both akin to and different from watercolor painting for me. Though I’m a visual artist as well as a writer, I’m a little afraid of the watercolor medium. You have one shot and you can’t paint over a piece the way you can with acrylics or oils. With poetry, I welcome impetuousity and experimentation in my drafts. I never know where a poem will take me and I am prompted by sensory stimuli in my environment. That said, I do a lot of revision after the draft is on the page. There is always another opportunity to “paint over” a poem as much as one wants to.
RS: You have been nominated for a Best Short Fiction award. Our readers would be curious to know how and why you started writing fiction. Are you currently working on a collection of your short fiction?
SA: I’ve actually written relatively little fiction, though I’ve been writing more and more micro-fiction and prose poetry lately. There’s a fine line between the two, and it’s challenging to delineate. A good friend and writer whom I admire very much, Guy Biederman, has kindled my excitement about flash and micro-fiction. I love the constraint of a word limit, and the challenge of getting my piece out without too much clutter to blunt its impact. I’m a wordy writer by nature, and I have to do a lot of hedge-trimming. I’m prone to go off on tangents, some of which get incorporated into a piece but most of which get cut. I have published one longer story that I’m proud of, “Tie-Dye,” and have fifteen or twenty more stories that I’ve submitted only occasionally, since my focus these days is on poetry. But I do love the prose poem and just won first prize for my prose poem “The New Roma Garden” in the 2022 Soul Making Keats Contest.
RS: I was looking at your gallery of paintings and collages. They are beautiful. I especially love what you do in your collages. Tell us a little about your work as an artist. What inspired you to paint and make collages?
SA: Thank you so much. I’ve been playing with visual art all my life, even before I started Kindergarten. My father was in the lithography business and brought home beautiful paper which I’d use to make collages and 3-D figures. I studied briefly at the Art Students’ League in New York, but mostly, I’ve just played with art materials for fun and relaxation. To play at art is to exist in the eternal present; I enjoy the process and not knowing where and how it will end. For me, writing is to visual art as metier is to diversion. Writing is a passion that involves craft (and also play), but I work hard at it. I also love the process of not knowing where and how a poem will end. My excitement about collage comes from my love of collecting beautiful things, whether they’re old leather heels found in the street, buttons, dropped notes, or pieces of fabric. I like collage poems too.
RS: You have been working hard to promote literature, especially poetry. You have been nominated for the George Garrett Award for outstanding community services in literature. You also host a monthly series, Rivertown Poets (established 2013), teach poetry in schools and also produce a radio program devoted to poetry as well as host a YouTube channel called Rivertown Poets. What kind of attitude towards poetry do you perceive in most people? What challenges did you face as an advocate of poetry and serious literature?
SA: I wasn’t awarded the Garrett Award, just nominated for it, out of probably scores of people around the country. The nomination was a surprise to me. I’ve been hosting Rivertown Poets for almost ten years. When I moved to Sonoma County, I looked for a local poetry series to attend, and finding none close by, decided to start my own. I was an elementary teacher and librarian for many years, so teaching poetry in the schools felt like a natural extension of that. I adore helping students of all ages find their voices. I’ve taught students from third grade through elders. The YouTube channel grew out of the Rivertown Poets series over the last few years, when our readings were held on Zoom. It’s easy to record the poets, which made it easy to collect and showcase the readings in one place.
I think many people are afraid of poetry because of the way it was taught when I was in school: as something to be dissected and solved, like a math problem. Billy Collins, in his poem “Introduction to Poetry,” expresses it accurately and with humor. I tell my students on the first day of class that poetry can never be wrong, though it can always be improved through revision. Happily, I think this fearful attitude toward poetry is waning, at least in urban areas, and the change has been led by younger poets. Slams, hip-hop poetry, and poetry open mics have brought fresh young voices to the fore and have expanded the age range of listeners. Youth poets and musicians have brought poetry to the people via hybrid works and venues. Our series has many “regulars” who range in age from their twenties to ninety-three. I’m truly grateful for that.
RS: You wear many hats. You are a poet, a teacher, an artist and also an advocate of literature. Our readers would be curious to know how you balance and manage so many different roles in life.
SA: Good question. Balance is always a challenge for me. I like to be busy creating, but I also need unstructured time to wander and wonder, which is fodder for my writing. Sometimes, I just say no to new invitations and reclaim the needed time. This summer, I’m planning to take two months off from the series—for the first time in ten years. I sorely miss travel, which I’ve tabled during the pandemic, but I’m ready to get out and see the world now, albeit cautiously. Yoga and walking in the hills near my home are essential medicine for me, as is live music and time spent with friends and family.
RS: A lot of our readers are budding poets. What advice would you give them about writing poetry and honing poetic sensibilities?
SA: I invite students to think broadly and to experiment. In the classroom, each of my lessons has a thematic focus or highlights a well-known poet or form (e.g., haiku, odes, anaphora, found poems, etc.). I encourage students to use information gathered from the five senses, the emotions, and a range of figurative language devices such as alliteration, simile, metaphor, onomatopoeia, anaphora, etc. I give them lots of latitude. For older budding poets, I encourage the use of prompts and the adoption of a playful attitude during the drafting process. I believe that the inner critic should be crated during drafting, and kept on a leash during revision.
RS: You have recently published your poetry collection ‘Finishing School.’ Please tell us a little about its genesis and theme.
SA: Finishing School (from Kelsay Books, 2023) is a collection of poems about being both a student and a teacher, and collects poems that harken back to my early childhood. As a substitute teacher and private tutor, I’ve had the good fortune to work with a range of students. I like to write about my poetry students too. I’m’ moved by students of all ages, and enjoy sharing pieces of their stories in my poems. During the pandemic, I wrote and/or completed five manuscripts: two poetry collections and three chapbooks. It kept me sane, though now I’m ready to go out and socialize more.
RS: Is there another book on the anvil? When is it likely to hit the bookstores?
SA: I’ve completed a full-length poetry collection that I’ve been sending out to a few publishers, and have a short list of other publishers in mind. It’s a bird-themed collection that I’ve been working on for three or four years. Each time it gets declined, I do a bit more revision. I like it better with each tweak and hope to find a home for it in 2023.
Thanks a lot Sandra for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to The Wise Owl. We wish you the best in all your creative pursuits and applaud you for all the work you are doing in promoting serious poetry.
Thanks so much, Rachna. It’s been fun and helpful to put my thoughts about writing in order.