In conversation with Sarah Mnatzaganian

What drew you to submit to ATG?

I was very excited by the prospect of joining a fairly young independent publishing house which appeared to have real focus, energy and verve.  I also loved the distinctive visual identity of Against the Grain – the clarity and confidence of the graphics, the website and blog, and it helped that I had come across and enjoyed the work of Abegail Morley and Jessica Mookherjee.  The friendly wording and style of the ATG submission call encouraged me to respond with confidence and I also really appreciated the four week window.  The fact that all three Against the Grain editors are women helped me to feel safe to submit what, perhaps inevitably for a first pamphlet, was a very personal collection of work.

How long did it take to gather the poems and when did you realise a pamphlet format would be the best showcase for the work?

I’d been gathering poems and experimenting with different versions of this pamphlet for nearly four years.  One version called Araxi was structured around about six early poems which had been published in The North magazine and to my amazement, it was shortlisted for the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition in 2017.  I tried to learn from this experience: as later poems were accepted by literary magazines, I used their success as a guide to the subjects and styles of writing which seemed to work best for readers.  A later version of the pamphlet called ‘Bogle’ was named after a poem about Robin, my cello maker husband, finding a ‘bogle’ or knot in some cello wood. This version explored all the themes in ‘Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter’, starting with the Armenian poems and followed by others about childhood, my parents, the experience of our own children leaving home and about Robin. This version was highly commended in the 2019 Mslexia/PBS pamphlet competition, which was very tantalising.  When submitting to Against the Grain Press in June 2020, I decided to reserve the cello making poems for another book, and to call my submission ‘Philosophy Revision’ after a poem about helping our daughter revise for her A levels. I thought this title reflected the way life challenges you to reflect on and revisit your own philosophy at every stage: death, birth, growing up, leaving home.  ‘Philosophy Revision’ could also be a good title for an article about putting a pamphlet together!

Can you give an insight into the editing process?

My editor, Abegail Morley, sent feedback on the first six poems last September. This was a scary and stimulating moment, preparing to look at these poems afresh, sometimes after several years, through the eyes of someone so significant.  Abegail’s feedback left me with a lot to think about, as some of her suggestions were really surprising.  This helped me to stand right back from my work and to see that some of the poems are much ‘quieter’ in style than others, so much so that I realized that sometimes I write with an Armenian voice and sometimes with an English voice.  I understood that I must allow the quieter poems to stay that way, and to honour both sides of the person and the experiences which the poems reflect.  This understanding also helped me with choosing the colour of the book cover and endpapers – I decided on the green made from 50% blue and 50% yellow, to represent my dual heritage.  A poet friend suggested that I bring the Armenian poems to the forefront of the book, and to change the title to reflect this.  I then went through each poem with Abegail, tightening and refreshing the syntax at times, to make sure they were all fresh and ready for a reader.  Abegail was wonderfully supportive of this process, like any patient and experienced midwife.  She also encouraged me to let go of a few less relevant poems and to bring in some more recent work which I think has strengthened the book and supported its main themes. 

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Philosophy Revision

We take flashcards for a walk   
as if she’s not really revising,

as if all we wanted
was the comfort of trees at twilight,

as if success wasn’t
a passport to somewhere else.

Dusk deepens our eyes
and the distance to the ground is hard to judge.

I drain my mind to a dry riverbed
and wait for her monsoon to flood me

with what I will know for only as long
as she needs me to know it.

For only as long
as it takes to leave.

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Sarah’s pamphlet is available now for pre-order.

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Sarah will b e launching her pamphlet with Joanna Nissel on Sunday March 20th at 3pm

Eventbrite link for tickets: https://joanna_sarah.eventbrite.com 

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