Building a Poem From the Inside Out: Sarah Messer on Research and Verse

Sarah Messer Photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff PhotographerSarah Messer has been carrying around a stack of old books for six years. Each book is slightly different, but keeps an instructional and educational tone. Including titles such as Alexander Hamilton's The Household Cyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Daily Wants (W.J. Holland & Co, 1873) and The Modern Business Speller (Lyons & Carnahan, 1901) by D.D. Mayne, principal of Minnesota State School of Agriculture the books range from almanacs to instructional reads on how to be a better speller, or how to fashion a small pox mask. While Messer is researching history, women and domestic studies, and literature, she's doing so to create something new.

Her research goes into her poetry, into the speakers in her poems. Messer, associate professor of creative writing at University of North Carolina Wilmington teaches her students the same concepts: immerse yourself, find what you're trying to say and how you are trying to say it.

The thought of heavy research may bring to mind biologists or chemists, but research for a creative writer is nothing new. "With nonfiction," says Messer, who also writes in the form, "it's easier. You know what you're looking for, you're getting information for the reader."

But, for poetry, it's like a puzzle. Messer and poets like her may or may not know what they'd like to focus on in a poem until they find the right piece of information. Information Messer found during researching sessions while she was a fellow at the Radcliff Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University's Schlesinger Library from 2008-2009, or accidentally when writing one of her daily, short poems.

Messer was one of fifty people at the Radcliff Institute at that time. She focused in on 17th-early 19th century nonfiction books to find details about everyday life, tone of voice, and inspiration. Though she went to the library with a focus in mind, Messer says it began like searching and gathering.

"I think every poet does it, they just don't know it," she says of researching, "I was just being active; looking for it in a book." But, she notes, this type of research makes her look internally just as much, as if she's studying herself. In this way, she believes she is "building a poem from the inside out."

Through this method of searching Messer wrote her poetry collection Bandit Letters, (New Issues, 2001) and her hybrid history/memoir, Red House: Being a Mostly Accurate Account of New England's Oldest Continually Lived-in House (Viking, 2004), which was among the 2004 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers picks. Both manuscripts stretch beyond their genres, pulling from research she'd done for each one specifically. Sarah Messer with Franz Wright during One Pause Poetry reading. Photo credit: Garin Horner.

In her poem "Poem Beginning with a Line by Ikkyū," which was published in the Spring 2012 issue of Ploughshares, the speaker says, "how the machine of my mind is never silent." This might also ring true for the author as she combs numerous sources in researching her poetry.

She looks through pages and pages, searching for a tone, a fact, or a starting point. "It's almost like found poetry," she says, alluding to a type of poetry that takes words, phrases, and/or passages from other works. Though, she says, she's mostly getting the character, or a few things and incorporating them into her poems.

The stack of books she carries now is for her current project, which is almost done, she says. The manuscript has been a finalist for a couple prizes, though, she admits, "it won't be finished until it's published. I'm always tinkering." And there are always more pieces to the puzzle.

Click here to read a selection of Sarah Messer's poems and a here to read an essay about her process of writing the poem "The Evolution of Rape Law."

By Sally J Johnson MFA '14