I first met Sandra Yannone through a series of emails, as one does in this day and age. She had found my work at a small bookstore in Washington State, and being the supportive literary citizen that she is, she reached out to me. I grew to love her work before finally meeting her face-to-face at AWP in Portland, Oregon, where she held her book Boats for Women (Salmon Poetry, 2019) for the first time. After reading such a timeless collection, I, of course, had many questions.
Lauren Davis: Can you talk about a little bit about the genesis of this book, and how you knew when it was finished?
Sandra Yannone: Is it ever really finished? I’m still writing Titanic poems! That said, Boats for Women has been with me for a long time since it began as my dissertation for my PhD at the University of Nebraska which I received in 1998. One of the earliest poems in the collection is the first Bess Houdini poem I wrote during my MFA program at Emerson College in 1990. Ploughshares’ Guest Editor Marie Howe selected it for the Emerging Writers’ issue that came out in Winter 1992-93.
I came out as lesbian shortly after moving to Nebraska which prompted me to write poem after poem about those experiences. The manuscript emerging was incredibly personal and interior. Back in 1998, of course, it seemed finished. My dissertation chair, distinguished professor and editor of Prairie Schooner, Hilda Raz, encouraged me to send it out immediately as is. However, the blockbuster film Titanic hit the big screen as I was finishing the book, and I sensed that it would take some time to find the right publisher.
I mailed it out—this was well before Submittable—every several years, each time letting a little more of the original structure transform as well as culling, then adding poems that seemed to serve the whole better than the individual parts. In 2012, coincidentally, the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, Dennis Maloney chose Boats as a finalist for the White Pine Press Poetry Prize. Close, but no cigar. I was back to the drawing board, remembering all the conversations with poets in my early years like Lucie Brock-Broido and Marie Howe (both of whom I studied with privately in Cambridge) about how many times they had to send out their manuscript and their process of reworking it each pass before their heralded first collections burst into the poetry world.
Finally, prompted by a grand and improbable opportunity to have legendary editor Jessie Lendennie of Salmon Poetry take a look at the manuscript, I stripped Boats of its original structure and moved the poems into four sections: Boats for Women, 1964-2014, Bess Houdini in the Modern World, and Other Women. Jessie was the only editor who saw the current structure that is what you know as Boats for Women. I did feel satisfied in a way I had never felt before when I made the commitment to what became the final structure. This has been one of the best gifts from the longevity of the wait: understanding the depths of the poems and how they speak to each other instead of just holding their own individual water.
LD: How was your personal narrative informed by the narrative of the Titanic?
SY: I began writing Boats when being an out-lesbian was still fraught with potential violence, especially if you lived somewhere other than gay havens like San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, or New York, or were not presenting as what gets called “feminine.” I moved as a closeted person from Boston to come out in Lincoln, Nebraska, which posed many risks daily, as I was exploring gender presentation. Also, coming out in my thirties lent itself to high-stakes emotional situations that wouldn’t have felt so disastrous if I had lived them when I was in my teens or early twenties.
The themes of Boats for Women are silence, disaster, desire, and hope. In searching for an historical metaphor that could hold well what I thought my personal narratives were exploring, I found the R.M.S. Titanic a formidable container. Her story, the ship’s story, is one of disaster, as most every American, including young children, know, but her passengers’ stories, particularly those of immigrants, are about the desire for a new homeland, full of promise, which is a kind of hope. I wrote the personal poems first, then found the Titanic through a history book tucked away on a bottom shelf in my favorite bookstore in Lincoln, A Novel Idea. Once I found Titanic, she began to help me find my voice through these themed waters. In this regard, she had to be informed by and in dialog with my earlier poems, not really the other way around.
LD: I’m very intrigued by your use of factual history in your poems. What was the research process like?
SY: As I mentioned before, I read a sweeping account of Titanic’s history in John Eaton and Charlie Haas’ Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy. In addition to text, the book bestowed upon me many images. Some of them, those of amateur photographer Father Francis Browne, are the only known photos from life on board her maiden voyage between Southampton, UK, and Queenstown, Ireland (now Cobh), what would prove her final port of call.
I devoured the book that winter, which happened also to be one where I was deeply depressed, rendering me not really interested in reading or able to retain what I did. I would sit on the floor of my small living room in Lincoln, affectionately known as Sandy’s Diner, and read until I forced myself to get up and show myself at the University—I was still trying to hide my undiagnosed depression from everyone. The images and stories washed over me, and by spring, when I came out of my fog, the first images of Titanic began to show up in my poems. That was in 1995.
I still read books about Titanic and now have an extensive private library upon which to draw, which probably accounts for why I’m still writing Titanic poems. “Lifeboat #9” and “Maiden Voyage” are two of the newest in the collection, and since the book has been published, I’ve written a few more poems that I guess will have to wait for my next ship to come in!
Before Titanic, I was enthralled by the life of Harry Houdini, reading any books I could find in used bookstores in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while getting my MFA. I used almost the same process I used a few years later with Titanic. I immersed myself in reading, and then the poems followed. Ironically, I didn’t need the history as much as the Houdini sensibility with the exception of “Bess Houdini Reveals Her Secret in the Modern World,” which is a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction to create the illusions in the poem. The Houdini poems prepared me for the process to write the Titanic poems which are rooted in, as you say, factual history.
When I was studying at Nebraska, Lee Gutkind, founder of Creative Nonfiction, came to read. He talked about the different approaches to creative non-fiction. One was immersion journalism. I think the factual in my poems emerges from a type of immersion experience. The concept of having a book inspired by factual history came under the deep influence of three poetry collections I was reading at the time: Lorna Dee Cervantes’ From the Cables of Genocide: Poems on Love and Hunger, Chris Llewellyn’s Fragments from the Fire: The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of March 25, 1911, and Suzanne Gardinier’s AWP award-winning book The New World—to this day one of the most remarkable collections of poetry I’ve ever read. If Boats for Women can inspire any writers the way these two collections inspired me, I’ll have accomplished some of what I set out to do when including poems scaffolded by historical research.
LD: Can you tell me a little about how you found your publisher?
SY: My honest, unfiltered answer, Lauren, is complete magic and serendipity. My longer answer is that my publisher found me. In July, 2016, I found myself on the last night of a spontaneous trip to Ireland at an open mic in Limerick, where I met the poet Edward O’Dwyer, who was promoting his first collection The Rain on Cruise’s Street (Salmon Poetry).
A few months later I received an email from Edward asking me to blurb his second book slated for publication in spring of 2017. I was attending the Associated Writing Program’s annual conference in Washington, D.C. a few weeks later, and Edward told me to be sure to go to the Salmon Poetry table at the book fair and introduce myself to Salmon’s Jessie Lendennie. Jessie didn’t have a lot of time or bandwidth for my quirkiness that day when I walked up to the booth and introduced myself. Her first response upon my introduction—while she performed numerous tasks—was, “Who are you?” Then she warmed up, but I could tell she was overwhelmed with people, so I moved along a bit sheepishly after she told me she needed Edward’s blurb in two weeks’ time. I assured her I’d meet the deadline and walked away, and as I did, she yelled out, “And send me your manuscript.”
Back home after the conference, I emailed Edward in Ireland and told him about Jessie asking to see Boats. He said, “Of course. Why do you think I sent you to meet her?” I ended up delivering the manuscript to her in Ireland in person when I travelled in April 2017 for Edward’s book launch of Bad News, Good News, Bad News (Salmon Poetry). Over a year later, in Fall of 2018, Jessie confirmed she would like to publish Boats in either 2019 or 2020, ultimately choosing 2019 so she could have its soft launch at AWP in Portland, Oregon, which is only a few hours from where I live.
Salmon is the perfect fit for me because it is an international poetry press headquartered in the country where Titanic was built and where she departed land for the first and final time.
LD: What was it like putting together your launch for Boats for Women?
SY: Two things inspired me to organize a book launch party: attending Edward O’Dwyer’s launch in Limerick in April 2017, and receiving encouragement from my friend, flash fiction guru Sherrie Flick, to “throw a big party.” I wanted to create something that showcased the poems well for a crowd of people, including those not entirely accustomed to attending poetry readings. I also wanted to share the stage with others. I’d had this experience in 2014 when I turned fifty and threw two birthday/reading parties in Olympia and Seattle with my friends. Back then, they read their own work to help me celebrate. At the Boats launch I envisioned four poets each reading a poem, one from each section. I matched four poets I admire with four poems from Boats. Linda Strever (Against My Dreams: An Immigrant’s Story, Painted Snake Press) took “A Night to Remember Your Beautiful Gone,” an erasure poem from the first section. Tara Hardy (My, My, My, My, My, Write Bloody Publishing) brought the house down as emcee and reciting from memory “1984” from the second section. Lorna Dee Cervantes (Sueño, Wings Press) mesmerized with her hypnotic reading of “Bess Houdini Reveals Her Secret in the Modern World.” And finally, Michele Bombardier (What We Do, Kelsey) wowed the crowd with her pantomime baton-twirling pantomime as she read “The Girl Who Catches Everything,” the final poem in the collection. You can imagine my thrill at having Lorna Dee participate since her work had been so instrumental years ago in the creation of the book.
After I read a set, we ended the night with me and the Heartsparkle Players, a Playback Theater troupe, performing the title poem “Boats for Women.” In addition to this poetry experience, as I call it, I had a display of Titanic and Houdini images, and I also brought copies of my manuscript in various forms. I baked 350 mini-White Star Line cupcakes. I also dressed up in a captain’s uniform, and Tara made us Boats for Women sashes, a nod to the title’s connection with women’s suffrage.
I think this is the beauty of having a book that has a connection to story and historical events and figures. I should mention a few other special features to the evening. The launch was held at the Women’s Club of Olympia, a period location. A group of women purchased the house in 1908 before women technically could own property and two years before they could legally vote in the State of Washington. We had the Club’s librarian speak that night, and as she began her spiel about the Club, she interrupted herself to share a story of how relatives had tickets on Titanic in third class and decided not to cross at the last minute. That was a chilling, unscripted opening to the launch.
Also, everyone sold their books, not just me. We had a suggested donation at the door that I used to raise funds to help offset medical costs for a friend who had passed away the week before the launch and to support two local scholarships in memory of two other friends who had passed since 2017.
So, we not only had a good time, we did good community works at the same time. We had well over one hundred people from all parts of my life at the event, and to borrow the words from the title of renowned Titanic historian Walter Lord’s 1955 classic, the evening was definitely A Night to Remember.
LD: That sounds like such an extraordinary party! Tell me, is there one particular poem that you think embodies Boats?
SY: I’m going to go out on my own limb here, because you’d think I’d say the title poem, “Boats for Women,” and I wouldn’t be wrong. It’s the obvious choice because it hangs so many poetic things in the balance: gender, history, life, and death.
However, after having experienced Tara Hardy perform “1984” at my book launch, I am going with the prose poem, which in the earlier drafts of Boats was considered the spine of the book.o “1984” holds the grand sweep of silence, disaster, desire, and hope from start to finish. It holds the despair of promise and the promise of despair.
Its frenetic litany of experiences spans over twelve years in the poem, and now over thirty years on the page.
It blurs what we think poetry is, and much of what I love in poetry—lyric, line breaks, stanzas—and invites us to consider prose as poetry, to ponder breaking silences as lyric, to reconcile our pain with our liberation, and to narrate our own histories as poetry.