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10 Questions for Sarah Lilius

I gave the devil a massage in broad daylight on hot summer grass. Skin on my palms began to burn and melt. Agony can feel good when it's wrong. His moaning lulled me, kept me in the dark place. We didn't dance but I assumed his pleasure formed inside me.
—from "What the Masseuse Finds in the Backyard," from Volume 62, Issue 1 (Spring 2021)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
The first thing I wrote was a short story in grade school about a boy who was lost. I started writing poetry in middle school and then in high school I became more serious about it and was encouraged by my English teacher to write more.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Emily Dickinson were my first big influencers as a young female poet. Now, I’m inspired by random contemporary poets. Some are Kaveh Akbar, Ilya Kaminsky, Ocean Vuong, Diane Seuss. There are really too many to list.

What did you want to be when you were young?
In grade school, I wanted to be a veterinarian. In high school, I wanted to be a sex therapist which most people thought was odd. Then I decided on journalism which led to writing more seriously. I decided in college to pursue poetry and here I am.

What inspired you to write this piece?
“What the Masseuse Finds in the Backyard” was inspired by my thoughts concerning everyone’s capacity for evil. I think most people are considered good, but I think that some people can be evil for evil’s sake. The poem takes a turn when the speaker sees something holy in the devil’s eyes. This makes the other side of the argument, that even someone as evil as the devil can be good.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I grew up in the Midwest, in Illinois where it borders Iowa. I think it sneaks into my writing sometimes. I’m inspired by the ocean which is closer here in Virginia. My neighborhood influences my writing sometimes as well.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I usually listen to the essentials playlist of Max Richter on iTunes when I’m writing a new poem or editing. I find that his music centers me and I’m able to focus on the poems. I sometimes listen to Elliott Smith when I’m working on submissions.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I’m a mother of two young school age boys so I typically write whenever I can find time. I usually write on my laptop or if it’s on the go, I write poems on my phone. If I write more formally, I like to light Japanese incense and have coffee or tea.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I always show my good friend, Jennifer MacBain-Stephens, also a poet, the rough drafts of my poems. She lives in Iowa and I live in Virginia, but we video chat to workshop poems.

What are you working on currently?
I am trying to write a series of prose poems based on famous serial killers from the viewpoint of people they might have known, like a wife or sister, etc.

What are you reading right now?
I usually read a novel and then a poetry book and so on. I love suspense/thriller novels and I’m currently reading Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson. I often thumb through my poetry books reading random poems. I think the last poetry book I read from cover to cover was Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic. I also read a lot of poems in online journals.

SARAH LILIUS is the author of five chapbooks including GIRL (dancing girl press, 2017) and Traffic Girl (Ghost City Press, 2020). Some of her publication credits include Fourteen Hills, Boulevard, the Denver Quarterly, and Court Green. She lives in Arlington, VA.

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