Wake: Up to Poetry
“I came to nursing late and with almost no warning”: An Interview with Sara Berkeley
Sara Berkeley’s newest collection, Some of the Things I’ve Seen, is available this month from Wake Forest University Press. Originally published as The Last Cold Day in Ireland by The Gallery Press, this book chronicles Berkeley’s move across the United States during the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as her work as a hospice nurse, a career she found later in life “with almost no warning.” WFU Press interns Sophie Lee and Natalie Bradford interviewed Sara via email to discuss the inspiration for her poetry and how she processes her work with patients.
Some of the Things I’ve Seen is your first book with WFU Press, of course, but we’ve been fans of your work for a while now. How has your writing practice changed between your earliest collections and this newest book?
I think over time I have written more directly about my personal experiences than when I was younger. In my earliest collections, I just hadn’t lived as much life. I had a rich inner life and I drew on this for the poetry. As time went on and I lived more and had a range of life experiences—marriage, motherhood, divorce, remarriage, travel, disasters, moves—these informed my work more directly and I think I became willing to be more vulnerable by writing about my own experiences.
Many of the poems in Some of the Things I’ve Seen are rooted in a strong sense of place. When you travel to new settings, do you find yourself inspired by the setting and surroundings?
Absolutely. My poetry is firmly rooted in place, landscape, and as I have spent much of my adult life living in the country or small villages, nature. This book really hinges on my sudden and dramatic move from California to New York during the pandemic. It was hugely invigorating to find myself in a completely new landscape, very different from anywhere I had lived. I experienced an injection of new vocabulary, new images, flora and fauna and metaphors arising from the country I drive through every day as part of my work. River, pond and creek replaced ocean. Sugar maples replaced redwoods. And foxes, coyotes.
Readers encounter a variety of landscapes throughout these poems as you move from the West Coast to the East, from the glacial setting of “Okjökull” to Italy in “Palio.” Are there certain environments that strike you as particularly poetic? Or, do different landscapes inspire different emotions and reflections in you?
Every landscape I’ve ever visited has inspired me in different ways: from green rainy Ireland to the deserts of the Western United States, cityscapes, ocean, Tuscany’s rolling hills and vineyards, there’s poetry everywhere. Honestly I find most poems are seeded in phrases and words that come to me as I look around me in my travels, whether it’s driving to work or flying across the globe.
In “Morning Number One,” you write “Let me be done with the business of doing / and the work of love, let me go down / to the lake with a pen, some champagne…” What inspires you to pick up the pen most often and write a poem?
I think that sadness has inspired more poetry for me than joy in the past, but I find that balance shifting now and I feel that the poems in this collection are a more even mix of emotions than in some previous collections. But it could also depend on the mood of the reader as they read! Inspiration usually comes for me in the form of a single word, phrase, or set of words that are a specific vocabulary, which is why Roget’s Thesaurus has been invaluable to me. My interest will be sparked in a topic—say, the pollard willows in Monet’s tree paintings—and I’ll go exploring and write lists of words related to pollard willows. They may only get a brief mention in a poem, but the learning around them informs that mention and the poem as a whole.
What other art or artists inspire you?
I’ve been inspired by much visual art, primarily painting, my whole life. Now that I am married to a painter, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of painting and painters, I am exposed to a lot more art and my work is heavily influenced by it. Right now I’m immersed in Monet, specifically books of his waterlily and tree paintings. I have a special love of the Impressionists. Music has also made its way into my poetry in the form of lyric epigraphs (Jolie Holland’s “Goodbye California” for my “Covid Migration” poem) and references to classical music, for which I’ve had a lifelong love. Of all the arts, it is these two I feel inform my poetry the most.
Many of the poems in this collection deal with your experiences with patients and their families. How do you go about turning these emotional moments into poetry? Do you borrow from specific interactions with patients for your work or do you write more from general impressions? Does your process for these poems differ from how you approach other subjects?
These poems about specific people and their stories are new for me in the past few years. I used to write more generally about life’s emotional experiences. My experiences would filter down and emerge as poetry after some time had elapsed, coming out of notes taken over weeks or months. When I became a hospice nurse, the emotions involved have such a vivid specificity, the stories are in many cases stranger than fiction, so they sometimes demand to be written about as my feelings are so heightened right after a death or when I get a new patient who is particularly challenging or wonderful. The process is thus more direct and immediate, and the language in many cases simpler and plainer.
Do you compartmentalize your writing life from your life as a nurse, or do they each inform the other?
My nursing life definitely informs my writing, but I’m not sure the converse is true. Writing is one of my ways of processing. When my job is particularly heavy, I write it out. And the stories of the people I meet in my work are so vivid and memorable, they sometimes make their way into poems. I’ve also written a nonfiction book about my experiences as a hospice nurse, which I am looking for an agent for.
How did you find your way into work as a hospice nurse? In what ways was that journey similar to your journey as a writer?
My journey to nursing couldn’t be more different from my writing journey. I’ve been writing stories since I could write and poems since I was nine. I grew up saying I was going to be a writer; it was pretty much the only thing I ever wanted to be when I was a kid. But I came to nursing late and with almost no warning. I was on a red-eye transatlantic flight home to Ireland in December 2007. As I sat journaling with my 6-year-old daughter asleep beside me, I was thinking how I was about to turn 40, really didn’t like my work, so if I wanted to do something different with my life I’d better start soon. On that flight I decided nursing would be for me. It checked all the boxes of ways that I wanted to be in the world: helpful to people, with work that was rewarding and meaningful, always in demand and reasonably well paid. When I got to Ireland I signed up online for my first introductory class. When I told everyone in my life, they were all really surprised. It made sense, but I’d been working in the software industry for twenty years and had never even mentioned nursing.
Five years later I was a nurse, working in a little neuro rehab hospital for people with traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries. Some of our patients didn’t make it. There was a guy sent to us who was a Vietnam vet, had been a sniper, many stories. He died on my watch, waited for me to come on shift, and I spent his last day with him. After that experience, I knew I wanted to be a hospice nurse and got a job in a local hospice about two weeks later. Now I don’t want to do anything else.