I first heard Sarah Audsley read from her striking collection of poems, Landlock X (Texas Review Press, 2023) at Growing from Our Roots: An Asian Debut Authors Showcase at AWP in Seattle 2023. When Sarah took the stage, I was moved by the power of her voice and of her poetry. Recently, Sarah and I reconnected for an interview where we caught up and discussed her phenomenal book.
Bo Hee: Beautiful imagery from the natural world often appears in your poetry. In “Crown of Yellow,” you write, “I am the lone sunflower, in the field, shaken by the anticipation/from the smell of the oncoming distant rain.” In “Greenhousing,” you write, “plants with roots & beginnings,/all must grow downward/first before/they burst.” Can you describe your connection with the natural world? Are there any places in nature that inspired you as you were writing this collection?
Sarah: Often, perhaps too much, I describe myself as a “place-based” person. I prefer living in rural spaces and being connected to the land where I live. Every place changes based on whatever season we’re in—walking or hiking the same trails in different seasons is how I connect to a place. “Knowing” a place gives me a sense of belonging. So it’s not surprising to me that this looking, seeing, processing, and interacting with land and landscape bleeds into the poems. Specifically for Landlock X, the natural world rendered in the book, comes from my 10 years of living and working in northern New Hampshire, and also from childhood memories of growing up in rural Vermont.
Bo Hee: I am curious about how you said you walk the same trails in different seasons and that’s how you connect to place. That really resonated with me. What does returning to the same place mean to you? Does it impact your craft and your writing?
Sarah: Where I live, in northern Vermont, there is a lot of access to the natural world. I have a circuit of places where I go, mainly because I have a dog. I like to spend my free time outside, hiking, skiing, walking, swimming, etc. I used to rock and ice climb, but it has become less of a priority recently. The four seasons allow me an opportunity to pay attention to what’s happening, what’s in bloom, what’s going to be blooming…noticing the slight seasonal changes in the landscape, depending on what season it is, figures into my poetics and most definitely impacts my writing.
For example, in Landlock X, the plant goldenrod appears several times in the book because I pay attention to “goldenrod season” when the hillsides fill with the color yellow. The collection had a bunch of different versions for the title, and at one time “Goldenrod” was an option. But then Maggie Smith published Goldenrod and I was like, okay, well that is not the title. When I finally figured out that Landlock X was the title, it actually made a lot of sense to me, and then everything started to fall into place with sequencing, revising, and deciding the final shape of the manuscript.
Bo Hee: You incorporate research, including a reference to the case number in “Case Number: K83-5XX,” and research from your travels as seen in “While in Miryang, Searching,” in your poetry. What was your research process like while you completed writing this collection? Did any research or findings stand out to you?
Sarah: Research offers historical and cultural contexts for my personal experiences as a transracial adoptee from South Korea. Some of the “research” was handed to me without any searching – my mother had kept many file folders with my adoption paperwork in a filing cabinet in the basement of our house. I asked for them and culled through them slowly, when I felt ready to do so. I knew, somehow, I would use elements of them for the book.
In 2013, I traveled to South Korea for a “birthright trip.” The poem “While in Miryang, Searching” was inspired by that trip, driving from Seoul to Busan, and stopping in Miryang along the way. Research on the adoption industrial complex and, specifically, Korea’s exportation of an estimated 200,000 babies informs my poetics, but is not exhaustive. I find research helps ground the reality of lived experience, but I sometimes find it difficult to dive deeply into research mode as much of it is triggering. What saddens me is that so many adoptees do not have accurate paperwork, so the total of “200,000” can never be a fact to hold on to with 100% accuracy. There are so many of us…
Bo Hee: When you included some of the letters, were those actual letters from your birth father? Was that part of your research, too, and the documents you used?
Sarah: The collection opens with a handwritten letter in Korean from the biological father called “Untranslated.” These pages were provided by the post-adoption services prior to my trip to Korea. Placing the letter at the beginning is to provoke and to provide the reader with a sense of disorientation. Typically, I think most readers would not read Korean; they’re most likely English speakers. If you can read Korean, then you’ll be able to read the words of the biological father.
The book is divided into three sections and in each section you’ll find an erasure of the English translation. The first and second sections close with erasure 1 and 2 [translation/1] and [translation/2]. The third section closes with [translation/3], “When My Mother Returns as X,” and the full color collage. Together, the three erasures make a kind of triptych. I think they create their own landscape, a visual field, if you will, of agency or lack thereof. Throughout the book, pronouns shift. That letter was an object to reckon with—I wanted to transform it.
The last full-color collage that closes the collection was taken from a newsletter, Wide Horizons. The newsletter was part of the paperwork my mother had saved and also included the announcement of my adoption. The double spread of these children, who were still waiting to be adopted, “Waiting Children” was striking to me. People who are going through foster care and adoption services now tell me that the term “waiting children” persists today.
Bo Hee: I believe I’ve come across that term, too. In Landlock X, you include references to ancestors. In “Broken Palette :: a retrospective in panels,” you say, “your ancestors’ faces/golden, wave a fading welcome, & then you believe in the dream/& the field you imagine merges to become the field you step into.” What role do your ancestors and your reflections on your ancestors play, if any, in your collection?
Sarah: For me, as an adoptee, the concept of “ancestors” feels like an exercise in imagination. Who? What? Where? When? How? Why? All the questions arise without any way to really answer them with any certainty. So the phrase “& the field you imagine merges to become the field you step into” as the closing for “Broken Palette,” to me, allows for the imaginative space to merge with the physical reality. What I am trying to say with this poem’s closure is that I am embodying my ancestors through just being in the world, whether or not I’ve ever actually met them. I carry my ancestors with me regardless of living in a state of diaspora. This realization is comforting.
Bo Hee: When I heard your beautiful reading at Growing from Our Roots: An Asian Debut Authors Showcase in Seattle 2023, I was extremely moved. Your poem “When My Mother Returns as X” is stunning. Can you tell me about the way this poem came to be and your experience with writing this poem?
Sarah: Oh, thank you! The poem “When My Mother Returns as X” closes the collection and it was drafted first, and then revised, in my MFA program. An earlier version appeared in Potluck Magazine, an online literary journal. Later on, this poem would unlock the overall concept for the book and the title, too. In an earlier sequence of the manuscript this poem opened the collection. In the end, I chose to place it at the end because, in this position, I think, it allows the poem to resonate and gesture back towards everything that came earlier in the book. I don’t think it’s a true “coda,” but it does important work to call forth the return of the mother. Plus, I love a good list poem – and a haunting – and this poem does both.
Bo Hee: I also love your poem “Caspian Lake” where the speaker says, “When I let the water take/over for gravity & I float/in the middle of the lake/I am the X/inside a body.” What does floating in the water and the sensation feel like to you? What does floating mean to you?
Sarah: I love swimming and moving my body on land or in water. This poem makes gestures towards swimming in a lake and also swimming inside the uterine fluid. Floating is a suspension of movement; it allows for levity (and relief) from the demands on the corporeal body by way of gravity. Who doesn’t want more lightness, more freedom, a sense of weightlessness. Go ahead, try it. Float in a lake and remember how your body makes an “X”.
Bo Hee: You speak directly to adoptees in your poem “Letter To My Adoptee Diaspora.” You say, “you, dear adoptee, are not alone./I am lonely, too.” In the Notes section, you write “To my fellow, (transracial) adoptees, this book is for you. May we all continue to tell our own stories.” Can you speak some more about this? What does it mean to you for us to tell our own stories, and what are your hopes for the future related to us telling our own stories?
Sarah: First and foremost, I wrote Landlock X for myself, for my own personal reasons. Secondarily, I also hope that the book reaches others and connects to readers who may have had similar experiences. I hope the solidarity of our shared adoption experience will connect and resonate. Or, if there is disagreement, I hope it opens up a dialogue. Ultimately, I want the book to have its own life, to live outside of my invented self, to sing its own songs to a reader on the other side of the page. If that reader is another adoptee, I hope the book offers an example of how to tell your own story. This, I believe, is true agency over one’s life. There is a striving to be more free, to define that for myself—writing Landlock X helped me do so, and more.
Sarah Audsley is the author of Landlock X (Texas Review Press, 2023). A Korean American adoptee, a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, and a member of The Starlings Collective, Audsley lives and works in northern Vermont. Photo credit: Carolyn Kehler
Bo Hee Moon is a South Korean adoptee. Her poems have appeared in Cha, Cream City Review, Gulf Coast, The Margins, Salt Hill, Tupelo Quarterly, and others. Omma, Sea of Joy and Other Astrological Signs, published by Tinderbox Editions, is her debut collection of poems. She previously published under a different name. Photo credit: Jana Gross