Interview with Sara Guest

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Revolving doors, invisible walls and crystallized memories

An interview with Sara Guest, March 16, 2014 in Jamison Square

I spoke with Sara Guest, a close friend of mine, in Jamison Square, a small urban park in the Pearl District of downtown Portland. It was a cold, rainy, stormy Sunday and few people were around. There were certainly no children playing in the park’s central fountain that day, which was still drained for overwintering. We sat on the boulders that frame the fountain and began to explore the park as a place of frozen memories, as a place of cultural exchange, and as a place of creative inspiration.

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Daniela Molnar: So why this place? 

Sara Guest: I’ve always had a feeling of dichotomy about Jamison Square. I think it’s a really beautiful public park. It’s tucked away in the urban landscape and its really well manicured. But emotionally its challenging, or it used to be. 

It’s such a family and kid-oriented place and for a long time I wasn’t physically able to have a child, so I felt really uncomfortable here. I would walk around the park to avoid it. But I also felt drawn to the park because it was a place where I could be a watcher and satisfy an urge to see what it was like to be a mom. Since I had my son, Zane, this place has blossomed for me. It is one of his favorite places in the city. For both of us, it’s that definite go-to place when it’s a beautiful sunny day and the seasons are changing and you just want to be out in the world. This is the first place I think of. 

D: So you went from the out crowd to in crowd. When you’re here with Zane, do you see people who are in the out crowd?

S: Yes. I feel very empathetic toward people who are out on the fringes. The fountain is the center of activities here and there are a lot of places around it to sit and watch — it’s a really good people-watching spot. When I’ve been here with my son, often he’s in the fountain without me and occupied. And I’ll look around at people and notice women who I imagine might be feeling some of the feelings that I was feeling when I was so conflicted about the park. …But who knows, they’re probably just reading their books. 

D: There’s a line that stands out to me in your poem about a revolving door (… this cloistered scene, / its glorious revolving door shinier / than should be admissible.). Maybe it doesn’t have a concrete meaning for you, but I thought about it in relation to the process of going from the out crowd to the in crowd. 

S: Yeah, that’s what it felt like to me, too. When you start going through a revolving door, you’re barred from access to the interior space. Then you move through it and come out the other side. And I do think that for a lot of women there is a door that stands between yourself as a single person and yourself as a mother. In my twenties and early thirties, there was a long time when I was like “there’s a door — but I don’t care about that door right now.” Then there came a point when I recognized that door, and stood there wondering if I would ever get to go through it.

D: I think the image of a revolving door is especially apt because they’re kind of confusing. It’s not like a straightforward door – I’m always a little bit intimidated by them. [Laughter]

S: Yeah, you never know if you should get in with someone else. I even don’t know sometimes if I should get in with my son. It’s a little window onto my parenting if I can let him go alone through the revolving door or if I need to get in with him.

D: I’m wondering how you go about understanding a place. What point of view do you assume? It sounds like from what you were saying, in relation to this place, you assume a point of view of yourself in the past, as well as in the present. 

S: Yes, very much so. It’s memory that drives you back to a particular place. How many times have I been to Jamison Square? Or how many times have I been to the Art Institute of Chicago? I have all these accrued memories but I put a fixed mark on those memories and think of them as distinct images. Like the Art Institute of Chicago: I always think about when I was working downtown and I would go there every Tuesday to look at the collections when it was the free day. So I think of myself as this 27 year old, in a certain outfit, standing on the stairs on the way to go in. Even though I went to the Art Institute for the first time when I was 11 and I’ve been going since then, in all different guises and all different contexts. 

D: So it’s frozen in a really subjective way.

S: I think for this place, what I froze on was that point of tension in my own life.

D: Yet every place is constantly changing. There’s never really just one place, but there’s one place in your memory.

S: I do think that some places can reset if they change dramatically. There is a park in this central square of the town where I grew up and it used to have a huge green water tower, a behemoth structure that sat on top of it. I went home one year and the water tower was gone and it was literally like a different place. This sparked a little bit of a loss for me. We are constantly on this slow trudge forward and places that we think are always going to be these little buffers against change don’t always, can’t always, be that. It’s not a terrible thing, it’s just a little destabilizing. I would be sad, for example, in this place in particular, if someone were to decide that the fountain is too dangerous. Maybe some kid cracks his head open on it or something and the city says, “we’re gonna take it out and put something else in there.”  There would be a loss for me in that.

D: One of the goals of this project is to think about public space in general — who it’s for and what it means now in the eyes of creative individuals. What makes public space creative space?

S: I think there’s this mythology of the writer, or the painter, the artist, that you put up your studio somewhere and you go away from the world to make your art! And I can understand why that situation is mythologized — it is a very attractive idea. But I actually think that art, all good art, comes from the world, and can’t be made in a solitary space. What you’re bringing into a solitary space is — kind of like we were talking about earlier — a crystalized memory of a place.  And you use that memory to bring about something new.

Access to public spaces that are really democratized is vitally important, especially because we have less and less cultural access to people of different backgrounds and cultures in our day to day lives. This cultural segregation means that public spaces take on even more meaning, because they are common ground. When I go to a concert at the zoo in the summer, it’s maybe one of the few nights all summer that I will be with a bunch of random people who are coming from all different places. Being in a public space offers a rare opportunity to really engage in that spirit of commonality.

D: The Pearl District, where Jamison Square is located, has a large homeless population. Every time I come here there are many homeless people sleeping or sitting on the benches or walking around — and yet it’s right in the middle of a really chic neighborhood. 

S: Yeah, its really frou-frou. 

D: It’s an interesting mixture. I don’t see a lot of tension between the two groups, but I also see pretty much zero interaction — like each is invisible to the other. It makes me question the invisible walls in a place, the limits to that spirit of commonality.

S: Yeah, that’s a good point. I do think those invisible walls exist. Its almost like people are in alternate universes — there’s a universe in which there are a lot of homeless people accessing this park, and there’s a universe in which there are a lot of Pearl residents, or visiting families, and they walk past each other invisibly.

D:  Paulo Freire was deeply concerned with using language as a tool to break down those invisible cultural walls. He said “There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world.” I’m wondering what you think of as a “true word?” And do you see your writing as a form of praxis?

S: I do. I think as I’ve come into my writing practice I’ve picked up some tools along the way from good mentors. I have a friend who is a conceptual artist, and she talks about theory as an entry point to creative endeavors. If you haven’t built the house underneath you, you really can’t go up to the third floor to create. You have to understand, theoretically, what you’re trying to do. I think theory intersects with practice. 

If you’re trying, for example, to be a contemporary poet, the only really good avenue to do that is to read other poets and get a sense of what they’re reacting to. So there’s the theory of what you’re trying to do — what poetry is — and there’s your understanding of the community that you’re joining and speaking among.  Anything you’re pushing through your creative output has to go through those filters, or else it’ll be too isolated. I’ve met writers who I feel like are not pushing it through those filters and though their work may in and of itself be OK,  it’ll never be great, because it’s being produced in a vacuum. It’s not joining a conversation. And any really good conversation that’s happening within a creative community has a theoretical base to it. 

Another thing that I think is cool about theory is that it’s reflexive. It’s impossible to just passively read a bunch of theory that was written in the 1960’s and say,  “OK that’s it, I need to just try to do that.”

D: It’s constantly evolving.

S: Yeah, exactly.

D: Freire is talking about praxis from an activist bent: a true word will change the world. Does theory in that sense apply to your work?

S: No, I don’t intentionally write my activism onto the page. But if you’re living a real intentional life, those intentions are a part of the frame that is on the page. If the truth matters, your truth is connected to who you are. So if you’re a feminist and you are engaging in a creative practice, your feminism is going to bleed into the end result. 

D: So the political is personal. It all comes back to that idea, that you can’t avoid writing something political.

S: You can’t. You have to put yourself on the page. You have to give the public something to connect to.