By Lillian Ward
The College hosted alumni Dan Brady and Sarah Blake in a series of readings of their work. Brady, a published author and poet, visited on Feb. 22 while Blake, also an accomplished poet and author, presented on Feb. 25. Brady’s reading was held in person and over Zoom, while Blake’s reading was entirely virtual.
Brady graduated from the College in 2004 with a degree in English. He was a member of Sigma Tau Delta, a staff writer for The Signal, and the founder of Ink — the College’s creative writing club.
In 2005, he received a MA in Arts Management from George Mason University. Currently, Brady is a stay-at-home dad and an independent consultant for Nonprofit Web Strategy.
Sarah Blake is the author of the novel “Naamah,” and the novel “Clean Air.” She has also published three volumes of poetry, “Mr. West,” “Named after Death” and “Let's Not Live on Earth.”
Blake graduated from the College in 2006 and majored in mathematics, with a minor in creative writing. She served as the treasurer of Ink, and then as the president of the club.
Brady read from his collections of poetry, “Strange Children” and “Subtexts,” as well as his forthcoming book, “From Sonnets to E——.”
“Strange Children [is] my first book, and is very personal lyric poetry,” said Brady. “[It] tells the story of how my family came together.”
The book discusses dark and difficult themes such as medical trauma, however, there is also an underlying sense of hopefulness present.
“I am a foolishly hopeful person,” Brady said. “I'm willing to engage in dark topics but I feel a responsibility to try to bend things back towards the light. That's kind of my perspective.”
“Subtexts,” which consist of erasure poems, is more experimental. Inspired by the heavy layering of paint in the French artist Eugene Leroy’s paintings, the format of the poems are designed to have depth and complexity, breaking away from the confines of traditional formatting.
“They both add things on and build up, but they also strip down to just an essential piece,” said Brady of the connection between his paintings and his poetry.
“Subtexts” deals with issues such as history, politics and the environment.
“I think that poets are some of the clearest voices out there on social justice,” Brady said. “I find it very difficult to write good political or protest poetry. When I try, it just comes out angry or sad or just not very interesting, so that I could approach it through this method gave me a way to talk about it in a way that still felt artistic and engaged, but without hitting people over the head with my message.”
Brady’s forthcoming book, “From Sonnets to E——” tells the story of the woman who stands behind a rock star, dwarfed by his larger-than-life persona. The poems are written in her perspective.
“It's experimental but tells a love story; it is the lifelong relationship between a music icon and the secret muse who stood behind him. The poems themselves are modeled off of Elizabeth Barret and Robert Browning, but it's quite different from their actual relationship,” Brady said.
He also spoke to the challenges facing young writers, as well as the opportunities he took advantage of while a student at the College; his time as a Signal staff writer helped the way he approached writing poetry, despite the different structure of a news article as opposed to a poem.
“The things that make for a good journalist are skills that you are going to need to be a practicing writer,” he said. “You need to be organized, you need to be good at sort of boring administrative tasks and you need to follow up with people constantly. Outside of writing, those skills are what will lead you to success. You never know what you’re going to feel like writing someday, and what form that will best be.”
He also emphasized the importance of persistence and perseverance for a young writer.
“My advice would be to keep reading and keep writing and keep trying,” Brady said. “I think it’s really easy to get discouraged. Especially as you’re coming out of college, but it's a very long process so keep the faith in yourself. And you’ll get there eventually.”
Blake’s advice for young writers, on the other hand, was to take advantage of local literary events whether they are slam poetry events or author’s talks.
She also spoke to her writing process, discussing her love of worldbuilding in particular. Logic and reason are driving forces in the creation of worlds, as well as extensive research.
“I really enjoy how things work, and how they are put together, and what affects what and just overall the relations of things and the world,” said Blake.
Both of her novels, “Namaah,” a novel that tells the biblical story of the Great Flood from Noah’s wife’s perspective, and “Clean Air,” a science fiction novel set in a future where the air contains lethal amounts of pollen, required considerable amounts of research.
“I like to do my worldbuilding the way I do most of my writing, which is I follow the character and think about what the character is going to end up doing. I didn’t look up what they’d eat on the arc until I started having them eat, or having Naamah prepare a meal,” Blake said.
This approach is also applicable to characterization and dialogue.
“I really love once I get my people onto the page and get them to step through sentences and scenes. Once I get to know them I know exactly what they say back and forth to each other,” said Blake.
When it comes to worldbuilding and developing characters, Blake often refers to personal experience. She spoke to the criticisms that female writers face when writing from their personal experiences.
“I grew up seeing that it's one of the things that kept me from writing for a long time; I thought I wasn't good enough unless I was just coming up with everything, and then I realized I really like writing about things that have happened to me,” she said.
For her, writing details about her life into her stories is an invaluable act that preserves aspects of her life.
“I dont keep a journal or a diary, and so my life is just gone when I’m done remembering it,” she said. “So folding entails into a book, it's very precious to me what it means for me and being able to show my books to my son one day.”
Blake is optimistic of the future of poetry, noting how the different forms of media that are available today are engaging more people than ever before. Her own book of poetry, “Named After Death,” is an experiment with reader engagement and accessibility, as an activity book accompanied the work.
Blake expresses confidence in the relevance of literature in today’s digital age, citing the success of poets on YouTube and even Instagram.
“Interacting with art really matters,” she said. “Any way you do that it doesn't matter, as long as you do it.”