In the heart of what was a sprawling leviathan of industry sits a small red diner. On the wall are photos of the place before it served the workers and truck drivers going in and out of Bethlehem Steel in its heyday. The plant (though some of the buildings are still there) is nothing but a memory, yet, the diner stands. Sara Ries’ parents ran the place for three decades. It was there that Sara started a reading series. A great deal I must say – a featured reader, open mic, and a home cooked meal for a more than reasonable cover charge. Sara was kind enough (truth be told, I've never known her to be anything but kind) to tell a little about herself, her poetry, and the diner.
Fred Whitehead - The poetry reading series at the diner was one of the first series I attended. When did you start it?
Sara Ries - It was December 1, 2009, and I featured that day. George Grace was the second reader in January, Lisa Forrest read in February, followed by too many other great ones to name. By now, we've featured around fifty poets, mostly from Buffalo but some from places like Boston, Pittsburgh, and Hamilton, Ontario.
F.W. - What gave you the idea to have a poetry reading there?
S.R. - Well, I have to say it was more my father’s idea than mine. We were working at the diner that day. It was an exciting time. I was still fresh out of grad school and figuring out how to make my way in Buffalo, and I had recently received a call that my book would be published. On that lucky day at the diner, my dad and I were tossing around ideas behind the counter and he said something like, “Why don’t you have a dinner here with poetry once a week, on a Friday or something?” and the idea was born. That whole afternoon we collaborated excitedly between serving customers until we had something concrete. We figured out quickly that the poetry nights would be way too labor intensive for a weekly event, especially since food is involved, so we decided on one every six weeks or so, except summers. It’s a team effort and my parents and Tad, my husband, do so much to make the event possible. Since 2014, Tad and I have spent most of our time teaching English in Colombia, South America, so lately we’ve had them once a year around December. It’s heartwarming how it doesn’t matter if six weeks or one year has passed, it’s always a grand reunion.
F.W. - It was your family's diner at the time; when did your folks start running it?
S.R. - Their opening day was on February 19, 1985 and in October of 2015, they sold it to a woman who’d sit at the counter behind the grill. Her dream, like my parents, was to own a small place like the diner. Her name is Melissa Jenkins, but we call her Missy.
F.W. - The response to the series has always been phenomenal. The pairing of a great meal with some of the area’s finest writers has more than a little to do with that. How do you go about choosing the featured reader?
S.R. - Thanks, Fred! It means a lot that so many people enjoy the series. I’m always keeping poets in mind that I’d like to headline, and I also keep a list, but the list is always bigger than the number of events. I also ask the poet who feels appropriate at the time. Most recently I had Rachel Robles Saeger read because besides really admiring her work, I wanted to hear a poet who weaves Spanish so beautifully into her poems, and living in Colombia has really awakened my love for the Spanish language. In addition to featuring many excellent local poets like yourself, Janna Willoughby-Lohr, and Ann Goldsmith, who read at our two-year Poetry & Dinner Night anniversary celebration, I try to bring in new voices. Carolyn Whelan and Angela Parker are two examples, and we were in an MFA program together at Chatham University. Roy Hartwell Bent featured and drove from Rochester, Elizabeth Glenny from Fort Erie, Ontario, and Colleen Michaels came all the way from Boston, MA.
F.W. - And there is an open mic portion to the evening as well?
S.R. - Yes! And it’s always interesting. Mostly poets and poetry lovers come to the events, but a few diner customers attend as well. Some of them have never warmed up to poetry before this series. It’s great to see them there and occasionally they’ll even read at the open mic. It’s a really supportive crowd, too. Poetry is for everyone. It’s like medicine, and it nourishes us all, like the food, which attracts the people who wouldn’t otherwise attend.
F.W. - Your book Come In, We're Open is about life at the diner and some of the regulars. I found, in reading it, a real connection with the people you wrote about. How much did growing up there influence your writing, and does it still?
S.R. - Oh, good question. Yes, spending a lot of time at the diner has influenced my writing tremendously, and still does. I try, even with poems that take place in Ghana, India, or South America, to record the intimate details of the ordinary, until the ordinary becomes a kind of dance, and even more beautiful than the reality. In a diner, the hiss of the coffee brewing and scraping of plates are mundane, but they can be music and grace, if written that way. I like poems that make ordinary life appear magical. Ted Kooser is wonderful at that. In my poems, I strive to create small personal scenes where the readers really meet the characters and connect with them in a way that reminds us we’re not so different, whether the characters are diner customers, Colombians, or whoever. I learned this at an early age because the diner was one big diverse family, and everyone, even the couple who reeked of urine, belonged, ha ha. I have a poem about that incident titled "The Urine Couple" in Brigid’s Fire, the anthology that you compiled, Fred. Let’s just say my mom is the kindest person I know.
F.W. - You won an award for the book, what was that?
S.R. - Yes, shortly after graduating from the MFA program at Chatham, I was flipping through a newly purchased Poet’s Market, and I stopped at the 2009 Stevens Poetry Manuscript Competition. I had a good feeling about it, so I decided to submit Come In, We’re Open, my book of diner poems that I wrote while in grad school.” It was my first time submitting the manuscript and the judge, Ralph Burns, selected it! I remember receiving the call shortly after my 27th birthday and saying to the kind, patient lady on the other end, “Are you serious?” over and over, because I just couldn’t believe it was really happening. And in 2010, the National Federation of State Poetry Societies (NFSPS) Press published my book. It was amazing to win a cash prize and travel to Memphis to read at their annual convention, where I saw my book in print for the first time. Tad and I even visited Graceland while we were there.
F.W. - Who are some of your influences or poetry heroes?
S.R. - I found poetry through song lyrics, so my first poetry heroes were songwriters. Growing up, I would read lyrics as I listened along, and if a CD didn’t come with a booklet, I’d press pause repeatedly as I wrote the lyrics down. This is how I fell in love with language. I adored the Smashing Pumpkins, and listened to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness constantly. Ani DiFranco has been a huge inspiration as well. I began to write my own song lyrics which eventually turned into poems. One of my earliest poetry influences was Celia White, a local poet from Buffalo, and I was particularly attracted to the lyrical quality of her work. My biggest influences from my Chatham days were Pittsburgh poets like Jan Beatty, Jim Daniels, and two phenomenal poets who were also my teachers: Sheryl St. Germain and Heather McNaugher. Other influences include Pablo Neruda, Ilya Kaminsky (Dancing in Odessa is one of my absolute favorite books), Kim Addonizio, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Sharon Olds. And then there’s Rumi and Mary Oliver, who always speak to my soul, and Lucille Clifton, who, when a much younger me hesitantly handed her my first handmade chapbook titled Spill at her poetry reading, asked me if I signed it, and when I said no, she put her hand on her hip, smiled and said, “Well, sign it!” I’m positive my face was beet red!
F.W. - You taught at E.C.C South for a while and now you and your husband Tad teach in Colombia. What prompted you both to choose that route?
S.R. - It was my fifth semester teaching at ECC when one night, Tad and I were at the Essex Street Pub and we bumped into our friend, Anna, who announced she’d be returning to Colombia with her boyfriend, Diego, because his visa was running out. It was like a light bulb went off in my head and then she said, “You and Tad should come.” When I mentioned it to Tad, he exclaimed, “That’s the best idea I’ve heard yet!” I’d been wanting to explore more of South America and we were ready for a change, so it seemed right. I took a semester off from ECC, not knowing Colombia would be our country of many returns. We left in February 2014 to backpack around Colombia for three months but at the end of our trip, we needed more time. We had fallen in love with the gorgeous landscapes and the openness, warmth, and generosity of the people. So, during our last week there, I carried around my hoja de vida (CV) and went to all the schools around Villa de Leyva with a script I had memorized in Spanish to explain to school officials that I was interested in teaching English in their school. My Spanish was terrible at the time so I couldn’t really carry on a conversation (haha) but that’s part of the beauty, isn’t it? One school led me to another, and another, until I met a woman named Shirley, who taught for SENA, Colombia’s public university. She gave me the director’s contact information and the rest is history.
F.W. - Where in Colombia have you taught?
S.R. - We taught in Cali for six months, then in the charming town of Villa de Leyva for ten months at the school where we met Shirley, the woman who told us about the organization. Most recently, we worked on a seahorse-shaped island in the Caribbean called San Andres. It’s referred to as the sea of seven colors or El Mar de Los Siete Colores. It really is as magical as it sounds.
F.W. - What do you teach there?
S.R. - We teach ESL (English as a Second Language) and in Cali, in addition to ESL, I taught literature and creative writing to the English teachers and that was a lot of fun!
F.W. - Tad is a musician and will play trumpet while you read your work. Do you plan anything out in advance for a reading or is it more of an improvisational kind of thing?
S.R. - Usually we pick a poem that we think would work with trumpet and decide which parts would be accented well with horn. Tad will throw something together quickly and we’ll practice a couple of times before the event, and once in the diner’s garage just before performing. It usually works out. So, our performances are somewhat planned but there’s room for improvisation, which is Tad’s specialty. Tad is awesome at joining any band and improvising. He often carries a pocket trumpet when we travel, so he’s used to playing with bands he’s meeting for the first time.
F.W. - What kind of poetry are you working on now?
S.R. - I am currently working on a book of poems titled Marrying Maracuyá. It’s a book of poems about my experiences as both a backpacker and teacher in different regions of Colombia. I have also been working on a sequel to Come In, We’re Open for a while now.
F.W. - Even though your parents no longer own the diner, I'm pleased that you have readings there when you are back home. Do you think that you will continue to do so?
S.R. - Yes! We hope to have a couple before we leave in July because if everything goes as planned, we’ll be joining the Peace Corps in Costa Rica to teach ESL and teaching methodologies. These days, whenever we have a poetry night at the diner, we wonder if it’ll be the last, but we’ll keep them going for as long as we can.
You can find out more about Sara at her website:
Here are some of Sara's poems.
American Cheese Family
"LABOR: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas"
Dad always brought food home in buckets
from our diner. My brother and I grew up
in that diner. We ate between customers;
our clothes were napkins—we got the job done
sometimes. Because when I ate meat,
Dad would show me his shiny bare bones, point to mine
and say Still good meat on yours. That’s why I quit meat.
I couldn’t clean the bones. It was like rummaging
through the top drawers of the deceased.
I was jealous of other kids’ lunches.
They came in ironed brown bags, everything
so tidy in baggies or Saran wrap.
The food I carried in plastic grocery bags
slouched in bunched up wax paper.
I couldn’t help it. We were an American cheese,
chicken a la king, pork & sauerkraut family.
I never tasted brie until my address was no longer theirs.
I brought some home for Mom to try. She said
Shit Sara, this is good and began buying her own,
which she hid from my father.
Because if Dad saw, he’d say Joan!
How much did that dinky thing cost?
During a visit home, Mom pulled the brie
from under the pale green lettuce and whispered
Look what I got, and we ripped a piece
for every secret my mother kept,
for my own wilted words that never leave lips.
We shoved, even the mold, into our mouths
until Dad’s black truck grumbled up the driveway.
Between the curtains, I watched him unbuckle our dinner
from the passenger seat. It was spaghetti
and sure, Mom and I had some
but when our eyes met across the table
all we tasted was brie.
for Sunshine Woman
I think of you in Bogota when I see
pigeon feathers fastened to an old man’s cap.
On a street corner shared with a violinist,
he is unshaven and his clothes are in shreds
but he rummages through bags of trash
to serve the pigeons lunch.
You’ve written about Old Magic,
your Sassy Grandmother who sits crossed-legged
with gin and tonic. She wears ruby lipstick and flicks
her cigarette into an ashtray from an island
where wild horses roam. At dusk,
she settles on a rock by the Ancient Lake
to invite the gulls to supper.
The people sipping mochaccinos, café tintos,
and cappuccinos on the Juan Valdez patio,
the Starbucks of Colombia,
do not look up from their screens.
Their hands are circled around Juan Valdez,
the made-up mustached farmer featured with his mule,
Conchita, on cardboard cup holders.
A feather flies from Pigeon Man’s hat
as he sets some scraps on the concrete’s faded tablecloth
of day’s old sidewalk chalk.
even with an ocean between us,
you and Old Magic were there,
Independent Living Class, Eleventh Grade
Ms. Redder with a blonde bob and rosy cheeks warned
our 'gum smacking, note-passing, too cool for school' class,
Living with somebody can be difficult.
Suppose you like the toilet paper to hang
the way that your roommate can't stand.
I've waited for this conversation.
Thirteen apartments, eighteen roommates, the closest was,
Your turn to buy it. I'd ask myself which way I prefer to hang it,
Like this, and my hand brushes the wall
but that way doesn't look as neat.
Then, after seven years of sharing bath towels,
grilled cheeses and water glasses layered with lip impressions,
Thaddeus holds up the roll and says
So the toilet paper: You put it on the holder this way
but it should really go like this so the paper's easier to tear.
Here, in this apartment on another continent,
wooden beams across cathedral ceilings,
dogs howling in our backyard lumberyard
I see the eleventh grade Me,
wide-legged jeans, chipped nail polish,
hair frizzy from cheap perms:
She is sitting on that hard chair, two legs mid-air,
wondering, hoping, that someday
this topic would come up.
Contributor Focus: "News, Reviews & Interviews"