Photography Bertie Gilbert

The poet articulating your deepest existential fears

‘Sweetdark’, Savannah Brown’s sophomore collection of poetry, explores how we live vulnerably, pleasurably, and chaotically at the end of the world.

by Jenna Mahale
12 October 2020, 9:59am

Photography Bertie Gilbert

There are three stages of life, according to Savannah Brown: “Youth, domestic ennui, and apocalypse.” Is she wrong? The 24-year-old has loosely superimposed this same timeline over her second book of poetry, Sweetdark, a deep dive into our complex and often contradictory ways of living. “The first part sort of focuses on the self,” she explains, “I almost think of it as maybe a continuation from Graffiti, my first poetry book. It feels youthful to me, and it's sort of about maturing and coming to terms with things. And then in the middle part, it's more about the day-to-day slog. Which is where I put, well… all of ‘the bleak ones'.” And then comes the end of the world. An instant 2020 classic.

One week before the book’s release, Sav is calling from her living room, surrounded by stacks and stacks of Sweetdark’s. She did this once before in 2016, writing and printing a poetry collection herself, and mailing out copies all over the world. This part, she says, is the “one-woman-publishing side of things”.

Sav’s gone through the traditional route of publishing too. Penguin put out her debut novel The Truth About Keeping Secrets last year, a young adult thriller centred around two queer Ohio teens. Buoyed by an online audience of around 500k today, Sav first made her name on YouTube when her poem, titled “What Guys Look For in Girls” in response to that one awful video, went viral in 2014.

“It is very overwhelming, but I'm also just very appreciative. And in a way -- this might sound a bit masochistic -- it is kind of fun.” She doesn’t yet have a ritual for the run-up to a publication date, she says, it’s too early in her career for that. “But maybe this is the ritual, maybe the ritual is chaos.”

You describe yourself in your Twitter bio as a “very troubled girl” -- can you tell me a bit about what’s troubling you in particular at the moment?
This reminds me of when I was a teenager and I was going to my doctor to be like, "I think I have anxiety." And he was like, "Well, what makes you nervous?" And I'm like, "Uh, everything?" I think it’s everything: I'm troubled by the state of the world, I'm troubled by all these books in my living room, I'm troubled by the process, I'm troubled by my day-to-day life.

It’s just your way of being?
Yeah, it’s just sort of a general aura of being unsettled. You know, for a long time my Twitter bio just said like "slug", or something. I don't know if this is more or less flattering.

So what’s sustaining you at this moment in time?
I've been reading a lot, I've been writing a lot, and I've been thinking a lot about the future. Which, I think, is a fun thing to do. Maybe I'm crazy, but there's something comforting about it, because it just doesn't exist. It can really look like however you want it to look like, and imagining something is better is... one of my hobbies.

Let’s talk about your book. There has to be a story to the name Sweetdark. How did you land on that as a title?
Poem to poem, I noticed that these made-up compound words kept appearing. I especially liked the idea of putting together two words that were almost but not exactly opposites. And [Sweetdark] is not "bittersweet". It's almost bittersweet, but not, and I think that aspect of it is a little bit unsettling.

I mean, the whole thing that Sweetdark is trying to say is about how different realities can exist alongside each other. And the sort of blurry intersections where one moment or feeling might begin, and another might end. So I was just playing around with different words that appeared in the text a lot, and seeing how they sounded together. And once Sweetdark came about, I was like, “Yeah, I think that's it. I think you just summed it up.” And I think it's quite fun to say!

When I finished Sweetdark, I actually went back to one of your videos. Do you feel like your writer self is a separate person to yourself when you’re on YouTube, or even yourself when you’re not being observed?
I do think a lot about identity, and different identities that exist across bodies of work. I've been making videos online -- and therefore have had an audience in some capacity -- since I was 14 years old. I thought a lot about that sort of in my late teens and early twenties: whether I would be different had that not happened, and I think the answer is definitely yes. I think my poetry is quite personal, but in a poem I sort of operate under the guise of creative distance. So I end up confessing a lot about myself, though also everything is up to interpretation. But I think I’m still trying to find my voice in a lot of ways.

You mentioned that people are reading into your poems differently than you expected. Can you tell me a bit more about that, and what you were otherwise intending?
I do think that the general tone of the collection is coming across, and people are definitely vibing with that. But, for example, I just read someone take a kind of macro view to this poem called "in anticipation of the hydrogen bomb". They had a sort of societal reading of it; they related it to the pandemic, and how people are dealing with that, and what that looks like. But the poem is about my fear of my parents dying. That's just what poetry is, it's taking the work and applying it to yourself. I think you can read a poem, or listen to a poem, and truly, honestly, not understand a word of what you read or heard in the poem. But you're still more than able to, to appreciate it and understand it, and you will have experienced the poem correctly, no matter no matter what you take from it.

That’s so true.
Right! It's a cute and fun day trip to go to an art museum and sort of passively regard hundreds of paintings and not really remember anything. But with poetry, we're so convinced that you need to dissect and understand it, or else you cannot enjoy it, which I just don't think is true. So I love it when people take different interpretations from it. You absolutely have my permission to read anything I write to mean whatever the heck you want.

Get your copy of Sweetdark here.