Spotlight: Sarah Arvio

“The Echo of Tradition”

​We have all had that time in our lives where the need to escape overcomes us; traveling far away seems like the only answer. However, in most cases, the inevitable result is that “you’re still the same person you wanted to leave behind.” This understanding is necessary to move on. Poet and UN translator Sarah Arvio experienced this attempt at escape, and in hindsight realizes that although it did not serve the purpose she originally intended, the departure certainly allowed for self-growth.

Arvio said, “You learn that your unhappiness comes from inside you – that learning is a beginning.” And if you’re anything like Sarah Arvio, it will eventually lead to some pretty, powerful poetry.

​Not many people are privileged enough to be able to work for the international peace and security organization known as the United Nations, and even fewer get the chance to work with the delicate matter of language. Sarah Arvio is not only a published poet, but her career has also led her to work as a translator for the UN for many years. Fluent in her native English as well as French and Spanish and even a little Italian, Sarah possesses an enormously powerful skill set. However, as imagined, there is quite a difference between fashioning words into poetry and dealing with the straight-forward language of the UN.

To Sarah, this was a positive feature of her work. She says, “Poetry is idiosyncratic, and to translate for the United Nations, you need to make your style even and plain and usual…That difference and distance was good.” This separation allowed the talented poet to function in the diplomatic world of the UN while still able to foster her creativity in a separate environment. These distinct immersions certainly exposed her to a full spectrum of language.

​This is not to say that the UN lent zero influence on her poetry. She admits that “words and concepts I heard at the UN did sneak into some of my poems.” The constant involvement with so many languages begs the question: can someone write poetry in more than one language? Sarah is straightforward with her thoughts on this when she states, “No. It’s so rare to be truly fluent in languages other than one’s own.” For someone who is gifted enough with language to work for the United Nations, this declaration proves how strongly Sarah feels about the sanctity of poetic language. She does, however, feel the influence of other cultures and countries on her writing. For example, reading in other languages can be a moving experience. According to Sarah, “I ultimately borrowed some sense of flow or freedom from them [other languages]…living in another language is strangely enriching.” But, she always remembers the importance of fluid language; “it should be pleasing or moving in some way to that…person who will hear you and may even respond.”

​Sarah’s poetic language is certain, fluid, and elegant as her own emotional history influencing most of her poems. The humble poet admits, “I often write in the grip of emotion, and sometimes even drunk!” Sometimes writing needs a little liquid inspiration, but she quickly adds, “I’m not proposing this as a good way to go about composing – but maybe.” Sarah does say that poetic voice and actual voice have an interesting relationship. They are both true to the individual poet, but she acknowledges that, “I’m so much more uninhibited when I’m writing – I can let myself go.”

Letting herself go has led her to produce a witty undertone in even her most serious poems, which Sarah refers to as “dark humor”. Combine this with her supreme handling of repetition; Sarah creates ingenious shifts in words. Consider her poem “Matter” and her use of the title word. It shifts from the verb meaning to be important, to the noun of materiality or substance, eventually alluding to the supreme importance of one’s mother.

In terms of her own published poetry, Sarah has been reviewed by major publications and journals such as The Washington Post and The New Yorker, who compared her book Visits from the Seventh to writing by Yeats and Merrill. She is flattered by the comparison but explains that similarities occur so often in poetry because it is based on tradition.

“Poetry is a tradition: and anyone coming up wanting to join that tradition will read the poetry and end up echoing some of it.” Her advice? Read old and new poetry. You ultimately want to find a “sound that sounds like you, yourself.”

Finally, don’t shy away from writing about what matters most to you. Poetry should be read so that it “reflects the rhythms in your mind.”

Want more? Check out Sarah Arvio’s books Visits from the Seventh (Alfred A. Knopf 2002) and Sono: Cantos (Alfred A. Knopf 2006). Her next book, Night Thoughts (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) is a sequence of poems about dreams and some notes about the figures in the dreams. Visit for more information.


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