At 19 years old, Pittsburgh-born Sarah Claire Morton is a poet who coordinates the monthly "Beautiful Noise" spoken-word/music event at Brillobox
(www.myspace.com/beautifulnoiseatbrillobox). But Morton doesn't just commune with her muse: She actively chases the thing. Morton was the youngest female competitor in the recent Pittsburgh Triathlon, which features a 1.5-kilometer swim and a 40-kilometer bike ride, topped off with a 10-kilometer run.
And thanks to a series of sports-related injuries, Morton can dislocate her shoulder at will. Take that, Billy Collins!
So you're a triathlete and a writer ... a poet-warrior in the classic Homerian tradition. How'd you get started?
My father was a master rower. He rowed with a men's team, and I grew up around the boathouse. When I was a girl, I was the coxswain. Any sports community is like a family, like a church. I went to Schenley High School for two years, and they didn't have a rowing team. So my sophomore year, I helped start an All-City crew with Schenley, Peabody and Westinghouse. Allderdice already had their own team.
Of course they did. But just a year out of school, you're organizing the "Beautiful Noise" events. How'd that happen?
In school, I wasn't a poet; people would see me as a music dork or as a rower. But I was working at Katerbean in Regent Square, and I met some great guys, including Jason Kirin, who was the quintessential poet. I started writing as well, and we'd be up all night, reading poems back and forth to each other.
The Brillobox has been great for me. I'll hear about places where I really want to go ... because I have friends playing or performing there ... but I'm not 21 years old. So if I want to get in, I have to work there. That's what I did at Brillobox, and they gave me my first show in February. "Beautiful Noise" is a spoken word-musical collaboration. People hear "spoken word" and think it's like "I was walking down the street and, I saw a little girl and" ... you know, with all the hand motions. But that's not really what it's like. I try to highlight spoken word by pairing poets with really talented musicians so they can collaborate.
How do you decide who collaborates with whom?
Sometimes you know right off who should be paired together: "You need a jazz band, you need some strings with you." And sometimes I'm a little selfish: I just put people together who I would love to hear.
Have you ever arm-wrestled other poets? They're supposedly a pretty scrawny, tormented bunch.
I've never done that. A lot of people don't know I'm as athletic as I am. And I'm a happy girl. I mean, my book [of poems] is called "Silently Screaming," so maybe I sound tormented. Even if you're physically healthy, you still have a well of things to draw from that are hard. You still have love that's going to leave you and hurt you somehow. But being as physical as I am makes me a stronger, happier person. When my body feels healthy, my mind feels healthy too.
So, tell me about the Pittsburgh triathlon. What was it like swimming in the Monongahela River?
The water tasted bad and smelled disgusting. Everyone else was in a wetsuit, at least; I was just wearing a swimsuit.
You're a poet: You can describe the Mon more colorfully than that.
When you smell normal water, you don't smell anything, and when you smell nature water, there's a very comforting smell to it. The Mon is the antithesis of that. When you're done swimming, you have to crawl out of the river ... there are no steps. There are these blocks you climb up, but they're slippery with algae and plastic bags. It was like a novel by [science-fiction writer] Octavia Butler ... people trying to crawl out of this algae-filled river. The smell lingered on me for a long time. But I felt strong, and there's a euphoric feeling you get when you push yourself past the walls of exhaustion.
Do experiences like that inspire your poetry?
When I was running in the triathlon, I remember thinking "double-knotted daydreams still come untied sometimes." I think about poems whenever I have the extra time. I don't write on paper; I write out loud and in my head. So I write when I'm swimming, although I definitely didn't write anything when I was in the Mon. I do make myself write for an hour a day. That's also a muscle you have to keep on using.