Sarah Pemberton Strong

Pipes and Dreams

Do you ever imagine the life of your plumber after he’s fixed your leaks and gone home for the evening? His ambitions? His secrets? What if he’s a poet, or a novelist?

What if he’s a she?

For 17 years, Sarah Pemberton Strong has been a certified master plumber. In 2002, she published her first novel, Burning the Sea, about love and friendship against a backdrop of revolution on the shores of the Dominican Republic. Two years later, Strong’s one-person plumbing company, Anchor Plumbing LLC, started servicing New Haven County. Her second novel, The Fainting Room, a suburban drama about a husband and wife who take in a California runaway, published in 2013, as did Tour of the Breath Gallery, a collection of poems that takes seemingly mundane subjects and loads them with intense lyrical charge. Meantime Strong has published work in The Southern Review, Poetry Daily and other periodicals, and helps out the New Haven Review as a poetry editor.

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Her double-life echoes Stephen King’s, who worked as a janitor while struggling to publish, and Wallace Stevens’s, who worked in insurance for most of his life. But of all the day jobs Strong could have chosen, why plumbing, specifically? “I dated a plumber,” she says. “He nudged me into it.”

Strong soon found that the life of a literary plumber suited her well. “I like to work with my hands,” she says, “and it gives my brain a break from working with words.” In the poem “Why I Learned the Craft,” Strong gives her first time on the job a lyrical treatment, describing how her new-found vocation made her feel visible in a wholly new way: “As I walked home, men / raised their heads and stared / as if I’d called their names. / Bottles in the gutter gazed up at me, / even the cigarette butts had eyes.”

There’s poetry in plumbing, but as thrilling as waterworks can be, Strong doesn’t usually write odes to the kitchen sink. Plumbing comes up surprisingly little in her work, except for two poems and an early subplot in The Fainting Room that never made it to the final draft.

More compelling to Strong are the interplay between characters of different classes and cultural backgrounds and the power dynamics of sex. Burning The Sea follows a middle-class American amnesiac looking for clues about her past, an Americanized native of the West Indies and the latter’s politically radical lover. In The Fainting Room, Strong brings together a wealthy architect, a heavily tattooed ex-circus performer and a young runaway with safety pins in her ears and a knack for sleuthing.

In both books, Strong sews her characters together with the bonds of marriage, friendship or lust, then explores how far they can stretch. The American-Dominican friendships in Sea are put to the test as political tensions flare, while in Room the marital glue is pushed to the breaking point by an increasingly unstable love triangle between husband, wife and runaway.

Strong is at the beginning of a large break herself—a needed one, it seems. “I closed my plumbing business just the other week,” she says, a bit of a shame considering online reviewers praise her as knowledgeable and prompt, and good at explaining what she’s doing while on the job. Still, for Strong, plumbing was becoming a chore. “As I became more of a serious writer, I found plumbing was beginning to get in the way of a life sustained by writing, rather than a job that supported a life of writing, as it initially was.”

Besides dedicating more of her time to writing, Strong also plans on teaching others the craft. She recently completed an MFA in Poetry at Warren Wilson in North Carolina and will be teaching an “intensive poetry workshop” at the Institute Library from July 18-25. A mother and spouse herself, Strong knows well the difficulties of balancing a family life and career, so the workshop is tailored to adults who may already write verse but haven’t figured out how to carve a routine into their schedules.

Strong talks about the career change from plumber to teacher almost as if it were a natural progression. “Hopefully some of those skills will carry over into my next job,” she says. No doubt it’ll be the precision and thoroughness of her explanations that carry, and not her skills with a monkey wrench.

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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