Thursday, March 10, 2011
Interview with Sarah Vap
Sarah Vap is the eleventh interview at The Fine Delight. This interview was conducted through e-mail. A bio note, as well as relevant links, follow the interview. Thanks for sharing your wonderful thoughts with us, Sarah!
1. Faulkner's Rosary is such a great title. Images of rosaries and litanies abound, such as in "Living Together": "Your capable, / ornamenting hands--. Adding / one to another -- stringing / over and over, your welcomes."
Could you discuss the origin/reason for the combination of Faulkner and rosary?
Well, Faulkner is one of my favorite writers. Faulkner was not Catholic. He did not, as far as I know, have a rosary. When I was pregnant, I imagined this creature either as a little bug, or as a string of beads, little DNA-rosaries getting longer and larger and thicker and twisting and untwisting. When I was pregnant, I immediately started some kind of humming, constant prayer in the back of my mind, and it lasted until his birth. And during my pregnancy, my sense of history collapsed, and generations collapsed, until women from long ago, and women of the future, and women around me, all felt very near to me. At the same time, time slowed to almost a stop, the world felt more still, I felt still. Details were exaggerated and slowed. At the same time again, I knew that this creature inside me was multiplying itself over and over and over at speeds I couldn’t understand. These collapses and stretches of time and distance were filtered, for me, through a biblical language or image or hum (for this is where my imagination goes, at bottom-- to the earth and to the Old Testament, New Testament, and the apocrypha).
The only other place this was familiar to me, in writing, was Faulkner. He did this collapsing and expanding of generations in a particularly masculine way. He thought through generations in terms of the men in them, primarily, though not exclusively. But to me, Faulkner seems like neither a man nor a woman. (Like Jesus seems like neither a man nor a woman. Or other huge human beings or spirits.)
The title was both an homage to, and also a break from, Faulkner.
2. In "Fallopian," you write "Something untouchable, we know, / is still voluble." This collection is suffused with a sense of mystery. How do you engage the mysterious and mystical in your poetry? Do you do so from a Catholic aesthetic?
You know, I must in many senses write mystery from a Catholic aesthetic, because within Catholicism is where my imagination was formed. It was within that context that I first understood, if one can, mystery. I understand it, that is, as something that remains unsolvable. Or somehow unapprehendable with the kinds of brains or bodies we happen to have. Or as something that we apprehend for exactly what it is: unapprehendable. I have (in the magical sense of the word) a childish relationship with mystery-- a swallowing-it-whole kind of relationship, a not needing to solve or resolve it relationship with mystery-- at least, that is, when I approach something that is truly mysterious, like the earth, meiosis, or mitosis, or childhood, or pregnancy, or time, or death, or or or….. It’s not, I hope, something I try to conjure, but instead, something I notice all the time.
I experience mystery, I suppose, as a living or humming presence. (There are, however, also those (human) parts of the world that attempt to conjure power through a cultivation of or manipulation of mystery--and I am dedicated to exposing that where I see it or abhor it.)
The mystical-- I think that everyone, whether they care or acknowledge it at all, is capable of and does have mystical experiences all the time. By which I mean gnostic. By which I mean animist. By which I mean psychic. Or etc. I mean that however we conceive of it, there is something outside of ourselves, and perhaps outside of our world, that we can’t understand, and that we have experiences with. I try to live closely with that, sometimes closer than at other times, and I generally feel very comfortable there.
3. Color peppers this collection, particularly pink and blue. How do you perceive the world of imagery in your poetry, especially color?
Let’s see. Pink and blue became powerful, inane, and actively absurd during the months I was pregnant. And during the first year of my son’s life. Those percocet-ish pastel girl/boy baby colors…they acted as some kind of reverberating and numbing cultural poles offered to me as I approached motherhood. They acted as the (surprising to me) exceedingly tender-- and (not surprising to me) confining and even nauseating-- twin poles within which our culture abstractly conceived of my “approaching” baby, right? They vied to set the emotional tone that our (commercial?) world wanted to create for this event called pregnancy, and for this event called baby. I found pink and blue to be simultaneously absurd, and stilting, and sickeningly sweet, and truly sweet, and even at times achingly, painfully tender.
But pastel pink and pastel blue have nothing to do with pregnancy, whose color is obviously blood-red. And the black of obscurity. And, in our age of sonograms, the pulsing, grayish, black-white light.
I think my meditations on those colors, and the focus on color in many of these poems was, in part, my hope to re-imbue those colors with more resonant perceptions and memories and associations. Recalibrate the colors. Rehabilitate them conceptually, even, because those colors in the actual world are perfect.
This is just a guess in retrospect, though: I’m not sure that any of this was conscious or a goal at the time of writing the poems.
4. Many of your poems have longer titles (my favorite is "A bear as big as an angus in my parents' backyard"). What's your approach toward titling? What is the function of a title in your poems?
Titling a poem…. let’s see. There are times I want to open up the reading a bit with the title, and times I want to direct it-- to assert a little bit of control, guidance, in the reading of the poem-- such as in the Sonogram poems. In those poems, I wanted to gain a momentum and a complexity for the space-age experience of see-hearing your baby, as if you are the whale you feel yourself to be, but the image, instead of residing inside your mind, is projected onto a television screen. Which is identical-- in spirit-- to the age-old experience of wanting to look inside yourself, looking inward, to feel, to want to be certain of, the wellness of our baby. To want to connect or communicate with the baby. (And yet, the baby is on the television?!)
But titling… the titles never come first for me. And in this manuscript, some of the titles shifted as the manuscript pulled together-- to help shape the movement through the poems and connect particular poems I wanted more connected. Titles come to me many ways, and some come right away and stay forever, and some shift and shift until the editor rips the manuscript from my hands the day before it goes to print.
5. One of your "Sonogram" poems has this beautiful phrase: "The baby / under my heart watches me". You're able to make pregnancy new in this collection. What was your process in writing about such a complicated, beautiful aspect of existence? Have you ever read successful work by other poets about this subject?
I wrote almost all the poems in Faulkner’s Rosary during my first pregnancy, with my son Oskar and with his twin, who we lost. I stopped writing for a while after he was born, then began revising this manuscript. Not long after that, I became pregnant with our second son, Mateo. I revised the manuscript through the second pregnancy, and in the two years after Mateo was born. I spent about 5 years and two pregnancies and some losses on this book, in other words. I wrote in the midst of the experiences and joys and losses and strangenesses, and as such, I suppose the instinct for the book was documentary. A kind of documentary.
(And supplication and humility and certainty and revelation.)
6. Although I'm intrigued by the theology and imagery within these poems, your work is so strong at the levels of craft and control. "To be breathed-in by a god" is an example. Do you remember anything about the composition and process of this particular poem (it feels so carefully crafted).
I don’t! I remember only the room that I first wrote it in, in Phoenix. It was filled with heat and with sunlight. The room was beautiful and bright and the opposite of how I felt.
7. Any Catholic literary influences? Why do you think Catholicism is so appealing to poets?
Yes, many. Many saints’ writings and hagiographies. The apocrypha, primarily, the old testament next, the new testament after that-- though I can’t claim those as Catholic, particularly. The psalms. I love the mystics, like Hildegard de Bingen, Saint Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Simone Weil. Dante. John Donne. ((Lots of visual art (churches, cathedral, architecture, painting, sculpture, texts-- across Europe, North America and South America.)) Lots of music (Ave Maria) and prayers. Less ancient: Flannery O’Connor, Dostoyevski, Tolstoy, Joyce. Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Cather, I read every couple of years now. Madeleine L’Engle, J. K. Rowling, Tolkein. Thomas Mann. Denise Levertov. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Marilynne Robinson. Gabriela Mistral. Pablo Neruda. Federico Garcia Lorca. Kate Chopin. Anna Akhmatova. Frank Herbert. Luce Irigaray. Some of those might not be writers that the Catholic church would claim as Catholic, (or they might not identify themselves as such). But I respond to them catholically.
Frankly, it’s the same story here as it is everywhere-- my list might have a lot of women on it, but the men have the floor. I have had to search for the women over the years (and I’m still searching for them), and the bulk of them lived in Medieval Europe, and more or less embodied Catholic sexual fetishes, and so their work has survived.
In terms of very contemporary Catholic poets? It’s hard to know who they are. Not many self-identify as a Catholic poet (I wouldn’t).
Is Catholicism appealing to poets? As a poet, it both draws me deeply toward it, and simultaneously repels me. I think Catholicism is inherently poetic-- and the more pre-Vatican II, the more poetic. I lived in Italy for a year, which is quite pre-VII, (and the art, the architecture, the distancing of the Italian language, for me-- similar to how it might have been to have heard the mass in Latin-- heightened this feeling for me.) Catholicism is bloody, and full of ritual, and torture, and full of art and music and gesture, and the mass is a kind of group-poem with movement and music and pacing, and Catholicism is full of story and literature and complicated history and strife and cruelty and goodness-- all of which combine to create a cultural poetry, in my experience of it. Which is something that is starkly missing in this day and age, in a consumer culture, and so I can understand the appeal that any rich tradition or high ritual might offer someone with a poetic sensibility.
8. Have you encountered any non-Catholic writers or poets who appear to have a Catholic aesthetic to their work?
I don’t know…do you mean, who would I love to claim as part of my fantasy lineage? This morning: Faulkner, Shakespeare, Margaret Wise Brown, George Herbert, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Hayao Miyazaki and Charlotte Bronte. And David Simon.
9. What current project(s) are you working on now?
I have been working on several things simultaneously for several years. I have a collection that is nearly completed called Take Us the Foxes, in which I consider, basically, the childbearing years-- the years of altered consciousness during which women give birth, raise very young children-- have babies live and die inside them and around them. The years when she is literally high on her own hormones and exhaustions, and lives without personal space and in extremely detailed and insular experiences with these tiny people.
I am also working on a collection of lyric essays, all of which circle poetry and poetics, called, I believe, Oskar’s Cars. I am working on a collection with the word “winter” somewhere in the title-- let’s call this a collection of feministamotheraphorisms. I am working on a series of books for young children about, actually, mystery.
Sarah Vap grew up in Missoula, Montana. She attended Brown University, where she studied English and American Literature. She later received her M.F.A. from Arizona State University. She is the author of three collections of poetry. Her first book, Dummy Fire, was selected by Forrest Gander to receive the Saturnalia Poetry Prize. Her second, American Spikenard, was selected by Ira Sadoff to receive the Iowa Poetry Prize. Her third book, Faulkner’s Rosary, was published by Saturnalia Books in 2010. Sarah is editor of poetry for the online journal 42 Opus. She has taught poetry and literature at Arizona State University, Phoenix College, and Olympic College, and has taught several hundred hours of creative writing to kids in public schools. She currently teaches at the Salish Sea Workshop. Sarah is married to the poet Todd Fredson, and they live on the Olympic Peninsula with their children.
Posted by Nick Ripatrazone at 12:15 AM