An Interview with Sarah Vap
Sarah Vap was born in Wichita, Kansas, the fourth of five children. Her father’s parents were part of the Czech immigrant community in Nebraska (her grandmother was a friend of the woman upon whom Willa Cather based her character Antonia). Her mother was from an Irish/German farming family in Nebraska. The family lived briefly in Kansas, Nebraska, and Minnesota before settling in Missoula, Montana when she was six years old. Vap attended Brown University, and later attended Arizona State University, where she completed her MFA. She and her partner, the poet Todd Fredson, now live in a small farming valley on the Olympic Peninsula with their two young sons. On the edge of their property is the Skokomish River, on the other side of the river is the Olympic National Forest, and beyond that the Olympic National Park. At the mouth of their small valley is the saltwater fjord of Hood Canal.
Martha Silano: When did you first begin writing poetry?
Sarah Vap: My first writings were apology poems that I wrote to my parents. Illustrated, rhyming apologies that I put on my parents’ pillow before I could fall asleep. My dad still has a couple of these hanging on his darkroom wall. They were apologies for simple things I had done or misunderstood—I shame easily.
I think these poems went on for a long time.
MS: Was there a person or people in your life who made that poetry possible? Made writing imaginable?
SV: My father. He is a writer, and he wanted to write. But he had five children, and at a young age. He composed several stories for us as children. He thought of me as a writer long before I thought of myself that way.
Poetry in particular? I didn’t even know MFA programs existed until my senior year of college, when I took my first workshop with a graduate student in the MFA program at Brown, Tim Taylor. I think he, in particular, was the first person who made sure that I knew that poetry was possible for me. And, after that, Greg Donovan at Virginia Commonwealth University (where I took my second workshop, about six years later) greatly supported me and guided me into the program at Arizona State University, where I found my teachers and mentors: Norman Dubie, Cynthia Hogue, and Beckian Fritz-Goldberg.
MS: What kind of folks are/were your parents? Were they well educated? What did they do for a living? What kind of home did you grow up in?
SV: My mother and father met and started dating when they were students at St. Cecilia’s High School in Hastings, Nebraska.
My mom was a farm girl. Her parents had a large (corn, wheat, soybean) farm on the outskirts of town. My grandfather farmed nearly his whole life, and my grandmother cared for their six children, plus cooked two huge meals a day for “the men”—the people hired to help my grandfather farm. And, you know, no electricity, no running water. My grandparents eloped when my grandmother was sixteen and my grandfather was eighteen, and heading into World War II. They kept the marriage a secret, and my grandma went back to high school until she became pregnant with my mother, two years later. (Her cravings for lemons gave the pregnancy away to my great-grandmother, who, so the story goes, had also craved them when she was pregnant with my grandmother.)
My dad was a town boy. Before he was born, his father was a purebred hog farmer, lost the farm in the Depression, and moved the family into Hastings. There he dug foundations with a horse and a bucket for awhile. Eventually, he became foreman at Hastings Equity Grain Bin Manufacturing Company, where he made industrial miracles, they say, out of steel, tin, etc., for the agriculture industry. My grandmother cooked for church events and for the Catholic schools in town, and, of course, for her six children. The oldest brothers and sisters in my father’s family grew up speaking Czech in the home, and my father, as the youngest, grew up speaking English.
My parents were both from very Catholic families. My mother was the oldest of six, and my father was the youngest of six—so, even though they are the same age, their families were not of the same generation. They dated in high school, and then my mother went to Duchesne, a women’s Catholic college in Omaha. She studied chemistry, and after she graduated, she worked in that field. My father went into the seminary to become a priest (as his two brothers before him had). He dropped out after a year to get back together with my mother, and later he graduated from the University of Nebraska. He studied journalism.
What kind of folks are they? Where do I begin? Of course, there’s only so much I’m willing to say. But, they are generous, kind, opinionated, hard-working, smart, loyal, complicated, conservative, sensitive people. They care about nothing as much as they do their children. They have had a long, complicated, good marriage. They lost a child, early in their marriage, and she still gently haunts us all. My older sister died of a brain tumor shortly before I was born. I am sure that that loss helped to shape my parents and their marriage. My father is no longer a practicing Catholic, and this change in his beliefs was very hard for them both. My mother is a devoted Catholic. My father has had a lifelong congenital heart condition (his first heart surgery was in his twenties, and several have followed) and is a sort of fragile, tall, thin, very funny, very Czech-looking man. My mother is a fiery, bossy, stubborn, practical, generous, extremely protective, and tiny woman.
They are wonderful. They are as complicated as anyone. They are the perfect parents for me.
MS: What kind of home did you grow up in?
SV: The home, itself? That’s easier to answer than what kind of home, conceptually. So, I’ll pretend that’s what you mean. My parents’ home is in a valley outside of Missoula, Montana. The home is on the center of their land—about half of which is pasture in front of the house, and about half which goes up the side of a thickly forested mountain behind the house. A creek runs along the back of it. It is a very long, narrow house, with windows everywhere, and it is made of redwood. There is a barn, and when I was young, we had many horses. My parents still live there, and we visit several times a year. That home, that land, that creek, those mountains—are epic to me.
MS: It doesn’t surprise me that your childhood home is, as you call it, epic. It makes for a very strong sense of place in your poems. You mentioned, when you recently read at Seattle’s Open Books, that you grew up very Catholic, that you attended church, was it, three times a week? What was that like for you? Were there expectations put on you to follow this same path, to be devout? Did you attend catechism/Catholic school, get confirmed?
SV: I attended a full mass on Fridays at my school and again on Sundays with my family, and most Wednesdays, I attended an abbreviated mass at the school chapel (which you were required to attend if you were in any extracurricular activities). I did attend Catholic school from the moment I entered school until I graduated from high school—which meant theology classes every day, Latin classes, school nativity plays, receiving the sacraments, and a few bizarre things thrown in here and there, such as the Christian-of-the-Month contest—a box in grade school that you could anonymously slip a fellow classmate’s name into—I never won, despite nominating myself several times. At family reunions my uncles, who were priests, said mass on my grandparents’ front lawn. And they personally baptized, married, and buried many members of my family.
It was touching to return to my grandparents’ house to visit my uncle, now a retired monsignor, and to see that the room I had always slept in when visiting had been converted into a chapel, so that he could say mass and receive communion there each day. He had devoted the chapel to my sister, whom he calls Saint Amy.
Catholicism was everywhere in my life.
It was, in retrospect, however, nearly un-talked about in my home. Between my siblings and my parents and me. It was, I think, an assumed water we swam in—though none of us actually behaved or spoke in deeply devout ways, it seemed to me. I can’t really tell you, even today, how my brothers or sister feel about Catholicism. I can only say that some of us baptize our children, for example, and some of us don’t.
There certainly was an expectation that we would remain practicing Catholics in every way, yes.
MS: What does the title Faulkner’s Rosary refer to? Is this a specific set of beads?
SV: I don’t know if Faulkner had a rosary or not. Probably not. But, his sense of time as organized around holy weeks and days; the echoes of the Old Testament; his seeking of stories across the generations; and the words, the names, the stories from biblical legends that sound and resound through his imagination and through his entire body of work—these are just part of why his name titles my book. I think the poems of Faulkner’s Rosary do seek back through generations at the same moment that they are documenting the creation of a new generation. The poems do experience the time-out-of-time time of the pregnancy as a kind of legendary or elevated or, even, holy time. And my imagination is made up of many of those same words and those same images and those same stories that fill Faulkner’s writing. It is on my knees in front of him, in several senses, that I put his name on the book.
However, Faulkner thinks through lines of generations of men, as does his Bible. I wanted to think back through women. And I searched, during the months of pregnancy, especially, for my women—even as I knew I had lost the daughter. Even as my own line of women, in some sense, was broken. And was broken right there, inside me.
And during pregnancy, the women do come forward—a timeless (or geological-time), never-ending line of women sprang up before and after me during those months. And living women sprang up all around me, helping me. So, those lines of women, that string, that heightened marking of time—it is also to those things that the title refers.
The Rosary, itself—those prayers, that chanting, that close relationship between music and word, that particular object—yes, it did inform the writing of the book.
MS: Your book is very musical, incantatory, and mystical. You shared at that same Open Books reading that the first poetry you heard was prayer. Faulkner’s Rosary is woven together with snippets of prayer.
SV: Snippets of prayer—yes. Or warm perversions of prayer or dissolving prayers or replacement prayers or broken prayers or better prayers or blasphemous prayers or reverent prayers or who knows what.
I can say only that Faulkner’s Rosary is organized in decades, as the Rosary is. And that, just as the decades of the Rosary are held together by repetitions of the Glory Be, the decades of this book are held together by Glory-Be-ish, or un-Glory-Be-ish, poems.
Or, if the Rosary is said as a prayer for the dead, the decades will be separated by the Eternal Rest prayer. So perhaps some of the snippets are also Eternal-Rest-ish.
The instinct, I think, was to try to make prayer prayerful again at a time when prayer seemed most relevant to me. Though it was not prayer that was meant to be religious. Was, even, specifically not.
The form I knew was the Rosary. But it’s not, no, it’s not an attempt to say that
MS: As a child, did you memorize psalms, parts of the Bible, the Rosary? In what ways did these liturgical experiences influence your work? Has this influence been present/recognizable in your poems from the get-go, or is Faulkner’s Rosary the most Catholicism-influenced so far?
SV: I did memorize prayers, and I did hear the poetry of the mass thousands of times, and I did memorize and sing psalms, and I did pray the Rosary—that long and elaborate chant—often at school in all-school Rosaries or after all-school confessions. But more often as a lament—a prayer for the dead. And more often than that, as a beseeching. (The Rosary is a devotion to Mary. One prays to her to intervene.)
How do all these things influence my work? I am sure they are inherent to my sense of language, rhythm, music, gesture, pause, etc. The cadence and elaborateness of the mass, the beauty of the churches, the austerity and the bloodiness of the artwork in the churches (the crucifix behind the altar and the mysteries along the walls are, quite literally, images of torture surrounding you as you pray), the silences, the chants, the music, the rising and then sitting and then kneeling of the congregation, the ritualized movements of the priest and of the congregation (everyone moving, everyone singing, everyone still, everyone bowed, everyone silent, everyone reciting), the rich vocabulary of Catholicism, the formal readings from the Bible juxtaposed with the more conversational cadences of the homily, the voices together speaking, and then together singing, and then the voice of the priest alone—as an infant, a child, a teenager, my body and mind formed in these places and these rhythms.
Later, in high school, I did study Latin. I did have theology classes daily from second through twelfth grade, which meant I became very familiar with both Old and New Testaments.
Later than that, in college, I lived in Florence, Italy, for a year and studied art history—which meant that I looked at a hundred thousand images of biblical and apocryphal stories and stood for hours in endless numbers of Catholic churches and cathedrals all across Italy.
Catholicism must be present in all my work, something I am forced to work within and against and between because of my upbringing. Though it is most present, I think, in Faulkner’s Rosary.
MS: You also spent time in South America, too. How did that enter?
SV: My partner and I traveled for several months in South America a few years ago, and this is the point at which I began more consciously experimenting with Catholic imagery or reflection or language in my poetry. Before that point I avoided anything Catholic at all in any of my writing. But in those months, Catholicism was (disturbingly, to me) everywhere and was juxtaposed, in deeply upsetting ways, with historical scenes of massacre perpetrated by the Catholic church. Throughout our travels we saw, which I knew we would, cathedrals or gigantic cement crosses or churches or chapels or shrines to Mary or various saints which were constructed, over and over again, right on top of indigenous holy sites. Which were built with slave labor. Which were used to centralize power and funnel resources and money from that continent back to Rome. Which directly and indirectly murdered, without exaggeration, tens of millions of people in South America. Which perpetrated the Inquisition in South America. Which etc. etc. etc. In those months I could viscerally feel its efforts to stamp out. I could more clearly see in South America what was known to me, but more hidden from me, in North America. I began to come out a bit, and despairingly, as someone who grew up Catholic, during those travels.
It’s not a case, though, of acceptance or rejection of Catholicism, is it? That’s too simple, and plus, why would Catholicism care? I don’t get to reject my whole childhood, and wouldn’t want to—nor would I want to reject (or accept) the experiences of millions of devout Catholics, nor would I want to reject (or accept) the experiences of millions of former Catholics or anti-Catholics, etc. I’m more interested in an attempt to more truly locate and engage what is actually sacred, if anything, or what is actually reverent, if anything, about life. Or this world. Most of that lies (far) outside of religion, in my opinion. My fourth book, Iris, Starless, is actually my third book, written prior to Faulkner’s Rosary but worked on for a few years longer, and it comes out of those months in South America. (It is forthcoming from Saturnalia Books in 2012.)
MS: I envy tremendously your time in Italy, studying Catholic churches and cathedrals, along with your travels to places where Catholicism rose at the expense of indigenous peoples. It must have been an incredible experience, one I would be pleased to have even one percent of, and yet you were studying these places and this art presumably as a scholar but also as a woman who grew up Catholic, which is why it makes sense that you stayed “closeted” in regard to your religious upbringing. No one in any academic institution I attended took religion seriously; it was usually something made fun of, scoffed at, or, at best, studied, critiqued, and categorized. Is this how it was for you, too, during your academic years, why you resisted being overtly Catholic in your writing?
SV: I know what you’re talking about. It’s true. I do take religions and spiritualities and etc. seriously (an attribute of being a Sagittarius, maybe), and I also understand and see that in academia, as you say, religions can be scoffed at, or, as you put it so well, “at best studied, critiqued, and categorized.” I think it is important to retain a healthy capacity to critique religions (even if one is devout), because they can, obviously, be dangerous. I’m supportive of the critical relationship that can occur between academia and religion.
So, yes, I went to Brown University, and yes, I became very quiet about my Catholic upbringing for a few years. But that was just right—I was grateful to have that purely secular intellectual experience. I went from a lifetime of Catholic schools—a conservative family, a small town in which almost all of my friends and relatives were Catholic—to a very liberal and secular Brown at the height of political correctness. My first semester freshman year I took a fantastic course called Religious Thought in Modern Literature, thinking it would be something familiar to me when everything else felt so unfamiliar, (the reading included Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!), and I remember how shocking it was for me to hear the professor and the students speak as if faith was not the assumed relationship with the works. To speak as if religious faith were, even, embarrassing. And so, I experienced embarrassment about it. I was, I would say, productively embarrassed, because I was also given permission to do what I wanted to do—to question, to reject some things, to abhor some things, to defend some things, to seek some things, to grow in ways I deeply desired to grow.
MS: Which maybe makes sense that while Faulkner’s Rosary is laced with the ritual of religion, it also strikes me as very pantheistic, very pagan. What is your current relationship with Catholicism? Share how and when your spiritual path/beliefs have evolved over the years.
SV: If forced to answer this question—Catholicism fires parts of my imagination and is, in many ways, deeply resonant to me. Catholicism is the essence of my childhood and my family and is inextricable from how I experience, for example, whole landscapes and whole people in my life. But, as many Catholics do, I detest much of its history and resent its sexism and its misogyny and its homophobia and can’t abide most of its contemporary or historical politics, and I understand that so much of its effort goes into growing its own power rather than, for example, good deeds, worship, etc. And finally, I know that the current horrors toward children by priests did not spring up from nowhere. I do think it should be doing better. I do hold it accountable. And I do not see it as my job or purpose to stay active in the church and try to improve or forgive, etc., it, as some Catholics do. When I speak to my mother about this, she has a response that I respect: devotion. She goes to mass, she says, not for herself or for the church, but to show God that she is devoted.
What I love of Catholicism are its rituals, poetry, art, music, prayers, stories, and its old warm darknesses (it has cold darknesses, too). I love the apocrypha. I love the secrets or the intimations of secret. I love its pagan roots. I love its respect of mystery and paradoxical thinking. I love saints and angels and prophets. I especially love its mystics, many of whom were women. I love (and abhor) how things seep out around its most repressive edges. I love much of its literature, many of its theologians. I love its relationship with magic and miracle and invocation. I love the gore and horror in many of its stories and much of its art. I love its incantatory qualities everywhere. I love its buildings and its cemeteries and its baptisteries, though I also know what lives paid for many of those. I love its understanding of time as organized around holy days, seasons, weeks. I love the work that some parts of the Catholic community do for the poor and the sick. I love its sacraments and vocabularies and how it can give voice to some kinds of human miseries and humiliations that are otherwise nearly impossible to discuss. I love how it remembers to heighten and to mark time in human lives.
There is a real, dark, beating throb that is alive within Catholicism. But the overlay of it can be extraordinarily deadened or hardened or controlling or unpalatable to me.
I like the idea of re-membering, re-replacing that overlay with some of the same impulses and ideas and connections that it originally tried to kill and stamp out and build on top of.
I like the idea of re-paganizing, re-landscaping, re-anima-izing, the prayer that had become, to me, only conceptual.
I like the dark throb. (But the dark throb is everywhere.)
I keep repeating “to me,” obviously, because I know that this religion is alive for many people that I know and love.
MS: Thanks for clarifying that; your distinctions are poetic and beautiful! It makes perfect sense to me that you embrace the mystery and paradoxical thinking of Catholicism—it’s as if you like best the part that makes for good poetry (incantations, saints, angels, prophets). Incidentally, you don’t mention guilt. Along with all the Hail Marys and confessions, did you find yourself falling into feelings of guilt or sinfulness?
SV: Sin and guilt, huh?
I, personally, will not ever use the word sin with my sons. Except just once, to tell them what it might mean when they ask.
I wonder if my trait of shaming easily is simply personal. But that is suspect, isn’t it, in light of things?
To answer your question, no, I never feel sinful. Never! I never even think that word for myself or for anyone else. I’ll stick with concepts like good, kind, right/wrong, shitty, horrible. Even monstrous and saintly.
Give me a few more years in therapy, however, and I’ll be much more articulate about my relationship with guilt.
MS: You shared somewhere that you prefer Mary: why is she your favorite? Why not Jesus or God?
SV: She was the most human; and, to me, especially as a child, she was the most interesting. Any of the Marys, actually. As many Catholics do, I conflated them. And most obviously, the Marys were female, as I am. I quickly got tired, as a child, of looking to the holy men and the priests and the fathers and the sons as my models.
MS: Staying on this Mary trajectory, what I find so admirable about your motherhood/pregnancy poems is that they are devoid of sentimentality—not an easy tendency to avoid. As you sat down to write the poems of Faulkner’s Rosary, what writers/books did you turn to for examples of the kind of mothering poems you aspired to write? (Particular poems by Plath? Sexton? Rukeyser? Bernadette Mayer? Others?)
SV: I love Plath, Sexton, Rukeyser, and Mayer, and yes, I had looked to all those poems. Add Notley, Rich, Atwood, Clifton, Finch, Hillman, Olds, and others. Add Irigiray and Kristeva. The generations before mine wrote a little bit of poetry about motherhood or mothering, and less about pregnancy, and less still about childbirth. (That quietness told me something, too.)
But I have sought and have found, in my own generation, many, many poets doing exactly that work—taking on the images, subjects, language, problems, strangeness, etc. of mothering and pregnancy, on their own terms and within their own values. (Rachel Zucker, Lia Purpura, Lara Glenum, Katrina Roberts, Rebecca Wolf, Danielle Pafunda, Lisa Russ Spaar, Beth Ann Fennelly, Erika Meitner, Mihaela Moscaliuc, Laynie Browne, Julie Carr, Arielle Greenberg, Elizabeth Treadwell, Jenny Browne, Catherine Barnett, Angie Mlinko, you, Martha Silano, and so many more who I will feel terrible to have not mentioned). I imagine the next and the next generation will do something mind-blowing with this, too.
Avoiding sentimentality? Maybe I did. But I think, actually, my goal (goal is much too strong a word) was the opposite of that—I didn’t intend to avoid sentimentality, but to risk it, to court it, to allow it if it needed to be there, and to try to understand it better. Which, in this time and place, is what one does automatically when she writes a book of poetry about her pregnancy.
I actually do feel sentimental about some parts of my children and my pregnancies and my mothering. At least, I feel some version of the word sentimental—fetishistic, even. I also feel absolutely un-sentimental about pregnancy and my children. And I also feel a million things that have nothing to do with the word sentimental at all.
Sentimental, unexamined, can be a catch-all for whatever feels unresolved and embarrassing, right?
I often think the queasiness we feel about sentimentality is gendered—and at worst, a form of misogyny or internalized misogyny—as if motherhood is automatically embarrassing. Is automatically sentimental (unless it is extremely ironic). Consider how huge this experience of motherhood and pregnancy has been in your life (the good the bad and the rest of it), then consider how women are half of the population, then consider what percentage of women become mothers, and now look at the number of collections of poetry we have in which pregnancy or mothering or childbirth are the central concerns. Hardly any.
MS: I don’t want to oversimplify, but do books about mothering or femininity have to be sentimental? If they’re not sentimental, does that mean the writer has internalized her misogyny? Also, is bad writing shot down in the poetry workshop, whether it’s sentimental bad or clichéd macho bad?
SV: No, no, and I don’t know.
By which I mean I’d rather we move beyond the word sentimental. Or, preface each use of the word sentimental with four or five adjectives so that I know which version we’re working with.
What I mean is that I don’t think sentimental is the right word by which to gauge our responses to most of the poetry in the world that is about or by women.
MS: That the word sentimental needs four or five adjectives just to figure out the intended meaning—I like that. When did you start realizing that all this kill your darlings stuff might be a case of gendered call to arms; i.e., you don’t want to sound like a woman, do you?
SV: When I began publishing poems “about” subjects that are easily white-washed as sentimental (i.e., pregnancy or motherhood), I began to be congratulated, again and again, simply for not being sentimental. As if that was all that was asked of me. As if I were being told, “Thank you, good job, for not embarrassing yourself.”
This roused my ire enough that I struggled through a few panels and essays in which I attempt to parse the word or the thing that sentimentality is or might be. But you’re right, sentimental can be shorthand for “sounding like a girl.” You don’t want to hear about my mucus plug? Fuck you.
MS: What keeps drawing me back to this book, to re-reading these poems, is how you interrogate many of the myths of the Mother as pure, divine, asexual, Madonna, as Virgin, etc. It’s so great how the mother-to-be in these poems has sexual parts, is sexual, as is her partner/lover. That they, The Parents, are complete human beings. Did you find yourself consciously trying to paint a more accurate picture of the pregnant being, to turn away from those myths of immaculate conception and the like? If so, which false notions/facades were you aiming to work against? Or were you embracing some of those myths/beliefs while at the same time questioning and/or replacing them with your own? I’m thinking in particular of the poem “Memorae.” Is the “you” in that poem the unborn children? The lover? The Virgin Mary? Or all of these and the speaker, too? Also, in “Arizona,” wherein the speaker finds prophecy in nature and through bibliomancy, and in “Baby I want to give you something invisible you motherfucker,” where you say “The mother to idealize / lives and loves / somewhere between Mary and Mary,” And also in “To be breathed-in by a god,” where you say “the status of Mary’s / unstable.”
SV: Don’t get me wrong—I think that a human woman becoming pregnant by a god is an amazing possibility. However, I think she had sex. With a human.
I think they all had sex. Jesus. Mary Magdalene. All of them. I’m not sure why they’ve become so desexualized. I prefer messiness and humanness—none of that diminishes miracle.
Can Catholics practice midrash? When the stories are mis-told and are used against women, as they so often are, I do feel complete freedom to undermine or disagree with them. We identify the central female figures in Catholicism in terms of their sexual status. I’m interested in all the Marys, but I’m actually not interested in the single idea of one Mary as whore, another Mary as a virgin, etc.
MS: “All the Marys.” I love that. These adjustments to the myths, yes, they do messy the neatness of the Biblical stories, don’t they? I like that about your work.
SV: Thank you.
MS: There’s also a strong tendency toward equality throughout this book—as in equal weight to all humans involved (unborn, conceivers, birthing, birthed . . . ), as well as a welcoming reverence for all beings/things, whether earthly or divine, animate or inanimate. The speaker in the poem “Arizona” says “I wanted . . . [t]o remake myself against these rocks. Against children . . . so solid in the center of me / I’d be held outright like a star.” There’s a kind of borderless, membrane-less exchange going on here—between child and parent, between the natural world and the human world (“a geyser’s / multiplying ropes shot / from the hip of rock”—“Sonogram”), between the divine and the earthly. In “Living together,” it’s the line “If we’d been bare outside / we’d have heard whole stars / with our whole body.” The body of all four of you? (Am I picking up on a theme here?)
SV: I’m not sure equality, or equal weight, is exactly what I was going for, but a welcoming reverence sounds right.
You’re right; the membranes of the world became both more apparent, and also more passable, during pregnancy.
MS: It is always very gratifying when I begin to piece together where a writer is coming from. This membrane-less passabilty—it’s palpable in these poems. There’s also a timeless feeling (I heard you at a reading refer to your first pregnancy as “a time outside of time”). Could you explain that? You say, in “A cradle of warmed oats for the chickens on the Epiphany”: “Chronology doesn’t enter—my birth and yours, / my mother’s pregnancy / and mine, they are the same.” What’s going on here? Is this how a pregnant woman feels, or is this a concept you’ve always felt comfortable with?
SV: I had several poems that, in the end, I removed from this collection—they were extremely violent fantasies/hallucinations—perhaps visions. They felt as if they came upon me, I did not feel like they came from my own body or imagination. They were horrible, bloody, violent, grotesque, and fairly sustained visions about myself, the unborn child. The visions were deeply unsettling to me, but, after I “got used to” them, they began to make sense: I was having an ancient experience. It was beyond me. I was simply tapping into this huge vein for nine months. This experience had been there forever and would be there forever—to many senses of time. And, pregnancy is a time or a place that is closely connected to death for women and children. Pregnancy contains a particular sense of gore and terror and power and timelessness. The ice age or the earliest moments on earth or the meteors—they helped me place myself in large time, or in timelessness, both in the book and during the pregnancy.
I felt, in those months, that my mother and my grandmothers and great-grandmothers and great-great-grandmothers were hovering around me. I felt that time-as-I-knew-it had turned into something else, for which I have no word.
MS: I agree that when we’re pregnant and post-partum, we are tapping into some very deep shit! I was told by a shrink that those horrible, violent fantasies are fairly common, and that the worst thing to do is suppress them or try to pretend they’re not happening. I, for instance, a few minutes after giving birth, suddenly noticed that the wall alongside my hospital bed was all glass, and that my newborn could crash through the glass if I tossed her that way. It’s sick and twisted, but it’s immediately where my brain went. How do you explain that except that it’s some sort of primal mama-brain, deep-death connection thing going on? And this is where, when you get to this place, you ground yourself in the Earth, its water and ice, the meteors that sometimes collide with it. The cosmic and natural-world imagery in your poems really does add to that timelessness feeling. And yet, there’s no mistake from start to finish that your body, your babies, your sweet lover set this tale spinning. The voice in the poems is too strong to be an anonymous everywoman. We, instead, are confronted with a remarkable situation, wherein one twin will live and the other will die. And this voice is always surprising us. For instance, it’s amazing to me how as it becomes apparent Oskar’s twin isn’t going to be born, the poems don’t go to a place of wailing and grieving; instead, there’s a lullaby of thanks, even if that thanks is for “my new day’s / anxiety.” Also, elsewhere: in “The humanity ghost,” you say “We have / to think of this hole / as better than the original star”).
Do you consider yourself an optimist? Or is it something deeper—do you believe in a path predetermined? Do you have a sense of this daughter coming into your life as a live being at a later date?
SV: I guess I think I’m neither pessimistic nor optimistic—or, it depends on the day. And I believe I was wholly devastated and confused and detached about the loss of one baby—the girl—yet I never wavered in some kind of elated knowledge that my son would be born. Or, my hope that he would be.
I don’t know if I could think of the (meteor) hole as better than the original star, but I had no choice. Except to live with the hole. Holes do become beloved, too. Become markers that turn into something else.
Every life has holes; what do we do with them?
MS: Speaking of devastated elation, “Spill” is an incredible poem—the way you take that lake and make it a giant metaphor for your daughter “stuck at the mouth.” This must’ve been a tough poem to write. I only say this because it would have, for me, been the time when I’d be most likely to slip into sentimentality, to maudlin-ness. Also, as a for instance, in the third “Sonogram” poem you refer to “the catastrophe / of hope. The stranglehold of hope.” I admire how you counterbalance the potentially saccharine word hope with a sense of doom and disaster. That hope might be a burden? Is that what you were also onto with the word stranglehold? And then that final “Sonogram,” where you say “Undiminished, the greatest woman / eventually pulls us all into herself.” Oh gosh, it’s heartbreaking, right at that moment there—it made me want to cry for three days. And yet, it’s not sentimental at all—it’s absolutely gorgeous! How did you get to that place with your being/with these poems? What was your process?
SV: As I mentioned earlier, I grew up in Missoula, Montana. About 12,000 years ago (so, recent history, actually), there was a two thousand foot bottleneck of ice in the mountains west of Missoula which held an enormous freshwater lake over much of what is now western Montana. (Glacial Lake Missoula was as large as Lakes Erie and Ontario combined, they say.) Again and again, over centuries, the water in the lake would rise sufficiently that it would “float” the dam of ice, unlodge it, and then the lake would drain west. For weeks, the lake emptied and washed all the way from western Montana and over what is now Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, and into the Pacific. Much of the geography of the Northwest is formed by these floods.
I knew this geological history when I was a child, and it is a large part of my imagination for the landscape of my home. Conflate Glacial Lake Missoula, if you can, with Sacagawea, and The Hobbit, and the biblical flood story, and the entire Black Stallion series, and Anne Frank, and you have the insides of my head for a few years.
I did envision the church at the bottom of the lake—as it would have been—and I liked that it was right there in that cold womb, attached to it like a few-celled embryo. This is as true as my imagination could make it.
My process? Perhaps my process for those poems was that I wrote while feeling the stranglehold.
While feeling the gutting and the joy.
Hope is always held in the stranglehold, I think.
MS: Do you mean that holding out hope is a burden? That it burdens the one holding out hope? That opening oneself up to hope is almost always the fastest way to more pain?
SV: I don’t know. I know that hope is one of the most vulnerable ways I have ever felt.
MS: I love how the book, toward the end, has a very pregnant woman making love! The voice in this poem is so resolved, so strong. She is about to give birth, and it’s not just about the child; it’s about the mother and her lover, too (“all three are in love”), but the daughter is there with them too—it’s such a beautiful moment of bliss, there at the end of the book, right before the dying/birthing of the son. Did you make it a conscious point to include a myth-breaking portrait of the Madonna fucking, or was this just a happy coincidence?
SV: A happy coincidence! (Or, I don’t know!) I didn’t consciously myth-break—but, of course, Madonnas do fuck. So funny, do we really still wonder about that? They do and with all sorts of people. I guess we are still in the throes of that Madonna/whore dichotomy, though individual relationships break through this all the time. Martha, have you ever made love while very, very, very pregnant in the desert in the summer in that mind-bending heat? You should try it. It is bliss. And it is strange. And there are ghosts.
MS: I can’t say I have exactly, but I have made love during early labor, and I know how intense that is. In “Inlaid” you say, “There is almost everything / in the world in him—he is ready.” At first, that line startled me—how could an unborn baby contain the world? But then I remembered how true that statement is—and the good and the bad in that fact (DDT in mother’s milk, but also all the nourishment, all her genetic material . . . all her memories and experiences, along with the father’s). It’s refreshing to me how you don’t place any expectations or wishes on this little boy—since you can’t find the words for what he will be, since, even if you could, he would squirm away and be something else, something unexpected you hadn’t considered. This seems a very important thing to know before having kids. Such wisdom! Where did you learn that? (It took having two children before I had the slightest notion of that concept!)
SV: I don’t know how I knew that—maybe I learned it from him. From the experience of that pregnancy. From losing one of the babies. I certainly didn’t experience pregnancy as anything pure (I generally don’t love the idea of purity in any form.). My pregnancy felt heightened, or separating, or liminal, yes—but it did not in any way feel pure.
I also believe in simultaneous lives or previous lives or however you want to conceive of it—and so why wouldn’t they have at least as much experience as I? Why wouldn’t they be complicated and light and dark. The whole pregnancy, steeped in loss as it was, was light and dark.
MS: It does make perfect sense to me that our babies come out more completely formed and whole than once thought, and the literature has recently begun to confirm this. In the final poem “Return, return, return (Jiménez); Contact! Contact! (Thoreau)” you visit, as you do in the poem “Call,” to the legacy of women and men who came before you, to how you find calmness in terror. I heard you say at a reading that your entire pregnancy was one of astonishment and terror, but actually, the more I think of it, so much of living is this exact same twin-set of emotions. Your experience mirrors the terror/astonishment split every one of us lives with each day. But here you’ve pulled back the veil of pregnancy, revealing the pregnant mother, the pregnant family, the heart and soul and mind of the pregnant! It’s really quite a daring thing, to tell that secret, as you say in “Someone to be good in front of.” Did you set out to write a book that would answer Muriel Rukeyser’s question: “What if one woman told the truth about her life?” In what ways did that question guide the writing of Faulkner’s Rosary?
SV: Do you know Norman Dubie’s line: “Terror is / the vigil of astonishment”? It is in a poem, “Pastoral,” which is in conversation with us on this. (There are many men in conversation with us. It’s not only women who want or need the truths of women’s lives said.)
Rukeyser is important to me. I don’t know exactly how present her question was to me at the time I wrote it—or, I should say, I don’t know how consciously present to me it was. I wrote this book in fairly high pregnancy-isolation/coma/dream (and then revised it for several years, and through my second pregnancy, as well), but that exact question became more and more present to me as revisions went on and as I got closer to publishing the collection. In many ways, the whole book feels like a too-revealing crotch shot—or, like something I believe in my worst moments that no one in our culture really wants to hear about. But, whatever—crotches deserve books, too. I have my own internalized misogyny, I am sure, and this makes me feel sick, at times, that the book exists. So, the courage to actually publish it, or to publish most of it—Rukeyser’s answer to her own question helped me.
MS: I would agree that it does take a great courage to publish a book that deals so intimately with the business of pregnancy. It’s a kind of secret-telling, isn’t it? I gather this must have not been an easy persona to assume.
SV: I have been called a secretive person, a private person, my whole life. I’m always evaluating what is private versus what is secret versus what is more generally shared. It has become clearer to me that while not necessarily a private person (I will share things many won’t); I am actually a very secretive person. In many ways, I think pregnancy in our culture is exactly that—it is not private. Somehow, it puts a woman in the public domain in ways she never has been before and might never be again—and yet, and yet—despite everything (sonograms, medical surveillance, fetal monitors, etc.) it remains an enormous, and, in fact, a growing secret. She remains secret. They remain secret. Did I reveal it? Can anyone? I can’t imagine I did. I’m not even sure I approve of that kind of knowledge.
MS: I think what you’ve done, among many things, is show your audience how complicated and nuanced a pregnancy is, but also there’s that same complexity with a marriage, with a family, with one’s past, and with one’s religious and philosophical beliefs. That there are myths and falsehoods not only about the pregnant woman but about the pregnant couple, the pregnant family. Not to say that the myths are wrong, but that there are many truths, or one particular truth for each expecting parent. By doing the brave thing, by sharing the experience of your pregnancy so honestly and originally, you also do a great service to all the future mothers (and fathers) out there who are wondering how to share it, how to write about it. It’s a groundbreaking book, Sarah. Congratulations!