Sarah Vap is the author of five collections of poetry. The most recent are Arco Iris (Saturnalia Books), named a Library Journal Book Best Book of 2012; and End of the Sentimental Journey(Noemi Press, 2013). She is a recipient of a 2013 National Endowment of the Arts Grant for Literature. Her first collection, Dummy Fire, received the Saturnalia Poetry Prize. Her second collection, American Spikenard, received the Iowa Poetry Prize. She lives in Venice, California and is pursuing her PhD at University of Southern California.
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Kira Assad. Of the process, she said, “I was really happy when Sarah Vap accepted my interview request. Her poems really speak to me, and I loved hearing more about her and her poetry collections.” In this interview, Sarah discusses the impact religion has on her writing, repetition—one of her favorite things—and her love of nature.
Superstition Review: Your newest poetry collection Arco Iris takes readers on a journey through your experiences in South America. Many of your poems repeat titles, such as: “Ghost,” “Currency,” and “Thread.” What gave you the idea to use the same titles for different poems? Could you discuss the process you normally use when titling?
Sarah Vap: Probably my favorite thing on earth, aside from everything real, is repetition. Gertrude Stein said there is no such thing as repetition. There is no such thing as repetition. Every time you say something again it means something quite different. It is also a form of insistence— even while meaning something different each time. I wanted to insist, and insist across several tones and with many particular implications. I wanted to include something of the relentlessness of capitalism and the neoliberal creep/tidal wave that I was writing about. I wanted a numbing and chant-like and ecstatic repetition in order to insist on all the levels of words like “economy” and “currency”—and what they meant and what was happening around them.
I don’t think I have a typical way of titling. I title according to what I need that poem to do in that space in that manuscript, and according to how I want the title to interact with other titles of the manuscript, and how I want it to reverberate within that single poem.
SR: You say in another interview that Arco Iris was the most difficult book you have written. What were some of the difficulties in writing this book?
SV: Arco Iris was difficult because there were so many problems with the “I” of the poems. I didn’t want this to be a Romantic adventuring “I” exploring the Amazon! But I did want to invoke that. I didn’t want to be modern day Basho-like traveling poet making wise and poetic observations. But I did want to invoke that. I didn’t want to be a comparatively-rich American backpacker off having adventures in order to get writing material. But I did want to invoke that. And so on and so on. The “I” was several me/not-me’s, and eventually I began to think of her as my “capitalist-I.” I was actively trying to convey what it meant to be a neoliberal-progenitor moving throughout the world… despite that being the last thing I wanted to be. It was un-helpable. I also wanted to see if there was still any possibility of moving lovingly, un-harmingly in the world, considering neoliberalism—maybe Levinas-style. It meant that I had write and re-write and re-write the book over the course of about 8 years.
SR: Many of your poems use images from nature. Where does your love of nature come from?
SV: I think I have quite simply never lost the love of (I almost never use this word!) nature that I had as a kid. I have always felt the non-human world to be astoundingly alive (rocks, mountains, water, too) and I have always felt it to be…I want to say loving, I know that’s a problem, but it’s the best word I can summon for what I feel. Loving. I grew up primarily in Montana (though as a very tiny person, also in Nebraska, Kansas, and Minneapolis for brief periods of time). We camped and hiked constantly with our parents. We lived on many acres in a valley. We had a creek, sometimes two depending on the snowfall. We had mountains. We had animals. We crossed paths every day with wild animals. There was constancy and depth of living world. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve only come to understand the world as even more alive and fucking miraculous…and also imperiled. And that makes my love of, let’s call it nature, urgent. Frantic, even.
SR: In an interview with Martha Silano in Blackbird you said “Catholicism was everywhere in my life.” Can you describe the influence of religion on you and your writing?
SV: For a short answer—I was raised in a very catholic family. (And this was before it seemed like the only thing Catholics cared about were ending abortions and denying women birth control and opposing gay marriage and hiding pedophilic priests and all these other weird sexual tangles. I mean, the tangles must have been there, but I didn’t feel them present, at all, the way I do now.) I am certain Catholicism influences my writing profoundly—sympathetically and antagonistically— at every turn. Words I love, images I am drawn to, things that I abhor. I can’t take the Catholic church as it is anymore. But there is a strand of it—liberal, intellectual, devoted to the poor, artistic, literary, musical—that at times I miss so much I can taste it. I think that has a lot to do with me missing my dad, though. He recently died. My dad and his family embodied that part of Catholicism for me.
SR: “Lesson Plan” in American Spikenard was one of my favorite poems in the collection because it really hit home for me about the loss of prayer when hitting high school and then only praying for holidays in adulthood. How did you come up with the idea for this poem? Are you writing from experience or observation?
SV: It came from visiting home in my twenties, and praying probably before Christmas dinner… I think a lot of those first two collections came from returning home to visit, and then leaving again, during that decade of life. Usually around holidays. It began, I think, with that experience… and then veered off into something less narrative, less me.
SR: Your poetry collection Faulkner’s Rosary is framed like a sermon in the sense that you have prayers dispersed throughout. What was behind this editorial decision? What is your process for organizing your poems into collections?
SV: It’s organized not like a sermon, but like a rosary. Catholics pray the rosary before a funeral—usually the night before. For other reasons, too, but funerals are my major association with a rosary. Faulkner’s Rosary is a fucked-up rosary, I suppose, for the miscarried twin of that book. In a rosary, you quickly say certain prayers in a certain order, alone or led and with a group of mourners, repeated again and again, one prayer per bead and per space—and I have, I suppose, a ghosted-fucked-up rosary organizing the book. My instinct was prayerful, and un-religious, after I lost the twin, as I was still carrying the other. I started with what I knew. It was an exceedingly material and immaterial time.
SR: I have noticed many of your poems have references to “sunshine,” “fire,” “brightness,” anything of “light” in general. What does light imagery mean to you and how does it become a recurring theme in your work?
SV: I think it must mean to me what it means to most people. A holiness. A gloriousness. A danger. A necessity. A lure.
SR: Both American Spikenard and Faulkner’s Rosary follow the trajectory of a woman’s life. American Spikenard focuses on the changes from childhood to adulthood and Faulkner’s Rosary focuses on pregnancy. How did these topics find their way to you? Were there any books you read that helped inform your own exploration of these topics?
SV: It’s such a fraught thing to say or think or do or admit or try anymore, but I was writing out of my own life!—sort of. That was always my starting point. And my writing always veers off from a moment in my life (or psyche) and heads then into my reading. Into my politics. Into thoughts, theories, problems out in the world beyond my own single life that interest and affect me, and to which I feel responsible. It’s still how I write.
In those days I read 6 or 7 books of poetry a week, at least. But I constantly read and returned to Celan, Notley, Clifton, lots of surrealists, Harryette Mullen, Langston Hughes, Laura Jensen, Rilke, Dickinson…
SR: I absolutely adored your essay “Delirious Hem: Putang Syntax,” where you state: “The most powerful poetic syntax might be the one in which the logics, patterns, arrangements, shapes, and relationships between the words in this vocabulary are measured against our childhoods.” Would you go a bit deeper into why and when this realization became a part of you and your writing?
SV: I think I am about 8 or 9 years out from writing that, and it’s interesting how some of that has started to change for me. That statement was 100% true for me for probably 20 years of hard writing… from 18 to 38, let’s say. I have felt some of my writing foundations shifting in the last few years. Maybe this is a minor symptom of perimenopause that goes too often unnoticed? I used to absolutely feel my way through my writing via my body’s responses to my mind—and that’s what I meant, I think, by measuring my logics, patterns, arrangements, shapes, and words against childhood. Against a combination of mind/memory/set of rich relationships/a billion other things. Something of that mind-combination is changing for me—something still beyond my articulation. Maybe it’s that three other minds have so intimately altered and merged into my mind (in the form of my kids) that I no longer just have my own set of associations. Maybe my brain is simply different. Very multiple. Better. I like it! Now I’m writing faster and more, and the projects I’m working on are bigger and more voracious, and my whole body still responds to the writing and I still listen for its response—but often on a larger scale. Now the words and phrases and even pages are like second-nature, or even of second-interest—and what I’m extremely focused on is momentum/ pacing/ tone/ concept/ density and lightness/ pattern/ relationships between texts… things like that. I don’t mean that I wasn’t interested in these things before, or that I’m not interested in words and phrases now—but my primary foci have flipped. I used to be proto-mystically-etymological; now I am proto-astrologically-hungry.
SR: Your essay “Oskar’s Cars,” which appeared in Blackbird, has poetry interspersed with prose. Was that your intention when you started writing the essay, or did the poetry make a guest appearance? How does your prose influence your poetry and vice versa?
SV: I don’t think of it as either prose or poetry in that piece, but just the thing that it is. Part of my proto-astrological-hunger means, I think, that genre means so much less to me now, and my priority is using whatever language I need to use (despite what it has historically been categorized as) in order to do what I want to do in the writing. Some people call these things hybrid. Or lyric essays. And so on. I haven’t landed on any term that feels just-so, but I also don’t feel like I need a term yet. I am doing more and more projects that are a bit difficult to categorize, as “Oskar’s Cars” is.
So, I guess to answer your question, I wrote without expectation of using any particular kind of writing—but used the writing I felt I needed to use to get across the tangle I was tangled in.
SR: Both Dummy Fire and American Spikenard came out in 2007. Did you work on the poems for these books at similar times?
SV: More or less I wrote the bulk of Dummy Fire, and then I wrote the bulk of American Spikenard. I was editing and revising them sometimes simultaneously.
SR: One of your poems in Dummy Fire is titled “Poem translated loosely from the Lithuanian.” Do you have a particular interest in translation? Are you reading any foreign-language poets lately?
SV: I was spending a lot of time in Lithuania in those years. I had done a long summer residency there, and then returned a couple of times for their spring Poetry Festival. I have read, always, an enormous amount of poetry (and etc.) in translation, and have done several translation projects, myself. My partner, Todd Fredson, translates West African poetry. I bet there’s never a time when there’s not several books in translation in my reading stack.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
SV: Now—it’s Sunday morning at 6:48, I’m sitting in our living room, talking about Bouki Dances the Kokioko with Mateo, throwing things into a silver urn now and then to keep baby Archie from eating Mateo’s book, and talking to Oskar about his hopes to have great-grandsons and great-granddaughters someday. And drinking coffee. And writing this. And now Oskar is reading As You Like It to us. And now Oskar has a brief question about democracy and dictatorships. And Mateo is shaking a tambourine and listening to Oskar read As You Like It and also he is playing with Archie who is laughing hysterically. And now Archie is biting Mateo’s face because he’s teething. And now I’m throwing things louder and faster into the urn to distract Archie so he’ll stop biting Mateo’s face and Oskar’s reading louder so we can all still hear him. And now the doorbell just rang. This is my writing space.