Sarah Vap is the author of seven books of poetry, poetics, and creative nonfiction, including her most recent book, Winter: Effulgences and Devotions (Noemi Press, 2019). Her collection Viability (Penguin, 2016), was selected for the National Poetry Series. She has been the recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship, and was recently the Distinguished Hugo Visiting Writer at the University of Montana. She teaches in the MFA program in Poetry and Poetry in Translation at Drew University.
Allison Treacy: Winter began as a way to return to the page and clear creative space after the births of your sons. When did you realize it was growing into something more significant?
Sarah Vap: My partner, Todd Fredson, is also a writer, and two or three years into my writing these winter pieces, he took a week away from home to finish up a book he’d been working on. While he was gone, and I was home alone with the little ones, I somehow managed to find the time to look at the things I’d been doing. I pulled writings from different documents into a single document and transcribed things from pieces of paper all around the house, and when he came home, I announced to him that I’d also just finished a book that week.
I ended up working on it for another decade, but that’s when I realized it was a project I would let other people read. Before that, I’d thought of the writings as pieces for my own thinking.
AT: This collection’s subtitle is “Effulgences and Devotions.” Both of these words tend toward the religious. Winter does dwell on some elements of your Catholic upbringing, but you also write that “Compared to this moment—naked in a pile of imagining babies—I have never cared that much about god.” What, besides your children, would you consider these poems an expression of devotion to?
SV: I think these poems, this whole years-long effort, was devotions toward: love, fragility, vulnerability, whales dolphins elk and all animals, winter, earth, forests, rain, deep ecology, the ocean, children, anyone who takes care of anyone else, interconnectedness, the dissolution of the cult of liberal humanist individualism, trying to remember that the world was falling apart all around me due to climate change though it might be invisible to me because of the earth’s beauty, turning oneself inside out, much-ness, too much-ness, anti-transcendence, feminism, the dissolution of nation states and nationalism and all the industrial complexes (military industrial complex, health insurance industrial complex, university industrial complex, prison industrial complex), trying to live a good life, the art of living, the right kind of work, the right kind of ferocity, the right kind of rage and aghast, postpartum states of genius.
And so on. I felt then, I feel now, so very deeply devoted to so many things.
AT: One of the most specific religious elements you examine is the distinction the Church makes between Sacred and Ordinary Time. How do poetry and maternity each redefine daily time?
SV: There have been years in my life when being alive became vague with busy-ness. Or became future-oriented with some idea that I was involved in such as “education,” and I didn’t pay attention to the months and years passing. Poetry and children (and falling in love) have both forced me (paradoxically) to be more present (to not notice time) and to be hyper aware of the passing of time.
But nowadays it’s so clear to me that—what with things like oceans, forests, animals, mountains, art, and children on earth—every moment here is completely sacred. Ordinary time is holy time, and vice-versa. I guess Time forces the issue, doesn’t it? My sense of the fragility and sacredness of this—whatever this place or thing is in which my consciousness and my body seem to be here on earth. The sacredness of this whole ball of wax that we call “life on earth” blows me apart and destroys me anew every few minutes (whatever a minute is). Consciousness, livingness, the earth—they are almost unbearable—how beautiful and painful, simultaneously.
As I age and as my children age, the age-old poetic revelation of “the fleetingness of it all” only increases. It’s astonishing—and it’s unbelievably strange—to be alive.
AT: I’m fortunate that I got to hear parts of Winter during the poem’s composition, so I expected your poem’s refrain: “Drones are probably killing someone right now,” but didn’t know how that would play on the page—the refrain is set in small font in the header and footer of each page. How did you come to this decision, and how do you think it shapes the poem compared to other insertions of the refrain, such as how a part of Winter appears in The Boston Review?
SV: I kept anticipating that someone along the way, as this moved toward book-hood, was going ask me to remove the refrain. I had all kinds of contradictory and wildly-varying defenses for it prepared inside my head. But I never had to say them.
The refrain—its constant re-focusing and reorienting and disrupting—mattered so much to me. It was one of many ways I was trying to connect my inner and outer worlds at that time. I knew that my nation state was organizing every detail of the world around me in such a way that I’d pay my taxes and then forget that they were being used to such violent and unjust and cruel and inequitable ends—both near to me and far away from me. This remembering mattered more to me than the success or coolness or beauty or etc. of my writings or the book. It had to be an exaggerated remembering in order for me to remember. Of course, I constantly forgot it—and so constantly had to remind myself.
The Boston Review insertions of the refrain just matched the page-breaks of the word document that I sent to them, but the effect was very different online. The refrain works best in the book form and when I read aloud.
AT: Drones frame Winter, but throughout you also remark on how having children has made you willing to kill or destroy: “When the babies arrived I began to devise the killing of my enemies.” I think most parents feel this way, but you express these sentiments in a larger work about unjustifiable violence and constant war. How does the poem seek to reconcile those contradictions?
SV: I don’t want to reconcile this contradiction as much as I seek to see it clearly. I don’t even want to diminish my own ferocity—I want to harness and aim it at the right things.
We all have a ferocity and a violence inside of us, as human mammals who have evolved and survived on this planet—but before we kill and destroy everything with the ferocity that got us this far, let’s aim our ferocity not at the most vulnerable and already nearly-destroyed of the earth.
Let’s aim our ferocity at the people and things that are going to ruin everything. Like Trump. And Big Ag. And healthcare for some. And white supremacy. And “development” that is based on deforestation and “resource extraction.” And and and. Even as I type this, my ferocity rises and I want to destroy those things.
AT: Your sons’ burgeoning language development and early literacy is a central theme of this work. What was it like to move through this kind of compositional exercise alongside them? How did the injections of their language shape yours?
SV: I love language like I love forests and oceans. I love language like I love my own consciousness, and ideas like “possibility,” and the excruciatingly gorgeous smells of my children at the place on their bodies halfway between their earlobes and their collarbones.
So to experience the burgeoning language of my little ones was to expand my own sense of what language is—or to re-expand my sense of language—because it was infinite when I was a child. I spoke in many different ways with trees and clouds and lakes and animals, until my sense of language was compressed by schooling, social and cultural pressures, etc. […] No greater joy, no greater mind-blowing.
As the years went on, when I was writing this and they were acquiring language, their words compositionally did many things. Their words mingled with mine, they overran mine, they contradicted and supported mine, they were more interesting than mine. The very idea of individual voices came and went.
AT: One of the recurring motifs in Winter is military and industrial sonar and its impact on the brains of whales off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. This experience of invisible sound sits alongside lines about your own hearing loss, and the larger arc grapples with human and ecological fragility and the destruction we can’t see. How does your own audiological experience shape your attention and writing?
SV: My hearing and my hearing loss shapes everything. It is simply part of who I am. Who and how I am. My limitations and my extra-attuning. We all see, hear, feel, smell, taste, and touch uniquely. I think there must be as much variation in sensing as there are beings that sense.
AT: Your hearing loss isn’t the only bodily element of Winter. In fact, it’s one of the most subtle components. More prominent are your descriptions of how motherhood has reshaped your body, from the sensation of your organs spilling out of you to the sections on the vaginal self-examination and the repeated impulse to bear your asshole to the world as a kind of revelation of the soul. What about this work demanded such intimate bodily exposure?
SV: I have never been so embodied. I have never wanted to be more embodied. I have never wanted to defend embodied-ness more, because such miracles had just happened and were happening in our family-animal that were only possible because of our bodies. I was anti-transcendent, I was unhappy about anything that took me away from the facts of the bodies of my children, whose bodies my body was entangled with. Everything about us, even or especially our assholes, were holier to me than a prayer or a thought or a concept.
Also transcendence is a kind of death of body and a birth of something else. But at that point, when I was checking every few minutes to make sure that a baby was breathing, it was the body I wanted to be inside of, and it was our bodies I wanted to have working. The babies are so ethereal and barely here anyway. I wanted earth not sky. I wanted groundedness not transcendence.
I basically just wanted to keep us all alive.
AT: There are large swaths of the poem that is in conversation with and pushes back against Wallace Stevens and, specifically, his poem, “The Snow Man.” Stevens is a giant of American poetry, but how did this particular poem become so important to the poems, rather than other poems with winter motifs?
SV: I was simultaneously annoyed by and drawn to Stevens’s “The Snow Man.” When I was in my twenties, I loved the poem. I was touched by the paradox. So, I returned to it while writing my own winter poems, thinking it might be a touchstone for the book in a sympathetic sense. As it turns out, it was a touchstone, but antagonistically.
Surrounded by own very embodied body, and my children and their very embodied bodies, the speaker of Stevens’s poem annoyed the shit out of me. He was completely disembodied, even glibly so. Stevens’s poem has long been held up as the paragon of secular transcendence, but to me, the speaker of the poem just screams “economically stable unattached white male with no one to take care of and a door to close while he writes.” I mean, fuck that guy. He had nothing to tell me anymore. Except…
I was, and am, still deeply drawn to the deep paradoxes of the poem.
AT: Winter is a series and a compositional experiment, but in its own way it’s also a craft book. Throughout, you examine how it was written and arranged, and even muse on what was left out of the final collection. There are also moments that explore how you talk about poetry composition with your students. How did this collection challenge or change the ways you think about craft?
SV: This book broke my brain, took it apart, re-wired it, and made me figure out new ways to think about genre, writing, audience, book, and revision. I could track myself changing and growing and breaking through the iterations of the book. I hold it up as a new standard for myself.
I want every book I write from this point on to break my brain. Otherwise, why bother. If what I try to write doesn’t change me, why would it change anything else.
AT: As a collection, Winter could find a home under many broad categories—ecopoetics, poetry of the maternal, documentary poetry—but perhaps the best description of this book is that “it is not a poem, but a reminding.” And it’s a personal reminding; you note that it’s hard to end the series because it means accepting that your children are growing up. What reminders do you hope this collection offers the reader?
SV: I really thought of this, by the time it was landing, mostly as a piece of eco-literature. Or wartime literature. Or as Wisdom Literature. Or as a sort of climate memoir. Or a post-apocalyptic hand reaching out in a dark. I hope this book offers the reader permission for complexity, contradiction, and ferocity as we all keep trying to find a way to live in the best, most ethical, most helpful way during our time on earth.