DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Apr 10 2008

Interview with Poet Sarah Vap

by Jimmy L

Sarah Vap is the author of American Spikenard, which won the 2006 Iowa Poetry Prize, and Dummy Fire, which won the 2006 Saturnalia Poetry Prize. She lives on the Olympic Peninsula with her love, the poet Todd Fredson, their one year old son, and a 30 year old horse. She teaches at Olympic College.

You can read some of Sarah’s poems online!

Sarah, when did you first become interested in poetry?

I first started to write poems when I was very little. I would leave them on my parents’ pillows at night, before I could fall asleep… to clear my heart or conscience, I think, in order to sleep. They were usually some variety of apology poem for something horrible I’d said or done that day. One particular memory… in the kitchen, my mom was cooking, and she asked me if spaghetti sounded good for dinner. It didn’t sound good, so I said it didn’t sound good. Then I realized, by the very tender look on her face, that she hadn’t actually wanted to hear whether or not I really thought it sounded good, but she’d wanted to say some variety of “I’ve done something for you, sweet child!” and for me to respond with some variety of “I accept!” But I didn’t know that until I saw her face after I said no. I didn’t even know that about questions, until then… that sometimes they were asking something completely different than the words indicated. I was, as you can imagine, tormented by my cruel misinterpretation until I could write her that letter poem that night. My parents never really responded to those agonized letter poems, that I can remember, but they did keep them, and read them. My father still has one hanging up in his darkroom. The instinct of apology is still strong with me.

Did you know you wanted to be a poet then, or was there another moment when you made that decision?

I don’t think I knew you could be a poet. I think I just thought poems were something you did, not that you were. But I do think of myself as a poet now. There was a transition I went through in graduate school, perhaps when I changed from saying “I write poems” to “I am a poet”. Because I was around poets. And I came to understand what a kind and lucky thing that should be to call myself. I didn’t know poets, really, until around that time.

What are some of your favorite poems/poets?

My favorite poets, today are Ranier Maria Rilke, Paul Celan, Emily Dickinson, Michael Burkard, C.D. Wright, Norman Dubie, Alice Notley, Laura Jensen, Langston Hughes, Lucille Clifton. These are poets I return to constantly. I am also very excited about innumerable poets from my generation, some of whom don’t even have their first books out yet, some who have one or two.

I really loved both of your books (American Spikenard and Dummy Fire), but your poems are not always easy reading. What do you say to people who find your poetry (or poetry in general) too difficult?

I’m sorry. I mean that truly. It does make me feel a little sad to hear that… the instinct in poetry, I think, is to finally finally say something in the clearest way you possibly can, without the constraints of standardized ways of saying something, or idioms or forms or mannerisms or correctnesses or standards, etc. It’s a chance to speak in one’s own voice, in one’s own way—that true clarity! What a relief! But we’re not patient with that in our culture, maybe. Or we’re not familiar with that way of listening. Or it’s “trained” or scared out of us by strange encounters somewhere in our education with poetry, which hint at poetry as a puzzle or riddle or trick or an elite practice. We are familiar with this way of listening to music. When someone hears a song, they don’t usually say: What does it MEAN, though? I don’t get it. What does the train symbolize? Nothing. It’s just a train leaving in the middle of the song. Maybe that would be my suggestion. Just as we tune our ear to a new song by hearing it a few times, so we should keep reading the poems. Familiarize your ear to that voice. Re-read. Enjoy the sounds, the images, the tone, notice the way you feel reading the poem. Don’t worry too much about figuring the poem out, because it should reveal itself.

How do you see the role of poets and poetry in the world today? Are they still relevant to our contemporary challenges?

As I am writing my response to this question, I look out the window of our home, and I see two deer across the field. They are standing perfectly still, and they are listening to the wind chimes on our back porch. They have been standing there quite a long time. I think that is a gift image from the poetry gods. I believe the deer will run back to the rest of the forest and say: I heard this music. I saw this creature with many clear eyes and a mouth that people walked in and out of. I think this is the way we affect the creature. I think this is how the creature affects us. I hope that this is the role poets play in the world—today, yesterday. My belief is that poets each have a certain way of listening to and seeing the world. They each have a way of understanding the implications. And poets affect the language itself, which all artists and art forms must use, somehow.

Poetry is slower than, say, film or photography or some music, but it’s not less effective. It doesn’t have fewer repercussions. It serves its spot in the spectrum of sharing and hearing, the spectrum of human experience, and of art.

I believe poetry is absolutely crucial. I believe it keeps language and ideas and possibilities alive for the world. For lives.

Thanks again for talking with us, Sarah!

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