Yours is an interesting situation regarding the idea of a first book, mainly since you had two come out within the same amount of time. How often had you sent out Dummy Fire before it was chosen as the winner of the 2006 Saturnalia Book Prize? And how often had you sent out American Spikenard before it was chosen as the winner of the 2006 Iowa Poetry Prize?
I don’t remember, exactly. I had probably sent Dummy Fire to about 15 or 20 contests over the course of about two and a half years, and it was finalist a few times before Saturnalia took it. I’d been sending it out about a bit longer than American Spikenard, which I sent to, I would guess, about 15 contests over the course of a year and a half or two. It was also a finalist in a few competitions before it was taken by Iowa.
Which one would you consider your true “first book” and why?
I consider Dummy Fire my first book. I wrote almost all of it before I wrote American Spikenard, though for a couple of years I was working on both simultaneously… revising Dummy Fire and beginning American Spikenard.
American Spikenard came together faster. Though the roots of many of its poems, too, were years old.
How long were both books in the making? Did they happen quickly, or were they written over a number of years? Were you working on them both together? If so, did you know you were writing two separate books at the time the poems were coming into place?
It took six or seven years for both of the books to come together, with some of those years overlapping—especially the revision years. Though really, it’s hard to know, because seeds and roots and images and first drafts of some of the poems from both books were older than that.
I did know that these were two separate books. I’d already pulled the poems from Dummy Fire into a manuscript, to work on together, before the majority of American Spikenard poems came into form as real working drafts. Though for a long time, I didn’t think of the individual poems from American Spikenard as a manuscript, either. I do write poem to poem. Or, I always believe that I am, though there has been, in retrospect, a strong continuity between poems for each of my manuscripts and books.
Who are some of your poetic influences for these books?
Celan, Michael Burkard, Laura Jennings, Whitman, Dickinson, Rilke, Norman Dubie, Jean Valentine. Off the top of my head.
Though they certainly feel like separate books, there’s a very distinct style to your writing. Can you talk about how you begin to write the poems and your process of revision?
I begin poems… there are so many ways to answer this. I suppose I begin poems with a feeling in my chest or gut or throat. Usually chest. A feeling back behind the solar plexus. It is a feeling I associate with sound, with color, with tone. If I don’t have that feeling, I don’t try to write. Maybe some other kind of writing work, but not writing. Never a first draft. If I do have that feeling, and I sit down, I go to my notebooks, and I know what to use. I know what to pull out. I know what to try, or what will try to end up together, though usually I never know how it will work together.
When I sit down to write, I don’t know what I’m going to say, and I don’t know what it will look like, and I don’t have any hopes for what kind of poem it should turn into. I’m usually so entranced by the process of writing which, when it happens, feels beyond good. Or beyond sad. Or beyond… whatever. I am usually relieved and grateful simply to be there.
Revising is similar, but much more conscious, for me. And it happens later. After I’ve felt good and protectively unconscious about a poem for some time. I am very protective of early drafts, for myself, for my students, for anyone. They’re little babies that can so easily be thrashed and bullied and ruined. Usually by me.
But my process for revision… is different with every poem. I go back to that particular feeling behind my solar plexus for that particular poem. I try different things, always testing each one against that feeling. That note. That hum. I go back to poems, off and on, sometimes for years. Sometimes hardly at all. They either show themselves, or they don’t. I can either find them, or I can’t. That hum either continues, intact, across the months and years, or it becomes silent.
I used to be very superstitious and ritualistic about writing. I had a table a friend had given me when I moved to Arizona that I painted bright orange, and that was my desk. I could only write there. In the morning. With a very, very strong cup of coffee and a glass of water. And no one else could be in my minuscule apartment, except my cat, who was required to lie next to me on the drafts strewn about the floor (I called this “blessing” my poems). She always agreed. That was the only time and way I could write. I could read, do other writing work, later in the day or in other ways. But writing was its own.
I’ve lost that routine for the past couple of years, between having our first son and moving away from Arizona—which was, for me, a completely magical place. I still have the orange table, though. And I’m still writing. It’s just soggier and more sporadic.
In both books, I noticed that some of the titles are in lowercase, some are in capital letters, and some are a mix of both. Is this a conscious choice, and if so, why is there so much difference, sometimes from poem-to-poem?
I don’t know how to answer this yet.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished books for the first time? Which did you receive first?
I received Dummy Fire first. I actually felt dread when I first saw my book. Committed. Like something, some secret, had moved beyond my control. I cried. I shut them all in the box they were mailed to me in. I could hardly look at it. A few weeks later I received American Spikenard, and was more prepared for that feeling. Had spoken with a couple of very dear teachers of mine, who were generous in helping me understand my response. I thought that I had made a huge mistake, they reassured me that actually a lot of people feel this way after first seeing their books. I’d imagined that everyone else was confident and ecstatic.
After a few weeks, the dread and regret subsided. And my overwhelming feeling was one of relief. A burden had been lifted—something that I had been tending I didn’t have to tend to anymore.
Very soon after that, I realized that I love both of those books. And I love both of those books now. They both feel absolutely true, and sincere, about different times in my life. Different people I was. Different ways I struggled to move through and to understand this world. That’s the best I can do, that’s the standard to which I hold myself.
Did you suggest the image that was used on the cover(s)? Or were you offered choices?
I suggested the image on Dummy Fire. I had spent the summer at an artists colony in Lithuania a few years before and met a Brazilian painter there, Bruno Sipivicius, whose work I loved. Whose friendship was important to me. I was working on Dummy Fire at the time, though I didn’t know it. And if any visual art I’d seen ever matched the tone of those poems, to me, it was his work.
Iowa found the image for the cover of American Spikenard after they initiated several conversations with me about how I perceived the book and the poems. I thought they found the perfect cover.
In completely unique ways, both presses were heavenly to work with.
Before the day you ripped open that box and saw your book for the first time, did you imagine that your life would change because of it?
Iowa called me to tell me that I’d won on the very day that our first son, Oskar, was born. I was holding this new baby in my arms, I’d just been through drug-free labor, drug-free forceps, and an emergency C-Section. I was loaded with tenderness and trauma and hormones and, finally, with drugs. My love, Todd, was getting ready to call our parents and friends with our happy news, and happened to check the message on the phone. It was Holly Carver at Iowa. He called her back for me, and learned the news about my book. It was absolutely wonderful, of course. But more than that, it was as surreal as the rest of my day had been.
Compared to what I had just been through… did I think it would change my life?
Yes, I thought my life would change. My life had changed. My life is completely different now. But I’m not sure I can attribute this to the book.
Two weeks later we were driving, and Todd checked the messages again. I had a nearly word-for-word identical message from Henry Israeli at Saturnalia, asking me to call him back because he had good news about my manuscript. Todd and I just knew what he was going to say—and, maybe because I was slightly less medicated than the first time, the news of a second book was even more surreal.
I did feel like I’d given birth to triplets for a while. Yes, I imagined that my life had changed. But I didn’t know if it was the books. The books were part of it.
How has your life been different since your book(s) came out? Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I didn’t know about the relief. I didn’t realize how relieved I would feel to have those two books “done”. Publishing them has cleared space and time in my heart and mind to work on other things. To write and read other things. To spend most of my time with my son without feeling as isolated as I might have from poetry, or worrying that I might never find my way back through to the poetry world now that I am a mother.
Though I do still feel isolated from poetry, and I do worry I might never find my way back to the poetry world, now that I am a mother. A kind of soul-saving list-serve that I am part of, started by Arielle Greenberg for poet-moms, did come into my world as a result of publishing those books.
I thought that publishing a book might, as they say, open doors. But what happened instead was that a couple of months after my books came out, we moved away from all the doors we’d ever known. We moved away from a beautiful and active and supportive community of friends and writers in Phoenix. We moved away from more jobs teaching poetry than we could accept each semester. We moved away from health insurance and support and teachers and twenty or thirty amazing visiting writers a year. And we moved to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, with no prospects.
We had a first-birthday party for Oskar surrounded by all of our dear friends, packed up our U-Haul, and then headed from the middle of the desert to the middle of the rainforest. We have hunkered down here for the past year in a sweet little cabin at the end of a valley that floods us in for days or weeks at a time. Right now, in the middle of the rainy season, instead of the main road out of the valley, I drive the logging roads back and forth to my job teaching English 101 in a town 40 miles away where no one has any idea or cares about my books. That’s sure as shit not a door. Or, not the kind of door that I’d imagined.
What we do have is rain, which I love. And a garden. And a creek. A salmon run once a year. A flock of chickens that Oskar loves to chase. Some family nearby. And quietness. I remind myself that we chose this, because I really do miss Phoenix and often feel lonely here. I remind myself of the traffic, and that Oskar would never have been able to play outside if we had stayed in downtown Phoenix. I remind myself that I really love what I’m writing here, and that I wouldn’t have written these particular things in Phoenix. I appreciate the forced focus, in this new life, on the things that really are most important to me. I’m generally not a graceful transitioner, so I’m sure this is part of my slow, awkward falling-in-love-with-the-place-dance.
But no, I didn’t imagine that I’d publish two books and then dive headfirst into a muddy abyss.
What have you been doing to promote the book(s), and what have those experiences been like for you?
I have done hardly anything. I did a couple of readings right after the books came out-- one in Phoenix and one in Philadelphia with Forrest Gander, who chose Dummy Fire. I did a couple of little readings in Atlanta outside of AWP. And since we moved from Phoenix to the Olympic Peninsula, I have done a few more readings. I haven’t gotten the hang of the promoting quite yet. I’ve forgotten to bring books to half of the readings, for example.
I do love to read, though, and especially now that Oskar is a bit older, have been able to do a few more.
I have been very focused on mothering. And moving. And reading and writing. The books seem to be doing really well. Because of the other circumstances of my life, I just have to trust them on their own out there for a little while.
And I do trust them. They are doing beautifully.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book(s) came out?
I wish I had known how quickly contest books come together. I thought that once the books were taken, I’d have plenty of time to consider cover art, revisions, acknowledgments, and so on. But contest books come out once a year, so they make them quickly. I found myself (on a huge amount of painkillers post my emergency C-Section-with-complications, plus nursing a new baby along the 120 degree Phoenix summer days) simultaneously editing and choosing artwork for two different books that represented two totally different times in my history—each of them requiring a quick turnaround. It was the most bizarre few weeks of my life.
And I really was on a lot of drugs.
Plus I was nursing a newborn. Plus it was 120 degrees.
The best advice I was given was to let the art directors, the book artists, the publishers for whom editing and creating books is a passion—to let them do their good work. In both cases, I left most of the details in the hands of Saturnalia and Iowa, and they were brilliant.
What influence has the books’ publication had on your subsequent writing? And are any new books or other projects on the horizon?
My third collection of poetry, Faulkner’s Rosary, is coming out from Saturnalia in 2010. (Plenty of time to consider cover art!) My fourth is finished, and I will start submitting this in earnest soon. I am writing essays and poems right now, to what end I’m not sure. I’m also pregnant with our second son, who is due in 5 weeks… so that is the biggest project on our horizon.
I don’t know if the books have had much of an effect on my subsequent writing. Like I said, I dove into the mud as soon as possible after they came out. I have had a few readings. My editors have forwarded a few reviews. But it’s not like the glory has paralyzed me.
The isolation out here has given me, probably, a connection to my own quiet path through my poems. A sort of forced integrity, which I appreciate. In some ways, I feel like I’m starting all over each time I try to write. And for an audience that is so far away from me. For me, this is probably a pretty true approach to writing.
How, if at all, has your experience as an editor for 42opus influenced your writing? Would you suggest that aspiring writers try to gain editorial experience as they continue to learn about writing and publishing?
I don’t know if or how 42opus has affected my writing, exactly. I love it immensely because I love working with the two other poetry editors, Brian Leary and Caroline Klocksiem. I love it because I love having a platform with which I can support work that I believe in. I love it because, over the years, it has begun to form a small community around itself, because the website that Brian has created is beautiful, because the work we have published is fantastic.
But editing is so much work. I would only suggest aspiring writers work in editing if they really do love it, are passionate about some part of it. It’s a position in which people trust you with their work, with bits and pieces of their hearts and lives. I think the poems need to be treated respectfully (timely, generously, with attention). It weighs on me when I feel I’m not doing right by them, which happens too regularly. Editing is wonderful for many reasons, but it isn’t necessary to edit in order to learn about writing and publishing.
Do you have any additional advice for first poets sending out their first books to contests and open reading periods?
Don’t edit the fiery gorgeous life out of your first manuscript during the months or years you’re submitting it. Be warmly indignant if your book isn’t taken, then send again.
Time your submissions with having babies.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Absolutely. With all my heart.
Sarah Vap is the author of American Spikenard, which received the 2006 Iowa Poetry Prize, and Dummy Fire, which received the 2006 Poetry Prize. Her third collection, Faulkner's Rosary, is forthcoming from Saturnalia Books. She lives on the with her partner, Todd Fredson, and their son. She is the poetry editor at 42opus.