This Split and Splitting Mind: Sarah Vap on Feministmotheraphorisms
Sarah Vap Interview, with Anna Journey
Throughout your writing, the strange, associative power of liminal space has been important to your poetic sensibility. In your essay in Blackbird, “Oskar’s Cars,” a lyrical exploration of the “mothering mind” and the creative process, you write that “If my source of love, my source of poetry, used to be dream, memory, landscape, and feelings so intense as to alter, momentarily, the world that I shared with other people—now, source is simply what my life has become.” You also speak of how motherhood can make one feel disconnected from time, that the “whole self is lyric.” Would you speak about the ways motherhood’s peculiar liminality has affected your approach to lyric poetry, perhaps specifically addressing your recent experimentations with shorter, aphoristic forms, as in your ten poems included in this issue of Connotation Press: An Online Artifact?
I have struggled, especially since our children were born, to think and write about how brains or minds change. And I mean change very much. Become very altered, very different than they were before. I remember when I was in high school and college—how I could memorize anything at all. Huge amounts of information, dates, formulas, terms. I don’t know if the ease of memorization was a quality of my brain’s age, or a quality of how I was trained to absorb information—but I could memorize, and in many ways use, an astonishing number of data. Starting in college, however, and then through my twenties, I basically read poems for a decade straight. (And now it is nearly two decades straight.)
But, as I read more and more poetry, I began to actively refuse a relationship with knowledge such as I had had. I also began to pretty seriously practice yoga. I think that if almost anyone reads tens of thousands of poems for a decade, and simultaneously practices yoga intensely for a decade (if it is practiced in such a way that it is not primarily an exercise in which one, nearly competitively, for example, memorizes asanas and chants in Sanskrit)—then their brain will change. Their brain will have to, and significantly, change. Become, for example, distributed throughout one’s whole body.
Then it happened to me all over again—my brain changed, and significantly, again. This brain of mine that I loved, that was so altered and complicated by poetry, and that I associated with my creative process—split, and split again, and split nearly infinitely—when I partnered, and then when I had one child, and then when I had two. And then when each child grew, and sometimes every few days seemed like a wholly new child again. There is now a significant portion of my brain—but this isn’t right—a whole version of my brain that is completely devoted to each child, and devoted to each stage, and devoted to each chronological or each non-chronological progression through and within each that child’s life. So, it feels as if my mind, my brain even, is split and splitting. And this happens with each child. And this happens, though less rapidly, with my partner—as we change and move through our life in ways together and in ways alone. It’s as if I have many shadow brains splitting—though that implies a break in the actual mind. Sometimes I do feel it to be a break in the mind, in the most painful moments, the most aggravating moments. And sometimes I do feel that the shadow brains all remain whole… along with the now-vanished ghost children who have grown into something else.
I feel like I’m very nearly obsessed with this at times, not only because I am devoted to my creative process, but also, and more importantly, because I truly feel that human brains need to change if we are going to choose not to destroy the earth or each other. I feel, literally, as if we need new kinds of brains. Brains that we could choose, or develop, or reach for—brains that would think more long-term. More imaginatively about the repercussions, the stakes, the implications. Maybe brains that are developed with more estrogen than with testosterone. Maybe brains that are more connected with the non-human. Maybe more animal. Maybe more mushroom.
And in terms of the new work I am doing—yes, I am (as of our last email!), now referring to them as feministmotheraphorisms. The aphorism is such a masculine tradition of offering to his culture the (masculine) high wisdom. The Proverbs. They can be beautiful, but also, such an act of hilarious confidence, right? Here is the gem. Here is the answer. Here is the wisdom, and I’m about to give it to you. But, I am very interested, for myself and for the world, in wisdom. And not only the straight white Judeo-Christian male wisdom.
I am interested, too, in how this form of the aphorism is particularly apt for mothers—who often have but moments to think a clear thought, let alone sit down and write one out—and this is the case for years on end. This is a pressure and, yes, a wisdom that women have had access to—this split and splitting mind—since the dawn of humanity. Yet our literature is skewed (as is the culture)—where is this represented? Bits and pieces and mostly by women who have killed themselves. Our culture values the written piece that is contemplated and perfected for a long time, worried over, tweaked and revised and made just right, the one on which time, a lot of focused time, is spent. This means that the writer is usually somehow quite privileged.
But especially right now I am interested in the poems that are utterances. That are barely gotten out and in the very little bits of time one has to focus on them. I am interested in the poems that are distracted. That are letting in all the (monotonous, inane, lowly) (hilarious, actually life-and-death, exquisite) pressures and repetitive demands, for example, that are part of many women’s lives, part of mothers’ lives. I am interested in the utterances caused by all kinds of circumstances—not just the circumstances of being a woman caring for young children—but also from the lives of very poor people, from people who are not safe, people who are in danger, who live in a place where there is conflict, who live in places where disaster may have struck, and, and, and.
Great time and effort are spent in the making of utterances, too—sometimes years are spent toward an utterance—but that time might not be spent at a quiet desk.
I am interested in poems that actually fail to carry out the sustained and highly wrought and long-concentrated on ideas, and are, instead, pieces of some other kind of wisdom. Or, poems which are enacting before us some other kind of wisdom or experience. A knowing or understanding that is viewed as, and often experienced as, liminal.
I am interested, obviously, because for five years now I feel that all I’ve been able to do is utter, and I have found it to be—agony and ecstasy.
But—this liminal, in my experience of it, is also the place where things are mixing—and is from the liminal which I’ve felt most wisdom, most understanding, in my life.
Many of the utterances evoked in your selection of feministmotheraphorisms arise from that ethery space where people are “half asleep,” which often results in surprising non sequiturs. I’m thinking, for example, of the baby who wakes up saying, “lawnmower,” and the “older son, half asleep responds: Who is she? She’s beautiful.” Or, in another untitled poem, a speaker in bed with her family seems ready to make an ethereal metaphor about their bodies and the cosmos, but instead says: “Which like our eyes, receives the // motherfucking stars, bitch.” Your earlier work is no stranger to non sequitur, to be sure, but has the way you employ such juxtaposition shifted, too, with motherhood’s “split and splitting mind”?
The transitions happen faster now, and I have less “control” over them—because I have less control over my own mind—because my mind is split toward these wild children (and wild in the sense of wilderness—they are still part of it when they are very young). The whole family is pulled toward their childhood. It is a kind of long-term dream-filled sleep. (And to exaggerate it: We are often quite sleep-deprived. And our family’s world, compared to the adult-consensus-reality to which my partner and I had become accustomed, is surreal. And the breastfeeding and the pregnancy hormones have stoned me, years on end….).
In the same way that babies and young children have no idea that they are not the same thing as their own mother—my own split-minds, which have developed toward my children, are completely permeable to my children. They remain absolutely porous to and open to and attendant to the children. As does my body—the years I grow them in it and feed them from it and comfort them with it. (This porousness and accessibility is part of what drives mothers crazy, casually and seriously.)
The minds and bodies between the children and the mother are, or can be, hard to differentiate—differentiating is the long job of mothers (and of course, sometimes fathers) and children, in some sense. I have, right at this moment, at the top of my mind, the details of every shit every child has taken for the past several days. I know whose teeth were brushed when, and what exactly has been eaten in the meantime. I know, because we all co-sleep, exactly how each child slept, when they woke or half-woke, if they cried or moaned from a dream, when they coughed in the night, exactly what kind of cough it was, and whether or not I should be worried. Uncounted times in the night, I brush each child to feel their temperature, make sure they’re covered, put a hand on them if they become restless. During the day, I hear them in the background, or they sit on my lap while I try to read or write, and I always know what they are playing, what they are pretending, what they are struggling to figure out through each other and through play. They hum, constantly right now, either the ABC song, or Twinkle Twinkle, or the Imperial March from Star Wars, or the main theme of Star Wars. Often one child hums the Dark Vader (as we call him) Imperial March while the other sings an operatic ABC at the top of his range, and periodically this groupsong is interrupted with fights or generous cooperation or mind-numbing and very sweet repetitions of the word Mama!—which, each time said, breaks straight through any thought and brings my attention, helpless, to them.
There is an awareness of them that I have no control over, and that I can’t moderate. There is no sustained self-space. There is no long sleep. There is no remembered dream from the night before. There no long thought.
There is no thought or experience or body without many interruptions—and these interruptions become the sequitur or non sequitur, depending on your perspective. To us, they are sequitur.
I’m sparing you the interruptions during this interview (they are there, my baby is on my lap at this moment), but I am not sparing during the aphorisms.
I’d been working on these poems for quite a while when I re-read, and felt such gratitude for, Bernstein’s “State of the Art” essay, in which he says, among many other things I appreciate: “What interests me is a poetry and a poetics that do not edit out so much as edit in.” The interruptions of the children, their presence and voices, might bug the shit out of you, might charm you, might bore you—but it’s edited-in, and it’s been, for me, mind-numbing and revelatory, simultaneously.
A poetics that “edits in,” then, embraces disjunctions that frustrate and illumine. At times, in these new poems, interruptions result in a speaker who seems both tender and ambivalent amid her lack of sustained self-space. I’m thinking, for instance, of the difference between the entwined bodies—and minds—of the family during their co-sleeping ritual and, conversely, moments in which a desire for personal space arises (as in one little boy who requests that his brother give him some “purple space,” or the speaker/mother/writer who works behind a closed door until she’s interrupted by one of her children, the latter of whom speaks through the barrier in what at first appears an alien language: “Oooahdooor.”). How can—or does—reckoning with ambivalence allow for those “edited in” moments within domestic rituals, and within the creative process?
Ambivalence is the word. It is the essence of pregnancy, of raising children—it’s the inability to distinguish, clearly. It’s the desire to someday distinguish oneself from another (from the child) and, also, the sorrow that that will inevitably happen. Ambivalence is also the essence of writing poetry, or of language, itself—the desire to convey a thing, and yet, the thing you create, or say, or utter, is never the thing. Ambivalence is the essence of sex—you want to be indistinguishable, you are not indistinguishable. You never get to freeze and keep it all. You never, Anna, get to have your cake and eat it too.
The editing-in, though, is a way, I suppose, to attempt to indistinguish, to freeze, to keep or maintain a deep merging of. Myself (selves), my children, my poems, my partner, all the minds, this exact time with all of them.
I fight bad guy skeletons, he says. I can fight creatures that eat people
I can do that myself. Do you know how I do it? I pick up big sticks
they are so big and then I throw them at them. And they start to die.
I fight meat-eater skeletons. I fight eagle skeletons. I don’t fight plant-eater
skeletons because plant-eaters are nice. I read him what I have written, and he says,
I want you to add “My love.” My love, I usually don’t want to be eaten.
I really don’t like to be eaten by ghosts, my love, because then I would die.
Do you know why ghosts eat people?
Because ghosts are really strong. If you get eaten, then you die. My love.
The bed smells like gasoline where my husband slept last night.
My baby wakes, two bodies over, and says: lawnmower.
My older son, half asleep, responds: Who is she? She’s beautiful.
My husband, half asleep, hoping the little boys
will fall back asleep: Help me,
Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.
Mama, Mateo is playing with a dead mouse.
Should he do that? He’s disgusting, isn’t he?
No he should not do that! Where was it?
In the legos.
Mateo, you are so gross.
Mateo, you are the sweetest most disgusting person we know.
Mateo says baby groh.
Yes, baby is gross.
This is a constellation of a big bug. Do you see it? It’s just pretend.
Older son holds up a piece of paper. This is a map to the treasure. This is the word: treasure.
This is the spaceman who stands on the earth. This is the baby spaceman with the pacifier.
This is you writing on earth. This is your computer writing on earth. This is Dada with a mask on.
That’s earth. That is the little boy spaceman leaving earth. Flying through snow and through stars.
He will be good.
Would you give me some space please, Mateo?
Tay-tay, your brother needs some personal space.
Tay-tay, I need some purple space.
Mateo, sweetheart, come here. Oskar needs some purple space.
What? Mateo did you say you won’t give me purple space?
Well if you don’t then I will kill you.
Or this: my baby son pulls the yogurt
away from my little boy. My little boy cries
and pulls it back. They both pull. The yogurt
is now all over the baby’s head and on the floor
and all over the clothes of my little boy.
They are standing, facing one another,
wailing, and the cup in both of their hands
and crushed. My little boy is given a towel.
He wipes the yogurt on my baby son’s
hair. The baby is given a towel. He leans
down to wipe the yogurt from the floor. They both
totter and wail and cling and wipe
the floor the chair and each other. They are locked
and wailing and sticky and sometimes I can’t tell
if they are most happy or most sad.
Let’s pull the nighttime lens
closer, as a blanket pellucid
over the bodies. Over our whole body of eight legs,
eight arms, our mouths and teeth which like our eyes
receive the stars. Between our body and the body of night:
only the square glass of our window, roughly
the size of our bed, laden— Juuh. You want juice? Mmm.
Mama, wake up, Mateo wants juice.
Which like our eyes, receives the
motherfucking stars, bitch.
then thicken the thought. Unloose the thought
so that all explanations will fail and fall
to the bed against which
all our intelligence struggles. Juuuh! Mama, he wants juice now!
What if, vanishing Mama? gradually,
the memory built upon the memory of the mind of love
where we are oriented
by the wind, and the stars—shooting through wind Mama help.
What if the moon, for example, Mama? Mama? Just a second, honey.
Mama? Just a second honey. Okay, Mama.
Mama? Yes, honey, I’ll be right there. Yes?
Will you take your pacifier out so I can understand you?
Will you open the door?
To the haunting, there— behind that door,
the child—the sleeping; the child
hoots the child
claws, tired-haunting and folding
the red cloth in half. Little white
rocking chair where he folds,
over and over, and always
at the edge of crying again about what.
Little owl, asleep. And maybe still
pissed. Fuck it. Not asleep.
Sleep, honey honey sleep, sleep-sleep.
Honey little sleep, hoot-hoot.