I met Sara Veglahn in 2006. Back then we had a standing every-other-week date at Gabor’s, a beloved, Denver dive bar, an establishment which, some years ago, tragically closed. We went to Gabor’s for several reasons, notably they had a cook who could make grilled cheese sandwiches like my mother. He knew we liked pickles and would give us extra pickles. Sometimes we would see him emerge to enjoy a cigarette, and I felt a charged (potentially romantic) connection with him even though we never spoke.
Those Gabor’s meetings became a valued zone: a place where Sara and I could talk deeply, for a few guaranteed hours, about writing and love. We also talked about women writers and what it meant to be one. Almost a decade later we are still talking about these things. We never tire of our subjects.
This photograph of Sara and I was taken five years ago by another writer we are fortunate to consider a friend, Laird Hunt. We were at the wedding of the writers Gregory and Heather Howard.
I recall that when Laird snapped this photo he made a charming comment about witches. I remember that on that day the poet Eleni Sikelianos was wearing the most amazing pair of shoes that were partially clear. I had never seen such shoes, they were very glamorous and weird, and these, she said, were the very shoes that she got married in. I remember that over a rib-eye, which had a mysterious hunk of metal in it, I talked with Bin Ramke about writing poems, mental illness, and math. Or: I have all of this wrong. Re-membering = collage, etc.
I once said, about Sara’s book The Mayflies, that it is a place that offers entry into the silence between the tick and the tock.
As I write this, the sun is rising in Denver, and a man is singing a gut-wrenching version of “Go Down, Moses” on the corner of 20th & Arapahoe.
J’Lyn Chapman recently reminded me that there was a doomed booth at Gabor’s. Food would become ice-cold once put upon its table. Beer, tepid. A bland melancholy would there descend. It turns out that everyone believed someone or something haunted the booth, but everyone also believed this someone or something was different as none of us ever conferred with one another. Why did I believe it was a little girl from the late 1800’s? I don’t know, Lou Florez says, I thought it was the ghost of the guy who also chain-smoked in the bathroom. Lou Florez, who is writing a much-anticipated book about divination.
Somehow all of this is meant to be an introduction to the following conversation Sara and I had over the course of a couple of weeks this past August and early September.
John O’Donohue wrote, “Your beloved and your friends were once strangers. Somehow at a particular time, they came from the distance toward your life. Their arrival seemed so accidental and contingent. Now your life is unimaginable without them.”
How accurate. How accuracy can be a dear and finely tuned pain, a dynamic beauty, a compelling spell, the love that gets us through, mercy.
If I was efficient I would simply say: the friendships that writing makes has been one of the central joys and sustaining forces in my life.
* * *
Selah Saterstrom: Sara, I was delighted when I learned I’d be speaking with you about writing. Where to begin! Well, I suppose with ghosts. What do you think a ghost is, as it relates to the writer and writing?
Sara Veglahn: I think of ghosts mainly as energy, sometimes a still or single-minded energy, sometimes a moving, multiple energy, but an energy that is persistent and will not be dismissed (this is the same way I think of them in the world, actually). I suppose I often feel haunted by this energy/ghost, in the sense that there is an image or idea or something that won’t let go its grip — until, of course, I finally listen and try to understand what the message is exactly. So I suppose ghosts are also messengers. But the problem is that their messages are often unclear, at least until I begin to seek more information. I’d like to think that I welcome these messages, but I have to admit that I tend to ignore them, at least at first — sometimes I just don’t want the message (mainly because it’s likely something I need to heed and pay attention to, something I can tell will propel me into a long investigation (in terms of a writing project)).
Over the years I’ve been informed by your tremendous love of film. I recall you once walked me through a scene from Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia (in which a man attempts to walk the length of an abandoned mineral pool while holding a candle), and watching it with the benefit of your reading of this scene — and yours was such an illuminated, animate reading, you were so excited! — this proved to be an invitation for me to deepen my thinking about narrative time. I’m thinking of a line from Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, “I achieve simplicity with enormous effort.”
What film scenes — or for that matter, what “scenes” — are happily troubling you at the moment, and can you walk us through why?
That line from Lispector kind of sums up a lot of what Tarkovsky does in many of his films! I continue to return to Tarkovsky, of course — that scene in particular as well as The Mirror. But a more recent film that has currently been of tremendous interest to me and one that I continue to think about often is Times and Winds (Bes Vakit) (Turkish, 2006), by director Reha Erdem. Mainly, it’s his use of particular repeated images that is so intriguing. The narrative progresses in a relatively straight-forward manner — the viewer is presented with a small village in Turkey and focuses mainly on the difficult (and, in some cases, abusive) lives of the children who live there with their parents. However, interspersed within the story, these characters, the children, are shown periodically flung down into a field of grass, or some other natural environment, and it is rather unclear whether they are sleeping or not. These images are absolutely arresting — and full of contradiction — they are both beautiful and horrible, both simple and complex. It is as if these characters need to be shown, and we need to witness them, in a moment of peace and repose, despite their very difficult circumstance. Or maybe it’s not about that at all. Regardless, it is absolutely transfixing. It is so outside the narrative, yet so necessary to it. And these moments come unexpectedly. It is such a brilliant use of image, and, like that scene in Nostalghia, I get very excited about it. I would love to be able to create this kind of effect in a novel, but of course, it would have to be completely different. I think I am so fascinated by film because I don’t make them, and while I can read a film critically, I don’t have an insider’s knowledge of making one, so I can still view films as a kind of amazing magic.
I guess this is just sort of a Clarice Lispector kind of interview, because she shimmers in once more. Not that I think we mind one bit. She was a writer you introduced me to seven years ago. This morning, re-reading portions of The Stream of Life, this: “I want the following word: splendor, splendor is fruit in all its succulence, fruit without sadness. I want vast distances. My savage intuition of myself.” In terms of writing — and I mean this in a vocational sense — what is it that you want?
I’ve never thought about want in terms of writing, actually. Probably because every time I want something, the text I am writing says “nope! I don’t care what you want!” But if Lispector can do it, maybe I can, too. If a vocation is a calling, then, in a practical sense, one of my wants in terms of writing, is to be in service of the creation. For me, this includes sincerity and honesty (as opposed, to say, truth, or Truth). I suppose, selfishly, I also want to do as I please, meaning that I really don’t care about trends or what will sell or how my work can be marketed (can it?) or whether anyone will like it or whether anyone will care. Perhaps in a more abstract sense (and, therefore, maybe a bit more like Lispector), I want to align more closely with the mysterious, the unexplainable, the beautiful, the horrible. Can I language something that is inherently beyond language? Can I actually render a moment or emotion? Can I create something as beautiful as a Tarkovsky film or as provocative and strange as a Pina Bausch choreography? Can I make a sentence as intriguing as Woolf?
You mention the beautiful and the horrible. How do you define beauty and horror?
As I ask the question, I shudder. I do not know that I would like to be asked such a question before cocktail hour. So let me put it this way: What comes up for you around these two paradigms?
Hmmm. I guess it is the contradiction that comes up when I think about why beauty and horror are of interest, and contradiction is super interesting to me. As cliché as it may be, the idea of the horror in the beautiful and the beautiful in the horrible has always been of extreme fascination. Though to be clear, with horror, I’m talking less about revulsion or disgust or terror and more about what is shocking or dismaying or unexplainable. And with beauty, I’m less interested in what is pretty or gorgeous, and more interested in the idea of splendor and/or magnificence, and thinking of it in these terms, beauty also encompasses the aspect of the unexplainable. So, I guess this common ground (the unexplainable) in addition to the contradiction is appealing.
I also want to ask about your book, The Mayflies. I very much like how Rebecca Brown has spoken of it as a “. . . mytho-biography of a species, a gender, a landscape, an ecosystem.” For you, what feels most insistent or perhaps about what comes through (streams through?), to use RB’s term, this mytho-biography?
Rebecca Brown was so generous in her reading of the book — she was able to articulate an aspect of what I was doing that I couldn’t or wouldn’t have been able to articulate as well as she was able to. But, of course, this idea of a “mytho-biography” was always there, in the making of it, though really just as a feeling rather than a clear intent. As far as what streams through: water! (no pun intended!) Well, water and all of its attendant connotations and suggestions — water equals life, but also can be the cause of death, it offers purification, cleansing, but can also be completely terrifying. So, some contradictions, yet again — which also ties into the aspect of identity in the novel and the fluidity that is inherent (no pun intended, yet again).
Who do you wish people read more or knew about?
In fact, can you give us a bit of a reading list, in general?
Yes! You know I love a list! Here are some books I’ve read recently that I found particularly compelling:
The Door, Magda Szabo (translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix)
The Pumpkin Eater, Penelope Mortimer
Dear Thief, Samantha Harvey
The Ice Palace, Tarjei Vesaas (translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokken)
Paris, when it’s naked, Etel Adnan
The Hearts of Vikings, Lesley Yalen
Hospice, Gregory Howard
The Rise and Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic, Christopher Merkner
Then there are the books I return to again and again: work by Marie Redonnet (Forever Valley, specifically); Ann Quin (Three and Berg); everything by Virginia Woolf; Beckett’s trilogy; the poems of Lorine Niedecker and Barbara Guest.
Laura Davenport has written an amazing book, An Occasional History, that I look forward to seeing published. I also look forward to Danielle Dutton’s forthcoming novel, which I believe is due out very soon, as well as Mairead Case’s book See You in the Morning, just out this week.
What are you working on now: what are the concerns of this new work, what is it up to?
I’m working on another novel (my third), currently titled, The Monsters, and it is in the very beginning stages, so I’m not entirely sure what it is up to yet. But I am interested in exploring another element (fire) as my previous books (The Mayflies and the as-yet-unpublished The Ladies) are so water-logged. This book, right now at least, is epistolary and ruminative on the part of the narrator who is trying to make sense of a general feeling of rage, mainly towards the recipient of these tomes (which may or may not be received), but also how this rage has manifested elsewhere, and also, how rage can manifest in the world. Perhaps fire is too easy a metaphor (the “raging fire”) but that’s what’s been coming through, so I’m slowly learning what needs to be rendered and conveyed.
Sara Veglahn is the author of the novel, The Mayflies, (Dzanc 2014) and the chapbooks The Ladies: an excerpt (New Herring Press, 2013), Another Random Heart (Letter Machine Editions, 2009) and Closed Histories (Noemi Press, 2008). Her work has been published in various journals, including Conjunctions, Web Conjunctions, Fence, 1913: A Journal of Forms, Fairy Tale Review, Octopus, Tarpaulin Sky, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from UMass-Amherst and a PhD from the University of Denver. She currently lives in Denver, Colorado.
Selah Saterstrom is the author of three novels, most recently Slab (Coffee House Press 2015), which was also an award-winning play adapted for the stage by Square Product Theatre. She is the author of the forthcoming Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics (Essay Press, 2016), and curates Madam Harriette Presents, an occasional performance series. She is the Director of Creative Writing at the University of Denver.