Mapping New Essay Terrain

November 28, 2022 § 4 Comments

An Interview with Sarah Fawn Montgomery

By Erin Vachon

Sarah Fawn Montgomery

I am considering relocation to another part of the country while reading Sarah Fawn Montgomery’s new essay collection Halfway From Home, a lyrical search for home across geographical landscapes. The serendipity astounds me and sets my pen curving red topographical lines around paragraphs on each page. “Everyone can be a cartographer,” she writes. “Roaming makes coming home richer, for when we explore places beyond our understanding and experience, we see connections between places we never imagined.” The essays in Halfway from Home roam across California, Nebraska, and Massachusetts, deftly unpacking violence, grief, and nostalgia through their diverse habitats. In an interview wandering through the rich terrain of her writing, Montgomery and I explored the purpose of making your own map when uprooting your personal history.

Erin Vachon: On Dirt: In Halfway From Home, the ground unearths surprising truths through artifacts, graves, and time capsules. How has the passage of time changed the way you write about long buried events?

Sarah Fawn Montgomery I’ve always been interested in digging up what has been buried. As a child I dug for treasures — rocks, pennies, old trinkets. As an adult I dig for histories — familial, political, environmental. Lately I’ve become less interested in the artifacts and more interested in the acts of burial and unearthing, in the transformation of stories and selves over time. I’m interested in refocusing the work on this evolution, on the reasons we bury or uncover, on what happens to us through the act of concealing or revealing.

EV: On Sea: Overall, this collection examines unseen violence from family, partners, and strangers through lyricism. In particular, “Carve” is a tidal wave against bone-rigid gender violence: “How to hide in the sea with your bones on display, your hurt exposed and inviting. How to survive when your weapon is a wanting.” How does lyricism’s heightened beauty function when reclaiming violence?

SFM: We often ignore brutality because it is too painful, too pervasive. We recognize certain narrative structures and styles and stop reading in order to save ourselves from personal pain and collective responsibility. Lyricism is a way to command a reader’s interest and compel them to engage. This isn’t to say that I use lyricism to soften or distract from violence. Instead, beauty becomes a way to present violence more viscerally. I use lyricism when writing about brutality — domestic violence, social and political violence, gun violence, environmental violence —because it is the only way I know how to make a world inundated with grief take notice.

EV: On Grass: “To me, the Plains are neither cruel nor kind. They are indifferent.” You write lovingly about the unpredictable Midwest landscape, a place existing to “remind us of our impermanence.” How is writing about the character of a place different than writing about a person?

SFM: Both people and place invite intimacy, but we are often more accepting of place. When we accept the indifference of place, we also accept our unimportance. Place invites us to be insignificant, a process that encourages us to broaden our stories beyond ourselves. When we write about place, we decenter ourselves from the story, focusing instead of ecology, geology, natural history, community. It’s harder to do this when writing about people. When writing about the people in our lives we often become the center of the narrative and this can reopen old wounds, invite resentments and sorrows. Writing about place teaches me how to write about people. It invites me to set aside judgment in order to encourage compassion, empathy, in order to understand how a particular human stories fits within larger communities.

EV: On Forest: You write, “Trees hear one another because they listen.” Halfway From Home acknowledges the frustration of the ongoing pandemic as a single tree in a forest, emphasizing the need for community and resilience. Now that the collection is published, have these essays made the world feel larger or smaller by comparison?

SFM: Initially I hoped these essays would expand small portions of the world — the California grove of eucalyptus trees where most of the world’s monarchs spend each winter for warmth, a stretch of unbroken Nebraska prairie, the wetland woods that surround my Massachusetts home. I wrote much of this collection in the early days of the pandemic when my entire world was confined to my small home. By noticing the rich abundance of my small stretch of forest, I was able to expand my experience beyond the borders of my home. I learned trees, for example, are connected by a rich underground fungal network that allows them to share resources and take care of each other in order to ensure survival. During the pandemic this seemed — and seems still — a small lesson that we could invite in order to make a large difference. Now that the collection is published, it’s not so much that the world feels larger or smaller, but that we have rushed back to a “normal” where we don’t allow the small things — tide pools, prairie birds, moths — to be important, where we don’t learn what might be possible if we were to simply take notice.

EV: On Stone: In “Tumble,” you explore the relationship to your father alongside the meanings of crystals. What do you think Halfway From Home’s personal crystal might be?

SFM: I’ve long had a fascination with rocks. My father was a fence builder who taught me to dig in order to see what stories exist beneath the surface. At work sites, he pulled treasures out of the ground and taught me to use a rock polisher to make what was ordinary shine. If this collection were a rock, it would be obsidian, a stone associated with truth. Obsidian is formed when molten lava cools, when what erupted with violence cools to gloss. It is not actually a rock, instead glass, meaning the story is not what it first appears. Obsidian can be sharpened as a knife. It teaches us that what is beautiful can also wound. It is not showy like quartz or amethyst, does not boast colors like fluoride or citrine. It is dark and opaque, black like nothing. But look closely and you will notice how it reflects your own image.

___

Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Halfway from Home (Split/Lip Press), Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press), and three poetry chapbooks. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery

Erin Vachon has been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Pinch, Brevity, and more. They are Hybrid Editor for Longleaf Review and an alum of the Tin House Summer workshop. You can find more of their writing at www.erinvachon.com or Twitter @erinjvachon.

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