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The world in writer Sarah Freligh’s yellow spiral notebook

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Sarah Freligh

Sarah Freligh has ventured out of the house, which she admits hasn’t been all that often since COVID reared its viral head. But here she is, sitting at a window table in Spot Coffee on East Avenue, writing in a yellow, spiral-bound notebook.

It is a very writerly scene.

“Writing should be easy,” Freligh says. “It should be satisfying. I’m not going to say fun, there should be other things…”

Fun, of course, is subjective.

Freligh has published four well-reviewed books, collections of poems and shards of fiction. On Sunday, she’ll be a big part of “Moving Images” at The Little Café. Starting at 6:30 p.m., Freligh and nine other poets will read their film-inspired poems, with some jazz trumpet by Mike Kaupa thrown into the mix. It’s the third year for this series of words and music; the next show is April 23, featuring another local poet, William Heyen.

It will be a short walk to the show for Freligh, who lives in an apartment with windows overlooking downtown Rochester. She notes that this week, the taller buildings have been lit in blue in red, “because of the Bills.”

Of course, Freligh would notice that. One section of her résumé reads: Sportswriter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She spent two years covering Penn State football. But, “I just couldn’t deal with Joe,” she says. Or, more specifically, she couldn’t deal with the hero worship that accompanied the school’s legendary coach, Joe Paterno.

Hero worship that came into serious question years later: What did Paterno know of the allegations against, and the subsequent conviction of his assistant, Jerry Sandusky, for child sexual abuse? Freligh believes that Paterno must have known something. Whatever he knew, or didn’t know, it led to the coach’s downfall.

“It’s never the event itself,” Freligh says, “it’s the coverup.”

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From college football, Freligh moved on to writing about boxing for the Inquirer. It was the glory and gory years of the middleweights. Tommy Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler and Alexis Arguello. She recalls going to Arguello’s motel room after he’d lost a big fight, to get some quotes for her story. Arguello was there with his friends, singing. “He had a nice voice,” she says.

But “I was tired of writing other people’s words,” Freligh says. “I wanted to write my own.”

Her sister lived in Rochester, and in 1991, Freligh followed her here. Vowing to never again work for a corporation, she supported herself with a series of jobs, including at Writers & Books and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, while trying to create a career for herself as a writer. Getting close, working at the indie publisher BOA Editions, from which, “I took home an armful of books every night.” It was in those borrowed books that Freligh found she was writing too many words.

She would be a poet, and author of very short pieces of fiction. Micro fiction. She teaches classes in that now from her website.

Freligh’s characters carry the weight of people who have just about had enough of this world. Washing up like driftwood on the river’s shore. Gathering, perhaps in a flash-fiction piece, as words that barely crowd a page. Such as her “The Restaurant at the End of the World.”

“The restaurant at the end of the world never closes. We serve eggs-over-easy late at night, bowls of chili with extra spices, and pitchers of beer at daybreak.”

I have to be careful here… I’ve already given you too much of “The Restaurant at the End of the World.” Well, one more paragraph won’t hurt.

“Sometimes they show us things they’ve brought from their old lives: a jeweled brooch that belonged to a wife who died of a lingering illness or a crayon drawing of the school where a couple’s six-year-old son was gunned down. There are always stories.”

Freligh has been a presence on the pages of many literary journals over the years; words riding a wave of fellowships and grants. Springing forth from her years as a sportswriter was “Sort of Gone,” published in 2008. It uses baseball poetry as an exploration — and there are some metaphors involved here — of 1950s America.

Freligh loves metaphors. And not being tied to newspaper deadlines.

She followed “Sort of Gone” with “A Brief Natural History of an American Girl” in 2012, another collection of poems following a girl’s sexual awakening, and surrendering her baby for adoption.

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The cover of "Sad Math" by Sarah Freligh.

“Sad Math,” Freligh’s 2015 collection of writings after her mother’s death from cancer, and “We,” published in early in 2021, explored much the same difficult territory.

Is there a through line to these poems and stories? “I was caught at a time of great change,” she says of growing up in the 1960s and ’70s. There was a growing awareness of ecology and minority rights, until the Reagan administration began reversing some of those advances. Freligh sees the middle decades of the last few centuries as particularly empty. Here in the 21st century, she says, we’re heading into another one of those periods.

“Women are kind of second-class citizens,” Freligh says.

“I was furious at the Dobbs decision, but I wasn’t surprised by it,” she says of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, last year’s Supreme Court ruling overturning the constitutional right to abortion. Freligh grew up in an era when women couldn’t get a credit card. And today she lives in a time when the sexist scenarios depicted in the television show “Mad Men” are regarded as some kind of television writer’s fiction, rather than the way it was.

It’s always something new. Freligh lives with two cats, both strays she’s rescued. One is Stewie, named for the diabolical child in the adult cartoon “Family Guy.” The other cat is Oscar, named for the writer Oscar Wilde. There’s an action figure stashed away in the apartment as well, so Freligh has a bit of a Wilde streak in her. “I don’t know how he wrote as much as he did,” Freligh says. She’s talking about the author, not the cat. Perhaps, she muses, it was because there was no internet in Oscar Wilde’s time “that is such a time suck.”

The internet, she says, “makes you feel connected, when you’re anything but.”

There are lots of words in that yellow, spiral-bound notebook. And similar notebooks, stashed away in the apartment. As short as some of these stories and poems are, some are taking years – decades, even – to be completed.

Some reflect real moments in Freligh’s life. “More fairly early on,” she says. “Lately, I steal from friends.”

Like the new story she’s been working on. A woman asks a friend to watch her cat while she is gone. She returns from her trip, and picks up her cat in its carrier, but when she gets home, she discovers it is the wrong cat. This one is a gnarly old tom.

In the real-life story, the woman went back to her friend and retrieved her own cat. But in Freligh’s story, the woman keeps the misplaced cat. A slight twist of fiction makes for a better story.

“It’s mostly in here,” Freligh says, pointing to her yellow spiral notebook.

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.