Tuesday, September 29, 2015

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Sasha Steensen

Sasha Steensen is the author of four books of poetry, most recently House of Deer (Fence Books), and Gatherest, forthcoming from Ahsahta Press. She lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, where she tends chickens, goats, bees, and children. Steensen serves as a poetry editor for Colorado Review and teaches Creative Writing and Literature at Colorado State University.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
At the time my first book (A Magic Book, Fence Books) was published, I was finishing up a PhD in the Poetics Program and I wasn’t sure what I would do or where I would go next.  My husband and I thought we might travel for a few years or move to New York City or become gardeners and yoga teachers.  But, with the book in hand, I ended up with a job at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. This is a town that welcomes a bit of amateur homesteading, and while I moved here with just my husband and a dog, I now have two daughters, three goats, 12 chickens, and the occasional hive of bees.  In some ways, I think it is safe to say that the book made a path for me that I had not anticipated.

I wrote A Magic Book while preparing for my oral exams, and it was really a way for me to process the material I was reading.  My first two books are probably more heavily researched, more concerned with a particular moment (A Magic Book—19th century American magicians and the second Iraq war) or movement (The Method—the migrations of a manuscript written by Archimedes).  Newer work (including House of Deer, also from Fence and Gatherest, which is forthcoming from Ahsahta Press) tends to find its way into more personal topics, more domestic spaces.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I actually wrote in all three genres when I was young, but the playfulness of poetry always appealed to me, and again, perhaps luck has a bit to do with it. While I was finishing up my BA in History,  I took a poetry workshop with the poet Claudia Keelan.  I had planned to go on to do an MA in American Studies, but Claudia insisted I could study history and write poems.  She introduced me to Susan Howe’s work, and the following fall, I was one of two poets who enrolled in the newly formed MFA program at UNLV.  

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It depends on the writing project, of course. I have noticed that I seem to average a book of poems every two to three years or so.  With poems, I usually write about twice as many pages as I keep, and then there would also be a good deal of notes.   I just wrote a long essay (“Openings:  Into Our Vertical Cosmos,” forthcoming from Essay Press) that took me about three months, and again, the notes are much longer than the finished piece.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning? 
Rebecca Wolff once asked me if I ever just write a poem, and that’s when I realized that, in most cases, I start by working on a book and not on a discrete poem.  But that has begun to shift a bit.  While I am still working on serial poems, I don’t always have such a clear sense of what the larger book will look like until I have written several series.  Series merge and books emerge.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love giving readings, especially when I get the chance to read with other writers whose work I admire. This has something to do with the fact that I don’t live in an urban setting, so if I am giving a reading, I am often traveling and talking to poets, something that tends to be very generative for me. And, sometimes I sing poems, sometimes I chant.  I can’t do these things on the page in the same way.  Performing poems feels a bit like re-embodying them.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
In some ways, the current questions are the same questions I’ve always asked, though the particulars are constantly shifting.  I have always wondered what it means to be intimate with another human, to be in communion.  Questions about the role language plays in our interpersonal relationships are endlessly fascinating to me.  When I consider  the ways in which this country suffers from deep-seated racism and violence, I think perhaps our failure to truly commune is at the heart of so many of our problems.  Without the ability to connect, we bankrupt ourselves in so many ways—spiritually, ecologically, culturally and personally.  What role does language play in creating or overcoming this bankruptcy? That is a question that keeps surfacing for me, though in different contexts.

I’ve written a good deal about addiction (especially in House of Deer) because I come from a family that has suffered from various kinds of addiction, and again, this question of communion is related. I recently read about a study in which rats were offered two kinds of water—untreated water and water laced with cocaine. The rats that had both cage mates and meaningful work (which, for rats, means play) rejected the cocaine-laced water in favor of the untreated water. When I read the article, I realized that despite all the thinking and writing I had done about addiction, I didn’t fully explore the ways in which a simple connection with another creature might serve as the most powerful antidote to drug addiction.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I don’t think the writer serves one roll, and in fact, I’d probably be more inclined to say that each poem, as opposed to each poet, serves a function in the larger culture that we cannot do without. Some poems renew words by using them in unexpected or disarming ways, while other poems reproduce language, often to expose the ways language can be used to manipulate or placate us.  Sometimes poems do both at the same time, and there are countless other functions a poem can serve.  And then there are poems whose beauty moves me, and this is just as important, in my mind, as, say, the overtly political poem. 

8- Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
So far, I’d say working with editors has been fruitful and pleasant. I have nothing but good experiences with editors.  Hopefully that will continue!

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
In terms of the writing life, read more than you write. 

In terms of the larger life (which includes the writing life, of course), I hesitate to admit that the best piece of advice comes in the form of a cliché, and it isn’t so much advice as prophecy.  He who worries before it is necessary worries more than necessary.  Whenever I find I am fearful or reluctant to do something because of some potentially disastrous outcome, this phrase comes to mind and I immediately remember a dozen or so instances in which I worried for no good reason.  Then, the worry dissipates.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I gave up writing prose (with the exception of a few short essays here and there) after I had my first daughter, and I have only just returned to writing longer essays now that my second daughter is in kindergarten.  I didn’t have the mental space I needed to write essays until my children were in school full time.  At the moment, I am at work on essays and poems, more or less equally, and I tend to go back and forth without much effort.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin? 
The first thing I do every day is milk a goat.  I don’t write until my children are out of the house, and many days, I have to teach or I have meetings until they are out of school.  So, writing happens once or twice a week, on the days I don’t teach.  I do take notes off and on throughout the week, and occasionally, in the evening, I will sit down and work on something already in process.  But for the most part, I need a few hours ahead of me, preferably earlier in the day as opposed to later, to get a good amount of writing done.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
The first and best answer is reading.  But usually re-reading.  When I am stuck, I tend to return to books that I admire.  I’ve read Woolf’s The Waves over a dozen times because I adore it.  I have always found that, in addition to writing, I need tactile work as well, so if I can’t write, I will often sew, knit, embroider, work in the garden, preserve food, cook, etc.

If I am in the middle of a project, or if I am in the process of trying to put a book together, I lean heavily on my husband.  He studied poetry very seriously, but then he made a career change and went to law school.  Talking to him is always very helpful for me because while he understands what I am working on, he has a completely different perspective on the questions I am asking.  He often shows me new ways into the problems I want to address, and new ways out as well.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
My childhood home: bread.

My current home: Creek water. In the entryway of my house, there’s always a collection of buckets that serve as temporary homes for the crawdads, tadpoles and minnows my daughter catches in the canal that runs through our property. 

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Visual art has always been hugely important to me.  But now that I live out a ways, I turn more to the natural world and the domestic spaces where I spend most of my time.  Animals, children, meditation and prayer are places I tend to find material.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work? 
I like the idea of answering this question in terms of writers I know—actual people.  Of course, I could offer a long list of writers, living and dead, that I read and re-read, but it is wonderful to realize that some of those individuals on that list are people I see or correspond with regularly.   I have amazing colleagues who are also friends—Dan Beachy-Quick and Matthew Cooperman.  I am in regular contact with them not just because we work at the same institution, but because we read each other’s work, and take care of each other’s kids, and have dinner at each other’s houses.  Other poets (some of who also live nearby) whose work and whose person are crucial for me:  Julie Carr, Laynie Browne, Martin Corless-Smith, Aby Kaupang, Cathy Wagner, Claudia Keelan, and so many more.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Walk or ride my bike some great distance—across the US, through South America, around Southeast Asia. Or even just complete a century (100 miles on the bike).  I have ridden as far as 83 miles, so adding another 17 doesn’t seem too out of reach.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Growing up, I wanted to be a pilot, but now I sometimes wish I had become a visual artist. I think I am guilty of romanticizing the artist studio.  My husband and I use to fantasize about becoming travel writers for one of the budget travel guide companies.  I’d still seriously consider leaving my academic job to write for Lonely Planet’s traveling with children series. 

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
My mother says I always wrote.  Even before I could actually write words, I would dictate stories or poems and she would write them down.  But, I think encouragement had a lot to do with it.  Over the years, teachers took an interest in my writing, and gave me a sense that the writing life was a real possibility. 

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts just arrived in the mail yesterday and I stayed up way too late reading that last night.  Even though I haven’t yet finished it, I am very moved by the ways in which she talks about transformation—of the body, of the family unit, of language, etc.  I have also been devouring Karl OveKnausgaard’s Min Kamp books.  My feelings about those books are so conflicted, and not for the reasons that some have cited (the title, the exposure of his loved ones). I am completely enamored with the ways in which the domestic landscape and the landscape of the mind meet and overlap.  The conflict comes, I guess, when I think about all the women writers who have been doing similar work, in very different ways of course, but who have not yet received anywhere near the same kind of recognition. Take, for example, Bernadette Mayer who wrote her stunning Midwinter Day with her children present.  American poets know and admire her, but I don’t think her work has had the audience it deserves.  It could simply be the genre, but I do wonder if it has something to do with the interest we take in a man writing about the domestic.

Tangerines:  A film about two men who stay behind to tend their land during the war in Abkhazia.  Interestingly, this film features an absent woman too—the only woman in the film—who appears in a photograph and in conversation at a few crucial moments. 

20 - What are you currently working on?
Speaking of the domestic life interfering with the writing life, for the first time since my first child was born (9 years ago!!!), I have many projects in the works.  When my children were still very young and not in school, I seemed only able to work on one thing at a time. 

I have just finished a few essays that are both personal essays and philosophical / etymological / historical meanderings on various topics. Going back to my earlier discussion about communion, the essays seem to be trying to figure out the ways in which affect determines our interactions with one another.  For example, one of these essays deals with the experience of familiarity—how we know one another, how we recognize ourselves and each other as distinct creatures who are also defined in relationship.  I have just started a third essay, on embarrassment. 

I recently finished a book of poems entitled Gatherest that will be published by Ahsahta Press in 2017, and now I am at work on two additional poetry projects that may or may not merge.  The first I am calling Hendes because the poems take their inspiration from Catullus’s Hendecasyllabic poems.  Catullus’s form really can’t be translated into English because his meter depends on a series of long, short, and variable syllables.  My adaption is a series of 11 line poems, each line consisting of approximately 11 syllables.  Just as Catullus’s Hendecasyllabic poems start with a “sparrow, my girl’s pleasure,” my series begin with birds (chickens) and girls (my daughters) and pleasures (sex and food and affection).  There are other contextual connections throughout, and my poems tend to meander toward and away from Catullus again and again as the series proceeds.

The second project is a rewriting of the history of the region where I live, and here I am trying to be as local as possible.  I live on a little street off of a road called Overland Trail.  The road gets its name from the fact that it was once the trail many of the pioneers took west during the 1800s.  These prose poems utilize borrowed language from narratives and letters, particularly by women and girls, who were either on the wagons passing by the land where I now live or who stayed to settle it.  But the poems are also concerned with contemporary daily and domestic life.  I am interested in the convergence of notions of the land as something to settle, to cross over, to steal (from Native Americans), to take ownership of, and the land as a place we now inhabit without much thought.  In these poems, the sense of the land as a stage upon which daily life is performed becomes subject to this older version of the land as something much more dynamic and volatile.

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