An Interview with Sasha Steensen by Joshua Marie Wilkinson.
Joshua Marie Wilkinson: Your new book The Method draws from Archimedes's proofs and theorems to invent its own world of response. What first drew you to Archimedes? What were you in search of when you traveled to Turkey?
Sasha Steensen: The first encounter I had with Archimedes's The Method was through the PBS show, NOVA. They featured an hour-long program on the history of the only surviving copy of his manuscript. Though Archimedes originally wrote The Method, a collection of theorems and proofs, in the 2nd century a.d. in Syracuse, his manuscript was lost. Before it disappeared, however, it was copied by a scribe in Constantinople in the 10th century a.d. and palimpsested by a monk two centuries later. NOVA, being a program devoted to a wide range of science-related topics, seemed primarily interested in what Archimedes's proofs had to contribute to the history of science and in the various processes the manuscript would have to undergo in order to uncover these proofs. For me, it was that history of this particular surviving manuscript that fascinated me.
After surviving the 4th Crusade (most books in Constantinople burned in the fires), the manuscript was shuffled back and forth between the Christian and the Muslim worlds, and it lived in various monasteries in both Constantinople and Jerusalem. It also suffered all sorts of violations, including stolen pages and inserted forgeries. After disappearing for a few decades after WWII, the manuscript turned up in a Paris residence, and it was eventually auctioned at Christie's for $2 million. When I started the book, the Iraq war was at its height and Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo were in the news daily. Thinking about this 1000 year-old manuscript, which was continually fought over and discarded before becoming a commodity of high price, allowed me to visit some of the preoccupations of that moment from an historical perspective.
I don't know exactly what I was in search of when I went to Turkey. There were places I visited because the manuscript had once been housed there, or it was believed that it was once housed there, but even before I went to those places, I knew that the manuscript's ties to them were tenuous. I think I just wanted to be where it had been. Not surprisingly, it turns out that like the manuscript itself, these places suffered great violations too, and they are barely standing. In particular, all that remains of St. John Studios, which is thought to be where the manuscript was originally copied in 1000 a.d., is a few walls. I think there are plans to restore it, but the caretaker was nowhere to be found. Some nearby residents thought he had gone on an extended vacation. So, I couldn't get inside, but we did manage to climb on top of a pile of trash to get a better look. Though I have to admit that I shed tears when I wasn't able to get inside the ruins, looking back, I found what I needed to know to finish the book. This is not a history that is completely accessible, and though we might be able to get glimpses of it, it will always remain just out of reach. Of course, this inaccessibility was one of the things that attracted me to the manuscript in the first place, but something about going to a place to see what I knew could not be seen was crucial for me. I also have dear friends who live in Istanbul, one of whom is an Islamic Art Historian, so walking around the city with her was certainly informative. I know what she had to show me made its way into the book in some form or another. Seeing Istanbul's mosques and bathhouses, walking on its streets, having my fortune read by rabbit who selected a piece of rolled up paper that read, "Looking for satisfaction in faraway places will not lead you there—" these all seem like experiences that really directed the poems that I wrote once I returned from Turkey. The majority of the book was written before my visit to Turkey, and when I returned, the poems I wrote grappled more with the idea of the project than with the history of Archimedes's manuscript. Though those later poems have much less to do with Turkey than some of the others in the book, I don't know exactly how I would have written those poems had I not gone to Turkey.
JMW: I spent a couple of months in Turkey many years ago, so I can—at least in part—imagine the awe of a search among those landscapes. Once you got back, what was your writing process like? Certain aspects of The Method seem linked to your first work—A Magic Book—do you find them as a continuation of similar mode of composition or discovery?
SS: Many of the questions and concerns are the same between books, but The Method was very different. I wrote A Magic Book during the year when I was preparing for my oral examinations. I was writing short essays on the books I was reading, but I needed to process the readings poetically as well. The Pliny and Cotton Mather quotes that appear at the beginning of A Magic Book were really my points of departure, as I was reading both authors early on in the process of preparing for my oral examinations. I became interested in the history of magic, particularly in 18th and 19th century America, and I realized that the controversy that seemed to spring up wherever magic was performed, or even evoked, had not disappeared. Magic still frightens and fascinates us as Americans, and this poses all sorts of interesting questions about acceptable spiritual practices, the relationship between trickery and politics, our conceptions of the material and invisibles worlds, etc. So just as I was systematically preparing for my oral exams, I was reading all sorts of texts on magic—old newspaper articles, books on the history of magic, How-To books for magicians—and somehow those two modes of reading resulted in A Magic Book. The Method took longer to write. I’ve often wondered if this is because I conceived of the project not as a long poem in sections, as I did with A Magic Book, but as separate poems. I knew that The Method needed many identities, and that the poems would need to be discrete, though obviously closely linked, to really get at all these identities. All along, I knew The Method was more than just Archimedes’s collection of proofs. The particular manuscript that survived had so many identities—from its first life as theorems and proofs, to its second life as palimpsested prayer book, but also its forgeries and stolen pages went on to live another kind of life as well. And then, of course, the object eventually came to have a life as a commodity and then as a specimen under restoration. In addition, there was the life I imagined the object living over time, the events it would have witnessed. For me, The Method very quickly became a character, someone whose transtemporal existence had both empowered and debilitated him. What changed when I returned from Turkey was that I now had a tangible relationship to The Method’s most constant home, and the question of experience entered into the book. Of course, experience was there all along as it is in any text—how we as writers process events and places, and how this inevitably makes its way into the writing. It wasn’t as if I didn’t realize this, but in the process of thinking about this object and then imagining the object as a character, I hadn’t thought enough about how my own experiences were determining my portrayal of Archimedes’s The Method. On some level, I resented the object and the character I created while at the same time distrusting my own depiction of it/him. Everyone who had handled Archimedes’s text had somehow claimed ownership over it, and even if this was for the sake of protection, ownership is a kind of violence. The realization I had after Turkey was that I too had used The Method as a way of asking the questions that were on my mind—questions about war, travel, book as object, etc. And, of course, how I posed those questions was tied up in everything that was going on for me personally at the time.
This was the case from the project’s inception, but it wasn’t until a little later in the project that I took the investigation of the project itself as my subject. This corresponded to my becoming pregnant, and the obvious parallels between creating a text and creating a child were very much on my mind. This is not new subject matter—in American poetry it goes back to Anne Bradstreet—but it seems to endure. When I was in Turkey, I was six months pregnant, and the poems I wrote when I returned are very much about the long-investigated parallels between writing and creating, carrying, and birthing a child. The strongest parallel I experienced was the presence of completely conflicting emotions about both processes—just as I felt the utmost tenderness toward The Method as both object and character, I also felt that he had usurped my identity. I knew that I would experience the same emotions as a mother. As a result, the poems I wrote during the few months before my daughter was born are marked by a self-reflective, direct questioning of the book itself.
JMW: I wonder if you could discuss your mentors at Buffalo. Who did you work with there? And, from what you’ve learned from them, what trickles into your own work as a teacher in a graduate program?
SS: I am so grateful to have been in Buffalo when I was. Robert Creeley was still there, and though he wasn’t formally teaching, he was available. While I was in Buffalo, I was in a reading group focusing on Olson and Melville with a few other students—Gordon Hadfield (my husband), Kyle Schlesinger, Thom Donovan and Sarah Campbell—and one of my fondest memories is having Creeley over to our house to talk about Olson and Melville’s influence on his work. I also loved going to Creeley’s house, where he occasionally held readings, which was in this fantastic old firehouse complete with a watchtower overlooking Lake Erie and Canada. Of course, Charles Bernstein was still there, as was Susan Howe, whose influence on me, as a person, a poet, a teacher, has been incalculable. And, Myung Mi Kim and Ming Qian-Ma were hired while I was studying there, so I was able to work with them as well. I’m sure most people feel this way when they leave a dynamic program, but I am also convinced that we had one of the best groups of students to pass through that program…I can’t begin to talk about how important that was to me, coming from Las Vegas where I felt, with the exception of a few kindred souls, very alone in terms of poetry. And, believe it or not, Buffalo as a city actually gets a bad rap. I miss it.
It was fantastic to work, on the one hand, with someone like Howe, who I think of as one of the most, if not the most, important poets and thinkers of our time, and then to work with someone like Bernstein, also crucial for any understanding of contemporary poetry. Their style of teaching and their concerns are, in many ways, diametrically opposed, but rather than competing with one another, they ended up complimenting each other in very useful ways. The first semester I was in Buffalo, Charles taught a seminar called “Blank” (the description read, “this space intentionally left blank,” or something along those lines). The next semester, I took Susan Howe’s Emily Dickinson class. Quite the leap, but then again, not really. Another great thing about Buffalo’s program was that there were no requirements, no grades, so one could explore what they felt they needed to at any given time. I don’t think this works for everyone or every program, but at the time, it was just what I needed. Also, Buffalo’s program, as you probably know, is not a workshop program, and after the MFA, I really didn’t want to sit in workshops anymore. They served me well then, but I wanted to read intensely and talk about other people’s work. Almost all of us in the program at the time were poets. We read each other’s work, and we gave/ listened to too many readings (a few of us started a reading series that we called “Another Buffalo Reading Series” which was meant to be a bit more informal than the others, which it was, but the title gives you a sense of how many readings there were), so writing poetry was always part of the conversation, but it was more about what we were reading and how that influenced what we were writing.
Next semester, I will be teaching a Graduate Seminar that I’ve called “In the American Grain” after William Carlos Williams’s famous book. Of course, Howe’s influence will be huge for me as I teach this class, as will Myung Mi Kim’s, but I also learned a good deal from other courses I took at Buffalo, from more conventional scholars—courses on Civil War Literature, Visual Poetries, Puritan Literature, and Emersonian Poetics. To be honest, I sometimes long for my students to do oral examinations, which we don’t do here at CSU. I feel like the year I was preparing for my oral examinations was such a fruitful year for me, and I met weekly with my committee members to discuss what I was reading. This is a ton of work for faculty and students, but it is worth it. I try to find ways of checking in with my students in terms of their reading whenever I can, but nothing beats an orals exam, for which you are asked you to read, over the course of 9 months, 60-80 books and be prepared to answer any and all questions those books might provoke. After a few years of splitting my time between childbearing and childrearing, teaching, and only occasionally writing, I would do just about anything to be given another 9 months like that!
JMW: I’m curious to learn about place and its effects on your work. Before Turkey and Buffalo there was…Las Vegas? What was it like growing up there? And now that you’ve been in Ft. Collins for a number of years, has Northern Colorado had discernable impact on your writing?
SS: Place…I think it takes me awhile to process place. The interesting thing about Turkey is that I wrote so much about it before going there, and traveling is very different than living somewhere, of course. After spending a summer traveling around South America, my husband and I wrote a travelogue / chapbook called correspondence, and that was interesting as well, because the travels were fleeting and the writing was after the fact and in collaboration, which is always disorienting in the best possible way. But places I have lived are tougher to write about; it feels like there is more at stake. I haven’t written much about Vegas; I think repression is to blame here. It really isn’t a great place to live, but it is revealing. I went to high school in a small town outside of Vegas called Boulder City. It was built for the workers who were building Hoover Dam in the 1930’s. It is beautiful, and oddly outside of all we think of when we think of Southern Nevada (it is the only town in Nevada where gambling is illegal). I lived in Vegas when I was working on my undergraduate degree and my MFA, and so my college experiences were in no way typical. Think gambling and amphetamines. Still, Vegas is fascinating; it is American culture on steroids—waste, consumption, not community centered, pedestrian unfriendly, and hot as hell. There is such a sense of building up only to be torn down (my brother still lives in Southern Nevada, and when people ask him if he is going to the latest casino opening, he always says he only goes to implosions, which happen regularly as well, though probably not so much in this faltering economy). Anyway, I suspect Vegas will make its way into my writing more overtly at some point, but I spent so much time trying to survive living there, that I just don’t really want to go back there yet, even if only in spirit. I should say, however, that I owe my life in poetry, in many ways, to my life in Vegas. As I said earlier, my undergraduate degree is in history, but I took some workshops as an undergrad too, and during my senior year, I took a workshop from Claudia Keelan, who has since become one of the most important mentors I have ever had. She guided me through the MFA, and she has always supported me and my work. I am incredibly indebted to her, and one of the great things about being in Nevada was getting to know her and Donald Revell and their family and benefiting from their collective intelligence and generosity.
I am currently at work on a new project that is very much about place—rural Ohio, where I spent the first portion of my life. My parents were Back-to-the-Landers of a sort, and we had some land outside of a little town called Garrettsville (home of Hart Crane), where we had a huge garden and a lovely, though dysfunctional life. The book is about that place—its geography, its history, its somewhat out-of-time or at least behind-the-times reality, and it is about family, my own and the idea of family in general. Since having my own children, I have become really fascinated with the concept of family, something we take for granted, but has been with us, in various forms, for as long as we can remember.
In terms of Colorado, it is definitely there in the writing, but again, I am here now, so Colorado has a very different sort of presence. The lines of the foothills, and the distant Rocky Mountains, which I am lucky enough to see every day, influence me in strange ways. I’ve noticed that whenever I write about the foothills or the mountains, it is as if something inaccessible is going on in them, and I am watching from a distance, not knowing what I am witnessing. I am not sure what that means, exactly, but these mountains really do feel like the sublime, like something I can only access in glimpses despite the fact I can look out my window, right now, and see them.
JMW: For Poets on Teaching, you wrote a piece about chapbooks; and I know when you moved to Fort Collins you and Gordon bought a letter press to start Bonfire Press, publishing beautiful chapbooks and broadsides. What’s your connection to the materiality of the book? What do you make of things in publishing heading toward the digital?
SS: I think I was attracted to the book as object even before I could read. Children seem to intuitively understand that a book’s physical life—its size, shape, cover, etc—is not separate from the story the book tells. Perhaps we become distanced from the book as object during junior high or high school when most of our books are textbooks. This isn’t to say that textbooks aren’t fascinating objects (I have a very loved collection of old American history textbooks), but they often direct us toward a reading process that is concerned more with gathering information than they are with generating an aesthetic experience.
After working on the journal Kiosk with my husband, Gordon Hadfield, and our friend Kyle Schlesinger, who is a brilliant letterpress printer and bookmaker, both Gordon and I wanted to take what we learned from editing Kiosk and apply it to a chapbook/ broadside series. When we moved to Fort Collins, we purchased a Vandercook SP15 letterpress and started Bonfire Press. All editing is a labor of love, but the tactile experiences involved in letterpress printing and bookmaking really foster an incredible sense of intimacy with the work. It has been a great joy to connect in this way with poems I admire.
Though I started printing because I wanted to publish work I love, I have learned a good deal about teaching poetry through the practice of printing and bookmaking. In particular, I find these activities require a kind of attentiveness that is also required of students of poetry. The Instant Book exercise that I wrote for the Poets on Teaching Anthology is one way I’ve applied the lessons of letterpress printing and bookmaking in the classroom. When I teach my graduate workshops, I have the students produce print projects, and most of them describe the experience as meditative or revelatory, as they are forced to pay attention to aspects of their work they previously ignored. Letterpress printing isn’t for everyone, but it seems that every year a few students are magnetically drawn to it, and they often go on to start presses and publish the work of others. A few current students (Crane Giamo, Brad Vogler and Jared Schickling) just started a really wonderful press, Delete Press, and so far they have used our letterpress to publish work by CJ Martin and Rachel Levitsky.
The question concerning letterpress printing and bookmaking in a digital age is a fascinating one. One would think that given the ease with which work can be published digitally, printed material would become obsolete. And, to a certain extent, this is what’s happening. Look at the newspaper. On January 1st, 2007, the world’s oldest continually published newspaper—Sweden’s Post-och Inrikes Tidningar—ended 362 years of printing and went digital. All the while, Google Books continues its seemingly endless book-scanning project. On the other hand, the digitization of texts seems to have generated a resurgence in letterpress printing and bookmaking. I am not worried about the fate of the book, as many readers do not want to lose the physical connection between reader and text. At the same time, I am wary of fetishizing the chapbook or broadside. I am a populist at heart, and first and foremost, I want the work I publish to be read. At Bonfire Press, we tend to keep our projects simple and relatively cost-effective so that we can continue publishing and others can continue reading what we publish. I should say, too, that I love reading, viewing, and hearing poems that are published on-line. The internet is absolutely crucial to the survival of poetry as it provides yet another space for its publication. If we think about the history of American poetry, we begin to realize how important it has been, and continues to be, for poets to have the means of publishing their own and others’ work. Think of Whitman and Dickinson. Whitman’s 1855 Leaves of Grass was completely produced and publicized by his own hand—from manuscript, to printed book, to (very positive) ghostwritten reviews. And I think of Dickinson’s carefully handwritten, sewn fascicles as an act of self-publication. For the American poet, then, the creation and production of poetry have long been undivided acts, and the internet give us yet another venue for publishing the work we find crucial.
JMW: You’ve made some recent additions to your family—congratulations! How is child-rearing changing your ideas about your poetry writing practice—or is there time to think about it at all?
SS: It has been a busy four years, and I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t slowed down my writing. At the same time, birthing and caring for my children has made writing all the more crucial for me. I am a much better mother when I am engaged in stimulating work. I have also found that my children have shifted my attention to areas I hadn’t thought I wanted to explore in my poetry. I finished The Method about six months after my first daughter, Phoebe, was born. Since then I have been working on a project that is inextricably tied to my family life and my own childhood. It is part autobiography, part history of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s, part meditation on the life and work of Hart Crane, part Ohio history, and part pastoral poem. Once I had children, it became important to consider the origin of my notions of family life, which meant trudging through some conflicting material. My parents taught me things about parenting that I absolutely do not want to repeat; they were young, and not quite ready to be parents. Lots of dysfunction and chaos. But at the same time, I was much loved, and my childhood was, in many ways, idyllic. I grew up on a farm outside of Garrettsville, Ohio (home of Hart Crane) where our huge garden supplied nearly all of our food. We bartered for things like meat, dairy, maple syrup, etc. It has dawned on me that all parenting is an experiment of a sort, and family life is probably the oldest experiment of communal living known to humans, though now it is so commonplace that we rarely think of it as an experiment. We think of it as conventional, which culturally, it certainly is. Yet, no one family functions in the same way as the next. I’ve come to realize that my parents, who are dreamers in a way, pared the parenting project with a rural lifestyle that they knew nothing about, and this continues to inform my own sense of myself as a parent. In short, I guess I didn’t know how fascinating I’d find conceptions of family before I started my own, and for the moment, that fascination is making its way into my work.
This interview first appeared in Denver Quarterly, 2010.