“I lose my bearings, happily, in the face of it”: A conversation with Sasha Steensen
Early on in Sasha Steensen’s House of Deer (Fence Books, 2014), she writes, “as you know, unspoken thoughts rot.” It is this awareness of the natural and inevitable patterns that we are subject to, despite the human way we manipulate our futures based on our values and desires, that makes this book worth reading. By examining family and landscape side by side so intensely that the boundaries between the two blur, Steensen is able to unveil at once how separate we are from, and how similar we are to, what lives and grows around us. I was glad to be able to speak with Sasha about the way poetry can expand to hold the ideas we need it to.
AMANDA MCCONNON: These poems all seem very much part of a whole that’s centered around families, ecosystems, landscapes, etc. Where did the idea come from to examine all of these different systems, almost small universes in their own right, together through poems?
SASHA STEENSEN: The short answer is from the poems themselves. As is often the case, poems make certain demands on the poet in the act of writing. The longer answer, I suppose, is that I did begin knowing that I wanted to write about family, and in particular, my family of origin. My family was quite tied to our landscape(s)—first and foremost, our land in rural Ohio and then the Mojave Desert. These landscapes were the sites where I first learned what family could mean, and so I had no choice but to re-enter them in the poems.
I began writing these poems after the birth of my first child and finished them shortly after the birth of my second, so I was concerned not only with the lessons I learned about family from my own parents, but also with the lessons I was teaching my children. Inevitably, I wanted and needed to move beyond these lessons as well—to see what family has meant historically. I longed to learn more about my human family, a structure that has always been tied to, and defined by, the land. The work of uncovering these different versions of “family” felt akin to excavation not just in a metaphorical way, but also quite literally. After all, finding our ancestors (Lucy at the Afar Triangle, for example) leaves a scar on the surface of the earth but also reveals our ancient contact and intimacy with the land.
Families are vulnerable and volatile, but also highly productive systems (so much is produced, and consumed, in order that the family can continue). It strikes me that the earth, too, has these characteristics. And our presence on it has made it all the more so—we have made the earth more “productive” (at least from the point of view of agriculture, etc) but we have destroyed so much in the process, and as we know, it becomes more and more volatile as a result. Ultimately, just as the family demands that its members move beyond self-care and self-preservation (and here I recognize the irony—having children is an act of self-preservation, but to preserve the children one has, one must deny oneself so often, and the same can be said for the adult children who must later care for their aging parents), the earth demands the same. If we don’t meet these demands, families fall apart, and so do ecosystems. And, finally, if I am to be completely honest, I worry deeply, on a very selfish (or family-preserving) level, that my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will have no place to grow their families. The earth simply won’t allow us to live here much longer.
AM: How do you feel poetry allowed you to address these ideas differently than if you had decided to write a prose memoir or essay?
SS: Certainly, I could have written this story in the form of prose, but as your question implies, it would have been told differently. This material just didn’t feel as accessible in prose. Of course, the material for this book was never “accessible” at all, despite the fact that so much of it is my history, my past. I was both retrieving and imagining at the same time, and the border between these two activities is hard to locate. Poetry makes space for the inaccessible. I don’t mean that to be a metaphor—poetry literally makes space on the page and silence in the air. Susan Howe says, “If history is the record of survivors, Poetry shelters other voices.” She is talking mostly about the histories that precede the writer, but I felt this keenly as I worked on this book. One’s own childhood is simultaneously remote and vivid, and poetry’s rhythms and cadences convey this in a very particular way.
At the moment I am writing a good deal of prose, so my knee-jerk reaction to my own comments above is fascinating me. I want to say something like, “there is a lot of interesting nonfiction being written at the moment that acknowledges these silences and spaces too,” and there is, but ultimately, poetry, close as it is to music, will always be more nimble than other forms of writing. In this flexibility, it can sneak, almost undetected, through that border between retrieving and imagining a bit quicker than the other genres.
Oh, now I am making poetry seem sneaky—I don’t mean to—but rather, its ability to work on me in so many ways simultaneously—intellectually, physiologically, emotionally, sonically, etc—is thrilling, and I lose my bearings, happily, in the face of it.
AM: I think you even touch on this idea in the poems themselves. In “Election Day” you write, “It’s not just a form of episodic memory in which boundaries between then and now are / smoothed over so that a coherent narrative of a permanent self with a past emerges. / The town has barely changed.” Can you talk a little about the specific past of the speaker in this book and how that past reconciles itself, or doesn’t, with the present?
SS: In poetry, the relationship between speaker and author is often very vexed. I am, and I am not, the speaker of the poems in this book. Not only do I sometimes speak as my adult self, but I also speak from the vantage point of a somewhat imagined childhood self. And, at other moments, I am a storyteller telling someone else’s story entirely (as in The Girl and the Deer, for example), but all along I hope I am registering the fact that the self is in constant flux, from moment to moment. I love what Michel De Montaigne says about this in his essay “Of the Inconsistency of our Actions:” “We are all patchwork, and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game. And there is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others.”
But you asked about “the specific past,” by which I think you mean, the details of my childhood? On the one hand, it was very much like the childhood many middle-class American children experienced in the 1970s, and I wanted that to come across (hence all the popular culture and historical event references). On the other hand, I had the somewhat unique opportunity to really examine the ways in which geography and demographics can shift one’s sense of identity. When I was still in elementary school, we moved from rural Ohio, where we had a very intimate relationship to the land—gardening and living a good ways from town, surrounded by Amish neighbors—to Boulder City, Nevada, a town just outside of Las Vegas. My life in Ohio was very different from my life in Nevada, and I realized even then that one’s surroundings have a huge impact on who a person can and will become.
We eventually moved back to Ohio (and later, back to Nevada again), so I found myself always thinking about these contrasts. The moving back and forth had a good deal to do, however, with a certain level of familial dysfunction. At the time, my father was searching for a solution to his alcoholism and he wasn’t quite ready to actually quit drinking (he’s now been sober for several decades), so moving was often posited as a new beginning, as was our back-to-the-land experiment. It is a self-help cliché—wherever you go, there you are—and it is true on some levels, but it is also not completely accurate. You may have brought your problems with you, but if your surroundings are so dramatically different, the new “there” can feel like a real rupture, especially for a child.
This brings me, in a round about way, to the second part of your question—about the past “reconciling” itself with the present. You prompted me to think about that word a bit, and it implies a kind of restoration, or a return to unity or harmony. In this sense, I would say that there can be no reconciliation between past and present. There will always be a chasm between what is happening now and what has happened in the past—maybe that’s where poetry comes in. Perhaps poetry can register this chasm even as it attempts to make a space where past and present can communicate with one another. Nonetheless, I do think one can reconcile oneself with one’s own past, and by this I simply mean, examine it and think about how it might, on the one hand, still be operative in the present moment, and how, on the other, it can fall away.
AM: In “Fragments” you write, “This was meant to be a story, and it may be. / Learning to recognize a story is a long and difficult process.” At what point in the process of writing these poems did you come to decide the story you wanted to tell? How crucial was it for you to establish a narrative?
SS: In a very general way, I knew I wanted to tell the story of my childhood, particularly the early years living on the land in Ohio, but as is often the case in the process of writing, some stories fall away and others emerge. I thought that I would write more directly and extensively about Hart Crane, as I was always interested in the coincidences that connected us—he was born in Garrettsville (the town closest to our property, and the town where I went to school), and he lived later in Chagrin Falls (the town where I was born). I have always been connected to his work and fascinated by his life, so he figured largely in my initial thinking on the project. At some point, however, I began telling other stories—stories about addiction and dysfunction, and a larger story about how we organize ourselves into family structures.
I don’t think I ever felt that it was crucial for me to develop a narrative, at least not in the traditional sense. What I did realize early on is that one’s sense of story originates in the family—it is here where we first learn how to tell and interpret a story. But it is never one story, and the stories are often contradictory, so the child is left negotiating the fissures between these stories. In that sense, I hope there are several narratives in this book, and that they are somehow speaking to and against each other at the same time. I gravitate toward poetry because it manages to tell stories without neutralizing the difficulty inherent in the processing of contradictory and fragmented stories. I hope this doesn’t seem too self-indulgent, but as soon as I read your question, I immediately heard the next few lines that come after the lines you quote, so it seems worthwhile to repeat them here—“Learning to recognize a story is a long and difficult process. / It is the domain of the family,/ meaning it begins in infancy. Its importance is born of its difficulty.”
AM: I like what you say about poetry being a place where different narratives can basically conflict without cancelling each other out. What advice would you give to poets who are looking to incorporate their own difficult and contradictory narratives into their work?
SS: This will sound a bit generic, but “read” would be my first piece of advice. Find books that deal with narrative in ways that complicate linear, chronological narrative, or books that admit and embrace fallibility in their own stories. Books that come to mind immediately are Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Eleni Sikélianòs’s The Book of Jon, and Bhanu Kapil’s humanimal. I often tell my students that they need to teach their readers how to read their book, especially when they are offering narratives that don’t function in the conventional ways. I find it can be very helpful to look to other books with this very question in mind—how is the author teaching me how to read this book? This doesn’t mean that the book can’t upend its own rules, but it does mean that the book is, in some sense aware of, and attempting to communicate, its structure(s) and its desire(s).
The other piece of advice I have, I am sorry to say, is a cliché: Be patient and honest with yourself. House of Deer took me much longer to write than my other two books, partially because of the personal and painful nature of the subject matter (and partially because I had babies and small children to care for during the years I wrote this book). And, in terms of what I mean by “honesty,” I am a big fan of poets who admit their failures in the act of writing, poets who move into the space of their failure (or the failure of language, or both) and reside there for a while.
Find a copy of House of Deer on IndieBound
Sasha Steensen is the author of three books of poetry: House of Deer, A Magic Book, The Method, all from Fence Books, and several chapbooks, including A History of the Human Family (Flying Guillotine), and The Future of an Illusion (Little Red Leaves). Essays and poems have appeared in Jubilat, The Laurel Review, Omniverse, The Volta, Black Warrior Review, Boston Review, and Denver Quarterly, among others. She teaches Creative Writing at Colorado State University, where she also serves as a poetry editor for Colorado Review.