Author Q&A: Selah Saterstrom

Selah Saterstrom is the author of the novels Slab, The Meat and Spirit Plan, and The Pink Institution, all published by Coffee House Press. In the fall of 2016, her book of essays, Ideal Suggestions, will be published by Essay Press. She is the Director of Creative Writing at the University of Denver.

Author Q&A

TBL Author Q&A Series: Selah Saterstrom

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

Tell us about yourself – how would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?

There is how writing began and there is how my writing career began, which came much later and is what I will address here.

I want to begin by acknowledging my privilege; the professional privileges I have enjoyed because I am a white person in this country. I do this, in part, because racism in the literary culture of the United States is currently in a state of revelation, that is: it is currently being revealed. I would add: to some (whites). Racism is never news or revelatory to people of color.

White privilege in the literary world, so often costumed in a seemingly liberal rhetoric, is slipping beneath its own railing, the (re)marks, not staying in “the lines.” I am thinking of many, in my opinion, recent public performances of white privilege in the literary world. So, I don’t want to talk about careers and how they happen without also talking about white privilege, and what I am realizing is that I think it would be irresponsible not to do so.

I have been fortunate to be published by a respected independent press and, subsequently, to get a great teaching job. Both of these events have brought extraordinary opportunities on every level: spiritual, logistical, creatively, karmic (ha!), and so on. Neither would have occurred without the support of others. People like Laird Hunt, who was an early advocate of my first novel getting published with Coffee House Press, come to mind for sure.

What can you tell us about the publication process? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed?

After I completed my first novel, I had no idea what to do next. I had never published anything, anywhere. I received valuable advice from (writer and mentor) Rebecca Brown. She suggested I look at my bookshelves and see what presses I read. I went to the books that had a lot of impact on my thinking at the time. A quick survey revealed this to be Coffee House Press. I loved the books they were publishing, and then I read their mission statement and realized I resonated their mission. Coffee House read my submission out of their slush pile. It means a lot to me that they continue to accept unsolicited manuscripts. I just really adore this about Coffee House, and hope they always keep this habit. I’ve now published three novels with them, about a thirteen-year relationship.

I also tell my students what I have learned through conversation and friendship with the great publisher, Christian Peet [publisher of Tarpaulin Sky Press]: if you want to be published in literary journals or be part of a literary community: participate. I experience and frame this as a sort of tithing: to give presence to that which you seek to also be supported and uplifted by. I want to get across to students that reciprocity is important and changes the experience of being a writer in the world.

What are some of the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? Can you speak to the process of artfully integrating content and form in a lyrical prose context?

Surveying past projects, I could probably leave it at: the disaster. That said, I am interested in gaps, breaks, inconsistencies, and ruptures as places of potential energy that might offer ontological suggestions about the flux/mess of being. I am interested in how our tongues fork in order to speak experiences of radical loss. I am interested in how humans persist, amidst suffering, and also how humans enter into cycles of decay and/or shift into the costumes of absence. I am interested in the technologies of the sacred, which disorient all of the frequencies. I am interested in divination: positioning myself at the juncture of diverse crossroads that I might hear and see anew.

I am interested in these things because I feel like language—unfixed, unstable—is a subtle indicator, rather like the bees. Language has information about the larger situation, and can indicate the interstices within the density where we can position ourselves and listen. Which is to say, language might have some information about what it means to be human and, I believe, how we might be more humane. Which is why we need more narrative logics that are non-white, non-privileged…

In terms of the second part of your question: the relationship between form and content endlessly fascinates. The seam where the two meet can express countless textures; that seam, a sort of scar-borderland where fabulous trespass can (and hopefully does) occur. Trespass into the wild in Fanny Howe’s bewilderment.

In my own process, sometimes form is churned from the guts of the content, and sometimes form is placed upon the content like a lace veil or like fire, and then the content distorts until the piece clicks into its moment. Either way—form from within or form from without—I try to listen to what the work needs (which often differs from whatever it was that I thought or hoped the work was about). I try to make formal choices by way of deep listening.

I don’t think this is, to use the term you mentioned, “artful” integration. I don’t know if I’m sure what that means. My friend Marlon MacAllister, an urban sci-fi writer and radical gardener, talks about gardenpunk, and sometimes I think I am seeking an aesthetic that embodies or reflects this, but I do not think this would generate “artful results.” He writes that gardenpunk is for people who, “after years struggling to find place, purpose, and meaning have found only closed borders, broken philosophical frameworks, and uncomprehending oppression.” He says that gardenpunk is what you do, “at the limit of sense-making.” He says that gardenpunk “fills our psychological emptiness with a profusion of mugwort and mulberries.” I long for this over what is probably considered “artful.”

What can you tell us about your experience as a teacher of writing?

I can tell you that teaching writing has been an amazing experience. I have come to see the workshop as an alchemical chamber (I envision this as a kind of sacred heart on an antique prayer card). A place where one might risk (failure) on behalf of their most urgent work. A place, on the frontlines of our collective guts, where we might experiment with how to collaborate with uncertainty, where we might have needed, difficult, and also hilarious conversations (because comedy orbits a dark sun). A place where we might say again our vows to writing (to invoke Anne Waldman), which includes a commitment to craft, but also gorgeously backlights the notion that writing, in addition to all that it is (and is not), is also a commitment to a certain kind of attunement to the world. Punctum-open, punctum drenched.

There is the ongoing debate: Can writing be taught? I’m not trying to teach anyone how to write. I’m trying to co-create potential ontological zones of contact where students might hone their skills and encounter the unfixed nature of language in poignant ways so that they might uncover their most pressing work as well as what they need to make that work.

Is there any advice you would give to emerging writers?

Your question prompted me to consider something I notice myself saying a lot to students, a position formed in collaboration with students in the workshop, over the years:

The world rarely gives one permission to be a visionary.

I like that within this position there is a charge to make one’s work in a way that trumps notions of permission, approval, or even understanding. I also like that within this position, writing = being a visionary. I find the stakes to be very high in writing or I want them to be.

We live in a culture that does not value visionaries (capitalism plays a roll in this conversation), and have minimized and/or forgotten the importance of writers and artists (arts programming always first to get cut within institutions, etc). At no time in history when there has been genocide have visionary pursuits been considered secondary or innocuous. Rather, one of the first things to be destroyed are the stories of that culture: the art, writing, evidence of thinking and experiment, and their makers. And precisely because death mongers know that when you take away the visions (and those that have them in service of the community), you derange hope and the human spirit itself, which works very well for the death monger agenda(s).

I think it is also important to say that the notion of the world rarely gives one permission to be a visionary invokes a very particular reality for writers of color. Saeed Jones recently wrote on twitter, “Realizing that I used to think having my work appear in Best American would mean I had *made* it. LOL. Fuck y’all. I’m gonna make myself.” For people of color this position can be rooted in a kind of survival white writers can’t understand.

What would you say is the most important element for crafting a good story, poem, etc?

I think of writing as a collaboration with uncertainty. For me it is very important to attempt to make writing choices on behalf of what the work requests and necessitates. As I mentioned earlier, this is often different from what I thought or hoped the work was “about.” Writing provides many opportunities to practice non-attachment.

All of which is to say, I try to listen. To put an ear to the ground of the text at various junctures in the mess of its swamps and listen—a sort of dowsing—for where the pulses are. How deep does one listen? As deep as one dares. Writing is not for the faint-hearted.