profiles in linguistics and poetics: Selah Saterstrom

Selah Saterstrom


Selah Saterstrom is a writer whose visceral honesty transcends us to corners of the sacred divine. We encounter magic in the ordinary: mud, couch boats, yellow swimwear, and the devil. We contemplate cultural pastels of violence, beauty, and the body. Saterstrom’s hybrid form shifts between prose and poetry, focusing instead on the “syntactical constellations in the field of the sentence”. Here the energy of the language finds its desired impression in form on the page. She continues, “I have always felt inscription (mark making) as an act of love.”

In her forthcoming novel SLAB, out from Coffee House Press, we encounter the frictive and cooperative positions of animals and humans. The particularity of our humanity is that our “interiors,” as Saterstrom explains, often take on very similar textures to the interiors of animals. Saterstrom argues, in this case, a need to linguistically address these variables. We as readers are asked to contemplate these discussions in an alternative textuality. There is importance in this “not knowing,” she writes, “a way to approach uncertainty as something we all must bear.”

Selah Saterstrom is the author of The Pink Institution (Coffee House Press / 2004) & The Meat and Spirit Plan (Coffee House Press / 2007). She is on faculty in the University of Denver’s graduate creative writing program and in the Naropa Summer Writing Program.

1.) What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer?

The devil and the color yellow, I’d have to say.

As a child I often stayed with extended family. I have fond memories of living with my (so it seemed!) hundreds of cousins at my grandparent’s house in the country. Certainly there was no money for baby-sitters or extravagant toys so we made our own games…we played Boat Disaster, in which the couch was a boat and half of us were on it trying to sort out how to survive and the other half were sharks who had to pull the people on the boat overboard and eat them, we played Honky-Tonk, in which we put mud water in beer cans we found at the levee and then drank them…and often, when grown-ups needed us out of the way, and they always did, they’d tell us to go in the yard and dig for the devil. A lot of time was spent doing this. Sometimes we felt we were getting close. We’d say: it’s getting hot. I do not know why I connect this memory to early experiences of writing, but I do and always have.

Possibly because during this time I was also learning to read and also write my name.

Toward the end of first grade, I was to receive a special visitor, a big deal. She was an amazing presence – tall, perfumed, dressed to the nines, and she said, “I am going to read you a story.” And she did. This story was about a very 1970’s caterpillar named Yellow. By the end, I understood a great many things I had not before. She let me keep this book. It was my prized possession and in a gesture of holiness I let my cousins mark its pages with crayons. Their marks struck me as thoughtless (hardly their faults), but I remember feeling grief about this. What I take from that experience is how, through story, I was first able to approach uncertainty as something we all must bear, and also that I have always felt inscription (mark making) as an act of love.

Yellow Part 2. When I was seven my mother was in hospital for an extended stay. She was released for a weekend visit staged at an efficiency apartment my father rented at the time. At this apartment complex, there was a swimming pool. A place I wanted to go, but I was without a bathing suit and shy. My mother mysteriously brought “prizes” to this weekend visit. One was a fancy Izod bathing suit, yellow and white striped. The other was a blue book, gold stamped flourishes on the cover, filled with blank pages, which I had no interest in.

So with a positive attitude, I attempted the swimming pool. Off I went and in I jumped into the pool stuffed with howling children, but when I got out of the water I was mortified to discover my bathing suit had gone completely see-through. Made of a material similar to panty-hose, it was a designer knock-off naked modifier suit, alas. In a devastated mood I returned to the empty efficiency, and intuitively opened the blue book and began writing. The story I wrote was called “Erma” and it was about a girl who receives a transforming makeover at the Clinique counter at the mall and an invitation to a party (where she knew, via the Clinique beauty expert, a cute boy would also be)…only to drown herself at sunset. It was basically a really bad rip-off of Cinderella or perhaps a (very!) low quality premonition of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. This was, I suppose, my first short story, and I have often thought of it: how writing began as a way to both leave and stay, to question and experiment with the possibilities in life. The fake see-through bathing suit was probably the perfect introduction preparing me for a life of vulnerability, such as writing requires. Little did I know how much more naked I’d end up through writing…

2.) Who have been mentor writers in your career?

Rebecca Brown, Laird Hunt, Michael Klein, Joan Fiset, Micheline Aharonian Marcom, Anne Waldman, Akilah Oliver, Eléna Rivera, Tama Baldwin, Eileen Myles, Helen Humphreys – these are important figures that at once come to mind. The work and lives of these writers have been an example to me. Their varied generosities have functioned as miracles in my life. They have taught me about integrity, listening to the work – what it necessitates, fierceness, honesty, the role of the body, not to mention the marvelous potential for syntactical constellations in the field of the sentence.

3.) How has your own work changed over time and why?

I have always taken to heart the Irish painter Francis Bacon’s charge: one should subvert what one can do easily. This reminds me not to become co-dependent on “moves” that feel natural or that I otherwise know how to make with some polish or confidence (which is probably only ever a performance, easily deconstructed). One aspect of every project has included doing the technical thing that feels impossible. This has been a way to keep my practice honest and deepen my meditations on the medium. Also, Fanny Howe reminds us of the Islamic prayer, Lord, increase my bewilderment. This speaks to me about a need to trespass into the unknown (book). Not as a way to know, but to more poignantly experience not-knowing. I find that the work requires the cultivation of subversion and bewilderment.

4.) Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

Wherever and however text appears, I will give it consideration and inevitably be influenced by it if I go on to behold it with attention. I have been influenced by lousy translations of Japanese films and government forms. I have (…to a kind of big extent) been influenced by trash and its textuality (text in a state of decay, visceral juxtaposition; text disrupted out of its content into a glowing – be it beautiful or horrific – divinatory context). It is all a vista unto/into the medium.

5.) What are your plans for the future?

My novel SLAB will be published. I feel this book as the third and final installment in a trilogy focusing on a particular family in the Deep South. Meanwhile I am working on several projects.

I am writing a book with the poet Jennifer Denrow concerned with reading landscapes via traces, stains, weeds…disaster imprints — how many words are there for this multivalent gesture our hearts are obsessed with? We are traveling, writing letters/lyric essays – who knows? It is a work so much in process. Next stop: Chernobyl, Northern Ireland, Detroit, Ray Town.

For a long time the poet James Belflower and I have been working on a book. We meet across time zones in google-docs and simultaneously write/erase/form this text. It began as a way to discuss Cixous’ valentine to Derrida (Insister). Our reading became writing (which of course all readings do). In my mind, I call this book: CATACBOMBS PAPERED IN VALENTINES, I don’t know what James calls it. We are, through live-time writing, trying to find one another, each always just out of range, view…there are a lot of echoes and intimate approximations, and it feels like this text takes place in the twisting undergrounds of cities, burial sites, theoretical texts. This project has taught me how thrilling writing can be and has helped me, in many ways, to remain sane.

I am also working on a text/image book of poems. I do not know if this is a book of love poems or meditations on the Isenheim Altarpiece painted by Matthias Grünewald in the sixteenth century. It may also be about the origins of New Thought movement in the 1890s. These influences seem impossible and ridiculous! But there they are, somehow.

6.) What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

I began to try and answer this question, but ended up daydreaming about writing a hundred books. I would say that my view is pained. My view is in a state of desire. My view is hopeful. My view is astonished. My view is disrupted. My view is rapturously attentive. My view is antithetical to the solution. My view is in a state of being present for miracles. My view is vibrating off the charts of my nervous system. My view is of my niece’s darling frame while she sings at the very top of her fresh, unburnt lungs. It is shaped like Kansas. My view is of the ocean. Is swamp and Bigfoot prints and Roni Horn and Eva Hesse guts. It is local, inter-stellar, cellular. It is French and Ukraine and Southern. It is expensive lipstick and thrift store slips. My view is of my friend Erin’s face at the dinner party (when she remembers her dead mother), and a memory of my own mother’s face, hooked into the machine, straining, to say a single word. My view is of the faces of many friends, alive / dead, across the table, lamenting-celebrating, clink-clink (and then sunrise).

I don’t know how to answer except to wake in the question, every day, and try. There are things I could say about the state of contemporary publishing and so on. I don’t mean to invoke litany as a means to avoid, but is a huge question I’m not sure I can fully answer here, and it is a question that moves me toward writing as if writing were the burning response.

7.) Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

I want to look at them all, don’t you? Many very exciting writers come to mind…Laura Davenport, Andrea Rexilius, Deborah Poe, Kristen Nelson, Brandi Homan…

For example, at the moment I am very excited by the work Elizabeth (Frankie) Rollins. She has love affairs with sentences: so many planes of existence shoot through her humming, shivering line. She has put her novel, Origin, on-line, publishing it in installments. In so doing she is genuflecting to 19th century reading practices and also exploring contemporary strategies for reading communities. Also, I am over the moon that Dzanc Books will be publishing Sara Veglahn’s exquisite book, The Mayflies. Keening and spooky sentences – vignettes that feel like “cold spots” in a haunted house. Her ability to lay bare a post-industrial loneliness and reveal the vast distance between beings – the paradox of intimacy – is marvelous.

8.) If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

Florist, diviner, dinner party planner, Aquarius.

9.) Your work is hybrid poetry/pros by nature, sometimes swaying towards a more normative definition, but never allowed to sit still. How do you approach the structural difference between pros and poetry? Do you believe that their needs to be a distinction? When you disassemble these fields are their certain areas that you believe to be less alienating avenues for poetry and or pros?

In terms of structural differences and approach…I feel my job is to make choices that the work (the visitation) requires, which is often contrary to what I might fancy. The urgency to do right by the visitation, as it seeks (book) form, trumps my need to understand or locate myself in genre – even as I am aware of, and hungrily intrigued by, manifestations of lyric planes sliding on top of one another’s surfaces.

I don’t mean to suggest that we don’t have will as writers – that we can’t overlay worthy structures onto/into the work, and so forth. And I don’t wish to suggest that the unstable line between poetry/prose is not a rich place to shimmer in (necessary) conversation (which is what strikes me as important concerning the distinction between genres, which is to say: investigating difference might liberate us into a state of allowing forked tongues which can speak all that seems necessary or impossible).

10.) In your forthcoming work SLAB, which takes on numerous forms including a theatrical play, narrative, poetry, and the many blurs between, attention is made in specific regards to the tension between the animalistic nature of human beings and our more animalistic tendencies. They blur. We are asked to look at for example: the nature of modern medicine’s technological ability to attach the face of a dead woman to that of a live woman who had been mauled by a dog. This is juxtaposed to the field of a page where the breeds of dogs are capitalized. Just as my name or yours, we as readers are stimulated to address the power of capitalizations and how these constructs operate in a western patriarchal structure. A name is capitalized, perhaps more poignantly, signifier, “I”; the mind is capitalized. In SLAB, we are in a world where in many cases animal, in this case dogs, respond in a more appropriate humane response than their master counterparts. These are tangible life occurrences. Could you please elaborate on these meditations, describe your intention behind these frictions, and speak to how they manifest in your work?

Yes, the new novel (forthcoming) is obsessed with animals. One of the main characters in SLAB is Tiger (who, at one point, becomes an actual tiger: hooray!). Dogs are a big theme, too. When I began writing this book, I couldn’t fathom having a pet. But then half way through, I got a dog.

I am extraordinarily moved that some animals choose to align with humans. During [hurricane] Katrina, I was very struck by the dogs, in particular. Devastated, often bent towards any given affection, but at times, competition, in packs, frightening. They died, as many people also did. After a few days dead, unattended, their bloated gaseous bodies went off as bombs – their feathery death textures coating the remains of many ashy layers of on-going suffering. All of us – dogs and humans, etc. – at times performed our interiorities, side by side, which created what felt like a streaming series of revelations. But inside this form of revelation there was (key ingredient) concealment/blur/obscurity. This kind (these kinds) of revelation suggests a new grammar (syntax, morphology, inflections, phonology, semantics), which performs Midrash upon – writes beyond – (but is certainly not limited to) patriarchy.

I don’t know if this describes the intentions behind certain frictions, but that is what comes up for me in the moment.