Sasha Steensen is the author of three books of poetry: House of Deer, A Magic Book, and The Method, all from Fence Books. She lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, where she tends chickens, goats, bees, and children. She serves as a poetry editor for Colorado Review and teaches creative writing and literature at Colorado State University. Her poems “16” and “25” from Hendes can be found here. More poems appear in the Mar/Apr 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing Hendes?
The poems in Hendes 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, though we tend to think of his Hendecasyllabics as poems with eleven syllables per line. I was drawn to the number eleven. It seemed just barely excessive, but also short and uneven. My adaptation is to use this eleven-syllable line in a poem consisting of eleven lines.
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, but my poems tend to meander toward and away from Catullus again and again as the series proceeds. I have also found that my rendering of Catullus’s form lends itself to a consideration of dwelling—not just in a house, or in a community—but within the day itself. I hope that my Hendes are able to give themselves over to the quotidian in a way that honors and expands the connection between our most intimate relationships and our more public interactions.
You mention the writing process within the poem itself: “The middle of this poem, / for some many months, remained empty.” What part remained empty, and how long did it take for you to fill it in? Could you tell us a bit more about the larger project?
It says what it means! I don’t say that to be snide, but truly, the first seven or so lines of this poem came to me quite easily, and I knew I wanted to come back to the breeze at the end of the poem. For a few weeks, I wasn’t sure what would get me back to the breeze. Ultimately, it turned out to be the sunlight. I simply wanted to be honest and tell my reader that I wasn’t sure how to return. I wasn’t sure how the poem would find its way.
Please tell us more about the Henri Lefebvre quote, “We work to earn our leisure and leisure has only one meaning—to get away from work.” When did you first encounter this quote? Did you intend to work it in intentionally, or were you surprised when it became a part of this poem?
As I was working on this particular poem, I was reading Critique of Everyday Life. Overall, the Hendes want to register the happenings of daily life, including reading and more mundane tasks as well. I had also been thinking about the relationship between work and leisure, mostly because I tend to experience the line between work and leisure as very fine. As a poet, my work is my leisure, in some sense. But also, as a family who keeps chickens, goats, and bees and tends a garden in the warmer months, we spend most of our weekends working outside. It is a joy, but it is work.
Obviously, the Lefebvre quote refers to the situation most workers face—one in which their work is not necessarily rewarding personally or monetarily. This is why he argues that leisure must break from the everyday—it must be a break from an oppressive workweek. And, I agree that leisure is so much more important, and so much harder to achieve, for those who have jobs that offer no immediate reward beyond meager pay. I think these poems want to imagine a way in which work might be itself a kind of leisure and leisure a kind of work. The reality is that this is not available to most people, but can the poem be a place in which leisure and work can be said to coexist? Can we see within the poem a model that suggests ways in which this kind of merging might be possible on a larger scale? I suppose the poems are attempting to consider such questions.
The last stanza focuses on the violent and tender death of a honey bee. In your previous books, you’ve written about families of deer, “landwhales,” “seahippos,” and many other creatures. What appeals to you about writing about animals? Do you find you’re writing more about the natural world in your recent work?
Yes, it seems that I have been writing about animals quite a lot in my more recent projects. With House of Deer, I was drawn to animals because I set out to investigate social structures, particularly the human family. I wanted to think about the ways in which animals depend on each other and organize themselves into groups (or don’t organize themselves into groups) as a way of complicating or troubling our often limited conceptions of what constitutes a family.
In Hendes, which is ongoing at this point, animals show up because they are a large part of my daily life. My day begins with feeding them and letting them out to pasture, and my day ends with making sure they have what they need for the night.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
I’m not sure my process has changed all that much, actually. I tend to write for many hours at a time, and therefore, I don’t write every day. I have worked on daily projects (a few years back I wrote a series of poems for Lent, which make up the first part of my next book, Gatherest, forthcoming from Ahshata Press), but I generally need big blocks of time. Just recently, I started going away for a few days a year to write, which has been wonderful.
At the same time, as life’s demands have increased throughout the years, I have found that in order to keep writing, I must allow these demands to enter the poem. In Hendes, the poem’s concerns emerge out of daily life. Thinking happens, as it does in any lived life, in and among the quotidian. For example, in a recent poem, delousing my daughter’s head becomes an opportunity to consider the tension between the human body as a habitat for other species and a destructive inhabitant of earth.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
My children. The child’s needs, however large or small, punctuate the day. Quite frankly, it is difficult to find the time or space to write when their needs are so pressing. I know of no other way to keep writing but to allow these demands to enter the poem.
Beyond impacting my poetic subject matter, parenting has led me into new formal experimentations. With limited time, I find myself drawn toward formal structures that span many poems. By working with predetermined formal characteristics and serial poems, I am able to more quickly enter into the poem’s space. One of the gifts of working through anything that challenges our ability to write is that the challenge can become a pleasure. I have enjoyed discovering the ways in which the day and the poem can both expand when one takes the time to attend to them.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
Best advice: Read more than you write.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
Besides the Hendes project, I have just finished a few essays that are both personal essays and philosophical/etymological/historical meanderings on various topics. Some of the essays seem to be trying to figure out the ways in which affect determines our interactions with one another. A recent essay 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.
Another essay, which was published online with Essay Press last fall, is an attempt to think through a bout of insomnia I experienced. I kept coming back to the image of the tunnel, so the essay is, in some sense, an investigation of actual and metaphoric tunnels just as it is a consideration of sleep. While that essay deals less with affect, it feels in line with the others in crucial ways. I have just started a third essay, on shame. I have been feeling the weight of these topics, so after I finish the shame essay, I might see if I have anything to say about play or joy or laughter. Something lighter! At some point, I hope that I might publish these as a collection.