The Beauty and Violence of a Family and of a Nation: Q&A with Sasha Steensen

Sasha Steensen
Sasha Steensen

“We took shelter from where / why,” writes Sasha Steensen in the opening lines House of Deer (Fence Books; 88 pages). Like most of the others, this poem, “Domestication and the Chase,” visits the rural Ohio where Steensen’s back-to-the-land parents raised her, proposing along the way new definitions of family, wildness, and the lyric form.

Threading through personal and national memories, Steensen navigates the charged spaces between mother- and daughterhood, fairytale and anecdote, human and animal, and nostalgia and radical disenchantment. If coming of age in 1970s America disabused the poet of her childhood idealism, this book charts its revival; culling her memories and family history for moments of striking tenderness and awe, Steensen weaves her personal narratives with our national history, offering tales grounded in a particular place and time but also expansive, mythic, and familiar. We spoke to her via email about her book.

ZYZZYVA: Let’s start by discussing your writing process as you worked on House of Deer. Did you consult family members or conduct any research on 1970s America?

Sasha Steensen: Much of it, as you can imagine, was taken from memory. In the writing process, I became interested in the fissures inevitable in memory work, as well as the attempt to both re-present and, occasionally, bridge these fissures via storytelling. Storytelling is central to family cohesion, especially for the child who is completely reliant on stories to make sense of her earliest years. It is just as central, perhaps even more so, when the family is struggling with its identity and its viability, and so I was interested both in the ways I (re)told the stories I had heard from my parents, as well as how, when prompted, they would retell these same stories. With this in mind, I did interview them, and I shuffled through family photos and newspaper articles. I had a few Garrettsville Gazettes on hand, but mostly I did non-textual, anecdotal research for this book.

I did read a few books on the Back-to-the-Land movement, but they seemed so staid when compared to my actual childhood, so that research really did not make it into the book. Arielle Greenberg recommended Melissa Coleman’s This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family’s Heartbreak, which is quite beautiful, but I didn’t read that book until I was done with House of Deer. I did re-familiarize myself with some of the history of the early 1970s, but mostly because I wanted to think about the way these national stories, like our familial stories, change shape and significance over time.

Z: As the title suggests, deer are a big part of this book; often, the speaker conflates her “human family” with her “deerfamily,” and one whole section, “The Girl and the Deer,” tells a kind of fairytale about an abandoned child who was raised by deer. Is that child you? And, moreover, why deer?

SS: The title comes from a 10th century Gospel book called The Book of Deer, a text that was so named because it was housed at a monastery in Deer, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. The manuscript drew me in for many reasons, including its gorgeous illustrations, its marginalia and its errors. I was fascinated by the fact that the book proposes Seth, rather than Adam, as the first human. In this way, it spoke to a larger sense of “family” as human family, not just immediate family. I remember very clearly when I came across the following passage in John Stuart’s introduction to the manuscript, which I use as an epigraph in my book: “as to the name of Deer…in its first form it is Déar, ‘tear.’ …It afterwards appears as Deir, Dere, and Deer. The last…I have retained…in the belief that, as the word is commonly pronounced, this is…nearest…earliest.” This linked “tear” with “deer” in a way that felt really generative to me, and so, it stuck, though obviously, “House” took the place of “Book.”

I believe there had been a few deer in the book before I discovered this etymology, probably because they’ve been so ubiquitous in my life. They were always on the outskirts of our land in Ohio, and I see them regularly on my property in Colorado. Just as important, though, is the fact that in Middle English “deer” referred to any wild animal (as opposed to “cattle”), and so to say “deer” was to evoke a creature outside of civilization. In terms of “deerfamily,” deer, like us, travel with and among one another, creating their own familial structures and hierarchies. It goes without saying, I am sure, that the reader will also hear tenderness in the word “deerfamily.”

The girl in “The Girl and the Deer” is not me. In fact, I feel more closely connected to the mother in that story than I do with the little girl. That fairy tale is an adaption of the Zuni story “The Boy and the Deer,” a story that I teach regularly in my early American Literature classes, largely because it speaks so beautifully to questions of belonging, both to a tribe and to a landscape.

houseofdeerZ: It’s often said that poets’ first books are their most autobiographical, most concerned with childhood, adolescence, and family. House of Deer, while formally sophisticated and thematically complex, bears these hallmarks of a first book, yet it’s your third. Has this book been in the works for a long time?

SS: I started this book shortly after finishing The Method, a book in which autobiography creeps in and rests uneasily (in a generative way, I hope) among its more historical underpinnings. I tend to work on one project at a time, so once I finished The Method, I moved immediately into this book, though I had been thinking about it for some time. I suspect that having my own children finally prompted me to start the book, as if it became necessary to interrogate my own childhood while I was simultaneously making a space for my daughters’ childhoods. This book, of all the books I have written (I recently finished a fifth full-length book), took me the longest to write, perhaps because of the material but more likely because, for me, birthing and raising little children didn’t leave much time for writing.

Z: As a fellow child of back-to-the-landers, I also grew up in a pretty magical rural place, surrounded by woods and wild animals. Yet, maybe because my parents chose this place as an escape from a world I had no reference to, I always felt that I never totally belonged there, and that my family’s experience of our home was different from that of the families who had lived there for generations. Did you share these feelings? How has writing House of Deer helped you to make sense of your childhood in Garrettsville?

SS: To some extent, yes, I felt like a bit of an outsider in rural Ohio. My parents grew up in the Pittsburgh suburbs, and they didn’t have much experience with farming or tending land, or even living at a distance from the city, but while they were leading these lives, they were committed fully to them. Like many children, I was somewhat restless, and reportedly, when we went into town, I would ask my mother to drive slowly so I could watch the children playing on the sidewalk. This interests me too—how much I have, inevitably, idealized my childhood and how much, as a child, I idealized childhoods that looked very different from mine.

When we moved away in the early ‘80s, we moved to Boulder City, Nevada, which is just outside of Las Vegas, and, after living there just two years, we moved to Youngstown, Ohio. In high school, we moved back to Nevada, so there was a strange sense of uprooting but also returning. I always felt deeply connected to the rural Ohio landscape, to the seasonal changes, and to the quiet life we led there. I suspect that I have found my way back to the land, living as I now do on a few acres in Northern Colorado, because I have never lost the sense of peace I felt during those early years, and I wanted to reclaim it for myself, and probably for my children as well.

Z: There are some pretty sinister narratives woven into these poems; parental incest, for example, arises from time to time in the stories of various characters. There are allusions to Vietnam, to the massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, and to Kent State. How does House of Deer seek to reconcile nostalgic notions of the family and the pastoral with difficult truths about familial dysfunction and the cultural and social conditions that gave rise to the hippie movement?

SS: This is a great question, and I think the most basic answer is that I’ve come to see “Family,” with a capital F, as a structure filled with both beauty and violence. It has ensured our survival as a species, and it has led to terrible, devastating destruction. We extend our sense of family beyond our biological members, so that we find we are members of other families as well—national and religious, for example. Just as all individual families move between relative function and dysfunction, so do other, larger families.

The particular references you ask about here have differing levels of resonance for me. The incest references, for example, are taken not from personal experience, but from multiple incestuous origin stories, of which there are many. It seems nearly every tradition—Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, etc.—has its own version of this kind of story. Obviously, the Zuni story I adapt from “The Girl and the Deer” sequence influenced my thinking on this.

But my mother was a student and a teacher at Kent State when I was a teenager, and I spent a lot of time there. The campus seemed haunted by the 1970 student shootings. As has now become cliché, the shootings there brought the Vietnam war “home” in a way that was very troubling for our national family, despite the fact that the war itself claimed somewhere around 800,000 members of our human family. While I wasn’t yet born during the Munich Massacre, it is an event that resurfaces every time we enter an Olympic year, and as we see in this example, reunions of the human family are not always happy. These moments feel like ruptures to me, moments when family ties fall away, and nostalgia and idealism feel very foolish.

Z: In “Fragments,” which takes its inspiration from Gerard Manley Hopkins, you write, “This was meant to be a story about Hart Crane.” Also from Garrettsville, Ohio, Crane comes up a lot in this book as a kind of local poet laureate, one with a tragic and not altogether heroic reputation. How did the ghost of Crane make its way into your consciousness as a child in Ohio, and what is the influence of Crane on the poems in House of Deer?

SS: Biographically, Hart Crane has been very important to me. I was born in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, where his father owned a hotel that became a refuge for Crane later in life, and our property was just outside of Garrettsville, Ohio, where he was born. But he is equally important as a poetic influence. I have looked to Crane again and again for direction, both formally, with his handling of sonic material, and contextually, in terms of his interest in American history.

Growing up in Garrettsville, there was a very small plaque, literally in the shadow of our clock tower, that read “Hart Crane, 1888-1932, Lost at Sea.” I always assumed that he was, in fact, lost at sea—that he was a passenger on a ship that had either veered off course or sunk. Finding out later, when I was a teenager and had been away from Garrettsville for some time, that he had committed suicide by jumping overboard was very revealing for me. It became emblematic of my childhood in some way—this alcoholic poet (son of the inventor of Life Savers candy!), struggling as he did to continue writing and living, nearly overlooked by his small hometown, was misrepresented by this plaque that refused to admit the details of his death. At the same time, this plaque speaks, in such a beautifully metaphoric way, to his tumultuous life and the devastating heartbreak that is at the center of his poems. Growing up with addiction (and the denial that accompanies it), I found within this story some sense of kinship with Crane that continues to affect me as a writer and a person.

Z: In the same poem, you interrupt a description of your childhood ailments with the lines, “who has my hat / but the little life giggling in the corner / she’s so dear to me my daughter tho she fits / barely in the poem.” How did having children change the way you conceived of your own childhood, and, by extension, change the shape of these poems?

SS: Having children made me mindful, in new ways, of the structure of family relations. Just as there has been addiction and dysfunction in my family, there has been recovery, too, and I have been forced (thankfully) to process what was terribly destructive and what was deeply comforting about my childhood years. But it wasn’t until I had my own children that I realized I needed to not just process, but practice, generative family dynamics. I am sure, as a parent, I am making mistakes, but I knew there were some mistakes I wanted to do my best to avoid. I am not sure how much those facts of dysfunction and recovery have shaped my poems, but I do know that having children has changed the way I write and what I write about. They make it into my poems even when they don’t fit because they take up so much of my mental space. It is difficult for me to have a thought that they do not somehow inhabit. And, quite frankly, it is difficult to find the time and space to write. The poem sometimes demands that we register what is in its periphery, so here they are, in my poems, finally.

Z: A lot of attention has been paid, recently, to the concept of hybrid poetry: a mix of traditional and avant-garde modes that resists relegation to either camp. As Cole Swensen writes in her Introduction to American Hybrid, “Today’s hybrid poem might engage such conventional approaches as narrative that presumes a stable first-person, yet complicate it by disrupting the linear temporal path or by scrambling the normal syntactical sequence.” Yet I find myself drawn more to hybrid collections of poetry than to collections of “hybrid poetry;” the latter comprise poems that all incorporate elements from a range of literary styles, while the former include poems that are thoroughly narrative beside those that are radically not. House of Deer contains fables beside list poems, stanzaed poems beside expansive white spaces, confessional anecdotes beside neologistic fragments. As a writer with such stylistic breadth, how did you make formal decisions about each poem, and why do you think your poems encompass such a range?

SS: I am teaching a graduate seminar on “Hybrid Literature” right now, so this is a topic I have thought a lot about, and finally, I think the term “hybrid literature” is bit of a buzzword that is not particularly useful. I am guilty of using it for the sake of the course catalogue, but I try as best I can to complicate this term and, even more so, to show that this phenomenon is not necessarily “new.”

I have never really completely understood the notions of hybrid genre that American Hybrid puts forward—that is, I never associated “hybridity” as a merging (or mixture) of conventional and experimental approaches. Even when I am trying to think about the historical development of the term “Hybrid Literature,” I tend to think more of mixing genres than I do of mixing approaches. But this is problematic, too; even as far back as Aristotle, who argued that the individual writer has “a natural instinct of representation” that differs “according to the poet’s nature,” genre has been associated as much with the individual writer’s style as it has with some predetermined notion of what a given genre—poetry, fiction, nonfiction—is supposed to do.

What interests me about texts that experiment with a wide range of forms or generic conventions is the pressure this experimentation puts on me as a reader. I enjoy having my own expectations upended as I read, and so evoking certain genres or approaches and frustrating those expectations, or moving into another kind of generic space, is very satisfying. I have thought a good deal about why this is satisfying, especially as it is not so for many readers. It is a bit like taking a circuitous walk with someone who, in the process of asking a question for which answers are impossible, rephrases the original question in new and exciting ways. If my poems feel hybrid (or if this book feels hybrid because the poems are formally different from one another), I’d venture to say that this is the result of my own restlessness in the face of certain questions, questions such as,“What is a family?” I sincerely (and somewhat naively) tried to answer this question, all the while knowing that the best I could do was ask this question again and again, in new forms, in hopes that I might somehow speak to the reader’s experience of kinship and relation. The wonderful thing about writing poetry—and I think there are plenty of “hybrid texts” that we ought to just call poetry—is that each form becomes a new mode of questioning.

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