“A subversive cloistered experience”: A Conversation with Selah Saterstrom, curated by Mary-Kim Arnold

Selah Saterstrom is the author of the longform essay Rancher, written in collaboration with artwork by H.C. Dunaway Smith. She is also the author of the award-winning essay collection, Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics(Essay Press), and the novels Slab, The Meat and Spirit Plan, and The Pink Institution, all published by Coffee House Press. She is the director of Creative Writing at the University of Denver. Her website is https://www.selahsaterstrom.org

Mary-Kim Arnold: Recently, I’ve been thinking of writing — and any creative practice, really — as being relational and “in conversation,” as a confluence of collective experiences, influences, and ongoing questions. I have heard you use the term “visitation,” which too brings the writer into engagement and relation and emphasizes the communal aspects of creative practice. In Rancher, many of your own conversations and relationships with friends and loved ones are brought into the essay. Is this an essential element of the writing process for you, or do you find that particular works lend themselves more to this openness, to drawing others close in?

Selah Saterstrom: Loved ones and chosen family are essential to my writing process in the sense that their loving support, in its varied iterations, as well as the alchemy of their presence in my life, helps make the conditions conducive for me to do my best work. I can’t believe I get to know these people, frankly. I suppose I do write towards particular people in certain ways. As if in love. It feels, in fact, quite private, this part of the act. Of writing. 

But to be clear, I feel I would be writing even if situated in a remote, cloistered convent away from people. But this is a poor oppositional scenario to offer because it is also a fantasy: really I’m aiming to integrate a subversive cloistered experience into the janky gorgeous mess of the every day. In all scenarios, intimacy is the dream. And, too, the struggle.

Speaking to other aspects of your question, I’d add that for me, at times, healing is communal and not a privatized event. I knew when Rancher opened as a site of writing and composition that it would reflect my community because Rancher was a book, in part, concerned with healing. 

I often refer to book projects as visitations. It is the best way I’ve found to talk about the uncanny presence of work, how it moves in, sets up shop, haunts the house. Tarkovsky’s representation of “the guest” comes to mind. In my experience, the visitation (the work) often arrives with its own nervous system, its own networks of knowledge, its own methods of coordination, calibration, and messaging. As a writer I want to have the senses to perceive this nervous system and I hope to make writing choices rooted less in my expectations about how I think composition should happen, and more in terms of what would serve the visitation. This is attunement to the work, yes, but also involves craft.

Before I begin writing a book, I get a strong image that represents the book. The image I got for Rancher was of a basket. 

In my experience of this image, sometimes I could see my hands at the steady work of basket weaving. In fact, this is a skill I know. I learned from a woman named Cassie, wherever she may be. Cassie was an old hippy who took a job monitoring kids at the reform school where I was sent for a few years as a youth. She hated the school and it was as if she believed basket weaving was a way to survive the tyranny of those long hours. She taught a small group of us. We even dyed the reeds with berries we collected on the edge of the old Civil War Hospital that had been refurbed as our dormitory. I still have one of these baskets. My daughter is currently using it as a “crib” for a stuffed animal she has named Oooh-La-La.

But other times this image of a basket worked differently. Sometimes the image was of a basket being woven around me in a ceremony defined by warmths – late summer sunflower light, gold flickering mixed with shadows.

When it came time to translate this image into Rancher’s closing section, I wrote to friends and asked: What is an essay about rape supposed to do? I shared the process of writing this piece with friends, as I was writing it. I shared my questions, technical challenges, and the joys and anxieties wrapped up in the experience of making the work. In the end, I asked some of these friends if I could include their words in the essay – their sentences were like reeds I imagined weaving into the basket that holds this story or that was being woven around me. 

MKA: Would you speak a bit about the collaboration with H.C. Dunaway Smith? What was that process like?

SS: I had known of H.C. Dunaway Smith (Heather to her friends) for many years. We shared a dear friend, though we had never crossed paths. Then it came to pass that our mutual friend threw a celebration and we finally met, spending a weekend together in the rhizomic glow and shelter of friendship webs.

Significantly, when we arrived at the celebration we were each wearing the same style and color of blouse. This particular blouse was my favorite. I had gotten it on clearance at a shop in Sweden. Our blouses were identical except that the repetitive print on each was different. The print on her blouse featured a repeating eye pattern. The repeating print on mine was that of a tiger. As we walked toward one another in greeting we sort of literally became The Eye of the Tiger, as in the 1982 Rocky III theme song. For me, the effect was riveting. I adored Heather straight away and was in awe of her brilliance, art, process, and generous presence. It has been a dream to work with an artist I admire so much and I think our blouse convergence was an oracular moment regarding collaboration and why not. 

The images for Rancher are from Heather’s Imaginary Anatomy Series and for me the illustrations hold the energy of the essay in a totally calibrated way. I can’t imagine the text without the architecture of these illustrations. 

MKA: I wonder whether you might speak of the research and materials — as I read this, I had the strong recognition that each paragraph was the result of piles of reading, by how each sentence felt suffused with — steeped in — intelligence, analysis, deep and considered reflection. Would you talk a bit about your research process. I am particularly curious about the How do you solve a problem like Maria and the Maria Goretti thread. Was there a moment when you recognized these might be connected?

SS: Thank you so much for acknowledging all that backlights and/or animates the writing process. 

Maria Goretti’s presence has been an archive I’ve been wandering around in for a long time (fifteen years this July). While I’ve been in here, I’ve done a lot of reading. 

Presences – ideas – repetitions. Sometimes these accrue and become a sort of archive: they open into multitudes. The archive is so many layered networks, all pinging and reverberating, and is also full of secret hatches that access other tunnel systems that underwrite still other catacombs. The archive will gift a person with a blueprint for getting lost within it. It will also track a thread straight to the graveyard in the town of your birth in the middle of the night. The walls of the archive are vibrant with somatic information. Reading massages those walls and narrative and compositional strategies become dislodged and emerge. These emergent strategies (to invoke Kathleen Stewart) often know how to tell the story at hand. And so the reading and the writing converge, again, in pleasure. 

It was the conservative Catholic blogosphere that revealed the connection between Maria Goretti, the child saint, and Maria from The Sound of Music, played by Julie Andrews, when a lyric from the film, “How Do you Solve a Problem Like Maria,” was applied to the complexity of Maria Goretti. 

Not having seen The Sound of Music, I was unclear: why was this Maria a problem to be solved? Did the Marias have the same sort of issues? My grandmother, who owned the tv when I was I growing up and controlled the remote with an iron fist, did not like Julie Andrews and would not allow us to watch The Sound of Music. Why did she loathe Julie Andrews so much? Her loathing verged on passion! 

I decided to read everything about Julie Andrews. And it was through this reading that I learned Julie Andrews (who inhabited another Maria like a ghost) indeed had something in common with Maria Goretti who was made into a ghost so young. My grandmother, too, had something  in common with the Marias. As do I. My grandmother’s loathing (as a sort of Hermeneutic posture; an approach to the text), revealed a vibrating web of connections between all women, which is to say: the transgenerational DNA encoded memory of sexual assault. So here we were, in the dark outer limits of the archive beneath Maria’s skirts, sitting in a circle together in vigil: Julie Andrews, Saint Maria Goretti, my grandmother, and me. 

MKA: You mention that “raped people might go into repetition,” and later, you write of diversion as a narrative technique you wanted to avoid. You move so fluidly and elegantly between discussing an action a person might take in real life in response to trauma — repetition, diversion — and enacting or calling attention to the enactment in language. Is there anything you’d like to say about your formal choices in Rancher and the complexity and ongoingness of writing about trauma and abuse? 

SS: Thank you for such a generous, close reading of Rancher and for these thoughtful questions.

What I would like to say regarding writing about trauma and abuse is what my friend Kristen says in the essay – I am grateful to anyone who attempts to trans(mute/form/late) difficult material inside of art and most people who do such things believe in the power of story to restructure the heart of the world. Also, I try and talk to my students about taking care of their nervous systems as well as the difference between writing from the light of a wound and using the pen to stimulate material that has yet to heal. 

But, about the ongoingness. That’s the thing, isn’t it? It goes on. There are no breaks. There are, of course, other things. Some of the things are good and some of the things are bad. Many of the things resist easy categorization. But it all keeps revealing new territories. 

When I had to describe Rancher and its structure to my editor, Ryan Rivas, at Burrow Press, I wrote, “To heal is to be changed, to be, potentially, revolutionized by the fracture whose initial presence signals as a wound. For all of its pain, the fracture sends out new lay lines – new paths of inquiry that necessitate new modes of knowing and being-with. Rancher follows such paths into the uncanny territories of life after rape.” 

In this life, just when I think I can imagine the nuances of every feeling I can name, or think I have felt the range of complexity and intensity in any given emotional field, I learn there is more, still. It’s astonishing. It goes on. 

MKA: Would you like to say anything about what you are working on now? 

SS: I’m currently finishing a novel that is obsessed with Cotard’s Delusion theory and the legal history regarding the formation of laws relating to missing persons in the United States. I’m also working on a collection of longform essays (of which Rancher will be included). I’m very excited about this new book and can hardly think of anything else.

MKA: Would you tell us about Four Queens? 

SS: Four Queens is an online platform I co-curate with the remarkable writer, performer, and diviner Kristen E. Nelson. The Four Queens are a reference to the four queens in a deck of playing cards or a Tarot deck. We wanted a space that could host multiple conversations and experiences regarding divination and Divinatory Poetics. We wanted a space where we could linger at the juncture of divination and writing (and really, divination and all things). We wanted to teach what we wanted. And we wanted this space to support the passions of others, too. We hope Four Queens is a space that makes people feel wonderful.