“An eleven-fold self”: A Micro-Interview with Sasha Steensen – curated by Lisa Olstein

Sasha Steensen is the author of four books of poems: House of Deer, The Method, and A Magic Book, all from Fence Books, and most recently, Gatherest from Ahsahta Press.  Recent work has appeared in Kenyon ReviewWest BranchOmniverse, and Dusie. “Openings: Into Our Vertical Cosmos” was published as an online chapbook by Essay Press. She teaches Creative Writing and Literature at Colorado State University, where she also serves as a poetry editor for Colorado Review. She lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with her husband and two daughters, and she tends a garden, a flock of chickens, a bearded dragon, a barn cat, a standard poodle, and two goats.

Lisa Olstein: What questions or obsessions urged this particular work into being or revealed themselves in it?

Sasha Steensen: Sleep!  I wasn’t getting enough of it, and, as a result, I became obsessed with it.  I tried many things—a regimented sleep hygiene schedule, medications, herbal remedies, acupuncture, hypnosis, and nothing was working.  Eventually, I began seeing a doctor who recommended “sleep restriction therapy.”  This is just as it sounds—the insomniac restricts their sleep so that they only allow themselves to sleep a limited number of hours a night, with no napping during the day.  For me, this meant that I would force myself to stay up until 2 in the morning and I would set an alarm for 6am.  After a week of sleeping straight through this four-hour period, I was permitted to add 30 minutes to my scheduled sleep for that week.  If I slept through that period, I’d add another 30 minutes the following week, and so on, until I eventually reached seven hours.   The process took several months, and during this time, I started reading Catullus.  I found his rhythms soothing and his work stimulating enough to keep me awake.  Not unexpectedly, I began writing poems that formally borrowed from his poems.  

At the same time, the poems began to show me the origins of my own sleeplessness. As a mother and caregiver to many living things, I had become hyper-vigilant, and over time, this began to negatively affect my sleep.  The poems became a space in which to consider “care” in both a small and a large sense.  I began to think about the ways in which care permeated every moment of my day—from milking our goats as the sun came up to sitting with my daughter as she experienced night terrors late into the night.  In some ways, writing through these various acts of care allowed me to place these cares (and their attendant worries) somewhere outside of myself.  I feel the act of writing helped ease my vigilance, and this was a crucial step in finding some relief from my insomnia. 

LO: “Form sets the thought free,” says Anne Carson, and I believe her. How did form and thought co-evolve in the unfolding of this work?

SS: I love this question, especially in relation to this book because I wanted, somehow, to register Catullus’s hendecasyllabic poems. Catullus’s form can’t be easily translated into English as his meter depends on a series of long, short, and variable syllables rather than stressed / unstressed syllables.  Still, his poems are often translated into English in the form of eleven-syllable lines.  I was drawn to the number eleven.   The eleven-syllable line seemed both excessive (one syllable more than a pentameter line) and also short and uneven.  Early on, as I was writing eleven-syllable lines, I wrote an eleven-line poem. Because I was living in such an altered state, I liked the way these structured poems felt like spaces I could count on and return to even while I was experiencing all the cognitive side-effects of insomnia. There are variations (longer or shorter lines), but these poems, which I call “Hendes,” began accruing at a rapid pace.  At one point, I was writing one poem a day.  As Carson suggests, I found a space that allowed for thinking.  Perhaps because of the chaos I was experiencing internally, the ordered nature of the eleven-syllable line and the eleven-line poem became a refuge. As I began the sleep restriction therapy,  and as the days began to feel even more interminable, I started writing longer poems by doubling and tripling the Hendes, so that while the lines hovered around eleven syllables, the poems themselves began getting longer, reaching twenty-two or thirty-three lines each.

LO: What’s the relationship between the speaker’s “I” and you, yourself? How is the book’s “I” informed by your I and/or eye?

SS: On one level, I am tempted to say that I am the “I” of the book, but of course it is never that simple. The children in the book are my children, the animals are either my animals (chicken, goats, bees, etc) or they are animals we hunted as pests (mice, racoons) or as food (ducks, deer).  But in another sense, I was not completely “myself” while writing these poems (are we ever...?) because I was truly unable to function as I normally would.  This allowed me to reconsider the lyric “I” as something both me and decidedly not-me.  I also think that I was somewhat doubled, or tripled, (or is there an eleven-fold-self?) in some fundamental way in these poems. I had to think of myself as a different self in order to really think rationally about my options.  There were times during this period when suicide seemed attractive (I would finally “sleep”) and those who have experienced and survived suicidal ideation know that they must look at themselves from a distance in order to remind themselves that suicide may be an option, but it is not a good one.

LO: Did you have in mind any identifiable recipients for the utterance of this work? Did your sense of how or to whom the work was speaking evolve?

SS: I wrote several of these poems for my husband, and there are moments in the poems when I directly address my children.   I also felt I was just talking to any living thing near me during this period.  That is where the title comes from—anything and everything awake is being called upon to keep me company. At the same time, the ideal recipient would be anyone who cares for any other living thing.  I wanted to pay tribute to the caregivers of this world!

LO: What felt riskiest to you about this work?

SS: The domesticity of the book.  I wasn’t always sure if and how it would speak to others because it is such an intimate look at daily life in one household.  But, I kept in mind so many poets whose work has given women permission to write about their lives as caregivers, mothers, female bodies, etc.  Lyn Hejinian and Bernadette Mayer come to mind here—both of these women wrote their lives in such explicit, compelling ways when the poetry world, especially the avant-garde poetry world, was not interested in women’s domestic lives. 

When I finished this book, I worried that perhaps it was too focused on the domestic, the local, the daily. I sent it around a bit for a few months, but then I moved on to other things and I let it sit. But once the pandemic hit, it felt like a different sort of book, one that might speak to any of us at home, isolating, with another creature to care for.  I hope it does resonate with this moment, even though it was written several years ago.

LO: How do the book’s aesthetics inform its ethics, or, how do its ethics inform its aesthetics?

SS: Given the emphasis on syllables in this book, and given my exhausted state, I began to think of the poems almost as spells, or even, sometimes, as lullabies that might put me to sleep.  I wanted the poems to soothe, but not in an easy way.  They needed to acknowledge and register the difficulty, the struggle, if they were also to soothe.  On some level, I feel I wrote this book as a way to survive, and so maybe its ethics, on a personal level, is survival through turmoil. 

I hope that the aesthetics, particularly in the way they are manifested via form, both settle and unsettle—perhaps confirm themselves via formal expectations and then challenge that confirmation.  That is the movement of the book as I see it—(dis)comfort, peace(lessness), etc.  That is, the peace is found in the heart of the turmoil, the comfort, in the heart of the discomfort, etc.  Somehow the number eleven is comforting (its regularity) and unsettling (it is not even or neat), but it isn’t strictly maintained.  Rather, it is something the poems, like the speaker, move in and out of as the book proceeds.  

LO: What’s your sense of the aural life of this work? What role did sound or music play in the generative process, in revision?

SS: On the one hand, it is the life of the work.  Poetry is, for me, first and foremost, an aural art form.  Again, I think of the ways in which the Hendes in particular operated as lullabies or spells as I writing them.  

In terms of revision, I often revise by reading my poems aloud and recording myself reading them.  When I listen to these recordings, if something sounds a little off, or if I hesitate or jumble a line, I go back to that spot and see what might be off. I can’t always hear these moments while I am reading them silently, but I can certainly hear my own hesitation in the recordings.  

LO: As a medium somewhere between time-based and static, poetry engages temporality in a fascinating range of ways. How does time operate inside this work and across the experience it creates?

SS: In many ways, time is the subject and the method of this book—when I wasn’t sleeping, time was all I had and the thing I wanted the least.  I wanted shorter days, but the days just kept getting longer.  I hope that the Hendes poems, adding up as they do, create a sense of the daily ins and outs of caregiving, the relentlessness of it.  Still, the Hendes poems are short, snapshots almost, as if they are all that is left to show of a (very long) day of work and care. 

The longer poems counter these in that they elongate the day (“Noonday Prayers”) and the night (“Practicing in the Sleepfields”) in ways that were also true to the experience of trying to function as an someone deeply compromised by their lack of sleep.  On a personal level, reading this book now, I can feel how truly exhausted I was—it captures something from that time period, something I still can’t articulate.   

I hope that, for the reader, both of these time-scapes are present—the compressed sense of the day and the endlessness of time passing without sleep.  I now suspect that the tension between these short, eleven-line poems and the longer poems  (the poems that span several pages and the multiplying twenty-two or thirty-three-line poems) was a way for me to try to acknowledge the paradox of the insomniac’s time—there is both way too much time and not enough time.

LO: How did the book’s structure unveil itself to you? What emerged to shape its architecture? 

SS: I first published thirty-three of these poems as a chapbook with Dancing Girl Press. I liked the idea of keeping with the multiples of eleven, so it made sense to me to do that within the structure of the book itself (“Hendes First” contains thirty-three hendes, as does “Hendes Second”). At the same time, I was writing the two long poems that appear at the beginning and the end of the book, and it did feel important for the Hendes to be interrupted in various ways.  The final poem in the book, “Hen Days,” was the last poem  I wrote, and it was written as a sort of outpouring of desire and as a counterpoint, I hope, to the drudgery of domesticity.  

LO: What kept you company during the writing of this work? Did any books, songs, art works, philosophical treatises, snacks, walks, or oddball devotions contribute to a book-specific creative realm? 

SS: Besides Catullus, I was reading the Psalms, Wallace Stevens, Heidegger, and Henri Lefebrve.  Night walking and knitting were two of the ways I kept myself awake during my sleep restriction therapy. But, as the poems suggest, my most constant companions were all the living things that populated my daily life.  

LO: How has it been to shift out of the creative space of this book? What are you working on now?

SS: Not long after I finished this book, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and that took me in an entirely different direction for a bit—writing about shame, toxicity, female friendships as support systems during crisis, etc.  But there were also other poems I was writing at the same time as Everything Awake that I put aside for several years.   I initially thought they might be part of the same book, but the Hendes just kept multiplying and demanding my attention.  I have now come back to those poems and I am completing a book called Overland: A Poetic History of Three Acres and all that Surrounds. This book is still very much a companion to Everything Awake insofar as both books are interested in the looking closely at the local.  But Overland is concerned with the history of the Overland Trail, once called the Cherokee Trail, which ran through the property where my family now lives.  It is a very different book in form, but it was conceived and inspired by some of the same questions that inform Everything Awake, primarily, what does it mean to live somewhere, to be sustained by a place, to surrender to it, to lie down on the ground and be held by it?