Sierra Nelson is a poet, teacher, and collaborative data-Dadaist who makes Seattle home. You can learn more about her performance group, the Vis-à-Vis Society, here. We published Sierra in our third issue and caught up with her after batting around questions and sharing a very nice cup of tea. This interview was conducted by Zach and Jay; a new poem from Sierra follows the interview.
TH: How does what you’re writing now differ from the poems we published?
SN: If I had to take a guess, the shift may involve a greater willingness to be tender, as in pressing a bruise, at the core of the poem. I want to feel like there’s an urgent question pulling on the other side of the paper. And in general: more sightings of postcards, brides, and spiders.
TH: Why collaborate?
SN: I think collaborating renews belief in the creative process. Because you don’t feel the burden of the creative process resting entirely on yourself, it’s easier to trust and be excited about what unfolds. Contributing your part to make it work, but knowing you can’t control the outcome, you relax a bit – and you get more thrill from seeing what appears, the magic of a whole larger than its parts.
And really the individual creative process is like this too – at its best, it’s not just coming from you – you’re still just putting in one piece at the start, and other ideas/images/parts appear to meet what you put out there, even if you are physically the one transcribing it all. The next line that comes to you out of nowhere – I love that. Collaborating with other people puts you in the right attentive space to get there more often, helping you to access it even when writing alone.
I feel I’ve been really lucky to find some great people to collaborate with in my life. A good collaboration brings out more of you, more of what’s possible.
TH: Although contemporary poetry is very cloud-aware, full of loose language and breaking news, it’s very secular. How would you invite a writer to procedural or even arcana/mystical practice in poetry?
SN: I just taught a class called “Exploring the Esoteric: Borrowing from Everything to Write New Work.” A sort of corny title, but I hoped it would attract students who would be up for anything. (And it was a great group!) One of the most fruitful homework assignments was when I asked everyone to write down the objects that appeared in their dreams over the course of a week. Not the narratives, just a brief description of the objects themselves. (And if you couldn’t remember your dreams, you could also write down any dream-like objects that crossed your path during waking life – or a combination of the two.) The results were stunning. How do you get images like that into your poems? That kind of eerie, mesmerizing (even humorous!) image that isn’t made interesting because of how you analyze it, but the way it startles you or gleams with some mysterious portent.
TH: What are some of the poems/poets you most recently loved?
SN: Galway Kinnell’s “Saint Francis and the Sow” has come back to me, Lucia Perillo’s “Transcendentalism,” Jean Follain’s brief flung-open dreams, Chaucer’s translation of Petrarch “If no love is, O God, what fele I so?,” Ted Berrigan’s postcard poems:
A sparrow whispers in my loins
Geranium plus Geronimo forever
Across the wide Missouri
We drive us.
TH: What was your last lightning-boltish experience or encounter with art?
SN: The Australian Aborigine paintings in the Seattle Art Museum’s permanent collection – at first they just look like patterns of dots or colorful lines, with a very modern feel. But they have titles like “Wild Yam Dreaming,” or “Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming,” or show the swirl of healing leaves in a wind – and they are maps!
TH: What’s your typical day like this month?
SN: I don’t think there is a typical day. A typical week would include teaching and other work-work, rehearsing and conspiring with the Vis-à-Vis Society for our large-scale outdoor graph and show at the NW Film Forum in May, some clog dancing (I’m still learning – but just joined the group the Eclectic Cloggers!), sleep, coffee, reading, houseplants, other.
TH: How do you feel about the different formats you have been or could be published in (established journals, newer journals, chapbooks, books, online, limited-edition projects)? Which particularly suits your poems?
SN: I do love a small chapbook for its tactile feel and inviting qualities. (A lot of my collaborative work has found good homes this way.) And having work in journals (print or online) always feels exciting, for the camaraderie of the other poems in the journal, and the chance for the poems to venture further and meet more (hopefully friendly) strangers. One of my favorite places to be published was on a Seattle Metro Bus – I loved getting messages from friends telling me the time, place and trajectory when they intersected with my words. I also had a poem participate in the artist Mimi Allin’s A Hundred Poems at Greenlake project, where 100 poems by 100 living writers were printed onto 100 T-shirts and given away to be worn and read by people traveling at all speeds in the park.
TH: What do you dream of but feel in some way limited from achieving? Does that affect your poetry in any way?
SN: A painter, a singer, a translator, an aquanaut. YES.
Eyeglasses for Insomniacs, or Tests of Mentality, Readiness, and Achievement
I had 15 marbles and lost six.
Write me a letter which says,
I admirred the wintir dresing evry brige with snoe.
Tell the opposite of swan.
If I should say dark, you would say what?
One of the loveliest gifts we received was
night eggs through sugar wrapper.
The year 1600 saw the invention of the wind chariot.
In 1967, eyeglasses for insomniacs.
Would you answer yes or no?
Pascal deduced pressure applied to any one point
of an incomprehensible liquid
creates the sensation
of love transmitted
to all parts of the liquid.
What’s the thing to do if you are lost?