Professor Sasha Steensen

Conducted by Randi DePriest, February 20, 2006

DESCRIBE YOUR RESEARCH/AREAS OF EXPERTISE?

Primarily, Creative Writing Poetry, and 20th Century American Poetry and Poetics, but I am also interested in Colonial and 19th century American Literature. My dissertation is called “Wandering: (Back) Toward a Poetic Historiography.” What I look at is how 20th century poets use earlier American texts from the colonial period through the 19th century as source texts for their poems. I’m also interested in how they provide alternative modes of recording the past that challenge the orderly, chronological narratives we encounter in textbook histories. I started out as a history major as an undergraduate so this project combines those two interests of mine.

Also, I have an interest in the history of the book and bookmaking, so that’s really where I came into the bookmaking project we are starting.

HOW DO YOU DEFINE COMMUNITY LITERACY?

From my perspective, as a poet interested in poetry as a visual object, I believe that having tactile objects in the world that a number of different communities can interact with is crucial for promoting literacy. When I think about bookmaking and making objects, posters, or whatever is going to be viewed by oftentimes unexpected audiences.I think about how that interaction with that material object promotes an interest in literacy that can be very generative and inclusive. Obviously, I’m not immediately involved in the type of direct literacy projects that you are, but I hope that the kind of projects that I am involved in raise awareness about the importance of literacy.

WHO HAVE YOU WORKED WITH IN OUR COMMUNITY?

This is my first year here. When I was in Buffalo, there were a number of different groups that I worked with either to organize poetry readings, like the Buffalo Literacy Center, which is a group that does community literacy and organizes readings, gets spaces, and raises money for different projects. I worked with them to organize readings or organize collaborations between visual artists and poets, so we would make a number of “art objects” including poems. As far as individuals go, I learned to make books through two people I knew in Buffalo, Kyle Schlesinger of Cuneiform Press and Kristen Gallagher of Handwritten Press. Kyle taught Gordon Hadfield and I pretty much all we know about bookmaking and the letterpress.

Here, we are just getting connected. There are still many connections to make. One of the things that we are doing in May is giving a talk on Bookmaking.it’s a Friends of the Library talk, so I’m assuming and hoping that a lot of people who aren’t necessarily immediately connected with the university will come. That will be the beginning of a number of different talks that might speak to a more general audience.

HOW DID THE BOOKMAKING PROJECT BEGIN?

It’s interesting because I really think of the book and bookmaking and small press stuff as having been around forever. At the same time, the publishing that the Internet makes possible really brought forth a renewed interest in the book as an object. Poets in particular face this dilemma because people don’t read poetry much anymore, so it’s a lot harder to get your work out there and get it read. When I was a Ph.D. student in the Poetics program in Buffalo, a lot of the students were making their own books or books for each other, about 100 copies, and distributing them. This type of publishing is from the perspective of the writer in a sense, rather than the reader, although they are connected, obviously. But as writers, we want to have our work in the world, and we need to make deliberate decisions about how it is presented. The dilemma of how to find an audience when people aren’t reading poetry, when the book is being replaced in a lot of ways, is answered with a grassroots kind of bookmaking. Here, a group of people work together to get their work in the world. So that’s how I became interested in it and then sort of realized along the way that it was part of a larger trajectory of the history of bookmaking and publishing.

WHAT POPULATION IS THIS PROJECT AIMED TOWARD?

Right now, obviously, we are just starting out, so the first thing we are going to do is a broadside for Bill Tremblay, who is retiring. This gives us an opportunity to honor him and to have a broadside poster of his work available for whoever might be interested. But from there, what we hope to keep making broadsides and start making books, maybe two small books a year. The first might be from a better known poet, but the second would be by a younger, emerging poet whose work might not be read otherwise. On the one hand, we are trying to serve the university, and we are trying to serve poetry in general, but also, we are really open to working with various groups in terms of using the tools we have to further other projects. For instance, we’ve been speaking with Tobi Jacobi about the possibility of helping with the covers for anthologies that come out of the prison writing projects that your center facilitates. The point is to make those tools available people outside of the academy.

WHAT IS THE MISSION OF THE PROJECT?

The mission is really to serve poetry. One of the main things we are concerned about is definitely getting exposure to younger poets who might not otherwise have an audience. One way to do that is to publish well known poets so that our press in general has some exposure, and then put out books and broadsides by emerging poets. Then we would like to see what other directions it can go, in terms of who else it can serve. I think the mission is really to try to serve all of those various groups of people in a number of different ways.

HOW IS YOUR PROJECT STAFFED?

Well, Gordon Hadfield and I are basically volunteers. The letterpress is housed at the Center for Literary publishing, which is a great place to have it. At this point, we don’t have permanent, paid staff, so hopefully we can work something out in that way, because we could accomplish a lot more.

HOW DO YOU PLAN ON GETTING PEOPLE TO GET INVOLVED OR STAY INVOLVED IN YOUR PROJECT?

One of the things that can really be beneficial, particularly to CSU’s MFA students, is to promote a more tactile sense of the book and page space. Especially for poets, page space is so important and we’re so used to composing on the computer that we often forget about page space. We think that that the poem will always appear on the 8 ½ by 11″ page that comes out of our printers. By actually having interaction with a page and with typesetting and making and binding books, students will begin to reinvasion the page. For me as a poet, it was really crucial in my thinking of how I use page space in my own work, so that is the most immediate way that I imagine it will be beneficial. At some point, in a graduate workshop, I will have a bookmaking component where the students will have to produce a book or a broadside. But letterpress can even help undergraduate studies. Bringing in a tray of type and showing undergraduate students the process and history of printing and publishing can be really interesting. Then, I think there is a lot of interest from the Art Department because they have a huge printing program, and I think it would really be beneficial to them too. Also, basic bookmaking techniques can be useful for a number of different groups in the larger community. In literacy programs, bookmaking can help the participants produce an object that they can feel proud of or give to their friends.something to take away. There’s something very abstract about reading and writing that often turns people off, so to have an object makes a big difference in terms of feeling like you have produced something. Hopefully, there will be a number of opportunities for us to help with that.

SO FAR, ARE THERE ANY SUCCESS STORIES THAT STAND OUT IN YOUR MIND?

For the most part, we’ve been gathering materials and tools and setting up the room, so at this point we are just sort of starting. There have been plenty of successes and failures, but they are mostly mundane at this point. We drove over 2,000 miles to pick up the letterpress, so we felt pretty triumphant when we drove back into Ft. Collins.

WHAT DO YOU FEEL ARE THE BIGGEST OBSTACLES WHEN DEVELOPING COMMUNITY LITERACY PROGRAMS?

Money. Money seems to be the biggest obstacle, at least for us. It has been hard to gather the resources to even get what we need to start a program like this. It has been a challenge, but the Department and the College of Liberal Arts have been very supportive in that area, so we are grateful. I imagine that also publicity and finding the right people who will be interested and will be well-served can be challenging.

DO YOU HAVE ANY SUGGESTIONS ON HOW TO BUILD SUCCESSFUL RELATIONSHIPS WITH COMMUNITY PARTNERS?

I guess this is sort of common sense, but listen to people’s needs. You can have a vision of what you want to accomplish, but if it doesn’t meet a need or if it isn’t immediately concerned with generating interest and getting people excited, then it isn’t going to work.

WHAT CRITERIA DO YOU USE TO EVALUATE YOUR PROGRAMS/PROJECTS?

Well, I think that if we make 100 books and we have 90 left it doesn’t seem very successful! Just to get feedback from people and to make sure that everything we are making is more or less going out into the world and being read, that would be the most immediate way of judging our successes.

IS THERE ANYTHING YOU WOULD LIKE TO ADD?

I’m really amazed by the Community Literacy Center. It’s not something that I’ve been around a lot, but it is exciting for me to think about what I’ve been interested in doing and how it can connect to community literacy projects. Really, it is something I hope we can do together. After all, there’s no point of making books of poems if we don’t have a large community of readers.