#63: Selah Saterstrom
Much-published author Selah Saterstrom grew up in the Deep South, which she writes about in such works of indie fiction as The Meat and Spirit Plan and The Pink Institution (both published by Coffee House Press). When she's not writing, she's busy teaching at and running the University of Denver's Ph.D. program in creative writing. The bones of Saterstrom's soon-to-be-published Katrina-inspired novel, SLAB, are creaking to life this month in a multimedia stage version presented by square product theatre. A born wordsmith, Saterstrom even manages to tell stories in her answers to the 100CC questionnaire. Read on.
Westword: If you could collaborate with anyone in history, who would it be, and why?
Selah Saterstrom: A marvelous, impossible question. The person who keeps returning to my mind is Aunt Caroline Dye. In the South, where I was born, she was a famous healer, herbalist and conjure-worker. Details of her birth/death vary, but she probably died in the 1930s (by some accounts, at the age of 110). There are several old blues songs about her. She was known for her cures, especially for the jinxed, depressed and insane (her rattlesnake dust cure was legendary).
I would have liked to have been her apprentice. I would have liked to have made huge, plant-based installations with her. Sometimes in the shape of gigantic women. I see these installations in locations abandoned by the history books.
Who in the world is interesting to you right now, and why?
Athanasius Kircher and his book Mundus Subterraneu (written in 1665). He was obsessed with a method he called palingenesis, which is the act (or idea) of raising a plant from its own burned ashes. It would be an amazing way to grow roses. This will probably turn into a story at some point.
Sam Cooke's final album, Ain't That Good News (1964). I feel the entire human drama in this record. My stepmother and I played this for my father after he entered hospice, and it imprinted itself into me, rather like a sunburn, but on the inside. So now I am listening to it a lot to try and understand more than I did before...
The paintings of Jean Dubuffet. I don't know why yet. I have a voracious appetite for his work at the moment. Something to do with writing and masks (inspired by Sommer Browning's performance at Counterpath last February): disguise, revelation, performance, ritual.
What's one art trend you want to see die this year?
I don't know what current art trends are. That being said, I am going to go with: any kind of art made from supplies purchased at Hobby Lobby.
What's your day job?
I'm an associate professor at the University of Denver, where I also direct the graduate program in Creative Writing.
A mystery patron offers you unlimited funds for life. What will you do with it?
Probably a version of what most people would do: take care of family and friends and attend to the upliftment of things.
It would be amazing to make a job of supporting the arts, independent presses, ecological projects, medical research, veteran care, animal care, mental health efforts and homelessness.
I would also want to tithe to those communities that have nourished me and offered care and support: I'd give money to Naropa's Summer Writing Program in honor of Anne Waldman, who has been a mentor and support to so many in this community and beyond. I would give money to Goddard College's writing program, in honor of its visionary director, Paul Selig. I would give money to Belladonna, the feminist collective founded by Rachel Levitsky. I would support Denver's own Counterpath, a publisher, gallery and event space that is the embodiment of community generosity. I would make sure all of our graduate students at the University of Denver had four years of guaranteed funding so they could complete their important creative work without poverty-based anxiety. I would write! I would write about mystery (and its patrons!).
What's the one thing Denver (or Colorado) could do to help the arts?
Funding: local/regional support from private and public institutions and organizations.
There is concentrated, extraordinary talent in Denver and the Front Range, and there is also poverty and its accompanying exhaustions. For example, some of the most brilliant writers and artists I know must adjunct at multiple institutions (often in conjunction with other jobs) in order to survive, and they are still living below or hovering at the national poverty line. Keep in mind: Being a visionary is also a full-time job. Despite this, I consistently see many artists and writers maintain their commitment to their work.
I hope Denver will deepen its commitment to cultivating a culture that celebrates the arts, and on multiple levels. A community with strong support for the arts changes the dispositions of its inhabitants. For the better. Art, in all its forms, isn't an embellishment onto culture, it offers strategies for how to engage the hardest human things (uncertainty, loss, struggle), and suggests new ways to see everything (hope, different choices, accountability). We need art, though we walk around a lot of the time like we don't even know it.
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
Rather than thinking of one individual, I think of the Denver/Front Range literary community as a whole: I picture it as a constantly shifting mandala. So much life and work is happening here that sometimes I feel this as an ecstatic charge in the air.
I also think of the work of Julie Carr and Laird Hunt: Their work never leaves my favorite list. I can't wait to read Laird's forthcoming book, Neverhome, which is about, among other things, a woman who disguises herself as a Union soldier and fights in the Civil War (one of the best ideas for a novel ever, as far as I'm concerned). Julie's new book, RAG, like all of her books, helps me to stay in my body/life and teaches how to persist, insist, care, sing.
What's on your agenda in the coming year?
Very much on my mind is square product theatre's current performances of SLAB. Prepared for the stage by Gleason Bauer and Emily K. Harrison, SLAB is a multimedia meditation on disaster adapted from my forthcoming novel of the same name (due out next spring by Coffee House Press). Some extraordinary minds have been working on this project for four years, and it is both humbling and terribly exciting. Janet Feder and Paul Fowler created the sound score, and it will also feature a video installation by Christina Battle. The play follows the story of a woman named Tiger and a man named Preacher. It was largely energized by my experience of Hurricane Katrina, and it explores the essential human need to create narrative as a means of survival and transition.
Who do you think will get noticed in the local literary community in 2014?
Sara Veglahn. Her novel The Mayflies (Dzanc Books) just came out and it is brilliant (I've read it twice already). I am excited about Lisa Birman's forthcoming novel, How to Walk Away (Spuyten Duyvil Press). These books work the brain and the heart. At the same time, they happen on the nervous system of the entire body: powerful, goes well with a shot of whiskey or a haunted house setting.
At the moment I'm also having love fits over the work of poets Cassandra Smith, HR Hegnauer, Jennifer Denrow, Kathy Goodkin, Mathias Svalina and Tina Brown Celona. I suspect many of these poets will be giving readings in Denver throughout 2014 and that is something to look forward to.
See performances of square product theatre's adaptation of SLAB at 8 p.m. every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, through August 16, in the ATLAS Black Box Theatre on the CU-Boulder campus. Admission is $15 to $20 or two-for-one on Thursdays; purchase tickets in advance at Brown Paper Tickets. Learn more about Selah Saterstrom online.
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Throughout the year, we'll be shining the spotlight on 100 superstars from Denver's rich creative community. Stay tuned to Show and Tell for more, or visit the 100 Colorado Creatives archive to catch up.
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