Sasha Steensen’s books are more lyric project than poetry collection. While many collections of poetry have themes that tie the poems together, Steensen’s books use their subject as a nexus around which the project grows, as if Steensen free-associated around the subject and developed individual pieces from there. House of Deer, Steensen’s intricate and lovely third collection, centers on her back-to-the-land childhood. Like her second collection, The Method (Fence Books, 2008), Steensen blends research and personal history through a process of addition, subtraction, and associative swerves.
House of Deer quotes, mentions, or makes references to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Oppen, and Baudelaire, among many others as a way to begin building (and it’s probable that this reader missed even more references). These connections are layered and reward repeated readings. The titular poem, “House of Deer,” mentions “the house on Hopkins Road,” where the reader assumes Steensen’s family lived; a later poem, “Fragments,” is noted as being written “after Hopkins.” This connection does not feel like an accident.
One of the more notable repeated references in House of Deer is Hart Crane, who was from Garrettsville, Ohio, where Steensen also grew up. His work and life become a starting point for Steensen to discuss familial tension, addiction, and self-destruction: “The family’s relationship with itself was strained. // This was meant to be a story about Hart Crane” (from “Fragments”). Later, Steensen quotes Crane (along with several other sources, all cited in parentheses in the text) in a piece called “Personal Poem Including Opium’s History,” which is dedicated to Steensen’s brother:
Instead, let’s talk about your closet full of weed.
If I could say sorry for that disclosure, I would.
But that’s too “the author-(to her brother)-to her book.”
Too Anne Bradstreet for me.
Yo-Ho! Sweet opium and tea (Hart Crane)
The Crane connection goes beyond a shared hometown. A “hart” is another term for a male deer; deer, like Crane’s life and work, serve as a way to enter into memory. Like deer, Steensen lived on the fringes—both of forest and mainstream culture—in a family unit that moved together: “sound of deer changing direction &then turning back,” as she writes in the section from which the book takes its name. Another section, “The Girl and the Deer,” is a retelling of a Zuni story. In it, Steensen tells “a story the writer cannot tell” of a girl, abandoned by her mother, being raised by a deer mother before her biological family kills her deer family and incorporates the girl back into their family.
Steensen’s method of composition could fall apart in any number of ways, but her attention to poetic lineage—the aforementioned references to Crane, Hopkins, et al—helps keep the project soaring (as it did in The Method). Further, Steensen displays a subtle attention to technique (learned, as she says in an interview with ZYZZYVA, from Crane). Take a standout piece like “A History of the Human Family:”
To find our First Family
what do we peer through,
what manhole or anthole?
what foxhole or portal?
what Afar Triangle?
It was 2.5 million years ago,
& it was eternal.
The intricate notice of sonic possibilities and meanings present here is found throughout the book adding a layer of complexity to the project that drives the reader forward.
Though Steensen’s method of composition may be very modern, she enters into dialogue with her influences and poetic-godparents. The effect is a complex, self-referential text that is as rewarding as it is difficult, which is to say very. Readers that enjoy layered poetic narrative will find a favorite author in Sasha Steensen.
What are your favorite “book projects,” as opposed to poetry collections?
‘Tis the season for finals, right? Well, for us students anyway. I just finished yet another semester in my graduate program (Arts & Cultural Leadership), and have a lot of information and thoughts flying around in my brain. I was especially intrigued by the content of the one of courses I took this semester on innovation and creativity. This post is dedicated to those thought-provoking, mindfully stimulating books I read, either for class this last semester, or previously on my own. Pick these up for some brain food for yourself, or heck, maybe even nab a couple for holiday gifts this year. Either way, rest assured that after reading these books, your mind will feel invigorated.
This book starts off with the Devil’s Advocate, and how it’s a sure-fire killer of innovation. We all know a Devil’s Advocate, right? Well, how do we get around it? Kelley goes on to describe several personas of innovation, and it becomes easy to find echoes of yourself in some of them. Are you a Storyteller? Maybe you’re a Hurdler, or a Anthropologist. Kelley gives context and examples for each persona, and talks about innovation and leadership within each of these different approaches. It reminds me of StrengthsFinder (a personality test that the University of Minnesota, where I work and attend class, has had a big push for) — where it’s not about one specific strength equates innovation or good leadership or a job well done — rather, it’s about utilizing your own natural strengths within a role to achieve success.
A Whole New Mind: Why Right-brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel H. Pink (Berkeley Group)
Right-brained thinking versus left-brained thinking — it’s a common point of discussion. This book delves into the history of our country, and how left-brained used to reign supreme with the Industrial Age and world wars. But now, right-brained thinking is starting to take back some ground. Pink outlines six “senses” that right-brained thinkers possess that set them up for a bright future: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. Obviously, no human fits perfectly into any category. Pink guides us through these six senses, and how to recognize and incorporate them into our work.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey
In a culture that values highly effective people, this book sheds light on reoccurring habits of people who achieve success. Being proactive, finding balance, communication, ability to listen and understand others, synergy, and self-renewal are all talked about in the framework of Covey’s seven habits. Covey doesn’t get bogged down in the loads of popular theories or other distracting ideas surrounding success; rather, he cuts through that with a direct approach, straight-forward language, and intuitive observations.
Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques by Michael Michalko (Ten Speed Press)
This has practical tools and exercises to apply in daily life, whether it be at a work retreat, or in your own daily practices. These exercises are meant to unlock creativity and tap into our inner geniuses. He divides the book into linear thinkertoys and intuitive thinkertoys. Some such exercises are Brutethink (forces connections between seemingly different ideas to come up with a brand new idea), idea quota (Just what is sounds like — setting a quota of ideas to come up with for a particular time frame. In my own use, I’ve used it for poem quota — such as, I need to write 3 poem drafts by x date.), Ideatoons, and so many more. It’s a fun mental exercise, and I’ve already found use for some of these in my writing life, professional life, and more.
The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle
This one might be a bit too spiritual for some of y’all, but for anyone open to that sort of thing, it’s a good one. Tolle leads readers on path to enlightenment by showing them how to live in the present moment. It’s a book on personal growth, and not letting our mischievous minds get in the way of that by being stressed or anxious of all that has passed or is yet to come. It may even seem counter-intuitive to some of the previous books I’ve mentioned, but I’m all for reading all that I can in an area, and letting it digest to find my own version of truth.
What brain-food books would you recommend? Have you read any of the ones I mentioned? If so, which ones stuck out to you, and why?
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