Books In Conversation
Sarah Rosenthal with Heidi Van Horn
Like in the Dream We Have Divining Rods
we could hang a radical panel of light
(Drop Leaf Press, 2022)
Estelle Meaning Star
(Chax Press, Forthcoming)
I first encountered Sarah Rosenthal's writing over a decade ago in her 2010 Dalkey Archive anthology, A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area. Though from the Bay Area, I had little exposure to poetry growing up, and Sarah’s generous and generative interviews provided a literary and geographical grounding. I was struck by her nuanced understanding of the region’s history and literary ecosystem, and her deep engagement with the work and practice of each writer. Later, as my own praxis began to take shape—at the intersection of the traditional lyric and conceptual, language-based work—I returned again and again to this book and its powerful articulations of a more inclusive, expansive, and exploratory poetics.
It felt like a homecoming to work with Sarah as an editor as she crafted the chapbook we could hang a radical panel of light from her full-length manuscript Estelle Meaning Star (forthcoming from Chax Press). And it is a serendipitous honor for all of us at Drop Leaf Press, a woman-run collective inspired by Kelsey Street and other small presses supporting experimental writing, to publish her work.
Sarah’s approach to art-making is continuously evolving and expanding. Oriented toward intersubjectivity and vulnerability, her multi-disciplinary practice flows from and invites close listening and creative risk-taking. Her work eschews hierarchy and resists categorization, spanning poetry, fiction, film, hybrid works, and cross-genre collaborations. She is the author of The Grass Is Greener When the Sun Is Yellow (The Operating System, 2019; collaboration with Valerie Witte), Lizard (Chax, 2016), Manhatten (Spuyten Duyvil, 2009), and several chapbooks. Her recent short film We Agree on the Sun received numerous accolades on the film festival circuit, including Best Experimental Short at the 2021 Berlin Independent Film Festival.
The following interview took place in fits and starts—as did most things, including the production of the chapbook itself—during the acutely precarious pandemic days of 2021. In it, Sarah and I talk about the evolution of this project, created from a dream-based pool of language recorded during chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer in 2012-2015. We touch upon a variety of topics: feminism, literary forebears, collaborative practices, and the hidden possibilities embedded in the language of trauma.
Heidi Van Horn (Rail): Thank you for making the time to discuss we could hang a radical panel of light. It’s been an absolute pleasure to help shepherd this project into the world! In revisiting your work for this interview—especially your Dalkey Archive anthology—I found myself thinking of your artistic practice as an enactment of care and community, as well as creativity. So, I’d like to start by asking how you see your process, especially in the context of female exploratory poetics?
Sarah Rosenthal: I think of my work—everything about it, including my process—as a manifestation of my feminism. I’ve been a feminist since I first heard the term, and I was immediately drawn to feminist exploratory poetics when I encountered it in the early nineties. I studied Dickinson and the women Modernists, as well as work published by the journal (later reincarnated as How2) and by Kelsey Street Press. These poets modeled a fierce and joyous search into and through the poem, in the context of busy, messy lives as householders and job-holders. That and their endorsement of other women’s efforts to develop their own processes gave me not just permission but thrill, not just thrill but tools.
So I do see my work as participating in a larger, ongoing experiment by innovative women writers. But I learn from all work that embraces fracture, error, lack of closure, and a complicated relationship to lyric and narrative. And that includes writing (and dancing, music-making, film-making, you name it) across any number of genders and genres.
Rail: Can you tell us about your compositional strategies for this particular project?
Rosenthal: For Estelle Meaning Star (the full-length work from which we could hang a radical panel of light is excerpted) I wanted to use dream language as raw material, but transform it. I experimented with both erasure and cut-ups before landing on the latter. I liked how cut-ups created a compositional edge between choice and chance. In my more recent study of the work of postmodern choreographers Yvonne Rainer and Simone Forti, I’ve been intrigued to see that they have a similar relationship to chance, using it in their work but also wanting authorial responsibility and involvement along the way.
My combining of chance and authorship bears some resemblance to my multifaceted relationship to self. In one sense I think of the “I,” both in life and in writing, as part of the toolkit, not as an actual entity. It’s a device for organizing words and thoughts. I feel that the more times per day I remind myself that “I” is a comfortable fiction, the closer I get to truth and love and freedom. (I got this idea primarily from the Buddhists and the Language poets, although many other artists and thinkers have explored the fluidity of self.) But, as the New Narrative founders articulated so well, writers from marginalized groups are still in the process of claiming identities that have been historically erased. One way I deal with these incommensurates is to use the “I” at times but complicate it. The “I” can question the nature of identity; the “I” can disappear, reappear, multiply, dissolve into a “she” or a “they” or a “we.”
Rail: Speaking of identity, who is Estelle?
Rosenthal: Growing up, I was close to someone who was related to an Estelle, but she resided for me mostly in her name and in my hazy sense that it was related to “star.” I don’t remember the dream in which the name popped up, but when I encountered it during the compositional process, “Estelle” carried a magic, mythic quality that constellated other bits of language around it. And this identifiable yet porous figure emerged.
Rail: Were there particular writers whose work you turned to for inspiration as the project evolved?
Rosenthal: Two poets come to mind: M. NourbeSe Philip and Kathleen Fraser. Philip’s book Zong! As told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng, was, in her words, “composed entirely from the words of the case report, Gregson vs. Gilbert, related to the murder of Africans on board a slave ship at the end of the eighteenth century.” Over a number of years, Philip researched her subject, interrogated and refined her methods, pressed her legal training into service, and listened so intently to inputs from both her outer and inner worlds that she humbly relinquished authorship—she is the channel for another’s voice. The result of her unrelenting pursuit is a book as stunningly musical and visually arresting as it is connotatively meaningful, a book that takes the reader on a journey into hell in a way that is both devastating and healing. As the language is broken down and reformed, so is the reader. Zong! teaches me about innovating with patience from a place of necessity, and more importantly, about the history and legacy of racism.
Fraser, whom I interviewed for the book you mentioned, is someone whose work I’d been studying since grad school. The interview was an excuse to engage deeply in her acute attention to the placement of words on the page—like Philip, layering connotative, visual, and musical elements in striking ways. Moveable Type includes two of what I consider her most arresting experiments: hi dde violeth i dde violet (which we discuss in the interview) and SECOND LANGUAGE. Both emerged from Fraser’s desire to make poetry—get physically involved in the act. And both carry that embodied engagement across to the reader.
Not only these poets’ writing but also their way of being inspires me. Philip’s ability to integrate her legal scholarship and creative work model for me how to use parts of my life that previously I kept walled off from my writing. Her stance that the poet is one who cares for words and beings—evident not only in her poetry but in the ritualized chanting, dancing way she read her poetry at an event I attended, and in her kindness when I approached her afterward—this stance inspires me to no end. Fraser I knew over decades as a fellow Bay Area poet; from early on I decided to try to emulate her interest in and generosity toward younger poets, as well as her abiding commitment to innovation and her sparkling joie de vivre. I still can’t believe she’s gone, corporeally speaking.
Rail: Your reference to Zong! and Philip’s openness to unconscious processes makes me want to hear more about the role of “dreamwork” in the creation of Estelle Meaning Star. I know you’ve led workshops on using dreams as a source of inspiration, creativity, and personal insight. Did you draw upon—or complicate—classical methods, Freudian or otherwise, for making meaning from dreams? Is there resonance with the concepts of “working through” as a type of mourning and “making way” as process through which something new can emerge?
Rosenthal: This project is definitely a “working through” and a “making way.” I got really sick and the only writing I could do besides complain about how rotten I felt was to record my dreams, with the idea that later on, I could use this pool of language to make something. I’ve used dreams as a part of my writing process for years, though never in the way I did for Estelle.
The more people record their dreams, the more vivid and involved dreams become. My dreams reflected and no doubt struggled mightily to make sense out of the suffering I was experiencing, but dreams will always answer “all of the above” on the multiple choice test and then scribble into the margin, “and more.”
When I got better, I took various actions to make the already strange language of dreams even more strange, so that it amounted to found language. Except, of course, “found” in my own journals (not, for example, on the sidewalk or in a science text), which clothes them with a certain power. I believed—I decided to believe—that making poetry out of this material was a regenerative act. I was following through on the promise that sick me had made.
The kinetic process of scanning and plucking, snipping and pasting seemed important—that the work be made by this animal body, still alive post-trauma. I wanted to bring all of myself to the creative act, not to diminish thought but to balance it, enrich it. In that sense even the process of using cut-ups was part of the “making way.”
So “making way” involved making stuff up, and just plain making stuff, out of an extended waking nightmare and the dreams that navigated it.
Rail: Are you comfortable saying more about the “extended waking nightmare?”
Rosenthal: This is for me a nearly impossible question to answer. When I try, it’s a barrage of horrific details. I can only say that it was a total assault on my body and mind. My partner, friends, and work colleagues were beyond supportive. And yet. Sunlight seemed absurd. Not that I didn’t appreciate sunlight, when I could appreciate anything. There are lingering effects, though I don’t dwell on them. And I don’t think or talk often about what I experienced. I don’t frame this as denial—I was quite present throughout the diagnosis and treatment period, so maybe it’s not necessary to process it much these days. I haven’t adopted the identity of cancer survivor, even though I am undeniably just that. When people ask with genuine concern how I’m doing healthwise, I bristle a bit—“I’m fine, and you?” But I do heed the memo that arrives with a serious diagnosis: every day matters.
Rail: Can you talk a bit about the materiality of the page/book, in which the mutilation and reconstitution of language are front and center? To me, the layered, textural aesthetic feels saturated with meaning, and the “altered condition” quite body-based.
Rosenthal: Cutting means so many things to me. Working with scissors, paste, and paper was a way of invoking the work of visual artists I encountered at Headlands, where I spent a couple years as an affiliate artist, and at other residencies—I wanted to engage in the kind of meditative labor I saw them enacting.
I also had positive associations to cutting from early on. All three of my grandmothers knew their way around a pair of shears, a tool they used both for mending the torn and creating the new.
Domestic skills and artistic craft were prized and practiced by others in my family too. As I engaged in this project, a darker side also emerged—my father’s maniacal perfectionism about anything done by hand, and his harsh appraisal of his children’s worth according to their ability to measure up to the physical tasks he excelled at. (Dreamy poet types need not apply.) As I cut, positioned, and irrevocably fixed slivers of paper, I relived childhood trauma, but I quickly recognized the benefit of this. A full-length book of cut-ups provides lots of time to hang out in a difficult zone and see what can be learned.
Rail: I’m curious to know more about what you learned.
Rosenthal: While I got a particularly heavy dose of perfectionism thrown at me as a child, the push toward perfection is a problem in Western society—something I as a white person need to take on as a form of internalized oppression in order not to impose it on others. I have also been wondering lately if there’s Jewish trauma embedded in my father’s and his mother’s perfectionistic anxiety—a perhaps millenia-old need to prove too perfect to excise, amped up by their narrow escape from extermination by the Nazis. Perfectionism privileges the mind: we generate Platonic ideals and then demand that our bodies and minds (and those of our offspring, students, employees, citizens) conform to them. The trains must run on time, all the way to the gates of Auschwitz, the concentration camps for Japanese-American citizens, the boarding schools for Indigenous Peoples, to name just a few examples.
But perhaps anyone taking on a cut-up project has to grapple with this to some extent. Once you choose to dismember and recompose printed matter, what you make is implicitly measured against the machine-created text. You take on an ethical relationship to readers: What is the point at which you slide from allowing, even foregrounding, the jagged edges to disrupting the reading experience so much that the reader must struggle simply to process what the words and lines say? When does a preoccupation with (mis)alignment serve kindness and utility, and when does it go off the deep end?
Page as body was always on my mind as well, and cutting as surgery—an act that can simultaneously be an urgent, life-saving measure and a mutilation. In that sense, cutting stands in for the Western medical establishment, whose procedures and substances can nearly kill us (and sometimes do) while promising to save us.
Rail: Would you talk a bit about creating a shorter work out of an already existing, full-length manuscript? In my mind the lyric “I” becomes a bit less opaque: not exactly confessional, but more vulnerable and exposed. How did this additional layer of composition—or cutting—sit with you?
Rosenthal: In the full-length book, I had room to stretch out. I think of Estelle Meaning Star as a kind of feminist epic. It has the traditional epic’s spirit of exploration but not its male hero conquering all in his long, unstoppable plunge toward victory. Instead, I see Estelle as wandering its way into and through various scenarios and characters in a kind of enlarging spiral, embracing more complexity and mystery as it goes. Anchored loosely by the recurring figure of Estelle and by a kind of Greek chorus of women whose job is to grieve, it includes themes of embodiment, subjectivity, collectivity, mortality, and language—each generating more questions than clarity.
To make a chapbook required starting from scratch, using the full-length book as a source from which to create a much more spare work that would still manifest an intriguing world for readers to inhabit and respond to. Your initial selection of poems was really helpful in launching that process. From there, through numerous conversations and iterations, we arrived at a group and an order that felt “right.” The resulting work is of course intimately related to Estelle Meaning Star but it yields—for me, anyway—a very different reading experience. For example, as you point out, it features a more vulnerable and exposed lyric “I.” Relatedly, trauma is a much stronger theme in the chapbook than it is in the full-length work. It’s not so much that we had to strive to create something unique—rather, the size of the container inevitably generates a different work.
Rail: I want to go back to something that you said earlier, that you “decided to believe—that making poetry out of this material was a regenerative act.” Did this turn out to be the case?
Rosenthal: I strive to write poetry that is out ahead of me, pulling me along. By leaning into process, craft, and material, which become my collaborators, I generate ideas and images that are out of reach of my conscious mind. (In this way, as many have noted, writing resembles dreaming.)
One theme that strikes me in this work, and which seems retrospectively to inform my earlier writing, is a concern with naming shadowy material—wounds, vulnerabilities, disagreeable aspects of life. This project also seemed to send me even further into the nexus of language and embodiment. While still working on it, I entered into a collaboration with poet Valerie Witte that has resulted in two books engaging postmodern dance and my own return to the dance studio, as well as the creation of a film, We Agree on the Sun, that uses poetry and dance to address houselessness.
I also think the project makes way for the ecstatic and divine—through the gaps and slippage; through the mystic, vatic nature of some of the language and images; and through the permeability of subjects and pronouns. I want to see what unfolds if I strive to live and create in alignment with this dimension of the work.
Rail: I love that description, that the project “makes way for the ecstatic and divine” and for me it brings to mind the work of Maude Tanswai, whose painting we chose for the cover of we could hang a radical panel of light. Maude’s art has also been featured on the covers of books by Jennifer S. Cheng and Vi Khi Nao, two other experimental poets whose work embraces the qualities you describe above. What resonated with you about Maude’s work and practice?
Rosenthal: Maude’s drawings and paintings suggest a liberated, dreamlike imagination emerging out of a combination of research and lived experience. Many of her images incorporate found texts—Antonin Artaud’s “Fragments from a Diary in Hell”; medical documents—that evoke profound physical and mental suffering. Whether combined with such excerpts or not, Maude’s gorgeous and often somewhat disconcerting images seem to emerge from a ground enriched by acute awareness of decomposition and death. This gives them a kind of rightness, a wisdom. As I sit with her work, a profound sense of calm—not numbness or stuckness but peace—washes over me.
So of course I was honored when she made several of her pieces available for consideration for the cover. And the painting that we ultimately chose is a far more radical panel of light than anything I could ever have visualized. I get a kick out of thinking that the “we” in the book’s title was prescient, given that working with you and Maude to select and place her painting has been such a surprising, enriching, and downright joyful collaboration.