Interview with Upcoming Breadline Feature Sierra Nelson

Interview conducted by Greg Bem.

Tell me a little bit about your writing self. What personal projects and collaborations have you recently completed? What’s your writing history in Seattle?

My writing life in Seattle has been wonderfully varied — I feel very luck for the community of writers I know here, doing all sorts of diverse work. Lots of collaborations, and lots to just be inspired by.

For over fourteen years (that’s a long time!), I’ve collaborated with Rachel Kessler doing “literary performance art” — collaborative writing, both on-the-spot and behind-the-scenes, with various multi-media performance elements, focusing especially on older analog technology (typewriters, overhead projectors).  We first began collaborating together as a trio with Sarah Paul Ocampo, founding The Typing Explosion (, and in 2004 Rachel and I began exploring our poetry-scientist selves in the project the Vis-à-Vis Society ( Most recently Vis-à-Vis Society performed as part of the Mw [Moment Magnitude] Exhibition at the Frye Art Museum. A few of the things we were most excited about from that project — collaboratively written Scientific Method poems displayed on the bathroom mirrors, 12 Days of Pantyhose (poems written while conducting field research on wearing pantyhose, writing 2 lines/2legs per day), and poems written using a new poetic form created to mimic the structure of the giant light sculpture that was up at the Frye by Lilienthal | Zamora. (You can see the floorplan of their structure here: ) It was a challenging  form — including 0 syllable lines! The results were eerie.

I also received my MFA from U.W. in 2002, and my solo-writing has really been supported by writers and artists I met during that time or rippling out from that community. There’s a vibrant performance scene in Seattle, and a vibrant on-the-page scene in Seattle, having interesting conversations with each other, and lots of people straddling both worlds. I’m happy to be in this mix!

Last year was exciting, as both my choose-your-own-adventure (with poetry and art) book collaboration with visual artist Loren Erdrich was released in the spring from Rose Metal Press (I Take Back the Sponge Cake ), and my chapbook “In Case of Loss” came out in November as part of the Toadlily Press Quartet Series ( ).

New writing has been trying to include more (actual) dream images/objects, and most recently colors. (I just started teaching a color-themed generative writing class at Hugo House — I like teaching these classes because it makes me write more too!)

I remember all your successes from last year! Congratulations, and I hope you appreciate busy artistry as much as I do. That being said, I’m curious. With what you’ve described, there is a certain density not only in the projects but in the lifestyle of the artist itself. I was going to be more straightforward and ask you easier questions, but I have to go a different route: when it comes to time, time management, scheduling, sense of being, sense of growth, and perception, how do you find yourself? Is the 21st century artist responsible for thinking about such things, about the temporal?

Similarly, regarding your happenings or situations, so to speak, and your material constructions, I’d love for you to talk about space. If you could touch lightly (like a cell phone screen) on the idea of space and place when it comes to your poetics, that would be quite lovely (and lively) too!

It does get dense! Whacking through the underbrush of artistry with my time machete. That sounds about right. The main trick (still learning) is remembering to whistle while I work. As in, to remember that I actually do enjoy all these things, and to let myself enjoy them, and not just panic about all the other things I’m not doing when I’m doing one thing.  To remember to enjoy some slow going sometimes, and even some scratches, and the weird along the way (which is actually the good part!) — like a bird that suddenly appears in a tree above you while you’re down below industriously, almost futilely, whacking. Poetry!

I don’t know if an artist has a responsibility to think about the temporal, but I think most artists do. Four dimensions, we’re in it, we’re living it, so we have to think about it. Balancing time for the work to cover basic needs (whatever way you’ve found to make money and have food and shelter that hopefully doesn’t drain you from art-making — and that can be different for different artists — and even at different times in your life) — with the essential art-making time.

Then there’s balancing the fruitful generative brainstorming daydreaming experimenting exploring observing playing around time with the time needed for honing, editing, preparing, practicing, problem solving, making tangible, presenting, performing — how much time to give each side of the creative process? Especially when each side in itself could expand into infinity!

And then the time inside time — finding the moments where you are IN IT and time moves differently from ordinary time (part of how you know, later, that you are/were IN IT), versus the times when you are just showing up and clocking in, keeping faith with the creative process, but maybe not that much comes out of it (tangibly), and time creeps in this petty pace. But I think that time is important too. The showing up.  Sometimes you have to fold laundry with the muse. And that has its purpose too. (Cue more whistling.)

The compartments of time, a word I thought of immediately when you mentioned the layers, is more pertinent in my life now than every before, but for reasons related to sanity and necessity rather than exploration, though perhaps it’s all linked.

When it comes to space, I wonder about not only your specific projects and how they’ve explored space, expanded upon space, and innovated with space. I know you’ve done all of the above, so don’t lie to me, Sierra! But more seriously, what does space DO with the temporal, what is the relationship with finding time within time?

Also, what’s the deal with space under the cloud blanket that is Seattle’s sky? Space is way different here than other places, and seeing that you’ve been other places, I think you’ll probably have an opinion.

Are there any spaces we should look for you and your art in the near future? Where do we point our cameras, our iPhones, our sensors and antennae?

That’s true, I do like to play with space in projects! Especially interactive space.  My choose-your-own-adventure book with Loren was a way to play with the usual page-space and trajectory of a poetry book, allowing the path between pages to jump around and move by the reader’s volition.And a few years ago I made what I called a Rune Library (Runasafn) during a residency in Reykjavik.  I wrote a series of poems inspired by Nordic Rune symbols and made it into an installation where readers could select (at random, or looking for when they liked) a rock with that rune, and then receive that corresponding poem typed on a card (and writing their name on a library card so I knew which poems had been “checked out”). I like thinking about the right poem intersecting with the right reader at the right time — something you don’t have much control over as a writer, but it’s something you hope for. Runasafn was a way for me both to encourage awareness of, and to record, that intersection. A reader or listener’s interaction and intersection in time-space with a poem is a necessary ingredient to the magic in any poem. I’m interested in ways to bring that ongoing chance/choice on the reader’s part back into awareness, making it more exciting for all parties involved.

And of course as the Vis-à-Vis Society we are definitely interested in taking poetry off the static page and into all different kinds of locations and interactive engagement with an audience. We want to invite people into the process, to inhabit the poem-experiment together.

One of my favorite time-space-inhabiting poetry we did (though not as overtly science-y as many of our Vis-à-Vis Society endeavors) was at the Bridge Motel as part of the Motel Project (  (And when I say we here, I mean myself/Dr, Ink, my usual collaborative partner Rachel Kessler/Dr. Owning, and one of our favorite poetic-scientific associates Anne Bradfield/Dr. Eamer.) We wrote 100 original poems about motel rooms typed on old Bridge Motel postcards. The night of the one-night-only happening, Anne and I checked out room-poems and numbered keys to people visiting the Bridge Motel lobby (which we repainted an amazing Pepto Bismal pink). No poem was repeated. People were also asked to give us a small deposit in exchange for their room-poem and key, which could be anything that would fit in a small numbered plastic bag. By the end of the night we had a wild array of items people chose to leave behind in exchange (including poems written back to us on old receipts, a lock of hair cut on the spot, photos from wallets, and airplane bottle of booze). Someday we’d really like these poems and the corresponding images of the deposits people left to be published in a book form. We’re working on that manuscript now, in fact!

But now I realize maybe you weren’t actually asking about projects, and just wanted to get down to the SPACE+ACTION+TIME, what’s happening?

Living in Seattle, I think the rain and clouds really do affect our experience of space and time. This is a good place for dreaming (night dreaming and daydreaming) — is it the grey? The shifting cinematic light when the clouds do break? The large trees? Probably all of it. (This also relates to my theory about the peculiar Pacific Northwest driving style, so maddening to east coast drivers: slow drivers in the left lane. My theory: Seattle drivers move all the way to the left to avoid potential conflict from cars entering the freeway from the right, which then frees them up for more daydreaming and car singing, hence the slower, or erratic fast-slow, speeds in the left lane. Discuss.)

Plus the fact that film and books are so important here (excellent activities for rainy days) — we take it for granted, but that’s one of the fastest ways to experience time within time, as a viewer/reader. (Internet and TV feel less specifically like time within time to me because they are more pythony — able to swallow up the whole deer of your day. Handle with care.)

Plus space needle = time machine. Right? So we are pretty lucky living and writing here.

Regarding where to point your antennae in the future: First, Breadline on Thursday Feb 21 (of course!). And I am still working to secure a date and venue for the next Cephalopod Appreciation Society meeting — but I am looking at April. So keep the cephalopods in your thoughts and stay tuned!


Sierra Nelson is author of chapbook “In Case of Loss” (Toadlily Press, 2012) and her book collaboration with visual artist Loren Erdrich, I Take Back the Sponge Cake: A Lyrical Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, debuted from Rose Metal Press in Spring 2012.  Her poems have appeared in Poetry NorthwestCity Arts Magazine, Crazyhorse, Fairy Tale Review, and Forklift, Ohio, as well as in the anthology collectionsPinkThunder and forthcoming Alive at the Center: Pacific Poetry Project. She is a MacDowell Colony fellow, co-founder of literary performance art groups The Typing Explosion and the Vis-à-Vis Society, and president of Seattle’s Cephalopod Appreciation Society.

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