Beyond Autobiography: Experimentation…Q&A with Sierra Nelson and Gretchen Bennett

Posted Thu, 7/28/2016 - 2:00pm by  |  Category: , ,

For four Saturdays in August (8/6–8/27), visual artist and writer Gretchen Bennett and poet and performer Sierra Nelson will be co-teaching a class called Beyond Autobiography: Multi-Disciplinary Experiments—a generative writing class that also draws on other art forms to provide innovative approaches to jump-start the creative process and create new work.

In anticipation of this new teaching collaboration, Sierra and Gretchen chatted about some of their ideas and excitement going into the class. Here are their notes from that conversation.


Sierra: First, for a little background, I’ll say the class started with a conversation about autoethnography as a radical research method embracing the subjective, and the idea that everyone in the class would get a notebook for field notes. There will be writing and drawing and things collected, and we’ll take some walks together too.

Gretchen: Sierra, you’ve talked about stenographers, and their special notebooks and special language of capturing. Can you say more about that? I’m thinking now about field notes, and how they become writing.

Sierra: I think part of the magic of stenography is that from the outside it seems like just these strange, doodle-like marks to denote sound, like bird call field notes, yet somehow they can translate into a recording of a moment. And that these go into a certain kind of notebook seems key to the methodology. So I’m excited about our class’s use of special notebooks, for a container for what we discover.



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Gretchen: Yes, I’m excited about displays of artifacts, for instance, things found in one outing, while walking, gathered and reconfigured into writing.

Sierra: I’m thinking now too of Jody Gladding and her translations from Bark Beetle—the bark beetles themselves are like the stenographers!

Gretchen: That points back to writing being a process of accepting and receiving. Gathering.

Sierra: Speaking of which, some questions for you. Thinking about radical research, what are you researching (or excited to start researching) right now?

Gretchen: I’ve been exploring a past family trip through writing, as a way to look at personal and historic memory and the daily. I’m still looking at the shape it could take. I’ve presented this writing as a performed essay a few times.

Sierra: What is the role of vulnerability in your creative process?

Gretchen: I’ve been writing more, as a chance to become more explicit. Visual art, which is my primary practice till now, allows me to imply things, but writing makes me feel exposed, awkward, but also more together, more clear. With myself and others. Trying to be clear makes me feel vulnerable.

Sierra: In one description of autoethnography, it’s described as: “evocative research grounded in personal experience, research that would sensitize readers… to experiences shrouded in silence.” I love this idea of research into silence—thoughts for how we might explore this?

Gretchen: That seems to talk about what otherwise might remain inchoate, unnoticed. People laying out their everyday in writing illuminates as it animates, unmutes.

Sierra: I love that image of unmuting. I’ve been picturing it lately as the self as one lens and the world as another, to discover new (converging or diverging) images, depending on which way you flip those two lenses. And thinking about the way the lens of self is always there, even if transparent, the personal always part of what we write, whether it’s overtly our subject matter or just influencing how we perceive.



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Gretchen: I have been thinking about people’s small, still stories, how they don’t just contribute to a larger history; they change that history and make it more inclusive. That’s what I like about the idea of autoethnography. Letting the personal and the daily, including personal and historical memory, make history.

I have this experience while looking at Instragram, including at your recent pictures of Rome, of remembering that certain kind of light, and your photos are just as personal to me as if they were mine. My memory lets me re-experience it through your artifact.

In your poem, The First Photograph, you ask: “Hasn’t there been a moment you never wanted to leave?” Can you talk about such a moment?

Sierra: If my poems are secretly researching without my direct knowledge, I suspect one question in their laboratory is, “How do we stop time?” I don’t think they’ve gotten there yet, at best maybe just slowing down light so it’s slower than the speed of light. Which is probably just as well. Those moments I can remember never wanting to leave, I also remember as excruciating in a way, the ache of being in them. Maybe that slow light aches too, taking too much in, even if it wanted to stay longer. Because it’s not just time that passes, or the light that shifts: we are changing.

Gretchen: Right, we are changing. Can you talk about your approach to poetry, which is very much about your voice and performance?

Sierra: That’s funny, I have done a lot of performance and collaboration in the past decade and a half, but I still don’t think of myself as a performer primarily. For me it’s more about the collective experience we build together, audience and poet, whether it’s an explicitly audience-interactive piece I’m doing as the Vis-a-Vis Society or just me reading poems to a live audience, sharing that particular space and time together. I’m also interested in the way that performance and installation allow us to embody poems in different ways, to physically get inside of them. I do love poetry on the page too, but that often feels like just the beginning.

I’m also seeing in our notes for this class: butterflies.

Gretchen: Yes. Etymology and entymology, the confusion.

Sierra: That’s right! And the ways both swarm. That also reminds me, did you read about scientists’ discovery that butterflies retain some of their caterpillar memories, even after the caterpillars become basically just a soup inside the pupa? They become something entirely new, from all the raw materials, but there is still something lingering of who they were from before too.

Gretchen: At its barest, is a free write, or personal writing session, like the caterpillar, the raw material, that can be broken up to make something else?

Sierra: Free write as hungry caterpillar? Maybe! I think even the words themselves retain memories of who they were, even as they become something new.

Gretchen: And sometimes the words can lose their memories.

Sierra: Before we go, will you talk a little bit about some of your past projects, like M. Diary and Windfall Alphabet?

Gretchen: At one point, my studio practice was at a standstill and I was missing family. One day I was sitting at a stoplight on Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Rainier Avenue and I thought, while I’m preoccupied with these thoughts of absence, which keep me from making art, I’ll write down the thoughts, and that became M. Diary.

Windfall Alphabet happened, when I was working on Governors Island in New York City and there were trees and a storm, so windfall. I had wanted to spell the word ‘ruskin,’ to make a landscape from John Ruskin’s name, and it became this obsessive, iterative language, very windblown, a search for letter forms in tree varieties, asking the trees.


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Gretchen Frances Bennett, detail from M Diary, installation at Jacob Lawrence Gallery.



Gretchen Frances Bennett, detail from collective walk as part of her Windfall Alphabet project.


Sierra: Thank you, Gretchen! I’m really looking forward to this month of writing, creating, and conversation.

Gretchen: Me too.