To prepare for their March 12 course, Sun Creatures: Sensory Exploration, poets Sierra Nelson and Melanie Noel sat down for an interview — with one another. They discussed their appreciation for one another’s work, synesthesia, and solar flares.
Here’s what they learned as they prepared for Sun Creatures, a course that’ll explore, among other things, synesthesia, movement, sensory immersion, myth-making, and eco-poetics. “No matter your starting place,” the instructors promise, “by the end you’ll go home with new written work and a more vibrant appreciation of the sensory world.”
Sierra Asks, Melanie Answers
Q: I know you often teach generative writing workshops offered around the summer solstice and winter solstice, and our class together at Hugo House happens to be the weekend before spring equinox. What is unique about these particular workshops? What do you like about them?
A: What I most love about the solstice workshops is the feeling of a three-dimensional poem taking shape through the collective movement and imagination of the participants. The workshops are outside, so there are many unexpected elements, like weather, what’s overheard, wildlife, a pine cone falling. They attempt to inspire something like synesthesia or other perceptual shifts as a way of getting to empathy and something new within your existing work and interests.
Q: I found this audio recording of a solar flare—the radio waves emitted from a blast off the sun’s surface that then hit the earth’s surface, plus some incidental ham radio voices picked up too. What have you been receiving lately that you’re excited to bring to this class on March 12?
A: Wow, what a cool recording! It reminds me somehow of getting pulled under the surf when I tried to body surf as a kid. That quality of shshshsh filling up your ears, your limbs flailing. Feels dangerous but also exhilarating. But I digress!
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about trees. Trees as receptors and interpreters and audience. They are so intimate with the shifts of light. As the sun leaves its southern slow motion slingshot and moves toward its frank summer camp overhead, I love to watch the leaf buds grow fat on the maple. It’s like they’re bonbons being prepared for the sun guest. Some of what I’ve prepared for the 12th is related to trees and their relation to sun.
Q: We’ve admired each other’s work and taken each other’s classes for a long time, but last summer was the first time we had officially taught together—for the inaugural “Sun Creatures” (summer edition) class at Hugo House. What were some of your favorite parts of our previous collaborative adventure?
A: Firstly, it is such a pleasure to get to teach with you! You have such an expansive and compassionate way with everyone. There’s a feeling like the class could collectively break into song and it would make sense. When we met outside St. Ignatius to share notes and ideas in preparation, I remember really loving how the origins of certain exercises — yours or mine — started to disappear as we layered the ideas all together. It was like making a really good soup without a recipe. I also just loved seeing how the great students brought it to life. Poetry charades on Seattle University’s lawn also stays with me especially well.
Melanie Asks, Sierra Answers
Q: You have this beautiful poem in Poetry Northwest called “The First Photograph” inspired by photographer Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s first image. Within the first line is this: “Heliography, the image.” I wonder if you could say more about how you see the sun in relation to an image, photographic or poetic?
A: So often we forget about the sun’s presence in the image (and our lives). Throughout the day, our sun makes things visible to our human eyes, but we expect it, so it becomes invisible to us. I think part of our work as poets is to sensitize ourselves, like those coated metal plates of early photography, and reveal the invisible again, through the images that stick.
Q: You’ve created so many remarkable performances and collaborations. Could you describe a little how they inform your work as a teacher?
A: Thank you for saying that! I’ve been lucky to have some amazing collaborations and collaborators in my life (The Typing Explosion, Vis-à-Vis Society, and Sponge Cake). And there are so many things I’ve learned from these experiences.
But one essential thing: because it’s based on camaraderie and surprise, collaboration also helps bring joy to the process. So often what keeps us from our best writing (or writing at all) is fear of the blank page or that it won’t be good enough. Using collaboration in the classroom, we bypass that stuck place and help each other just jump right in, freeing ourselves to surprise ourselves on the page, and amplifying one another’s delight in what’s discovered. And those feeling of joy, discovery, and surprise can be carried over into our individual work as well.
Q: How did you experience the sun in the places where you grew up?
A: I did a lot of my growing up in Nevada, Carson City, and Reno, where the sun was intense! In Carson City, our backyard was sagebrush, and I have many memories of trying to catch lizards and crickets there (while keeping an ear out for rattlesnakes). When I try to picture it now, it’s almost like those old photographs that have been blown out by the sun, where you can barely discern the original picture, you almost have to squint. I also remember you had to move really fast across the sand in the heat of day when you were playing, to get to the cooler shadows. (The shadows were also a good place for finding the crickets.) That could be fun as a poetic approach: move fast across what will burn you, to find the cooler places to rest and to look around more closely.
Q: If you had to animate or personify the sun, what materials would you use? What would it look, smell, and sound like?
A: I imagine the sun walking on earth in a burning suit that sounds like crinkly paper, smelling of burnt toast from the morning, carrying a ham radio and a shoehorn.
Sierra Nelson and Melanie Noel will be teaching Sun Creatures: Sensory Exploration on March 12 from 1 to 4 p.m.