by Sarah Kelly
When I first read Paul Sacksteder’s “Spring, Starting Sometime in March” I was struck by the idea that there was such a thing as Spring in the desert at all. If this were an interview in Elle magazine this is the part where I would detail how laid back he appeared over coffee at the pier in Santa Monica or someplace. Since it’s not, let’s move forward. What I learned during our interview created a uniquely American cultural and poetic landscape of Las Vegas– especially when a roadrunner darts across the street.
SK: The use of form in your poem is quite innovative: do you see it that way? In what ways do you think form influences the content of the piece, and the reader’s perception of it?
PS: The form I use in this poem is one that I’ve been playing with for a while. I don’t think it’s innovative really. I like to play with fragmentation in terms of creating an uncertainty or hesitancy. I started playing with slashes (as opposed to periods) to change the momentum of the poem. With the fairly regular syntax, the experience of reading the poem is both normal and strange. In this poem in particular, I wanted to play with a sense of space. The couch in the desert and the scorpion in the home both evoke a sense of overlap that, for me, is quite natural. My hope was to evoke that with the form. It’s interesting to see how people read a poem like this. I really am not sure if everyone reads a slash in the same way.
SK: Your poem links the urban to the natural, and vice versa. What are your thoughts on your exploration of culture and place within the text?
PS: The Mojave desert around Las Vegas doesn’t have a lot of vegetation; it’s mostly Joshua Trees and various types of agave. This means that the edges between suburbia and the desert are actually pretty fuzzy, which I like. Just this morning I saw a roadrunner dart across my neighborhood street. I like this sense of permeability. I know this is true of other places too, but I just find it to be more pronounced here. I’d like to better understand this urban ecology as a way to feel more connected to place. If we see our cities as part of nature or ecological processes, then we’re more likely to view place as a complex ecosystem where culture and place inform one another. By allowing the environment to be more dynamic and inclusive, I’d like to think I’m making an argument for conservation (or the creation of space). In this sense, space and process are in direct competition. It creates a self-consciousness in all of our movements because there’s a direct connection to our ecosystem.
I don’t want to belabor my answer here, but I think this is an idea that is sprouting in cities throughout the word. The impetus to plop trees on top of urban skyscrapers or create community gardens all relate to this. Sarah Sze, the installation artist, does a wonderful job of capturing this sensibility in her work. She has a beautiful piece installed on New York’s old High Line (an elevated subway line) that is both immaculately constructed and creates a habitat for wildlife (http://www.thehighline.org/sarah-sze-still-life-with-landscape-model-for-a-habitat).
SK: When I first read your work I was struck by your description of Nevada: the desert seems so foreign to me (I did grow up in suburban Virginia after all). When I contacted the University of Nevada initially, I did so thinking that M.F.A. students who chose to join the Peace Corps for a year as part of the program would submit work that drew from experience abroad. Instead, here we are. As someone who has lived in Nevada for a number a years, in what ways do you think living there has influenced your work?
PS: It’s funny because I had high hopes for my study abroad as a way to produce some work. I went to Uruguay and did some translations (of the great Uruguayan writer Rafael Courtoisie), but I didn’t write much about the experience. I’m not particularly sure how Las Vegas has influenced my work. I do weirdly feel like my work is mostly suburban. The summers are pretty brutal here. You spend a good chunk of your time ensconced in air-conditioned bubbles, whether it’s your car or home. My work has gotten more narrow in a way that reflects that.
The desert is probably my favorite part of living in Las Vegas. It’s so ecologically unique and amazing. When my mom visited once, I took her up to Red Rock Canyon, and she declared it ugly. It just wasn’t what she was used to. There’s no green and everything is crouched down to avoid the hot sun. The biggest adjustment to make is how wide open it is as a result. We have a state park just outside of town called the Valley of Fire. There are only a few established trails. Mostly, if you go hiking there, you just pick a direction and take off hiking. Again, you get that sense of blurred edges.
SK: The United States is often described as a “cultural melting pot”. Do you see American culture as one appropriated from other countries, or something else? (This interview is beginning to sound like a final exam. I suppose I’m in that mindset.)
PS: Oh, jeez. This is like an exam question. I had a bit of a flashback when I first read it; it was like I had forgotten to study or something. There’s honestly a long history of people considering this question in terms of Las Vegas. Dave Hickey, the venerable art critic and friend of Hunter S. Thompson, has spoken on the idea. The Strip is really such a clash of cultures and ideas. You can have a pretty architecturally-impressive building like the fairly new City Center project less than a mile down the street from the absurdity of Excalibur’s castle. Unlike Disney World, there wasn’t much planning as to the overall aesthetic experience of it, and that’s kind of amazing. The absurdity of it, for me, is what makes it less of an appropriation. Separately, something like the reconstituted versions of the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, or a black glass pyramid might be view as such, but when you smash it all together, it creates something that is uniquely American. It’s like the actual mechanism of melting consumes the pot.
The second part, the rest of the city, is maybe more of a reflection of this than I first thought. Las Vegas has endured amazing growth over the last 20 years. I read somewhere that the Vegas population has grown by 85% since the early 90s. This creates a lot of transience. People bring what they love from wherever they’re from and plop it here. The strip mall, which is the predominant architecture of the suburbs here in Vegas, really provides a cheap way of allowing this to happen. Our Chinatown is a great example of that. It’s essentially about a 1-2 mile stretch of strip malls taken over by all sorts of Asian businesses. You’ll find some great Malaysian restaurant one day, and a few weeks later, you’ll go back to only find that it’s already shut down. The city is constantly reinventing itself. There’s been at least three implosions of major buildings (casinos) since I’ve moved here.
So going back to the original question, I think it is partially a melting pot in the sense that people are carrying a lot of traditions with them as they come here, but the space and attitude that allows this commingling is something that is our own.
Paul Sacksteder lives in Las Vegas where he is a stay-at-home dad, teaches, and occasionally crosses paths with Elvis. His work has recently appeared in the Hawaii Review, Barnstorm, Sun Skeleton, and Absent Mag. You can read his work “Spring, Starting Sometime in March” here.