INTERVIEW WITH CATHERINE SASANOV
Poet Catherine Sasanov is the author of Traditions of Bread and Violence
(Four Way Books) and All the Blood Tethers (Morse Poetry Prize, Northeastern University Press).
She is also the librettist for Las Horas de Belén: A Book of Hours, a theater piece commissioned by
Mabou Mines. Her recently released chapbook, What's Left of Galgani, is a selection of work from the
poem cycle, Reassembling the Bodily Relics of St. Gemma Galgani. It was
published in 2004 by Franciscan University Press, Steubenville, Ohio. Her poem, "Day of the Dead: La Dulcería de
Celaya," is part of the Červená Barva postcard series.
Describe the space you write in.
For 14 years I didn't have a room of my own unless I went off to an artists' colony. There, for four or five weeks,
I would have my own space. Sometimes a little cottage, sometimes a small room with paper thin walls, but by God,
it was mine and stripped of all distractions. I owe so many of these places - MacDowell, Hedgebrook, Blue Mountain
Center, and the Millay Colony in particular - for giving me the gift of time and space when I didn't have much of
It was only in the fall of 2003 that I got my own room again, when my boyfriend's brother rented out the
first floor of his triple decker to Paul and I. So I now write in a very comfy, very ugly wingback chair wedged
into the farthest corner back in the farthest room away from the front of the house.
I sometimes feel like I walk
in the front door, all the way to the back of the house, pulling the rest of the world in after me. In the last
10 years I have spent a fair amount of time following one obsession or another to Mexico City or Europe, and the
tangible things I drag back (photos, notes, interviews, books, objects, gifts) end up on the walls, in the
bookshelves, or strewn over three desks while I try and interpret what it all means through my poems. Some of
these are packed away when the obsession burns itself out; others find a more permanent place in my studio.
Surrounding me now: a two foot tall devil lording over the room, directly across from a Virgin of Guadalupe given
to me by my hero, writer Elena Poniatowska. A papier mache skull fitted by artist Jane Wiley with a baby's red
knit cap and scarf. A cabinet of talismans: miracle dirt from Chimayo, a bottle of I can bear more than you
liquid given to me by a follower of Mexican folk healer Niño Fidencio, two wooden figas (good luck shaped like a
fist) from Brazil, a small statue of La Santa Muerte (St. Death) bought at her shrine in Tepito, and five
wishbones I discreetly plucked from various chicken breasts when I lunched at The Glass of Milk, Vaso de Leche,
during an extended stay in Mexico City. Scattered elsewhere in the room: my mother's collection of carved
wooden monks; a ceramic bowl of locket relics holding the blood, dust, and bone of a few saints; a velvet
bag bearing about a half cup of my mother's ashes, and the photos and memorial cards of friends dead and living.
All of these things circle the business end of a writing life: paper, pens, computer, printer, wastebasket.
Until I was laid off in May of this year, I knew this room best between 2 or 3 a.m. and 7 a.m., the hours I
staked out for writing before leaving for my 9 to 5 job. So there was always intense silence in this space,
me sitting in a pool of light from one lamp, and visits from a little mouse who would show up during the coldest
What are you working on now?
Since my obsessions tend to choose my subjects, the question might be more appropriately phrased as What's
working on Catherine now? A few of my obsessions (the dead, Catholicism, Mexico City) all converged earlier
this year around the figure of La Santa Muerte, Most Holy Death or St. Death, a skeleton raised up and prayed
to in the very dicey neighborhood of Tepito in Mexico City. The Catholic church rails against her, but that
hasn't stopped people from making pilgrimages to Santa Muerte's shrine and asking favors of her the way one
might ask favors of the Virgin Mother. For a long time, she was worshipped very clandestinely, mostly by
persons who lived lives close to death: prostitutes and thieves, for example. Her draw is that she is totally
unjudgemental, totally amoral. One can ask her for assistance in finding work, getting well, holding a marriage
together. At the same time, one can ask her for help in killing someone off or robbing a bank. It's all the same
to her. I was fortunate to get into Tepito and her shrine earlier this year, particularly fortunate since
I was able to join up with some people who got me safely in and out. As long as I kept my wits about me,
I used to be able to wander Mexico City alone without too much trouble. In recent years, though, the city
has become rampant with kidnapping, and even during the hours I was at the shrine, someone was kidnapped
two blocks over. Death personified is not something I have really dealt with in my work; till visiting this
shrine and talking to Santa Muerte's followers, death was the wind: a thing I could see only when it moved
through someone or something else. And this Death, this saint of last resort, is about the furthest thing
imaginable from the humorous skeletons and skulls Mexico produces during the Day of the Dead.
Anyway, I'm doing what I usually do, just letting my obsession thread a ring through my nose and lead me where
it wants. One of the poems coming out of all this, "Give Me My Little Skull: Joel Peter Witkin, Mexico City," will be published around Christmas 2005 in the journal Skidrow Penthouse. Another of the poems will
be part of the postcard series Cervená Barva press is publishing.
Where do you find inspiration for your writing?
I've been fortunate, this far in life, not to have had to look for things to write about.
They tend to find me or I stumble over them. Poetry is something of a candle I lean into the dark with;
it lights up the things I don't understand.
What is the strangest thing you've done to find writing material?
Most of my writing comes out of strange things that happen to me, or within eyeshot, that later
provoke a poem. Like finding out months after the fact that I'd stood on Josef Mengele's still
undiscovered grave in Brazil. Or seeing Death throned and peeking out of a pile of marshmallows in a
wicker basket in Mexico City. I've learned that even the tiniest, mundane gesture at the right time,
in the right place, can trigger something, like simply lifting the sheet from my dead boyfriend's body
only to find the chest cracked open, ribs hauled back, and heart exposed.
I guess I have done some odd things, though, when I have gone looking for a deeper understanding of a
subject that's gotten its hooks in me. People would probably find it strange to be making a concerted
effort to track down Death's street address, then fly down to Mexico City to pay her a visit. For four
years I was working on a poem cycle having to do with an obscure Catholic saint, Gemma Galgani of Lucca, Italy.
In trying to understand her, a stigmatic prone to visions of Jesus, Mary and her Guardian Angel, I became even
more involved in learning about her family. The repercussions of Gemma's sanctity were often brutal on them,
and after Gemma's death the family's reputation was pretty much chewed up and spit out as it got sucked up into
the canonization process. I went to Lucca searching for the saint's descendents and those who knew those who
knew Gemma. Probably one of the strangest and most wonderful moments was being in a house Gemma had lived in,
sitting with her grand niece and nephew around a table the saint had dined at daily, while three elderly nuns
told us unpublished details about Gemma and her family, the gossip still fresh after 100 years. In the middle
of the table, encased in its silver reliquary, one of the nuns had left a chunk of Gemma's heart so she could
be there with us.