Sierra Nelson is a poet and a performer who has a longtime love affair with science and sea creatures. It began with her summertime visits to the tide pools near her grandmother's house in Port Angeles. The misty aquatic wonderland was a sharp contrast to her early childhood of catching crickets and lizards in the sagebrush deserts of Nevada, where she lived until moving to the Pacific Northwest for high school.
She left again to go to college at Vassar, where she studied biology, although she ended up dropping it for English because she didn't like the class structure of the science track. Yet she has always found ways to work the forms and methodologies of science into her artistic practice.
In her recently published book of poetry, The Lachrymose Report, she employs scientific personas to investigate love's abysses and bioluminescences, its tendrils and tentacles. As she swings between high lyricism and a sort of swashbuckling melancholy that I love, she also consistently exhibits the quality that scientists and poets share, which is their ability to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.
She loves the "amazing creatures hanging out alongside us, largely unnoticed, in this big city," she said the other day over coffee. In addition to her writing, her teaching, and her performing, she is the founder and organizer of the Cephalopod Appreciation Society, an annual lovefest in honor of the predatory mollusk. Since 2000, she has been commissioning artists of all kinds (film, dance, music, poetry, art, etc.) to make original works that celebrate the octopus, squid, chambered nautilus, and cuttlefish at these events. This year's Cephalopod Appreciation Society meeting will be held on May 1 at Hugo House.
Her obsession with marine life influenced the look of The Lachrymose Report. At first glance, you'd be forgiven for mistaking it for a middle-school science textbook. She chose a glossy hardback cover with a grid of photos of microscopic organisms. She worked with Kevin Craft, the editor of the newly formed Poetry Northwest Editions and an excellent poet in his own right, to source images from Pondlife, a website that collects photographs of cyanobacteria, green algae colonies, diatoms, heliozoans, and other tiny floaters that hang around ponds.
Her ability to be astonished by the beauty of tiny bugs living largely unnoticed in the big city makes complete sense when you read the poems in her book, which are full of little details about city life, aquatic life, and inner life that many might miss.
My favorite thing about the book is its index. Since when does a book of poetry have an index? It's a poem in its own right. At readings, she'll ask audience members to shout out their favorite letter, and then she'll start reading the index aloud from there.
If I were in the audience, I'd call out "S," if only so I could get her to read the index's greatest single line entry: "skin: 33, 54; lion's — 17; -ned cat 46." Or maybe the best part of the index is the entry for "body," because it contains a series of see alsos that reads: "heart, mustache, mouth, nerve, shoulder, skin, skull, teeth, tongue, wing." I love the two memento mori tucked in that little blazon—the first one grave, the second one angelic.
Nelson's sunny disposition shines through in her accounting of her use of colors: "green" shows up 11 times, while "grey" shows up only once. Of the four seasons, spring gets the most play in The Lachrymose Report—but it only beats out winter by one. Autumn sneaks in once at the tail end of the book's tremendous final poem, "Forgiveness Tour," which is a kind of sorry-not-sorry (but, seriously, I'm sorry) apologia about the need to look back in order to move forward, like "spring un-writing winter, line by line," as Nelson puts it in another poem.
Despite the lugubrious title, there's an equal amount of crying and dancing in the book, though dancing wins out by one if you count her reference to a discotheque. And like any good poet, Nelson gives us more questions than answers, more true things than untrue things.
Each entry also serves as a little microcosm of the poems it references, and taken together they create an internal network that links all of the poems, revealing hidden connections.
Publishing a slim volume of poetry is only one expression of Nelson's literary talents. To truly understand the scope and context of her accomplishments, we have to look at the many different shapes her poetic genius has taken.
Her first big project was Typing Explosion, a performance-art group she founded with Sarah Paul Ocampo and Rachel Kessler. Nelson met her cohorts at parties she threw at an apartment she shared with a roommate. Though Nelson had family down in Tacoma and up in Port Angeles, she and her roommate didn't really know anybody in Seattle when they moved here in 1997. To meet people, they developed a practice of posting DIY party invitations around the neighborhood and inviting interesting people who hung around Zeitgeist Coffee.
One such interesting person was Ocampo, whom Nelson first met at the arm-wrestling table during an underwater-themed party at the apartment. The two got to talking about poetry, typewriters, and performance. Kessler joined on a little later and Typing Explosion was born.
The three of them dressed up as 1960s secretaries and wrote poems for people on typewriters, only communicating with each other and others through a complex language of bells, horns, and whistles. The group first performed at a First Thursday at Zeitgeist in August of 1998, and they kept the project going through about 2004. During that time, they toured locally and internationally, banging out poems and performances at On the Boards and at the Venice Biennale in 2003. They joined a leg of the famed Wave Books poetry bus tour, with Nelson riding along and typing from Toronto to Florida.
In 2004, Ocampo turned her attention to her band, leaving Nelson and Kessler to split off and form the Vis-à-Vis Society, which is still in operation today. With the Vis-à-Vis society, Nelson and Kessler dress up in lab coats, write up poems that look a lot more like multiple choice surveys, get audience members to fill them out, graph the results, and sing and dance their findings.
This year, Seattle publisher Entre Rios will release 100 Rooms: A Bridge Motel Project, which is a collection of poems and images based on a 2007 site-specific installation by DK Pan and a number of other artists set in a motel off Aurora Avenue that was about to be demolished. The Vis-à-Vis Society served as the front desk, assigning rooms to attendees. Guests would offer a deposit—a dollar, a lock of hair, a KISS condom—and in return, Nelson, Kessler, and another collaborator, Anne Bradfield, would hand them a room key with instructions on where to find the room, with fair warning that not all rooms were on the premises "and some might take years to find." 100 Rooms will include photos of the deposits and the poems they wrote about the project.
On and off for the last several years, Nelson has taught creative writing for the University of Washington at its Friday Harbor and Rome extension programs. At the marine biology labs up in Friday Harbor, she helped organize the Poetry and Science symposiums, where poets and various stripes of biologists share presentations and research with one another. In Rome, she co-taught classes with colleagues Rebecca Hoogs and Johnny Horton in the summers.
Several of the poems in The Lachrymose Report sprang forth from the writing she did while overseeing and teaching in these programs, but she produced other series, too. Most notably, Nelson wrote poems in response to technicolor photos of fish skeletons taken by Adam Summers, a top ichthyologist at Friday Harbor Labs. The collaboration culminated in an exhibit at the Seattle Aquarium in 2014 called Cleared: The Art of Science, and most recently it ended up on display at the Ljubljana Natural History Museum and the Piran Aquarium in Slovenia, with the help of translator Jernej upani and the US Embassy Ljubljana.
And for the last decade, Nelson has taught at Seattle Children's Hospital through the education program Writers in the Schools. There, she teaches ill and terminally ill patients. Sometimes she sees kids over the long-term; sometimes she sees a kid for just a few hours. During her tenure, she and fellow WITS teaching artist Ann Teplick forged a collaboration with the School of Visual Concepts. Every year, professional and advanced student letterpress artists from SVC choose poems the hospital kids write and then create broadsides out of those poems. They also make portfolios of the kids' poems for the students and their families. The current batch of broadsides is on a tour through Seattle Public Libraries. In March and April, they'll be on view at the Jack Straw Cultural Center.
Nelson is proudest of her work at Seattle Children's Hospital, and says it helps her keep the faith in poetry. "As writers, we can get caught in our head a lot about whether or not we're actually doing anything, or why we even write at all," Nelson said. "But in working with these kids, I can watch them exit the immediate space of the hospital. And it's like, 'Oh, that's what language can do! It can transform the grittiest, hardest things we endure. And it can take you somewhere else entirely.' It really does that!"
While we were having coffee and I was heaping praise on the quality of Nelson's observations, I told her that I couldn't believe The Lachrymose Report was her first full-length book of poetry. Nelson has been a literary fixture in Seattle since 1998—how is this her first big book?!
Poetry has long been seen as a young person's game, a notion that got supercharged in the English-speaking world when John Keats died so young, and one that continues to be perpetuated by a culture obsessed with youth and early success. There are the countless "30-under-30" lists and innumerable "emerging writer" contests. And then there's the pressure to jump into MFA programs right after undergrad, because what else are you going to do with your English degree except for more English?
But at 44, Nelson joins the ranks of Wallace Stevens, Amy Clampitt, and others who published their first book after their 40th birthday. During our interview, Nelson shrugged off questions about this. Publishing her first full-length effort later in life didn't seem to matter to her that much. She has published other books before this one, after all, including a chapbook from Toadlily Press called In Case of Loss, as well as a book-length choose-your-own-adventure poem called I Take Back the Sponge Cake, though that was a collaboration with the watercolor artist Loren Erdrich. Both came out in 2012.
Nelson's blasé attitude makes sense when I consider the incredible amount of work she's produced in Seattle, not all of it neatly categorizable by artistic genre. I mentioned earlier that good poets are like good scientists: They make the ordinary seem extraordinary. Nelson takes this familiar theme a step further, demonstrating through her works that spending a life in service of trying to find the surprise hidden in everyday things isn't just a nice parlor trick. It's the reason to live.