This is part one of a five-part micro-interview series Gasher is conducting with authors of the first Gasher chapbooks. Alex Moni-Sauri is the author of the chapbook From the Shore, available on Gasherjournal.com/shop. Reviews/Interviews Editor Rushi Vyas conducted this interview with Moni-Sauri via email.
Rushi Vyas: First, can you tell us a bit about the literal shore you write from? You allude to the Pacific in From the Shore and we see beach imagery in the language and drawings. I currently live on the other side of the Pacific and often am thinking about the water. What is your relationship to the ocean and land where you are and how did that relationship influence the literary and visual art in your chapbook?
Alex Moni-Sauri: I grew up in Washington state and spent a lot of time exploring the beaches and tide pools of the Pacific. My mom was always very intentional about being outside together, zeroing in on tiny rocks and shells, wondering about the lives of starfish and anemones. I think one of the greatest gifts she’s given me in life is this kind of sustained attentiveness and curiosity about the natural world. It keeps me feeling deeply connected to, and part of, a shared life, even through the profound sense of alienation that life under capitalism creates for us. As an adult, I keep getting drawn back to working with young people in natural settings: farm camps, outdoor education, seed-to-table cooking classes. Even with young people, for whom wonder and curiosity come very naturally, it’s still so important to support and encourage things like looking closely, or wondering about the lives of others. I don’t mean any of this in a moralistic way, but in a very vital way – at least it’s been vital to me. I think that’s what I like to express with my art too, but it’s not always a high-brain intentional thing. The relatedness I feel toward the land, water, and nonhuman beings tends to seep into my visual and literary imagery because it’s such a rich emotional language for me. It’s where I continue to find a lot of meaning and mystery.
R: In "Hellbine / Lovebine" you write, "Look at the stretching / of science / and the unending / likeness of flesh / across form." (p. 17). I read this as a sort of description of your drawings, particularly the "stretching" of "the unending likeness of flesh across form." The beings in your drawings are sometimes human, sometimes seal-like, sometimes doubled, jagged, on all fours or elongated, some grotesque, some erotic, some both. To me, the drawings speak alongside the poetry and insist on including the human as part of the landscape. But I'm no visual artist and there is so much that these drawings say! I found myself staring at some images for minutes on end. Could you speak to what influences your style of drawing?
A: Absolutely, I definitely want to insist on the human as part of the landscape. I want to insist that the separation of human and natural worlds is an artificial one, and is deeply unhelpful in understanding the broader environmental and economic systems we’re embedded in. There are of course exciting distinctions and particularities in each world, each ecosystem, community, species, and individual. I’m just so visually drawn to the shapes and patterns that rhyme across it all – shells and teeth, moss and pubic hair, bark and skin – those are just the obvious. But I love to play with rhyming shapes like that. I also find a lot of freedom of expression in stretching and morphing the human form, to be more plantlike, more cowlike, whatever. My work is largely autobiographical, and some of the moods and feelings I want to get across seem to me more precisely expressed through fernlike or cowish shapes. This particular style of drawing started in journals and diary-like spaces, and I got really interested in that kind of intimate, messy feeling that comes with handwritten text and cross-outs and mistakes and looseness in the lines. I have a foundation in classical figure drawing and painting, and I still love working observationally like that, but it’s easy for me to get really tight and controlling with my work. There’s a perfectionist in me that can really dampen the joy I get from making, if I let them. This style of drawing helps me get away from that impulse to exercise so much control.
R: In addition to the drawings and poems on their own, this collection works so well for how the drawings speak to the poems. While this is true of the collection as a whole, I am thinking of a few poems specifically such as "Certain Futures" in which the upturned hands are at once receiving ash, or perhaps attempting to offer something in the face of environmental devastation and legacies of colonialism within a hyper-capitalist world. Or the incredible short poem "Late From Work" which is somehow amplified by the lampost beside it. I'm curious about your artistic practice. Are drawing and poem-making inseparable for you, or do these relationships emerge after-the-fact, in the curatorial process of creating a collection?
A: Making poems and making drawings are distinct processes for me, although they talk to each other a lot. Using the same medium (pen and paper) for both connects them in a basic way, and my writing and drawings always exist in the same sketchbooks no matter how much I try to designate separate spaces for them. But in the end it is much more curatorial, or like collage. I find that when I try to make a drawing for a particular poem, it can quickly get boring, predictable, or otherwise just redundant in a way that makes the drawing feel tacked on. And while it can be a fun exercise to make a poem from a drawing, most poems (or seeds of poems) come from my experience of the world around me, and not from the drawings I make; making a poem from a drawing feels kind of like using tea instead of water to brew your coffee. It’s much more exciting and interesting to me to work in these two different modes simultaneously, and then find a way to have them talk to each other. In the process of piecing them together, the drawings change based on the poems they’re paired with, and the poems change (especially line breaks and page breaks) based on the drawings.
R: We are talking alot about drawings in conversation with the poems, and the focus of this interview is on form. But, for readers out there, I don’t mean that to take away from the poetry on its own. The language here shifts so skillfully into and out of various registers. It is by turns imagistic, lyrical, concrete, and abstract. I feel your artistic attunement to form in the way you turn lines, whether long or short. I think there is so much here for readers of poetry, on it’s own! Having said that, this isn’t straightforward poetry book design. The landscape format fits so well with the horizon evoked by a shore. And the way the font, your handwriting, blends with the drawings lends an urgency to the text, as though we are witnessing the creation of the chapbook while we are reading it. Could you speak a bit on the process of designing this book? What were your major concerns/difficulties/joys in bringing this project to life?
A: I was really worried that the handwriting would get in the way of reading the text. I wanted it to be standardized enough and clear enough as a font that it wasn’t distracting, while still keeping my very real and mistake-prone human hand in it enough to warrant the use of handwriting. Deciding on the landscape format was difficult, because you’re compositionally bound to whichever orientation you choose, unlike with typed text. I enjoy working in the landscape style, but ultimately chose it because it gave me room to have longer lines. A real difficulty in making this was just the physical limitations of the page in writing out text. The font style I’ve developed is really dependent on the size of the words, and it’s difficult for me to write much smaller or larger without having a totally different type of font, which usually feels unnatural and makes it look like artifice instead of my actual, natural hand. I want it to feel intimate, sincere, and direct, without being too casual or diary-like; and I want it to feel immediate, kind of messy, and not too tight or controlled, even though I re-draw and re-write each composition literally dozens of times. It was also difficult to balance the somewhat rigid structure of poems (line breaks, stanzas, regular left margins) with the more organic style of handwriting and drawing. I think a lot about my stanzas and line breaks, and don’t often want to give them up or change them too much to fit a composition. But I think a lot about drawing and composition too, so it can be a real tussle. The process of making this book was so rewarding, because I really saw it as a whole project and not as a collection of the individual parts that were assembled to make it, so much so that I didn’t want to submit any poems as individual, typed versions anywhere until this project was complete (actually even now, I still don’t want to). They each feel so much more rich and interesting when they’re in conversation with each other, in this format. The format of handwriting and drawing is something you have to kind of sink into – it wouldn’t work as well, or at all, as one-off compositions. So it was really satisfying to commit to this format as a project and then figure out how to make it work.
R: Who are other writers/visual artists that you think From the Shore is in conversation with? Are there other collections that specifically inspired this?
A: I’m always scared of this question, because there are so many artists and writers that inspire me, and who I admire so much that to say I’m in conversation with them feels like a big claim. With that qualifier: my favorite poets are Mary Ruefle, Lucille Clifton, Max Ritvo, Ilya Kaminsky, Terrance Hayes, and Bernadette Mayer. David Shrigley was foundational for me in developing this style of composition with text and drawings. I love the short stories of Lydia Davis, and the hybrid-genre work of Maggie Nelson. Philip Guston, Alice Neel, and Basquiat are some of my favorite painters. I would honestly say that the work of all these artists inspired this collection, even though that feels like a cheat answer. It’s hard for me to assess which elements of other artists’ work I’m picking up though, so maybe I’ll leave that for readers to decide.
R: What's next for you as an artist/writer? What are you working on now?
A: I want to keep exploring this format of handwriting and drawing, in a full-length collection, so that’s kind of the shell of my next project. Right now I’m working on assembling the pieces for that, making lots of poems and drawings. I’m rediscovering painting, which could be interesting to play with in terms of integrating text there too, but it would probably look a lot different, and I’m not sure the text would be poetry. I’m also working on a couple creative nonfiction essays, which I think I will try to publish on their own, but I would eventually like to put together a collection of essays as well (typed, don’t worry).
Alex Moni-Sauri is a poet and artist in Washington state. She holds a BFA in sculpture from the Maryland Institute College of Art, and an MFA in poetry from the University of Washington. Her work encompasses poetry, drawing, painting, sculpture, and cartoons. She is the Managing Editor for Reform & Revolution magazine.