Sandra Wassilie writes poetry and fiction in Oakland. She has served as managing editor, and then poetry editor, for Fourteen Hills, and in 2013 cofounded the Bay Area Generations reading series. Most recent work appears in Alaska Women Speak, Between the Lines, California Quarterly, Cirque, Troop, Writing Without Walls, and Vitriol. Her 2014 chapbook Smoke Lifts laments the passing of the family patriarch and of a way of life lived close to the land. She won the Celestine Poetry Award from Holy Names University in 2014 and the Ann Fields Poetry Prize at San Francisco State University in 2011.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
Completing projects, especially bringing a work to publication.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Write everyday, even if it is journaling, letter-writing, answering interview questions, or jotting down notes on feelings, ideas, or phrasings. It develops facility with language and sets you up for days of more creative output. If you don’t write, read. The key is to put aside time everyday to write even if you dither and daydream. Eventually, the drive to produce will take hold.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
I do. I have lived in latitudes that range from the arctic to the tropical and in cultures where I have been a minority of one. I have engaged with mostly intelligent, loving people, a few not so loving, but all who have enlarged me in some way. Though I have not always made the most thoughtful, considered choices, I have made them work for me. So far I have been able to take care of myself. And I am writing everyday.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
I usually “leave” by going for a walk.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
Yes, my Irish great-grandmother signed that I am like the grandmother of my great-grandfather William. Her name was Juliana and she came from the state of Coahuila in Mexico. She went through six husbands. She used to trek back and forth between Mexico and California, but the area she frequented when she could was the Sierra Mountains beyond the San Joaquin Valley. I love that she was a free spirit and acted on it, which was no small thing in her time, nor was the traveling she did in any time. Since I tend to be peripatetic, of course, Juliana has become my favorite, although I have to say I am also very fond of my great-grandparents noted above. They lived out lives as deaf-mutes in San Francisco over the turn of the last century. Their first of two daughters was born hours after the 1906 Earthquake.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
A family friend named Hazel, who lived across the lake from us in a beautiful log cabin, built by her husband. She ran a well-ordered household and read voraciously. I loved to stay with her on occasion, away from chores and sibling squabbles, and read all day.
Although I lived in a hunting and trapping community, I bounced back and forth between ballerina and astronomer, and writing was always an aspiration, too, but it seemed to be a thing of maturity, not to be approached until I was 30. I honestly thought that as a child.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
Well, I have spent many weeks in the wilderness, as a way of life during childhood. However, a defining experience was the time I spent three days at Paradise Lake on the Kenai Peninsula totally by myself with a gun in my early 40s. Because of its heavy bear population, the friend who loaned me his rifle—some very high-powered thing, not the .22 or 30.6 I knew and fired as a kid— instructed me to take it with me outside the cabin everywhere, even to the outhouse. Well, the weather was gorgeous and the country was gorgeous, but I had been stood up. The guy who was supposed to come with me never showed up to the plane that flew me out and dropped me off. So it was difficult for me to get into reading or doing much other than mope. But on the second day, I lugged the heavy firearm into a leaky rowboat below the cabin and rowed out into the middle of the lake. I sat and thought about how afraid this guy was of intimacy; how afraid I was of the water, of drowning, of my own self. In three days, I never even smelled a bear.
Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.
If my life depended on it, you bet, but otherwise, no. I would focus on the “tease” as I think a partially clad body and facial expression tend to be more seductive than nudity. I would be looking back over my shoulder at my audience, alternately ignoring and acknowledging them. My boldness would be in the eye contact, “exposing” whomever I contact so to speak.
What’s wrong with society today?
Human nature, augmented by overpopulation and all its ills. Fear is rampant which makes it difficult for us to be civil to each other. Being civil to each other is one place we can start to get it better.
What is your fondest memory?
I have a number. This one takes place in Kerala, India after I had lived in a village there a couple of years. I was out taking an evening walk as I often did in the hills where tapioca is grown, when a young woman I did not know came up to me and gave me a good dozen roses, a flower not particularly common to the area. They were red and freshly cut, and I never knew what prompted this woman to give me such a gift, and I never learned who she was. What I remember is how she looked at me from her heart.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
At least once most days, but it is not always with my own species.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
A decrease in the world population in absolute numbers, and every child fed with proper nutrition.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
It is simultaneously a revelation of reality and of our imagination to perceive it. It is absolutely necessary, as it is what expands our boundaries and heals us. I think I finally came to writing as I see art as the only way to make meaningful change. Political, social, or technological solutions only go so far; they do not always touch the heart and the deeper or higher (no difference) realms where we also exist, where we can change ourselves.
What are you working on right now?
Prose vignettes on a lifelong friendship with a woman who is now dying, short pieces of fiction that have erotic tones, and a novel about the 60s. I tend to write randomly and work across genres, experimenting always, revising incessantly. I am learning to follow the “energy” of a flow, and not contain myself too soon.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I admire writing that combines feeling with thought in clear, exact language that wakes me up to something I forgot or something I just never knew. I like real characters in fiction and crisp details in poetry.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
Bring affordable housing that is well built to where people already live.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
A good dinner with companionable people. A fine wine in the mix is not to be ignored nor dancing later. Then a view of night sky either totally dark or filled with light whether from fireworks, stars, auroras, city twinkles, or the moon.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
About 5 years ago in the Oakland Hills, I saw something solid, dark, and round spin off the sun just before it sank below the horizon across the Bay. It came in a straight line across the sky toward me at warp speed. At some level, I was aware of incredible distances covered in a few seconds. I felt awed, sensed “this is it,” but decided I would face whatever it would be. The form dissipated into smoke fairly close up, and the smoke drifted a while in waning light.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Newly tanned leather, wood smoke, freshly ground coffee beans, cedar oil, the waft of lilac on a warm day, salt on an ocean breeze, the cold of fresh fallen snow. By the way, writing this response inspired a poem.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
I have always fancied traveling in space. Though I would love to see the moon up close, a trip to the Pyrenees with side trips to Barcelona and Paris might be more practical.