Contributors’ Corner: Joe Sacksteder

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Welcome to our new interview series, “Contributors’ Corner,” where we open the floor each week to one of our contributors to the journal. This week, we hear from Joe Sacksteder, whose story/screenplay hybrid “Game in the Sand” appears in HFR 3.3 (preorder).

Joe Sacksteder teaches creative writing at Eastern Michigan University and the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility. Later this year, Punctum Records will release his album (as The Young Vish) of Herzog sound poems. Recent publications include Quarterly West, Fourteen Hills, Passages North, and Sleeping Fish.

Can you share a moment that has shaped you as a writer (or continues to)?

A couple summers ago I was in Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica—a remote town in the Osa Peninsula. I was reading Werner Herzog’s Conquest of the Useless on the porch of the hostel. Suddenly, an earthquake! The first one I’d ever experienced. Unharmed, I looked back at the book and realized I’d been interrupted just before this sentence: “Lord Almighty, send us an earthquake.”

What are you reading?

I’m doing the whole MFA/PhD application thing, so mostly stuff written by faculty at those schools. It’s been a lot of work but has introduced me to a lot of great writers and publishers, especially Fiction Collective 2. Melanie Rae Thon’s The Voice of the River. Brian Kiteley’s The River Gods (and their mashup The Voice of the River Gods). Michael Mejia’s Forgetfulness is the best book I’ve ever read about music and 20th-century Germany. And Lance Olson’s Calendar of Regrets, which I read just a few weeks ago, is truly one of my new favorite books ever. I would walk to Utah to study with him.

Can you tell us what prompted “Game in the Sand”?

The earthquake story above contributed to my obsession with director Werner Herzog. I have an album coming out soon with Punctum Records of Werner Herzog sound poems, where I collaged bits of his director’s commentary and set them to electronic and chamber music. While I was culling the commentary, I became interested in the story of Herzog’s only unreleased film, a short film he shot in 1964 called Game in the Sand. Although he’s filmed some atrocious things (piglets suckling from butchered mother) and there have been many disasters during his film productions (some 13,000 rats killed in Nosferatu), he claims that “things went so far out of hand” during Game in the Sand that “It will never be released in my lifetime.” I ignored the hint of plot he provided—it involves children and chickens—and wrote a screenplay about the making of Game in the Sand as I imagined it. Of course it’s very exaggerated and not at all informed by facts, but I wanted to examine the aestheticizing of disaster and murder. My original goal was to translate it into German and grow a young Herzog mustache and shoot it in pretty black and white on the left coast Michigan dunes. I eventually gave up and turned it into a story/screenplay hybrid. But someday …

What’s next? What are you working on?

Deciding which PhD program to attend. I’ve also got the Herzog sound poem album to officially release. Last year I wrote an uber-literary horror novel called The Submerged Crane, and it’s really the one book I wanted to write my whole life. Part of it is based in the history of the Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud, where I used to do volunteer work. The prison wall is the biggest granite wall in the world, and it was constructed in the 1890s using inmate labor with rock harvested from a quarry within the prison yard. I imagine lots of inmates contracted silicosis from the granite dust, though I had a lot of trouble finding any real info. The quarry was eventually abandoned, and they left a steam-powered crane at the bottom of the quarry as it filled up with water. You can Google image it. So, my main goal is steering this book to an agent and publisher.

Take the floor. Be political. Be fanatical. Be anything. What do you want to share?

Energy not excitement, I say. Not I start now, I start now, I start now. But rather accepting that anything worthwhile is going to take a lot of work, and never needing to make a resolution because you’re too busy doing the thing to ask yourself why to and how to. Daily to be one day closer.

You don’t decide to have energy. You build yourself into the type of person for whom the only way of thinking is deliberation and hustle. Energy is never lost, but excitement is passing. All declarations are duds, all manifestos pathetic. Heavens never open up—we have to get used to this idea—and setting fire to your previous work is probably more than it deserves.

Instead: I guess I’ve been doing this all along. Instead: I don’t put much thought into it.

When American troops came to apprehend Richard Strauss at his home in Garmisch in 1945, he told the lieutenant, “I am Richard Strauss, the composer of Rosenkavalier and Salome.” The lieutenant, a musician, nodded and placed an “Off Limits” sign in front of the estate.

To have evidence when they come for you. At the end, when they’re there at your door. A counterargument would be that it’s better to just enjoy yourself as much as possible on a day-to-day level. But, for me, knowing that I’m building towards something slowly is my day-to-day enjoyment.

Energy, not excitement. Energy resists bumper stickers, t-shirt triteness, and status updates. Public loudness and showy clothes. Random quirkiness. Do not confuse it with optimism or blind faith. It is the opposite of its new age definition. Of course, it complicates matters for writers, rockers, and artists. On one hand, it makes it easier to come home every day after working eight-plus hours for “them” and get some work done for yourself. But there with the page in front of you and the blinking cursor, what is there to add to this forum that has been so thoroughly maligned by the enemy? By epiphany. By ecstasy. By vile excitement. By people who have forgotten that sublimity was supposed to have been wordless.

Okay, okay, the irony is not lost on me. I get that what I’ve written sounds a little like a teenage manifesto. Or a lot. I admit I was excited when I realized excitement was the primary cause of regret and shame. But whatever it is I’ve failed to put into words has stuck with me. Energy does not tire, does not need to be continually resuscitated. It feeds on achievements, but also on failures—they, too, are a step forward. I’m finding this hard to articulate because the words themselves recede as the certainty strengthens, to the point where you no longer need reminders. To the point where it’s not a belief system—it’s just living life. Maybe its self-contradiction is its strength; any philosophy that has DON’T TRUST ME built into it is one that I’m interested in hearing more about.

Read Joe’s story/screenplay hybrid in HFR 3.3 (preorder).

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