Last summer, I took a writing class taught by Heather Sellers and Dylan Landis called Looking for Trouble. As I rushed into the elevator on my way up to class, the woman next to me asked, "Have you ever taken a class with Heather? She’s so good." A few hours later, it was clear she was right. Heather possesses an enviable talent of being both an excellent writer and teacher.
A couple nights later, I went to see Heather read at Bluestockings and fell in love with her project: a small press called Combine Books, dedicated to “truth-telling and close observation.” Along with writing partner Elaine Sexton, the two explore the overlap between prose and poetry in a form they call “micro memoir.” They print and bind their stories in small, handmade books they stitch together themselves. The project, Heather and Elaine explained at the reading, was borne out of their routine of exchanging writing with each other over email.
Blown away by Heather and Elaine’s stories—which are compact, spare, and spell-binding—I asked if I could talk with them about their collaboration. What they had to say is just as poetic and powerful as their work.
How did your creative partnership begin?
Elaine: I met Heather at a reading she gave in New York City five or six years ago, at a party hosted by the writer Sarah Van Arsdale. I remember she was allergic to Sarah’s cats and she was standing by the kitchen door, close to the exit. We had a publisher in common, New Issues, and I remember how direct and intense she was. She had read from a group of essays, one in particular about speed dating.
Heather: Sad to say, I don’t remember the first meeting—Elaine, I’m so happy you do! Some years ago, I started coming to New York regularly, for longer periods of time, partly in order to be in a community of writers and artists. I met Elaine first through her work—I knew her poems, and through the tiny books she made and gave to friends and fellow writers. We began going to look at art together, and we found we really enjoyed looking together and then writing about our experiences to each other. We got very close very quickly.
"We go through periods of intense exchanges, for example 40 poems in 40 days."
How do you work together? What does your process look like?
Elaine: Heather lives in Florida and I live in New York. Fortunately she comes to the city often. Mostly, we exchange work via email. Heather loves assignments. I love projects. Together, we figure out ways to generate new work and exchange it with some kind of structure and time frame. We both have several types of exchanges going on, always several projects at once. We go through periods of intense exchanges, for example 40 poems in 40 days. When we have done that, we write, exchange, and respond to work briefly, daily. Then, we meet and review the poems together, when we can, each with the other’s manuscript in front of us at a table. Our latest project has been more fluid and less deadline oriented. We draft and exchange these short micro pieces as they come to us, sometimes daily, sometimes weekly.
Heather: Every time we are together, we’re “working” on something, but it doesn’t feel like work, it is our play. We don’t ever “hang out.” We’re on our way to a museum or gallery, or park or beach, with our specimen bags and intentions, manuscripts and pencils. It’s a very fertile, very rich interchange that has a lot of parts to it. The process looks like a richly co-created creative process—two artists working in tandem. Usually with little snacks. I remember taking a trip with Elaine, going over our poems as we boarded the bus, going over the poems for the entire ride, then the entire weekend, and, then, as Elaine was putting me on the bus for the return trip, at the steps, we were finishing our last comments on the last poem in the manuscript. The entire trip, one long sentence!
"Every time we are together, we’re “working” on something, but it doesn’t feel like work, it is our play."
Do you have particular values you adhere to in your work? Do you find that your values are shared? Are they ever in conflict with one another?
Elaine: I think it is safe to say writing is essential, the center of both of our lives. Like food, water, like gym rats who work out constantly, we are working out, daily, we are writing and making all the time, in practice, and in our heads. For my part, if I don’t write or make something, even for a few days (as in when I was recently traveling out of the country) I feel terribly out of shape. We are both serious and devoted teachers, and I think as writing partners we benefit and learn from one another because we are both eager to learn. No conflicts. Luckily, I think we continue to be excited to have someone we know is there, curious and waiting to see what each of us makes our lives, together and apart.
"Our work ethic and relationship to creativity match."
Heather: I can’t add much to that! Wow. Yes. What she said. Our work ethic and relationship to creativity match. And our aesthetic values are similar. We like hand made things. We like mystery. We like language-rich things. We love text and image and gravitate towards collage and cultivated those particular passions long before we met. We both read a lot about art, poetry, and craft. We talk about teaching and our private work with one-on-one students—how to do that well and wisely—we care to improve as teachers.
And for both of us, the creating part and the teaching parts of our lives are in a flow and a balance, not separate from each other. I’m a prose writer, at heart, an essayist, expansive. But I love micro forms and have been living in that land lately as a writer and a teacher. Elaine’s a poet and a critic. An acute miniaturist and disciplined stylist.
Do you each have different strengths or skills that complement each other in your work?
Heather: Absolutely. In common, we share a work ethic and an aesthetic, articulated in our Combine mission statement: tell the truth. We’re both interested in works that are beautiful, have a lot of heart, aren’t pretentious, and are wrought from beautiful—but straight-forward—language.
My strength is narrative: storytelling, getting conflict and tension on the page. Elaine brings not only a poet’s eye and ear, but the poet’s cutting tool. She often suggests I cut my pieces in half, or even more. She’s always correct. Elaine also has a background in book arts, and she’s teaching me to glue and sew and cut. Joy. And she’s been part of a dance company, and she headed up numerous micro publishing ventures in the past.
"She often suggests I cut my pieces in half, or even more. She’s always correct."
Elaine: We are both interested in process, and the practice of craft. Heather is a good editor, with a good ear. She has a storytelling instinct. My impulse is to go for the lyric moment. Where I might err on the side of compression, the sound and sense of an experience, she goes for expansion, the story first. We guide one another, as needed, letting each other know where the heat is, when the lines go cold. In our latest project, writing short micro-memoir—telling the truth, as Heather pointed out—we are bringing together the liberty of the lines (not broken). We pay attention to sonic possibilities, storytelling and compression—a combination of poetry and narrative that lead to new works we are calling combines.
In what ways does conflict or jealousy show up in your relationship, if at all?
Heather: We have really good communication. I think we both try very hard to bring our best self to the table, and when one of us falters, I think the other tries very hard to surround the dyad with loving kindness.
Elaine: When Heather’s work soars, it makes me want to take greater risks in my own work. Her best poems and essays raise the bar for me. We trust one another. I think we genuinely admire one another’s creativity. When one of us falls flat on a piece, the other isn’t afraid to say so. If one of us knocks a piece out of the park, no one could have a better cheerleader than Heather.
"When Heather’s work soars, it makes me want to take greater risks in my own work."
Why collaborate? What do you gain from your creative partnership?
Heather: This work can be really isolating—writing and reading and book-making are lonely crafts. To have a partner to create with is a joy. And, after school, one wants to keep learning and improving one’s craft and that can be hard to do on one’s own. I love that I get to learn from another very experienced teacher-writer. Ours is an artistic marriage that raises up both of the people in it. I can’t imagine not collaborating with Elaine.
Elaine: When we share work, we inspire each other. I know when I suggest something, based on what Heather is writing, she readily digs in again, and often she makes something even more beautiful out of it. The same is true for the impact her feedback has on my own work. We both lean heavily on the exclamation points on our keyboards!!
Heather Sellers is the author of You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, a memoir, and several volumes of poetry, including The Boys I Borrow, Your Whole Life, Drinking Girls and Their Dresses, and Dive. She teaches poetry and essay at the University of South Florida.
Elaine Sexton is the author of three collections of poetry: Prospect/Refuge, Causeway, and Sleuth. A book maker and micro-publisher, she teaches text & image and poetry workshops at Sarah Lawrence College, New York University, and at various art and writing centers around the country.
Combine Books, founded by Heather Sellers and Elaine Sexton, is dedicated to truth-telling and close observation. We're interested in the overlap between prose and poetry, micro memoir, text, and image—work that incorporates more than one form.