Interview: Kiki Sabater Set Me On Fire Before I Blow
Set Me On Fire Before I Blow
Set Me On Fire Before I Blow is a mixed-medium monograph by Kiki Sabater. Based on a series of Sabater's notebooks from 2012 to 2018 this book explores the life of a young female artist. Stylized photos capture intimate moments and accompany journal entries and handwritten excerpts from the notebooks by Sabater. In poems, lyrics, prose, and photos, she examines what it means to be a writer, musician, lover, and woman who wrestles with mental illness and shares these experiences without boundary or judgement.
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What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your book?
The process of creating this book was humbling. At the start of the process I was attached to my writing — the way I expressed an idea or a thought — I felt was effective, succinct, and artistically impermeable. I was wrong. Once we decided on the final excerpts we would work with I received the first round of edits back from my editor and was in a state of shock. It took a few sessions to accept that my way wasn’t always the best way, and that there were easier, clearer ways to express ideas. I learned that while the language you may use to describe something can make perfect sense to you, it doesn’t mean that it will be as sensible for the reader.
Could you share background on your writing, creativity, and this book?
This project wasn’t so much an idea as it was a way of living. I carried notebooks with me everywhere for years. In New York City, I came to rely on my journals as a way of not only holding my artistic ideas but also my innermost thoughts.
Living alone in New York City and having to work and not really having a great network of friends at first was tough, however. I had family in the area, but my notebook was often my best friend there for my few weird and strange New York City relationships, and into the biggest one of my life, and all throughout the process of starting and sustaining my band.
While in New York, I become part of an artist’s collective out of Park Slope, which we lovingly referred to as “The Sloodge”. My friend’s parents owned a residential building off 4th Ave. and 9th St. and we would throw monthly art parties and use the space for rehearsals, band practices, art installations, you name it. That community was especially influential to my development as an artist. People who were fearless and willing to spill their guts out and sometimes embarrass themselves for the sake of their performance surrounded me.
I learned to let loose working with the artists at The Sloodge, many of whom remain close friends. A few years into being in Brooklyn, I took a group of friends from the collective to my family house in upstate New York. We did a ton of mushrooms, cooked good food, played music and hung out. One of my buddies looked at my journal as I documented the trip and was engaged with the strangeness of the way I wrote and how I used almost every inch of the pages. He ended up doing a segment about one of my journals on his public access TV show. I remember proclaiming (probably while tripping) that I would publish all my journals as is.
The book, as it is now, is definitely a departure from that idea. The chaos lies in the words instead of their arrangement on the page in the print version. LRP and I went through three or four different concepts for the book before landing on this presentation. The scanned journal pages were difficult to read, and we felt like they would lose the reader. We extracted excerpts instead to preserve the integrity of the thoughts in the writing.
How did you become involved with the subject or theme of your book?
Living! All jokes aside, this book is a piece of my life. It’s really a piece of my soul. I was protective of my journals in early days, especially if my boyfriend was staying over — I was really terrified he would pick one up and realize what a nut job I was. This content is just pieces of my life expressed in journal like notations, short pieces of prose, or poems. Looking back now, I didn’t realize how unwell I was for many of those years. I struggled with anxiety, depression, and intense mood swings. I selectively went off my meds a handful of times throughout the period of these writings. In hindsight, and from a slightly different vantage point now, I realize how much my mental illness influenced what I wrote. Looking back now I realize how much emphasis I placed on relationships, sex, and love. Late teens and early twenties are insanely confusing, knowing who you are, what you want, what you’re willing to put up with, or what you’re not. I hadn’t really had a serious long-term relationships before moving to New York City and I had this notion I wanted a crazy, raucous, wild city love, and I spent a good amount of time exploring that between 2012 to now.
What was the hardest part of photographing and/or writing this book?
The bulk of the writing was finished before I met with LRP to start work on this project. There were a handful of new pieces including the introduction, first passage and last passage that were created for the book, but those came easily. I knew what I needed to accomplish based on the body the writing. The tough part was re-reading the notebook passages and selecting which pieces to include. Some days were easier than others where I could shut off my feelings enough to read objectively. Other days I really had a tough time separating myself from the memories of those feelings or experiences and I would end up spending the rest of the day a wreck re-living all of the associated emotions.
In terms of the photos, the biggest challenge was determining what to shoot without being too rigid in terms of the ideas I had for photos to accompany the pieces of writing. In one of the first versions of the book, we planned to use photos and Polaroids I had taken over the past six years. The photos in the book are personal, but these other photos were raw and perhaps more intimate because I never intended to print them. We ran into some issues with getting everyone to sign waivers and ultimately there would be issues with print quality so we elected to start fresh, recreate shots, and invent new ones to match the style of the book as it emerged. We used photos from five different shoots over the course of a year and a half, which was great and similarly terrifying because each shoot required both art direction and vulnerability as the subject of the photos. It would take me a little while to warm up into the shoot and we would end up throwing in ideas we hadn’t initially scheduled as part of the call sheet for shoots. Having photos taken of me are definitely not within my comfort zone, but a process I really came to love and now have strong opinions about. I feel empowered by sharing the intimate parts of myself on film because designed the shot to be presented exactly as I want it.
What did you enjoy most about the process of creating and producing this book?
I loved being able to throw myself so fully into a project I had a deep personal investment in. As life evolved, the book evolved and I think the final product we have now differs from what it might have been if we finished it up 6 months after signing the contract as initially projected. I could grow with the book as I produced it and could close a chapter in my life by finishing and releasing it. I also got to talk to people that I would probably never have the chance to speak to through the writing and is indulgent and feels cathartic in its own way.
What is the method to the ordering of the photos and writing? Are the writing excerpts chronological?
Short answer, no. The writing is not chronologically ordered though I intended to create an arc to the book. It includes mostly some earlier pieces towards the beginning of the book but there’s one thrown in towards the end. I was going for more of a thematic feel for each section of the book with the underlying theme of the illness as it was present, treated, reoccurred, then eventually addressed intensely. In looking back, there was definitely a downward spiral so to speak over the course of the last four years especially. I think’s reflected in the writing and as uncomfortable as it may be to read, it’s the truth. I think it’s important to talk about because sometimes it’s difficult to see as its happening until the rug sort of gets pulled out from under you so to speak.
How do you find or make time to shoot/write?
It’s a necessity. Finding the time is never the issue. Making all the other pieces of life fit is the issue.
Which passage are you most proud of writing?
The ending passage of the book. It was easily the most difficult to include. I first wrote it as an email to explain to a friend how I was feeling. I then went through about seven different drafts and arrangements of it once I had included it as a final piece in the book. I wanted to be sure I was being clear in my storytelling. Part of that was new meds that made writing and thinking challenging along with just coming out of a total nervous breakdown that really had me questioning all my thoughts. The other part was the aspect of knowing what I would share was deeply personal and revealing. I’ve spent a long time covering up my illness and hiding from it myself. Friends have recently told me they never would have guessed I was unwell—a past band member recently said he always thought I was one of the more emotionally stable people he knew. Writing this last piece sort of shatters this persona I think most people see as being who I am. I hid behind it and masked my pain really well, so it was especially scary to undo all of that in a concrete, matter-of-fact way for the first time in my life, knowing it would be out there for anyone to see for all time. My impulsive nature pushed me to include the piece while my new perspective on how my brain only tells me the truth half the time proved for an interesting catalyst for its subject. I think I could express a moment in time while also drawing in the bigger picture of what it was I had been dealing with for a long time. I think there’s a great deal of strength in the words and I think I was successful in not being pity-seeking or victimizing myself. The piece portrays a moment of realization, of acceptance, and of hope for what is coming. It captures a slice in time, but more than anything, I’m proud of my honesty and courage in that piece.
What projects are you working on at the present?
The usual too many projects at once. I’m working on some pop material for a record label who expressed interest in my work. It’s a stretch for me so I’m taking my time. Meanwhile, I’m working on new songs for myself and getting excited about learning to use my new music making computer programs. IN terms of writing, I churn out a good handful of poems a week. I am brushing up two newly written essays about my more current mental health journey. I talk about misdiagnosis, going off medication, and the reality of doing the work it takes to get well. I’ve gone through a crash course in self-care the last six months and I think it’s important to document.
What do your plans for future projects include?
Poetry books! Art books! Twenty song albums! Grad school? Who knows!?