Sunday, September 23, 2012

An Interview with Poet Susanna Childress

[The interview was first posted in Poetry Matters.]

I want what you want, and the stamen, and the sun.
-from “Sweetly from the Tree,” Susanna Childress

Susanna Childress holds a Master’s from The University of Texas at Austin and a PhD from Florida State University. Her first book Jagged with Love was selected by Billy Collins for the Brittingham Prize in Poetry from the University of Wisconsin and was awarded the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Her second book Entering the House of Awe was published in 2011 by New Issues Poetry & Prose, Western Michigan University and was awarded the 2012 Society of Midland Authors Poetry Prize. She has received an AWP Intro Journals Award, the National Career Award in Poetry from the National Society of Arts and Letters, and a Lilly post-doctoral fellowship. She teaches at Hope College and lives in Holland, Michigan.

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I met Susanna back in 2008 when she was teaching a poetry intensive at the Earlham School of Religion, a seminary in the Quaker tradition, which I was attending at the time. Susanna’s influence,
both as a teacher and through her poetry, is one of the main reasons why I am involved in poetry today. So here is a bias alert: As I confessed in my recommendation-review of her recent book Entering the House of Awe, I love this woman’s work! In case you haven’t read the book or my review of it, here is a little bit about it:

From a content perspective, matters of faith factor into a good part of Susanna’s work and what you will find in Entering the House of Awe is a full-spectrum grapple with that faith. These poems do not insist that the world is always a monochrome of rosiness. Instead, they confront the reader with an honesty that at times borders on a kind of rawness; they offer witness that does not shrink from discomfort. In addition, the body, the sensual, is also prominent. Sometimes it’s the tender kiss on a lover’s shoulder. Sometimes it’s the absurdity of having sex while sick. What you’ll find in this work is an immanent transcendence—the sacred immersed in the fullness of human experience.

From a writing/poetry/craft perspective, Susanna’s poetry is many things, including a jubilant celebration of language. It is evocative, smart, exact. Her vocabulary will end up increasing your word power. It also a celebration of the line. Her poems currently tend towards longer, expansive lines—Whitmanesque. In addition, the poems in this book are ripe with image and allusion, usually biblical or ekphrastic. That said, knowledge of the allusions is not necessary in order to appreciate the poems: They stand on their own. The last characteristic I’d like to highlight before moving to the interview is that there is a strong narrative aspect to most of these poems, a narrative focused on relationship, be it familial or societal. The narrative is not a straightforward beginning—middle—end sort of thing. No, this poetry does not spoon-feed the reader. It requires that the reader be engaged, pay attention. And so here is my testimony: The effort to engage and pay attention is well worth it. I return to repeatedly to Susanna’s poetry. It is work at a level of depth, honesty, and mindfulness that I aspire to. One need only read the response to the first question of the interview about her experience in writing a second book to get an inkling of the depth and honesty of her work, the mindful attention she gives to language.

This interview was conducted via email in August 2012.

—Nancy Chen Long

While getting a first book of poetry published is difficult, getting a second published is even more so. Please share with us how you got your second book published.

SC: I won’t look at my records, since the actual numbers aren’t as significant as the emotional landscape of this process, but over a three-year period, I sent the manuscript out roughly 200 times, in various forms. I kept revising and reworking, adding new poems, changing the order, taking out poems, creating new sections and sequencing, and sending out, sending out, sending out. I changed the stupid title four times. It was a semi-finalist or finalist 22 times, and in its final form, I got three offers from different presses, almost simultaneously. But if you do the math, you’ll notice how many rejection letters got sent my way; it felt like a trillion. This is all to say it was a long, long road and intermittently I got very, very discouraged.

What made me keep trying were those few nods as a semi-finalist or finalist; I knew I was getting closer to making a better book as those nods accumulated, and I can’t say—honestly, I cannot say—how grateful I am that it didn’t get published in any of its earlier versions, that I had to spend all that time and all that effort transforming the book again and again, that I had to engage so acutely and so steadfastly in the craft of individual poems and the craft of the manuscript as a whole. I would never have chosen to do that; I had to have it chosen for me, because, let’s be honest, I’m lazy and insecure and short-sighted (i.e., I want to win big and right away, without much suffering). I’m awfully glad it’s over, but, truly, I learned much about putting a manuscript together and about poetry in general along the way.

The book’s publication didn’t come as a result of winning a prize this time, though, and that was hard for me; I felt all this pressure (mostly internal but certainly some external) to land something even bigger and better than the Brittingham. I didn’t. But I love New Issues and it was great to be named the runner-up of the Green Rose Prize. In many ways, it’s been a better experience sans prize at New Issues than with the Brittingham at University of Wisconsin Press, since UW doesn’t specialize in publishing and marketing books of creative writing like New Issues. What I mean is that there are advantages and disadvantages to each of these publishing scenarios.

Your poetry has strong narrative elements with long lines that sweep like prose. I was wondering if you also wrote fiction or creative nonfiction? Are you working any prose right now?

SC: I do write short stories, though I’ve only published three of them, and currently I am attempting some creative nonfiction with an essay on motherhood and also one about sleep disorders. Let’s hope my penchant for narrative serves me well in both these genres.

At the 2011 AWP Conference, there was a panel on the poetry-prose dynamic. Some of the panelists said they found it difficult to smoothly switch between the two genres, one panelist in part because she want to break or control the line, and another because of the compression of language that his poetry seeks. On the other hand, some of the panelists said they had no difficulty going from one to the other. If you do write prose, how is your experience with switching between genres?

SC: Each genre for me has a very different feel; at least so far, I haven’t had much trouble switching back and forth. In fact, I often need to, just to have a bit of space from what I’m doing in one genre and think or work with language and form in a different way. What do people say—“taking a breather”? And sometimes my “breathers” are a happy means of procrastination, which I allow myself because it is almost always generative instead of paralyzing.

With the arrival of your son, how do you make time for your writing?

SC: We actually have two sons now, a toddler and an infant. I make time by hiring a babysitter for about 10 hours a week,  somehow it’s doable and I get a little bit of writing done here and there; I squeeze it in on nights and weekends and during the summer bliss of May, June, July.

What’s true for me is that the more I write, the more time I find, somehow, carving it and stealing it and squirreling away, to write.

Your change in parent status notwithstanding, have you noticed other changes in your writing life and process since your first book?

SC: I have noticed other changes; I wish I could say they result from maturing as a writer and as a person, but the truth is that much of my writing life and process degenerated soon after my first book, before I had kids. About seven years ago I started noticing a severe problem with fatigue; after a few years of tests and theories and treatments, I was diagnosed with a critical sleep disorder, hypersomnia (cousin to narcolepsy), which, among other things, cripples my ability to focus and to find words. Each day, though, I have tiny windows of clarity and alertness. I try to write during those periods (maybe 30 minutes at a stretch) but as they do not follow a pattern or arrive consistently, that happens maybe once a week. So I find myself writing shorter poems, with simpler images, humbler subject matter. Most of these will never amount to anything. I almost feel as though, skill-wise, I am starting from the beginning, with nothing, except the looming pressure of not being a beginner anymore. People expect something different—evolution in voice, style—in a second book and especially a third book, don’t they?

Because of how I’m struggling, I’ve had long stretches of writing absolutely nothing, which makes me a little bonkers, so I’ve started to come to terms with a different kind of writing process and a different kind of writing. I write my shitty little poems and file them away and write more shitty little poems and file them away and even though there are files full of total crapola all over my computer, I stay sane and believe that, a bit at a time, I will find my way. Since there is no cure for my disorder and few means of successful treatment, I can’t think of “recovery” or “recovering” because that would mean going back to something I had or trying to reclaim something I was. No—I mean finding my way along a new path, and it will look and feel and seem different than what I expect(ed), but if I know anything, it’s that I must write, and so I do, in fits and spurts and fog and muck and streams and glory. It’s like everything else: a good, hard journey.

There are wonderful ekphrastic poems in both of your books, such as the poems “Like the Nudes of Lucian Freud” and “After The Virgin of Vladimir, 12th c., Anon.” in your first book, and the poems “The Hyssop Tub” and “Serpentine” in your recent book. How strong is the inter-relatedness of the arts to you? What process do you go through in deciding to write ekphrastically—does a piece find you or you it? What moves you to engage the art? Just curious, do you paint or draw?

SC: I wish I were a visual artist; I am not. But I do find huge inspiration in the visual arts; they are manifestly generative for me. Sometimes if I’m stuck in a poem, I pick up a book of art (history) just to clear my head or rest the certain parts of my brain that are being overtaxed and I fall into a painting or sculpture and come away with a connection to the poem I was writing or a new direction for it. Once, for a class in graduate school, I gave myself the assignment (which I didn’t fully complete) of working through Henri Nouwen’s Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons (Ava Maria Press 2007), which is where “After the Virgin…” and “Serpentine” come from. In this case, it worked quite well as a prompt, so I’ve occasionally done more of that, with no expectations of completing a set of poems but letting it go where it will. I spend a lot of time with the visual piece, do several free-writes, then put it all away (including the visual piece), and see if a poem will emerge on its own. I guess I see art, then, not as lashing itself to language and driving land-ho but as a way of coaxing a poem, gently, where there wasn’t one before.

Speaking of “The Hyssop Tub,” I am captivated by that poem, the way you play with form in a sequence of sonnets. Could you tell us a little more about the poem? How did you arrive at the form?

SC: Robert Lowell wrote (though I can’t recall where) that he liked to write in form because it gave him “cabinetry” in which to contain the language of his emotion(s) and his experience(s). This metaphor stuck with me and so when it came to writing a poem about something as wild and gargantuan as forgiveness (of others, from others, and one’s self), I needed a sonnet-like set of cabinets, the constraints of 14 lines and a final rhyming couplet—and yes, I took a lot of liberties with the form and cherry-picked these characteristics as opposed to the whole shebang.

As for the sequence, I didn’t exactly know why as I was writing the poem, but it came out naturally in sections, and now I think this is because the subject matter is perhaps less about a “thing” and more about a process, which is to say not just about “forgiveness” but if and how forgiving and being forgiven might lead to peace and joy and wholeness. Now that I’ve written it out (ahem, for the first time) it strikes me that nearly all my poems are about this process of forgiveness in one way or another, but “The Hyssop Tub” is about the process of forgiveness surrounding something intensely personal—the potential and capability of both loving and being loved, and how sexuality gets all muddled up in that.

It was so personal and so intense, in fact, that I needed the artwork to speak for me—Degas, Cassatt, Ribera—especially those pieces portraying a woman’s bare back, which felt like the right correspondence for vulnerability, for cleansing, for individuation, for desire. I couldn’t tell all the truth unless, like Dickinson suggests, I told it slant; that’s part of what the artwork did for me. And I needed the form to help contain it. In the end, then, perhaps the choice of sonnet was a subconscious reflection of subject matter.

I’m a fan of the way you arrange the poem on the page and your play with white space and lineation, syntax and punctuation. The question here concerns punctuation. Some of your poems have capital letters, but no punctuation. Are you able to articulate what moves or inspires you to shape the poem in that way?

SC:  I can’t say that I have a theory or principle as to what I’m doing or why, since much of it is just impulse (stylized and made consistent through revision), but I do have a sense that if I eschew any grammatical or syntactical norms it might somehow reflect the experience I’m trying to portray in the poems. Therefore, the poems that are most emotionally intense or psychologically strained can’t be offered in syntactical units that represent complete equilibrium. While I’m far from being a writer of what Tony Hoagland calls “skittery poetry,” this is one small, surface way of representing the disorientation of human experience, of conveying turbulent thoughts and/or feelings.

Indiana, where you grew up, is mentioned in both books, as well as other specific places and landmarks, for example the poems “Fetching” and “Halfway to the Jesse James Wax Museum.” I pick up a sense of respect for place. What is your approach or your thoughts about place in your poems?

SC:  Until recently, I haven’t thought of myself as a Midland author or, really, a writer with much regional bearing at all. I come mostly from a place that is categorically a bit lost: rural southern Indiana, right along the Ohio River. It technically isn’t, but it really ought to be part of Appalachia, as it borders Kentucky and carries more of Kentucky’s cultural, idiomatic and geographical characteristics than of central or northern Indiana; it’s these aspects—culture, idiom, and geography—that I am discovering, somehow, deep in my bones. My grandmother’s tongue, a warm and soft and holy hillbilly-speak, comes to me in my dreams and haunts my ear. Way up here in Michigan where I can hear how distinct they are, I miss the good sounds of her mouth; I listen to surreptitious recordings I have made of our phone conversations.

Of course, it’s not just sounds; it’s also sensibilities, and though the place where I grew up was backwards in so many ways (e.g. a few families flew Confederate flags on their properties), even that darkness is part of understanding where I come from, who I am. Though I don’t consciously mean to be working these things through in my poems, I am aware that it happens and intrigued by what I discover about the sense of place I didn’t know I had.

Faith seems to be pivotal in your poetry. For example, two of the ekphrastic poems mentioned earlier concerned Byzantine religious icons, the title of your second book is taken from Psalm 5, and there are biblical and faith references throughout both books. Since you are up-front and open about your faith, have you found that others try to pigeon-hole you or make assumptions about you or your work?

SC:  Perhaps they do make assumptions; more often, though, I am aware of others’ surprise or appreciation that I identify as a person of faith but write the kind of poetry I do, which, I suppose, is pretty raw. If people are frustrated by my faith, they aren’t saying so to my face (and let’s pretend that means they aren’t frustrated—which, to be honest, wouldn’t bother me); I hope there’s yet room to explore what belief is, what it makes of us and us of it, and how art inevitably, though at times inexplicably, is part of that exploration.

Any plans for your 3rd book of poetry?

SC:  I have been writing a few poems here and there (especially when I try to write in other genres—the poems seem to want to pop out then, as if to say, Don’t forget your first love!). I have a publisher asking for a chapbook within the next year, so I would like to aim for something humble and simple—maybe 20-30 pages of poetry. 

Who are you reading now? Do you have a favorite poet or poets?

SC:  Right now I’m reading Jane Springer’s Murder Ballad (Alice James 2012); Julia Spicher Kasdorf’s Poetry in America (UPitt 2011); John Estes’ Kingdom Come (C&R 2011); Corey Marks’ The Radio Tree (New Issues 2011); Bobby C. Rogers’ Paper Anniversary (UPitt 2009); and Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy (Graywolf 2007). Maurice Manning is a favorite right now— after hearing him read recently, I am so enjoying his voice in my head; he has several stunning collections. I also keep coming back to the poems of, as I call them, “my queens”—Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, Anne Sexton, Maxine Cumin, Sharon Olds, Joy Harjo, Marie Howe, Naomi Shihab Nye, Dorianne Laux.

Finally, what advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

SC:  I should have a good answer to this by now but it genuinely trips me up to try and give advice, if only because each writer and her process and compulsions and abilities and druthers are so different. Maybe, though, what is applicable to all aspiring writers is something my husband has had to tell me over and over and over: be faithful and attend to the craft. This mantra covers a multitude of ugliness—from lack of motivation/ writer’s block to despairing at the “biz” part of “poe-biz,” from coveting another writer’s achievement(s) to feeling as though my writing style is out of style. If I am faithful and attend to the craft (which, like all advice, sounds easy and is awfully hard), then good things—perhaps just small or humble or quiet things, which are still (so, so) good—will come of it.

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