Wednesday, March 19, 2014

An Interview with Susanna Childress

Blast Furnace has had the distinction of interviewing several well-known and gifted authors since its founding in 2010, and recently continued that tradition by corresponding with writer/musician Susanna Childress about the experience of preparing her first book and seeing it published (in 2005). She has since completed a second full-length poetry collection, and links to both her first and second books are included in the interview.

Susanna holds a Masters degree from The University of Texas at Austin and a PhD from Florida State University. Her first book, Jagged with Love, was awarded the Brittingham Prize in Poetry from the University of Wisconsin (selected by Billy Collins) and the Devils Kitchen Reading Award from the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. She has received an Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Intro Journals Award, the National Career Award in Poetry from the National Society of Arts and Letters, and a Lilly post-doctoral fellowship.

Among her other awards: First Place, Fugue Poetry Contest (2007); Florida State University Deans Award (reading with Stephen King) (2006); First Place, Grove Review Poetry Contest (2006); Academy of American Poets Award (2005); Foley Poetry Award, America Magazine (2003); Roy Crane Excellence in the Creative Arts Award and Keene Award for Excellence in Poetry Texas at Austin (2003); plus multiple fellowships, Pushcart Prize nominations, and publication in several literary journals, in addition to other honors and recognitions.

We are pleased to present the following exchange with this generous poet.

Did portions of Jagged with Love ever exist as individual chapbooks? Or some of it as a single chapbook?

I had the uncanny experience of sending this book out as a manuscript only. I might have tried sending out portions as a chapbook, but of course a stony decade ago chapbooks were not as prevalent, and to tell the truth, I was (and am still) no guru about publishing and/or book farming, so I had little awareness that a chapbook might be a good first move. The manuscript was conceived as a Master’s thesis—originally 90-some pages—for my graduate work at the University of Texas at Austin, so it did not occur to me to break it apart into smaller publishable portions. My advisors and professors at UT-Austin encouraged my resolve for this to become a full-length book in its earliest form—I’ll speak later to how the manuscript changed over the months I sought publication. But almost as soon as I graduated, I began to send the bugger out, and I sent everywhere, without scruples or discerning, in part because I was not very cognizant of which prizes and presses were “big,” and in part because I was riding the momentum of gaining some acknowledgement for my work, specifically a few individual poetry prizes and fellowships. It was, I see now, a beautiful combination of naiveté and ambition that it landed the Brittingham Prize.

How much revising, restructuring of poems and the order of poems within the manuscript occurred before you began to shop it around? How long in coming was the final version? Was it shopped around to several competitions or minimal opportunities?
photo credit: Chris Cox
I owe everything to Barbara Hamby, brilliant poet and writer-in-residence at Florida State University where I was then a grad student, though I’d never taken a class with her. As I mentioned earlier, I put the manuscript together for my master’s thesis and sent it out widely to book prizes as-is; almost immediately I was contacted by a small press as a runner-up for their book prize with the offer of publication, but after consulting with folks at UT-Austin and Florida State, I took their advice to wait it out for a better deal. When a better deal didn’t materialize within the year, my consternation and despair got the better of me—I was, I like to remind myself, youthfully impatient—and in this case it served me well, because I sought Barbara Hamby out and asked her to help me re-envision the manuscript.
That blessed woman took my 90-some pages as well as 20-some more of new poetry and, though I didn’t realize it at the time, did with my work what you can pay some editor or poetry consultant hundreds of dollars to do these days (and even then it doesn’t come with the kind of knack and vision Barbara has): she saw something in the over-long shambles of a manuscript that I could not see; she honed in on both a narrative arc for the book as well as a way of putting poems next to each other that I never would have been capable of. I mean it: I owe her everything. She gave the book its order, from section to section and within the sections; she suggested the titles for the sections; she took out poems that didn’t fit and put in the new poems that did. She worked her beautiful voodoo. I still don’t know how she did it, and this humility ain’t false. I also mean it when I say I didn’t deserve the hours of work she put in, the artistic and logistic discerning, the careful maneuvering of poems in their place. She wasn’t my professor; she owed me nothing. She is a most magnanimous person and gifted artist, and that is how I became her student, which is to say, I have learned so much from her. I mention this because my story is one of sweet indebtedness, and I don’t have as many chances to tell it as I wish, namely for its testament to the talent and generosity that has nothing to do with me and which made my book possible.
I sent out this “new” manuscript to book prizes a year after my first send-out, again widely, with little understanding how competitive or lauded most of the prizes were. I was a finalist a few times before receiving word of the Brittingham, a bigger and better prize than I could have imagined for my first book, with its selection and endorsement by Billy Collins as the prize judge and by Ron Wallace as the series editor. I owe the two of them a tremendous debt of thanks, too.
Once you had enough poems for a full manuscript, did you envision that your book would go in the direction it did, with the themes it features, or did you see it going elsewhere? What were the themes?
I suppose every writer has some trouble seeing her own themes; I was (and probably still am) especially myopic in this arena. Originally the manuscript was titled, “Petals, Spoons    Pockets, Songs” (with, yes, Lord help us, that little divider) because those four elements made several appearances throughout and because I thought they were nice metaphors for diurnal spaces and what we fill them with, but otherwise, I had no real vision for creating thematic movement in a manuscript. I knew I wrote boy-trouble poems and dad-trouble poems and a few here and there about love-of-all-kinds (mostly troubled), but it was Barbara who nailed the way to connect and shape the poems’ arc. I do see it that way, as an arc, some trajectory toward knowing, or understanding, toward a more felicitous view of what it means to struggle and to cope, without arriving at some “answer” or “destination,” as is sometimes obligatory. And maybe that’s why it took Barbara’s vision, why I couldn’t have seen it myself, smack dab in the straits, as I was then and might yet be, of that journey.
What inspired the titles of each of the four quadrants of the book?
Each section of the book takes its title from a poem title or a line within a poem from that section. I didn’t find them myself: ‘t’was Barbara. All Barbara.
Was it obvious from the start to haveThis Day is in Love With Meas your first poem? Were other poems in Jagged with Love considerations for starting the manuscript? WasHouse of Breadalways the intended closing poem?
I’m trying to remember what the first poem was in “Petals, Spoons    Pockets, Songs,” but that was more than ten years ago and my memory fails me; that version survives only on disk, which is so obsolete it might as well be gone forever. But once “This Day is in Love with Me” was suggested as the first in the book it seemed the obvious and only choice forever more, world without end, amen, as it serves to set up both tone, wry and playful and earnest, and thematic complexities in the book, of longing (both desiring and being desired), darkness (sexual aggression and aggressors generally), and love (maternal, vegetal). I mean, vegetal love! Truly, what more can you ask for than molestation and vegetal love to start a book of wry, playful, earnest poems? (I jest.) As for the final poem in the book, this again was Barbara’s suggestion, and it works for me I think because it takes the whole of the book to get to this place, to earn it, I mean. “House of Bread” is probably Jagged with Love’s most ambitious poem in terms of its sundry subject matter and tone—which seems to me to hold no wry playfulness but buckets of earnest desperation instead. I had to pave the way towards that and it’s for my money a fine way to finish, unwittingly setting up my second book of poems, Entering the House of Awe. Of course I had not written that book yet, but “House of Bread” shows the stylistic, tonal, and thematic direction I was headed in my follow-up volume.
Nude Self Portrait is quite revealing, autobiographical or not. There's beauty in its confession to physical characteristics not widely seen as beautiful in a world of unattainable, unrealistic expectations for the female form, even a subtle defiance. Was it difficult to release this into the world
I love this question. No, it was not difficult at all. In fact, I first wrote it as a concrete poem in the shape of a breast, with a nipple and everything. Dear, dear David Kirby talked me out of that. But have I mentioned this subconscious predilection I once had, where my ingenuousness and my daring lead me into all sorts of unknowns? If it is apropos to adore anything about one’s own work—and even if it’s not—what I adore about Jagged with Love is that so many of the poems were born out of a raw and un-self-conscious place. I wrote exactly what I needed to write; I crafted the poems exactly as I needed to craft them, and though it might sound absurd now, I am amazed to consider that I was not thinking at all about what people would make of them, either singly or as a whole.
I miss that place, that unwitting penchant, that being led, part-blind, by the literary impulses of the gut. Which is to say, once that’s gone, it’s gone. I am unsure I’d be able to write something like “Nude Self-Portrait” again, with the same baldness and conviction in its composition and revision. When I write now, two books under my belt, I navigate some whole hidden world breathing across my sternum—readers and family and colleagues and critics and friends—staring down at my writing from somewhere right behind my neck; I’m constantly trying to figure out what to do about that. There is no simple solution.
But back to the poem. I’m grateful you do not assume it’s autobiographical; none of my poems are truly, wholly, absolutely autobiographical, just as not a single one of them truly, wholly, absolutely abandons the autobiographical Self. This poem borrows from my own body-assessment and from worries and complaints I’ve heard women make all my life. Is it easy to expose (my) physical insecurities? In this way, acknowledging the insecurity and all the while critiquing why it need be an insecurity in the first place, that was easy. Balancing the tone, of both transparency—or, as you put it, which I really like, confession—and reproach, that was a little harder. But I thrive on walking the periphery of defiance: spiteful anger in and of itself yields so little; anger underwritten by hope and resilience and vulnerability, the landscape of the human heart at its best, well, that might get us somewhere. Or at least make for a fascinating poem.
To that end, I get such great responses when I read this poem, which I do, now, at the beginning of nearly every reading. It took me a long while to realize it is a funny poem, in a biting sort of way, but it makes people laugh. A lot. Loudly. I’m so grateful for that. I wonder if it also prepares them for that big ol’ ache I try to get at in nearly all my poems. Bitey and tender and livid and transparent. I hope so.
Could you speak to feedback you've received to the provocative Expiation”? From both females and males.
I’ll be honest: I’m fond of this poem, but it feels positively ancient to me; I wrote it as a senior in college and then heavily revised it during my first year in grad school—which was twelve years ago. Still, it’s interesting to think about it in terms of feedback, so thank you for elucidating that angle. I suppose the responses are what you’d expect: women add their own terrifying stories to that list at the beginning; men tend to either balk at it or apologize, sometimes in tears. That’s been so meaningful—receiving sincere apologies. It speaks to the thematic veracity at which I was aiming.
The most helpful response I received about this poem was also a pretty painful one, in my first graduate workshop, where a couple of classmates who were men said, blankly, they disliked it, pointing out that the ending of the poem, where I speak to this “quiet-hearted man,” was too sentimental and did not balance out the grievous and embittered and self-pitying beginning—in that version the ending was, to be fair, much shorter, less generous. I took that to (my in fact quite sentimental) heart, even though their suggestions came off as pissy and defensive, which is to say, no women gave me this kind of feedback. I’m glad I did pay attention, though; they are both very fine poets. If this was truly a poem about forgiveness, about somehow being willing—and in fact, drawn—to love a (certain kind of) man when men, as a species, seemed not worth loving, then by golly I had to settle in and “sell” the ending, not only as plausible but possible and worth searching out and lauding. It really is what I wanted and meant for the poem and, I hope, allows the accusations to bleed into, if not a downright celebratory tone, something altogether more inclusive or expansive.
In poems likeKrash,” as in some other poems (particularly later in the book), there's a reference to Scriptural imagery (for example, thirty shekels), thats quite unexpected. Does this melding into a poem thats about cheating, for example, and even in Expiation”—the mention of Godcome easily for you when you write? Is there a challenge in presenting the opposites smoothly (i.e., the flesh versus the holy)?
I suppose I’m not as comfortable seeing the flesh and the holy as opposites, which might contribute to what you are suggesting is a smooth presentation. I think I see them both as integral and perhaps unavoidable elements of being human, even if one is nearly always yielding or directing me to the other. I recently read an interview with Julia SpicherKasdorf, whose work I adore and who is, in an informal and unwitting way, a mentor to me in these matters, mention that being a person of faith affects her teaching the way being a woman affects her teaching, and I wonder if this is also true of her writing. I know it is for mine. I can’t not call on imagery or symbolism or meaning-making of any sort that draws on my faith in the same way everything I write is profoundly affected by my being a woman. And I don’t know why I shouldn’t allow my faith to influence how and what I write, except that some folks will roll their eyes at me. I’m all right with that. I don’t know how much even that happens any more. At Seattle’s AWP [Conference] earlier this year, I was on a panel where four of us agreed that as writers (incidentally all poets), we feel more alienated and/or isolated and/or troubled by our relationship(s) with our faith communities than we do with the literary world. I wonder if part of the current openness to faith-infused writing is the influence of luminaries like Mark Jarman, Christian Wiman, Mary Szybist, Marilyn Nelson, Scott Cairns, B.H. Fairchild, Jeanne Murray Walker, Ginger Andrews, and Andrew Hudgins, among others. Adélia Prado is a master at attending to the body and spirit, fusing an attendance to them naturally and urgently, in her poems.
I wasn’t reading these writers when I wrote my first book, though. Much of the freedom I felt to write seamlessly about God and The Flesh (sex, what-have-you) might have stemmed from that same mix of innocent tenaciousness: I didn’t know any better. I didn’t even ask should I. I didn’t imagine anyone would be reading it, not people of faith who might be offended or disgruntled by my corporeal realities or literary folks who might be offended or disgruntled by a religion I still practice. I wasn’t hampered by any of that, miraculously, though I sometimes am now, which is mostly my own fault.
What fascinates youtopically, structurallyin the writing craft itselfin your writing these days?
I’m still very interested in narrative and narrative lyric writing. I dig story, story-driven images and voice. Jane Kenyon is a poet I return to over and again as a guru in this, and a writer like Kevin Prufer challenges the ways I’ve grown comfortable with my own storytelling in poetry. I don’t mind “skittery” poems but I have never been compelled or inspired by them, and though I’m aware of a certain pressure to write that way, I’m no good at it. I also don’t feel any compunction to de-center the “I,” so my writing continues to navigate the self-referential and the self-associative even as I move away from autobiographical material (which may seem like a paradox, but unless I’m really fooling myself, I don’t think writing about the self means I am limited to writing about myself). In fact, what fascinates me topically is my marriage and my children as well as a great deal of grief over a recent death in my family and suffering generally—all while not writing from (solely) my own actual experience. I’m only able to write about the most personal aspects of my life when I’m creating fictive context for these experiences, which is something I’ve been doing all along and with even greater liberties in Jagged with Love because I categorized them as persona poems—a persona thinly veiled as myself. This is helpful, even essential, for me—maybe it allows me access to some of that original bold whimsy which seems to have unraveled a bit as I became aware—quite gladly, in the end—of a readership and the sundry consequences therein. In terms of craft or technique, I’ve been drawn to formal poetry and (variations on) traditional verse forms; like Robert Lowell suggested, the cabinetry of a formal poem is useful and generative for big, overwhelming subject matter such as love or parenting or loss. Lots of folks have found re-invigoration in and for the pantoum, sestina, villanelle. I suppose I’m riding that wave, too, not to be trendy but to be writing at all in a very demanding season of life.
Blast Furnace is fortunate to have had the experience of hearing you read in person (at Gist Street in Pittsburgh a few years back). You ended the reading singing a cappela, “Death Be Not Proud,” which was very moving. Why do you choose to end your public readings in song? What song(s) or types of song do you choose to sing, and why?
I remember reading in Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter? that Gioia believed it might help poetry’s general appeal if, among other things, readers of poetry would a) incorporate others’ poetry into their readings and b) pair poetry with other fine arts. It occurred to me that, even if Gioia’s suggestions were offered with a bit of apocalyptic condescension, I might try my hand at “reading”—as song—one or more poems that I greatly admire, like John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X. This kind of experimentation came naturally for me because it began back in my undergraduate education, when my (now life-long) mentor and professor, Mary Brown, assigned this very exercise; she paired self-proclaimed musical types with self-proclaimed non-musical types and had us create a melody for WilliamButler Yeats’ “When You Are Old and Grey” and perform it. I choose poems that follow a traditional form because they are, typically, easier to sing; I sometimes end a reading with a sung poem but just as regularly begin a reading with a sung poem—either way it seems to me to offer something slightly different than a read-poem to the audience and, I hope, to convey both vulnerability and generosity in the reading to come or in what’s already been read: I’ll give you what I’ve got, all of it, my very best. People have been very vulnerable and generous in return and my delight and desire is that sung-poems would gain ground, inspire, proliferate. 
Speaking of musicHow is your musical project, Ordinary Neighbors, doing?
Splendidly! Thank you for asking. After seven years of working on it, we finished our first full-length recording in November of 2012, a CD entitled The Necessary Dark. I can brag on it without compunction because the real genius behind Ordinary Neighbors is [my husband] Joshua Banner, who began putting my poetry and short stories to music early on in our relationship and continues to flatter me by making something truly beautiful out of out my writing.
Editors Note: Susanna Childress currently teaches Creative Writing at Hope College, in Holland, Michigan.

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