THINGS WE’RE DYING TO KNOW…
Let’s start with the book’s title and your cover image. How did you choose each? And, if I asked you to describe or sum up your book, what three words immediately come to mind?
My first attempt to brainstorm titles was embarrassing, now that I look back at it. But once I wrote the poem that would become the opening to the collection, I knew the book would be structured as a journey, and my next list was much more promising. I settled on “Travelers,” wanting to convey the idea that we are all traveling together, as pilgrims do. Diane Lockward at Terrapin Books worried that the title would not grab readers’ attention, and we agreed on “Travel Notes from the River Styx” (the title of a poem in the book) to retain the idea of travel. Many of the poems are elegiac, so the title’s emphasis on the last journey seemed appropriate, though I hope the book is more expansive than that.
The cover image is a river photograph by Nancy Marshall, an artist who was on residency at Hambidge in the Blue Ridge Mountains at the same time I was. She uses old technologies in her photographs, which are typically black-and-white or sepia. Diane thought that a black-and-white photo would be invisible in a bookstore, but color images seemed garish for these poems, or touristy. Another friend who is both a photographer and a writer, Pat Daneman, experimented with a blue filter. I love the resulting cover, which has the right tonality for the book without melting into the background.
Three words: Journey, elegy, witness
Can you describe your writing practice or process for this collection? Do you have a favorite revision strategy?
I rarely write books as projects, with each new poem fitting into the scheme. I’ve really only done it once, with a chapbook of ekphrastic poems that is still an ongoing project and that focuses on women’s art. Usually, I let poems come to me and then step back every few years to explore what images and themes or forms have been dominant in my work over that period. Once the collection begins to take shape, accepting some poems and excluding others, I can see gaps where I need to write for a specific moment in the sequence.
In terms of revision, I read the poem (or the collection) aloud and reread and carry it around in my head till I can’t do anything more with it—and then I get as much feedback as I can, from as many readers as I can. I find that the solutions my readers propose are often wrong, but their comments point me to the problems I need to resolve in my own way, and my best readers point me in the right direction to find those solutions.
How did you order the poems in the collection? Do you have a specific method for arranging your poems or is it sort of haphazard, like you lay the pages out on the floor and see what order you pick them back up in?
One of the many joys of Hambidge Creative Residency Center is that every studio has a corkboard wall or two, with ample pushpins: I can pin the poems up in a sequence and live with that sequence, eating my meals with the poems and moving them around as I see the need. Nikky Finney told me that she tapes poems up and down the staircase in her house. Hard on the paint, but I like that idea, too.
Because I thought of this collection as a journey, and because my usual habit of mind is linear, the sequence of this book was linear in the beginning. Diane asked me to rethink it as a braid. That was a difficult task for me, but I discovered an old cork board of my son’s in the attic and set to work over an intense period of revision last spring. I found that I had to quiet my conscious, analytic mind and work almost in a dream state, without articulating clearly why one poem belongs with the other, but intuiting they needed to be together. The result is satisfying to both my publisher and me, but I don’t know if I could do it again—it'll be interesting to see what happens next time.
What do you love to find in a poem you read, or love to craft into a poem you’re writing?
I love what Ellen Bass calls a “long-armed poem,” a poem that can embrace disparate elements and make them part of an organic whole. Think Walt Whitman, but also Kevin Prufer—and of course Ellen Bass herself.
I care enormously about craft, that each word choice, each punctuation mark, the length and music of the line all are intentional and effective without necessarily calling attention to themselves. Rather, you have to deliberately study the architecture and sound systems of the poem in order to see how it’s put together, after the first read sucks you in and seduces you.
Can you share an excerpt from your book? And tell us why you chose this poem for us to read – did it galvanize the writing of the rest of the collection? Is it your book’s heart? Is it the first or last poem you wrote for the book?
The opening poem, “Road Trip,” is the one poem that was specifically written for this collection and for this position in the collection: it is the elegy I wrote after my father’s death, a loss that is at the heart of the book. It's one of my own “long-armed poems.” However, the poem is itself long, and perhaps more easily read when you are holding the book in your hand (I am old-fashioned about books). The journey ends with two short poems, one of which has the title I originally wanted for the book, “Traveler.” It is a response to a 5,000-year-old figure that stands at the entrance to the Mesopotamian gallery in the Art Institute of Chicago, very finely crafted despite its great age:
Striding Horned Figure, Mesopotamia, ca. 3000 B.C.
silent, you lead the way
between this world and another.
and water. You come and
go again, boots curled back over
unspeaking. Teach us to
count and to lose track, to climb and
and wide-eyed, show us how
you cross the fiery bridge, how you
and how you
stay behind when we have
all gone down, gone all the way down.
If you had to convince someone walking by you in the park to read your book right then and there, what would you say?
I am not a good salesperson….
For you, what is it to be a poet? What scares you most about being a writer? Gives you the most pleasure?
Writing is so many things for me, but perhaps most of all a way of living, open to the world and to others in the world, attuned to language. I am a public school teacher and I have to get up much earlier than I want to, in order to write before I leave for school. Teaching is too intense to leave me with the energy to write in the evenings—not to mention the papers that need to be graded and the lessons planned before the next day! But that sacred time in the early morning launches me into my day and makes me ready for everything else that I will encounter.
Writing is a way to make sense of the world and of my place in it, a way to make beauty for others as well as for myself. I have found a community with other writers who care about the same things I do, and I am a better teacher because what I teach is not a subject for me but a discipline, in every sense of that word, and a passion.
I’ve heard poets say that they’re writing the same story over and over in their poems. Is that true for you? If not, what are your obsessions that reoccur in your work?
Charles Wright said in a workshop I attended that we all have nine images that we return to again and again. I don’t know where he got the number nine, but I think writers are easily haunted by images, or by words. Rivers call to me, so bridges do too. A word like “lacuna” can send me to my notebook. My father had a long, slow, painful decline before his death in May 2015, just before I put this book together, and in that time I lost other loved ones to quicker deaths, so it’s not surprising that the book is elegiac. The obsessions change over the years: In my first book, for some reason it was geese, until my husband and my writing friends convinced me that I had said what there was to say about geese.
Do you think poets have a responsibility as artists to respond to what’s happening in the world, and put that message out there? Does your work address social issues?
I think that all humans have a responsibility to respond in whatever way they can to what’s happening in the world, so writers and artists have a responsibility to use their art as a platform from which to respond. Like many others, I am writing more overtly political poems since the presidential election last year, but all my books include some justice poems. For Travel Notes, I chose poems—all written before the 2016 election—that respond to the Japanese tsunami of 2011 and the debris that rode across the ocean, to the wars in Syria and the upheaval in Ukraine, to the eerie echoes of Anna Akhmatova’s Russia in our own current situation, the Arab spring, and conflict in Israel and Palestine, as well as the church shooting in Charleston and my own students’ challenges.
I'm a news junkie, more so now than ever though it’s painful to stay aware and many of my friends are talking about giving themselves permission to turn away. I believe that we must not turn away, that this is no time to cultivate our own gardens or to do so exclusively. Of course, we need to stay sane and healthy, too, in order to have the energy to fight back. Poetry is what keeps me sane, and at the same time gives me a way to resist. I do not agree with Shelley that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but we can be the world’s conscience—and then we need to go out with our friends and neighbors and march in the streets and vote like everyone else, so that the legislators we send to our capitols give us the right laws.
Are there other types of writing (dictionaries, romance novels, comics, science textbooks, etc.) that help you to write poetry?
I often write from what I know is going on in the world, so National Public Radio, the New York Times, the Washington Post are all daily reading and listening that feed my writing. I also read fiction but that reading is either for my classes or for fun and rarely connects with my writing. The other arts do, though, especially music (classical and jazz for the most part, though the opening poem in my book quotes a lyric by Carla Bruni) and the visual arts.
What are you working on now?
I have an ongoing project, a chapbook manuscript of ekphrastic poems focused on women’s art. That collection also grew out of my time at Hambidge, where I assembled Travel Notes. During my second week there, all the residents were women, writers and artists, and dinner conversation often turned to the experience of creating art as a woman. You need only look at the count published by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts to see that women are underrepresented in publications and reviews, and similar counts have been made for museums and galleries. I wanted to celebrate women’s art, and to open a virtual gallery of works that especially move me. Beyond that celebration, I wanted to explore the ways in which our art, even when it is not literally a portrait of our bodies or a retelling of our lives, becomes the way in which we recreate ourselves.
In addition to the ekphrastic poems, I am doing what I always do after I finish a big collection: writing what comes to me, without worrying too much about the direction in which the poems lead me.
What book are you reading that we should also be reading?
I spent a lot of time this summer with W. S. Merwin’s poetry, which is so humane and so hauntingly beautiful, especially in recent years. Summers are when I can read poetry intensively; during the school year, my reading is more scattershot. Summer 2016 it was Peter Balakian. In 2015, when I was putting this book together, Kevin Prufer, Mark Doty and Tracy K. Smith. I prefer to read multiple books by a writer and really immerse myself in that voice.
Without stopping to think, write a list of five poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least write in permanent marker on your clothing, to take with you at all times.
William Butler Yeats
Purchase Travel Notes from the River Styx.
Susanna Lang’s new collection of poems, Travel Notes from the River Styx, was released in summer 2017 from Terrapin Books. Her last collection was Tracing the Lines (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2013). A two-time Hambidge fellow, her poems have appeared in such journals as Little Star, Prairie Schooner, december, Prime Number Magazine and Verse Daily. Her translations of poetry by Yves Bonnefoy include Words in Stone and The Origin of Language. Among her current projects is Self-Portraits, a chapbook collection of ekphrastic poems focused on women across the arts. She lives in Chicago, and teaches in the Chicago Public Schools. Visit her online at www.susannalang.com.
Nicole Rollender is a poet, editor and seeker.