Susanna Childress "Some Day It's Going to be a Candle Scent"

Susanna Childress "Some Day It's Going to be a Candle Scent"

an interview

Have you recently found yourself in conversation with another writer or artist?

For this year’s AWP, I proposed a panel on Jane Kenyon, and though it didn’t get accepted (—another JK tribute did! Wahoozies. I’m so there.), I began an intermittent correspondence with Jane’s close friend, writer Alice Mattison. The “conversation” we have often happens, okay, mostly happens in my head—which keeps me from having to face how vapid or fawning I might be—but part of the draw to Alice, besides her relationship with one of my favorite poets, is that she’s a woman who forged a way when there was no way.

I mean as a mother (to three boys) and writer (of six books) who faced what it meant to be a mother and a writer with an envious mix of moxie and sobriety: see her essay, “Drowning the Children.” These days, plenty of women are writing about their (troubled) roles as mother-artist; Alice was doing this when no one was talking about it, much less modeling it. But of course she doesn’t say that, at least in self-congratulation. I’ve developed this big old crush on her (hush, she doesn’t know!); she might be the pen pal I’ve always wanted because she doesn’t seem aware how wry and smart and honest even her tossed-off emails are. When I asked, “Do people email you about nothing all the time just so you'll write them back?” She said, “Yes, I get into correspondence all the time. I thought everyone did.” No, I said in my head and might one day write, Oh, no, Alice Mattison, you are one of a kind.

In a couple weeks she’s phoning into my advanced fiction class where we’re reading her inimitable short story cycle In Case We’re Separated; I’m grateful she’s so generous with her time and I can’t wait to introduce her to my talented students. I do hope to continue a conversation of one type or another with her for, well, ever—as long as she’ll have me.

How does geography or landscape influence your work? Do you need to be in a certain environment to write?

Lush is nice. Epic is nice. Moody and quiet is nice. But the only environment I must be in to write is that which does not include my young children, whom I adore and who eclipse focus of any sort. Everything else in terms of geography or landscape is bonus. Oh, and I’m a loser this way: I write on my laptop, by which I mean not ever, ever, ever by hand, that dreamy and helpful and recommended and impossible way for me to write. So I guess I need a power outlet, whether mountaintop or Maui, which is to say, by myself in an office.

What is the poem you have always wanted to write, but have not been able to?

One where the central image is a used tampon floating in a toilet: all the blood has seeped into the water, bright red, and the tampon itself is a blazing, pure white. It sounds nasty, but it was this beautiful and awful sight—something I actually encountered and can’t forget. It’s a metaphor. Perhaps a set of them. You can see, though, why I’m having trouble. (The last real taboo in poetry: used tampons.)

At the risk of being obvious, I must say the poems I most want to write and haven’t are those I can’t even summarize here except in the abstract—race and death and faith and sex and injustice—because they’re too intense, too personal, or too recent.

A few years ago when I saw Edward Hirsch at a reading, he said he thought writer’s block was really just short-hand for (you must imagine him saying this with a Brooklyn accent) “you don’t got the chops”: either you don’t possess the technical skill or you aren’t psychologically ready to face the subject matter. True that, Ed. And after Gabriel, among other works of his, the man clearly knows what he’s talking about here.

Describe the value of being a published poet in an increasingly digital literary landscape. What is the future of the published poem?

We all know what the future holds for any material piece of writing, despite my own bibliophilic nostalgia. Though I think there’s worth in both worlds, the value of being a published poet in an actual book of poems is not quantifiable: I get to hold it in my hands. I get to see the name of this year’s guest editor—Sherman Alexie, a writer who thrills me to no end—in the same space as my own, and lots of others’, too, like my former professor, David Kirby. Their names with my name. Their words with mine. All in a place I can touch, in a thing I can hold. I might even lift the book to my face like every other creep and smell the pages.

Some day it’s going to be a candle scent: Open Book.

What is your biggest pet peeve about your own writing? Other writers’ writing?

I once had a writer I respect so much, Ander Monson, respond to an early version of my second book (he was the judge of a contest I’d submitted to and did not select my manuscript but felt compelled to contact me—seriously great guy and stellar writer) by saying that he didn’t see enough of the “larger world” in my poems. It stung, but he was right.

I’m a navel-gazer when left to my own inclinations, which is kind of sick, really. There’s so much going on—even in terms of other writers doing phenomenal work—internationally/ globally. I get tired of my own piddly, poor-me poems. Don’t we all?

I guess for other writers’ writing, I also get tired of show-offy poems, when I’m supposed to be dazzled by word-play or constant allusions/references or stylistic whimsy; this is, of course, highly subjective. But I’m a fan of the coalescing mood of a poem being what radiates (see TJ Jarrett or Kai Carlson-Wee or Frank Montesonti or Katy Didden)—like a subtle pulsing thing, some glow—instead of the poem as one big, shining marquee for itself.

How do you know when a poem is done?

In Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream, he describes being able to distinguish dream-writing (read: trance-writing or flow-writing, etc.) from head-writing by the sounds you’ll hear in an internal tuning: dream-writing goes thrum; head-writing goes twang. His suggestion for revising your work is to thrum along until you hit a twang and then re-see or dream-write from there until you’re thrumming again.

I am curious if this is how I know a poem is done. I certainly know when it’s not done. Which is to say, when I’m working on a poem, I read it aloud on the screen, then I print it out and read it aloud again in several different locations (alters the feel, the ‘reality’ of the poem—you know?), then I go back and read it silently in still different places; I read the poem last thing before I sleep and first thing upon waking, when I’m less defensive and more “in tune.” And if there’s any twanging, it ain’t finished, but when it’s all thrum, it’s done.

If you had to give your life a title, what would it be?

What a splendid, stupefying question. My life changes all the time—I’m not alone in this, surely—so I can only speak for this moment. Perhaps because I’ve been working on a title for my current manuscript, or, ahem, next book (whenever that may come about), I think my life, too, may be a “Circus of Mercies.” And of course since I disclaimed the title for the whole span of my life, I now think it might be true; one continuous element is just that—it has been and might well always be a Circus of Mercies.