This terrific blogger named Jess Witkins interviewed me about my new poetry collection,?Little Prayers. There’s a book giveaway, too. Here’s a teaser:
Jess: Why do you think poetry is important today??
Me: I think poetry asks us to tap into a different part of our brains than prose does. It demands and requires more intangibility. I remember well the time my mom told me she liked my poems but felt like she didn?t understand them. I told her she didn?t need to, that she should just appreciate what she got out of them. She told me later how freeing that was for her, that me giving her permission not to work too hard took away a lot of her anxiety and allowed her to just sit with the lines and enjoy them. I think that?s one of the things that?s hardest about poetry?we don?t always ?get it? in the way we might, say, a novel or a memoir, and maybe that?s why people run away from it. We don?t want to feel stupid or like we?re missing something. We want clarity, answers. Because poetry often raises?questions.?But?I think that?s a really good thing! Poetry can open us up to mystery and abstraction, which is good for our brains and our hearts. And the music of poetry?learning to hear it?is essential for anyone wanting to write or appreciate good writing.
I hope you’ll read it, and, if it feels right, share on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or wherever you social media.
For me, and I think for most, the writing life is feast or famine: years of not much happening, then little periods of publication or great strides on projects. And occasionally, it comes all at once.
To wit: I had two essays published this week, within minutes of each other. I’m thrilled. It was a nice personal moment in what’s been a very difficult week politically and globally. I think it’s important to mention that: wildfires in Oregon, the end of DACA, hurricanes everywhere?my heart goes out to so many people, right now.
So if you want a diversion, I’ve got two essays for you.
I kept the rejection letters because I was told to.
In my first year of graduate school, a professor described a poet who?d wallpapered the bathroom with his. Without questioning why one would want their failures staring them in the face while they did their business, I nodded gravely and made a note of it. Apparently, writers saved?and sometimes displayed?their rejection letters.
That first year of grad school I learned all kinds of things about ?what writers did.? For one, I learned to say ?I?m a writer? when anyone asked, because if you didn?t believe it yourself, then who would? And that night, I went home and started a “rejections” folder, eagerly awaiting my first one.
The second essay is completely different; it’s called “In Praise of Mindful Birthing,” and it’s about how I harnessed a technique I learned through meditation to get me through Baby S’s birth. You can read it over on Elephant Journal. Here’s a teaser:
Fast forward to week 40: I?m sitting on my back porch on a swelteringly hot day. I had a castor oil smoothie for breakfast, followed by a trip to a delightful sadist of an acupuncturist who made me stumble around her office with my feet full of needles. The doula has arrived, and so has my friend Steph.
The candles have been lit.
On the stereo, sacred music by Hildegard von Bingen plays.
I am in labor.
I don?t have time to think about how different this birth is so far, with my candles, my team of women, and my sacred chants, because I?m breathing. I?m having a contraction, in fact. It?s painful, but I don?t think about the next one. I don?t panic waiting for the pause.
And?there it goes. I look lazily around the yard. A bumblebee nuzzles the late summer flowers. I can almost see the pollen on its back as it lifts off. A hummingbird stops by. My feet feel hot on the deck. The birthing ball beneath me sways lightly.
I am not in pain, I think to myself?not at this moment, anyway.
I’d love to hear from you! Got a question or comment? What’s YOUR experience of rejection–or giving birth? Drop me a line, below. And follow me on Facebook, where I just might read aloud from one of these essays a little later today.
This morning, meditating on the back deck, I noticed California’s subtle signs of fall. As a New England transplant?who grew up with?dramatic fall weather and the trees in flames, the signs here are a little too subtle for me, but today was pretty good: a gorgeous late sunrise (we all piled into L’s bed to watch it through his windows at 7:15), walnut-tree leaves littering the deck, crisp air, and that slightly maudlin fall light that seems to strike diagonally. This weekend I’m planning to spend a lot of time in the woods, watching fall, clearing my head.
Fall’s diagonal light
Last night at my writing group I asked a few veteran fiction writers how to approach writing a novel. When I wrote my memoir, the plot was laid out in front of me; I didn’t have the blessing or the curse of having to make things up. (Sometimes, I wish I had, since many traditional publishers have been calling the story “too quiet.” What can I say? That’s my life. Quiet.) Given all this freedom, I have no idea what to do with it. I have 100 pages from last year’s NaNoWriMo, and then about 25 of a “new draft.” I have my main plot points. But deciding what happens in between?what should go on?in, say, chapter 2?is beyond me. I stare at the laptop, longing for someone to tell me what?to write.
Of course, I suppose the character could do that. In this terrific podcast, writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks about having a conversation with your book, and while I haven’t quite done that yet, I’m open to the idea that my main character, Hilly, could?somehow tell me what’s next. Is that ludicrous? Yes, and no. Maybe I’m just not listening right.
But anyway, back to the writing group. We talked about writing exercises and introducing conflict and what the characters want and pushing myself to be more outrageous and maybe losing a major thread that’s not interesting me after all. But mainly what I took away from the conversation was to just make a big mess of things, for now. You can’t know what a character will do until you’ve written her, and then written her some more, and then written her some more. And maybe none of those scenes will make it into the book, but maybe they will. And maybe, as I write, keeping notes, starting new files, disorganizing everything and trying new things and then sticking it all back together again, I’ll learn what’s supposed to happen, what’s important to me, what’s important to Hilly and her friend V.
Making a mess terrifies me. As you know from posts like this, in my old age, much to the shock of my parents and brothers, I’m sure, I have actually become a hyper-organized individual. One of the beautiful things about writing, for eight years, a memoir with the plot?laid out for me, was that I spent much of that time tinkering. Polishing. Moving things around. It felt joyful and straightforward (or maybe I’m misremembering all the hours I spent pulling my hair out, freaking out?probably). There is nothing straightforward about writing a novel, not when I’m?in what we might call the ideation phase.?Not when I have so little time to actually write these days. And especially not when I’m hoping against hope to finish this book before another decade has passed.
Nonetheless, I?am resolved to try: to see what happens, to make a mess, to not know what’s coming next. Maybe there’s a metaphor here? (There always is.)
And, lest I leave you on that dubious note, here’s an old poem about fall.
It?s raining colored paper.
No, birds?cardinals, orioles, and canaries,
swooping, dipping towards the hard surface
of the road, then gone. It?s the cornfields
have turned to paper, and a pumpkin
spills its guts on a front stoop.
A boy discovers it and starts to cry.
Who would do such a thing,
bring down the jagged grin, hard, on the steps?
Something in him falters.
He imagines his house on fire: water boiling
in the goldfish bowl, floating, weightless fish.
He thinks about God and Judas
and seventeen-year locusts, how they ruin things,
wringing his hands, worrying his fingernails
to splinters. He stares out at the fields,
counts minutes till schooltime, his breath
a neat circle on the window,
because it?s cold this October, already?
and there in the road is the flock of leaves,
swooping, dipping into the hard surface,
then gone. They touch down, and then they?re gone.
The cornfields have turned to paper,
and behind them the sky.
? Susie Meserve. This poem originally appeared in Indiana Review, Fall, 2001
Earlier this spring, a young woman?named Terra Ojeda, from Whitworth University, contacted me. She’d read my poem in Rock & Sling?and, as a part of a class assignment, wanted to interview me. I of course said sure. I liked the questions Terra asked, and I thought I’d post her interview here.
Thank you, Terra!
Terra: Do you have a writing routine? If so, what does it look like? (I?m sure in the midst of life, it is difficult to find and time and place every day to simply sit down and write).
Susie: I do have a writing routine?of sorts. My mantra is, ?write first, before everything else.? If I try to start my paid work first, or start with paying bills or anything else, I never get to the writing. Currently, I write at my kitchen table or at the library or at a coffee shop nearby (though I just had the very exciting news that I may be renting a small studio adjacent to my house as a writing space. I can barely contain myself at the thought of it). I can?t write every day, since I?m a college writing instructor and I have to teach, but I manage three days a week during the semester and four or more when I?m on break. Every so often I block out a Saturday or a weekend to work, too. I also set very specific goals and deadlines. I?ll aim to finish a chapter, a poem, a section of a book by a certain date?this motivates me and helps me not feel lost and depressed about how much there is to do and how little time I have to do it.
T: I have noticed that you are a vocalist in a band, Hotel Borealis. Do you contribute to the songwriting for this band? If so, how is it different from other modes of writing? If not, how does this band influence your creative writing process?
S: This is a great question. While I wrote the lyrics for one song on our upcoming album, and have tweaked Dave Mar?s lyrics here and there, the truth is I?m not much of a lyricist. I keep thinking this will come with time, but so far, it hasn?t. In terms of the music project influencing my writing life, it has and it hasn?t. Writing is very solitary. The music is much more collaborative. But playing and writing music has made me much more comfortable being spontaneous and taking risks?things that have been hard for me, historically. I?m hoping that riskiness translates into my writing at some point.
T: The same question goes for your role as a wife, mother, teacher, etc. How do these play into your creative process?
S:?I love teaching, but it doesn?t inspire my creative process except insofar as my students and I discuss artistic process (I teach at an art school). Mostly, teaching is an exercise in forcing me to be super organized with my time so I can write. Parenting has certainly been the source of material for essays (not so much for poems?not sure why). And having such a lovely kid in my life makes me feel centered when my writing career is not going as planned. My relationship with my husband has been the main topic of the memoir I?ve been writing for ten years, so that?s been central. So, yeah, it all plays in?.
T: If you could be any animal, what animal would it be? Why? Is this the same animal that you identify with now?
S:?My son is crazy about animals, and he asks me every day what my favorite animal is. I always says cheetah, but that?s not entirely true, though I would love to experience that furious running somehow. I would be interested in being a bear or another kind of powerful predator; a powerful bird; or?.I?m not sure what else. I?d actually be fascinated to be a male human for an afternoon, too!
T: I love how you include a variety of connections in your poem, ?Postcard from a Sailor.? You mention a fragmented mess of thoughts: ?as if the parking tickets were scattered everywhere.? You compare this also with ?all the marriages torn asunder — the children unborn.? Then you close the poem with ?all the tools tossed into the sea — if there were a sea if there were any stars by which to navigate –? The universality of this poem is undeniable, yet there is a sense that you are speaking from a specific, individual experience. How do you balance the two?
S:?I see ?Postcard from a Sailor? as a kind of thread that came rushing off a spool at breakneck speed. So, in other words: I started with this very personal idea of having a ?mess of thoughts? (I like that, thanks), which was something that I was indeed experiencing: my brain was running me ragged with small and big life questions that seemed to be unraveling everywhere, and one day it occurred to me that ?pensive? didn?t even begin to describe it. But then as I riffed on that in the poem, the whole world started unraveling (and the list of what would happen if the world unraveled came very quickly). The list I came up with was how I imagine the post-apocalypse, I guess. I tend to use a lot of quasi-fantastical, end-of-the-worldish images in my poems. I don?t know whether the poem, especially the end, feels depressing or whimsical. For me, the last two lines feel much darker than the rest. [Note: You can read “Postcards from a Sailor” below.] Something else is going on in there that you didn?t ask about. If you look at contemporary poetry, you?ll notice that this phrase ?as if? is totally overused. It?s like all of us poets can?t create an image without a comparison to something that might or might not happen. I wanted to play with that by pushing it: I started with one ?as if? but the next five lines all have an implied ?as if.? I thought being relentless about it would subvert it. But that may not be working; maybe I?m just another poet overusing the phrase ?as if.?
T: Who do you write for? Does the audience change for every subject, or do you lean toward one type of audience?
S:?This is a tough one. With the stuff I?ve been writing lately?personal essays, memoir, more commercially viable stuff?I definitely have audience in mind. In fact, I even spend time thinking about my ?target audience? and my ?brand.? (I picture a smart woman around my age, probably a mother but not necessarily, who also feels muddled by the choices she?s making and the difficulties and joys of her experience.) But when I write poetry, I don?t even think about audience, is the truth. I just write.
T: On writing for yourself: How does writing function for your own personal purpose? Do you write for yourself? Is it a healing process, like writing in a diary? Or does it take on a life of its own?
S:?Writing is definitely healing. For example, when I got things off my chest after writing a couple of essays about my inability to have a second kid, I actually felt that I could cope better with that huge disappointment. But writing is definitely not like a diary for me. I?m pretty obsessed with making things polished and viewer-ready. And yes, I would say all of my writing takes on its own life. That?s a beautiful thing about writing: you start with an idea for A and end up at Q, at Z, or in a different language entirely.
T: I?ve read and watched excerpts from your memoir ?Quiver.? How has traveling with your husband Ben (before you were married) shaped your life?
S:?That year with Ben was probably the most difficult and the most amazing year of my life to date, if I?m being honest. I still think about it all the time, probably because I?ve been writing about it for nearly ten years (!). Mostly, I think it was an exercise in solidifying what has been the most formative and important relationship of my life. But I think it also shifted my perspective as a writer. Before we went, I was working a very demanding job and barely managing to put together a poem every couple of months. On that trip, I realized that I wanted to be a writer, to really put writing front and center in my life. It also signaled the shift from me being a poet to being something else?whatever I am now.
T: When you contemplate taking ?next steps? in life, what does that look like? For example, the last couple lines of the excerpt from ?Quiver? on your webpage read:
“He had made up his mind: he was going to travel for a year. There was very little I could do about it.
Except go with him.”
The white space in between the two sentences seems essential, because it represents that space in your mind that says, ?Why not?? Does this explain the kind of leap of faith you have on taking big steps into the next stage in your life? Or are they normally subtle, baby steps that ease their way onto your path?
S:?I wish I could lie and say that I often take those kinds of leaps, but the truth is that I?m a total chicken about any big change and I have to worry it to death before I do anything. That excerpt from ?Quiver? ends there, but in the actual book, about two pages of angst and second-guessing and miscommunication with Ben follow before we actually decide to travel together. So I would say, subtle baby steps, for sure. And research. And talking. I?m big on reading a lot of books and having a lot of discussions and generally gathering as much information as I can before I make any big life decision. I have always wanted to be different in this regard. Oh well.
T: Thank you so much Susie, I have enjoyed reading your work. You have already influenced me to download a meditation app on my phone (which I gladly used earlier this morning). Sometimes I forget that all I need to do is sit down, come as I am, accept myself for all that I am, and breathe. You have been a lovely reminder, nurturing me personally with your words and honest stories.?
S: That?s so great! Thanks for telling me that. And you?re very welcome.
POSTCARD FROM A SAILOR (#6)
Arriving in California
just before Thanksgiving,
I?d say I felt pensive
if pensive were the sensation
of one billion thoughts colliding
in the cerebral cortex,
not pinprick stars,
more like dark matter chaos,
more like an unweaving,
the loss of any sense of order,
of any sense of navigation,
as if the parking tickets were papered everywhere?
and the email had begun to explode?
and the cars all crashed into one another?
and all the marriages torn asunder?
the children unborn?
all the tools tossed into the sea?
if there were a sea?
if there were any stars by which to navigate?
(? Susie Meserve. This poem appeared in Rock & Sling issue 9.2)
After the intensity of my daily posts in May for National Poetry Month, I haven’t blogged much. I actually had a brief mourning period when that month was over–mostly, I felt relief because choosing the poems and blogging them felt like a very important task that I was constantly worrying over–but I also loved the feeling of being so connected with readers and poems. Many people wrote me privately to say thanks, and, as I said on the last day, I felt after posting those daily poems like I was reminded of poetry’s great importance in my life. My recent feelings of cynicism about poetry’s power were dashed in favor of a great respect and awe for that most underdog of forms, teacher of children and adults, reminder of the daily wanderings of the mind, irreplaceable, sturdy, delicious poetry, for which we should all be very grateful.
Image from mpclemens, whom you can find on flickr
So have I been writing any? Not a lick.
In fact, I owe the esteemed Mike Dockins a postcard poem in a big way, but I’ve been very busy attending to other things: personal essays.
And brooding, of course.
I turned forty this past year, and had the important realization that, to quote a good friend, life should not be treated like a rehearsal. What would I have to lose, I wondered, if I just put myself all out there? More to the point, what will I feel if, on the verge of 50, I’m still in the same place I am now–mostly happy, mostly lucky, yet angsty about my writing career? I don’t have an answer for that, but suffice it to say I decided this year to push my writing in every direction possible until it makes sense not to. To be relentless in my pursuit of an agent for my memoir. To be shrewd, smart, driven, and careful. To keep at it. And, though this may sound crazy, to learn how to Tweet.
Yes, Tweet. One thing about this crazy stupid world of ours: you can become someone, sort of, through social media. I guess if you do it right you can at least generate interest, book sales, a following. And more and more, my rejections from agents say things like “I need someone with a strong media platform” or “You’re very talented but I’m afraid I won’t be able to sell this in the current market.” Maybe my work is unsellable, or maybe I just need to work harder, better, different, to become someone with more cache and power. So I’m trying both to get published in more high-profile places than poetry ever allows (read: personal essays in women’s magazines with huge readerships), and, well, to Tweet about it. Or something.
But back to the personal essays. And angst. A friend recently stopped writing. She said she was too wrapped up in ideas of her own success, too obsessed. If an agent told her her book lacked X, she’d stay up all night rewriting it. If a different agent then told her it lacked Y, she’d freak out and rewrite it again. She asked me, if your memoir never gets published, would you still want to keep writing? And for me the answer was a very quick yes. Maybe that’s crazy; maybe the fact that I am not yet published means I should give this up, but the truth is if I could do anything all day long, it would be write. So I’m keeping at it. For now. Until it makes sense not to. What’s my point? I don’t know. Something about perseverance.
The personal essays, wow–they’re fun. And raw. It’s a challenge to remember that while you can ramble and play with language all you want in a poem or a longer work, in an essay that will stand out online or in a women’s mag you want to be pithy, smart, funny, honest, not too cerebral but not too light. It took me a lot of revision to get the first essay polished up and tight as a drum, and I think it’s really, really good.
Now to find someone who feels the same and wants to publish it.
In the meantime, follow me on Twitter: @susiemeserve.