Reprinted from Poetry Flash, 7-18-2003
Selections from In Danger, winner of the California Poetry Series, follow the interview
[Several years ago I created the course Poets Studied and In Conversation at the University of California, Berkeley, Extension, which I subsequently taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz, with the title The Art and Craft of Poetry: Phase II. The Berkeley description read: “Study, emulate, and engage in discussion with five noted Bay Area poets. The course is divided into two-week segments, each devoted to an individual poet. The first week you study the poet’s most recent book of poetry. The second week that poet attends class for a discussion of poetics and process. Part of each class is devoted to writing exercises inspired by the work and discussion with the poet. Points of craft are illustrated and practiced within the context of each poet’s work.” The illustrious L.A. poet Suzanne Lummis, one of the first of many guest poets, generously offered her time and expertise by engaging with students at both U.C. locations. Her lively, informative class discussions inspired me to interview her for Poetry Flash. Many of her interview comments are perhaps even more relevant today. Many thanks, Suzanne!]
BETH: Your book is titled In Danger, and the world you describe is certainly dangerous and sinister, right down to the elements—the weather, for example. Is this pretty much your worldview, or is it one facet of it?
SUZANNE: I remember a magazine photograph of a huge, ultra modern apartment building, narrow and sort of scallop shaped, in Berlin, or Buenos Aires. These were luxury condos with lots of glass, little patios with wrought iron railings overlooking some splendid vista. And you could see right through a great charred hole in the center of that building. A small plane had lost control and crashed into the structure, taking out about three apartments and everyone in them. Those people watching the evening news, or sautéing some vegetables, or reaching for the phone, had no reason to imagine they were breathing their last. But they were. I looked at the photo and I thought, there’s no safe place in this world, no safe haven, nowhere one gets a guarantee from fate that nothing can go wrong. The ground can open under you—especially here in California. Or tons of metal can fall out of the sky. On this last point I think we’re in collective agreement now, here in the U.S.
BETH: It did bring that sense that “anything can happen” to the foreground. Do you think 9/11 has changed the way people read In Danger? One would think it would make the danger in your poetic scenarios feel more immanent, more….dangerous.
SUZANNE: The week after 9/11 a student poet came into my class and said, “Finally, I totally get your book.” I guess at one time I’d mentioned to the class—god, this makes me sound gloomy—my sense that danger isn’t something we come into once in a great while, when we’ve accidentally wandered onto a poorly lit street at night. It’s the element we live in, like air. We don’t think about it, just as we don’t thing about air. And so in this class after 9/11, the student confided to me that she couldn’t make sense of that idea when she first heard it. But she knew now. She worked in a high rise, and had always loved looking out her window at the view, the great expanse of Los Angeles. But now when she looked out all she could see was a plane swooping out of the sky straight toward her window.
Having said all this, which seems awfully downbeat, I should mention I don’t think I’m a fearful person. If anything, I seem to be less fearful than many people. I simply don’t take it for granted that I’m guaranteed to be here even…well, minutes from now.
BETH: Your poems are so vivid and specific they seem to have come directly from your own experience. Not that that’s necessarily the case. Are any of your poems verbal reenactments of actual events in your life?
SUZANNE: Since one of my aims—not the only one—is to convey the wild energies and various contradictory events of the city—comic, horrible, wistful—the core event of the poem is nearly always from life. My life. There’s very little need for me to dream up the central galvanizing experience. Of course, this doesn’t apply to those poems that are clearly whimsical or fantastical, or persona poems, or things that obviously cross back or forth between the imagination and the exterior world—like the poem that closes In Danger, “When in Doubt Have a Man Come Through the Door with a Gun in his Hand.” This rose from my effort to take a severe psychological crisis—an abstract, intangible thing—and press it into the language of the physical world, while trying to transmit the fearful chaotic quality, the absolute uncertainty of everything. My friend, the delightful poet Steve Kowit, said to me, “I don’t get it. Why don’t you just explain to the reader exactly what happened?” Which of course is the kind of solid, sound advice I give my intermediate students. Which is why this input didn’t work for me. I’m not an intermediate student. I told him, “Believe me, if I described to you exactly what went down, you’d be a lot more confused.” This effort represents the best I can do, the farthest I can go, in pushing the incomprehensible toward the brink of what can be grasped.
BETH: So some of the poems are representations of psychological truth rather than literal events.
SUZANNE: To some extent. But I sometimes feel uneasy with poetry that bears all the trappings of autobiography, that incorporates recognizable elements of the author’s background as noted in their bio, and that remains in the sort of voice and manner we associate with the autobiographical poem, but turns out to be made up. Turns out to be made up when the writer blurts out the truth—now there’s a slippery word—in some writer’s conference panel. And I’m thinking, Hmm… I don’t know about this. It seems to me, in certain kinds of cases, that the poet is then appropriating elements that are the province of fiction while avoiding some of the hard work that fiction demands. And I don’t really mean by this that it’s easier to write poetry than fiction. But the easiest thing about fiction is the inventing of the quirky or comic or dramatic or pathos-filled central circumstances, and I think the hardest part involves the persuasive detailed creation of the surrounding world and its characters. So that’s what I mean when I say some poets may be making off with the easier task of fiction.
BETH: Could you give us an example of what you mean by poets appropriating fictional elements?
SUZANNE: Here’s a curious story—not in the realm of poetry, actually, but nonfiction prose. Annie Dillard opens her Pulitzer Prize winning collection of essays, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, with a fast-paced, highly imagistic, virtuoso piece on her hunter cat who softly pressed the blood of its kill onto her. I love this section, and I sometimes use it in class to show the overlap between poetry and prose, poetry and nonfiction. Great stuff. I remember thinking, though—Strange, the Pacific Northwest must breed a different sort of cat. And the birds and mice must be different, too, they must gush out blood. Because I’ve owned cats, I know cats, and I know it doesn’t go down like that. They don’t wind up with blood all over their paws, as if they’d stepped on an inkpad and now go around leaving rosy imprints. They don’t like stuff on their paws anyway, they’d probably lick off any foreign substance before you saw it. And I’ve rescued birds and mice from my cats—those little things don’t produce that much plasma. The point is, though, I was sold; I believed her account despite everything. Then when I read that some readers were disgruntled because Annie Dillard admitted she had never owned a cat, and that this was her invention, I was struck by the fact that I’d been prepared to believe a skillful, richly rendered prose account over the evidence of my own experience. I wasn’t exactly angry at Annie Dillard, not in this particular case—it’s still fine writing, and I guess one has to be grateful for that. But I was a little annoyed with myself. And I might be a bit more on guard with Annie Dillard, and certain other people, too. I mean, I don’t want a writer to fuck with me, you know?
BETH: At the very least, writers should be accurate. It’s an interesting question with nonfiction, which is clearly not fiction, whether such details, presented as coming from one’s own experience, are poetic license or just plain dishonest. And if we should allow “creative nonfiction” to be more like fiction than nonfiction. And if the author has the responsibility to clarify. Dillard, presumably, was not writing autobiography, though she may have led some to think she was.
I’m curious to know if you would characterize your poetry as confessional? autobiographical? loosely autobiographical?
SUZANNE: Actually, none of the above quite resonate with me, even though details and events great and small, directly from my life, are everywhere in evidence throughout much of my poetry. “Confessional” poetry… I wonder, does anyone today define their work with that term? Even Sharon Olds seems to have devised a new definition for her work: “apparently personal.”
BETH: Poets like Sharon Olds might not define their work as confessional, but others do still classify it that way. I think confessional is an unfortunate term, but nonetheless it’s become a familiar designator of a particular poetic genre—there’s another confusing term; maybe subgenre.
SUZANNE: “Confessional” implies that one has set out boldly to reveal the most intimate, and perhaps sensational, circumstances of one’s life and the deepest secrets of one’s psyche. And we should all, like, care.
BETH: Some readers do care. It’s juicy gossip, after all.
SUZANNE: I wonder what the use of this might be in the age of Jerry Springer and radio psychiatrists who take callers on the air. In any case I don’t do that, I don’t write like that. In fact, I engineer a lot of devices of concealment. Or within the poem I’ll move the focus away from something I don’t want the reader to investigate too closely, because, well, it’s personal. But my work is pretty damn personal anyway, despite my efforts. I don’t cleave to the term “autobiographical” because it suggests an inward and backward looking method, into the self and back at one’s reservoir of memories, childhood, etc. For the most part, that’s not where I fix my gaze. God, I’d get bored after a while. What’s fascinating to me is the self—in this case, mine—in interaction with some surrounding landscape and its people.
Last fall the L.A. Times interviewed me for an interesting article about poetry’s effectiveness, or lack of, in responding to a country’s collective crisis. And somewhere in that piece I said it’s the poet’s task to try to bear the harsh and luminous world into language. I’ll stand by that.
I very deliberately open In Danger by introducing the reader into the Eastside L.A. neighborhood and downscale apartment where I produced most of these poems: “First the Weather”. And I’m saying to the reader, if you don’t have a feeling for the particular urban landscape out of which these poems sprang, you’re maybe not gonna get this book. Well, I’m not exactly saying that, because that would piss the reader off from the get-go, and it’s already hard enough to sell poetry. But that’s what I’m thinking.
BETH: Can poetry ever be truly cathartic? If so, what makes poetry cathartic rather than, say, venting for its own sake, or scab-picking, or just plain narcissism?
SUZANNE: I just saw a really exciting Roy Jones fight on HBO, so I’m thinking about the definition of “catharsis” and what the difference might be between catharsis and pure adrenaline rush. I have a beat-up 1907 edition of The Poetics of Aristotle and I’m surprised, and a bit put out, that “catharsis” doesn’t seem to be in there. Now I’m wondering if it might have been Euripides who defined that term.
BETH: Actually catharsis, often with a “k,” is the last part of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy: “through pity and fear,” or empathy and awe, “bringing about the purgation,” or transformation, or redemption, “of these emotions.”
SUZANNE: I think catharsis implies that one is pulled down into some place of great emotion, and through immersion in this intense feeling, and a sense of identification with the character, or poem, various related and residual emotions are swept through and out. Isn’t it a sort of emotional house-cleaning?
BETH: I think of it as an even deeper house-cleaning that’s manifested—articulated—through emotion.
SUZANNE: My dictionaries do define it with the word “purge/purging,” which doesn’t sound too attractive. Too much like something you could buy over-the-counter at Rite-Aid. I don’t get that from reading poetry, not quite that. I get something extraordinary from writing it—I mean if I’m happy with what turned up—but I’m not sure if it’s catharsis. I know that among the panoply of emotions available to me the particular sensation that comes with writing stands alone, and there is no substitute. Oddly, I’ve seen people who aren’t accustomed to poetry, or the language of poetry, get caught off guard and swept off their feet. And in some cases those who are accustomed to poetry’s way of working can become slightly inured.
When I come upon a poem that knocks me out, I experience a mixture of pain and pleasure, and 50/50 so far as I can tell, pleasure for the obvious reasons, pain because, dammit, someone other than me wrote the thing. That doesn’t quite seem to fit the definition of catharsis either, so I must conclude, finally, that the closest I get to that noble state is while watching the fights.
BETH: The fights, hmm. Punches rather than poetics.
SUZANNE: If I had a choice of ringside seats for a Roy Jones fight or front row for a reading of the greatest living poet, I’d go for the Roy Jones fight. If I could see a reading by T.S. Eliot or Elizabeth Bishop returned from the dead, or a fight between Roy Jones and the long gone Sugar Ray Robinson, or the now retired Ruberto Duran, or Marvin Hagler, I’d of course go for the historic light-heavy match. Why wouldn’t I? Unless they learned something in The Beyond, like they somehow picked up some presentation skills, T.S. Eliot would give a kind of monotonous reading, and Bishop would be so bad she’d drive me nuts. She’d practically ruin those poems for me is what she’d do.
[Suzanne still stands by her comments and positions, except for one: She has long since become disenchanted with the boxer Roy Jones, Jr. He disappointed her too many times, she told me.]
BETH: I know how you feel. I’ve heard recordings of their readings. The antithesis of a boxing match. But then boxers practice till they sweat blood and perform as if something that mattered was at stake.
SUZANNE: If I could see a truly great Roy Jones fight, one in which he could finally take on someone who possesses anything close to his speed, power, and improvisational genius, well, that would make for a lifelong memory. That experience would not disappoint. I might have a heart attack from the excitement, but I wouldn’t be disappointed.
BETH: But isn’t that just part of the adrenaline rush you mentioned earlier?
SUZANNE: I’m still in the glow of last night’s fight, so let me put it this way. At the end, Jones backed up toward the rope, bent his elbows and put both hands behind his back. Never have I seen such a thing, or heard or read about a move like that. And Kelly went for him—see, Jones suckered him in—then Jones came around with his right and just took the guy out.
BETH: Like a good punch line, no pun intended. That element of surprise.
SUZANNE: Jones has explained that he grew up on his father’s chicken farm, and he’s incorporated the strange spirit and jerky quickness of the chicken into his fight style. So in the replay you could see what he did, he made chicken wings with his arms. It’s curious in terms of language. Chicken stands as one of the oldest playground insults for coward, but this guy’s utterly converted the meaning of, even our understanding of, the word “chicken.” He may even be converting our sense of the animal itself. He’s raised this low, ungainly, dimwitted creature to a thing of totemic power. Because he’s good enough to pull it off. He willed it. It’s what poets can do if they’re good enough—alter our perception of a thing, ennoble something we took to be mundane or even contemptible. Afterwards, some sports writer asked him about the move. What was that and where did that come from! And Jones said something like this: “It’s hard to explain things like that when you’re a born fighter. I’m a born fighter. And I have moves in me I don’t even know are there until the time comes for me to use them.” I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that the same might be said of born poets.
BETH: How did you first come to poetry? Who were your early influences, both poets that you read and poet mentors?
SUZANNE: Early influences. Do you mean my very earliest? Eugene Field’s “Winken, Blinken and Nod.” In fact to this day I find that an enchanting piece. For its rhythms and wistful mood it’s a thing of beauty. I was also taken with Noye’s “The Highwayman.” Of course it’s basically a tawdry story, the stuff of supermarket romance novels. But I liked it for that. I didn’t have television, after all, up there in the mountains, and the nearest movie theater involved a one-hour drive to Reno. And my parents were not inclined to head out into the blizzard, get snow chains onto the tires, and negotiate down the curving two-lane ridge of Donner Pass just to sit through some dumb movie. So for sensational narratives I had to entertain myself with “The Highwayman.” In my defense I should mention that I also appreciated the poem’s affecting imagery.
BETH: Were you writing poetry when you were young? Many poets say they knew quite early on that they were or would become a poet.
SUZANNE: I knew I was a poet by age 8 and 11 months.
BETH: That’s so specific. What happened that made you know right then?
SUZANNE: My family was in Mexico for the summer, a bit before my ninth birthday. There was a full moon, hammocks slung under the cabanas, mosquitoes batting at the lanterns, an assortment of insect life drowning on the surface of the pool. Very warm out, even that late. I wrote a poem about the moon. I’m sorry to say I rhymed “moon” with “raccoon.” The poem wasn’t much good. Nevertheless I informed my parents that I’d become a poet. I revised that one in the sixth grade. I changed “raccoon” to “silver spoon,” a marked improvement.
BETH: So you knew you were a poet by the time you were nine. Did that awareness stay with you?
SUZANNE: By age fourteen, I wasn’t so sure. I stopped writing during my teen years—too busy being unhappy. I was living in Berkeley then. When I was around seventeen I became fascinated with “Prufrock” and “The Wasteland.” I began writing again around eighteen, in Fresno. From the high Sierras, in a place so sparsely populated it didn’t even qualify as a town, to Fresno. I must thrive in desolate landscapes. And now I live and write in Los Angeles. See, nothing’s changed.
BETH: Except now you’re a respected poet. What was your experience like in Fresno?
SUZANNE: My very first teacher at FSU was a poet named Ingrid Salisbury, now Ingrid Wendt, and thank god I landed with her, because she helped me get past the most embarrassing stage of my poetic evolution. When I got to Philip Levine, then, I wasn’t quite as bad. I mean I was bad, but glimmers of promise had started to show up. Phil gave me great support and very useful guidance. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered that he was considered to be one of the toughest teachers of poetry. But I liked that toughness. Then I studied with Peter Everwine and Charles Hanzlicek. The three were good individually but also good in combination, since each of these teachers had different strengths. And then…well, then came Plath.
BETH: That switchblade intensity you always seem to go for in your poetry, did you learn that from Plath?
SUZANNE: Oh yes indeed, one can find more than a trace of her. I remember the first poem of hers I came upon—I’d have been eighteen—“Lady Lazarus,” with its edgy, brittle language and scalding tone. It staggered me. I saw right off she’d cracked the alchemical secret, how to fuse words into an electrical conductor, how to make language spark and transmit voltage. I guess that spoke to the orneriness in me. I don’t remember if I knew then the more sensational aspects of her life story. It was the language itself that fascinated. You see, the poetry of the Fresno sensibility contains a kind of tenderness and deep humanity. Even when the poems rise from anger, or address anger, like “They Feed They Lion,” the fury has about it something noble, because it responds to social injustice.
And that’s good. But suddenly into my literary landscape comes “Lady Lazarus,” with a speaker who we might think languishes in a hapless, passive position but who instead pits against her circumstance a voice that forgives nothing, that is stripped of all self-pity, that mocks and jeers and burns. This was an aggressive voice but with something held in, coiled, a voice that did not expect to be liked.
Also, I sensed a different relationship with the idea of truth. This poet did not so much explore as exert extreme will. She harnessed pure will and command of the language to convert our understanding of the scene we were witnessing. The figure lies in a hospital bed surrounded by on-lookers, but everything in the searing language and clipped pacing defies our notions of the poet-as-victim. The speaker won’t permit it. And by the way, I just hate like anything about this cult out there who would have us believe she was a victim of Ted Hughes. You know Hughes did a pretty good job with Ariel. This man suffered terribly and was a remarkable poet in his own right. He folded into her final manuscript “Poppies in July” and other provocative poems which she’d written after she assembled the Ariel manuscript. He actually ended it on a more complex, less pat, rather darker mood than she’d earlier imagined. He took care of that book, got it out there in a way that absolutely made her name. And oh I can’t stand the doctrinaire notions of certain pious busybodies who wag their fingers tsk-tsk-tsk without understanding the complex nature of emotional illness and suicide.
BETH: Not only is the psyche complex, so is the persona, and biography, which is always subjective and often blatant gossip. It’s especially dangerous to make assumptions based on what you can glean from a poet’s writing. Your writing, for instance. You mentioned growing up in the mountains, not having TV or movies. That’s interesting to me, because one would assume then that you would naturally develop as a nature poet, yet your poetry, more than that of just about anyone I can think of, is almost exclusively urban. The “nature” in your poems functions like structural concrete, or maybe Hollywood props.
Speaking of Hollywood, lately you’ve been studying film noir. Many of your poems already have that tone. Will your poetry become even more noir, and if so, will you be writing more persona poems?
SUZANNE: Oh yeah, more of both, I hope. Actually, my poems got noirish because my life turned noirish. Also, noir is steeped in a particular urban sensibility, gritty downscale urban, which just resonates with me. Well, the great one, “Double Indemnity,” involved the affluent class, but most explore the underside of the city.
Even more to the point, some of my poems have to do with violence, street violence in particular. But not all writing that undertakes to look at violence is noir. I think noir can be identified by a certain voice, and a certain stance.
BETH: And it’s that heightened particularized voice and stance that make any good persona poem zing.
SUZANNE: I will always write persona poems. I adore them, when they work. They give voice to the silent parts of oneself. They are both objective and distanced, yet oddly personal. It’s a wonderful form.
BETH: Being the daughter of a Secret Service agent surely must have colored your vision of life.
SUZANNE: This is such a big question because, as you know, my father just died, at age 97. Actually, what probably colored my vision of life, in some kind of way, was having this particular father, in his prime a powerful presence and an extremely charismatic personality. He was to the end, actually. In his last days in the hospital, when he barely had strength to speak, his attending nurse was positively charmed by him.
Not long after I was born, he retired from the Secret Service and joined the Foreign Service. His task was to set up an office in Palermo that would research the backgrounds of those applying for Visas, so as to prevent Mafia people from coming to the U.S. Later, he sometimes joked, “Apparently I didn’t do a very good job.” We lived there until I was almost five, which may help explain a poem that shows up near the end of In Danger, the one called “Palermo.” I don’t write childhood poems as a rule, but I did want to catch that one dreamlike memory.
My mother, who died in ’98, was a remarkable woman also, although her personality was subtler and a bit harder to describe. She met my father in the Secret Service, the third woman ever to be hired, in a position that’s now called Administrative Assistant, shortly after the war began, when men were in short supply.
BETH: Our families have a tremendous impact on us as poets, even if they’re not physically present at the time we’re writing.
Earlier you mentioned Hughes absolutely making Plath’s name. This “making it” in the poetry world is complicated. There are excellent poets who become well known, and there are mediocre poets who somehow ingratiate themselves or manipulate people and/or circumstances to achieve the status of “celebrity poet.” Does “making it” as a poet really have to involve such aggressive self-promotion? Isn’t that bad for the poet’s ego, or soul, not to mention poetry?
SUZANNE: What?! You mean….!? There are famous and acclaimed poets out there whose work falls short of remarkable?! I’m shocked.
Actually, you just forged ahead into the prickliest of terrains. Brave you. I think this: In today’s jam-packed poetry monde it sure does seem that a poet has to work awfully hard to be heard, or to make an impression. And without a doubt this means some marvelous poetry out there is escaping our attention. Emily Dickinson would not have fared well in today’s marketplace. And what’s sadder still, if some unknown genius like Dickinson left behind a thousand-something little compositions that had the power and originality to advance the art, they’d disappear without a trace. Publishers have a hard enough time selling poetry as is without taking on an unknown, unpublished dead poet. Who’d do the publication readings and signings, which is where most poets make their sales? But as for mediocre poets achieving tremendous recognition, this is not just a problem in our particular field. It’s a function of an unjust world, or maybe I should say a world that’s only fitfully, unpredictably, and all too rarely just. It’s no better in Hollywood, in the acting scene. And I don’t even want to think about what visual artists have to put up with. I feel each poet must find a way to come to grips with this fact, that success doesn’t always come only to those who seem most deserving, or one could go nuts. Or become embittered. And bitterness is the artist’s great enemy. It will destroy you.
BETH: Readings have become an expected part of a poet’s repertoire. You not only give readings, as a member of Nearly Fatal Women you’re involved in poetry performance. How important should readings be, do you think? And should we expect a reading by, say, a famous poet who commands big bucks to be engaging as performance, or is it enough to witness the poet presenting his or her poems?
SUZANNE: A famous poet who commands big bucks had better make a good faith effort to give the best reading he/she can deliver, or I will be quite annoyed. A few others might too. A good faith effort involves these two points of endeavor: 1) To serve the poem, to give the poem as honest, and affecting, an interpretation as one can. And for god’s sake, to try to remember why the hell one wrote the poem in the first place, because after multiple readings some poets seem to have forgotten. 2) To make a connection with the audience, to acknowledge and engage them as best one can.
BETH: Which for me includes not reciting poetry in Latin! What about poets who simple don’t read well?
SUZANNE: Most poets, even those who are naturally shy, do make an effort. And I think the audience appreciates the effort, even if the presentation falls short of electrifying. Poetry audiences tend to be very forgiving. On occasions, though, I’ve suffered through poets who get up in front of a group, then make no attempt to summon from themselves any life energy whatsoever. Those poets should just go home. Go home and lie down. They shouldn’t be exerting themselves by standing.
BETH: Most poetry books are sold at readings and signings, or rather because of them. And if you do a reading and nobody shows up, it’s still good to do, because your name gets in the bookstore’s newsletter and your book gets prominently displayed, often at the front of the store, placement the major publishers pay quite a bit for. Given that, do you think it’s irresponsible for a poet to not do readings?
SUZANNE: Not at all. It’s a break from the standard procedure, but if anything, that might be considered a rather bold position to take. I know you don’t like to read. No matter. Perhaps a whole mystique will spring up around you.
BETH: Don’t I wish.
SUZANNE: But I respect that you—oddly enough, more than certain other poets out there—are taking quite seriously the responsibility and choices involved with the whole area of the public presentation.
BETH: In my dream world, actors would actually present the poems for us.
Do you think that with the advances in desktop publishing, self-publishing will lose its stigma as “illegitimate”?
SUZANNE: Well, not exactly. We may be headed in the opposite direction. With the massive number of poetry books coming out, maybe soon nothing short of a HarperCollins or a Knopf publication will be considered legitimate. Even though the readership for poetry was far smaller in the 50’s, early 60’s, back then a book of poetry from a quality small press might have carried more weight than it does today. The one value of self-publishing that I can discern is that it enables you to get a body of work, in a palpable form, into the hands of various people, including publishers and other poets you admire. And that can make for some kind of beginning of something.
BETH: For me personally, it’s a matter of not letting the power players call the shots. After all, who are these big house editors? What really are their qualifications? Are they good poets, or even good editors? Says who? Many “famous” poets’ books published by big houses are not, in my judgment, or in the judgment of most of the people I know, necessarily worthy of big house prestige. Same goes for designer label journals. There are many, many journals equal in quality to Poetry and The New Yorker. And I mean no disrespect to the editors of those journals. It’s unfortunate that prestige is self-perpetuating in that the more poets try to get into those journals simply because they’re prestigious, the more those journals gain prestige. There’s nothing inherent in the journals that makes them truly superior to all the others, as every poet knows, yet poets still judge each other in part, sometimes in large part, by where they’ve been published. I worry about high-caliber poets—a few of my students, for instance—slipping through the cracks simply because they lack assertiveness or tenacity. I worry, too, that the all-American Pulitzer is only given to poets published by a select group of publishers. It’s as elitist and undemocratic as an award could be. Whitman and Dickinson must be rolling over in their graves.
SUZANNE: But for the poet to get anything out of self-publishing at all, the writing must be, as yours is, at a sophisticated level of development. We’ve all had people come up to us after a reading—usually someone who arrived noisily late and clearly has no intention of buying a book—and push little chapbooks into our hands. And the work is always…the work is always about the same, actually.
BETH: How has the internet changed poetry?
SUZANNE: Well it certainly gives poets another shot, a different sort of shot, at achieving visibility and making their work available to readers.
BETH: I know you have work online. Has that made a difference to your poetry career?
SUZANNE: I entered the internet world late, and reluctantly, about 2 ½ years ago. Sometime after my computer was installed I put a search on my name and not much came up, except for a lot of listings, dates of readings, etc. And I went, Shoot, I need a presence in this whatever-it-is, this cyber-web realm. So I went to work on that, and now if you put a search on my name you can find your way to a number of poems on some beautiful sites, including thedrunkenboat.org, cortlandreview.com, theroadlesstraveled.org, caffeinedestiny.com, and alsopreview.com.
All that won’t replace books, magazines, and quarterlies as once feared, unless we run out of trees. Online publishing is great fun, and it does expand a poet’s readership, but nothing feels so substantial and satisfying as a book one can open and close, and write dedications in.
BETH: Do you have a book in mind when you’re writing poems, or do you write discrete poems and then see how they might fit together?
SUZANNE: When I have something between 50-56 typewritten pages, I go “that’s my book.” Then I put any poems I write after that in a different binder, my next book. Right now I have one and a third yet-to-be-published books. I’m not a proponent of what some call the “seamless” book of poems. I am so not that. Subjects and environments and points of focus do recur, but at the same time I’m liable to be trying all kinds of things, style-wise. I did know the title for In Danger early on. I knew that from time to time I’d be returning to this touchstone, danger in its various manifestations.
BETH: What’s the poetry scene like in L.A.?
SUZANNE: I guess I can count on people visiting from elsewhere for an objective opinion on this. And time and again poets tell me the Los Angeles monde seems exceptionally warm and alive, with a spirit of affection and generosity among the poets, and a strong sense of community. However, I’m talking here about the poetry or literary world of L.A. as opposed to the spoken word/coffee house realm. I get the impression a lot of bickering goes on in that corner: weird, protracted feuds having to do with someone getting more time than someone else on open mic night. I once came upon a letter to an editor in a little magazine that described the spoken word scene in L.A. as the most contentious anywhere.
BETH: I was intrigued by your comment in class about L.A. poets being “rebel poets.”
SUZANNE: Did I actually say “rebel poets”? Well, that makes us sound…really, really interesting. I think I might have said a number of smart, well-schooled poets in L.A. actually have a sort of rebel stance, a kind of iconoclastic attitude toward the larger literary world, and maybe toward the world in general. And it’s not just a pose; it plays out in the writing in all kinds of unpredictable ways. These are not slam poets, youth culture poets, coffee house poets. They’re literary poets with a boldness, or energy, or a mischievous humor.
BETH: More so than elsewhere?
SUZANNE: I think so. And I can imagine possible cultural and geographic reasons for this. Historically, the New York literary world has ignored L.A., or openly scorned it, and it’s only in recent years that San Francisco’s become friendly, in large part because of Joyce Jenkins and Poetry Flash. So some poets here developed a certain brand of self-sufficiency, and a humor that can be both mocking and self-mocking—psychic survival tactics. They’ve influenced the poetry for the better. I think it’s for the better, anyway. And I sure do hear a lot of out-of-towners tell me, in a very favorable context, that there’s something indescribably different about the tenor of much L.A. based poetry.
BETH: You’d think that poets, at least, would be above regional snobbishness. Luckily, regardless of what the East Coast might think, California is quite obviously the home of many literary masters and many, many excellent poets of every school.
SUZANNE: And there are also East Coast people like David Lehman out in New York who are interested in good poetry wherever it comes from, so we don’t want to stereotype the East any more than we want them to stereotype us.
BETH: Good point. Suzanne, thank you for so generously offering insights into your art and process. I for one am eagerly looking forward to your next book.
SUZANNE: So am I. Thanks for helping to carry the burning torch.
Selected Poems from In Danger
In the end they’ll lie friendless,
tipped sideways, where
their pinhead hearts stopped.
But, today, out of secret flaws
in the wall, cracks in the master plan,
these blind followings
of instinct come out, low
eaters of what’s left behind.
Roaches, it is said, have emotions,
but which ones? No doubt
they’re only in awe for a moment,
then it’s back to those blunt
bare-handed needs: hunger
and thirst, peewee lust.
They have no memory or sense of time.
At night they think it has always
been night, that this is a dark planet
we live on, missing a sun.
By mid-morning it’s as if it’s been day
all night, the light always falling
like this to the kitchen floor.
And this is where you come in,
advanced species, up late
as usual and looking for a clean cup.
You are the one who can tell time,
who produces salt water
through ducts and glands,
who reacts to a ringing phone.
You enter and exit with big steps.
In the whole plump
you are lord of the opposable thumb
and contradictory idea.
You have a life span of 70 years,
time to waste, and these tiny
desires positioned just beyond
getting which must be
followed to the grave. Ah,
but yours will be marked.
You might get
a cherub gripping a sprig.
Graffiti—New York Subway
He began with words,
but the letters broke down.
He tried to wind them back up.
He tried to catch hold,
looping and circling.
He tried to change the whites
of these walls to blood
red and blood black, then ignite
this car, its passengers,
with nothing but pure emotion.
That’s never enough.
He made strings of holes,
then, a net;
things won’t escape.
It leaves an imprint on your
mind’s eye you can’t blink off.
the J train’s headed
for some private nightmare—
you missed your stop—
and the guy who scribbled
all this one night in a
fever of cast away
faith, or whatever
that is unraveling its
burnt ends, walks
somewhere with no
change in his pocket,
owning nothing but you.
2 a.m. and this caller’s hooked
on pure reaction, but death
is old news, not worth phoning in.
All night I hear sirens
get off to a start too
late to save anyone. I
disconnect, leave him
holding the receiver like
a handle that was just
torn off. Go out,
to your little table
with the crumpled napkins,
of shot glass ice, small,
small change. Sit
in the scent of women, the drift
of their cigarettes,
these lives unavailable, like
points of light who
drive past. Be
no one specific: the regular
who tips cheap, stays too late,
till the waitresses
wish he’d get off his ass and go.
It’s a crime story she’s in:
betrayal and larceny, few clues.
Someone stole what she lived for,
made off like a thief in the night
or high noon. What shall she do?
Put a heel on each foot and set out,
making a snapping sound as she steps.
The man she loves smiles
from the drugstore’s rack
of magazines, just in.
Looks like he’s wrapped his movie,
dropped his wife on a Frisian Island
and is flying his girlfriend to St. Tropez.
The men who love her finger coins
in the stale linings of their front
pockets and whimper What’s your name?
The job she wanted went
to the man who tells the truth
from one side of his mouth, lies
from the other: a bilingual.
The job she got lets her
answer the questioning phone all day.
Her disappointment has appetite,
gravity. Fall in, you’ll be crunched
and munched, stretched
thin as Fettuccine. Watch out for her,
this woman, there is more than one.
That woman with you, for instance,
checking herself in the mirror
to see where she stands—
she’s innocent so far, but someone
will disappoint her.
Even now you’re beginning to.
Even now you’re in danger.
across my window
with that sound we call chop
chop, then circles back. It’s
keeping the place under wraps,
winding, winding, in a sticky
thread, the bad and the good.
Seems someone used a gun
in a crime again, then
And last night cries
from the street, so
I looked out. But it was empty—
hell—just beat-down rain, bunkers
of concrete lodged like crude
ships that sank, and the bulb-lit
sign GOOD WILL.
But whenever I’ve been mugged
it wasn’t here—near
Fairfax once. The gun
against my head made a tiny
pricking sound like a watch,
or like a click
inside a watch, that pin
drop we can’t hear
between the tick
and the tock. It burnt
my imagination, woke it up.
But I’ve got stories worse
than that. Two assholes
dragged me off the street.
Like I’d have seem them
coming, right? But
I was checking my make-up
under a light.
What went down (this
rhymes) was not a pretty sight.
There’s things I can’t
tell, even in poetry, you
understand that? Anyway,
so what. A cool beam
sweeps into my room
then circles up.
But I was born in ’51, see,
that far back, and still
no cop’s had to trace
in dimestore chalk
the outline of my shape
where I stopped, leaned
because I’d spotted
my name in cement, Then
one knee, not
because I was searching
for something I’d lost.
not because I was praying.
not because I was suddenly
tired of all this.
Those steep raked steps
were stone and dropped
below the street. The white
dark down there
was clean. Strong armed
women heaved the lumps
of sheets. Hell
didn’t smoke, it steamed.
My mother took
my hand and coaxed, “What’s wrong?”
The streets smelled like sea
and garlic, potted blooms.
The windowsills were painted
red and blue. I loved
the surface world.
Down there, damp flesh and iron,
iron slabs. When cloth
was pressed it hissed. Shapes
of air burst up, so fierce,
so unrehearsed. Down there
muscled arms made clothes
too hot to wear. They’d make me
flat and lambent like the moon.
I dug in my feet, hung on,
but I was aimed, anyway, straight
toward the unknown. Who knew then?
My mother worried, “Susie,
what is wrong?” then took
the laundry down alone.
When in Doubt Have a Man Come Through
the Door with a Gun in His Hand
Raymond Chandler via Lawrence Raab
I’m in doubt, all right, let’s
lock the door, dear, lest
a gun come through in a hand
attached to some punk,
some goofball declaring it’s all
the fault of society. Or is it
you who comes through the door
shouting gibberish, how I
doubted your word,
how I pretended but never believed…
“Lies! Lies!” The syllable yelps
make me think of a man detached
from his ski party calling
for help, but now I’m not sure
who cries “Lies!” I had thought
it was you, but then why
am I framed in this doorway, this
stunned .22 in my hand
weeping a curl of smoke?
And who was it again I just
blasted straight out of this fiction,
this construct of lies? Dear,
if you’re still here fetch me
some aspirin and a stiff drink,
I have a headache. It’s not
the suspense that’s killing me,
it’s that existentialist doubt—
I got those unreality blues.
If only I could arrange
for the right man to come
through the door with a gun…or,
no, not a gun…a fruit
and cheese basket, singing
telegram? A package stuffed
with hard cash, laundered
and pressed with an iron?
I’m certain only of the door.
Yes, there is always
a door, in fairy tales the portal
to a different world. But here
its “knock knock” is the set-up
of an old joke, or the question
that might turn out to be loaded.
Or, like the sound of one
conferring with oneself, it might
just echo back