By Susan Chast
I’ve carried around for years
are more foreign to me now
New York Times.
are strangers to me now--
still I strive to sound
out their senses.
Greetings Garden Dwellers,
I am thrilled to share with you a conversation with Susan Chast. Susan and I had the opportunity to chat over the internet and by phone (wherein she helped me log into the Facebook account I didn't know I had...thanks again). Susan is a Real Toad member who just recently started her blog Susan’s Poetry (I would also suggest checking out her second blog Susan: continued for a deeper dive into what drives the poetry from her pen).
Luckily, Sherry Blue Sky did a wonderful interview with Susan at Poets United just a few months back. This allowed Susan and I to pick up where that piece left off. You do not need to read that interview to enjoy mine, however you will want to read it. I am not retreading on any of the questions or topics from that conversation: nothing but the freshest feasts for my toads.
Without further ado, let’s get to it.....
Izy: I want to start by congratulating you on publishing a poem this September in Nain Rouge. Was that your first poem to be published?
Susan: Yes. At least, yes, in this version of my life. In the early 1980s I did a few public readings at Women Center events and had 2 or 3 poems published in a feminist newspaper. Around the time of --and about the March on Washington when we surrounded the Pentagon--that kind of stuff Very Peace Movement. Those were the Years of the Women's Encampment for a Future of Peace and justice. I wonder if that's on Wikipedia.
Izy: Indeed, it is!!!! How was your poetry back then different from what you are producing now....
Susan: Instead of the Walt Whitman long line I wrote short phrases and the poem might spread like a forced entry, page after page with lots of repetition and one and two word lines
I think I may have one on my blog from then.
Izy: Susan's Poetry is a relatively new blog for you and I noticed that October has been your most prolific month yet....what is driving the high production?
Susan: I'm a workaholic in a new work environment? I'm excited to take the cork out that kept me a private person? I am finding that I get better at writing the more I write? All of the above? I am also taking a writing word shop now--three hours a week--in which I am working some poetry, but mostly a novel. I actually like all of the [online] prompts, but want to start weaning away a bit because of some unprompted things the prompts got me to. I really needed the encouragement of the Imaginary Garden in order to get Real. Being asked to become a member pushed that up a notch. And communing with other writers--especially poem to poem--has been exciting.
Izy: I wanted to ask about your novel. You mentioned it in your interview at Poet's United and at your second blog Susan: continued. Have you finished chapter 8, yet?
Susan: Yes. Chapter 8 and 9. They are short chapters. Mostly taken from my experience as performance artist in the mid 1990s. Mixed with feminist theatre from the early 1980s. I am thinking of putting some chapters on the blog but am afraid that it will effect publication. Also it's scary because I want to use some actual events. Like the chapter I am writing now is about unlearning racism from a racist incident in the theatre company.
Izy: I congratulate you again on moving forward. I swear, I keep just rewriting the same novel I finished seven years ago....My motto is "Polish until published"
Susan: Really?.....but what if you never finish polishing? Do you feel your writing is meant to convey a truth? I will never stop learning from my life, but when do I become less afraid of speaking what has remained unspoken? For me this is a serious issue because of several factors. None of which I have truly been truthful about in the Adrienne Rich sense--You know . . . "'Some Notes on Lying"?
Izy: I feel my writing it's meant to convey a gut reaction. Instincts and observation and perspective, I guess some would call that truth.
Susan: Yes. But it is not necessarily a need-to-be-public truth. I'm trying to work that out from my own life--What I know about unlearning racism. about fighting fighting and other violence. What I know about the paradox of needing to be straight to defend and support the non-straight especially when the ministry involves being a teacher in the University or in High School. And especially why both liberal and radical feminism are necessary and birthed the more "precise" and harder to fathom materialist feminist takeover of academia. I am not brave enough to tackle all of that. And after working with students year after year, think I ought to tackle it. Yet then there is the fact of Brian's experience as a target.
Izy: I am definitely picking up what you are putting down. When you sit down to write a poem, what is your intent or rather what is the purpose behind the pen? Do you draw upon a past experience or an abstract truth....
Susan: Sometimes it is thematic, and I free write "what I want to write about is . . . " until a way in realizes itself. Sometimes it is a line or an image that wants me to play with it until I find a groove . . . That's how my "end-line poems" work. And then, given one of those two possibilities--sometimes I challenge myself to a form which forces a series of rewrites and discoveries. I actually learned this from teaching Creative Writing.
Starting in 2005, in the high school classroom and in poetry club I began to realize that I enjoyed that honing, that unless I did it I was giving my students the wrong message about the role of form and freedom. I am very comfortable in the Whitman free verse, but that is not the only tool for making an impression or getting across a message. Then when I came to the Imaginary Garden, Kerry truly confirmed this for me. I like the haiku (Haiku Heights) and like the few times that I came to publish two versions for someone like Mama Zen who said hone it, hone it. I am still learning.
Izy:...sometimes we do need some prompting and challenging, but then sometimes, a good poem can just simmer out of you, as if it has been there all the while. What was the last piece you wrote that arrived that way?
Susan: I think "Sunshine"--but then, the prompt came from Theme Thursdays. So did I write it as a class assignment? Or did the class assignment open a bottle cap? "Not just for the young" but again, that was a Poets United prompt about wolves. "Past Lives" has been on my mind, I actually just found the little piece of the past and cackled about it and wrote the second stanza with glee.
Izy: What I have really admired in your work is a sense of ideal coexisting with the idea....are you searching for utopia?
Susan: Not really but I have been in a few settings (time and place) when I felt that the process was right for an attentiveness to human interaction that promised a more liveable kind of imperfection. I first was able to articulate this in my dissertation--unpublished--on Ellen Stewart and LaMaMa: Place of Performance and Performance of Place. Do you know them? Ellen and MaMa of Off-Off Broadway?
Ellen, for all her fire and tantrums, knew and was able to act on the continuing nature of revolution--it is never finally achieved. The door must remain open and then with each newcomer, the explanations and experience, the experiential nature of the reality had to be re-taught, open to change and rediscovery.
I had thought the women's centers could do that in the 1980s, but we got tired of continually renewing, we wanted the job to be done. I have felt the same way each time I had to get a new counselor--what? Start again? Explain all over? You can't really mean that! But that is indeed as Utopian--I believe--as we will ever get--to be open to the recurring cycle with the changes that each brings to it.
Izy: bit of a transitional question up next--an alien lands on earth and asks you what poetry is...which poem of yours would share with the visitor and why that poem?
Susan: A haiku called "Soul":
Spirit is climbing
up an evergreen mountain
It’s nothing too complex. Something that gives us a way to start conversing--I'd be so curious! Just an image, trying to be the most positive human I could be. Not to start by apologizing, which is my first instinct.
Izy: Next question--Heard any good jokes lately?
Susan: Let me think. I was just at a little conference on Quakers in the Arts--I am sure I heard jokes almost every minute. I am famous for not remembering jokes or gossip--never passing them on . . . .Nope. Nothing. I just remember intense joy at many moments.
Izy: Three things you never write about....
Susan: Hah! I laugh because it is a trick I learned in Scotland from a great writer/mentor to write down a secret. Then a real secret. Then decide which would be a more interesting topic of a book.
I never write about . . .Hate, really, especially the most personal disappointments wrapped in fear. I never write my current sexuality. I never write about my medications and their histories.
Izy: Any particular reason for the three?
Susan: I think I fear that deep of a vulnerability. Of the three, sex is the least personal, really. They are the three that people use as power-over-others, aren't they?
Izy: Agreed...I find it fascinating what each person holds sacred. You have that right as a human being and a poet. Sometimes holding them in gives them more protection and perhaps a little more power. Next question...when you read a newspaper, which do you read first: the horoscope or the obits (I'm an obit girl myself)
Susan: Ha ha--I'm still laughing. I don't read either. I read the arts and the front page--If I had to choose though, I'd turn to the obits. I am getting to the age when I am knowing more of the dead than about the dead. You're thinking of looking back or forward, aren't you?
Izy: Which book from your personal library should I read before I die?
Sherri Tepper's Grass
Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet
Guests of My Life by, by . . .Elizabeth Watson.
The Cloud of Unknowing, anonymous Christian Mysticism
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Woman and Nature: the roaring inside her by Susan Griffin
Anything by Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich
not necessarily in that order
Izy: ..I shall procure these titles at once, except for Whitman...I already have read Leaves of Grass. Last question: what are your four favorite words
Susan: Oh my. I wonder what a scan of my poetry would say? I love s-sounds, as in celery, survivor, listen, Peace love How awful to try to rank them! grass, breeze, celery, cellar, cell, sequel, consciousness, being, rest....I am a poet, can't stop finding favorites, ever.
**Once again, my personal thanks to Susan for being held under my scrutiny, ahem, company for two hours. We had so many wonderful conversations, not all of our dialogue could make it to the final cut. Viva la and onward!**