By Chris Opiela and Scott Van Pelt
Beginning in fall 2008, each semester's West Branch undergraduate interns will conduct an interview with a recent contributor of their choice. In the inaugural interview, West Branch interns Scott Van Pelt and Chris Opiela chose to interview Susan B. A. Somers-Willett, whose work appeared in West Branch 61, Fall/Winter 2007.
Somers-Willett is the author of two books of poetry, Quiver (VQR Series) and Roam (Crab Orchard Award Series), and a book of criticism, The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry. Her poems have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, and The Iowa Review, among other publications. Her honors include the Ann Stanford Poetry Prize and the Robert Frost Poetry Award, as well as fellowships from the Millay Colony and the Mellon Foundation.
For more information on Susan B. A. Somers-Willet, please see her website.
West Branch: One of the most admirable qualities of Roam is the compelling way in which many of its poems take on a persona. You seem to fully inhabit each persona you've taken on, whether it's that of a boxer's wife, Ophelia, or Jeanne d'Arc. How does inhabiting the voice of another person shape the poem you are writing? More specifically, how did the Jeanne d'Arcpoems evolve as a series?
Susan B. A. Somers-Willett: Inhabiting someone else’s voice is something I picked up from my experience with performing poetry in the national slam poetry circuit. There, I learned that to take a poem beyond mere recitation, I needed to inhabit a voice, make it three-dimensional, embody it from head to toe. Persona is a fantastic teaching tool for a beginning performance poet because it helps one go all out. The more outrageous that voice is, the more it can be removed from one’s own voice, and the less risky it seems. This is the case with “Ophelia’s Technicolor G-String,” which was one of the first poems I performed, and actually, one of the first poems I ever wrote in a serious fashion. Embodying the voice of Hamlet’s tragic mistress-cum-New Orleans drag queen was a voice so different from my own that I didn’t feel much personal risk in performing it from the start. (This initial feeling was a fiction, of course – the poem requires a great deal of personal vulnerability in performance.)
After Roam was published and I had some distance from its topics, I realized that I was using several personae to talk about issues that I didn’t feel comfortable talking about in the first person. For example, “Leaving the House of Minos” is written in the voice of Daedalus lamenting the death of his son, Icarus, but it is also the voice of my grandfather lamenting the loss of his son. The Jeanne D’Arc poems are about a young woman’s dissolving faith in a God who is her father figure, which was a way for me to lament and let go of my own father after his untimely death when I was nineteen. Those poems started with translated fragments from her heresy trial, and some of that language is quoted in those poems. But honestly, once I found that tender voice that wore a boy’s armor, the series took off, most likely because I had found an outlet for my own sense of lament and acceptance. I suspect my investment in persona is deeply psychological at its core – a way to speak myself without the messy hang-ups of self getting in the way.
WB — When working with "real" personae, such as Irina Visovkin in "Emptiness" or Jeanne D'Arc, it seems that you maintain an allegiance to the facts of their lives, even as you re-invent them through poetry. Do you find yourself taking creative liberties with mythological or literary characters, such as Daedalus or Ophelia, that you might not be willing to take with historical figures?
S-W — For the most part, no – in fact, I think it’s the other way around. In many ways, taking on a mythological character’s voice can be more limiting than a historical figure’s because the myth is already prescribed. With myth, we all know who marries whom, what tragedy befell the royal family, who dies in the end. Everyone knows that character’s story already and so the best you can do is put a different angle on it, to re-frame that story in a new way. With historical personae, you are also married to a certain amount of facts about the person’s life, but the rest of his or her life is also open to you in very tangible, real ways – flesh and bone kind of ways that differ from those of a character living only on the page.
In the case of Irina Visovkin, I know very little about her. I caught a snippet of a CNN story about her and her husband, the two remaining inhabitants of a remote Russian farming town. The story ended with Irina telling the reporter, “After us, there will be emptiness,” and then the reporter tossed to the next story. For me, that one sentence opened a door into her life: how she drew water from a well, how she fed and talked to foxes on her farm, how she prepared a chicken for dinner, how she had to bury her neighbor because there was no one else around to notice he had died. These details have little basis in the facts of that original story, but they could be very real parts of her life nonetheless.
That closeness between non-fiction and fiction is a unique aspect of speaking in a historical voice in poetry. I’ve always thought of non-fiction a little differently than most, I guess. I see it not as a prose genre, but as a mode of writing that spans generic boundaries and which has its most carefree life in verse.
WB — You distributed the six poem series of "Virginia Dare" poems throughout the first and second parts of your collection, but you arranged the Jeanne series as a unit, capping off the collection. Why the difference in arrangement?
S-W — I’ve gotten this question a lot, actually, and it’s a good question to ask. The Jeanne series always seemed like a complete unit, an account of her life in verse. So it made sense to me to present her journey in a linear way. I placed the series at the end of the book because it expressed the sense of freedom I had when moving on from my own grief. The last line of the book is, “Where I fly is limitless,” which is a way of saying she was free to accept what it was that came her way, ready to wander on to the mystery of what’s next.
The “Virginia Dare” poems, on the other hand, have had several incarnations. In the draft process, they started as discrete poems, but after working on them for several years, I arranged them as one long, sectioned poem – they were published that way in Borderlands. That worked for the journal, but when I was putting together the book, I realized that certain sections spoke to other poems in the manuscript; for example, a section on Virginia Dare learning to name things in for the first time in English segued nicely into a poem about Eve receiving her name from Adam. The best way to encourage the conversation between these poems was to split up the long poem into a series that spanned the book. This was the right choice, I think in the end, because those poems are ultimately about the making of America – how patchwork that process is.
In the end, I think this varied approach to the Virginia Dare poems reflects how I’ve come to understand poetry more generally. I think poems can have many different lives in different venues. Sometimes my poems will differ in text and performance quite a bit, or in the case of the Virginia Dare series, take on new forms in different print venues. For too long, we’ve treated the poem as this New Critical object – once its printed on the page, it’s forever this one thing. It’s like putting the poem in jail! I think poems can have incarnations across different media without having an authoritative version that is “official," and that flexibility is something I try to embrace if the poem demands it.
WB — Can you speak more on this idea of “incarnations” in your work? What are some of the consequences of a poem’s flexibility for both the poet’s and the readers’ or listeners’ experience of the poem?
S-W — I guess it’s just to say that I think some of my poems can have lives outside of the book, not just print but in other media, to their acclaim or to failure. “Ophelia’s Technicolor G-String,” for example, works well in performance, as do some other poems like “Notes for Living in NOLA” or “Who What When” that have specific cadences to their language. Others like “A Note on the Type” are more successful in print, and that’s OK too. I don’t think that we need to hold a poem to the same standards in print and performance. Why should we? We digest information differently when we hear it and when we read it, so why should we expect a poem that dazzles in performance to work as well on the page, and vice versa?
Print can convey visually what a performance often cannot: line breaks, form, visual rhymes, special orthography, leaps in cognition through spacing on the page. But in some instances, we can learn a lot about verse when we take it off the page too; some things that seemed facile or confusing in print come alive with the right performance. Each medium has possibilities and pitfalls.
Now don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of poets who want to work solely on the page, and that’s fine. I recently was talking to Dean Young about a poetry reading he had given, and he expressed utter misery at the task. His work was written for the page, he insisted, and so to him, the reading was a pale imitation of the poem-as-text. (I beg to differ with him on this point, however; I learned a lot about his poetry from the reading.) On the other hand, some poets’ writing takes a completely different tone and sound when it moves from text to performance – I’m thinking particularly about poets like Ilya Kaminsky, or Tracie Morris, or Regie Gibson, or Quincy Troupe. Their poems also have different lives across various media, and I think it’s fascinating to see how such work transforms itself across them.
WB — In an interview with Carbondale Nightlife, you said, "I still embrace the mantle of the Southern writer." In poems such as "Self-Portrait as Interstate 10" and "Dedications for a Birmingham Clinic", the Southern influence is clear. How does this "mantle" affect poems located outside the Southern geography?
S-W — I’m not sure if I can answer this definitively, since being a Southern writer can mean so many different things in different contexts. I’m not a native Southerner – I was born in Ohio – but I spent my formative years in New Orleans and definitely consider it my home town. Being raised in New Orleans has informed how I see and talk about race in particular; even as race-based disparities abound there, in other areas like food, music, and language, there is an unparalleled cross-cultural exchange. New Orleans culture is Creole culture; it is Spanish and African and French and Caribbean and American Indian. It is a confluence of heritages unlike any other in the world.
New Orleans culture is also music culture. I think that living in New Orleans taught me to celebrate and appreciate colloquial language, to pay attention to the musicality of talk. For example, New Orleanians say “ax” instead of “ask,” “dat” instead of “that,” “dis” instead of “this.” It may not be grammatical, but it’s certainly percussive – and although I don’t frequently write in dialect, I think my ear is always tuned to how I can play up the music of language in the way that these words do.
WB — What poets have had an impact on your poetry and performance? Are there any trends in poetry today that you find particularly exciting?
S-W — The first writers to really inspire me were feminist poets such as Adrienne Rich and Margaret Atwood. Both authors know how to be political without being didactic, a rare skill. I also admire authors who can strike a balance between narrative and music; Walt Whitman and Brigit Pegeen Kelly have definitely left a footprint on my writing. Anne Carson’s poetry has also been a big influence on me lately – she has this way of making weighty classical texts accessible and moving, and I admire the way she works across genres of writing. And then I’ve also learned a lot from being involved with the National Poetry Slam for the last dozen years; there are a host of authors coming out of that scene whose work ranges from sound experiment to straight-up hip-hop. The slam taught me a lot about music in language, and how to read an audience.
As for contemporary trends, there’s just so much going on in poetry today, which is a challenge to one’s sensibilities and a good thing. I try to read broadly across the spectrum from formal to experimental. I’m also dedicated to listening to poetry and seeing it performed, because for me, the poem can be so much more than its printed text. So I think what’s happening in spoken word is just as relevant as avant-garde poetry. Still, there’s a point at which one has to acknowledge that trends are exactly that – trends. I see a lot of young authors get wrapped up in the ebb and flow of what’s stylish at the time rather than what’s right for the poem at hand, and that’s a shame, really, because poetry is a true smorgasbord of voice and form. The beauty of being a poet is that you can pick and choose traditions, try on the feathers of each voice in the hope that the bird that is the poem will sing.
WB — On your website, a description of your new book, “Quiver,” states that the poems seek “to reconcile the empirical truths of science with the emotional truths of human experience.” What was the journey like as you explored the shared boundaries of science and human experience?
S-W — I’ve always been fascinated by science. I wanted to become a cell biologist at one point in my life; I entered college as a biology major and left a poet. What attracted me to the sciences is that, at its heart, science is about discovery – seeking out the unknown, trying to make sense of the mysteries of the world. In this regard, poetry and science aren’t that different; both the scientific process and the writing process are about close investigation, testing the boundaries of one’s imagination, the possibilities of trial and error.
What I wanted to explore with the poems in Quiver is this tension that I felt between these hard facts of science with the things I that I knew had no empirical proof. I know I love my husband and daughter, for example, but there’s not really a scientific vocabulary to describe the wonder and power that that emotion inspires. The book was quite a journey for me, because I had to do a bunch of reading in theoretical physics and mathematics that were new to me. I learned some fascinating things on the way; for example, the word “quiver” means to shake violently, or is a container for arrows, but it also is the name of a mathematical graph in which everything connects and diagram used in string theory used to imagine things in alternate dimensions.
I also wanted to explore science as a subjective process rather than the realm of absolute fact. Sure, we are all subject to the law of gravity and the process of evolution, but we often forget that those laws and theories started with how Newton and Darwin came to imagine the world as we know it. These scientific ideas connect us just as the idea of love does, and so throughout the book, there is this question of how our present scientific mysteries for which we are still gathering proof – M-theory, dark matter, genetics, the Big Bang – will connect us in ways we can’t even imagine now. The book opens with the question of how to find proof for love, and it ends with the affirmation that we will always be asking this delicious question. That is a circular response, I know, but in writing the book I discovered how delightful it was to ask the question of why and how we are all connected, even as I didn’t necessarily discover a set of answers.