SUSAN LEWIS lives in New York City and edits Posit (www.positjournal.com). She is the author of This Visit (BlazeVOX [books], forthcoming 2014), How to be Another (Červená Barva Press, 2014), State of the Union (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2013), The Following Message (White Knuckle Press, 2013), At Times Your Lines (Argotist Ebooks, 2012), Some Assembly Required (Dancing Girl Press, 2011), Commodity Fetishism, winner of the 2009 Červená Barva Press Chapbook Award, and Animal Husbandry (Finishing Line Press, 2008). Her Pushcart Prize-nominated work has been performed on stage and in concert halls such as Carnegie’s Weill Hall and the Kennedy Center, and published in a great number of journals and anthologies, such as Berkeley Poetry Review, BlazeVOX, The Brooklyn Rail, Cimarron Review, Fact-Simile, The Journal, The New Orleans Review, Otoliths, Phoebe, Raritan, Seneca Review, Truck, Verse (online), and Verse Daily. Susan received her BA and JD from the University of California, Berkeley, and her MFA in Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence College.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The validation/legitimacy of getting the first chapbook published meant a lot to me – the acceptance was a big deal. The release of the actual chapbook was a bit of an anticlimax. Such a slim pamphlet after all those years of struggle?!
Since then, my poetry has evolved towards greater abstraction/fragmentation. I seem to be able to tolerate fewer words, and greater leaps.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Actually, I came to fiction first – I got my MFA in fiction. I feared & avoided trying my hand at poetry, because I considered it, by definition, somehow exalted. I actually broke the ice by writing text for a composer with whom I’ve repeatedly collaborated, Jonathan Golove at SUNY,Buffalo. Later, after dipping my toe into lyric, I concentrated on prose poetry, including highly narrative parable-like entities – utilizing, if substantially re-figuring, certain elements of fiction writing. Nor have I officially turned my back on the short story, a form I truly love to read & write, although I haven’t written one for quite some time.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I start most poems with a faux-breezy attitude – to fake out my own inner skeptic. I tell myself I’m not necessarily writing a new poem, just playing around, trying something out. I don’t really need the trick so much anymore, but I like to bring lightness into the generative, blank screen stage. It helps me come up with material I don’t expect. Often my poems start with opening lines, which I “hear” in my head. Only by writing them will they lead me forward to another & the next.
I tend to produce in creative bursts, which might last minutes, hours, or days. I’ll generate a lot of new material, which I resist refining until the burst has petered out. Then I’ll re-work & re-imagine the new pieces for weeks or months. I have no idea why some pieces emerge so much more like their final versions than others – nor do I know which are “better.”
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Often I think of structural or definitional principles which lend themselves to series – then I work on those, trying to mine their potential. Rarely is a series book-length, though. So then I look at multiple series I’ve generated, for unifying principles or aesthetics which make them cohere into a book.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Although I’ve never had any craving for the limelight, I turn out to love giving readings, much to my own surprise. There’s a certain vitality to the stretching of my self-image required by such public expression. My temperament has always been half-sociable, half-reclusive, so giving readings taps into the people-person side of my personality.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I’m doubtful about received ideas – let alone answers – with regard to the human condition, poetry, language… So I think & write towards questions, & reconfigurations. The toolbox this mindset inevitably sends me to includes irony, fragmentation, distanciation, disequilibrium, ellipsis – poetic praxis that eschews pronouncement for inquiry & other reader-inclusive challenges. At the same time, I place a huge value on intuition, empathy, & emotion. My work, I think, is not really dispassionate or cool. That these two tendencies are in tension creates, I hope, another source of energy & interest.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Our world is increasingly, mind-bogglingly specialized. Practitioners in every field of human endeavor swim, more or less, in their own specialized ponds — poets no less than anyone else. This is painful, but I don’t think it’s unique to our endeavor. What might, perhaps, make it a tad more awkward for us is the expectation that poetry is part of humankind’s cultural patriarchy – of general, even universal interest – like the work of Whitman, Frost, or Dickenson. I think we need to get over ourselves & our romanticized view of poetry’s past & get on with making our best work, for whoever might or might not end up reading it.
As for our role as writers: I think it’s to be as honest & probing & brave & creative as we can. It’s to make work no one can possibly know has value until we imagine it into being.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I haven’t had many editors engage with the shaping of my work itself (as opposed to the business of making the books). But when I have, I’ve loved it! As an editor, I’m always trying to intuit when a talented author might be interested in my aesthetic feedback -- & I’ve had some wonderful experiences with a few who have taken me up on that. I guess it’s like being the kind of parent you wanted for yourself!
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Throw away the first 30% of most pieces, which you may have needed in order to write the rest, but which the reader does not. I don’t really know who to thank for this one, but it’s useful for forcing the proper detachment from my own creations.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
It is actually, unfortunately, quite difficult for me to switch genres. In this respect, I feel a bit like those Method actors who can’t break character for the duration of a particular part. If I’m writing poetry, I tend to be more comfortable sticking to that mode of thought, which is so unlike the kind of thinking I need to do in order to write fiction, or essays.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t really have routines or rituals. I suppose I start most days with physical chores! Then I take a walk with my dog, & hopefully start thinking a bit. After I do a respectable amount of what I consider my “duties”—which might involve my editorial responsibilities, or anything else I feel I should be doing — I’ll give myself permission to “indulge” in my own writing.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When I’m stalled, I’ll either turn outward, to the world – & take a long walk, or gaze (in either an urban or a natural landscape) – or turn to literature — to exemplary versions of whatever form I’m struggling with.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Night-blooming jasmine, which grew outside the exterior door to my bedroom in Los Angeles, when I was growing up. My teenage friends & boyfriends often came & went by that door. That particular fragrance, wafting in when the door was opened, bookended my love & social life.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
As I mentioned before, nature feeds my creativity. The natural world makes it easiest for me to hear my own verbal formulations, & follow their sounds & rhythms. I’m lucky enough to have a house in the Catskill Mountains, on a very rugged mountain-top – & I do a lot of writing when I’m there.
Visual art is quite generative for my writing as well. And science. I shamelessly read cosmology & quantum theory that is miles above my head. Not music, though – I can’t hear my own words when I’m listening to something else. Although I used to write fiction to music. I don’t know if I still could.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
To inspire & inform my own poetry, I go back again & again to Celan, Borges, Cortazar, Kafka, Ashbery, Michael Palmer, Rae Armantrout, Bin Ramke, Joshua Clover… To feed my inner life I return to Jose Saramago, James Joyce, J.M. Coetzee, Jim Crace, C.S. Nooteboom, Dostoyesky, Chekhov, Kawabata, Woolf, Gordimer, Lydia Davis, Duras, Dickenson, Graham, Carson…
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’ve done collaborative work with a visual artist and a composer, but I’ve never collaborated with another poet. I find the idea a bit intimidating --so I’d like to try it!
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Although I started my adult life as a public interest lawyer, it was not a good fit. As a young person – & a feminist -- I was under the impression that law would be an excellent tool for concrete engagement in social justice. It turned out that no matter how sympatico my clients might be, I would still have to practice law on their behalf – a type of thinking (& interacting) of which I’m neither enamored nor particularly well-suited.
What I might better have done, & suspect I would have very much enjoyed, was pursue academia. As an undergraduate I studied under a brilliant literary theorist, Anne Middleton, and a brilliant rhetorician and film theorist, Seymour Chapman, both of whom were ready, willing & able to take me under their wings. Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready to consider such a path – I told myself it would have been a retreat from “real” issues, to the “ivory tower.” I don’t see it that way at all, now.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I started writing poetry when I was a very small child, six years old or so. I read a book of haiku & that was that. I then spent most of my childhood reading voraciously – real literature, not kids’ stuff. As a very thoughtful & observant child, I was not only educated by great literature, but fed in my natural tendencies. This was enhanced by two factors. In addition to being rather sickly, I spent a large chunk of every year, regardless of school schedules, traveling the world with my film-producer parents (relegating much of my “formal” education to independent study). So I’ve always read & I’ve always written – except for the seven or eight years of college, law school, & my early legal career.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
For such a small word, “great” packs such a big punch! I just re-re-read Crime and Punishment. It’s as rich as life itself: every time I read it, I see it from a different perspective. I also just re-re-experienced Fellini’s 8 ½. It may be about a bygone era, but it is not dated -- it’s his Portrait of the Artist as an Aging Man. Less iconic but no less extraordinary books & films I’ve been thrilled by, recently, include Bin Ramke’s Tendril, Rae Armantrout’s Versed, Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories; Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place, & Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m just starting a new collection. I don’t know yet what will unify it. As always, I’m a bit torn between an interest in veering towards experimental fiction, & a desire to take my poetry further from narrative. It wouldn’t surprise me if what I’m working on ends up in two books. But for now, they’re in the embryonic stage!