An Interview with Susan Stewart

Victoria Chang

Susan StewartVictoria Chang: Your book Cinder: New and Selected Poems was published by Graywolf in 2017. Can you talk about how you put this book together, how you selected the poems in the book, and also the order (with the new poems in the front in a sort of reverse chronology)?

Susan Stewart: Each of my previous books was structured around a set of ideas and, often, a pattern of historical allusions. The Forest was made by drafting the poems, then throwing them out and rewriting them from memory, supplemented with commentaries. I was heavily influenced by the psychoanalytic theories of Nicolas Abraham and Mária Török on generational haunting and wanted to write a book about the world before my birth—the world I knew only through the language of legends and stories. I needed to find a way of working that would make time material. Columbarium is an alphabet of (uncertain) georgics surrounded by odes to the elements. There I relied on classical works and genres and tried to invent new forms that would arise from the poems’ individual concerns. With Red Rover I wanted to explore the patterns, beliefs, and social life beneath the surface of everyday existence, particularly the continuity of themes of love and war (Venus and Mars). I used children’s games and their roots in medieval lyrics and dream visions, works that I felt were as concerned with the invisible as the visible.

All of this is just to say that I never thought I would put together a “new and selected” or collected volume because my books were designed to work as wholes. But I began to realize that my life in poetry had a certain arc and that late poems echoed or responded to earlier poems. I became interested in revisiting and reimagining certain preoccupations and looking at my work as a continuity. I always had hoped to grow as a poet/maker and I was wary of my earliest work, which is lyrical to the point of being surreal—and often naive, often overwritten—but I looked for early pieces that seemed to me deeply felt and serious in intent. Moving back in time takes the reader, as it took me, to “the seed.”

VC: What was the process like in working with Graywolf on your New and Selected?

SS: Poets in our country have only a few presses available to them, whether the venues are “commercial,” academic, or independent. I have been very fortunate to work with devoted and thoughtful editors of poetry at the University of Chicago Press, which publishes my prose works, too, and now with Jeff Shotts at Graywolf. Graywolf is a remarkable, intensely literary, milieu and everyone who works there strikes me as completely dedicated. It has been inspiring to publish with them.

VC: So did Graywolf contact you with the idea of putting a book like this together? And how did it feel to see all of your life work in poetry together in a collection?

SS: I recently wrote an essay about translations of Leopardi’s masterpiece “L’infinito” for another Graywolf book—Into English, edited by Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer, a study of translations that is appearing now. In the course of conversations about that essay and some other reading and commenting I was doing for Graywolf’s poetry series, Jeff Shotts asked me if I’d ever like to work with Graywolf as a publisher of my own poetry. It was then that our conversations arose for a “new and selected.” It’s hard to describe all the feelings the final project evoked: certainly a feeling of arriving at a late age, but also a sense of how fortunate I have been to have had a life in poetry and of the many teachers, friends, and loved ones who created the conditions that made that possible. Yet the book also turned me happily toward the future and new projects—I haven’t felt it is my last word!

VC: Your poems throughout Cinder are very finely made syntactically and in their construction and imagery—really forcing the reader to slow down and even re-read poems. How do you construct your lines?

SS: I construct my lines metrically even if that might not be obvious in their final forms. I hear poems as rhythms—beats—not as sentences. I most often begin with a strong sense of hymn meter when a poem feels like a song and iambic pentameter when it feels more spoken or discursive. From there I whittle down or build up and search for a stanza form and often a relation between speaking and singing emerges regardless of the beginning draft. As the concern, object, or subject of the voice becomes clearer, I start to work on the final form. I often work on very large sheets of paper so that I can look at many versions of a poem at once. I write by hand, then type, then write by hand again, and keep going back and forth between mediums, reading aloud and revising.

VC: Do you ever share your poems with trusted readers at any point during this process?

SS: I did this more when I was younger, and I still often read poems in process by a few friends. It is more likely that we will send each other completed poems as gifts from time to time. I also work with visual artists and composers on specific projects—most recently “Channel” and “Mirror,” long poems that were part of an installation by Ann Hamilton and song cycles with the composers James Primosch and Ben Goldberg. Working with others involves considerable revision and adjustment all around. When I publish the poems on the page, as I did with “Channel” in the Paris Review, I can adapt them in other ways.

VC: Nature, memory, time, history, are just some of the areas of exploration in your poems. In particular, there seems to be an intense relationship between the speakers in these poems and animals. The poem “Slaughter,” for example, and “Letter Full of Blue Dresses,” where animals such as crows are dying and the speaker writes: “I have never felt / so lost as I did that morning.” Can you talk about your relationship with nature and specifically animals and how that relationship manifests itself in your poems?

SS: My relationship with nature is the most important aspect of my work—it is where I can extend my thinking to intuitions of the noumenal and go beyond what I know and feel in the present. To my mind poetry is an art practice that does not create objects alone—perhaps uniquely, it is a living art. Poems are drawn not only from our thought, but as well from our senses, from the pulse of our hearts, the rush and wildness and inner calm that our physical being gives us. All of our metaphors ultimately come from nature, and poems are a fundamental means of communicating with other living persons and with the dead. I believe that poetic making is also deeply bound up with our experience of bird song and the “music” we hear in the wind, the rustling of leaves, the communication between animals, including their communication with us, and the silences that punctuate those sounds. If we no longer can hear these rhythms and forms, our poetry will turn to mere information.

VC: I love what you say here about poem-making being “deeply bound up with our experience of bird song and the ‘music’ we hear in the wind,” and this idea of poetry being a “living art.” Where do these ideas come from? Childhood? Readings?

SS: Yes, childhood and everyday experience; a lifetime of listening, walking, and listening to poems—on the page as well.

VC: I’m particularly interested in aphorisms and I noticed that many of your poems have moments of aphorism, whether it’s within poems or particularly near the ending or at the ending of your poems. One example is in Cinder: “we needed stars / to find our way, to make / the light that blurred the stars.” Can you talk about that impulse to make aphoristic lines such as this?

SS: I never begin with a desire to write an aphorism; I am much too full of doubt and skepticism, including plenty of self-doubt and self-skepticism, to be that kind of writer. But I find I sometimes—sometimes often!—will “land” on an aphorism or statement. I try then to question it, to juxtapose it to something that will test it, if not in the work at hand, then in a later poem in a volume. In every culture there’s a relationship between riddles and proverbs and I try to turn my proverbs back into riddles. I always hope to have a process of discovery unfold in the writing of poems—a process that will then be carried over to the reader. I find writing poems to be a means of uncovering truths, including the indelible love of truth that drives us to write in the first place.

VC: Your poems certainly feel this way to me as a reader—they are so finely crafted, yet imaginative and flexible in how they wind and wend—it’s an interesting balance that you have achieved. I very much admire this about your poems and poems in general—this desire to question and to always uncover truths, yet always continuing to question them. Are there any poets writing today that you admire (ones that do this or others?)

SS: I admire many living poets—too many to try to name all of them, for I am sure I would leave out someone who should be mentioned first and at my age I have been fortunate to have had opportunities to meet almost every writer I revere. I have a number of Italian poet friends, including poets I have translated—Milo De Angelis, Patrizia Cavalli, and Antonella Anedda—and I have been especially close to my fellow Americans Susan Howe, Eleanor Wilner, and John Koethe for many decades, as well as the Canadian poet/philosopher Jan Zwicky, the Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis, and the Australians John Kinsella and Robert Gray. John Ashbery and the late Allen Grossman and Mark Strand encouraged and nurtured my writing, each in his own way, over many years. I was lucky to go to graduate school with Ed Hirsch, who is one of my oldest friends in poetry. There is a particular depth that comes from intersection: we poets who are contemporaries, whose lives and work are coterminous over several generations, are obliged to one another, and affected by one another, via more connections than we can ever fully grasp.

My sense of a poetry that moves dialectically, through self-questioning, also has come from a greater distance: from Sidney, Shakespeare, Herbert, and Donne, from Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats, from the great Modernist projects of Hardy, Eliot, Yeats, and Pound, from Auden and Duncan and Bishop. It is not that I would want to write poems that necessarily would be like theirs, but I believe it is possible to emulate a way of working and thinking, a kind of dedication to making poems over time. I have friends who are members of groups or schools of poetry, yet I have always wanted to work in a more solitary and open way, with a vivid relation to the poetry of the past.

VC: How would you say your poems have evolved over time? Has your writing process changed?

SS: My life has been shaped since childhood by a need/calling to write poems and I also have had to make a living—I’ve been extremely lucky to be able to find my way by teaching the history of poetry. For almost forty years I have taught poetry, fiction, and philosophy in English, and I have had many opportunities to learn about poetic traditions in other languages as well. All of that has shaped what I can and might do as a poet. As a young writer, I was much more at the mercy of my (limited!) experience, but as I have aged, my imagination has had more free reign with every year.

VC: Did anyone in your family or teachers introduce you to poetry? Or did it just find you?

SS: I grew up in a large family with several wonderful storytellers and amateur musicians. My parents read and sang to me a great deal when I was very young. I wrote my first poems when I was a small girl and my mother embroidered them on pieces of linen and framed them for my room—I have an obligation to mention this, for what child wouldn’t be thrilled to see her rhymes magically appear in colored threads on a white cloth?

And from second grade forward, several of the teachers in my public schools read poetry with us and encouraged us to memorize poems—by Rossetti, Blake, Dickinson, Tennyson, Shakespeare, Yeats, Thomas, and Frost. I spent part of every week with my extended family in the Pennsylvania countryside in an area that was still, for better and worse, very much continuous with the nineteenth century. We read Paradise Lost in my Presbyterian Sunday school class because a local college student was a substitute teacher and thought it might be more interesting than the usual texts. Milton had a great impact on me, as did the Protestant hymns and King James Bible that were always present. My high school and college teachers were not poets themselves, but they introduced me to the history of English and French poetry and encouraged my writing.

VC: How has your work as a critic shaped your writing, if at all? Writing or even editing?

SS: My work as a poet shapes my criticism more than vice versa. I use my critical work as a kind of notebook or laboratory for concerns in aesthetics and history that underlie what I’m writing in poems. It is not a completely rational connection, but I find I alternate books of poems and books of criticism and each nourishes the other. I’ve only recently begun working as an editor as I’ve taken on directing the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. It’s been a great pleasure to learn more about what young poets are doing and I enjoy building a series that is eclectic and, I hope, suggestive of new possibilities. Meanwhile, I like to collaborate and make new work with others. Doing so involves a great deal of trust.

VC: How do you select the books to publish for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets?

SS: I decided to have an open “window” for submission of manuscripts to the series throughout the month of May each year. At the beginning of June, I pack up all of the submissions and spend another month or two reading them closely and thinking about the relations between the strongest volumes and the work I’ve published thus far. I can accept two books a year, and I try to find pairs of books that will enrich the series and expand its scope.

VC: How has being a critic affected your views or relationship with the greater poetry community?

SS: I don’t usually write criticism about living poets or peers unless there is a larger issue I would like to explore by writing about contemporary work. Poetry reviewing is an important task and it needs to be done by professionals—not necessarily by those who have a personal or social connection with the writer. There are also only so many hours in the day. Although I often have written about poets, living and dead, whose work I believe should be better known, most of my prose writing is scholarship and shaped by some historical or aesthetic issue.

VC: How has art influenced your writing process and your poems?

SS: Visual art is a vital part of my life and of the life of my children, from whom I always am learning more about art and architecture; it’s hard to know where to begin to answer this question. I have had only some elementary training in the visual arts (drawing, painting, print-making, and ceramics), but I studied art history as an undergraduate and taught a graduate summer seminar in art and aesthetics in Rome for more than ten years. Now I am an associate member of my university’s art history department and I often write about contemporary art and continue to teach the art of the past. Understanding the intentions, techniques, and consequences of the work of visual artists and knowing about the history of art, including the history of art history, affects the way I go about my work and imagine its possibilities. When I’ve collaborated with visual artists, as in the work I made last year with Ann Hamilton or the teaching I’ve done with my colleague Eve Aschheim, the experience has led to changes in my sense of what reading and writing might do.

VC: When I read your poems and read other books being published today, it seems like your poems resist, whether consciously or not, a first-person narrative. While this doesn’t mean that the reader doesn’t sense what the speaker thinks and the movement of the mind, this resistance is quite palpable throughout Cinder. What are your thoughts on this?

SS: I would like my readers to be engaged by my poems, not by my person. As Allen Grossman used to say, and wrote in his poem “Not all wanderers are lost”: “Do not remember me; remember what I remember.” I try to be careful about how many readings and “appearances” I make, for my privacy and opportunities for solitary work are precious to me. If the reader can follow the movement of the poem’s thinking and music and in turn bring his or her own thought and pleasure to how the poem unfolds, the whole enterprise seems worthwhile. And if my poems and books can be reread over time, that’s certainly something like tricking mortality!

VC: A hot topic these days is how much social media has shaped and/or changed the poetry community in terms of who gets to participate, how poetry is received, et cetera. What are your views on this (if you have any)?

SS: I know very little about social media. I’ve never used Facebook, and since November I resent how much attention I feel obliged as a citizen to give to the bombardment of online news. Meanwhile, I have a great fear that conversation, one of the most beautiful and enriching parts of everyday life, is going to disappear. My views on this topic are those of a Luddite and no doubt not very interesting to anyone who finds this a “hot topic,” but I am sorry to see our powers of judgment and discernment reduced to “likes” and our engagement with others limited to what can be encompassed on a very small screen. But I do find e-mail is good for correspondence—especially with those who are far away and hard to visit in person.

VC: Are you working on any poems currently? Or are you working on critical work?

SS: Yes, I am always working on poems. I work very slowly and much of what I make doesn’t end up “a keeper.” I finished my long poem, “Channel,” while Cinder was in press, and it will be part of a new book that will take me another few years to complete. I have written a new soprano song cycle, “A Sibyl,” over the past few years with the composer James Primosch. It had its premier in Boston in October. I just have drafted, with my co-translator Patrizio Ceccagnoli, a translation of Milo De Angelis’s latest book, Incontri e agguati (Encounters and Ambushes). And I am reaching the end of a long-term scholarly project about representations of ruins in western culture. After that, I have agreed to give a series of four lectures on poetry at Oxford in the fall of 2020, so things are hopping.

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