Interview with Su Smallen,
Author of Buddha, Proof
Interviewed by Kallie Falandays
In the preface to Buddha, Proof, you talk about how the Buddha probably doesn't mind your playfulness. If the Buddha read your book, what do you think he'd say?
I hope Buddha would laugh, or at least smile, and then tell me some stories.
Are you a practicing Buddhist or are you drawn to Buddhist ways? If so, what does your practice include?
It took me about twenty-five years of writing poetry before I would call myself a poet. I have a ways to go yet before I would call myself a Buddhist. I meditate, read and think about Buddhist texts, and try to integrate all this in my daily doings. But that sentence, although true, sounds more perfect than what is in practice.
When did you first start exploring Buddhism?
I don't remember exactly, perhaps in my late twenties. When I started reading works by Buddhist authors, much resonated with what I already had absorbed from my training as a dancer. My teachers Cathy Ward and Erick Hawkins, for example, were greatly influenced by Asian culture. Dance is meditation on breath and movement, space and time, and is kindred with Buddhism in myriads of ways.
Who are five of your favorite contemporary poets?
I can't choose favorites. Here are the contemporary poets whose books currently top the pile by my reading chair: Deborah Keenan, Sophie Cabot Black, Anne Carson, Tom Hennen, Kathleen Pierce, Jim Moore, Jean Valentine, John Yau.
In each of the poems in Buddha, Proof, you imagine the Buddha in many situations. What are some situations that you do not, or cannot, imagine the Buddha in?
As I was writing, I felt like my limited imagination was the limiting factor, not Buddha. I think this is still true.
If the Buddha came to your birthday party, what would be the first thing you'd say to him?
This question is so funny! I have no idea how to answer it, but it makes me laugh every time I try.
In your poem "Buddha, Barbie," we are left with a striking image of the Buddha snapping and unsnapping Barbie's purse--emptying it and filling it with blades of grass. Where did this image come from? How did this poem start?
First, Deborah Keenan gave me a mandala created by Jesse Gordon and Natasha Tibbott. It was called "What We Use to Learn about Ourselves" and included Buddha and aerobics. Meanwhile, my friend Holly Harden was writing poems about Barbie and her metaphysical contemplations, so it seemed natural to me that if Buddha was going to take aerobics, it would definitely be taught by Barbie. The purse comes from my memory of playing with my friends' Barbie dolls and sewing things for them. This was in the days before velcro, so closures had to be fastened with metal snaps and these were out of proportion, ridiculously so from Barbie's point of view. Then the poem took off. It wasn't until years after writing the poem that I realized that Buddha filling and emptying the purse came from Eeyore putting in and taking out his burst balloon from his birthday jar, gifts from Pooh and Piglet.
What is your writing process like? Do you have to be in a certain place or state of mind to write?
My writing process is haphazard. My work week is demanding, so I tend to read during the week and write on the weekend. I handwrite first drafts, type second drafts, write on those, going back and forth between pen and keyboard. Place isn't as important as peace--I need quiet, so this usually means I write at home.
My favorite poem is "Buddha, Cheerios." What is your favorite poem in the Buddha, Proof book?
I'm so glad you like "Buddha, Cheerios." I think right now it is my favorite too, but it's hard to choose one over another - each one holds something special for me. So I'm always relieved whenever the poems resonate with others also.
What is the next project that you're working on?
I have a poetry collection called Wild Hush coming out in February with Red Bird Chapbooks. And I have two books of poetry and a chapbook making the rounds looking for publishers. I'm currently working on expanding that unpublished chapbook into a full-length book.
How did you go from dance instructor to editor? Can you talk a little bit about that process?
Well, I never was a dance instructor, except during one ill-fated community ed gig. I danced and choreographed professionally for ten years in Minneapolis, and I supported myself working as an editor in numerous temporary jobs, putting my English major to use. I incorporated text in my choreography so, when I became injured in a car accident, I decided to explore poetry as a replacement creative outlet. The first writing class I took was entirely engaging and I've been hooked ever since.
What is the title of the last poem you wrote?
What is a day-in-the-life like for you? What do you do on any given Tuesday? How do you relax?
I have two big part-time jobs--editing and directing a college writing center--in two cities, 50 miles apart. So I work a lot and drive a lot. I intended this patchwork to be temporary but I'm in year eight of my two-year plan. Saturdays are my day off. Every Saturday morning I take dance class, which is enlivening and joyful, and afterward a group of us, "the Klatch," goes to lunch and we talk and laugh for a couple hours.
Where do you see your work in 5 years?
I hope my poems continue to find their readers. I hope I become a better writer.