Interview With Susan Lewis
Interview by Kristina Marie Darling
Kristina Marie Darling: Your newest collection, This Visit, was recently released byBlazeVOX Books. What would you like readers to know before they dive in?
Susan Lewis: This Visit is a four-part investigation in couplets into subjectivity, ephemerality, and above all mortality (as the title suggests). The sections are intended to bounce off of, as well asecho, one another. The first offers a series of poems titled “My Life in . . .” (Dogs, Sheets, etc.) which play with plasticity and porosity of identity/identification. Section two contains another series of what I think of as abstract epistolary poems (Dear Tomorrow, Dear Subjectivity, etc.). The poems in the third section are the most lyric of the lot, written in orderly, left-aligned couplets. The fourth offers meditative experimentswhose leaps and non-linear connections are evoked by the space (and breath) incorporated into their more open and irregulartextures.
KMD: I admire the ways your poems use sound to forge connections between ideas and images within the text. In many ways, you make the reader question their fixation on the semantic meaning of words, and ask them to hear instead the music inherent in everyday speech. What does sound make possible for you within a poem, and within a narrative?
SL: You are quite right about my interest in challenging readers’ expectation of transparency from verbal artifacts – a function, no doubt, of language’s ubiquity and utility. Forefronting the sound of words – in conjunction and counterpoint with their meaning – is one way to bring them to the reader’s attention as the aesthetic material of this art form. The music of language is also a way to awaken the reader’s attention to unexpected, hopefully resonant connections. The dance between sensual effects and “meaning”can generate a lot of energy.
KMD: Your new collection, This Visit, is formally distinct from your previous books, State of the Union and How To Be Another. You've shifted gracefully from prose forms to lineated verse. What unique opportunities does lineated verse offer for the writer?
SL: Well, I still love the prose poem – with regard to the line, I am definitely polyamorous! Where I see the prose poem as solid, compressed, and powerful, like an atom to be split, or a fist– I view lineated verse (in the writing as well as the reading) as lithe, sinuous, and (potentially) lacy, like a tendril or a fingertip. One opportunity lineation offers is the integration of breath/white space (depending upon whether one is considering the aural or the visual experience of the poem) into the fabric of the poem. Just as the absence of breath/white space gives prose poems a certain power and concentration, its presence in lineated poems offers an extra material to work with. To the extent space and breath invite the reader to stand back, contemplate, and muse, lineation can be conducive to a lighter, more suggestive touch. Even in more blocky presentations, lineated verse declares to the reader, in no uncertain terms, that this is a poem! – a piece of art rather than ‘simply’communication. Not to mention lineation’s visual dimension – whether it involves periodicity or unpredictability, stability or disruption. And then there’s the vast plasticity of the line (and break)! (Hence the inherent defiance of the prose poem, whose prose blocs seduce the reader to “relax” into reading, only todemand that they interact with the work on poetic terms).
KMD: Both your earlier prose works and your newest collection explore the dangers, and the possibilities, inherent in shifting between rhetorical modes and forms of address. It is this enduring interest in rhetoric that makes for a very cohesive body of work. Why use poetry to examine rhetoric? Why not a scholarly essay or formal prose study?
SL: My experimentation with rhetorical forms comes out of my interest in appropriation and repurposing as a way of re-visioning the world and our place in it as humans. Like mywordplay, which you mentioned earlier, the re-use of common language, familiar expressions, and recognizable forms (instruction manuals, letters, advice columns, aphorisms, etc.) is a strategy for lifting the invisibility cloak cast upon language by utility and familiarity – and upon meaning by the cozy fit of received ideas. No doubt my concerns might be fruitfully explored via scholarship, but I love the exploratory, non-linear power of the poetic process, which permits – if not demands –the pursuit and expression of the not-yet-known.
KMD: How does a poem begin for you? Does it start with a line or phrase, or all at once? Does it start with other voices, other texts?
SL: Often my poems start with a line or a phrase which I ‘hear’ in my head, and can’t shake. For some of my series, I’ll hear a title, and then become interested in what kind of content it might possibly bracket. Sometimes I read something inspiring, and can’t keep myself from, as it were, singing along (as in The Black Notebooks, which I wrote out of sheer excitement aboutMichael Palmer’s poetry).
KMD: What are you currently working on? What can readers look forward to?
SL: I’ve just finished another collection of prose poetry (not yet satisfactorily titled). I suspect I have begun another one as well. I’m also working on collaborative poetry -- both lineated and in blocks -- with Mary Kasimor. It’s a wonderful process, full of unforeseen gifts. I’m also hoping to produce more collaborative work with visual artist Melissa Stern, with whom I’ve worked on many projects (including my journal, Posit).
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Travel by rail or by horseback?
Both?! Rail travel is wistful. Train passengers experience the journey retrospectively. Expectation, for the rail traveler, is strictly mental, never visual, while the passage of space (and therefore time) – i.e. loss – is inescapable.
On the other hand, for a rider, the future is everything! Looking backwards (or sideways) is ill-advised. Plus, the ‘vehicle’ is one’s travel companion, and intimate. The human rider gets toshare the physicality of a beautiful and massive animal, while also communing with its sensitive, passionate, ineluctably “other” self.
Amal Alamuddin or Angelina Jolie?
I choose Amal Alamuddin without having read a word about her, having heard of her for several years from my husband, as one of his favorite law students! She seems to be a serious and dedicated human being, as committed to international justice as she is beautiful and personable. If more celebrities were like her, I might be less wary of the category!
Oceanside or mountain view?
I grew up on the California coast and spent much of my life beside one sea or another, but I’m a convert to the exhilaration of mountain views with their range (haha) of outlooks and perspectives. It’s become my pleasure to succumb to the strange and addictive magic of elevation (and edges).