Interview with Susanna Childress

By Paul Adams, Contributing Editor


Awst Press chatted with featured author Susanna Childress to learn more about her life and work. See her BIO for more info.

Let's start with something easy; what are you reading? 

Right now I'm reading (or re-reading) mostly for the courses I'm teaching. So, Alice Mattison's book of connected shorts, In Case We're Separated, a shorts-as-novel, Justin Torres’ We the Animals, Orlando Ricardo Menes' Fetish, which is a book of poetry, and Marvin Bell's collected poems Nightworks

What about for fun? 

For fun I'm reading Leslie Jamison's essay collection The Empathy Exams and Jamaal May's poetry collection Hum and Angelina Mirabella's novel The Sweetheart.  

Is there a seriously under-appreciated book you wish more people would read?

I think Paisley Rekdal's beautiful hybrid book, Intimate: An American Family Photo Album is under-appreciated. She's doing tremendous and fascinating things by combining creative nonfiction/fiction, poetry, and photographs. And she's dealing with race and oppression and art-making and beauty and what "authentic" means and, and, and. It's so powerful, especially now, when the climate of race tension is met with such oversimplified "answers."

That sounds fascinating, especially the blending of genres. Why do you think it isn't better known? 

It's tough to market a hybrid book and I wonder if that's why it's under-read or under-appreciated; it also occurs to me that most literary readers aren't used to the blurring or merging of genres, and Rekdal, along with several others, are making a way where there is none. So I hope in ten or fifteen or forty-five years we'll be able to look back at a phenomenally rich text like Rekdal's and see what path it was forging not just in terms of its subject matter or stylistic and aesthetic achievements, but also its work in multi-genre reception.

Speaking of genre-blurring and marketing difficulties, can you tell us your feelings on flash fiction and prose poetry? You're interested in both forms, but what's the difference between them and how useful is that distinction?

I've been thinking quite a bit about this recently, but I'm not sure that means I have an "answer." I risk stating the obvious, but I do question if the "defining" part is the writer's own choice of labels, or in some cases, where the writer has already camped out in terms of fiction or poetry. Robert Hass and Claudia Rankine (or Borges, for that matter) write prose poems because they're already known as poets; Stuart Dybek and Lydia Davis write flash fiction because they're already known for their fiction. It's too reductive to define it this way, but surely it's part of how this labeling happens. I’m not convinced the distinction is as important as the ability to do more (or less) with what’s created in an either/or space.

What would be an example of work that troubles or transcends that system?

Robert Hass' classic example of a prose poem, “A Story about the Body,” follows Freytag's pyramid in terms of narrative arc and Lan Samantha Chang's micro-story, “Water Names,” could be seen as highly lyrical and concentric in focusing on images and emotional or psychological landscape.

Are you interested in the blurring of prose and poetry in your own work, and how do you think it would be interpreted?

I don't consistently write prose poetry or flash fiction, but I'm guessing that unless I write a "traditional" story-length piece of fiction, it might be construed as a long poem or a prose poem, which is fine. I do write short stories and a bit of creative nonfiction, so for me the overlap in each depends on my conception of the project/piece and its particularities (some characters, say, are far less lyrical in perception or voice, just as some poems end up being far more reliant on narrative); so I'm less concerned about how to define the pieces a writer offers—unless it seems obvious she is looking to challenge genre boundaries—and more in what the piece accomplishes on its own in terms of creating a place/space or hovering over an image or progressing through an event or some of all of these. 

So there's something such pieces can accomplish by going outside traditional genre forms?

Holy guacamole, yes. I love lyrical fiction and lyric essays for the way they pull on and weave in properties of poetry—leaping and distillation of language and “the hover”—yet still attend to the scaffolding or structuring of their own forms, like Louise Erdrich does in the masterful collection Love Medicine or Maggie Nelson in Bluets. Or Li-Young Lee’s dense, demanding, gorgeous lyric memoir, A Wingéd Seed

On an altogether distinct note, Alice Mattison uses formal properties of the sestina in her collection of linked short stories; she does it “invisibly,” which is to say there’s a high likelihood you’ll not know it until you read the note in the back of In Case We’re Separated. I’ve not seen many (any?) other fiction writers using this kind of silent technique—it may not be blurring genres but borrowing-from. So smart. So fun. Makes me a bit giddy. 

While we're talking about the possibilities that arise from merging forms, I wanted to ask about the relationship between poetry and song. Is it true you're in a band and your poetry has been set to music? 

Yes, I'm in a band. I say that every chance I get, which is all of twice in my lifetime now, so thank you for asking. I'm half of the music group Ordinary Neighbors; the other half is Joshua Banner, my wildly talented spouse. Our full-length album, The Necessary Dark, draws on my writing. Josh is a songwriter but also set several poems and a short story of mine to music. 

How did the two of you come to do this, setting your writing to music?

The back-story is that Josh and I were in a long-distance relationship and then a long-distance engagement. The man hates talking on the phone, so he came up with the idea of wrapping a scarf around his head to secure the phone to his ear and playing his guitar and singing. I sang with him, and eventually this became our songwriting time; he'd pull out my poems and mess around with putting them into melodies he'd already been working on. 

Are you still collaborating today? 

We continue (in person, praise be) ten years later, but the way it's worked is that he takes what I've already written and makes a song of it and then I jump in now and again with suggestions and harmonies. I should add that our band doesn't really play out, though that might change as our kids get older and our work requirements morph. We don’t have hopes to do music full-time. At the very least, we're still writing music and envisioning how our songs might coalesce into another album. 

How is the writing process different for songs and poems? 

I do view song-writing as distinct from poetry, but maybe not radically distinct. My favorite current song-writers—DM Stith and Innocence Mission and Sufjan Stevens and Patrick Watson and Damien Jurado and Patty Griffin—write songs that do work as poetry; still, they're complemented and even reliant on the voices and melodies and sounds and rhythm extraneous to the lyrics.

Since you've spent some time thinking about what sort of music fits your own poetry, maybe you can do the same for others. What literary work would you like to hear set to music, and by whom? 

Anne Carson's Nox (another wild hybrid!) set to music by DeVotchka. They're so sweeping, big-and-building, but they know how to let a moment alone, to moan it through. I feel that all through her beautiful and broken work about the loss of her brother. It’s equally lyric and analytic. Speaking of under-appreciated, she's just genius.

You mentioned that your song-writing started during your long-distance relationship with your husband, who's averse to phones.  How did letter-writing figure into your courtship?

Letter-writing is hard for me, to be honest, but Josh is a natural at it. I loved the look of his handwriting, his crossed-out words, the cardstock he used to write on (he pays attention to things like paper weight, etc.). It all revealedsomething to me. So that I didn't have to have it explained, or I could hold up his explanation of himself to what he'd revealed to me and see how they matched up (which they more or less did). And of course there was the writing—the words and ideas and images and obsessions and assertions themselves. 

You fell in love through the mail?

It wasn’t until later I realized how intentional Josh was, that he chose not to call but to write because he thought love a possibility between us—and letters the best way to get there. It was, despite that I was self-conscious enough to write my letters in pencil so I could "edit" and "revise" as needed. Such a goof! But that revealed something to him as well, even if it didn't register consciously.

Were letters satisfying in some unique way?

I think part of the compulsion toward letter writing during this most formative stage of our relationship had to do with taking time, slowing down. Of course we had an incredible ache to be known and to know each other, but we’d both been in relationships before where the phone became a short-cut to the real work of that; email was closer, to an extent, but still over-determined—plastic, maybe? Also unearned, somehow, since it’s so instantaneous. Letter writing is hard—as is writing a good email—but waiting for a letter to arrive is a particular kind of waiting, and receiving a written letter is so much more satisfying than email—it's this material thing, this artifact. I've been warned about my nostalgia for the page-in-hand thing (my brother’s a historian). Add love to that and I’m downright Victorian about the whole shebang.

I think lots of people still feel attached to the physical printed word, whether in letters, books, or literary journals. Speaking of which, what's your dream publication; do you have a specific magazine or publication house you'd really like to see accept your work in the future?

My publishing fantasies are so boring. I mean, I love the same great presses and journals everyone else does, for all the same reasons. I want my fiction in Glimmer Train and Tin House and The Paris Review and my CNF in Creative Nonfiction and, someday, collections of stories as well as essays at Graywolf. Ah, Graywolf. I love Alice James and Nightboat and Four Way and Pittsburgh, too. I'm gaining interest in alternative/indie presses, but mostly it's just hard to keep up with all that's happening, everywhere: literary scene upon literary scene with undergrounds and helicopter pads and remote islands and that Great Trampoline, the world wide web.

Speaking of publications, are you excited to be featured by Awst Press?  

I'm fascinated by the chance to have several genres of my writing represented in the same place at once, thrilled by the many "angles" by which someone might get a glimpse of my work, and gratified that Awst Press has at heart the dignified aim of sustaining 'old' work by a writer while complementing her 'new' work. I am honored indeed.

We have an unusual model, but one that gives authors some unique opportunities; how do you think it will compliment your work?

The idea of getting not just a one-off or two-off (is that a thing?) but a more encompassing "portfolio"-type introduction to each writer is very appealing. It's simultaneously more expansive and more intimate. I have a guess it'll be more fulfilling, both for the writer and the reader. And it honors the writer by giving her work more room to speak, since often a writer has different pieces in conversation with one another, even if unintentionally.

You have published two books now, both very well received; can you tell us about those experiences? 

I've been incredibly blessed with my two books of poetry—for very different reasons each time. I was awarded the Brittingham for my first book, and that was a wild, delicious surprise. Ron Wallace is an amazing series editor for the Brittingham and Felix Pollack prizes. The press itself, University of Wisconsin Press, though, is not a poetry press. It's not even primarily literary. So my experience with New Issues Press, though I was only runner-up for their Green Rose Prize, was a super positive one because I'm part of a family of poets and novelists there. Marianne Swierenga and now Kimberly Kolbe do such good work in creating a sense of in-it-togetherness.

Speaking of literary communities, can you tell us about your time in Austin? Our literary scene is currently booming; did you see much of that when you were here? 

My time in Austin was regrettably short and (counting, counting) 13 years ago, so I'm sure much of what I know of Austin has in some way changed, including the literary scene. We didn't have Bat City Review or The Austin Review nor did we have the Austin International Poetry Festival, etc. But there was Borderlands (now defunct) and great readings through the Michener program or Texas State and other nearby schools. Much was happening as well around the rapid expansion of the Harry Ransom Center, and, to boot, I got my first taste of Slam Poetry while in Austin. So fitting.

Did you have the chance to really experience Austin or were you mainly focused on your writing?

I was nearly as focused on the art and music scenes as the literary. So many great galleries, fascinating places like Flatbed Press—so many artists of all kinds with so much energy in Austin—and of course, of course, the music. It's a wonder I did any studying or writing at all, to be honest.

Who did you work with while at UT, and how have they influenced your writing? 

I studied with stellar occasional faculty like Naomi Shihab Nye—who is as real and warm and beautiful a person as she is a poet—as well as then-resident faculty Khaled Mattawa, Judith Kroll, David Wevill, Laura Furman, and Peter LaSalle. They were all wonderful, dedicated teachers. And the folks I studied alongside have gone on to win top prizes and major awards. I still count a number of them among my dearest friends, though we see and communicate with each other infrequently. They grew me up, both as a writer and a person; someone like Phil Pardi changed me forever. 

As an editor at 32 Poems and author of two successful books, can you give young poets some advice about their first publications?  What's something you wish you'd known when you were starting out?

Something I experience with regularity when I'm reading submissions is a poem that just doesn't leap enough. It doesn't veer at all. Richard Hugo has a whole book on this called The Triggering Town and even though I'm subjectively less interested in language or elliptical poetry than I am lyrically narrative poetry, the inability to make a "turn" in a poem sinks its energy and verve. Hugo says it this way:

"Young poets find it difficult to free themselves from the initiating subject. The poet puts down the title: 'Autumn Rain.' He finds two or three good lines about Autumn Rain. Then things start to break down. He cannot find anything more to say about Autumn Rain, so he starts making up things, he strains, he goes abstract, he starts telling us the meaning of what he has already said. The mistake he is making, of course, is that he feels obligated to go on talking about Autumn Rain, because that, he feels, is the subject. Well, it isn't the subject. You don't know what the subject is, and the moment you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain start talking about something else. In fact, it's a good idea to talk about something else before you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain."

I wished I'd known that—whichever verb you want to use—leaping, turning, veering, jumping ahead (to quote Hugo again)—is not only freeing but quite important to get you moving towards the subconscious elements within (or beneath or fogging about) the poem's "subject" matter. Those risks are significant not only for the momentum and vivacity of the poem but also for the development (and awareness) of voice in the young writer.

Thanks so much, Susanna. Any final thoughts?

I recently heard someone say, “If you’ve got the mike, thank the people you love.” For many years as a young writer I was not as vocal as I might have been in my gratitude for those who’d offered me extravagant help, and maybe because I’m in a season of spending a great deal of time with and energy on emerging writers (it could also be that I’m mothering very young children), I’m far more aware of the power of gratitude and how remiss I was in this regard. Three women have shaped me and done more for me as a writer, person, and professor than I know how to quantify, so I’d like to send big lilac-y baskets of thanks to Barbara Hamby, who selflessly transformed my first manuscript into a bonafide book; Mary Brown, who empowered me as a measly first year student and has mentored me ever since; and Heather Sellers, who gave me hope.  

Paul Adams is an author and MFA student at Texas State.

For Susanna's new work, go here.