An Interview in 7 Parts with Susanna Childress
Feb 28, 2013
I first encountered Susanna Childress’s poems while working on a review of her second book, Entering the House of Awe (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), for Ruminate Magazine last year. I should note that I am astounded by her work and so a bit biased. Her first book, Jagged with Love, was selected by Billy Collins for the Brittingham Prize and published by University of Wisconsin Press in 2005. A Lilly Postdoctoral Fellow from 2008-10 (another reason why I am biased toward Childress—I am a current Lilly Graduate Fellow), she taught for two years at Valparaiso University in Indiana before moving to Holland, Michigan, where she now teaches in the English department at Hope College. I was eager for an excuse to speak further with her about House of Awe and, in particular, about “The Hyssop Tub,” a seven-part poem rich with artistic and biblical images, which appeared in issue 38.2 (Summer 2011) of Colorado Review. I wanted to meditate further on each of the seven parts and have asked Susanna questions correlating to each part. You can view the poem in its entirety here for reference.
I. Kristin George Bagdanov: In the first-page spread of this poem there are two similar but varied forms at play. Part I relies on large spaces between certain words, causing the poem to appear jagged, somewhat hesitant and uncertain. Each section also contains the shape of the sonnet but not all the formalities. Your poems as a whole in this book vary widely from tight couplets to lines that wind across the page and spill over to the next line. At what point in your writing process do you typically realize how the poem should be formed on the page—particularly in “The Hyssop Tub”?
Susanna Childress: Ah, jagged. A word I am enamored of, if my first book is any indication, and have feverish hope I might outlast, since, even if thematically, I hope also not to overuse. You’ve pegged me, is the point. I tend to feel like the spacing in this poem and others like it in Entering the House of Awe are representative of the halting relationship one has with language when investigating items of psychic heft, where the brain and tongue concurrently lag behind the work being done to or in or by the heart; poetry might be our general attempt to catch them up to each other. That is not to say, though, that I was hyper aware of how I laid out the line as I was doing it or in the revisions this poem (and others) received. I had a sense the spaces meant something, pressing as I was rather directly into matters of great psychic heft, but my concern in drafting and in revision was to be consistent with it, its look and its feel, whatever it was, and to produce a unity of effect (I borrow that phrase from Poe, among others, who believe it to be an aim of the short story). A few sections in “The Hyssop Tub” work slantwise towards their intensity, but this section straight away rams right up against it, and I see now that what is halting or, as you phrased it, hesitant, is a consequence of that: words are trying to keep up (and can’t, quite).
Let me say this, too: for a few years now I have been playing around with what I call “Cherry Pickin’ Sonnets,” as I do not follow all the rules of the sonnet but, perhaps haphazardly, just those which seem to fit the tone or subject of the poem—parameters that I do not decide while I am writing nor do I detect until after the poem is written. It is probably true that I have some idea about the poem’s character before I begin to impose certain (even if loose) strictures upon it. With “The Hyssop Tub,” though, I wrote the first section without foreknowledge that I would write six others. When I finished a draft of the first section, which happened—I swear—to be an unwitting fourteen lines and carry the rhyme that I later fettered out as the final couplet, I had this inkling that a) I had only begun discovering what I needed to in this poem and b) the poem was finished. So in time I thought I might try to resolve these paradoxical inclinations by writing several more sections which I knew would be sonnets. Only after they were all written did I go back for, once more, consistency and massage the lineation towards a final rhyming couplet in each one. Somehow I was able to uncover rhymes without changing much, which I suppose is possible with a certain level of musicality but makes me wonder if I did not have it in my cherry pickin’ subconscious to do a set of sort-of sonnets all along.
II. KGB: I noticed some significant changes from the version of “Hyssop” that appears in Entering the House of Awe and the version in CR (significant for us poets, at least—words and phrases cut, lines re-broken). In particular, part II of “The Hyssop Tub” loses rich words like “crepuscular,” “splotched,” “semi-submerged,” and “instep.” Your writing process looks like one of winnowing rather than augmentation. Could you say more about your writing process and the transformation of this poem in particular from its first form to the one we see before us in CR? Have you revised it in any significant way since its publication in CR?
SC: If only my revision process were so heady. The truth is, I had material constraints when I published with CR. The poem as it originally stood (and as published in my book) had longer lines than were possible to print in CR’s page template. My choices, then, were to cut it down to fit the page or allow the lines to overflow, indicated with indentation/tabulation, which created a strange tail-looking little flicker after each long line and lost the 14-line count for each section. I opted to slim the lines to fit the page. The process of, as you put it, winnowing, was rather painful. I hated losing the words I had to lose, I mean crepuscular, crepuscular! What I realized, though, is that I have a tendency towards adjectival pizzazz—word-bling, if you will. I remember being accused in a graduate school workshop of letting my subject GRE studying get the better of my poetry writing. For the most part, I could defend my word choice, but in this case, I learned an odd lesson, rollercoastered back and forth by emails to folks at CR and at New Issues, where my manuscript containing the poem was about to go to the printers. After I had winnowed and relined and again winnowed and relined, cursing CR the whole way, I ended up liking it better than the original. It seemed somehow cleaner and less stuffy. But by that point the book was past the stage of substantial edits (that point, I think, where some poor graphic designer has to manually insert changes) and, were it even possible, I did not have it in me to ask my publisher to underwrite that cost. I would like to pretend this lesson has played itself out since then and, ultimately, refined my aesthetic, but as yet it is still a reminder of how my being disgruntled with certain stages of each poem’s journey from drafting to publication is rarely justified—and often out of my control by mere millimeters or days. But even as a reminder it is good and helpful in its way.
III. KGB: This section inhabits two paintings by Mary Cassatt: one of a woman bathing her child and one of that same woman bathing herself. The poem initially focuses on the former image:
My father’s the woman in the striped dress, holding my waist
tender as an oblong bread. My mother, too, her right hand
rinsing my foot in the bowl. My beloved’s the woman leaning into
the child, her lap a honey possum’s marsupium…
Given the epigraph from the Sidney Psalter, it’s hard not to interpret these lines as a rendering of the Trinity. How have you found poetry helpful in illuminating or exploring difficult questions concerning your faith and beliefs? (concerns with which this book as a whole, I think, is largely concerned—see the Ruminate review for more on this).
SC: I suppose I should first admit that I had not thought of these figures in section three as the Trinity. I see it now, of course, and certainly this exemplifies one of poetry writing’s most gratifying elements—that readers help writers understand layers of or new possibilities within their own work. I can also say that especially for the kind of illumination or exploration you are referencing, I learned a lot from Richard Hugo’s first chapter in Triggering Town, which suggests that writing poetry is less an archive of resolved emotion and more an act of discovery. In a course I took with Scott Cairns I also found value in the (long history) of Midrash writing, where difficult questions are at the heart of—propelling any discovery(ies)—the purpose of writing that addresses or investigates issues of faith and belief.
IV. KGB: This section begins by speaking to Caravaggio’s influence on the Spanish and Italian Baroque painters Ribera and Gentileschi, their fantastic and “brutal themes” that depict the beheading of Holofernes and the martyrdom of St. Bartholomew. The speaker eschews the extraordinary nature of these paintings for something simpler—the “genre scenes” of Diego Velasquez’s early work, in particular, The Water Carrier of Seville. This poem seems concerned with the dailyness of living—women bathing, jugs of water, a russet-colored world—scenes that are held up to be extraordinary. Could you speak more about your attentiveness to these “genre scenes”?
SC: For whatever reason, your question makes me think of Richard Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us to the Things of this World,” with his famous rendering of line-hung laundry as angels, connecting the human and transcendent and the complicated relationship(s) and transaction(s) therein with the final image of nuns floating in their “dark habits/ keeping their difficult balance.” Wilbur took a lot of criticism for these connections and, from feminist scholars, for romanticizing the hard work of laundering. It is unlikely Wilbur did his own wash, and I cannot suggest we should ignore this aspect. (I have never had to carry water long distances in heavy jars upon my shoulders.) Even through the classist or sexist (or both) perspective of Wilbur’s speaker, the quiet power and stunning beauty of the poem lies in an awareness of how stuck we are here, with our everyday conundrums, and how those moments are both bridge to and emblems of all that is beyond the everyday—“Yet, as the sun acknowledges/ With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,/ The soul descends once more in bitter love/ To accept the waking body….” So perhaps poets like Wilbur and painters like Velasquez have taught me how to attend to the quiet and stunning moments in our lives. Within “The Hyssop Tub” it is also a clarifying acknowledgement of the speaker’s own ordinariness, even if a bit begrudging, and her coming to a reckoning, as most of us must, that the dailyness of living, as you put it, may not be sensational but that it is or can be, indeed, extraordinary.
V. KGB: This section inhabits the often misconstrued scene of David and Bathsheba in the Bible. Your poem works against the connotations of Bathsheba as symbol, as moral cautionary tale:
BATHSHEBA we call to you
centuries of women who both knew & didn’t know
better Believe me your voice had you one to speak
in holy text is mine…
Much of this book seems concerned with giving voice to the silenced. Would you describe this witness as an explicit aim of your work as a poet?
SC: If it is possible for something not to be accidental but not an explicit aim, then that might be what this is. As I studied Medieval and Early Modern Women’s Writing in graduate school and later when I taught Carolyn Forché’s anthology Against Forgetting I was very intrigued by the idea(s) and act(s) of witness through and in poetry. I can’t say that I set out gritty with purpose to do that here or elsewhere in Entering the House of Awe, but I also was very aware of stepping away from a purely autobiographical narrative and allowing my reading and art imbibing of others’ experiences lead me. I had been holding for some time onto the historical-contextual detail that Bathsheba was most certainly on the roof because of purification rituals associated with menstruation. That David with his power and his desire should be the symbol, as you word it, representing a dynamic between men and women that in sundry variations continues to affect women all over the world to this day—and by affect I mean eclipse and exploit. It is part of the speaker’s own story, so there is a personal connection in the poem, but it relies on and draws from the voices that have not been able to speak their own story.
VI. KGB: This section draws on the Sidney Psalter, which is composed of reworkings of the English translations, rather than the Hebrew. This section examines two versions of the same line in Psalm 51:
it is not let the bones you have crushed rejoice but that bruised bones may
dance away their sadness.
The difference between bruised and crushed, sadness and joy seems tremendous and filled with implications for how one understands translations of the Bible and of any ancient or foreign text. Has your research and writing for this book helped you understand or reconcile the gap inherent in translation (from language to language, experience to poem)?
SC: My gut says yes, though I am uncertain I can articulate how. Mary Sidney Herbert, who I discovered along with other Early Modern women writers like Christine de Pizan, picks up the unfinished work of her brother Sir Philip Sydney after his death serving the Queen of England (for whatever reason, Herbert has been gaining a bit of popular attention; last fall, Robert Pinsky wrote about her psalms on Slate). Though Herbert is better known for, among others, Psalm 52, I have always been intrigued by Psalm 51 and became especially fascinated with Herbert’s rendering of it—she is a woman working with Scripture, and she, too, is crafting a poem. Even across centuries and radically different socio-cultural contexts, her view of David’s famous psalm of contrition seems to me to swing wide whole windows on the power of forgiveness, specifically as the recipient, and in turn on our relationship with the divine. Herbert has, thank God, forever altered Psalm 51 for me.
VII. KGB: In the last section of this poem, the speaker asks her lover
how could the bird in the cove
be anything but our love
In the first section, however, the speaker
with a man the whole night long to call what thing hung
between us love
Billy Collins describes your first book, Jagged with Love, as being “at the cutting edge of the long tradition of love poetry.” Has your understanding of this suspended thing called love changed or transformed throughout your two collections? Also, do you have any advice for the rest of us who can’t seem to get a grip on love?
SC: Oh, Lord: love. I am wretched at advice. It is true that my own experience has bent along a sweeter path since writing my first book. I should add healthier as a descriptor as well (though still challenging). In some ways, this poem traces that path, though I did not mean for it to be understood as an autobiographical journey alone (or at all, as those details are not provided). That kernel in the first section—What/ woman believes she has the turrets of God/ beneath her rattlebox of skin The flag I flew/ for so long read I’ll erase myself if you want me to—speaks, I believe, to the experience of many women, whether it manifests itself in eating disorders or more generally in compliance and, when maltreated, passivity. For complex and myriad reasons, I did not believe myself worth being loved—or loved well, at any rate; I chose compliance and passivity towards maltreatment, yielding to those with whom I involved myself. Once I became more cognizant of the damage this was doing, I had to face it as something of an addiction, and therein I discovered the good, hard work of forgiveness. I also discovered its remarkable counterpart, being forgiven. Several years in, I met the man I would marry, who has never mistreated me, though both of us remain students of the stunning process of forgiving and being forgiven. So my advice, crass for something so complex, is this: you, me, Bathsheba—we are all—worth being loved well; it is, for some of us, terribly hard to believe, but true. If you can, find paths of forgiveness, both human and transcendent, that lead you away from indiscriminate submission and toward health.