where the writers are
Interview with Susan Browne, author of Zephyr
Interview Transcript

Continuing the series of interviews with authors of my favorite 12 books that I read in 2010, I present to you, Susan Browne!

1) Zephyr is your second book, published by Steel Toe Books. Your first, Buddha’s Dogs, won the Four Way Books Intro Prize. Did Steel Toe approach you? Or did you submit to an open reading period?

I submitted the manuscript of my second book, Zephyr, to the Steel Toe Books contest, 2009. The editor selected it for the prize.

2) Over how long a time-frame were these poems written? Were you writing toward a book or did you build up a group of poems first and discover this book within them?

Most of the poems in Zephyr were written over a six-year period, with one from eight years ago. I never write toward a book. I just write, hoping something surprising happens. Many poems never make it into a book.

3) Your poems manage to be tongue-in-cheek and deep, funny and poignant, irreverent and wise. Do they fall out of you that way or is that a balance you consciously strive for? This is not a question about the amount of revision the poems undergo (because these are very well-crafted poems), but rather one of tone. I simply like the speaker and am curious about her.

My poems are a mirror of me, for better or for worse. I adore dark comedy. I’ve had to learn balance in tone and tame my humor and irreverence, for the sake of the poem. Sometimes I find myself traveling too long in HaHa land, and the writing loses substance. I’m inclined, though, to laugh at the slightest provocation.

4) These lines, for me, encapsulate the marvelous speaker that I’m talking about:

“You don’t ask her the Zen question: What, at this moment, is lacking?

You say, Let’s go shopping for strappy shoes.”

A more “hung up” spiritual person would have asked the Zen question instead of knowing the more compassionate gesture in that moment was to suggest going shopping. How did your speaker get so wise?

Well, I don’t know how wise I am. Writing that sentence makes me laugh. Me, wise? The speaker in my poems is wiser, I suppose, than me. It’s easier to be wise on a piece of paper than in the trenches of living. I think it was Camus who said, “Living is like running from a burning house.” I have felt more often like my head’s on fire than wise. But in the poem you mention, “If Not Now, When?”, I felt a lot of compassion for my subject: my sister and her travails, her courage. Zen Buddhism is the only philosophy/religion that makes any sense to me. Did you see the film, Buddha, by David Grubin? I’ve watched it three times now, and it always makes me cry. The truth of it moves me, the truth and beauty.

5) Please talk about the form of your poems. I like how they range from long-lined couplets to shorter-lined single stanzas. Does each poem find its form as you’re writing it or does that usually come during revision?

The form of my poems arrives during both the process of writing and in revision. I tend to write in a frenzy, “at the white heat” coined by Emily Dickinson. I lose track of punctuation in the manic rush. Then I calm down and start crafting. The couplet and tercet win out a great deal of the time. For quite a few years, I was strongly influenced by C.K. Williams. The shorter line, single stanza poem has returned after reading Dean Young’s work.

6) You chose the pantoum form for “The Deponent’s Testimony,” a poem in which the speaker is being questioned in a deposition following the mother’s death in a car wreck, for a wrongful death suit being brought by the family (faulty tire). It’s the perfect form for a poem with such grief in it, one in which the repetition really serves to enact the endless questioning. Please talk about your choice to use the pantoum for this poem.

I was teaching a poetry workshop and decided to use the pantoum as a form for my students to try. I wrote one along with them--trying the form for the first time, too--which became “The Deponent’s Testimony.” I told my students to pick a subject they had a certain amount of obsession about. I have written volumes about my mother’s death in a car accident. Poems, prose poems, journal entries, now an entire book, a memoir that I’m still working on. The pantoum was a natural container for grief and obsession.

7) Please talk about the poem “Living in Kyoto,” which begins with the epigraph “Even in Kyoto— / Hearing the cuckoo’s cry— / I long for Kyoto” — a haiku by Basho. It’s one of my favorite poems in the book and I’d love to hear more about its genesis / process, if you can remember.

Ever since I read that poem by Basho--in college--it has stayed with me. The poem is a simple transcription of what happened one morning on my daily run on this path behind the town where I live. Basho’s Kyoto didn’t come into the poem until I was trying to title it. Searching around for theme and title, I thought, “Ah! Longing for Kyoto! I live in Kyoto!” I love those connections, that serendipitous magic in the process of writing or revising. Poetry is especially suited to that kind of wonder and lightning.

8) You teach at a college. How do you manage to balance teaching and writing?

I don’t balance teaching and writing. Not very well, anyway. I teach at a community college, four to five classes every semester, which means about a hundred and forty students, and it gets over-the-top busy. I rise early, never later than six in the morning, and I do my writing first. I’m not any good to anyone else unless I write, so that’s my priority. Some days, I don’t have much time, but I still write for as long as I can before I start planning my classes. While I’m driving to the college, I play around with lines in my head, saying the poem I’m working on out loud. It’s a great way to hear the cadence, the music of the lines. I’ve done a great deal of revision in the college parking lot. If my students are doing group work, and I have some moments to myself in the classroom, I take the poem out and see what’s up. I use whatever time I have, whatever’s available. I wish I had more time, that’s all. Fields of time. When I’m longing for more, I always imagine this endless field. Poetry is that field, and it’s where I want to be.

9) What are you reading these days?

What I’m reading: The Eternal City by Kathleen Graber; The Shadow of Sirius by Merwin; The God of Loneliness by Philip Schultz; embryoyo by Dean Young (and his book about writing poetry, The Art of Recklessness); The Collected Poems by Frederick Seidel; Refusing Heaven by Jack Gilbert; the memoir, Just Kids by Patti Smith.

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