Author Interview: Susanna Lang

The Author of Travel Notes from the River Styx on a father’s journey, listening to what the poem wants, and why one must always have a journal on standby

Photo Courtesy of Susanna Lang

With its mosaic like accumulation of five potently intertwined sections, Susanna Lang’s latest collection, Travel Notes from the River Styx, takes the reader on an enveloping journey through a myriad of memorable personas, locales, and sensibilities. The speakers of these poems sound as if they were plucked from the difficulties of the everyday and the not-so-everyday. At one moment we are in bed, inhabiting the heated imprint of our beloved’s absence as they prepare a holiday breakfast and the next we find ourselves taking notes on the peculiarities of war and roses and Russia and Ukraine and the necessity to wear our grandfather’s old grey fedora. Though the book moves across multiple spaces and times, a great feature of the collection is its masterful construction of the elegy. With each instance, the poet’s recollection of those lost allows the reader greater access to a sensation which is both familiar and indescribable — that loss is both permanent and impermanent, that those gone can be reimagined within thought and feeling but never again present within a literal body. In many ways, the mythical can become the real. Lang’s capacity to surprise us: from her diction to her line breaks, from the multiple ways these poems move on the page to the multiple ways we find ourselves moved by these poems, will keep you reading and rereading for days on end.

Susanna will be reading at Literati Bookstore on Monday the 28th at 7 PM along with poet Chuck Carlise. In the week leading up to her reading I was fortunate enough to learn a great deal from both her book and her responses shared here. Fellow poets, take note — these sentences might help those facing a creative blockage.

One thing that struck me about this collection was the sense of totality I got when reading each individual section. Five sections is a lot to take on — bravo for making each one add to the overall effect of the book. Still, I’m curious: how might a poet best go about assembling their poems into a collection whose body features distinct appendages — sections.

Assembling a book of poems is a complex task — wasn’t it Robert Frost who said the book itself is the last poem in the collection? Even though many readers do not read from the beginning to the end, just as many music lovers no longer listen to an album from the beginning to the end, poets want to create a book that rewards reading in sequence. Furthermore, publishers often look for that coherence as one of their criteria. Both as a reader and as a writer, I find that sections give me breathing space, a moment to stop and reflect on a handful of poems rather than a suitcase full.

I conceived of Travel Notes from the River Styx as a journey, which is why I began with “Road Trip” and ended with “End of the Road.” In fact, I wrote “Road Trip” specifically to be the first poem in this book, which was at first titled Travelers. I knew that I needed to write a big poem after my father died, following 15 years of increasing infirmity, but I couldn’t begin writing until I was on a previously scheduled retreat at the Hambidge Creative Residency Center. I drove myself from Chicago to the retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia, with a notebook open next to me on the passenger seat. (I know — not safe, especially in the mountains!) That kind of long, solitary drive is like a dream, and I took scribbly notes on the way down, as if in a dream journal. On the morning after I arrived, the poem poured out of me, although it then required months of work to reach its final form. That poem drove the choice of other poems for the collection, and of the sequence. I wanted the poems to speak to each other but not to repeat each other, and I wanted a balance so the book would not only be an elegy. Later, my publisher, Diane Lockward at Terrapin Books, asked me to rethink the sequence as a braid rather than as a more linear journey, and I spent a week this past spring reworking the collection, though I kept the same opening and closing poem, and the same division into five sections.

It might sound obvious or simplistic, but for me an essential tool in creating a collection is a corkboard with pushpins. Hambidge gives you a wall or two to work with, and it’s transformative. At home, I had only a small board so I pinned up one section at a time — not as effective, but better than nothing. Nikky Finney told me that she taped poems up and down her staircase.

“Welcome” is a poem that stings me every time I read it. There are these superb moments of assonance and a few words whose presence is totally surprising — “mackerel” was pretty awesome to come across. Where did this poem come from? Was the ending always the same?

Many of my poems come from reading or listening to the news. This one (which was just featured on Verse Daily) responded to news of the Pope visiting Palestine in June 2014, and it came out pretty much as it is. Certainly the end remained the same. “Mackerel” was a revision: I began with frogs and sardines, rather than sea turtles and mackerel. I don’t remember all of my thinking from three years ago, but I know that I researched what fishermen fished for in those waters, and I listened to the sound of the words together. I’m glad you enjoyed the assonance!

This is one of the poems in the book that speaks as a witness, but I did not expect or even want the reader to know which event was the catalyst. In my more political poems, in the poems focused on justice, I try to expand the event and metaphor so that it can remain relevant even when the memory of that event has been overwritten by other events. This summer I read several of W. S. Merwin’s books, and The Lice is a mentor text for me in this work. The book was published in the 1960’s but it speaks as clearly to our time as to that time fifty years ago when I came to political consciousness.

The title poem of the collection — “Travel Notes from the River Styx” — has this major turn half way through. We go from being situated in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, to the River Styx, in Hades. This movement happens within a single line. The audience also gets a new persona to interact with — the speaker’s deceased father enters the poem. It should also be noted that we go from the elemental and peaceful to that of the dreadful and lost. Why at that moment, around the middle of the poem, do you take us from the literal, earthy landscape, to that of the mythical underworld?

Terrapin Books (5/27/2017)

The underworld was in my mind and my intention from the moment I found that there truly is a River Styx running in and out of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. The poem was not written all at once, but over a period of years. The first section was begun on another road trip, taking my son to his first year of college in August 2013. My sorrow over my father’s decline as well as a friend’s cancer made this place especially resonant for me. The second section was written a few months later when my father suffered a major stroke and I flew to Seattle, expecting to sit at his death bed — but he was a fighter and he came back, though he himself was not sure why. It was striking to me that he truly did dream of journeys while he was, according to his nurses, already in the dying process. I believe that these stories are deeply embedded in us, not just figures of speech that ancient writers used to decorate their stories. In addition, I found that throughout his final years, my father’s seemingly nonsensical statements, the product of his dementia, were often very meaningful if heard as metaphors. Many of these poems began by taking his words seriously. He had always chosen his words carefully.

The final section was finished in May 2015 after an editor said that the pair of poems by themselves felt incomplete. My father died later that month. It seemed to me that he had hovered on the banks of that river for years, unable to cross and unable to fully re-enter his life. It was a painful limbo for all of us, but of course most painful for him.

Your poems take on a multitude of forms and appearances. This seems to be a major component of contemporary free-verse poetry — the page, as a space, is being reinvigorated. Yet, there’s something unique about the way your poems appear and move across the page. I’m wondering, were any poems in this collection whose desired shape forced you to question certain aesthetic boundaries you might otherwise find trustworthy?

Michael Dennis Browne taught me, among other valuable lessons, to listen to what the poem wants. I may want the poem to take a certain form when the poem has other ideas. Of course, I make the poem so when writers talk about what the poem wants (or when fiction writers say that they listen to their characters), it may sound like a refusal of responsibility for what we ourselves create, but sometimes our words come from deeper within us than the consciousness to which we usually have access. I have learned not to fight against that process of discovery — I do make every effort to listen to the rhythms and sounds that come with the first impulse to write, and also to see the poem as a shape on the page. Meg Kearney had a useful approach when she led a workshop for first draft writing. She asked the poet to read the draft without distributing copies to the group. One of the questions she asked the group was how participants visualized the lines: long? short? in a pattern? It was revealing to hear that listeners heard long lines when I’d written the first draft in short lines.

After that initial draft, the work of revision is more analytic. Do I see patterns that I want to reinforce and make more consistent? Is the poem reaching toward an established form like a sonnet or even a crown sonnet sequence, toward couplets, or toward a loosened iambic pentameter? Does that form provide a discipline that allows me to tighten the piece or extend it, or does it begin to feel forced? Is this a poem that needs to rush through long incantatory lines or focus tightly on a few images? There are infinite possibilities, and I want a collection to be varied so the reader doesn’t get too comfortable (or too bored) within one set of formal choices, though I did publish a chapbook, Two by Two, that was entirely given to poems in couplets. That was an attempt at exorcism: for a while, every poem seemed to arrive in that form, and I knew it had become a crutch. I was hoping that if I put together a collection of couplets, I could then leave them behind. It helped, but I still feel drawn to couplets.

Eliot once said when speaking about Marriane Moore that she was one of the few poets of his generation who was able to, “do some real service to the language.” This idea of a poet doing service to, or justifying a language has always struck me as romantic and foolish. There’s the obvious desire to stretch, collapse, bend, and reconfigure words — language(s) — to the point at which they take on a new meaning — “poets love to play,” as Kerry Larson once suggested to me. But when one approaches the poem with such an intent, it seems as though the desire to make such a thing will overshadow the process of actually making it. What advice would you offer younger poets when speaking about the duty of the poet?

My advice to younger poets is consistent with what I was just saying about form. It’s all about the poem and what the poem wants, not about a manifesto or predetermined aesthetic. Poets used to have rules they were expected to follow. American poets refused those rules early on — both Dickinson and Whitman, our great forebears, refused to conform to others’ expectations of what American poetry should be. I tell my students now that the only rule is that the poem has to work. No matter what approach a writer takes to language, the poem must speak powerfully to the reader or listener.

I have a terrible time answering the more usual question about what kind of poetry I write. My poems are more lyrical than narrative, more rooted in the canon than experimental, but I hope they are not just one thing. I try to push my language to say more, and to say it in the most resonant way possible; my choices as a writer serve that purpose, rather than any allegiance to one school or another. I enjoy reading a range of poets, and I try to read outside my comfort zone as well as the work that immediately speaks to me.

In this moment of our history, I also feel strongly that poets and all writers, all artists, must serve as witnesses and must speak out for our beliefs. In each of my books, I included some more political poems, poems written to witness, but in the last year I have turned more in that direction — as have many others. The individual poems may not last as well as others that deal with more universal themes, since justice work tends to focus on the specific moment. Still, the larger context for our words seems more urgent now than our personal journeys, though Travel Notes from the River Styx is a collection that was originally assembled in 2015 and came mostly from just such a personal journey.