AN INTERVIEW WITH SUSAN AIZENBERG
Gregory Donovan: Susan, you were telling me a little bit earlier that you have a particular history behind the composition of the poem, L'Heure Bleue.
Susan Aizenberg: What happened was when I was working on another poem in the book called "What It Is," I have a metaphor in there about the blue of the sky, and it ended up "a Paris sky the bluest glacier could get lost in." But I had a lot of trouble coming up with something for blue, so I went around asking everybody I know what are blue things, and I looked it up in the OED, and I just had this long list. So after I wrote this poem I had all these things that were blue laying around, and one of the things that I'd come across was l'heure bleue. And actually I made a mistake because I found out later that the French, when they say l'heure bleue, they mean dawn, not dusk. But I thought they meant dusk, and of course it looks the same, and dusk was always, and is always, still, my favorite time of the day. There's something about the way the sky looks, I just love it, and especially in New York, it was gorgeous. And so that just sort of came together in this poem.
GD: In that poem, you are writing about a state of mind that's also twilight, twilight state of mind, and that seems to be a state of mind about which you like to write, you catch characters in that in-between state, or in a moment of decision. Often your poems are about ethical problems, or they're about delaying gratification, or hoping to extend the moment of gratification by delaying it before you even get to it. That poem in particular seems really strongly to do thatthat's an interest of yours, it's something that you find intriguing, that calls you to it?
SA: Well, you know it's a weird thing. I don't know if you've had this experience with your own collections, but when I was writing these poems I didn't seek connections like that, and then when I had to put the manuscript together, I had to start looking for them, and even then I didn't see them so much myself as I saw them in the feedback other people gave me when they were talking about the book. And then I thought, oh yeah, I guess that is an interest of mine. And one of the things that seems to be happening in a lot of these poems, and I think in that one, especially, is I'm very attracted toand also repelled byromance, in general, all those notions of romance that are so seductive, and in many ways, so false, but yet they're so seductive you can't quite ever let them go. And for me, I didn't think about it beforehand, I was just, in L'Heure Bleue, all I was really trying to do was describe the city at that time and I was focusing on the descriptions, not on what resonated from that. But I guess what came out of that, you know, that is that time, that sort of anticipation of the night out and getting ready and everything and you're able to forget the realities of, that are going to come in the morning kind of thing.
David Wojahn: The Japanese call it Utsorithat time where one thing turns to another, one condition turns to another. That brings to mind another question I've had about your work. It's always clear to me that there's in your writing a crossroads between something that's a richly textured lyric, highly engaged free verse music, and yet the voice and the subject matter is often subject matter that is something that is very, very troublingtroublesome or elegaicand that mixture is what I think often creates the resonance I feel in your poems. And you see that in several of the pieces you read last night—I'm thinking of that harrowing poem entitled "Art"—and I guess what that brings me to is a question: What comes first in your writing process? Is it a connection to the language, to the music, or is it first a connection to the subject matter?
SA: Hmm, that's such a hard questionyou know, I'm not sure I know. I can probably answer it better for individual poems. I think "Art," "Art" is the only poem I ever wrote the way that I wrote it. I was actually going through the situation at the time, and I was working, doing "Artists in the Schools," and here I was in this horrible high school where they put me in this class where, you know, the kids were falling asleep on me, all the stuff you see in high school, and my own son was hospitalized, and I was getting these frantic calls from him and trying to teach. During my break, I didn't have a private place to go. I was in the teachers' break room, and the teachers there were really beaten down and they just sat around and complained about the kids all the time. And I just sat off in a corner, and there was a typewriter there, and I just started to write what was on my mindI wasn't really even thinking about a poem. Then, of course, I went back to it and began to think about language and tried to work itbut that's very unusual for me, I usually write about things that are quite in the past, very rare for me to write about something that's happening at the time. And I would say in general, the languageat least consciouslythe language comes first for me. But I'm not sure that that's sub-consciously true. But that's what I think about, mostly, when I start.
DW: Could you also talk a little bit about a poem you read last night, the title poem of the book Muse, which is partly a monologue in the voice of Vivien Eliot, partly a kind of sampling of quotations from the Bloomsbury and Eliot circle, and partly a lyric poem describing aspects of her life. It's a longer poem, it's a poem of a different sort of ranginess from some of the other ones, and I think listeners might be interested in how that poem was composed.
SA: I can't remember exactly when I first decided to write about her, but I think it was I'd been reading something and came across Virginia Woolf's quote, and that upset me so much that Virginia Woolf would be so cruel and dismissive of this woman who was clearly suffering . . .
DW: "A bag of ferrets around her neck . . ."
SA: Right, and very . . . And Vivien was a talented poet. She was an editorshe was, she did all sorts of things that she didn't get any credit for, and what I finally decided about Virginia Woolf, because I don't want toI like Virginia WoolfI don't want to see her as being less than kindis maybe Vivien was a little too close for comfort. She didn't want to be the mad woman at the end of the table. But, at any rate, it may have started with that, and then at some point I saw Tom and Viv, and then I did a lot of research. I read all the Eliot biographies I could find. I read all the stuff on the Bloomsbury Group, and I had all this research material, and so when I sat down to write the poem . . . The reason the poem is in sections is because I had no idea where to begin. So I just sort of jumped in and wrote these individual sections without knowing how many there would be or how they would tie together or where they interested me.
The first section was . . . it almost wrote itself, because I just had all these horrible things that they'd said about her, and then I had that little detail about Eliot. That was one of the things that seemed to me so unjust. Eliot would come to dinner parties wearing make-up and lipstick and green face powder, and wear a truss and just be completely crazy, and nobody said a thing. And Vivien would be loud and drunk and it would be horrible.
The second section, I wanted to imagine what it would have been like for her when she first started on all these drugs, and I had this idea for her going out in the countryside. So I researched what grows in the countryside in England, and I discovered that there's this amazing thing with bluebells, that they form this thick carpet in parts of the wood. And I just love that image of her out there, so that's kind of where that came from.
The third section, again, almost wrote itself, just what, all the things that they take away from you when you're ward in chancery. The last section actually I had showed a draft of the poem to Art Homer, who was my very first poetry teacherwonderful poet and writerand I said, you know, "What do you think?" And he said, "Well, I think what's missing is Vivien speaking," and that's the good advice that he gave me, and then I just kind of imagined her at the end there, and spoke through her.
GD: It sounds like research is part of your composition process. Is that something you trust to, and does it give you sustenance, or do you feel like it helps you along? Do you ever worry about depending on it too much, or . . . Because I know I use thatthat's part of my own process, building in other streams of information into the making of the poem.
SA: I never worry about it because I think it onlyI mean the only thing I worry about is that sometimes that I love doing it. And of course it's much easier than writing the poems, so that I can spend a long time doing it when I ought to be getting to the poem. It's dangerous in that way. But in terms of worrying about how it affects the poems, I think it only can make them stronger because I want things in my poems. You know what I mean? I want real things, real information, besides which, I, to me, it's part of the process. It's not separate, it's part of what I enjoy doing. Even if I'm writing something sort of autobiographical, I still want to go find out, I don't know, if it's set somewhere, what actually grew there, what is there. Maybe the other reason is because I don't . . . I'm not out living an adventurous life at this point in my life, doing all sorts of things, and so I live in my head a lot, read a lot, and it just sort of naturally . . . that's what I write about.
DW: Writing what
you know is one of those, this very hoary old writerly cliché,
and I guess maybe a lot of the time, maybe the advice should be the exact
opposite of that, write what you don't know, or
what you need to know, and you will find out ways of knowing that are
new by making those things combine.
SA: And I think it's, Gregory, I think it's also what you were saying. One of the things that interests me most in poems that I love that other people write are connecting things, seeing things . . . When you were talking about Levis's poetry and you were saying, you know, about the nature of all poetry being political, well, I think, of course that's true. Everything's political because you don't live in a vacuum; you live in your society. You live under your government. You live with the history that's come before you. And to me the richest poems are the ones that set the individual within that context. I mean . . . I certainly can't always do it, but it's certainly what I admire and what I think the best poetry does in many ways.
DW: You know when you set the terms that way, it kind of mandates a poetry that is a kind of poetry of witnessing that has a lot of autobiographical strands; a kind of poetry which is maybe dramatic or narrative. And I'm really intrigued lately by the fact that a lot of my students, a lot of younger poets, are really reluctant to employ a lot of autobiographical material. They are also very reluctant to create a kind of linear, narrative context for their poems as well, and I guess the pendulum has swung away from those concerns. Why are those concerns of such importance to you, I guess, and why do you think those methods are, of late looked on with suspicion by younger writers?
SA: The second part of your question, I truly don't know, except that I think that in many ways that younger generations are a lot less idealistic, and maybe less naïve is a better way to put it. We're roughly all the same generation, and I hate the glorifying nostalgia of the sixties, but, for all the really stupid stuff that happened and destructive stuff, there was an idealism and a real, a very humane component to it. I mean, we may have been dumb, but that was genuine, I think. And I think the world that they've come up in, they don't see the world that way. All those things that happened to us to them are just history. And maybe that has to do with it, you know, maybe there's a mistrust of the personal and the narrative out of that; I really don't know that. Why it's important to me, I don't know any other way to see the world, I guess.
I was telling Gregory, my father died, it's almost two years now, and I've been writing a lot about him. And I can't see him without seeing the fact that he was a Jewish male in America who came up at a time when there were certain stereotypes about that, certain levels of anti-Semitism externally and internally, and how those shaped him. And I just think that's reality. I think the way you are in society, I just don't think you can separate it.
The question about, though, the formal thing with narrative and the lyric, this has always been a struggle for me. I remember when I was a student and when I was working with Lynda [Hull], one of the things Lynda said to meI still have it in a notebook, a common-place book I have of stuffwas that I was a narrative poet, I had an interest that demanded narrative, but my method at that time was largely lyric, which was how I was initially taught, and that's how I started writing. My first poems were just very much short lyrics, capture the moment. And it was a challenge for me, and still is in many ways, to be able to combine them, because one of the things with narrative poetry, some of it is not lyrical at all. Some of it, they just lose that, and that's my first love in a poem, so I always kind of want them both.
GD: When you were selecting poems for The Extraordinary Tide, was that something that informed your choices?
SA: That was the most interesting process. In doing the anthology, much of it was miserythe permissionsit's just a horrible experience. But the selection of the poems was wonderful. It was another education. And the way we worked was, Erin [Belieu] and Iyou know, Erin is fifteen years younger than I so there was a generational difference which was great. We came upArt was her first teacher tooso we came up with sort of the same poetic background. We knew each other's work really intimately. We can think together in sort of a shorthand about poetry, but we also have some really different tastes and interests. Erin really is interested in a lot of language poetry, that sort of stuff, although she's less interested in it now, but at the time . . . whereas I just, you know, as the Quakers say, it doesn't speak to my condition, I just don't get it.
But because of that, what we wanted to do was, we wanted to . . . while obviously our taste informed our choices, we also really wanted to go beyond that, and we truly wanted to show a spectrum of what was happening. And so what our agreement was is we both had to agree on any poems that finally went in. But there are poems there that are more reflective of her taste and some that are more of mine.
What it did for me personally was so great because . . . I like all the poems in there, I mean, that's honestly true; nothing went in there that I didn't think was a fine poem. But when I would be working on them and I would be going through, there would always be the ones that just knock you back in your chair. And it just kind of reinforced for me what I do value in poetry, what makes the difference between a poem that I sort of respect and think is a good poem, and those poems that are just the best thing in life, right? When you read a really great poem, there's nothing like that. So my personal taste of course informed it. But I didn't want a book of just poems like the poems I would want to write, and neither did she, and I hope and I think that we achieved that.
DW: You know, a follow up question to that . . . Recently I've been reading Muriel Rukeyser, I talked to you about that last night, in preparation for this class I'm teaching about the Middle Generation. And I know that her writing and her example had this huge impact on that first generation of feminist poets who came along on the scene about the early 1970sI mean, No More Masks!, probably the most influential of those anthologies came from a line, that title came from a line of Rukeyser's. How do you think the poets you've selected, you and Erin and The Extraordinary Tide, as a generation of women writers differ from those poets of thirty years ago.
SA: Well, first of all, it's not one generation in there. We've got Eleanor Wilner, we've got women . . .
DW: Jean Valentine . . .
SA: We've got women, I think the oldest poet was ninetyMadeline DeFreesso, we have older women, we have women my age, women Erin's age, and we have some of the younger women, too, in their twenties, although we tried to keep it to people who had two books, so that sort of . . . you had mostly a little bit older than in their twenties by that. But I think that all the women, whatever their generation, were enormously liberated by women like Rukeyser. Wilner talks about . . . and we were so thrilled with her introduction, I mean when we got it, both of us separately, miles away just were floored.
We sent her a big thing of roses because it was like she got it, exactly what we wanted, and she articulated it so beautifully. And she talks about what the common thread is here, that all these voices are set against the silence that came before. And Rukeyser and Rich, people of that generation, they broke that silence, and I don't know where any of us would be without themif we would even beso we owe them an enormous debt, I think.
GD: In making that anthology, you seem to have tried hard not to anthologize poems that were previously anthologized, and also you seem to have had an emphasis on more recent work. Is that correct?
SA: Yes, we definitely did. We wanted to show what people were writing now. So we tried in all cases to take the newest work. And, of course, sometimes that meant, at least for me, that it was not my favorite work of the poet's, necessarily. But we wanted the book that we didn't have when we were young poets, where someone could hand a young woman poet and say, "This is what's happening out there now. This is the best stuff that's out there, and it shows you a range of it." That's what we were really trying to do. And so we were also concerned with how the poems spoke to each other in the book, so we had that in mind as we were choosing poems. It was great fun. I mean, it was hard, but it was great fun, and we got everyone in the book that we wanted with two exceptions. So I felt pretty good about that. I bet you know who the most, you could think of who the most glaring omission is, who's not in there. There's one that just kills me that we don't have her.
DW: Uh huh . . .
SA: Do you know who it is?
GD: Are we going to keep this a mystery?
DW: Well, I was thinking, you don't have Carolyn Forché, do you?
SA: We do.
DW: You have Forché. Okay.
SA: I think she's in there.
DW: So it's . . . and . . . okay, so who is it?
SA: Glück. And she was very, she was lovely about it, but she wrote us a letter and said that she knows that she's a minority voice, and she thinks it'll be a great project. But she has a principle: She will not appear in women's-only anthologies.
DW: That's interesting.
SA: It was very interesting, and it really broke my heart because I think she is a major poet. And I think hershe's a huge omission. Most everybody was great. I mean, people were very generous. I'm very happy.
GD: Did you find yourself . . . I'm thinking of someone who is in the anthology that is very influential in the same way Glück is, which is Jorie Graham, who seems to be ubiquitously influential, and sometimes perhaps even deleteriously influential in that I've noticed some poets, I won't name them, but some women poets who seem to be working very hard to try and bring the Graham influence into their work where that Graham influence is not exactly at home. Did you find in your selection of very influential poets like that that you were looking for the influential poems or for the poems that you loved by them?
SA: We didn't think in terms of that, and just as we said in the introduction, we were not attempting at all to be canonical. We weren't looking to do that. So, no, we picked the poems that were . . . our first criteria was excellence, and then we wanted sort of newer work, and then, as I said, there was concern with what else was in there, how they spoke to each other, how well they kind of represented what the poet was doing at the moment. You know, it's interesting because I don't think I write remotely like either Graham or Glück, yet they are two of the poets that I will often read to kickstart my own writing, even though I don't think you could look at my work and say . . . and they're so different from each other, too, so I don't know, in terms of influence, how that works, actually. I haven't really figured that out myself, but I think it's different than imitation, which is more what you're talking about, I think. Right?
GD: Or trying to be consciously postmodern, I suppose is really one of the things, that we have to be postmodern. There is that.
SA: We just sort of are, by definition.
GD: There's a comic element to that, but on the other hand there do seem to be people who are working very hard to create some sort of special effect in that regard, and it's theory-derived or theory-based and perhaps features some of the more exotic elements of Graham's poems, the lacunae, the hyper-self-consciousness, you know, and things like that. And no, I don't see that in your work. I don't see an imitation of that kind of thing at all.
DW: It seems to be a curious time for poetry, and maybe the generation of women writers suffers from this, and I would say suffers from this maybe even more than male writers of the same generation. It's just that, on the one hand, there's a huge movement towards that kind of postmodern fragmentation in poetry that Greg is talking about. Then on the other hand, I know especially with student poets, there's a real interest in poets of voice, poets who are user-friendly.
SA: Right. Right.
DW: People like Billy Collins or Denise Duhamel, who, again through a quality that's sort of an extension of the spirit of the New York school of poets, are writing a poetry that in some ways sets itself into opposition to the poetry such as you write, like Larry Levis's poems, you are interested in looking unflinchingly at loss, at human frailty, human cruelty, and I know that your work, and maybe like Larry's work as well, is not going to appeal to an audience looking for an accessible and tonally lighter poetry. But then, on the other hand, I wonder how you feel about the fact that that very quality of your work is going to limit the number of readers you have in an already very atomized world of poetry.
SA: Yeah, I know I'm totally unfashionable because if you want something real accessible, I'm probably not that. But if you also want something real super sort of intellectual, I'm not that either. I just . . . I don't care. I mean, I don't mean to be glib, but I never . . . I'm still surprised I have any readers. I never thought of poetry as a way that I was going to, you know, have readers. And it just sort of seems like a lovely surprise that there are any out there. I don't know, plus it's, you know I don't think, I don't think you really have that much of a choice. It's not my nature, I'm not an intellectual. I'm not an academic. It's one of the things that's been strange about having my first full-time job at a university is that I'm so keenly aware that I'm not an academic. You know, I love my job. I love being there, but it's a whole different way of looking at life. And in terms of the really accessible poems, some poets can pull that off, and they're still wonderful poems. I can't do that, I need to be doing more with the language. That's what satisfies me when I'm working. The other isit's not interesting to me.
DW: That brings me to another question. I know that you wrote poetry for a really long time before publishing your first book, and I think it's become increasingly the case that a lot of poets who are forty or above are not publishing their first collection until they reach that age. Could you talk a little bit about the development of your career in the years before you published Muse?
SA: Well, I always, always, wrote. When I was ten years old, I remember being in the library and thinking, "I want a book up there. I want my name on the spine." Always. It was all I ever wanted to do and all I ever did, but I never told anybody. I was not in the literary magazine, I was not . . . I thought it was enormously arrogant to imagine I could do that. It was just this secret thing for me, and I was always writing poems, but I thought I especially could not be a poet because poets were clearly men, and they were mostly dead, and they were Eliot and guys like that. So I thought, even though I was always writing poetry, I thought well I'll . . . maybe I could be a fiction writer. That seemed to be more attainable. And, basically, that's how I did it on my own, until I went to college.
I went to the State University of New York at Cortland, and Paul Blackburn was there, a poet who it makes me very sad people don't know much about, because he was not only a good poet, he was a wonderful man. He was so kind. And I heard this real poet was there, and he was doing a workshop, and I thought, well . . . and I was dropping out of school, flunking out at this time, and I went in to see him. I walked into his office and you have to pictureI 'm eighteen years old, I come in barefoot, torn jeans dragging on the ground, giggling, every other word I say is "man," just a complete, looked like a little hippie airhead.
What I didn't know is that Blackburn was already very sick and was soon to die. And he asked me to write him a sample of writing, and I did, and I gave it to him, and he was so encouraging and so kind. He said, "Yeah, you can sit in on the workshop; I don't care if you flunk outyou're welcome." That was an enormous gift to me, you can imagine. It made me think, "Well, maybe I really could do this." And, then the next fall, when it was going to happen, he, of course, had passed away in the summer.
Then I just continued kind of doing it on my own. Dropped out of school, got married, had a baby, got divorced, got married again, the whole deal. Was always writing the whole time. Tried, for about, I would say I spent ten years self teaching. I went and I read every poet I could find. I tried to teach myself meter with the Penn Warren/Brooks book. If you can imagine, I mean that was so daunting, of course I got almost nowhere with that, it was just horrendous.
I took a creative writing class at University of Texas, Dallas, with a poet I'll let remain nameless because he was the model for me of what you should not do. A complete egotist, very cruel, almost kept me from writing. Then, moved to Omaha, saw they had an undergraduate writing program, a BFA, and worked up my courage after first making sure I could transfer credits to the English department if I couldn't cut it, and where I was absolutely blessed to meet Art Homer, who is a wonderful poet and just the most generous teacher, wonderful man.
He taught me not only the craft, but he taught me what it really meant to be a poet, to be a decent human being, and to be . . .to look at it as your work. Art used to say—he worked in a wire factory for years—and he used to say, "You know, when I was working in the wire factory with this and this making the wires, that's the same thing as the poems, except now it's language." It was such a great attitude. It was so un-romantic, you didn't have to special to be a poet, you just had to be someone who loved language and did the work, and that completely liberated me.
So, then I started writing really seriously. And the other gift that Art gave me was he believed that, as a poet, it was your job to send the stuff out and get rejected, and so he had me, as an undergraduate, just sending my stuff out. And it started to get published, and I had some things published in magazines when I went for my MFA. And, you know, just kept writing and sending it out, like we all do.
GD: Did you have a number of close calls before you . . .
SA: Tons. I got all those contest things where you're either the finalist or one of the finalists or semi-finalists, and you get this nice note, and of course you cling to it, and then you get more and more despairing. Well, let's see, I think I was out of graduate school ten years when Muse got published. Now I had, before that I had Peru, which was published in the Agni series. Which, it's too bad, Graywolf and Agni couldn't do that anymore. It was such a great idea, and it was such a nice way for first collections to get out there, but you know, that's economics.
GD: Do you see anything differently now in how you conceive of poetry or go about composing poems than you did when you started out? Do you see yourself doing things differently?
SA: Well, I think, since the book came out, and since I've had quite a bit of good luck, and I've gotten some nice recognition and people have been kind, on the one hand, of course, that's great, and it helps you have a certain amount of confidence, but, on the other hand, I've had a lot of trouble writing since the book came out. I think because—I don't know how to explain it—the bar is raised in some way, and also, I'm fifty-two, and I guess have a morbid disposition, so I'm very conscious of life being short, and it could be very short, you know. But even if it's not abbreviated, it's still not that long to go. And I was always serious about my work, but I feel a seriousness now, much more so than I did before, which may not be a good thing, it may be part of why I'm having trouble getting anything finished.
There's an innocence when you're first learning, when you just think that if you could do it at all, you're just so thrilled, and, once you know, "Yeah, I can do the craft," I don't want to write one of those millions of adequate poems that you see in all the journalsprobably the result of that is to write nothing.
GD: There are some people who one wishes would write more of those nothings and be a little more careful and caring about what they produce.
SA: I don't mean to sound arrogant about that.
GD: I don't think it sounds arrogant at all.
SA: I really don't, and not that it's easy for me to even write an adequate poem, it's just . . . it just seems like the longer I write, the harder it gets, not the easier.
DW: I think there's a period when eventually that dynamic changes. It just takes a while. It's not so much that it gets easier, because it always gets harder, but the delight that accompanies being able to write I think returns. I think for a lot of writers, it may be that that delight goes away for a certain period—it's usually after a first book is published—and it doesn't come back for a while, but it does come back.
SA: Any advice on how to get there faster?