12 or 20 questions: with Suzanne Buffam
Suzanne Buffam is the author of Past Imperfect (House of Anansi), which won the League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Award in 2006, and the chapbook Interiors (Delirium Press, 2006). Her poems have appeared in numerous publications in the U.S. and Canada, including The Boston Review, A Public Space, Poetry, Jubilat, The Canary, The Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Matrix, and De Maisonneuve as well as the anthologies Breathing Fire: Canada’s New Poets (Harbour, 1996), The New Canon (Signal Editions, 2006), and The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century (Cracked Slab, 2007). Her work has been translated into French, German, Spanish, and Slovenian, and she has participated in readings and literary festivals across Canada and the U.S., as well as in Mexico and Europe. She won the CBC Canadian Literary Award for poetry in 1998 and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Born and raised in Canada, she currently teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago.
1 - How did your first book change your life?
When I was about four or five, I asked for a book of my own for Christmas—a book I wouldn’t have to share with my brother, that is. My parents gave me Dr. Seuss’ Yertle the Turtle. Frankly, I was a little disappointed by the level of the text—and by the moralizing nature of the narrative (a cautionary tale about ambition and greed)—but it did feel good to write my name on the inside cover of that book. If you mean the first book I published myself, well, Proust says that by the time we attain the goals we set for ourselves, they have ceased to be our goals. In my experience, this seems to apply to publication at least as much as to love.
2 - How long have you lived in Chicago, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?
At the moment, I’m living in the south of Mexico, in the city of Oaxaca, and though I can’t say for sure how this will ramify for me down the road, the place has definitely made an impression on my sense of human history and my own tiny portion thereof. Oaxaca is a colonial city of about 350,000, large enough to foster a thriving cultural scene (just saw a bunch of Man Ray films last week at an outdoor theatre down the street!), but small enough to get everywhere you need to go on foot—including some of the most fascinating archeological sites in the world. About an hour’s walk from our door is Monte Alban, the oldest known city in Mesoamerica, which dates back to roughly 500BC—about the time the first tragedies were being staged in ancient Greece (a fact which blows my mind in all sorts of ways). Beyond that, the surrounding hills are full of indigenous villages where dialects of thousand-year-old languages I’d never heard of before are being broadcast on local radio waves. So I find myself feeling rather awed a good deal of the time—and more conscious on a daily basis of the past than I've ever felt living among the high-rises and Dunkin' Donut shops at home (wherever that may be, as Elizabeth Bishop says). In the photo above, incidentally, I’m standing in front of what is allegedly the largest living organism on earth—a cedar tree that’s apparently older than Jesus.
But who knows how this will impact my work. I’m not likely to start writing about my life or time here in any particulary direct way. I moved to Chicago from Montreal almost five years ago; to Montreal from Nova Scotia; to Nova Scotia from Iowa; to Iowa from Victoria; to Victoria from Vancouver; to Vancouver from Florida; to Florida from Abidjan (in the Ivory Coast); to Abidjan from Montreal…In between those places I’ve spent several months at a time in various others as well. Probably the main impact these places have had on me is a sense of constantly moving around, of constantly saying goodbye to places and people I love. Which likely has something to do with my tendency to allegorize or otherwise render oblique most aspects of “place” and autobiography in my work…
As for gender and race, I’d say they inform pretty much every aspect of my life—how could they not?— from my perspective on the world to my way of speaking to and within it—again, however obliquely they make their way into my work.
3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I'm an erratic poet. At the moment, I'm managing to sustain a routine, in terms of schedule, but from poem to poem things tend to fluctuate wildly. Some poems begin with a single line that strikes me as interesting, funny, or puzzling--or possibly even a just a title--and proceed from there. Others accumulate from bits and pieces that seem to constellate around a vague theme. I keep notebooks where I write down bits of language--my own and others'--images, lines, facts, quotations, etc--and these are indispensible in terms of getting started or working my way through a draft.
As for writing “books,” I’d say it’s too soon to say. So far I’m the author of only one book that selectively collects about ten years’ of work. At the moment I’m working on a longer project—but it, too, consists of a series of fairly short bits.
4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
Probably neither. I do enjoy giving readings, though, so long as I’ve got new material to read. That’s when reading feels usefully scary for me. I find my poems have about a 3-reading limit before I feel utterly bored by them. On the whole, though, writing for me is a fairly solitary pursuit and requires huge amounts of time alone in my room (or, as it so happens these days, alone on the roof)—and I’m enjoying my break from the Poetry World right now. (I had a teacher once who made a distinction between the Poetry World—all that shmoozing and gossiping that seems to be part of any “career” in poetry—and the world of poetry—that other world of hightened attention which Eluard said is “inside this one”). I guess the trick to staying sane is finding the balance that works for you. I’ll let you know when I find it…
5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I’d say my concerns are pretty much of the practical sort: how to be a good person in the world; how not to be ruined by envy, bitterness, regret and desire; how to stay open, curious, hopeful in the face of war, certain death, and the eventual annihalation of our solar system....and, of course, how not to take oneself too seriously in the process! I suspect most poets are more interested in questions than in answers—otherwise they’d be scientists or popes. As for the “current” questions, well, it seems to me any really good question should be endlessly renewable, and thus, endlessly current.
6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
About ten years ago I met a man in graduate school who, in addition to being a terrific poet, was the best editor I’d ever met. So naturally, I married him. I continue to find this relationship both difficult and essential. I also had the great good fortune to work with Heather McHugh on my first book, and I can’t begin to say enough about her acumen and agility of mind.
7 - When was the last time you ate a pear?
Once, many years ago, against my strong inclination, I ate a few slices of a pear to please a man I wanted to impress. I learned the hard way from that disasterous encounter that one might as well be honest from the start about the fruits that one enjoys.
8 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
There’s a moment in that documentary “Touching the Void” where a mountain climber is stuck deep in a cravasse with the wrong end of a cut rope and a badly broken leg. There’s a thin shaft of light coming down from above and a seemingly bottomless chasm beneath him. (Warning: spoiler ahead). Realizing he can’t possibly climb back up to the surface, he decides instead to take his chances and crawl deeper into the darkness—which, miraculously, eventually leads him back into the light. Apparently, what occurred to him in that darkest hour was the need to keep making decisions. So, besides the overtly spiritual allegory availabe here, that’s one thing that’s really stuck with me: Keep Making Decisions. That piece of advice may save your life.
9 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I would like to be the kind of writer who follows a routine. Usually, I lack the self-discipline to do so, and/or circumstances conspire to thwart my best attempts. Luckily? Miraculously? Mercifully?--at the moment my life and my resolve are cooperating and a productive routine has emerged. It helps to have adopted a new puppy, for whom routine is indispensable! For superstitious reasons, though, I think I’d better keep it to myself.
10 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I read poetry, philosophy, I leaf through any number of random books I find on my shelves. Also, I like to walk. Something happens in the brain when you’re walking that just doesn’t when you’re sitting at your desk with your head in your hands. And when it doesn’t happen, I’m working on being okay with that too.
11 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?
Well, as I mentioned above, at the moment I’m the author of only one book, but I’m nearing what feels like the final stretch of a new manuscript. As far as I can tell the biggest difference so far is that it contains the word “God.”
12 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
All of these things plus other people, fear, longing, self-pity, self-loathing, love, hope, doubt, despair…Do these things count as “forms”?
13 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’ve gone through so many phases it would be tedious to list them here, but I will say that a bunch of weird poems by Dylan Thomas and Shelley and Blake’s “Proverbs from Hell” lit a fire in highschool, and in my twenties, Simone Weil’s Waiting for God opened my mind in a way I would never have thought possible in my younger, fiercely atheist days. Lately I’ve been reading around in eastern philosophy and Greek tragedy. At the moment I’m reading Sophocles and the Tao Te Ching. And I don’t like to travel very far without some Dickinson, Stevens, and a collection of Robert Walser’s short prose. Obviously, I’m leaving out a lot.
14 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Develop patience. Housebreak my dog. But it seems these two are one and the same…
15 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Well, my first novel, a comic picaresque chronicling the heroic misadventures of a plucky young girl named Claronette, met with such wild approval by my beloved third grade teacher Mme. Rivere that I’m afraid my course was thenceforward ever set.
16 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
The poet writes poetry because he is a poet. (Wallace Stevens)
What else is there to do in the time before sunset? (Plato)
17 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Book: In Search of Lost Time (Vol 4: Sodom & Gomorrah—only three more volumes to go!). As for films, well, the only genres on offer at the cineplex here in Oaxaca are horror, horror/action, horror/thriller, horror/terror and romantic comedy, so I’ve seen a lot of really bad monster movies in the last few months (I’ll do anything for popcorn). But we managed to rent Kurosawa’s Kagemusha a few weeks ago, and parts of that were terrific.
18 - What are you currently working on?
Sit! Stay! Come!
12 or 20 questions archive