Thursday, June 10, 2010

12 or 20 questions: with Susan Tichy

Susan Tichy’s most recent book, Gallowglass(Ahsahta, 2010), takes its title from an Anglicized form of the Gaelic gal-óglac, a foreign soldier or mercenary. Her 2007 book, Bone Pagoda, is an extended meditation on Vietnam—the country, the war, and the moral catastrophe now signified by this word. Both books are underwritten by her experience as a war protester and as the wife of a combat veteran. Tichy’s first book, The Hands in Exile (Random House, 1983), centered on time spent working on the Golan Heights, was selected for the National Poetry Series and also received the Eugene Kayden Award for Poetry. Her second book, A Smell of Burning Starts the Day (Wesleyan University Pr, 1988), resulted from research into human rights abuse in the Philippines during the Marcos years and her subsequent discovery of a family connection to comparable practices during the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902. Her poems have appeared widely in the US and Britain, and have been recognized by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Pushcart Prize, and numerous other awards. Since 1988 she has taught in the Graduate Writing Program at George Mason University. When not teaching, she lives in a ghost town in the Colorado Rockies.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My outward life was most changed by the second book, A Smell of Burning Starts the Day, because that’s when I started teaching. When my first book, The Hands in Exile, came out I was living in a high mountain cabin with a hand pump in the yard, an outhouse, and no electricity or telephone—except on the occasions when we ran out of money, in which case I was living in a motel room 75 miles away, working an office job. A few months after the book came out, I received, at that motel room, a letter from Yehuda Amichai, whose poems had been a great influence. I hadn’t had the nerve to send him the book, but someone had given him a copy. He wrote: “So we have met and we go on meeting,” an affirmation only publication made possible.

My newer work has found a form to embody a certain kind of largeness I had earlier sought almost exclusively at the level of content. These last two books—Bone Pagoda and Gallowglass--have brought me in contact with a lot of younger poets whose work I admire.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

My ear was brought first to poetry by recordings of Scottish and American traditional ballads, and then by reading a lot of adult poems I couldn’t understand but could always hear. In Jr. High, I wrote (in a series of spiral notebooks) a serialized novel about sex, drugs, and angst, which was avidly consumed by my classmates as fast as I could churn it out. Exhilarating, but the public aspect was far too weird.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

A few poems come quickly, in a shape near final, but most of my work is slow. Some days are rapid—lots of lines appearing with what feels like little effort—but the poem or series as a whole will typically take a year, sometimes more. I think I have always been a gradual writer, because I sometimes come upon early drafts and have a hard time recognizing which poems those words became.

4 - 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?

All my books have included research in combination with personal experience, and I do my best work within the frame of a book concept. However, individual poems can start anywhere, from anything. When I’m in the groove, everything sounds like a line of poetry—with the result that I am generally surrounded by reams of notes, quotes, rhymes, puns, rocks, and tea stains, all trying to find their way into poems. Ideas are the magnets that draw these bits into alignment.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

The sound of a poem is central, and I read aloud constantly while composing, so reading to an audience seems both a natural and a slightly surreal extension of that process. And of course I like meeting other poets and readers: I am full of gratitude and admiration for those who curate reading series, and bring us all out and about into each other’s company. The whole endeavor is draining, though, and time-consuming: something to be rationed.

6 - 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 am interested in collage as a practice that draws its material from the environment, from which its material identity never entirely separates. This alters the claims of imagination away from individual creation toward acts of perception and collection, but not away from the idea of individual experience. Beyond found text, collage composition is a way of thinking, retaining respect for the thingness of things as well as the thingness of words-as-sounds. Abstraction is an essential act of mind, but I want it to take place the same way it takes place in experience—not in the diction of the poem, which remains concrete, but in perception as it crosses the great or small distances between phrases, images, sounds. I link this to Taoist ideas of the ten-thousand-things, whose ever-moving relationships constitute and reveal the essential un-thingness of reality.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Poetry resists the degradation of language to mere utility, which is part of the larger (and constant) struggle against dehumanization. It can also serve certain documentary functions—by which I don’t mean “documentary poetry,” per se, but inscription of consciousness, both collective and individual. This is inherent resistance to both oppression and triviality.  I am not very interested, personally, in the writer’s role in culture where culture means the culture industry.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Ahsahta is my third press, my first “small press,” and the only place I’ve actually had an editor who performed a role deserving of the title. Having Janet Holmes as one of my key readers is an honor and it keeps me on my toes. Because she is also a poet, she’s a poet-centric editor, of course, which makes all the difference.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I have two favorites. One: be brave. Two: if you don’t do the last 5% of work required to finish a piece of writing, you’ve wasted your time on the other 95%.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

When teaching, I set aside a couple blocks of time each week, though not always the same time or day. When not teaching, I write most days from nine-ish till one or two. That’s if I have a project going. When I don’t, I muddle about this way and that, accomplishing nothing. In either case, the day begins with tea and reading, then a walk or some other exercise, then the work.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

To everything mentioned above: tea, traditional music, walking, reading, piles of scrap paper covered with scribbles. I make tea moons, listen to the birds. Or turn on the radio and get mad about something.

12 - If there was a fire, what's the first thing you'd grab?

I’ve never had a fire, but I’ve had a wildfire evacuation, and what I learned is that when the day actually comes you don’t grab all the things you thought you’d grab. I had a list, but some things on it seemed terrifically unimportant. After the obvious photographs, laptop, manuscripts, and Chinese tea, I took a few precious books, four pieces of art from Vietnam, my late husband’s writing, and a few things that had belonged to my mother and grandmother. Then I packed my tent and sleeping bag, in case I wound up living in them the rest of the summer.

13 - 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?

Everyone says books come from books, because they do. The hardest part of seeking formal influence from other sources is avoiding using books as mediators. If you want to write walking poems, for example (as I have recently), you think you have to (first or also) read all the literature on walking. I have spent more time than most people out on trails on my own two feet, and have not yet found a path around this problem. I am skeptical when others seem to have found one, because the tracks of their reading are often so visible.

Speaking more pragmatically, Scottish ballads prefigure the aesthetics of collage and the shifting, impersonal “I” in interesting ways, and that intersection fueled both Bone Pagoda and Gallowglass. “Nature” is the world, from which language is derived, not extracted. I try to spend a lot of time there, but can’t say I’ve found a form in language that arises in any specific way from, say, walking a rocky trail.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I’m a magpie, so it’s a long list… I’ll just name some: Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, Marianne Moore, Lorine Niedecker, Susan Howe, George Oppen, Czeslaw Milosz, Yehuda Amichai, Semezdin Mehmedinovich, John Ruskin, early Gary Snyder, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Alec Finlay, the walking artist Hamish Fulton, the ethnohistorian Francis Jennings, the draft resister David Harris, researchers into birdsong, writers of trail guides. I first misread this question as “important for your work, or simplify your life”—the Tao De Ching fits that description.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Finish a book I began in 1994.
Improve my book-arts skills to a point the results stop embarrassing me.
Make a tour of Britain based on installations by the two Finlays, Andy Goldsworthy, et. al.

16 - 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?

Without poetry, I would have ended up in community services or human rights work.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Whatever else I was doing, I felt compelled to bring it back to the page. Form and play are serious business.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Movies? Many are good, few are great. I’ll name The Reader, Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I (thanks to Mel Nichols for giving me that), and an undying favorite—Kurosawa’s Siberian epic, Dersu Uzala.

19 - What are you currently working on?

That book from 1994: Trafficke: An Autobiography ...which is not an autobiography, but a mixed-genre work whose various parts radiate from the life of my ancestor, Alexander Magruder. A transported prisoner of war, he was born 1610 in Perthshire, Scotland, died 1676 in Maryland, the owner of 1200 acres of Indian land, four indentured servants, and one African slave. There followed 300 years of silence. I have been working on that silence.

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