Monday, March 09, 2015

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Susanne Dyckman

Susanne Dyckman is the author of equilibrium’s form (Shearsman Books), and three chapbooks, Counterweight (Woodland Editions), Transiting Indigo (EtherDome),and Source (above/ground press).  Her writing has appeared in a number of journals, most recently Touch the Donkey, Pallaksch, Pallaksch, and on the Kelsey Street Press website. She’s taught poetry at SF State and the University of San Francisco, and has been a finalist for the Ahsahta Press Sawtooth Poetry Prize and the EPR Discovery Award. Though she has lived in Chicago, Philadelphia, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, San Francisco and Oakland, she now calls home Albany, California, where she hosts the occasional Evelyn Avenue summer reading series.

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 first book changed my life in a very good way for one short evening. When my box of copies arrived at my doorstep, on the winter solstice of that year, I was thrilled.  Once that sense of euphoria passed (“It looks beautiful! I have a book!”), I had to go about setting up readings, sending out copies, and addressing all the business of book promotion, which was much less fun for me.  I would rather have been writing. But, there is deep satisfaction in having a first book appear.  There is a feeling of having more formally entered a writing community.  And, there is the hope that some one person will come across the book and find it of value.       

I see my current work as a continuation of what I’ve written in the past, sometimes surprisingly so.  I turn outward now more than I once did, though turning outward inevitably brings me back to an internal viewpoint. I have come to feel a bit more at ease playing with a variety of forms. At one point in my writing life it was important to spread my work across the page, using the page as a canvas.  More recently, I have used a variety of shapes for my poems.  Some work is scrunched up in a block-like form, some is left-justified, and other work again uses the whole blank of the page.  I don’t feel I need one signature. 

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My first memory of writing a poem is from a grade school assignment, but it was really in high school that I started to dedicate myself to the work.  My parents had taken me along on a visit to the home of one of their friends, and, incredibly bored, as teenagers so often are, I picked up a poetry journal that was in a basket by the side of a chair.  I read it, enjoyed it, and thought to myself, yes, I can do this too, and I want to do it.  That began my serious reading and writing of poetry.

I never felt much interest in writing fiction, though I have tried to write short stories and a memoir, with the result that both ended up feeling more like prose poems than anything else. I like the open-endedness of poetry.  I find it spacious.

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?

Writing projects generally start for me in a serendipitous way.  I’ll run across something, an image, another’s book, or, though less frequently, an idea, and feel compelled to respond. I have many false starts, but eventually find a project that is satisfying. 

Sometimes a first draft is just right, or only requires a bit of editing.  Another poem may have to go through several versions before I discover where I want it to land.    

I have taken notes, but never copious ones.   A line or two may come to mind.  I’ll write it down and save it, or discard it all together. I trust that even a promising line that eventually gets discarded is useful, and will reappear in another form at another time.  For one project I did some historical research so I could carry an understanding of the period into the work as I wrote.  But that was a first for me.  Generally I write from what I know, observe, or question.

My writing happens both slowly and quickly.  I can take forever to finish one poem, and then write several more in a very short period of time.  There is nothing consistent in my process.   

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?
I’ve never started writing with the idea of a book.  I might write one poem and find whatever image or impulse sparked it to be useful, and so I’ll write a second and third, ending up with a series.  But after a certain point I stop, not wanting to force the process, or to write more simply for the sake of volume.  Generally, when I’ve completed a certain number of pages, say 10 or so, I feel I’ve finished.  I don’t want to over-work what I’m doing.  I do admire poets who can put together a book-length manuscript that sustains one structure or theme, but I haven’t been able to do so.  That is, unless one considers theme in the broadest sense, that is, what my overarching poetic concerns are, and in that case, yes, I trust that somehow the work will come together.  It is in the process of arranging a manuscript that I most often see how seemingly different projects can be integrated into one book.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?   
At my first public reading my legs shook so uncontrollably I didn’t know how I was going to be able to finish.  Happily, that doesn’t happen any more.  I always agree to read when asked, and, as the day approaches, always wonder why I did so.  I am at heart very shy, so presenting to a group of strangers (or even not-so-strangers) can be challenging. Over time I’ve learned that a public reading has nothing to do with me as a person and everything to do with the poems.  That understanding frees me.  I am offering the poems to the audience.  And, if I feel the response is positive, I am pleased and encouraged. 

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?
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a theoretical concern?  It sounds so compelling.  But what I am trying to do with my work is curiosity-based and intuitive. I am stringing together words (and sounds) in the hope I can convey something that is often pre-verbal.  We experience an instant response to the “other”, whether a person or image, that I am interested in exploring through poetry.  How many, or how few, words might it take to achieve that? 

In a broader sense, that is, of poetry as a whole, and if poetry can be spoken of as one thing, I can’t say that I believe there is, or should be, one current question.  The world is big, there are many poets, and poetry is plastic – it can be made manifest in different ways. I am not very interested in arguments as to it needing to have a specific concern or form, but enjoy, to varying degrees, the variety of approaches there are to putting words on a page, or to words spoken aloud.  Some, yes, I enjoy and appreciate more than others, but that doesn’t diminish those I like less. Debates about what constitutes poetry are often impassioned and interesting to read, but it seems to me we are promoting an economy of scarcity when we demand that one poetics be superior to another. 

A current question that comes to mind is the place of politics in poetry. Poetry that is overtly political can be important and move us and make us aware.  I also believe that I carry my politics into my writing whether or not the subject of the poem is political.  I think the same is true of spiritual views. That is, the poem comes from the poet and holds all the poet’s concerns.  A poem is likely not able to be all things to all readers, but then the same is true of other arts.  I can appreciate the art of both Monet and Eva Hesse, the writing of both Shakespeare and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha.  Artistic skill and effectiveness come in different forms, or are apparent in a number of different forms.  

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? 
Yes, I think a writer has an important role.  But the term ‘writer’ encompasses a variety of genres, making the role not a singular one. I find the larger US culture (and perhaps those beyond the US as well) to be increasingly frenetic, and while I’m not at all opposed to a good frenzy every so often, the constancy of that pace impacts how I/we live.  A writer can stop time, in that the reader can take a moment to consider a story-line, our relationships with one another (specific or general) or simply experience pleasure.  Poetry in particular is a way to pause and step out of one’s self before stepping back in, and in the best of poetry, that stepping back in is of a slightly changed being. 

On a larger scale – that is of the whole planet – I do think a writer can broaden views, impart important information, and, hopefully, if this isn’t wishing for too much, sensitize us.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I don’t have an outside editor, though I have many poet friends who are kind enough to read my work and comment on it.  Am I missing something essential? 

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Keep a sense of humor. And that was advice given to me directly.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Critical prose is a bit daunting to me, as I do it so rarely. Since I do not, for the most part, exist in the academic world, my assumption is that there are others who do and who are writing plenty of thoughtful, critical pieces. The appeal of a well-written critical piece is that it can make you think deeply about a subject, or understand something you may not have prior to the reading.

I do think it would be good for me to try more critical writing, to make time for it. Yet, if I were to actually admit how ridiculously long it is taking me to answer these 20 thoughtful questions you’ve posed, I think I’d be well-advised to forget about taking on any writing projects of that sort.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
My son is grown, so I can now skip the morning challenge of making breakfast, packing a lunch, and getting him off to school. My day begins when I get out of bed and head straight to the kitchen to make coffee.  Once that’s done I sit at my kitchen table, look out the window, check my calendar (what am I forgetting that I have to do?), read the daily headlines, turn on the radio to check traffic and weather, and then open my journal to start writing.  I have a day job managing grants and contracts for a department of a local children’s hospital, so on weekday mornings I also watch the clock.  I give myself five minutes to write, which usually turns into 10 or 15, at which point I look at the clock again and start to feel pressed for time.  There is a glass door leading to my backyard, and a fig tree grows on one side of the back porch.  I stare at the tree, which I love, check the clock once more, and then get ready to leave the house.

I try to allow for some writing time every weekend, though that tends to happen in sprints, rather than as a set pattern.  

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Reading poems, so I can re-experience the pleasure.  Then I will look around my small office at art books, or some book that is not about poetry, and see if it might be a prompt.  If I’m still stuck, I will likely turn to a friend who knows my work and ask if she or he has an idea for me.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Coffee and sandalwood, with a hint of mildew (though California is experiencing a drought, I live in a perpetually damp area).

14 - 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?
Visual art, especially photography, has a strong influence on my work.  The challenge of translating a response to a visual piece into language is intriguing to me.  I am not interested in describing the visual itself, but rather using my reaction to it as a means to entering a poem.  The artist has created something that my eye takes in.  How do I move from what the eye sees to words on a page?  I don’t only write to the visual, but I do find it one way to begin working.

I don’t write much about nature or science, though there is a lot of work that beautifully incorporates both.  There are times when a natural setting can take my breath away. Still, I’m more drawn to the urban, both the internal and external life of a city.  And water.

I know that music has a strong influence on many poets, which of course makes perfect sense, as a poem is a type of song.  I love music, and might listen to it to feel enlivened, but I won’t listen to it as I write.  I have a worry that it will somehow interfere with what I am doing.  I think music is important as a way to attune the ear, but I’d rather carry the memory or echo of it with me to the page.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Two very different questions.

Dictee by Theresa Hak Kung Cha opened to me the remarkable possibilities of what a book can be, and articulates how I feel about language.  “Bit by bit. Commas, periods, the/ pauses.  Before and after./After having been.  All./Before having been.”  I recommend the book to as many people as possible.

The one poem that has been extremely important to my life outside of writing is Wallace Stevens' “The Well Dressed Man with a Beard”.  While Steven’s work has long been an inspiration, this particular poem is where I go for comfort.  I’ve revisited it, recited it in my mind, many times when I needed encouragement.  “After the final no there comes a yes”.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
What a lovely question. I’ll first give my fantasy answer.  I would like to live in a warm place by the ocean, to fall asleep listening to the sound of waves, or wake in the morning and see nothing but water on the horizon, sunlight bouncing across it.  The ocean is both comforting and fierce, and I would like to be right on its edge.   

On a more probable note, I’d like to do some work with literacy.  Reading is such an important part of my life, and I remember my excitement when I first deciphered the code of symbols printed on a page (yes, it was Dick and Jane). I think navigating this world without being able to read, or read well, must be incredibly frustrating.  Could I impart some of that excitement (and practicality) to others?  I don’t know for certain, but I imagine it as being satisfying.       

17 - 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?
As a child I thought I’d grow up to be a social worker.  I had read a children’s biography of Jane Addams and was inspired.   Having parent who were teachers, I thought that might also be a good path to take. As an adult, I have done some teaching, but no social work, though I’ve been working with social workers for a number of years.

If I were to do something else, were to have a completely different occupation, I would be a photographer.  I find photographs to be like poems, an attempt to capture something and hold it for a moment, to make the intangible tangible.  So, maybe that wouldn’t actually be an entirely different occupation, but it would involve a very different skill-set.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I always thought to have a signing voice like Aretha Franklin’s would be heavenly.  But, that’s apparently not in my cards.  The beauty of writing is it can be done anywhere, at any time.  I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to “be a writer”, though I did make a conscious decision to write.  What I might not be able to say aloud I can try to say on paper.   

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Great is a big word, and has me running to my bookshelves to look.  It’s too hard to choose, as if I’m being asked “which of your children do you love the most?”  But, to answer your question, the novel I’ve read most recently that I’d recommend is Lila by Marilynne Robinson.  

And the last great film?  That too is a tall order. I don’t go to movies on a regular basis, but not long ago I saw Birdman, and I thought it was very good. 

20 - What are you currently working on?
My latest work is what I think will be a long poem that comes out of daily morning writing.  It began as an exercise, another “let’s see what happens if…” adventure.  The process, so far, requires extensive cutting and editing, reducing several pages to one or two. But I’m enjoying it, if only because it is a new approach for me, something different from what I’ve been doing/have done with my other poems, and remains very open-ended.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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