Thursday, August 04, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Sue Landers

Sue Landers' latest book, FRANKLINSTEIN, tells the story of one Philadelphia neighborhood wrestling with the legacies of colonialism, racism, and capitalism. She is also the author of 248 MGS., A PANIC PICNIC and COVERS. Her chapbooks include 15:A Poetic Engagement with the Chicago Manual of Style and WhatI Was Tweeting While You Were On Facebook. She was the founding editor of the journal Pom2 and has an MFA from George Mason University. She lives in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter @suelanders or visit

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?
While I enjoyed writing my first two books—248 mgs., a panic picnic and Covers—writing my latest book, Franklinstein, was a completely different experience. Franklinstein is a hybrid-genre collection about the historic, predominantly black neighborhood in Philadelphia, where I grew up.

Over the course of four years, I researched the neighborhood’s history and interviewed its residents. I wanted to understand and articulate how a neighborhood, particularly one impacted by centuries of structural racism, evolves over time. I was also exploring my personal connection to the neighborhood’s history, as a white person who grew up there, poor, but with privilege.

The whole writing process was interactive, social, and exploratory. The process of making this book was, truly, nothing short of amazing. I remember one day in particular, I was sitting on a park bench when I met a woman, Terri Lyons, who told me about her mother’s passing and how her mother was “half her heart.” This was within the first fifteen minutes of meeting each other, after we found out we shared an interest in poetry. I felt so overwhelmed with gratitude for how poetry, and the process of writing it, can bring people—complete strangers—into each others’ lives.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
One of the things that I love about poetry is how it approaches the ineffable. Through poetry we can almost articulate how impossible it is to describe all the unfathomable beauty and injustice in our world. While fiction and non-fiction, obviously, can describe the world, there is something about how poetry fails as much as it succeeds which strikes me as more apt, poignant, and powerful.
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?
Each of my books took years to write, mostly because I write in fits and starts, full of interruptions, the most significant of which is my full-time, non-poetry-related job. But I am also a big fan of writing something then putting it down for days or weeks, so I can edit it with fresh eyes. And, well, I also get distracted by TV.

4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction 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 three of my books contain, or are, sequences so I think I fall pretty squarely in the “project” camp. That said, I never know at the very beginning what a book will be – it’s just that after writing a few pieces I start thinking about how they fit together and what they might add up to.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
A big part of my editing process is reading my work aloud so I can hear and adjust the poem’s music. And I love giving readings. Giving readings from Franklinstein while the book was in progress was an integral part of my writing process. Because the book is about a neighborhood I no longer live in, I felt a particular responsibility to “do right” by those currently living there, those whose home I was describing. Thinking about current residents as my primary audience, and then sharing my work with them as I wrote the book, provided me with much needed feedback and perspective.

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 think my work has always, in some way, been interested in memory and history, nostalgia and misperception, social injustice, identity, and how to live in a world of seemingly limitless yet limited information. And in Franklinstein I had a vehicle to explore those ideas in very concrete ways—by getting to know a neighborhood, its people, and all the different forces that shaped it over time. I probably learned more about American history in the past few years than I ever did in school because I was able to see first hand the consequences of the history I was studying. And I think this book works in concert with other behaviors in American literature right now, where writers are processing the objective and subjective, the quantitative and qualitative, data and emotion, in incredibly powerful and insightful ways.

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?
I think great poetry helps us see and understand the world differently and in that way provides us with the perspective we need to be better people and citizens.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Absolutely essential. One of my closest readers is the terrific poet, Allison Cobb, who is that rare gem of an editor who finds both the macro and micro-level issues with a piece, or a collection of poems. I also had an incredible experience working with James Sherry on Franklinstein. He is an incredibly astute reader, and asked me a litany of very difficult questions that helped me approach my revisions in ways that made the book stronger.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
advice you ever received?
After college I was fortunate to get a full scholarship to Washington University’s MFA program. Pretty soon into the first year, though, I realized the program was not a good fit for me. But after going into debt by putting myself through college, it didn’t seem right to look a gift horse in the mouth. So I asked my mother for advice. My mother raised eight children, several as a single parent on Social Security after our father had died. She had only gone to high school herself, knew how to stretch a penny, and believed education was a necessary step towards prosperity. So when I told her about my dilemma, I was sure she would tell me to just suck it up, but surprisingly, she said, “Susie, if someone offered you all the butterscotch vanilla ice cream in the world—and it was totally free—but you hated butterscotch vanilla, would you eat it?” And with that my decision was made—a decision I do not regret one bit.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I love reading and writing hybrid forms because there are different freedoms in both. Prose is great when I want to describe or argue something with accuracy. Poetry helps me manifest or evoke an emotion with precision.

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?
Except for the time I spent at a writing residency or the period I worked part-time in order to finish my manuscript, I have never been able to stick to a writing routine. I try to write on the subway to work, or on weekends, or on vacation, so that over time, the pieces add up.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When I was writing Franklinstein I had two fail-safe ways to get unblocked (and one consistently unsuccessful method—looking in the refrigerator—but I digress). The first was turning off the computer and taking a walk. Without fail, whatever I was getting hung up on would break loose with a walk around the block. The second was turning to other writers for language, specifically, Ben Franklin and Gertrude Stein. When stuck, I would think about the one word that I was either stuck on or that represented the nature of the problem I was having, and then search the electronic versions of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin or The Making of Americans for that word. More times than not, Ben or Gertie would use that word in a way that got me thinking about it, and my problem, differently.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Celery and onions sautéed in butter.

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?
As a non-driver, walking is a vital part of my everyday life and my writing practice. Walking influenced Franklinstein, for sure, since part of getting to know the neighborhood again, part of my research was walking around it. But also, my research involved libraries and archives. Before starting this book, it had been years since I had actually used a library. And I forgot how part of using a library is walking down a corridor, or up a flight of stairs, or waiting for a book to come from somewhere else. How part of using a library is not getting an answer right away. And in that walking and waiting, I thought about writing. To walk around it while thinking it through.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The poets who mean the most to me right now, who inspire me with their unique and powerful voice are Claudia Rankine, Alice Notley, and Dana Ward.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I should probably learn to swim one of these days.

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?
I come from a family of artists who don’t claim that identity in full. A musician who teaches. The lawyer who paints. The scrapbook admin. A wine guy who cooks. I suspect that if it wasn’t writing, I would take up some other art form either as a hobby or as profession if I could make money from it. I really wish I could sing. To be Kim Deal or Beyonce. Chan Marshall or Bjork. Gawd, that would be terrific.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Teenage depression made me start writing bad poems. Hearing Lisa Jarnot read at Bridge Street Books  in graduate school made me start writing less bad poems. Wanting to make sense of the world we live in makes me keep writing.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m really enjoying the Elena Ferrante novels right now. Her ability to capture the psyches of adolescent girls, living in poverty, is bracingly accurate.  I rarely watch movies, but I do love TV. These days I am particularly delighted by Taraji Henson on Empire—she’s a terrific actress, and my god, the costumes, the melodrama—the way she flicked off that netted crystal veil to rush to her son’s aid after he was shot on the red carpet! Oh!

20 - What are you currently working on?
I am writing occasional poems and day-book like pieces, pieces that range from reflections on my daily morning commute through the World Trade Center to that day I came down with appendicitis (ouch!) to that time actress Michelle Williams moved into my Brooklyn neighborhood. Only time will tell how these events add up. 

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