Thursday, September 03, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Susannah Nevison

Susannah Nevison is the author of Lethal Theater (The Ohio State University Press, 2019), the recipient of the Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize from OSU/The Journal, and Teratology (Persea Books, 2015), the recipient of the 2014 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize. She is also the author of In the Field Between Us, a collaborative collection with Molly McCully Brown (Persea Books, 2020). Her poems and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Crazyhorse, Pleiades, The National Poetry Review, and elsewhere. A graduate of the University of Utah, Columbia University, and the University of Southern California, she lives in Virginia, where she is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Sweet Briar College.

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

My first book, Teratology, changed my life pretty significantly. When it was accepted by Persea Books, it was the first time I felt like my poetry would have a real life of its own, that poetry was something I could actually do. My recent work feels different, namely because I’ve just published a book of collaborative poems and that process was new to me. However, my work’s concerns remain the same: the body, autonomy, power dynamics between a system and an individual, the space our culture makes or doesn’t make for bodies that don’t adhere to traditional narratives.

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?

Yes—like I said above, though the shape and form of my work changes, the concerns have remained pretty consistent. I’m constantly investigating the body’s lived experience and the way that shapes identity. I’m especially interested when that experience is shaped by larger, overarching power structures with their own peculiar logics: hospitals, prisons, war. Part of this obsession comes from my own extensive history with medical intervention; part of it comes from a desire to better understand how suffering can yield grace or empathy; and part of it comes from a desire to better understand the limits of language in articulating both that suffering and that empathy.

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?

A writer’s job is to make visible what only she can see, whatever that is. I don’t mean her job is to record just what she sees or notices: it’s not enough to just describe what a shoe looks like. A writer must look at that shoe, and show the reader something the reader couldn’t see or feel before. That’s how we hold culture accountable—we say, if you’re going to play fast and loose with language and give us only the contours of a shoe without exploring the its implications, then we are going slowly explore what that amounts to, and show you that shoeness in a new light. We’re not mirrors. But we are invested in accountability, in asking a culture to clarify, or account for, what it refuses to look at more deeply—and we do that with language.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to collaboration to criticism)? What do you see as the appeal?

Moving among genres is essential for me. It allows me to keep thinking through things on the page, even if one genre is giving me a hard time—it means I can think through something in an essay, while it continues to elude me in a poem. It means I can write a poem about something I can’t articulate in prose. It gives me flexibility, and renews how I think about writing. Switching genres also demands that I learn and relearn how to push the limits of a given form, and I find that incredibly rewarding and joyful. It also allows me to see that the distinctions between genres are often so arbitrary, which I find liberating.

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?

I’m always telling my students to just show up, sit down, and try, and that whatever happens on the page doesn’t matter, so long as something is on the page. Of course, I struggle with this advice myself. I thought I’d write for a few hours this morning. That didn’t happen. But I did unload the dishwasher. And I did attend a virtual meeting. A lot of my writing routine is thinking about things absentmindedly while I do other things—until I feel like I’m going to explode if I don’t write something down. I write a lot in bursts. I have incredibly productive periods followed by periods of silence, when I’m just reading a lot and thinking about things. I love writing residencies because they make me keep to a strict routine, and they’re great for generating new work. My own “routine” is much more malleable, depending on family, and teaching, and the weather, and my own willingness to prioritize a project. But I do show up, sit down, and try, and I’m gentle with myself when the work is—as it is so often—terrible. And I also know that a writing life takes many shapes, and changes over time—mine certainly has, and will continue to. I try to be open to that.

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

If my writing is stalled, I try to read a poet or essayist I haven’t read before. The idea is that someone else’s cadence, the surprise and delight of a new voice, will wake me up. Often it does. I get excited again about what language can do, what it can make. And then, when I turn back to the page, that excitement is enough to get me started again. Other times, I just take a long walk, come back, and start over. Sometimes I email a draft of something to a friend and ask: what am I doing wrong here? What invisible wall am I running into? I’m very lucky that many of my friends are writers, and they’re all smarter than I am.

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’ve always really loved animals. Growing up, I wanted to become a veterinarian. Sometimes I still want to do that.

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

I think I became a writer because you never know what you’re going to be doing next. Some days I’m an expert on bees, because that’s what I’ve been researching. Other days, I get to learn all about the history of a certain law, or the properties of different periodic elements. It’s just wild. I love that so much of my job depends on an insistence to see how something works, or why something works, the way it does, and that I’m constantly learning new things about the world. I think it makes me a pretty bizarre dinner companion, however. Bee facts! Random discoveries about sheet metal! The part of the eye that allows some animals to see in the dark!

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a nonfiction project that deals with the fraught intersection of race, medicine, and the prison system in Virginia. I’m also growing a human; my husband and I are expecting our first child next month. I’m very excited about both projects.

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