“The Answer”: Five Questions with Susan Parr
Susan Parr is the author of Pacific Shooter, awarded the Lena-Miles Wever Todd prize from Pleiades Press. Her work is anthologized in The Best American Poetry series and in Alive at the Center: Poetry from the Pacific Northwest (Ooligan Press, 2013). Born in Las Cruces, New Mexico, she was educated at Barnard College in New York City, earning honors in Russian Studies. She has an M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Washington, where she received an Academy of American Poets Prize and the MacLeod-Grobe Prize. In 2011 she was honored to be chosen as a Strange Coupling fellow via the University of Washington Fine Arts program. Her poems have appeared in such journals as DIAGRAM, PageBoy, The Seattle Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, MARGIE, Birch Gang Review.
Charlie Olsen: I often struggle to understand the meaning of many contemporary poems. What would you recommend to a young poet like myself, to help understand contemporary poetry better?
Susan Parr: I was intimidated by poetry when I was younger. I only gradually read it, poets that I thought I ‘got’ at first, like Gary Snyder. I liked punk (this was the 80’s), so I ended up having a way in to challenging poets because they felt rebellious. Leslie Scalapino, for example.
Fast forward a few years. I worked as a graphic designer, in user interface design, which is about making apps or mechanisms intuitive. In UI design there’s a concept of “affordances,” a term for any cue that guides the user. The goal was optimum flow: enable a person to get something done easily without worry about the system itself. In contemporary poetry, the usual “affordances” of language are sometimes missing. A reader might wonder, am I connecting with what the poet is intending? Is this door just hard to open because I’m kind of dense, or is my difficultly opening it part of the plan? I like creating affordances, but a reader is not a ‘user,’ really. In fact one argument from experimental writing was that the reader is, and should be, the creator of meaning. Another perspective is that life is a much more open and groundless field than we like to think. Poets can work from a yearning to be true to the felt human experience of contradiction, diversity, perspective, complexity.
To return to Leslie Scalapino: I didn’t understand a lot of her poems, but I remember one series that affected me. Choppy images, urban setting, anxiety. I recall those poems—and perhaps my recall is blurry, I want to reread them—as a beautiful expression of something that I wasn’t reading elsewhere at the time: namely, what’s it like to be a young woman in a landscape of parking garages, weeds, dead industry, and fast food? I myself was hanging out in New Haven in those kind of areas feeling as frazzled as the poems were. Something about the fragmented poetry was the most efficient way to create a flow of recognition.
Not all contemporary poetry necessarily succeeds at such connections. Another issue is that the recognitions can be painful. Sometimes it seems to me that a major recognition in contemporary poetry is a sense of ‘what are we doing to ourselves?’ Do we as readers resist such recognitions, or do the poems resist us? We’re presented with a continuum of trade offs: an interior truth might decay into solipsism; accessibility might devolve into cliche. A poem is necessarily a stance (and scamper) in a field of trade-offs. One can read some contemporary poetry to stretch the mind’s focus and openness, while at the same time not devaluing one’s reading experience. We can ask, how is this poem affecting me? What if my living circumstances were different? How do I myself, as a poet, want to reach out in communication with others?
Charlie Olsen: Can you explain your drafts/revision process you go through before you produce the final poem?
Susan Parr: I have two main ways. One involves creating a poem from a wisp of an idea. Literally as I’m drifting off to sleep sometimes, I’ll think of the phrase or line. Then, I continue by sound, writing additional lines. It’s like trying to pronounce a language I don’t know very well. (This way—no this way—stutter stutter.) I have a blank pad of paper—I find that line-free paper helps drafting. After all, a rough draft is not a penmanship exercise. I write down by hand, and sleep on it. Sometimes literally. Editing follows the next day. In another way, I start from a wordlist. I have saved these random lists of words which used to be attached to junk e-mails. From these, I piece together a messy kind of story. I seek coherence, I don’t want noisy jumbles. Then I move to the computer to edit, which takes much more time, many iterations, constant sculpting, chiseling, reworking, rethinking, changing gender for example (if there are ‘characters’). “Ecstatic Cling” started with an electrician’s girl, not boy. But the poem draft stalled for some reason, and the change of gender helped. In other cases, I might realize the poem needs a middle, or more of a delay before the end. I draft that part, start the process from the beginning, then go back to editing.
Charlie Olsen: When writing a poem, what literary devices do you rely on the most and find the most useful to produce the best poetry?
Susan Parr: That’s an interesting way of putting it. I originally was going to say that I don’t think about devices or technical strategies while writing. However, one device is perhaps relevant. I try to write by sound, and also by steps in the story or argument of the poem. It’s almost a rhythm (of thought, alongside the sound rhythm) that develops from the core scrap of idea. I try to follow that, and so the device of a preliminary, relaxed rhyming plays a role. I try to use my reading ear to kind of paint a sound structure with an argument or narrative. Literary devices are part of the process, but I find they sort of tumble out, or are more like the pencil lines, the sketching part of the poem. They can come and go as I edit. Looking back at poems, there are devices I seem to gravitate towards: chiasmus, internal rhymes and relaxed rhyming, sensory detail, but also using nouns and noun-like verbs (aside from gerunds) as an alternative to sensory detail, which can pile up too much. Also double meanings. Occasionally, references or even inside jokes that cheer me up as a writer, give me a chuckle, keep me going.
Charlie Olsen: What is your favorite piece of poetry you have ever written? What is your favorite poem written by another poet? Why?
Susan Parr: For a long time I had a favorite novel (Wuthering Heights). I was kind of a fierce favoriter, so after a while I decided to not be so tied to ultra-favorites, but collections of favorites that could be put on shuffle, as it were. So I don’t quite have a favorite poem, of mine. I do find myself coming back to a little one, “Earthirst.” I like what it does in a small space, how it connects sound in poetry with nature, but from an unexpected angle. I also have poems that I perform, in
character, and these are some of my favorites because it’s so fun to assume a voice and recite them. My favorite new one is “The Answer,” which can be found in DIAGRAM.
From other poets—anything by Bill Knott. I like “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” Keats’ odes, Hopkins in general, Dickinson’s poem that starts “My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun —,” and many others from her; Shakespeare in general, poems by Ikkyū, the 13th/14th century Japanese monk; the poem “Jabberwocky;” a Daniil Kharms poem that I memorized, and don’t remember the title of, but is a kind of Russian, and tragic, variation on the “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” I also loved slowly reading the four volumes of The Penguin Book of French Verse, with prose translations (which I definitely needed). The whole set is a favorite. Many single poems stood out; including “D’un vanneur de blé aux vents,” by renaissance poet Joachim du Bellay.
Charlie Olsen: In the poem “Ecstatic Cling,” what is the significance of using parentheses and dashes? Also, what was the meaning of the epigraph quoting Susan Stewart?
Susan Parr: I intend the dashes as a lengthened pause, not quite offered by a comma. If the poem had a drum accompaniment, there would be no drum beat during the dash. It’s like when a band, playing live, breaks all at once—stop—then starts up again, in unison.
The parentheses are a moment of answering a question. Why did the character, or speaker, attempt to go to into that source, the biting mouth!? The parentheses first indicate to the reader that the speaker feels some pressure to stop and answer ‘why,’, and second, they simply carry the answer: “to get inside the den, to grab/ the guilty tooth.” It’s like an aside to an invisible audience. Without the parentheses, the same words would run-on superfluously (even if I added necessary punctuation). The effect would be flatter. The pressure and the invisible audience would be missing. The epigraph is an interesting case. Sometimes a scrap of what I’m currently reading leaps out, commenting on a poem in progress. Literature is a dialogue, and an epigraph can add a voice. The phrase was like a warning from a third character, regarding this fight, in the poem, between the two kids. But the warning concerns plucking, and no one ‘plucks from air’ in the poem—actually the epigraph itself was plucked from air, in a sense. I like the collage quality of epigraphs, but they might not convince everyone that they offer a collage moment. They might appear antiquarian, or look like a fussy start to a poem, or else clinch a summary. They are perhaps lacking an ‘affordance’ that says “I’m bringing you a facet, a perspective from the invisible side of this poem.” In Pacific Shooter, I decided to try the poem without the epigraph—to let the kids tussle unsupervised.