Going “Above Your Nerve”: An Interview with Persona Poet Susan J. Erickson

Susan J. Erickson

Reading Bellingham poet Susan Erickson’s poem titled “Confession of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, also known as Private Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, Union Army” in the current issue of The Museum of Americana: A Literary Review, I was curious to ask Susan about the whole series of persona poems she’s been working on. I’ve greatly enjoy her poems, several of which have been published in the last couple of years, written in the voices of Frida Kahlo, Emily Dickinson, and Georgia O’Keeffe. As someone also obsessed with persona poems, I asked Susan to describe her project and elaborate on her process. She generously allowed me to share her responses.

Susan, why do you write persona poems–what initially drew you to them?

Maybe for the same reason we like to dress up for Halloween to try on being someone else for a while. Or, perhaps because I am a bit of a snoop and am curious about the how and why of another person’s choices. I noticed I was writing poems about women and after taking a workshop on the persona poem I decided to adopt the form for writing about women.

Sarah Rosetta Wakeman sounds truly fascinating. (Read Susan’s poem about her here.) How did you first encounter her, and what drew you to write your “Confession…” poem in her voice?

The Sarah poem was written in response to a call for poems on the role of women in wars. I discovered that women were in the heat of battle long before they were allowed to join the armed forces. Sarah impersonated a man so she could become a Civil War soldier and wrote letters to her family about the experience. Because I would have lasted two days tops in such a role, I wanted to imagine how Sarah pulled it off for two long years.

How would you describe your book manuscript of persona poems in women’s voices?

There is an Emily Dickinson poem that reads, “If your Nerve, deny you–Go above your Nerve–”  I think of this manuscript as telling the story of women who went above their nerve. I wanted to understand their contributions, pay homage to them and maybe dramatize how each of us can go “Above Nerve” (the working title of the manuscript).

How did you select the women to write about?

Some of them by happenstance. For example, I visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s home Taliesin in Wisconsin and learned about the murder of his mistress Mamah Borthwick Cheney in a fire at the home. So I wrote a pair of poems in the voices of Mamah and Kitty Wright, Frank’s wife, about their reactions when Frank and Mrs. Cheney abandoned their families and sailed to Europe. In another example, because we watch birds I was reading a biography of John James Audubon and became interested in how Lucy Audubon, John’s wife, held the family together while John pursued his ornithological obsessions.

At what point did you realize you had enough persona material for a sustained series, and even a whole book manuscript, in the voices of these women?

I more or less got hooked on writing these poems. In fact, I’m finding it hard to turn off the persona switch. Before long I had a body of work. The challenge is really to decide which poems are strongest and how to put together the women’s voices in a conversation that works for a collection.

In terms of technique, how did you go about creating each woman persona’s voice? Did you do this by borrowing language from texts they wrote, or did your immersion in the imagery of their writings suggest the “sounds” of their voices to you, perhaps? I’m interested in how you zeroed in on the features that make each speaker unique.

I sometimes get overwhelmed with the audacity of thinking I can act as a mouthpiece for another woman. Usually I research a woman’s life (sometimes reading multiple biographies) and work to get a feel for how each woman might react or respond. Most of the poems are based at least partly on actual events in their life–for example, I write about George O’Keeffe making pea soup, a dish she made from produce from her own garden. And, I have Marilyn Monroe imagining her life as menu items at Schrafft’s where she often ate in New York City. In reality, I’m certain Marilyn never made such a comparison. I do use quotes from the woman when they are especially provocative or surprising.

What other links can readers follow to find more of your persona poems online?

“Casa Azul” and “Frida Kahlo Prepares an Altar for Día de los Inocentes “ at 2River View
“Frida and Frankenstein” at Literal Latté
“Mamah Borthwick Cheney Goes Abroad” in Marathon Literary Review
“Before Her Round-the-World Flight Amelia Visits with a Psychic” at The Hamilton Stone Review
“Lucy Audubon Wearies of Coping with Poverty and Her Husband’s Rambling Ways, 1821″ and “In New Orleans, The Audubons Sit for Silhouette Cuttings, 1825″ at The Museum of Americana

Thank you, Susan, for these illuminating comments about your persona poems. I sincerely hope “Above Nerve” finds a publisher soon so that we can read the entire collection!

“Magic and Verve in Your Writing & Yoga Workshop”: June 20-22 in Bellingham, WA

Magic and Verve in Your Writing & Yoga WorkshopHistorical novelist Stephanie Renee Dos Santos, who now lives most the year in Brazil, will be teaching the yoga segment of a workshop with bestselling novelist Barbara King this June in Fairhaven. Yoga and writing–what an excellent combo! Says Stephanie:

Magic and Verve in Your Writing & Yoga Workshop is a 3-day intensive in Fairhaven, WA, USA, co-led by bestselling author Barbara Kyle, and myself, Stephanie Renée dos Santos in historic downtown Fairhaven, along the Salish Sea of Bellingham Bay.

Join Us…

For three days of writing and yoga, June 20-22, 2015, a workshop for all levels of writers and all levels of yoga, from the new to the experienced. Come immerse yourself in your project — and in yoga — while in the support of a group of other passionate writers.

Workshop Includes:

– 3 full days of workshopping your writing, writing instruction, exercises, group exchange, lectures, and take-home handouts.

-3 days of morning yoga, along with afternoon sessions. All materials for practice provided.

Please go to Stephanie’s site for more details and to register. An early bird discount is in effect through March!

Good Poetry News

Hi, everyone, and Happy New Year to you!

Tahoma Literary Review, Issue 2: Cover Art by Camille Patha

Two very lovely poetry things happened to me this week. First, my poem “She Replies to the Alumni Coordinator of the Conservative Christian College Where She Took a Summer Art Class in 1997″ was published in Tahoma Literary Review. Magic! I’m grateful to have had my poem selected by Poetry Editor Kelly Davio, and presented alongside some of my favorite Washington-State poets, including Martha Silano, Nance Van Winckel, Jeannine Hall Gailey, and Michael Schmeltzer. A vibrant painting by Seattle artist Camille Patha graces the cover. Click here to read the issue online or order a print version.

Also, my poem “Amanda Bubble Worries About the Food Chain” was published in the new literary journal Wherewithal. Issue 1 debuted in November, and my poem is featured in this week’s Poet Spotlight. My thanks to Wherewithal editors Denise Weuve, Daniel Romo, Danielle Mitchell, and Melissa Prunty Kemp!

You’re Invited! Poems and Stories about Animals at Good Shepherd Center, Seattle: Tuesday, Nov. 18, 7:00 p.m.

I get to be in a reading with Bethany Reid, Rick Clark, J. Glenn Evans, Douglas Schuder,
and David Horowitz. Please come! Here are the details:

BOW-MOO-MEOW: Poems and Stories about Animals
7:00 p.m., Tuesday, November 18, 2014
Room 202, Good Shepherd Center, 4649 Sunnyside Avenue North, Seattle (Wallingford)

Telephone: David D. Horowitz, 206-633-2725
E-mail: David, rosealleypress@juno.com
URL: www.rosealleypress.com

Amanda Bubble Has Had a Really Good Year

A few years ago, I invented a persona named Amanda Bubble, in whose voice I’ve written a couple of dozen poems. Gradually, hers has become the most frequent voice in my full-length manuscript (the latest iteration of which I’ve given the working title “Amanda Bubble and the Wild-Caught Gods”). Like me, she asks a lot of questions about God, ethics, and poetry. Unlike me, she’s young (probably late twenties), sassy, and frustrated about not being able to write novels. I’m having a lot of fun with her voice, which I imagine includes frequent uptalk at the end of her sentences? And those sentences, sometimes fragments, like she’s just tossing off remarks.

Amanda Bubble has had the good fortune of making a lot of friends in the past year. Four of her poems have been published in two different issues of Clover: A Literary Rag, and another in the 2013 Floating Bridge Review. This year, Floating Bridge Review has chosen another for the forthcoming issue. She has received many kind compliments from audiences at readings, and most exciting of all, she’s become the star of her own chapbook manuscript. (She likes that very much, but is just a little uncomfortable with all the attention?)

That chapbook manuscript, titled “Amanda Bubble Is Nearly on Fire,” was one of five finalists for this year’s Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award, open to Washington-State poets. I’m thrilled that I’ve been invited to give a reading with another finalist, Michael Schmeltzer, and the winner, John Whalen, at the Seattle launch of his winning chapbook, Above the Pear Trees.

That reading will be Monday, September 29, 7:00 p.m. at Richard Hugo House in Seattle.

I’ll also be reading a couple of Amanda Bubble poems at a multi-author reading from the current issue of Clover: A Literary Rag on Sunday, September 21, 4:00 p.m. at Village Books in Bellingham.

If you’re in the area, please come to one or both of these events and enjoy the celebrations!

Gratitude for Words of Encouragement

Joannie Stangeland’s latest collection of poetry (Ravenna Press, 2014)

Many, many thanks to Seattle poet, editor, and winemaker Joannie Stangeland for her write-up of Impossible Lessons as her Saturday Poetry Pick yesterday! Her lovely words are here.

In a wonderful coincidence, I’ve been reading her new book, In Both Hands. The poems there are haunting, replete with precise images of beauty and loss. I’m falling in love with, and going to school on, these incredible poems.

Be sure to read another recent post of Joannie’s, in which she describes her current writing projects.

A Little Story Involving Some Blasphemies in the Garden

Pulling weeds from the raised beds, I was feeling smug and virtuous for choosing to foodscape. We’ll eat lower on the food chain: more veggies, less meat. And the second week of June is never too early to put in your vegetables, right? I was further congratulating myself on allowing the tiny wild pea vines I was ripping out in handfuls to have served as a cover crop all these months. It had proliferated all through the spring: sweet little legume, enriching the soil with its nitrogen-fixing roots.

When I stood to look at the space I’d cleared, I saw about a billion displaced aphids squirming on the soil. Tiny green sugarbodies, suddenly exposed to the sun. They scuttled for the lifeboats, anything moist—grass blades, fir cones, pulled-up pea roots. I picked these up between gloved finger and thumb and dropped them into my wheelbarrow.

Disgusted, sorrowful, I returned two hours later. Toughen up, I told myself: the food chain never was for the faint of stomach. I spaded in compost and manure and the aphids’ billion sun-shriveled bodies. Mixed it all well. Planted my veg.

O goddess of solstice, O patron saint of sciatica, O receiver of insect souls: please bless my goddamn tomatoes.