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 Georgia 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!

Paintings by Mary Lingen

Lake Hattie 11 by Mary Lingen

Lake Hattie 11 by Mary Lingen

Sometimes when I’ve been writing and writing until I can’t write another word, I spend some time with visual art, and I can start writing again. Isn’t it interesting how the nonverbal has power to fuel the verbal? Or, maybe it’s simply that beauty strengthens and motivates…

While browsing literary magazines to submit poems to recently, I was reading Shark Reef, a journal based in Washington State’s San Juan Islands, and became captivated by the stunning visual art featured in its issues. When I came across paintings there by Minnesota artist Mary Lingen, I had to see more, and clicked through to her pages at MNArtists.org. I’m excited to show you two of my favorites, from her Lake Hattie series, shared with Mary Lingen’s permission.

Isn’t it surprising, how bare winter branches can carry so much color?

Lake Hattie 10 by Mary Lingen

Lake Hattie 10 by Mary Lingen

To see more of Mary Lingen’s art and learn more about her work, explore her blog at http://marylingen.wordpress.com/2014/03/02/march-1-2014/. For visual and spiritual sustenance, I find myself returning to Mary’s paintings again and again.

Thank you for your marvelous work, Mary, and for permission to share some of it here!

Cheers,
Jennifer

Readings During National Poetry Month

I’ve been invited to participate in three different poetry events in April, all within the span of 12 days! I’m very excited to get to share poems from Impossible Lessons, as well as some new material, at the following readings:

Saturday, April 5, 7:00 p.m. at Village Books in Bellingham. This will be the Bellingham launch of Anacortes poet Heather Curtis’s first collection of poems, Upon Waking. To join Heather in celebrating her book during National Poetry Month, Village Books has invited Shannon Laws, author of the poetry collection Madrona Grove, and me to read with her.

Monday, April 7, 6:45 p.m. at Seattle Public Library, Fremont Branch. Sylvia Byrne Pollack, Michael Schmeltzer, and I will participate in this reading organized by Floating Bridge Press.

Thursday, April 17, 7:00 p.m. at Cafe Zippy in Everett. I’ll be the featured reader at Everett Poetry Nite, which includes music and open mic.

More details to follow!

Cheers,
Jennifer

Reflections on AWP, Part 1

I had a wonderful time attending my first AWP Convention in Seattle the week before last. I went to readings and panel presentations, and made delightful and informative forays into the book fair.

Here, in no particular order, are some thoughts, impressions, and pieces of information I came away with after my three days at the temporary center of the literary universe:

1) There is more than one way to write an ekphrastic poem. I used to think that ekphrastic poems need to be about the work of art they refer to–or at least about the event, scene, or figure that the work of art portrays. In a panel session exploring ekphrastic poetry, I learned some ways to work beyond this conventional definition:

  • The poet can allude to, but not announce, the poem’s relationship to the work of art.
  • The poet can immerse in the work of art, and the work of art can trigger the writing of the poem, without the poem describing the work of art.
  • Images usually suggest stories, and the poet can write a poem that resists the narrative intentions of the image by inventing an alternative story.
  • If, as Edward Hirsch asserts, poems inspired by art are “imaginative acts of attention,” then the way a poet pays attention to one work of art can inform how s/he pays attention to another work of art. In this way, a poem can respond, either explicitly or implicitly, to more than one work of art.

2) It is possible to live quite comfortably on trail mix and espresso for three straight days. Because when tantalizing conference sessions and readings and book displays cram the schedule from 8 a.m. until midnight, who has time to sit down to a proper meal? Well, I am exaggerating a little; I did supplement my trail-mix diet with a Chipotle burrito and a couple of breakfast sandwiches ordered to-go. Also, some very kind friends from Bellingham (thank you, Judy and Luther!) fed me apples and yogurt, and offered me additional high-quality proteins, after a late-night reading. Next time I go to a multi-day conference, I intend to carve out time to try at least a couple of good local restaurants. Or, at the very least, increase the chocolate-chip-to-almonds-and-dried-fruit ratio of my homemade mix.

3) I need to be very, very patient about getting a full-length poetry manuscript into print. Contrary to what the annual “Debut Poets” feature in Poets & Writers Magazine tends to indicate–i.e., that most first-book manuscripts are submitted to just a few publishers before being chosen for publication–the presenters of a panel session on book contests that I attended emphasized that finding a publisher for a poetry manuscript can take many years. As in ten to twelve years. As in multiple times being named a contest finalist, but never being chosen as the winner (a phenomenon known as Bridesmaid’s Syndrome: always the bridesmaid, never the bride). HOWEVER, refusing to be discouraged by these statistics, I took heart from several points made by the editors and poets making up this panel:

  • Having one’s manuscript chosen as a finalist, even when the final judge doesn’t select it to win, does get the attention of the press’s editors and can result in publication outside the auspices of the contest. Panelist Dora Malech, for instance, saw two of her collections published after being named a finalist at two different presses, three years in a row; even though her manuscripts didn’t win these contests, she developed relationships with the editors who eventually chose her work.
  • Prize money attached to a contest is nice, but it won’t solve your financial problems, or even necessarily cover the travel expenses you incur to promote the book.
  • Winning a contest can, nevertheless, attract reviews and publicity that less frequently accompany the publication of other poetry books.
  • 50-65 pages of poems is the new ideal for a full-length collection. (This is because paper and printing costs have continued to rise, and the recession has made book buyers even more price-conscious than before.) While some poetry publishers allow manuscripts of up to 90 or more pages, Joseph Harrison, editor at Waywiser Press, quipped, “I’ve never seen an 88-page manuscript that needed all 88 pages.”
  • Another conclusion I drew from this panel session is that I am UNBELIEVABLY FORTUNATE  to have a substantial chapbook in print. Thank you, Lana Hechtman Ayers of MoonPath Press, for turning me into the published author of a beautiful little book. You are my Fairy Godmother.

In Part 2, which will follow soon, I’ll elaborate on these further points:

  • The chapbook abides as a thing of beauty.
  • There is a place for politics in poetry, so long as the poetry is not sacrificed to the political message.
  • Editors and publishers are actual people, and I had the pleasure of meeting several very fine ones.

Thanks for reading!
Jennifer

Poetry on the Radio

Poetic Moments at KMRE 102.3 Bellingham

Poetic Moments at KMRE 102.3 Bellingham

Bellingham, WA poet Shannon Laws, under her radio name Boosie Vox, has added a new feature titled “Poetic Moments” to her radio show on the local KMRE station. In between “Golden Age of Radio” music segments, audio recordings of local poets reading their work are randomly aired. Shannon devoted countless hours during November and December recording Bellingham-area poets. Shannon produced the recordings and prepared them for broadcast. All of them are assembled here on Boosie Vox’s Sound Cloud; please have fun browsing this large and wonderful sample of poetry audio by many poets dear and near to me!

I’m honored that Shannon recorded four of my poems from Impossible Lessons. Here’s “Strange Bird,” which originally appeared in Cascadia Review. For some reason, I can’t embed the audio in this post, so please click on the fifth recording down to listen!

STRANGE BIRD

What bird are you? Hawk-shaped, gray,
tail striped and neck ringed in white,
you hover and swoop, low, a few feet above
the hay stubble, spying for mice.

Once, you dart down,
scramble in the grass, lost to my view
as you sate your raptor’s appetite on some
ground-bound creature.

But if hunting’s your purpose, why
do you round me in your orbits,
line me in your sights, between flights
to the field’s far corners? What am I to you?

I wonder further, amble the field—
then you return again, hover,
and drop this poem
into my mouth.

Recap of Reading at SoulFood Poetry Night

Bethany Reid at SoulFood January 16, 2014

Bethany Reid at SoulFood
January 16, 2014

I had a wonderful time co-featuring with Bethany Reid at SoulFood Poetry Night last Thursday. Many thanks to series co-curators Michael Dylan Welch and Tanya McDonald, who created a wonderful atmosphere for sharing poetry. Thanks, too, to SoulFood Coffee House, home of Victoria the Espresso Machine. And much gratitude to Bethany, who provides the play-by-play and many kind words here. Have I told you how much I adore her collection, Sparrow?

Tomorrow! Reading at Village Books with Kathryn Hunt, 7:00 p.m.

Kathryn Hunt, Author of Long Way Through Ruin

Kathryn Hunt, Author of Long Way Through Ruin

One more reminder: tomorrow, Saturday the 11th, is the evening I’ll be reading with Port Townsend poet and filmmaker Kathryn Hunt. I hope to see you there!

Also at Village Books, at 4:00 p.m., Ann Gerike and Hannah Faith Notess will be reading from their new poetry chapbooks published by Floating Bridge Press. There’ll be time between their reading and ours for conversation, book browsing, and dinner in Fairhaven. Why not make an evening of it?

Village Books
1200 11th Street
Bellingham, WA 98225
(360) 671-2626
www.villagebooks.com