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!

Artist Profile in the Bellingham Herald

Yesterday, the Bellingham Herald ran an Artist Profile of me in advance of my chapbook launch next Wednesday. The interviewer, Margaret Bikman, had me discuss details about my writing process and my attraction to poetry in order to shed light on the poems in Impossible Lessons. If you’re interested in those things, or in learning more about my mysterious past, please check out the interview here.

Happy weekend, and thanks for reading!
Jennifer

Words and Images Artfully Paired by Caitlin Thomson

Caitlin Thomson's WORD & IMAGE Tumblr, June 20, 2013

Caitlin Thomson’s WORD & IMAGE Tumblr, June 20, 2013

Caitlin Thomson, whom you may remember from last winter’s Blog Hop project, is doing many lovely things. Among them, she’s curating a  Tumblr site called Poem & Image that pairs short passages from poems with eye-catching images. She explains her approach, and her goal of helping to make poetry more accessible to non-poetry readers, in her new blog post titled “Poetry, Popularity, and Image.” 

Last week, Caitlin did me the honor of choosing a passage from my poem “Ten Great Gifts for the Woman Who Has Nothing” to present with a luminous seascape image. Thank you, Caitlin, for your thoughtful work with my, and everyone else’s, words.

How Do I Get My Hands on This Book, You Ask?

Dear Readers,

Please go ahead and judge this book by its cover, which I like very much.

Please go ahead and judge this book by its cover, which I like very much.

As promised, I’ve figured out how to get my new chapbook of poems, Impossible Lessons, to you if you’d like a copy. Here are four ways:

1) If you live in Whatcom County, Village Books now has copies upstairs in the Poetry Section; look for the “Local Authors” display. *

2) If you can come to my book launch celebration at Village Books on July 10 (7:00 p.m.), I’ll sign your copy and probably also give you a hug.

3) If you live elsewhere in the U.S., please email me at jenniferbullis (at) comcast (dot) net and give me your mailing address. I’ll email you back with my mailing address; you mail me a check for $10, and I’ll mail you a signed copy. Postage is on me!

Please know that if you buy through Amazon, neither my publisher (MoonPath Press) nor I receive any income for the copy. That’s why I’m plugging these other options. However, I do encourage you to visit the Amazon page for Impossible Lessons so that you can browse the first several poems of the book and read the embarrassingly sweet blurbs that some poet-friends of mine wrote for the back cover.

4) If you live outside the U.S., please do order your copy through Amazon.com. Their magical international sourcing elves will ship it to you for much cheaper than I can arrange.

Thank you, dear readers, for all your support and enthusiasm about this book! I’m delighted that it’s finally here to share with you!

Cheers,
Jennifer

* If you live in Whatcom County and your name happens to be Lee, John S. (of John and Lee), John S. (the other John S.), Luci, Marya, Jeff, Sherri, Jeremy, or Carol–you all know who you are–don’t you dare buy a copy! I will be delivering yours to you in person.

OMG! My Chapbook! It’s Here!

Today I came home to a huge carton on my doorstep. From CreateSpace. Could it be–already?

Yes, Dear Readers. Yes it is.

My chapbook!

The front cover. Remember all that fuss over which of Mark's photos to use? (Yeah, me neither.)

The front cover. Remember all that fuss over which of Mark’s photos to use? (Yeah, me neither.)

I am, as you might guess, giddy. It is 43 pages of poems, elegantly arranged over 58 pages, Oreo-cookied between one of the loveliest photos ever taken of fall leaves in the Methow River and three of the most embarrassingly glowing blurbs ever to grace a back cover. I can hardly believe it.

I’m profoundly grateful to Lana Hechtman Ayers, editor and publisher of MoonPath Press in Kingston, WA for inviting me, exactly one year ago today, to submit my manuscript for her to consider publishing; for her artfully selecting and shaping the poems into sequence; and for her meticulous care and patience throughout the process of editing and producing the chapbook. I thank Tonya Namura, too, for designing the cover so beautifully and laying out the text. This is my dream come true!

And my thanks to you, Dear Readers, for your enthusiasm and encouragement about this project. It’s been fantastic to be able to share this great news with you throughout the process. I’ll post details soon about getting copies of the chapbook into your hands.

Cheers,
Jennifer

NaPoWriMo Day 4 (Day 9 for Everyone Else)

Inspired by Maureen Thorson’s Day 9 prompt: “Noir” (but with a sort of non-urban twist) and by Doug’s flashback to clip-on earrings.

**

WINTER NOIR

The next one waits, polishing its incisors.
What willing thing would venture near, barefoot?
Some days, it doesn’t know itself
whether it preys or punishes. Or both.

Meanwhile, another clips earrings to her lobes.
She uses the pain to remind herself
of her worthiness. Please watch,
her ministrations seem to say.

Lifted to the level of her smile, each pearl ignites.
She draws the fur onto her shoulders
and against her neck. Outside, the moon
shows paw prints circling in the snow.

NaPoWriMo, Day 3 (Day 8 in other time zones)

Just to keep things confusing, I’m using Maureen Thorson’s Day 4 prompt–spaceship names from Iain M. Banks–as inspiration for this poem.

**

THE INTELLECTUAL AND THE DOMESTIC IMPULSES ENGAGE
IN A FRANK EXCHANGE OF VIEWS

Ordinarily, I suffer from an onslaught of abundance.

We need milk. We need postage stamps.

We need sandwich bread, bananas, and jam.

I refuse to fall victim to ambient distraction.

We need more frozen burritos,
the ones with not too much rice and just
the right amount of cheese.

Principally, each interruption is an apocalypse
of meaning.

Will you put your laundry in the basket?

Will you pick up those Legos from the floor, please?

Fortunately, some conflicts of interest
are grist for good thought.

We need sliced turkey and more applesauce.

Tissues. Peanut butter.

Did Tiresias have a family?
Would his wife have been a prophet, too,
or is one oracle per generation enough?

We need yogurt and a little more culture.

We could use beer and a little less fizz.