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!

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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.

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

The Next Big Thing Hops to Bethany Reid’s Blog

Bethany Reid

Today, writer Bethany Reid, who graciously agreed to be “tagged” in the Blog Hop, has posted her responses to the interview questions about The Next Big Thing in her writing and her generous write-ups of several blogs she follows. Please click on over to both parts and enjoy!

Bethany Reid earned her MFA and PhD at the University of Washington. She is author of a chapbook, The Coyotes and My Mom (Bellowing Ark Press), and served as an editor for The Seattle Review. She has won the Lois Cranston Memorial Poetry Prize at Calyx and, in 2012, the Gell Prize for her poetry collection Sparrow. She lives with her family in Edmonds, Washington, and teaches at Everett Community College.

Bloggety Hop Hop: “The Next Big Thing” for Writers Who Blog

My thanks to both Andrew McBride and Tsena Paulson for “tagging” me in a nifty writers’ game called Blog Hop, or, The Next Big Thing. How it works is that one blogger chooses three to five others to “tag”; these “taggees” then answer a series of interview questions, designed to highlight their “next big” writing projects, on their own blogs. Then, these writers each “tag” three to five more writers to answer these interview questions on their own blogs, and so on.

The “hop” part comes in as a result of all these writers linking to each other’s blogs. In this way, readers can click through as far as their curiosity carries them, exploring the blogs of as many writers as they wish. The connections work both up and down the chain of taggers and taggees. For instance, Tsena and Andrew “tagged” me in their blog posts last weekend; before that, they were both tagged by Stephanie Renée dos Santos, a Pacific Northwest writer of historical novels who now lives in Brazil. As a result of this chain of tags, I now know about Stephanie’s blog and writing projects, and she knows about mine. (Hi, Stephanie!) She and I both know, now, about the writers tagged by Andrew and Tsena, and all four of us know about the third writer tagged by Stephanie: Portland, Oregon-based Christian DeBenedetti, whose specialty is BEER.

And now you know about them, too!

I welcome my new readers who’ve ended up here as a result of Stephanie’s, Andrew’s, and Tsena’s Blog Hop posts. Thank you so much for reading!

On Monday, January 29, I’ll be posting my responses to the set of interview questions about The Next Big Thing(s) on my writing desk. At that time, I’ll also be naming and posting biographies of the writers I’ll be tagging to carry the Blog Hop forward!

Cheers,
Jennifer

Mythology On, and Off, My Bookshelf, Part 1

Did you ever see the magnificent film Rivers and Tides, about the work of Scottish land artist Andy Goldsworthy? I’m smitten by it, and by Goldsworthy’s work, in which he uses whatever natural materials come to hand (sticks, leaves, rocks, icicles, dandelions) to improvise sculptures that erode sooner or later–and sometimes very soon, in the case of, say, floating leaf-snake shapes that uncoil and flow downstream, or icicle sculptures that collapse when the winter sun reaches them. As you can imagine, I dig the frequency of leaves in his work.  Goldsworthy curls them, tears them, layers them, stacks them, weaves them, fastens them, arranges optical illusions with them. Leaves are one of his primary materials for creating.

Now, picture me falling deeper into smittenness with this film when Goldsworthy mentions offhand the existence of a “tree alphabet”–yes, an alphabet based on the names of trees–in ancient Britain. Google offered me no leads; this was 2004. But earlier this year, while browsing in a used bookstore, I found a copy of English poet Robert Graves’s 1948 doorstop The White Goddess:  A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, which is all about trees, ancient alphabets associated with them, and their symbolic and mythological significances. Dear Readers, I swooned.

It took me over three months to meander all the way down Graves’s many-branched trail through the mythological and linguistic thickets of Western Europe and the Middle East. His examples span the Paleolithic period to English Romanticism, with extended, interwoven analyses of ancient Egyptian, Classical Greek, Old Gaelic, and Medieval troubadour texts, songs, and artifacts. Graves’s deft movement from culture to culture and period to period makes his pace feel dizzying, in spite of the book’s length at 500-odd pages. And though I frequently sensed that his rapid jumps elided possible problems with logic or evidence, his comparative approach kept me fascinated. Never before had I guessed that Isis was worshiped in France, or that the Welsh god Bran was Saturn transplanted. Or that Jesus was the most recent specimen in a vast forest of ancient kings whose bodies were sacrificed and eaten, then resurrected and transmuted to a divine status. Or that the primal figure of the White Goddess of the Sea lurks just behind every patriarchal deity worshiped in the West for the past three and a half millenia. OR that the role of the Irish ollave and Welsh bard was originally not just to entertain royalty with their poems, but to preserve–and conceal–the sacred alphabet of the trees, protecting it from invading cultures whose own magic alphabets and powerful deities threatened to obliterate local peoples’ languages, histories, and beliefs.

The White Goddess has been through many editions and reprints since its original publication in 1948 (my own copy is from 1997), and though it is difficult going and frequently flawed, I can see why its appeal persists. As I understand it, this book helped launch the idea current in theology, cultural anthropology, and popular feminism that prior to the ascendancy of patriarchal religions in the Middle East and Europe, the Goddess was worshiped for her power over birth, maturation, and death; growth, fruition, and harvest; dawn, day, and dark. These motifs saturate myth and literature, of course, even to the point of being cliches. But it’s fascinating to read that before they were symbols, they were attributes and manifestations of a triadic Goddess whose own linguistic code was embedded in trees.

So, Just What Do I Mean by “Poetry at the Intersection of Mythology and,” of all things, “Hiking”?

Hiking–like study, like horses, like composing poetry–is one of my passions.  It’s kinesthetic learning, thinking on (or through) my feet.  As my stride finds a rhythm, my sensory perceptions sharpen, and I notice more and more of what’s around me.  The upward-spiraling notes of a Swainson’s thrush, the white flash of a flicker’s tail feathers, the piney flavor of ripe salal berries:  these details I notice, note, and distill into my poems. A beloved teacher and mentor, the poet Luci Shaw, once told me, “Jennifer, you do your best writing with your hiking boots on.”

The River Spey, Scotland

Walking anywhere inspires me.  I love walking downtown Bellingham, Washington, to learn the layout of my city.  (I call this foot-mapping.)  I love walking Boston–have you hiked the Freedom Trail?–and taking in its history.  But my favorite walking is off the pavement, anywhere.  Dirt trails, kind to my plantar fascia, rate highest, with bonus points for a cold stream to cool those grouchy heels in.  Before our son was born, my husband and I used to take long-distance walking trips in England and Scotland:  one to two weeks of hiking village to village, carrying light packs with just rain gear and one change of clothes, doing “sink laundry” each night at the inexpensive b & b’s where we stayed.  In the Highlands, we hiked the Spey River Valley, sampling single-malt whisky along the way to the North Sea.  In Yorkshire, we hiked a route linking Wharfedale, Wensleydale, and Swaledale.  (As I struggled along with a case of bronchitis, my husband flatteringly nicknamed me The Greet Snorking Fellwheezer.)  Despite the frequent rain, despite the exertion on top of the jet lag, despite the occasional bull ignorant of the laws granting public right-of-way on trails through farmland, walking the long-distance paths of the U.K. is our favorite form of travel.  We use trains and buses to get to our starting point, then do the main route on foot, freeing us to slow down and re-ground as pedestrians.

Our first walking trip (echoing the one in 1990 that I took with my mother) was in the Cotswold Hills, stopping at Roman ruins, 12th-century chapels, and the remains of a medieval monastery pulled down by order from King Henry VIII.  It was experiencing these evocative historical sites that initially linked foot travel with my love of the ancient. Visiting, I launched my search for the meanings of the ancient symbols still visible in those places.  What did that grape-leaf inscription signify to the Roman craftsman who carved it into those stone tiles?  What did the cross, and Christ, mean to the Normans who constructed that church, and to the conquered Anglo-Saxons who worshiped there?  What significance would the monks have seen in the wheat-sheaf pattern decorating the broken stone arches of the abbey?  And more:  how did those long-ago people and cultures eventuate in the people and cultures now living?  How did “they” become, broadly speaking, “us”?

My husband and I eagerly await the year that our son, now five, will have the height and stamina to trek a countryside route with us.  In preparation, I’m already nourishing his hungry interest in geology and archaeology, as well as in apples and cheese (our favorite trailside lunch).