1) What are you working on?
I am working on a manuscript, while several ideas for future manuscripts percolate on the back-burner. This current manuscript will be composed of sections of poems on rivers, history, and relationships. I am working on one of the sections in particular at the moment––a monologue in the voice of the Mississippi River (She’s angry, she’s prepared, and she wants to tell you the story of the greatest love affair in the history of North America.). Get ready.
2) How does the work differ from others of its genre?
This is an interesting question. I’m always looking for similarities between my work and the work of other poets, past and present. I’m always searching for models and mentors. However, in searching for models, I’ve realized, to some extent, where my work fits into the conversation: I am interested in books of poetry that operate as books. Of course, the arrangement of poems within a manuscript––their order, their groupings––have always mattered; this act of curation has always been important. But I’m most interested in poems that converse with the surrounding poems more directly––that are woven into the larger work in a particular way, so that the experience of reading the book is like stepping back and viewing the whole mosaic for a moment, and then stepping forward again to read the next poem, to study the next stone. This zooming-in and -out, this dynamism between part and whole, really excites me. In short: I like series. I like books of poems that have the coherence of novels (although novels seek to sustain tension through narrative, and poems through music).
Also, I have to have history in my poems. Nothing that happens to me, or that happens in my poems, has any resonance for me unless it is in conversation with history––particularly with history of place.
So, I think I would have to answer this question by saying that my work doesn’t bear that much resemblance, I don’t think, to the short, smart, syntactically-curious, “contemporary”-feeling poems I come across in journals these days, mixed in among poems of many other styles. I love these poems. I’ve noticed them lately for how different they feel from my own. They belong in singles; they glow singly, like geodes. Although sometimes I envy these poems for how portable they are, I remind myself that it’s a good thing there are so many different minds out there, to write so many different kinds of poetry. And then I go back to my own messy compilation of poems that won’t stop talking to each another….
3) Why do you write what you do?
I wonder this all the time, myself. It’s probably something that I should have figured out by now. I know I have a very good reason for sitting down and writing poems every day––and sweating, and swearing, and failing, and maybe sometimes getting somewhere. I can feel the reason––it lives in my body and never leaves. But I find it hard to define it for myself sometimes.
Is it to make a connection? To communicate? Of course. What else could it be but that?
Is it for some greater good? Humans + Art = Better Humans, or some such formula? Yes. That seems true. I think I would be a far worse person if I didn’t write and read, and I can only assume the same for others.
Is it because it’s fun? Yes. But it’s also distinctly un-relaxing.
The best reason I can come up with today is because I love books so much. I love authors. I just really love authors. Sometimes I want to lick my books, or sleep with stacks of them in my bed, or empty my bank account acquiring more. And, like a child, I want to imitate those I love.
4) How does your writing process work?
It’s highly erratic.
I write in one place, primarily––by myself at home, with my dog next to me. The space has to be clean, with everything in its proper “stack,” or category. One piece of mail out of place will drive me to distraction. I think I have to have this kind of routine, these strict atmospheric rules, because the process itself is so incredibly unwieldy. I do a lot of “following my nose”––picking up that book, and reading that poem, and then this one, until––! I realize something about how to go forward! And I write it down!
This is when it’s helpful to have series. Otherwise I think I would just spin off––starting everything and finishing nothing. If I don’t feel like working on this or that series or long poem (“No….The Mississippi doesn’t feel like talking today,” or, “No, I don’t want to remember that just now…”), I’ll pick another one to work on. All the poems in my manuscript are in varying levels of “done-ness”: basically done forever (yeah right), done until next month, not at all done, and as-yet-completely-unwritten.
Click here for our entry from Susan Kagan.