Interview with Su Smallen

Tell Tell Poetry loves reading Su Smallen's work, so when she reached out to us about her new book, we were ecstatic. Tell Tell Poetry's Brian Orth chatted with Su abut her collection You This Close. Su Smallen is the author of six collections of poetry. Her first collection, Weight of Light, was nominated for the Pushcart Press Editor's Book Award, and Buddha, Proof was a Minnesota Book Award Finalist. Su was a professional choreographer and dancer, and her poetry has served as scores for dance and film, including Miracle of the Spring.

Brian Orth: In his book Leaping Poetry, a collection of brief essays on the influence of associative thought, Robert Bly contends that much of the enjoyment the reader experiences inside a poem has to deal with the shifting “from an object soaked in unconscious substance to an object or idea soaked in conscious psychic substance.” Throughout much of You This Close, I found myself returning to this idea as I moved from one poem to the next. How did you come about the form for this section—the ending of one poem ultimately beginning the next? It was almost as if each piece was a portion of a larger mosaic that allowed a sort of poetic “leaping” from the unconscious and conscious.

Along with the connective form that holds this section together, I was drawn particularly to the way in which internal rhyme and assonance brought a lyrical component that often lead toward another train of thought. Would you say the manner in which the words flowed into one another played a large part in the associative thought process?

Su Smallen: The formal structure of You This Close is a free-verse borrowing of the corona or crown of sonnets, in which the last line of one poem becomes the first line of the next, and the last line of the last poem is the first line of the first poem, thereby completing the crown. And yes, this formal structure did facilitate a poetic leaping in that the structure asked me to dwell with lines and explore how I could use them in new ways—and sometimes, in that playful dwelling-with, the repetition of lines became slant (as in slant rhyme).

Words flowing, morphing, recalling, calling forth, and sparkling in their facets of meaning always play a large part in my associative thought process. Bly, for all his wonderfulness, sometimes makes my head hurt. Conscious psychic substance, unconscious substance…I don’t think about that. The healthy brain is inherently associative; we are innately lyrical beings. I just observe, feel, and write.

In your wonderful poem “Stabbing today’s lovely fish” the speaker relates love to the force of gravity and that we are “bodies within bodies… nesting dolls of nesting dolls.” There are even several instances in which the poem addresses a lover—how much of this work is a type of undressing, of stripping down the layers of love in front of the reader? (I can’t help but return to the first poem of unlacing your jesses).

The poems of You This Close address a beloved not yet met. They are love poems, but not, for the most part, erotic. They say, “This is what happened today, this is what I thought about, these are the things I would tell you if you were here. And, by the way, where are you?” Ordinary intimacy is vulnerable. The poems are hopeful, even if they carry some pounds of doubt. They believe in the forces of attraction, which include gravity.

Nature often acts as a conduit for the speaker’s personal mythology as well. There’s that beautiful line in “The Students Who Come to Me with Writing Anxiety” where the speaker says “Even a January lacking snow summons up some internal whatfor.” How much does/did nature’s presence influence emotion, and vice versa?

How much does nature influence emotion, and emotion influence nature? Wow, that’s a great question, a huge question. That makes me want to go to the library and read for a few months, then talk with lots of people. But to give you an answer right now—a felt, versus thought answer, I would say we are nature. We forget this, and this forgetting leads to isolation and devastation of all sorts.

About halfway through the collection there is a sense of despair that returns when the speaker is unable to take part in a parade. Would you say the motif of exclusion is a force that generates momentum moving into “Wild Hush”?

Nice! I hadn’t thought of it that way, as a motif of exclusion; but exclusion is one form of loneliness. I think a lot about loneliness; I’ve thought about it for years. In fact, when I wrote my first college paper, for sociology, I—shy as I am, and especially so then—interviewed other students about loneliness. No one voluntarily talked about loneliness, but when I knocked on strangers’ dorm room doors and asked, I was surprised how relieved people were to have been asked and listened to. So I write a lot about, or from, loneliness.

“Wild Hush” begins with a shift into the prose poem as well as a more free associative narrative that reads like an introspective whisper-yell. Is this section the speaker’s attempt to break away from the familiar connective thought that perhaps held him/her back? Or, in other words, it strikes the reader as if “Wild Hush” is a different manner of undressing—in place of nature’s impact on the speaker we have memory. How did the movement from the exterior world to interior being influence this section? Was this shift a factor in the various forms we encounter? Is the speaker attempting to find his or her own voice through experimentation of style?

When I began to study the craft of poetry, I was trained by Deborah Keenan to always experiment, always mix it up. Now that kind of shape-shifting ranks high among my aesthetic values. How does this experimenting affect voice? Well, this is the sort of thing that’s hard to think about about one’s own writing. To me, it’s always my voice, no matter the form. Where is the demarcation between interior and exterior? It could be said to be outside the body and inside the body, but that’s too simple. That doesn’t account for—oh so much.

The poems of Wild Hush are as much influenced by nature, the natural world, as are the poems of You This Close. Maybe they differ in preposition, in relationship, in that You This Close is “looking for,” whereas Wild Hush is “looking at.” The Wild Hush poems were not composed as tightly, or as intentionally interconnected, as the You poems, and they were written over a longer time span. They do connect, they resonate, because they come from “the coherence of my self,” as William Stafford says.

As a writer, I trust that coherence of self, and I also trust the coherence of the whole we are part of. Virginia Woolf wrote about the “shock-receiving capacity” that made her a writer. She said she learned to recognize that a shock, or an exceptional moment, is valuable because “it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances.” That real thing is what I’m writing toward.