Friday, January 18, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Susan M. Schultz

Susan M. Schultz is a poet, critic, and publisher who lives in Kane`ohe, Hawai`i on the island of O`ahu. She is author of Aleatory Allegories (Salt, 2000), Memory Cards and Adoption Papers (Potes & Poets, 2001), And Then Something Happened (Salt, 2004), and the forthcoming book, Dementia Blog (Singing Horse, 2008). She edited The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry (Alabama, 1995), and wrote A Poetics of Impasse in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (Alabama, 2005). She edits Tinfish Press and teaches at the University of Hawai`i-Manoa.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

I'm not sure that my first book changed anything for me, but I was able to keep my job because of it.

2 - How long have you lived in Hawai`i, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I've lived in Hawai`i since 1990. Hawai`i has changed me in numerous ways, not so much because I write about it (I do, but not exclusively) but because it has forced me to rethink everything I once thought I knew. It does that on a daily basis. What do you mean by everything? you ask. Gender, race, the role of the writer, language, you name it--all of these are in play here.

3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

Where I used to sit down every day and write out of whatever was going on in my mind or in front of me, then weave together collections of poems, I now work on book-length projects. My collection of essays, A Poetics of Impasse in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, worked a bit differently. I began with a coherent project, watched as it broke apart over the course of many years, and then realized that the pieces fit back together into a stuttered narrative. More recently, my project on dementia (my mother's and the nation's) began accidently, as part of a blog I was writing for family and friends, but quickly assumed a form and a shape that sustained itself over months. Either way, each project has an obsessive core out of which come poems or essays that talk to each other through time and then space.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

Public readings are important, although not all writing works out loud, and not all on the page. Since I began reading in public, I think my work has gotten more voice-oriented. And living in Hawai`i, where so much writing is reverse transcription (voices born on the page but coming out of a culture that is off of it) has made a difference, as well.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

Questions! How do public and private concerns intersect, and how can they be addressed without aggrandizing the personal or diminishing the public? As something of a synthesizer, I also want to bring together avant-garde concerns with more rear-guard ones; how can we create meaning inside poems that stands a chance of living outside of them? Some of my concerns are spiritual, though usually driven through the matrix of “meaning” rather than a higher power. Other of my concerns are politics and family, never separately.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Working with an outside editor seems to be more important in my critical than in my creative work. I notice that as an editor, too, I tend to intervene more in prose criticism and less in creative work. On the creative side, though, it seems to be important to me to circulate the poems/prose I'm writing; the mere fact of audience is crucial in ways that are hard to explain. Perhaps that has to do with the farflungness of my literary community more than anything. That said, I just spoke yesterday to Lisa Howe, who is editing and publishing my forthcoming chapbook with Bill Howe, and our discussion was really productive. So I may have overstated the case in sentence #1 of answer #6.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

I think I know better when there is a book coming, but it's not much easier to write them, no.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

Funny, I just ate a pear. Maybe it's because I read these questions yesterday, or maybe it's because there was a pear on the counter.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Advice? I don't know. These days, I mostly dole it out! One of the best questions I remember hearing someone asked was: “what have you learned from a poet whose work you don't like?” That strikes me as a good opening, and I repeat the question often to my students. As for whether that's advice or not, I leave it to you.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

At some point in the late 1990s, I moved from poetry to prose poetry and now poetic prose. I'm not sure why it happened, though it may have had something to do with starting to compose on the computer rather than on paper. It may have had something to do with getting older and more focused on particularity, detail, kids, job, and so on. Whatever the reason, I have a hard time now thinking of myself writing poetry with lines. I still write essays, which I like because they are the work of explication--how does this work, how does it not work? That kind of prose is the under the hood kind. Grease is good. So the appeal would be in the altering of frames, that some writing needs to be in the moment and some needs to be at odds with it.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

It's gotten harder and harder to keep a writing routine. I'm at my computer constantly, but unfortunately a lot of my writing is email, a lot of my reading political blogs and journalism. I no longer write for the sake of writing, which I did in my late 20s and early to mid-30s. When I have a project going, though, I write often. And sometimes I write blindly toward a project, as I did when I composed a travel blog for friends and family that turned into my dementia blog that turned into a book.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

These days, when the writing gets stalled, I allow it to happen. I'm more at peace with the necessity of not writing than I was when I was younger. The introduction to my book of essays is about the significance of the silences, and the first prose poem in my Memory Cards & Adoption Papers book is about making the block into the muse. So, while I'm obsessed with writer's block and feel hostile toward it(!), I also think it has real purpose. Time to breathe, be. Also worth considering for its political implications; why am I as a writer feeling silenced now, and how I can write about such silencing? This is another concern Hawai`i has sensitized me too, as many (older) writers here have had a primal scene of being silenced by a teacher for using “bad English” or not writing marketable prose.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

My forthcoming book Dementia Blog (Singing Horse Press, 2008) feels most like Memory Cards & Adoption Papers (2001), in that it's in poetic prose and concerns the day to day (in this case, the course of my mother's--and the country's--dementia). But it's less jumpy from sentence to sentence. While there are lots of bits of it (strophes or paragraphs, whatever), within each section there is often a sustained meditation. MC & AP was deliberately discontinuous from sentence to sentence. At that time, I was trying to get away from the tendency of my poetry to bring everything together into a wide metaphorical net, to allow the pieces to remain pieces. Once I realized that the pieces qua pieces still floated in the same system, I was able to bring that back into my writing on the level of syntax, use one sentence to lead to the next. And then a break of paragraph!

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

I'm about to teach a course I call “Reading Like a Poet,” where we'll read Susan Howe's Dickinson, Stephen Collis's [see his 12 or 20 questions here] Howe, Baraka's blues, and so on, and then students will perform their own creative critique of another writer. So yes, I believe writing feeds off of writing. One aspect of my Dementia Blog that surprised me as I wrote it was the strong presence (nay, intrusion!) of Wallace Stevens. Here I was trying my damnest to be faithful to what I saw happening in front of me, to note it down, and it was the poet of the imagination who was talking back. So I made that a conscious part of the writing, started talking back to him. I like that process of writing as a way to correspond with (or refuse to correspond with) one's traditions. As for other forms, I listen to a lot of music, and my husband is always talking about science, history and sports are obsessions, and I do go to museums. But I'm mostly a word person, for better and for worse.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Other writers? Depends on what's engaging me when. I've gone through cycles of reading everything I can about adoption, for example, or about dementia, or about Cambodia. So a lot of the reading is prose, and none too lyrical at that. But I also read a lot of poetry; it's my job.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I would like to do something else for a year or two, and then return to life as it is, which ain't bad.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I would have liked to have coached the St. Louis Cardinals. Actually, I did twice--once my son's team of 4 year olds, and then his team of 7 year olds. But really, coaching or writing about sports. If I hadn't been a writer, I might also have been a lawyer or historian. Well, that's a writer too . . .
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Who knows. Writing seems to be a biological process more than anything.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The last great book? The last book of prose that moved me was Barack Obama's Memories of My Father. It's about growing up in Hawai`i as someone who doesn't fit (hardly anyone does, come to think of it). His search for his father strongly resembles many adoption narratives I've read. The rhetoric is sometimes close to overblown, almost 18th century, but I really love that about the book. Kind of like Pam Lu's autobiography. The last great film (I confess I don't see many films, and most of them are decidedly not great) was the Battle of Algiers.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on an essay about Hawai`i's literature since 1959 and on syllabi for next semester. Also editing Dementia Blog for publication by Singing Horse later in the year. Oh and there's an AWP talk that needs doing . . .

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