Interview of our Featured Poet Sue B. Walker by John C. Mannone
Sue Walker is the Stokes Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Alabama and the Poet Laureate of Alabama from 2003-1012. She is the publisher of Negative Capability Press and the journal’s editor.
Sue Brannan Walker is known nationally and internationally for her poetry, as well as for her critical articles on poets and writers such as James Dickey, Marge Piercy, Margaret Atwood, Carson McCullers. As Editor and Publisher of Negative Capability, she has published numerous Alabama poets and writers, providing them a greater audience and some of them their first opportunity to be published. She has continued this work since 1981—a distinguished effort recognized by Writer’s Digest when it ranked Negative Capability Third in the Nation in Poetry in the early 1990s out of approximately 2700 markets.
Her poetry, prose works, and community service have deservedly garnered numerous awards, grants, and fellowships. She has published 9 books of poetry and a critical book on James Dickey: The Ecological Poetics of James Dickey.. One of the poetry collections, Blood Will Bear Your Name, won Book of the Year from Alabama State Poetry Society and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
As the Stokes Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing, she was formerly Chair of the University of South Alabama English Department. Dr. Walker’s works also include a a biography of Jefferson Davis in sonnets; and work on Flannery O’Connor and Kate Chopin. She has just finished a hybrid book that is prose poetry/memoir/history/cultural study/abecedarian about a crone. (See discussion below.)
Thank you Susan for taking the time to do this interview. When your name first appeared in our magazine’s queue, I sensed a familiarity I couldn’t quite pin down…until I read your bio. It was last year while attending a Southern Christian Writers’ Conference (June 2013) in Tuscaloosa that your name camer up—you had been a featured speaker there in the recent past.
We have been fortunate to have had many excellent and notable poets grace the pages of Silver Blade, but this is the first time we’ve had a state poet laureate! Thank you for honoring us.
1. John C. Mannone (JCM): I feel compelled to begin with how your interest in speculative poetry developed. Include your influences
1. Sue Brannon Walker (SBW): Perhaps I became interested in speculative poetry in a former life – when I was Isis or maybe Greta Garbo. I’ve always been good at acting-up, acting-out, abreacting, co-enacting, re-enacting. I like S.T. Joshi’s Emperors of Dreams: Some Notes on Weird Poetry.
2. JCM: I’m not in favor of such distinctions, but many writerly folks make them all the time—please say anything you’d like about genre (in particular, speculative) vs. literary poetry.
2. SBW: I resist categorization and affirm hybridity. I like the way that traditional genres can be integrated in varying ways: fiction as lyrical; poetry as lyric essay, and creative nonfiction as literary criticism; ekphrastic poetry, concrete poetry, a merging of forms–prose abecedarians, prose sestinas and the like. The creative cosmos is expanding.
3. JCM: What can you share about your writing process? And for those who get stuck, what advice can you give them?
3. SBW: I think that “getting stuck” might be associated with fear of failure or fear of rejection, even more than with lethargy or busyness. Nobody likes to be rejected, so after two, three, or more rejections, there might be a tendency to fold up the tent and quit trying, Yevgeny Yevtushenko said that to “believe in yourself is indispensible.” Unfortunately we’re schooled in failure—those red marks teachers put on student papers that highlight mistakes. I think teachers are sometimes too quick to designate “wrong” and may be remiss in pointing out how something might be improved, which is a different slant on learning and teaching. Of course, we need to learn how to use MLA documentation and perhaps the Chicago Manual of Style if we’re in college or getting a Masters, but maybe the desire to learn should be connected with goals and ambitions—a road to success in which the things that might improve a paper (a road sign that says turn right) will get you where you’re going a lot sooner. I read where William Stafford did not give his students grades. In writing, I think the focus should be on revision.
I revise and revise and revise 10, 20 or more times. I go back to a poem or a story or a manuscript after a couple of weeks or a month. I’ll see it, then, in a different light; I’ll see things I missed when writing the first draft or the 2nd or the 3rd . I am, however, impatient; I want to get on with something new. And I’m still learning after many years that patience is, indeed, a virtue—at least when it comes to writing and publishing.
I also have a few trusted friends who are also writers, and I value their suggestions when I’m editing and revising.
4. JCM: Backstories to poems are often as fascinating as the poems themselves. Would you comment on them for the poems appearing in this issue?
4. SBW: Back stories are, indeed, interesting. Let me begin with “Nature, Like Mother, Is An Improper Name (Shilly Shallying Sin) (A Prose Sestina). I have just completed a book manuscript, tentatively titled Sobriquets in which an older woman (a crone), who was given away at birth, decides to give herself a new identity and a name she chooses herself. She goes through the lexicon and tries on personas: Abigail Adams, Belle Boyd, Coco Chanel and so on, from A to Z. This manuscript/book is a prose poem, abecedarian, cultural study, and memoir that intertwines my own life with that of representative women, including Lois Lane and Olive Oyl.
[Fascinated by the notion of a prose sestina, I deconstructed your piece to better understand its mechanics. In this beautifully rhythmic prose sestina, the repeated words (1 house, 2 road, 3 wood, 4 walk, 5 pines, 6 flowers) are not used at the end of sentences or sentence fragments as they would be used at the ends of lines, rather, it is their sequences that are preserved throughout the prose piece. Think about the word sequences as groupings instead of stanzas:
In this one-paragraph prose poem, we can look at the text and see the proper sequences of the words. But note that there is the use of homonyms (wood/would; road/rode) and extra repetitions of words, as well as variations of some words: house/housing; walk/walked, flowers/flowering, etc. JCM]
5. JCM: The first one in the sequence is a fascinating found poem, “What Is Found There.” I think writing a found poem is a wonderful way to create, but is misunderstood by many poets.*
5. SBW: I like playing about with form , so “What Is Found There” (Title borrowed from Adrienne Rich) is an ekphrastic prose-poem cento. A cento, by definition, is a poem that is made of borrowed lines from other poets or other sources. It is a patchwork or collage poem, I decided to pull an odd assortment of books off my shelf and see if I could make something of various lines in these randomly selected books—an idea that I got from Barbara Henning. I think that finding a voice in the writing of a cento has to do with the author’s selection process, both in terms of the message conveyed and the manner of conveying it. Some cento poems are written in lines, but others, as in the case here, the cento is written as a prose poem. John Ashbury has a poem entitled “The Dong With The Luminous Nose” http://www.english.txstate.edu/cohen_p/poetry/Ashbery.html. Edward Lear also has a poem by that title, but it’s not a cento. Theresa Malphirus Welford edited a collection of collage poems entitled The Cento, published in 2011. This is a great little anthology of cento poetry.
[*Some poets express a fear of not finding their own voice in someone else’s words, while others worry about copywright. Clearly, you have shown your own voice. And the footnote references should allay any fears one might have about copyright, especially since new work is being created. JCM]
6. JCM: David and Bathsheba make excellent poetic subjects, if for no other reason, the steamy affair between them. I can here the song, “Hallelujah” play in my head (as sung by Rufus Wainwright) as I read your poem. You sent me an image of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s late 19th century painting, “Bathsheba,” which inspired your poem, as well as the music. But you mentioned something else triggered your poem “Bathsheba Bathing On The Roof” and that it started as a prose sonnet.
6 SBW: “Bathsheba Bathing On The Roof” started as a sonnet; I wrote it in 14 sentences. Later when I was working on my memoir, I thought about Bathsheba as one of the persona figures for the abecedarian book, and I rewrote the poem as lyric essay. Then I decided that I wanted double alphabetical names or characters if possible, so I chose Belle Boyd, who was a Confederate spy, instead of Bathsheba for the book. The story of David and Bathsheba is a fascinating one—and as I was writing, I listened to Leonard Cohen singing “Hallelujah.” I could listen to him sing me to sleep every night.
7. JCM: The linguistic gymnastics of the poetic prose piece, “Committee By Fiat?,” is intruiging, especially with politics and religion. How did this one evolve?
7. SBW: “Committee by Fiat” has a bit of a back story. It grew out of a contentious faculty meeting.” The quote by Richard Dawkins came from The God Delusion. Sometimes faculty members tend to think of themselves as “mini deities”–-and I enjoyed writing a slice of academe as jest. I keep a poet’s notebook of bits and pieces/fragments, so notes taken in a faculty meeting resulted in a poem. I am fascinated by poets’ notebooks. See Anna Kamienska’s “Industrious Amazement: A Notebook” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/article/241270
Other favorite literary notebooks are A Poet’s Notebook by Edith Sitwell and It Depends: A Poet’s Notebook by Eugenio Montale.
8. JCM: Negative Capability is such an interesting name for your press and publication. Tell us more on how you chose this name and what your press and publication are looking for. And do they consider speculative poetry pieces, as well as collections?
8. SBW: Thank you for the opportunity of mentioning Negative Capability Press (negativecapabiltypress.org). Also, we’re on facebook—Negative Capability Press Facebook. The title of the journal came from a letter that John Keats wrote to his brothers George and Tom Keats in which he said: “at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I tend to reach “irritably after fact and reason” so Keats’ statement spoke to me—and I chose it for the title of the journal. The journal was dormant for awhile, but we’re publishing a 33rd year anniversary issue that should be out in late August. We also publish seven or eight books a year. We’re proud of our books and have just published Lissa Kiernan’s Two Faint Lines in the Violet. We will soon be releasing a book by Maurine Alsop entitled Later, Knives & Trees, a book by Philip Kolin entitled Departures, and a book by Barry Marks entitled Dividing By Zero. Other books in the works are by John Davis, Jennifer Grant, Bonnie Hoffman, Faith Kellerer, Betty Spence and a novel by Joe Berry. This year we have published books by Michael Bassett, John Brugaletta, Melissa Dickson, Rob Gray, Jim Murphy and Mary Murphy (no kin), Patricia Harkins-Pierre, Clela Reed, and Charles and Mary Rodning. And yes, we publish speculative poetry. As soon as our current Anthology is out, we’ll be starting another Negative Capability issue.
9. JCM: As president of the Alabama Writers’ Conclave, tell us more about it. Does it have a speculative writing component or anything else that will improve the craft of poetry?
9. SBW:The Alabama Writers Conclave met this July 2014 on the University of South Alabama campus in Fairhope, Alabama—a stone’s throw from Mobile Bay and the place where Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, was filmed. The conference features two days of workshops, all of which focus on some aspect of craft in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and drama. I believe that AWC is the 2nd oldest continuing writers group in American. We had over 100 participants in Fairhope this past July.
10. JCM: Tell us about your successful writing projects; entice our readers so that we’d want to rush out and purchase them. Where do we find them?
10. SBW: My latest published book is The Ecological Poetics of James Dickey, published in 2012. There’s a new review of this book in the James Dickey Newsletter on-line. http://www.jamesdickey.org/
Two articles about Flannery O’Connor and lupus have just been reprinted in Short Story Criticism, vol 195. I wear my heavy-duty prof boots on my left foot— good for slogging through sloughs of water and my pinkpurpleyellowgreen shiek-shoes for poetry.
Check out my work at Connotation Press — http://www.connotationpress.com/poetry/513-sue-brannan-walker-poetry.
See my chapbook from The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature: http://www.deadmule.com/poetry/sue-brannan-walker-how-stubborned-words-mule-how-they-balk-take-their-own-measure-a-chapbook-of-prose-poems/
See also my fun with math at: http://talkingwriting.com/sue-brannan-walker-math-poetry
Please check out our Book Competition ($2000.00 Award) at negativecapabilitypress.org. We will consider additional book manuscripts for publication.
11. JCM: Tell us about your new writing projects.
11. SBW:I hope to wrap up Sobriquets in September; like the sound of “Sobriquets in September.” I also want to go back and pick up a verse novel on the Yellow Fever epidemic in Mobile, Mississippi, New Orleans, etc. that occurred in 1878. When I started the project a few years back, I was trying to write a novel about a young quadroon purchased at a Quadroon Ball during the time when the plaçage system was part of New Orleans culture—the time when mariage de la main gauche was prevalent. I wrote about 150 pages as a novel and then decided to write the piece as a verse novel. I want to go back and finish this story in a different form.
I’m toying with the notion of doing some really hybrid work—something to do with “The Body: In Part.” It will incorporate parts of the body, such as the “scalp”–going back to Herodotus, a time when “Scythian soldiers scraped the scalp clean of flesh and softened it by rubbing it between their hands and using it as a napkin. The Scyth, proud of these scalps, would hang them from his bridle rein; the greater the number of such “napkins” that a man could show, the more highly he was esteemed. Some men made cloaks by sewing a number of scalps together. There’s an interesting ekphrastic representation of “scalping” in the film “Navajo Joe” staring Burt Reynolds. Cormac McCarthy also mentioned “scalping” in Blood Meridian. So, I shall go “head-to-toe”—and by-the-way, did you know that long second toes had been considered as indicators of criminals? Maybe I’ll proceed from bottom to top—and start making lists—write the body from bottom to top. I think lists are great for thinking about what projects might entail.
I also want to do some innovative things with Negative Capability Press and am open to ideas and suggestions.