Susan M. Schultz is author of several books of poetry and poetic prose, including most recently, all from Singing Horse Press, Dementia Blog (2008), Memory Cards: 2010-2011 Series (2011) and “She’s Welcome to Her Disease”: Dementia Blog, Vol. 2. (2013). Editor and publisher of Tinfish Press, which she founded in 1995. In a recent work from the press, Jack London Is Dead: Contemporary Euro-American Poetry in Hawaiʻi (and Some Stories), she is opening up new conversations on poetry, place, and personhood. She lives in Kān`eohe, Hawai`i and teaches at the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa. She is a lifelong fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
Susan: Aloha, Gillian, and thank you for the conversation.
Mothership: Hi Susan, and thanks for taking part! In Dementia Blog and elsewhere you explore your uneasy relationship with lyric. Because sometimes you do allow powerful moments of lyrical (musical/imagistic) beauty, which has an arresting power in the context of your work’s everyday language: For instance, “the poem is a vessel of blood” or elsewhere a high lyric lamentation, “by the waters of.” It feels like there are two lyrics in your Dementia Blog: one you are bound to by deep love, the kind/kin you can’t shake free of, and one that’s been sent to sit in the corner.
Susan: I like that way of putting it! Banished to sit in the corner with the poems whose endings are dictated by the lyric form. Or, welcomed out when the dictator leaves the room.
MS: Is your quarrel with a certain use of lyric that is self-centered as well as self-indulgent, i.e., the oblivious pursuit of beauty that excludes the inconvenient ugliness of the actual world we’re making? Can you say a bit more about your idea of ‘voiceless lyric’?
Susan: That’s part of it, certainly, the self-centeredness, but also, as I just wrote above, it’s about allowing the form to dictate the shape the poem will take. So maybe it’s not lyric so much as predictability that bothers me. But lyrical predictability is a particular version of it. The voiceless lyric idea came out of an omnibus review I wrote for Talisman in the 1990s. It’s a poem that is lyrical, but is not voiced by an “I.” Kind of an objectivist lyric, I guess you could say, looking back further than the 1990s. So there’s the lyrical sound, without the immediate emotional demand.
MS: You warn that “If you write lyric, make sure to balance your life.” This is an encouraging statement, if by this you mean life off the page. And, for you, is part of this balance your choice to write in prose—“I write in prose because I’m a lyric poet”(?)
Susan: I don’t remember where that line comes from, the first one, but I do remember the second, from Adoption Papers. That was written at the time I was trying hard to distance myself from the transcendent rush of the enjambed line, while trying to retain a more earth-bound lyricism.
MS: To go deeper into this notion of objectivist lyric: On the Tinfish blog you have a wonderful entry on docupoetry, in which you talk about teaching students to “look at the world as it is” without “imposing thoughts and feelings.” You say of your own work “that to watch [my mother] and to describe her decline as it happened, was difficult precisely because it meant pulling away the veils of my own emotions, memories, desires.” You share that of moving into the world on its own terms, seeing that there’s a world that “is not the I” is a “spiritual, as well as a quasi-scientific, discovery.” It’d be wonderful to hear more here—it feels like it’s getting at the heart of your practice of poetry.
Susan: I think that’s it, yes. It’s become stronger for me because of my teaching; the documentary poem gets students out of the kinds of poems they think are poems, and into places where their emotions can come through instruction manuals, lists of side-effects, statistics, and other items that seem usually not to carry much feeling in them. This also gets stronger for me as I get older, and there simply ARE more documents to deal with. The documents surrounding my mother’s care and death were amazing. I was telling one class the other day—we’ve been reading Catch-22, in which one character devises a form letter that informs families that their loved one has been killed—that after my mother died, I got lots of letters from banks and insurance companies signed by someone in “survivor communications” or other such persons in cubicles.
MS: You teach this documentary approach in Dementia Blog, when you say, “The situation is the poem; you need only take it down.” And yet intense situations seem to “go lyric” naturally (if lyric means the elegant connection, the vivid image or raw music): The book opens in the nursing home, on a day filled with song (and noise and moans and yells to be quiet), an entry/poem that ends with “They all began to sing.” It feels like lyric and documentary come together naturally in these kind of heightened zones of life. (This too feels like it’s close to the heart of your poems’ power. Would love to hear what you think!)
Susan: Thanks for saying that. As I wrote to you before, I’m astonished by how much care you’ve taken with my work. Being in the Alzheimer’s home was a constant exercise in shifting moods, sounds, actions, most of them random in themselves, and yet making sense in their accidental orchestrations.
MS: In Memory Cards you say, “She whose father is dying has entered a ritual space”—and it feels like you have created that lyrical/ritual/heightened zone of feeling in an ordinary, more documentary form of a blog. Is this the kind of balancing a life, at least on the page, that you spoke of…
Susan: Maybe a balancing of life and the writing of it. I’ve become suspicious of the line about needing to take time between experience and the writing about it, the canard about “distance.” “I need distance before I write about this.” What the blog taught me was that work from within the moment is possible, and feels necessary. Obsessed as I am with memory, these entries were mostly short-term, not altered so much by the passage of time—made more general, more—dare I say ”lyrical.” I don’t think poetry begins on the page at all. It happens, and we record it. That sounds a bit like Emerson with his overheard poems, but maybe he was right about that. Especially in those extreme moments, where life and death are at stake, or illness, or war, the poem is there. I’ll shift my allegiance from Emerson to Dickinson with that statement!
MS: Your books take as their premise (and materials) that the personal is political. Dementia Blog chronicles your mother’s loss of memory and language, alongside your young children learning to spell–all happening in the context of powerful abuses of language and a nation’s decline into the “demented” logic of war, manufactured by the Bush administration’s deceitful rhetoric and lies. Your books bring the political into the poetic, (i.e, scrutinize the political with the keen eye/ear of poetic thought). How does this process open things up for you?
Susan: Yes, and also that the political is personal. So much there to talk about. The “argument” of Dementia Blog in those terms was that, while there is a biological dementia, which is an illness, there is also a political dementia instilled in a population willing to believe untruths. This was during the Iraq War, most recently. In the second volume of DB, other kinds of politics come up. I discovered that my mother’s Alzheimer’s home was owned, for example, by a large corporation in Toledo, Ohio, and that that corporation had been snapped up by the Carlyle Group in 2007 or so. The Carlyle Group owns companies that make kids’ toothpaste. They also own companies that make weapons. And the head of the corporation bought the Magna Carta. The real one. What a soup that is. (Not Allen Ginsberg’s “animal soup of time,” but a more current “corporate soup of profits.”)
The care in my mother’s home went down drastically a while after. When I looked to see why Carlyle might be interested in elder care, I found that retirement and Alzheimer’s homes tend to be placed on profitable real estate. Not reverence for the elders who’ve lived on the land, but for the profits reaped off the land, the elders a kind of lease-hold against later windfalls. This is not to say that there wasn’t a lot of real care inside the walls of this home. Many of the caregivers were beautiful people, working with and against this institution that paid them to live out the lives of other peoples’ parents.
MS: Another recurring meeting ground of the political and personal in your books is the intimate yet public process of adoption, since your two children were born to into other families in Cambodia and Nepal. And this is seen in your poems too—this constantly working to collapse these outer/inner, public/private, self/other divides. In Memory Cards & Adoption Papers you ask, “If blood runs thicker than water why is so much of it on the floor?” And in your Memory Cards 2010-2011 Series, in your Hejinian poems, we glimpse a warzone: “We’re mothers to these boys, all of them, the boys without clothes and those with helmets on.” ) So much of your work—especially evident in Dementia Blog—points out how we define things, what words reveal about our beliefs about the world, how words are the limits we make for ourselves. Throughout Dementia Blog in glimpses of your children, Sangha and Radhika, you work to expand what “family” means. Can you say more about this?
Susan: So much to say here, but perhaps I’ll leave it at this. By adopting my children from these far away places, one of which had been profoundly and horribly affected by US foreign policy in the 1970s, I realized how intimate public histories are. The genealogy of my family moves through turmoil that is not personal to me. I also realized that the family, as we define it, seems a very narrow concept, bound by notions of genetics more (often) than by connections that can’t be located in blood samples.
MS: Adoption moves naturally into thoughts about your life as a collage poet. Collage is part of the wide-mindedness your work teaches us.
Susan: Oh my! Thanks for this. I wrote an essay years ago that never saw the light of day, based on my thought that adoption and collage are metaphorically similar processes (I also wrote an essay on Denise Riley around that time, about how her use of quotation is like adoption). That’s here: http://www.asu.edu/pipercwcenter/how2journal/vol_3_no_1/cambridge/schultz.html
MS: The “poem” is everything happening around you, and your work is noticing.
Susan: That’s a perception I came to rather late, but one I live by now.
MS: Your poems’ blocks of prose range across registers of newspapers, children’s words, hearsay, people yelling at each other, lines of poems, bumperstickers, your own observations or philosophical reflections, or emails. The poems find their way in this material along a fine line of incoherence and coherence—their centers hold around implicit questions/explorations, be it loss of language and logic, war, random acts of violence, child abuse, abuse of the land, of each other. Again, this feels like you are always working to collapse these divides between outer/inner, public/private, self/other. Can you say more about collage as a tool for this more comprehensive view?
Susan: Complicated, that. Because collage assumes a disjunction that leads to an idea, but “collapsing” divides suggests losing that disjunction. Perhaps one leads to the other, and in many ways I do hope so. But to go back to that feeling of discomfort we talked about earlier, I think it’s that discomfort that shows us this possible communication between separate thoughts, ideas, documents. Between feeling and fact. Between politics and person.
MS: For instance, in Dementia Blog, you offer in quick succession thoughts on Bush-Cheney’s plans to bomb Lebanon and Iraq framed as a way of bringing about the “birth of a new Middle East” followed by the reflection on the aftermath violence in your son’s country of birth “No leader of the Khmer Rouge has faced a court of law,” then end on a soft note of merciful relief, of deep human care for your mother, suffering from the extreme insomnia dementia causes: “email from Karen: Mom slept.”
Susan: Hard to say in retrospect how one of those led to the next and then the next, whether simple as being there, or as narrative leading from bad politics to the care of one person for another. Karen was the social worker at an agency in northern Virginia who was point person for my mother when she still lived at home, but couldn’t deal with everyday life. These ways in which care moves between daughter and daughter surrogate (Karen reminded me of one of my cousins, down to a very similar name) are also intriguing to me.
MS: What does collage mean for you as a way of engaging/understanding the world? How does collage “orient the poem towards the outside”? (See Joseph Harrington’s great article on docupoetry.) How does collage help in the work of knocking down the seeming walls between our inner life events and outer world events?
Susan: Collage forces us to see within the same space of the page two passages that are very different and yet in conversation with one another. If one is a love letter and the other is a Watergate testimony, then we rather automatically try to find the links between them. It’s that work that the poem makes possible that docupoets are after.
MS: You use collage’s quicksilver attention towards the work of what William James spoke of in “The Will to Believe” (quote cited from Wai-lim Yip’s Diffusion of Distances, p. 68): “The world’s contents are given to each of us in an order so foreign to our subjective interests that we can hardly…picture to ourselves what it is like.… Is not the sum of your actual experience taken at this moment and impartially added together an utter chaos?….We have no organ of faculty to appreciate the simply given order. The real world as it is given objectively at this moment is the sum total of all its beings and events now. But can we think of such a sum? Can we realize for an instant what a cross-section of existence at a definite point of time would be? While I talk and the flies buzz, a seagull catches a fish at the mouth of the Amazon, a tree falls in the Adirondack wilderness…but what does that mean?”
Susan: This is why new sentences are not as difficult to read as some people think they are! William James was onto something well before the fact of Sunset Debris!
MS: Your work does this kind of difficult wide-minded work that approaches a kind of simultaneity, within the linear time of reading. In your neighborhood block, at your desk, with the newspaper… Part of the wideness of your frame may be your choice to write in sentences not lines. What experience do you think your choice to write in sentences brings to your poems/your practice of collage poems?
Susan: My move from verse to prose was somehow physical. I woke up one day writing prose, or so it felt to me at the time. But it was also a time (late 1990s) when I wanted to stop leaping out into space (isn’t this conversation about outer space?!) and felt it was time to come back to earth. The prose poem, because there’s no enjambment, or violent shift from one plane to another, did that for me. I also tried at first to make the sentences very separate from one another and yet—within the space of a memory card—to see how very separate experiences were related. (By adoption, if not by blood. . . )
MS: And it in this selection and connection to make order, it occurs to me that your poetic ethic shows us our disorder (moral/spiritual/practical). You show our derangement, the world we’re making. The violence and abuse. This kind of almost unvarnished yet poet’s eye reporting stirs a reader’s empathy as well as shows the absurdity of these abuses–a reader is haunted by how it could be otherwise.
Susan: Yes, although looking at it is a first step to changing it, as in meditation practice where you let things go so as to be released from attachment (and its seven sins!).
MS: You have a new book out, Jack London is Dead: Contemporary Euro-American Poetry of Hawai’i (and Some Stories). Small Press Distributors says, “It looks at what happens after Euro-American literature has been de-centered, de-canonized. Jack London is Dead presents writers whose work has been deeply influenced by Hawai`i, and whose poetry adds valuable voices to a complicated mix of ethnic cultures.” Reviewers (have not read it, I confess). Lauri Ramey, Director of the Center for Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, California State University, says it’s about “How we mythologize ourselves and others, the difficulties of expressing our identities in language, the relationship between humans and nature, the sense of being and not-being part of where we are, the complexities of aesthetic heritage…” What is most exciting for you about this book? What new perspectives does it bring?
Susan: Someone with the Honolulu Weekly asked me if I’m still “terrified” by the book, as I was often when I was putting it together. The answer is no, now that it’s out, I’m very happy for it, mostly because the responses by the poets and writers from whom I solicited work were so thoughtful, and their writing so various in form and content. It felt like a taboo subject, but now that the book exists in the world, it’s something to talk about. It’s out of my hands, and that feels like a weight lifted. I’m pleased that some of my graduate students are reading the book and thinking it through with me in brief conversations. The argument the book makes is that writing by Euro-Americans (called “haole” here in Hawai`i, a vexed term that I usually avoid) is profoundly affected by the experience of living in Hawai`i, that white writers have significant contributions to make to larger conversations about militarism, global warming, and about art. I’ve never liked one-ethnicity-only anthologies, but having done one, I see the point of them. It’s not about race as essence, but race as history and individual experience. That Euro-American history in Hawai`i has so often been damaging makes the work written by contemporary poets more complicated and interesting.
MS: I think of your lines in your recent Memory Cards “When a child is called a fucking haole she needs to recognize the long historical context of the term.” How we treat each other. And the fact of our fragility, when you write just after: “A boy was killed seconds from home, seconds/from home.”
Susan: The Jack London book presents different experiences of being white in Hawai`i, the most powerful of which may be growing up here as a minority. That’s where the “fucking haole” line comes in. That the child, who has so little history, is being cursed because of the history other haole were responsible for, strikes me as unfair (if consistent with human nature). We’re living twin rails, one historical, the other personal and individual. Pushing the rails together takes a binary—itself problematic—and renders it monaural. A monorail. While ideological arguments are often necessary, they can also outlive their purpose and get stuck. The anthology is offering a fresh perspective with hopes of unsticking at least the assumption that white writing is dominant and hence to be resisted or excluded from the larger conversation.
MS: You say “The literature of boundaries and frontiers depends on there being boundaries and frontiers” And elsewhere “We who have attended that edge know its sharpness.” Artists love to feel they’re on a cultural edge, but isn’t it now more of an edgeless center? (Global culture, local culture, individuals as hybrid texts of upbringing and outside affinities)?
Susan: I guess that quotation speaks to the awful irony that good literature comes of boundaries that are otherwise destructive and arbitrary. I understand resistances against global culture that come out of location, and in fact encourage them in my teaching practice, but I’m not sure there’s an either/or, global/local. At least for the white writer (and not the white writer alone!) in Hawai`i, there seems to be more of a negotiation between, a sense of being in at least two places at once.
MS: You write “read as native, settler, tourist.” What obstacles does your categorization as a non-native create? What does this in-betweeness/these tensions/this uncomfortable perch allow you to see/contribute to the conversation that is culture?
Susan: There’s a passage in the introduction to my book of essays on modern and contemporary poetry about being outside a community of writers and witnessing a very active culture of which one is not quite part but also not quite not part either. It’s a position of witness that can—at worst—become a static perch. The new anthology is not static, not perched, I guess. But our ways of reading place depend on how we perceive where we are, as well as how we perceive ourselves as being perceived, if that makes sense. Again, back to the notion of race as history, experience, rather than essence. I’ve learned a lot from being out in the non-academic community, on my kids’ sports fields, for example. There, you get a sense of a coherent local culture, one that you are both inside and outside of at the same time. But the feeling is more of welcome than not.
MS: In the reviews of Jack London is Dead quoted earlier, Lauri Ramey mentions, “the sense of being and not-being part of where we are”—and that really, really fits. How does poetry help you work against this deep disconnection?
Susan: Poetry is the go-between, I think, the shuttle-cock, the diplomat running back and forth between being and not-being part of where we are. It’s the hyphen in insider-outsider. I try not to work against this disconnection, but to use it. To work against it would mean that I either try too hard to fit in or that I resist the influences where I live. It’s not an easy space to be in, for sure, but the considerable strengths of the poetry in that anthology speak to the way discomfort makes us think. Somewhere I read the words of an adoptee who said that she felt she always had a psychic paper cut, nothing grand, but always there. That’s how I feel about being where I am, and that’s one reason I write. Alzheimer’s is another neither here nor there state, where its “sufferer” loses her old identity, but is still present. And life with an Alzheimer’s sufferer forces one to think about what really simply words mean, like life, like death.
MS: So there’s this homelessness born of the consumer culture, and more and more we’re all in this together. Most people writing poems around the world don’t work closely with the land in terms of livelihood. Indigenous people (may their feet remain firm) are holding ground, as land and culture everywhere has been taken over by industry–whether its agribusiness engulfing Nebraska or plastic wrappers clogging the streets in Nepal. (This is something the Chinese poet Yang Jian I’ve been working on speaks of again and again in his poems, so many of which mourn the loss of his native land to industry.) What possibilities for “indigenous voice” (in quotes in one of your Dementia Blog entries) or newfound connections to the land do you think might come of this time of radical, sweeping dis-placement and longing for home?
Susan: While I resist any yoking of blood with voice, I do believe that indigenous cultures have a lot to teach us, remind us of, in living with the land. I also want to resist romanticizing that connection, however. We were just in Cambodia, where most people are still “on the land,” and are very poor. The village life is highly social, collaborative, anchored in the sharing of food and stories, yes, but it’s damn difficult, too. For all its horrors, consumer culture brings us the leisure to think about its horrors. Cities like Phnom Penh are full of goods and services, motor bikes, and huge discrepancies between rich and poor. One of the central human rights issues in Cambodia is land-theft by high government officials, who take land away from its owners. That homelessness is very real.
MS: And what about poetry’s attentive eye? Could it help bridge back to the land? Own the rubble/ruin but also learn the names of things? (I think Jane Sprague does this beautifully in Port of Los Angeles, for instance…)
Susan: That’s where indigenous thinking and art provide models, too, in the sense that so much of it is about naming (genealogical chants) and about mapping (among Australian indigenous peoples). To write a name is to honor a place, and to find out the histories of names can recover a sense of reverence for it.
MS: Is poetry too specialized to do much towards culture shifts? Too poets-talking-to-poets? Does it “trickle down”/push in from the edges? What is the relationship/the flow of influence of avant garde to mainstream culture?
Susan: One of my mother’s best bits of wisdom was uttered typically after the phrase “real life.” She would point out that where you were was real life. So poets writing to poets are still people communicating with one another. Now that so many students want to write, we can encourage them to think poetically, even if their poems are not always wonderful. It’s as teachers that we make the bridge between avant-garde and mainstream, which is why teaching is such a necessary activity. What did George Saunders say about it recently, that the study of writing is “ennobling”? A hard thing to say these days, amid arguments about MFA programs and such, but I’ll hold with George.