by Chuck Salmons
If you haven’t heard by now, OPA member and Cincinnati poet Susan Glassmeyer is the winner the Ohio Poetry Day Association’s 2018 Poet of the Year award, for her first full-length collection, Invisible Fish (Dos Madres Press, 2018). On the heels of her winning, I corresponded with her to find out more about the collection and her writing process.
CS: First of all, congratulations on the award! Having read Invisible Fish, I know this is an honor that is well-deserved. How does it feel to have your name among past winners such as Mary Oliver, David Baker, and David Citino?
SG: I was truly surprised to win this award, Chuck. I did some research after the fact and learned about the history of the award. What an honor to be part of this venerable Ohio poet lineage! I already own a few of the books on the list, not realizing the authors had previously won the award. And although I have many of Mary Oliver’s books, Twelve Moons (winner in 1980) was not among them. I just purchased a copy and plan to take a closer look at that collection, especially how it is organized.
CS: As I read the new collection, I recognized some of the poems from your previous chapbooks, Body Matters and Cook’s Luck. But there were a lot of new poems that I’d never read before. Powerful poems. Many about your family and childhood. How did you decide what poems to bring together for Invisible Fish? How did you approach the organization (the four parts) for the collection?
SG: Choosing and organizing the poems in Invisible Fish was a time-consuming but worthy challenge. I started by reading through the bulk of my files to take inventory of the poems I’d written over a thirty-year period, culling those that were well-crafted and finished, or nearly finished. I paid attention to recurring themes and styles of poems that seemed to work well together.
At first, I thought there might be a separate, focused chapbook of “father poems,” but I soon abandoned that notion when I realized those poems didn’t want to stand alone in the world. They needed and deserved companionship, so I found a way to weave them throughout the larger whole, creating a more mature perspective of my family of origin and childhood. Allowing Invisible Fish to morph into four parts was a slow and inspired process. Once I realized these 60 poems clearly belonged together, I literally carried them around with me, reading and rereading them over many months while I worked on other projects. I spread the poems on the floor, I taped them to the wall, I spent a lot of quiet time with them in a nearly meditative state simply ‘listening’ to them, not forcing anything. The poems eventually settled into a four-part psychophysical storyline: down-up-down-up. Each of the four parts, as well as the sum of those parts, serve the personal and the universal, the known and the unknown, the visible and the invisible.
Once I understood which poems belonged to each of the four independent sections (Don’t Be Afraid, Beyond Geometry, Uninitiated, Crowning the Injury) I took a more directive role in figuring out their specific order. The process was like planning four separate dinner parties, determining which poems would sit where and with whom at the table for the best ‘conversations’ to take place. That part of the process was quite enjoyable!
CS: Both human nature and the natural world play a key role in the collection. Many of the poems are reflections, either an examination of memory or a kind of pondering of the world and what makes it tick. How do you decide when to write about a particular memory or idea, or know when you’ve got something worth writing about?
SG: I seldom run out of ideas or inspiration for poems unless I am tired or experiencing some measure of duress in my life. By nature I am a curious and attentive person and purposely cultivate those attributes which I think help ward off dry spells or writer’s block. As I’ve matured as a writer, I find that poems more often choose me rather than me choosing them.
I may start off down one avenue of poem-making and soon find myself miles away in a completely different territory. I have even foolishly tried to resist writing about certain topics that present themselves, topics I’d rather not visit at all or revisit again. But alas, what resists persists! So I pick up my pen and honor the muse who is whispering loudly in my ear.
CS: Two of my favorite poems in the collection are list poems, "Wrench" and "Nameless." However, their resolutions in each of the final stanzas are so starkly different. In "Wrench," there is a kind of resignation, but in "Nameless," there is this statement of taking control or reclaiming power. But each seems to address the idea, as do several other poems, of masculine vs. feminine dynamics, especially within families. What purpose does reading and writing poetry serve for you?
SG: You are an astute reader, Chuck Salmons! Yes, "Wrench" and "Nameless" do end with starkly different resolutions. The speaker in "Wrench" has a young candid voice that describes a painful reality. With a child’s heart she tells a sharp uncomfortable truth, almost naively. The speaker in "Nameless" is a seasoned elder speaking from a long perspective, an earned wisdom. Although she too is claiming a disquieting truth, her wound is neither sharp nor raw.
After you brought these two particular poems to my attention, I recalled the two forms of the Mother-Daughter (Buddhist) Goddess Tara: The half-open lotus of the Green Tara represents a young girl in the flux of activity and wonder—"Wrench." The full-open lotus of the White Tara is the feminine figure observing life serenely, and with equanimity. She has no need to take action but, as you say, is “reclaiming power”—"Nameless."
Related to “masculine vs feminine dynamics” in the so-called family poems, I’ve tried to write openly and honestly in ways that reflect not only personal experience but echo the likely experiences of others as well. And just as we wrestle with masculine and feminine dynamics in the outer world—our family, the workplace, the culture, etc.—we wrestle internally as well with our own anima and animus. I try to address the layers of these external and internal relationships in my poems.
Reading, writing (and revising) poetry wakes me up to a fuller sense of myself and serves to connect me in a more meaningful way to others and to life around me. Poem-study and poem-making both strengthen and tenderize me. It’s like going to a mental and spiritual gym where I can exercise my psychospiritual muscles, gain energy, and tone my psyche—which in my opinion is also good for the health of the body. No separation.
CS: While these poems don’t take very many strict forms, there are prose poems, couplets, and the list poems I mentioned before. Do you prefer to write in forms or free verse? Do you see value in writing in forms, which often are shunned by many poets?
SG: When I was younger, I practiced writing in forms—sonnets, pantoums, sestinas, an occasional villanelle—modeling my pieces after well-known poets’ poems. I value the discipline of working with forms but I gravitated mostly to free verse. I’ve had some success with the ghazal and haiku. In recent years, I happily discovered the American Cinquain—a form consisting of 5 lines of 2 / 4 / 6 / 8 / & 2 syllables for a total of 22 syllables. I’ve exchanged a few hundred cinquains with a skilled writing buddy over the last few years, which has been a very rewarding process.
CS: One of the things I appreciate most about your work is its concision, which is something I strive for in my own poems. There is so much packed into every line. Several times I found myself getting through a poem and then having to take a deep breath. Is this concision something you are consciously striving for in your poems?
SG: Yes, it’s very deliberate, and I recognize that same precision and concision in your poems too, Chuck. I’ve often thought that a well-crafted poem can be the best short story ever written. The practice of revision is a labor of love for me, as important as and equal to the original seed that birthed the poem itself. What we leave out of a poem is as important as what goes in it. And maybe here’s a good place to end this interview with a favorite quote by Theodore Roethke: “May my silences become more accurate.”
To learn more about Susan, visit her website: www.susanglassmeyer.com