Susan Browne, on Her Award-Winning Book, Zephyr

I recommend walking in nature every day to get beyond the usual self, the societal self, and meet up with the speaker who is more truly you.


First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of your second book, Zephyr, and on its being chosen as the Editor’s Choice for the 2009 Steel Toe Books Prize in Poetry. Having been dazzled by your first collection, Buddha’s Dogs, I greatly anticipated my pre-ordered copy of Zephyr. When it finally arrived I found myself walking around my house saying, “Listen to this! And this! Oh, and this!” to my boyfriend, and proceeded to read the entire book aloud, laughing and nodding and gritting my teeth all the way.

Could you talk a little about the process of writing a second book? Did you find it to be more fluid, intentional, challenging, etc., than when you wrote Buddha’s Dogs?


Thanks, Carrie. Writing a second book was similar to writing a first: I didn’t think about a book too much. It would be too intimidating. I thought about what was in front of me, the page, the words, the life, what was there. Four years after Buddha’s Dogs, after I had quite a few poems, I began to think about putting together another book. The bar was higher, I was more critical, the process more challenging. After another two years, I sent the manuscript around and, at best, it would be a finalist, a bridesmaid but never the bride. I had to be patient. I had to work more on the poems, and so I did (same thing with my first book), and trust the book would be ready when it was ready.


The voice in the poems was the same, but my style had changed; it was less narrative and took more leaps. I had to change; I was tired of writing the poems I’d been writing. I intentionally meandered off the path I’d worked hard at. I wanted to go astray.


The speaker is one people can relate to—if not specifically in speech or action, then in thought and unspoken desire. She is someone who marvels at being alive but finds the world around and inside her to be cruel and sad and ridiculous. She is awed and disgusted, intimate and detached, tender and merciless. Would you talk a bit about the speaker’s duality and search for meaning and self? And about how the title, Zephyr, embodies all of this.


Wow! What a question! Good assessment of the speaker in my poems. Oh dear. I see all that in the world and inside myself: the cruel, kind, tender, merciless, awesome, disgusting, intimate, detached, dual dueling search for meaning where there is none and catching a few glitters as they fall off the roof of our brains. I don’t think there is any meaning to the world except what we put there. I think it just is, and we need to make it mean something. I don’t think there is a “self,” except what we make it up to be, through nature and nurture. How does the title of my book, Zephyr, embody all this? I don’t know. The epigraph by Christina Rossetti gives a hint, maybe: “Who has seen the wind?/Neither you nor I./But when the trees bow down their heads/The wind is passing by.” The word “wind” is stated ten times in the book. Zephyr is the wind. Many poems in the book speak to the small and large changes in our lives that come through like the wind. The passing of time, aging, mortality, the wind of our changing ecology, the winds of war, and there’s the peaceful breeze, too. Who am I? The air flying through the air, with not always the greatest of ease, but flying. I am the wind.


“Two Clerics Hacked to Death in Holy City” speaks to the joy of words and sounds in the world that perhaps only a poet would appreciate (until others read this poem). Would you shed light on your own process and inspirations? Does your process tend to revolve around moments of unexpected inspiration or labored-over ideas?


That poem was in response to reading the newspaper way too often during the ghastly years of the George W. Bush administration. His presidency was a horrific opera of mendacity on so many levels, I had to write something about it, or I’d spend every moment puking. And then religious fanatics and their ongoing murders. So what’s a poet to do? Write.


My process of inspiration is a collage of activities: I read poetry to inspire me, and sometimes I’ll start from another author’s language, using selected nouns, verbs, adjectives and/or imitating the rhythm of a line. I’ll look through my journal and see if something there draws my attention. I think writing in a journal is important, although I sometimes compose on the computer now, but I believe my most passionate poems come directly from the experiences/thoughts/feelings/ observations I write in my journal. The poet Jack Gilbert said to notice six things a day. To really look at them. He said, “Everybody has opinions, but can you see? The woman wanted to write about her baby. Look at the baby’s fingernails. Be available to seeing, not just willing to see. You don’t look at sugar; you wait to see sugar.” I’m quoting, because this is from a journal I used while taking a three-day workshop from Jack Gilbert. Three days of pure inspiration.


Workshops are a great inspiration. Working with a group of dedicated poets, receiving and offering critical commentary. I teach an online poetry workshop, and I’m inspired by my students’ work. I often do the exercises I give them.


I walk or run three miles every day. Sometimes six miles. I walk/run outside, at a beautiful reservoir near my home. Water, mountain, sky. My mind opens up, and things come to me. I can see better, the outer and inner and where they meet. I recommend walking in nature every day to get beyond the usual self, the societal self, and meet up with the speaker who is more truly you.


Again, regarding “Two Clerics Hacked to Death in Holy City,” I am curious to know whether it feels more dangerous and daring to write about subjects like the pleasure of sound in tragic news headlines or to tackle poems like “Fairy Tale Elegy,” and “Sadness,” where you are dealing with abstracts and clichés in ways that make them new and striking?


I write what’s up for me. I don’t think about dangerous or daring. I want to immerse myself in the process of writing, in the experience of it, in language, and I want to discover something new. I want to touch something inside or outside myself that I haven’t before.


What, in your opinion, are the most essential elements of a good poem?


Passion; heart; surprise; imagery, cadence; attention to the sounds within words and the silence they come out of; truth. The poem has to have emotional truth, and this can be challenging, because we lie to ourselves, and the world lies.


But the most essential element of a good poem is passion. You can do all kinds of things with language, great pyrotechnics, but if there isn’t passion, and swing, you might have a very clever nothing, but that’s all you’ve got.


Over the years, you and Kim Addonizio have collaborated on poetry-to-music projects—specifically Swearing, Smoking, Drinking, and Kissing (2004), but also during readings. Could you talk a little about how those collaborations came to life? Were the musical accompaniments spontaneous or thought-out and deliberate? What role does music play in your poetry and your creative process?


Kim Addonizio was one of my first mentors, one of my first great poetry teachers. Then Kim and I became buddies, in writing and life. We both come from sports-loving families, so we also play tennis together. I love doing poetry readings with Kim. We read in tandem, working off the subject matter of each other’s poems. This makes for a more spontaneous evening, and it’s more of a surprise for us, too.


We had a wonderful time making our CD, Swearing, Smoking, Drinking, & Kissing. Kim plays the harmonica, and we also worked with two other musicians, Noel Cross on guitar and ukulele, and Stephen Herrick on saxophone. It took many practice sessions to create the CD. Yes, the arrangement was deliberate.


I love to sing, and I play the guitar. Music is very much a part of my life as a poet.


Are you currently working on any new projects that we can anticipate in the near future? In a 2008 interview with Frederick W. Marrazzo, you mentioned that you were working on a novel. Is this still a work in progress?


I’m always writing poems, I can’t help it. And I’m going astray, I hope, finding new ways to say what I feel passionate about. For the past three years, I’ve been working on a memoir, too. My advice to writers is to never give up, to stay the course, and don’t forget to get out of the house and go for a walk.


What under-recognized poet should we be reading?

I recommend reading the poets from Steel Toe Books. Steel Toe Books published Zephyr, and I feel proud to be among these authors.


Read our review of Zephyr! Find it here.


Interviewed by Carrie Moniz


More Susan Browne:

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Her profile on Red Room

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