In each of our “Boo’s Hollow” issues, Associate Poetry Editor Lea Graham invites writers and poets to reflect on the role played by place in both their own work and poetry in general. This month, we’re proud to share the thoughts and work of Susan Briante.
Lea Graham: I am such a fan of your book, Utopia Minus for the way the voice pulls me in and seems to confide in me. Simultaneously, it is a book that ranges in its attention and geographies. Your first person is so generous and generative within the poems. It is one of those books that I had an intense feeling of wanting to call up the poet (you) and suggest we go on a road trip together. (I hope this doesn’t freak you out.) Can you talk a bit about your thinking on the role of the “I” in poems?
Susan Briante: When I first started writing poems seriously, I was deeply suspicious of the “I.” In my oversimplified view, the “confessional” poem seemed self-indulgent. The “I” seemed so boring. As I became a more sophisticated reader, I realized that the “I” could be a source of data, another method of gathering information as part of a larger inquiry. Oddly, Charles Olson has been a model for me in this regard. There’s a great video of him reading “Maximus to Gloucester: Letter 27 Withheld” in which you can hear how personal recollection opens up to a description of poesis and the declaration: “An American/is a complex of occasions/themselves a geometry/of spatial nature.”
Of course, in Olson’s case the “I” is bound up in an epic/heroic tradition. That’s not my style. (Insert laughs.) Bernadette Mayer and Alice Notley also offered other models for which the “I” could be—to use your term which I like very much, “generative”—a spring board for larger thinking in service of broader perspectives instead of oriented toward a personal epiphany.
Your road trip proposal (which sounds great!) brings up another thread I was playing with throughout Utopia Minus—intimacy. In the epistolary poems addressed to government officials (and former presidential candidate Eileen Myles) I wanted to question: What do we reveal about ourselves as writers or artists? To whom do we reveal these things? And to what end? I was thinking of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet as well as “Dear Abby” advice columns. I wanted to set deeply personal against a larger political context.
LG: Talk about the challenge of writing about the suburbs. You quote from Robert Smithson in the opening of your book about suburbs as being “ruins in reverse”: “But the suburbs exist without a rational past without the ‘big events’ of history…. A Utopia minus a bottom, a place where the machines are idle, and the sun has turned to glass….” You take this “Utopia minus” and make it “ a rich and complicated interplay of people and environment” to quote from Tim Cresswell’s Place: A Short Introduction. How does one do that in a place that many would consider devoid of complication?
SB: I don’t find the suburbs devoid of complication. They are fraught with complication and contradiction. More and more the suburbs have become the defining environment of the United States. Look at Manhattan, for example. It’s become a shopping mall. Housing has priced many people out of areas that used to be neighborhoods of ethnic and economic diversity. It’s become more commercial more homogeneous, in a word—what we used to consider suburban. And, it is important to note as American cities become too pricey for many, the suburbs now support their own diversity although perhaps not as well as urban neighborhoods once did. Still, suburban environments have histories and tell stories. But they are designed to direct our attention away from those readings and toward commerce: “Where’s the nearest Starbucks?” instead of “Who used to work, live, create here?” In Utopia Minus, I wanted to reorient the reader’s attention to larger narratives as well as smaller details: the name of the weeds in my backyard and the patterns of powerlines that cross my skies.
The epigraph and title for Utopia Minus comes from Robert Smithson’s “A Guide to the Monuments of Passaic New Jersey” (published in Artforum (Dec 1967) in which Smithson takes readers on a tour of non-traditional and easily overlooked sites. The monuments Smithson visits include a bridge over the Passaic River, concrete abutments, a pumping derrick and “an artificial crater that contained a pale limpid pond of water” and “six large pipes that gushed the water of the pond into the river” or what Smithson termed “a monumental fountain.”
While Smithson’s guide serves a heaping dose of irony it also refocuses our gaze and recalibrates our notions of beauty. In Utopia Minus I found myself equally inspired by Smithson to document place (from the post-industrial landscapes I grew up with in the northeast to the disposable real estate— abandoned strip-malls or a half-constructed office buildings of Texas). But Smithson was not only an artist who made work out of earth—he brought dirt into the museum. In Utopia Minus I wanted to expand the possibility of what my poems could carry from shuttered strip malls and garbage dumps to civil war photos, from pornography to the Dallas skyline.
LG: You were born in Newark, NJ, “after the riots.” Talk about that. What was living in Newark like for you after that landmark time? How did the riots haunt and help the city—as you knew and/or remember it? What were the places you remember that were significant to your formation as a writer?
SB: I should clarify: I was born in Newark, NJ, although I never lived there. Both of my parents were born and raised in Newark on the same street, Highland Avenue. And both families were very Newark identified. My paternal great-grandfather emigrated from Southern Italy and settled in Newark. I have a photograph of him sitting in front of the half-built Sacred Heart Basilica where he worked as stone mason. According to family legend, he would sit on a bench with tears in his eyes watching his grandchildren walk to school so proud that they would grow up speaking English living in America. On the other hand, the riots, which occurred the summer before I was born, suggest that this mythic American “success” story was not the same for all of Newark’s inhabitants. And there’s something quintessentially and tragically American in that difference and dissonance. When we used to visit my maternal grandparents, who rented a brownstone on Highland Avenue until I was in my early teens, I was witness to the dysfunction of the American dream, the defunding of the American cities. That left a mark on me.
LG: I love your ability to leap and shift in your writing. You build space and silence into it, but never lose the connection to the reader. You also use the epistle in your poems. Can you talk about form in your work? What shapes your work?
SB: In the best poems, form always spins organically out of content contributing to meaning in a loop of mutual signification. Whenever I feel myself getting too comfortable in a poetic form, I get bored and want to try something else. I aim to teach myself something new in terms of craft with each book. In Pioneers in the Study of Motion, I was really interested in a fragmentary and associative poem that worked through juxtapositions and tensions. (A poet friend once described my writing as being based on a beautiful line that breaks against its best interest. Ha!) I was thinking about the field note or the ethnographic text. In Utopia Minus, I wanted to move associatively through a broad range of topics and tones without relying on fragments, using the sentence to get me from idea to idea. W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn was an important model for me. In The Market Wonders, my next book project, many of the poems are procedural: I plugged the closing number of the Dow Jones Industrial Average into search engines that lead me to texts that would help me create poems. Now I am working on a long(ish) prose piece about parenting and water. Each project comes with its own questions and challenges. The poet Aimé Césaire wrote: “Poetic knowledge is born in the great silence of scientific knowledge.” I love science and theory, novels and essays. But the work of making the poem is about creating a space of productive speculation. The process needs to be challenging and thrilling. Basho wrote: “[The poem] exists only while it’s on the writing desk. Once it’s taken off, it should be regarded as a mere scrap of paper.” If I am doing it right, the poem is really just trace, fossil, byproduct.