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DIGGING FOR DEEPER MEANING
The latest installment of the Branching Out: Poetry for the 21st Century
series comes to the Woodward Park library next week, with the appearance
of poet Susan Stewart.
Stewart's inventive mixing of academics with poetic forms has won her
acclaim from both scholars and writers alike. Her unique aesthetics
blend well with the populist Branching Out series, which aims to make
contemporary poetry more accessible.
In an e-mail interview, community journalist Sallie Perez Saiz asked
Stewart about finding her personal perspective, connecting multiple art
forms to write poetry, and the power of poetry to tie the past with the
First, I'd like to get a brief timeline of Susan Stewart as a writer.
Where are you from, where did you go to school, and how did you come to
I grew up in central Pennsylvania. My degrees are from Dickinson
College, where I studied literature, art history, and anthropology as an
undergraduate; Johns Hopkins University, where I took an MA degree in
poetics from The Writing Seminars; and the University of Pennsylvania,
where I took my Ph.D. in folklore with a concentration in literature.
I've been writing poems since I was a very young child.
You have published several books of poetry, along with essays on
visual art and aesthetics, and the theoretical studies of language. How
have those different interests fit into your writing life?
Writing poems is my first love. I write prose works on literature and
art as a way of working through problems or issues that arise in my
reading and writing of poems.
How has your poetry been influenced by the scholarly work you've done
with language and its social implications? Do your scholarly ideas
originate with the poetry, or does the study of other writing and art
forms inspire your poetry?
I tend to write poetry and prose alternately, but I'm always working
toward a book of poems.
I like to work on a poetic book as an art form in itself, though I
usually begin by writing single poems for a while, thinking about how
they might be forming a series or set.
You are involved at many levels in the study of language, and the
concept of reality as it is socially constructed in visual arts, music,
and poetry. How have these arts forms combined to influence your poetry?
I don't think reality is socially constructed! Many things are socially
constructed, but I consider nature to be an inexhaustible resource
outside of the realm of human making. Understanding how we are part of
nature and yet still having some capacity to anthropomorphize ourselves
is key to all of my work.
But this question is about the influence of the visual arts and music on
my poetry and the answer is: yes, they are an important influence. Many
of my friends are artists and composers and learning how they go about
their work has affected my sense of opening up the line, or the limits
of musicality in poems, of effects of the page and space and repetition,
as well as many other issues.
I have often enjoyed collaborating with artists in other media. I am now
working on a baritone song cycle commission for the Chicago Symphony
with the composer James Primosch.
I also enjoy working on translations; I've been helping to edit and
translate a collection of contemporary Italian poetry for the journal
TriQuarterly and I'm working on a translation of selected poems
of the Italian poet Alda Merini at the same time. Previously, I helped
translate Euripides' Andromache.
In your poetry collection Columbarium, what kind of poetic
devices did you use and how are these important to the themes you care
about? For instance, you use chapter headings titled, "The Elements," to
frame the beginning and ending of the three-part book. How do you think
these devices impacted the book and affected its meaning, both for you
and for readers?
I tried to invent a new form, an organic or necessary form, for each
element of the book. The four long poems on the elements circle the
alphabet of "shadow georgics" that are like a nest at the center of the
book. I later read a beautiful quote from the British novelist Nicholas
Mosley that perfectly captures what I was trying to express with the
structure of my book as a whole: "Life happens in nests. Hurricanes blow
I hope the book slows readers down, helping them see connections between
poems and among the poems, and that each single poem is a new, slightly
How did Columbarium come together? Was the collection an
extension of previous themes you'd explored, or was it a shift to
explore something new?
Each book is a departure for me. Formally, Columbarium was
something new, but there is always a continuity of preoccupations in my
work—one that isn't always evident until I've had a few years to let it
In this case, the book continues many of the concerns I had pursued in
The Forest about the transmission of knowledge from one
generation to another, but whereas The Forest was concerned with
the effects of one generation upon the consequent one—especially effects
upon the unconscious—Columbarium, like all georgics, is concerned
with the future and speaks to the generation to follow.
Mining is one of the themes in your poetry. How does mining influence
your sense of identity? How are the connections you make different than
what a reader might expect? For instance, you seem to be playing with
the idea of whether to make meaning by repetition or make new
connections between things and nature.
I am intrigued that you noticed this. It is something, I have to admit,
I hadn't considered explicitly, but you are absolutely right and one of
my most recent poems is also about mining.
First of all, there is a biographical connection: my grandfather was
briefly a slate miner in his youth and died of black lung disease in
1979. The Welsh miners of the town of Delta where he had worked often
died after just a few years of labor in that slate quarry; at the same
time, they had a beautiful traditional choir that I heard several times
as a child.
Further, I have often thought of the role of miners in culture: the
tremendous burden of mining's traditions and obligations; the extreme
forms of exploitation it perpetuates; and, as well, the ways miners have
been on the vanguard of revolutionary movements—in Poland and China and
South Africa, for example—perhaps because they have so little left to lose.
In a quite different way, mining strikes me as a metaphor for the work
of the poet in uncovering and excavating meanings, especially
You're preparing to speak about the work of Russian poet Anna
Akhmatova all over the country as part of the Branching Out series. How
did Akhmatova overcome the oppressive condition of her personal and
public life under Stalin through her poetry? How has this influenced
your own ideas about your internal and external life and the
relationship between the two in your writing?
Akhmatova wasn't really able to overcome the oppressions of World War I,
the Bolshevik Revolution, World War II, and the long period of Stalin's
terrors—she had to suffer them. She was silent for decades, kept under a
suicide watch, and virtually under house arrest, from 1922 until 1956,
and she had very little freedom even after that. Her first husband was
shot by the Bolsheviks; her third husband died in a Siberian labor camp;
and her son Lev was imprisoned for all of his early and middle adult
life, most of that time in Siberia. He was released only in 1956 after
Stalin's death in 1953.
During all this time, Akhmatova continued to write, her poems often
recorded only in her memory. She refused to emigrate, choosing instead
internal exile out of her allegiance to her language and her people.
The horrors of the twentieth-century fell heavily on Akhmatova and that
story should remind us that there are forces, paradoxically often
well-intentioned forces, destined to destroy poetry and circumscribe
human creativity. In our own time, the denigration of public language,
the limiting of free speech and expression, the leveling-out of culture
and the emptiness of consumerism pose further threats to literature.
Nevertheless, in comparison to Akhmatova's life, my own life has been a
sojourn in paradise.
How do you see Akhmatova's impact to shape what human beings will be
through art? How do you see yourself impacting the historical moment
through your own work?
What is most moving to me about Akhmatova's life and work, aside from
her remarkable dignity, is her steady belief in the constant open power
of poetry to connect to both the past and the future. She identified
deeply with all poets throughout history, particularly her ancestor
Pushkin and her predecessor in exile, Dante. And she wrote as a witness
to her own times, memorizing her poems, recruiting her friends to
memorize poems that would otherwise be destroyed.
We are her audience, and she somehow had faith that the power of poetry
would endure, surviving to reach us beyond the vicissitudes of history.
Is this your first time reading in Fresno? For you as a contemporary
poet, what does it mean to give a reading here, in an area rich in
Yes, this is my first visit. I am looking forward very much to seeing
it, for I have admired the poems of Philip Levine since I was a young
student, and the next generation—[Larry] Levis and [David] St. John and
others—were important compatriots when I first realized there was a
world of contemporary American poetry I might explore.
Susan Stewart will read from her own poetry on Sunday, May 7, at 5
p.m., and will lecture on Anna Akhmatova on Monday, May 8, at 7 p.m.
Both events will be held at the Woodward Park Library. Visit the Fresno
County Library's website for