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Flapper Press Poetry Café: A Conversation With Susanna Lang

By Annie Newcomer:



The Flapper Press Poetry Café is honored to feature the work from poets from all over the globe. This week, we present the work of poet Susanna Lang!


Susanna Lang

Susanna Lang divides her time between Chicago and Uzès, France. Her most recent chapbook, Like This, was released in 2023 (Unsolicited Books), along with her translations of poems by the Algerian-French writer Souad Labbize in My Soul Has No Corners (Diálogos Books). Her e-chapbook, Among Other Stones: Conversations with Yves Bonnefoy, (Mudlark: An Electronic Journal of Poetry & Poetics) was published in 2021. Her third full-length collection of poems, Travel Notes from the River Styx, was published in 2017 by Terrapin Books. Her poems, translations, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in such publications as The Common, december magazine, Asymptote, Tupelo Quarterly, American Life in Poetry, Rhino Reviews, Mayday, and The Slowdown. Her translations of poetry by Yves Bonnefoy include Words in Stone and The Origin of Language, and she is now working with Souad Labbize and Hélène Dorion on new translations. To find more about the work of Susanna Lang, visit her website here.


We reached out to Susanna Lang to talk about her work, influences, and passions.


Please meet Susanna Lang!





Annie Newcomer: Welcome to Flapper Press, Susanna. When asked to share one word or phrase that best described your work for us, you wrote "The one-word (or phrase) description of my poetry is the French term (though I’m taking liberties with it) engagée ('engaged with the world')." Please expound on this response so that our readers can have a deeper understanding of what it means for a poet to be engaged and why this is so crucial to good writing. My bonus question is how does one explain the subtleties of the French word engagée to an American audience?


Susanna Lang: I had a terrible time coming up with one word or phrase to describe my writing, so I am happy to have a follow-up question! In French, as used to describe anything literary, “engagé(e)” refers to political engagement. I was raised in an activist family, and I continue to give time to electoral work, to supporting refugees, to preservation of the natural world; and I write some poems that are “engaged” in that limited sense, though I find it very difficult to do well, without becoming didactic or expository or propagandistic, and without speaking only to the current moment. But what I meant here, and why I said I was taking liberties with the word, is that I want to write and to read poems turned outward to the world beyond our small selves.


To be honest, I don’t often find myself interesting enough to write poems about. But the world itself, both the physical world and the communities we belong to—that’s worth some poems!

AN: I am intrigued that you split your time between Chicago, Illinois, and Uzès, France. Life in these two cities seem as though they would be polar opposites, as Chicago is one of the largest cities in the U.S. and Uzès is a small medieval town with charming tiled roofs lacking the annoying  tourist traps highjacked by commercialism. How did you find Uzès? Please share how each geographical area impacts you as a poet. How do you navigate these two different worlds? And in what ways might they be the same? 


SL: I’ve studied French since I was in seventh grade, and I translate French poetry into English, though I couldn’t keep it up while I was teaching full-time. Now that I’m retired from the classroom, translation is a big part of my writing life. I had dreamed of having a place of my own in France without ever believing in the dream, but my husband did, and he found Uzès online. It is indeed a charming medieval/Renaissance town (and, I’m afraid, a tourist magnet), but it’s also a regional center with a phenomenal open market twice a week, and my husband is a committed cook. It has a real cultural life, though we’re just getting to know that aspect of the place, and it’s within easy reach of cities such as Nîmes (jazz festival, Roman antiquities) and Avignon (the palace of the popes in exile, the bridge in the children’s song, an opera house with many different kinds of performances). A little harder to reach is Toulouse, where the poet I’ve mostly translated is living—Souad Labbize. We enjoy the lifestyle in France, so much time spent on a terrasse, eating a meal or drinking wine or coffee as the world walks by, including our new neighbors. We appreciate the beauty even of simple structures, the attention to harmony and line.


I’ve always liked displacement as a pathway into poems. I’ve benefitted from residencies in the Blue Ridge Mountains (Hambidge Center) and the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and writing conferences in the New Hampshire mountains (The Frost Place) and Port Townsend, Washington. New landscapes bring new ways of seeing, and the landscapes and cityscapes of Southern France are gorgeous. I am still feeling my way into a life that moves between Chicago and Uzès, as “Going and Staying Home” suggests, but the movement itself is helpful, if something of a stress test. 


AN: In reading over your list of literary accomplishments, your work (which is prolific) covers both full-length manuscripts of printed poetry books, chapbooks, and e-books. Please differentiate for our readers between a chapbook and poetry book and how you decide to use one over the other. How has your experience been with e-books, and why choose this form to publish your work? 


SL: The difference between a chapbook and what we usually mean by a poetry book is mostly length. Chapbooks (pamphlets in the UK) are shorter, and micro-chapbooks are super short. (In France, by the way, there is no distinction.) Chapbooks are almost always unified around a theme or a project, but that is increasingly true of full-length books as well. It used to be that poets published a book when they had written enough poems. Now there are so many of us writing poetry, and so few opportunities to publish, that publishers look for something more. For a while, it was whether the collection had an “arc” that took the reader from poem to poem, but recent collections seem more like project books.


I didn’t exactly choose to write an e-book. I had written a series of 15 poems that each responded to poem by Yves Bonnefoy from a collection I had translated decades ago, as a very young woman. He was a very important mentor for me, at that time and again later when I worked with him a little more. I tried to write an elegy when Yves died but wasn’t very successful. It took some years, and then I found myself engaged in this written conversation with him. Fifteen poems is an awkward number to publish, but I felt they needed to be together, and Mudlark had a call for manuscripts that seemed to fit what I had written. As a publishing experience, I found it less satisfying than having a physical book to hold in my hands and take to readings, but I was grateful to have any opportunity to share this tribute to a great man and a great poet. 


AN: Susanna, what is your opinion on poetry workshops? Please share your experiences with poetry workshops and how the camaraderie with other poetic minds impacts your own work. 

How might a French poetry workshop differ from one in the U.S.? Or do they?


SL: I attended Williams College, which did not have a writing program. The college hired poets such as Larry Raab and Jonathan Aaron, but they taught literature courses in the English department. However, they were available for one-on-one critique sessions, and they supported an extracurricular group that met together. The college invited other poets for master classes and readings. I participated in all of these activities, as well as translating Yves Bonnefoy’s poems as an independent study through the French department, and the college gave me a writing fellowship when I graduated. No one spoke to me about an MFA, however. There were fewer programs then, but I might have gotten into one of those few—who knows? Meanwhile, I was young and foolish and thought I could live on that fellowship (impossible) and continue to write on my own (equally impossible). I gave up my writing and translation to work full-time, and then more than full-time when I started to teach, which requires all of you if you are going to do it well.


Eventually I found my way back into poetry when the AIDS epidemic brought me so much grief and anger that I had to do something with that emotion, and this time I had developed the wisdom to form a writing group to support my work and my fellow writers. That group—though the membership has changed over the years—is still together, forty-something years later, though recently we’ve been meeting less often. I’ve been in other groups as well, some through email, some in person, and I’ve attended conferences where I could participate in workshops and hear readings and craft lectures. I’m now active in a Chicago-area translators’ collective and in the American Literary Translators Association. I believe strongly that while we write (and translate) alone, we need community to get better at the work and to find the momentum to keep going. I just wish I’d learned that a little sooner!


I have no idea whether there are such things as writing workshops in France, much less what they’re like. I work as closely as I can with the poets I translate, which can look a lot like a workshop—a mix of critique and support.


AN: When did you know that the poetic life was your dream life and worth pursuing?


SL: According to my mother, I wrote my first poem when I was a very small child—she kept it in my baby book. Children do write poems spontaneously, and metaphor is one of the first ways that children experiment with language: my son would sit in his highchair, hold up a cracker he’d nibbled, and say, “boat.” Then we drum it out of them in school, more’s the pity. When my father sank into dementia, he returned to metaphor, and I found I could converse with him if I understood him in that way. 


I remember writing a poem (something about the rain) in third grade, when the adults in my life—my teacher as well as my parents—made a huge fuss about how wonderful it was. I’m sure it was just the kind of thing children make up when they are allowed to use their imagination, but it was the beginning of my thinking of myself as a writer. Of course, I also wrote how-to books and who knows what else—that’s what children do. In high school, my peer group slept with "Ariel" by Sylvia Plath under our pillows, and I was also reading The Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot, Ann Sexton’s poems, Gary Snyder, E. E. Cummings, John Donne, Emily Dickinson. I already talked about what happened in college and thereafter.


AN: How do you select subjects for your poetry? What advice might you give an emerging poet in this regard? 


SL: Ah, that’s a hard one! I wish I knew the answer. I understand that inspiration is a fiction, and that poems do not just come to me—but that’s what it feels like. If I set out to write a poem about whatever subject I think I should be writing about, the result is dispiriting. Like many other poets, I walk, and I read. I make it a deliberate practice to hold myself open to the world: nothing plugged into my ears when I walk. As I said earlier, landscapes (and cityscapes) are important. Other people’s words can stir something. Stories from the newspapers to which I am addicted. When my father, and then my mother, fell into decline and died, I needed to write elegies. This summer I’ve been volunteering to support refugees in Chicago, both the many bussed to blue northern cities by southern governors and a family evacuated last year from Afghanistan; that work has found its way into a poem (not yet finished). As I have for several summers, I’ve helped with the effort to rebuild the Great Lakes population of critically endangered piping plovers, and I’ve started helping to restore the tiny dunes area at one of our beaches—though there is very little that I hate doing as much as pulling weeds, or (to use our steward’s term) invasive species. That work is also finding its way into my poems. I’ve written nature poems since I was a teenager, but now they are laments over the destruction of our natural environment. 


Constraints can be helpful, if they are not too restrictive.

During the pandemic, I found myself writing an abecedarian series that became my most recent chapbook, Like This. Each title is a simile, in alphabetical order: "Like Apples," "Like Bread," "Like Coffee" . . . and then I branched off from food into everything else. The collection is not about the pandemic, but the pandemic was the air that the poems breathed, and some of the poems do refer to it explicitly. The alphabet, and the requirement I set myself to vary the forms, kept me going: If I had written J, I had to find a K word, though it turns out that English doesn’t have that many. If I’d written a sonnet, it was time for versets or a prose poem or. . . . The Bonnefoy poems kept me going in much the same way.


On residency in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, I wrote a series of landscapes and cityscapes, in sonnets and couplets. Recently, I’ve written odes and conversations between two or three voices, mostly not human. They had to be in physical proximity, to share some aspect of themselves, but also be in tension with each other. I have an ornery streak, so it has to be my own prompt, in the same way that I couldn’t teach from others’ curriculum. I had to develop my own, no matter how time-consuming, or I couldn’t be convincing in the classroom.


AN: I love asking poets to devise a question that they wish I had asked and hadn't, and then answer.  This is that moment to ask yourself any question you desire with your response. 


SL: Your questions have covered a lot of what I’ve been thinking about over the past few years when I’ve been able to commit more of my life to poetry. I supposed that an essential question, especially for the emerging poets you evoke in your last question, is why do this work at all? It certainly doesn’t pay the bills or bring widespread fame for most of us who write poetry. I think we write because we have to, or we don’t keep writing. Some write because it’s fun for them (and nothing feels as good to me as being deep inside a poem, whether in first draft or in revision) or because they’ve found community with other writers. But there are lots of ways to have fun or find community. Why this one, when there is so little reward beyond that rush when you’re in the heat of the writing? 


Poetry matters much more in other societies than in ours; even in France, where poets and publishers of poetry complain all the time about how the audience is shrinking and it’s harder to publish books and so forth, it looks like heaven to me.

You walk into a bookstore and they have a strong contemporary poetry section and booksellers who know the books. You turn a corner in Paris, and there is the Marché de la Poésie, an open-air, open-to-the-public festival with white tents over an unfathomable number of books and poets kissing each other on both cheeks. Turn another corner and there’s a monument to this poet or that, not even all French poets. The woman who cuts my hair reads poetry, and so does her daughter. In Chicago, the woman who cuts my hair loves to read—but not poetry. 


For me, for the friends with whom I’ve had this conversation, we write because we can’t stop. Tell yourself to stop breathing and see how long that lasts.


AN: Thank you so much for joining us today to discuss poetry in our Flapper Press Poetry Café, Susanna. As we end our conversation, we invite our readers to read three poems you have selected for with their backstories. We also wish you success in all your future writing endeavors. 


SL: Thank you! It’s a pleasure to think about these questions, and to think about them with others.


 


Going and Staying Home

Uzès


The city has been making improvements 

in the Parc du Duché: a new playground 

for children, exercise machines for les sportifs, 

tables with inlaid boards. Someone has set out

white pebbles and chestnuts for a game  

of chess or checkers. Is this what it means to live

in a particular place, to belong here: watching 

day by day as this small world is renewed, 

till the barriers come down and I start a game 

with my husband? (He always wins.)

To know the answer when visitors ask 

where to find the Roman aqueduct? To prefer

Le Pêcher Mignon for pastries, La Nougatine 

for bread?


        Soon I will leave, return

to another city where I know the walking paths,

which gardens have yellow aconite in February

or bee balm and echinacea in high summer, asters

and autumn-blooming clematis. Where I buy bread

at Phlour, shortbreads at Bittersweet.


Some homes 

I can no longer reach except in fragments 

of memory: the little white house where my mother 

planted tulips, the apartment at 101st and West End,

the new-built house, now more than fifty years old, 

on a dirt road leading to a farm whose cows 

liked to wander. The farm must be gone, 

a sub-division in its pasture. A slippery word, home, 

though I always thought it marked the foundation, 

the magnet to pull me back. I live now between

two poles, always going and coming, packing

and unpacking; always hovering between stop

and start over.

 

About the poem:

A month before my mother died, my husband and I closed on an apartment in the south of France. Living part of the year in France was a dream I’d had for decades and that my husband made his own. I spent my junior year in Paris and had an early start as a translator, working with Yves Bonnefoy during my undergraduate and graduate studies. He was a towering figure in 20th century French poetry, and I was unbelievably fortunate that he accepted to work with me when several of our most eminent translators were also translating his writings. I was unable to continue translating once I started teaching full-time—I barely managed to keep writing my own work—and we couldn’t afford trips to France, either, until much later in our lives.


Once I left full-time teaching, I went back into translation, and I am happy that a collection of poems by the Algerian-French poet Souad Labbize is coming out this fall. Yves wouldn’t have approved of her, but I think he would have appreciated the other poet I’m working with, the Québecoise Hélène Dorion. I discovered both during post-retirement trips to France, where I stumbled on the Marché de la Poésie in Paris, an open-air poetry festival and book fair free to the public in the center of the city. There are monuments and memorials to poets all over France, and murals including one of Yves’s poems and "The Drunken Boat" by Arthur Rimbaud, in both cases the complete text. French writers and editors bemoan the changes they see in the French audience for poetry, but it’s paradise compared to this country! When I had my hair cut this spring in my small town, the hairdresser wanted to talk about what poetry she and daughter enjoyed reading. My Chicago hairdresser is a friend, and she loves to talk about books—but she doesn’t read poetry.


There is so much else to love in France, the beauty of the landscape and of even the simplest farm buildings, the way history is lived in, not preserved only in museums. And of course the food, and how central meals are to people’s lives—families and friends eating together, as is increasingly rare in American families. Now for two months in spring and two months in autumn, we live in Uzès, a small and ancient town in the foothills of the Cévennes. That has made me think a great deal about what “home” means, which is the genesis of this poem.


The poem had a much more usual process for me. It started from an email conversation with Angela Torres, my editor at Rhino Reviews. I was in France in October 2022 and beginning to think about coming back to Chicago as she and I planned ahead for future book reviews. I found myself struggling with the phrase “going home,” since the place I was leaving was also home, or becoming home. My first draft, from the same day as the email, is a scribble in my notebook, very long-lined and expansive, even expository. In my files are several revisions, in response to feedback from two of my critique groups: a process of both clarifying and compressing the lines so that they would flow and would give the reader information they’d need without going overboard. The initial idea didn’t evolve, however.


 


Rain


’s coming

cry the birds

from their hiding places


Maybe

maybe not

rain doesn’t always

keep its promises


Yes, rain

insist the birds


And yes, the air is thick

the sky darkening

but not a breath of wind


Rain, for sure

the birds are convinced

they know more

than I do


The picnickers believe them

they’ve packed their baskets

and left


except for the two

more interested in kisses

than picnics


It’s hard in a drought

to think of anything

other than rain


Except for the two

kissing

who don’t have any trouble

thinking about something else


Whisper the birds

we told you


And yes, three drops

I counted


 

About the poem:

This is a very recent poem, from May of this year. It brings together two of the threads in my recent poetry, my home in the south of France, and my concern for what we are doing to the natural world. I’ve always written nature poetry since I was a teenager living in rural Connecticut. But while my early poems were all celebratory, many of my poems now are laments, though I am mindful of what Geffrey Davis said in this year’s AWP panel on Writing the Wounded World:

"We can’t only write about the wounds. We must continue to celebrate the beauty that remains."

France is suffering through a multi-year drought, with markedly higher temperatures than in the past. Even in the four years that we have been returning once or twice a year, we can feel the difference. This year, wildfires broke out early, and river levels are dangerously low despite some spring storms that moistened the surface without penetrating to the deeper water tables. Our département (like a state, but smaller) was already at the highest level of alert for water this spring, with stringent restrictions on water use even in agriculture, despite how much of the Gard is agricultural land. Rain becomes an obsession. But while the need for rain and our dry river beds were very much on my mind, I wanted to keep this poem light, a back-and-forth with the birds I heard all around me.


Many days, I walk along the Avron River, one of the tributaries of the Gardon, which feeds into the Rhône. I developed the first draft in my head during my walk on May 9 and wrote it down as soon as I returned to my desk, in almost the form it has now. My readers enjoyed it and didn’t suggest many changes. I fiddled a little but didn’t make significant revisions. I am usually an obsessive reviser, so I find myself surprised that two of the poems I’m sharing with you emerged so completely in first draft.


 


Talking To My Mother (Still)


I am still


(you sitting at the piano)


I am still talking to you about


(you were learning a piece by Poulenc 

and you asked)


I am still talking to you about the music

that filled every house where you lived

that flooded my childhood years


(what did he mean by this instruction 

respirer longuement)


I am still talking though you cannot hear me

cannot read the program from the concert I heard


though you are not here at all except

in this one-sided conversation

that I insist on continuing


You have lost interest

you had lost interest before you stood up from the piano

and left the room

 

About the poem:

My mother died in March 2022. It was the death she chose, suffering from heart disease at the age of 93 and living in Washington State where she could opt for Death with Dignity. That didn’t make it easy, for her or for anyone around her. I had always been close to my mother, though we had huge fights as I was growing up. Our relationship became much more strained as she aged in a city where I could not be as present as she wanted me to be, and the last years were very painful for us both, the last weeks my brother and I spent with her even more so. A year and some months later, I am still coming to terms with her absence and with my connection to her.


That connection is strongest when I listen to music. My mother was a pianist who had ambitions to be a performer when she was young; I have a portrait of her as a child, all dressed up for a recital. Her mother raised her and her brother in music, paid for lessons and concert tickets, though she was supporting the children alone on a department store clerk’s salary after her husband’s early death from MS. My mother majored in music at Antioch and was assistant to the department chair, Walter Anderson, who brought Black and blacklisted performers to perform on campus (it was the 1940s) and initiated my parents into the Civil Rights movement, along with supporting my mother’s love of music. But my parents married while still in college, and my mother was pregnant almost right away. She had to drop out of school and she spent much of her life as a conventional wife and mother, supplementing my father’s earnings with piano lessons but otherwise not pursuing her own dreams. Later in life, she was able to complete her education, pursue a career in government and then administering a music school, join amateur performance groups, and attend all the concerts she wanted to hear. 


She had hoped that I would play piano as she had, especially since I have my father’s big hands though none of my mother’s musical ability. I think I am a writer in part because she enthusiastically supported my early efforts, perhaps as a substitute for the music lessons that I refused once I reached adolescence. I attend concerts as often as I can and listen to classical music at home, especially when I am writing. I am most likely to think about her and continue a conversation with her in my mind when there is music playing, though the conversation can still be full of tension, as it is in this poem, written around the anniversary of her death.


Going back into my notebook and files, the poem seems to have emerged almost in final form—I can only find one draft, though I sent the poem to one of my critique groups (a group that includes Catherine Anderson, Pat Daneman and Cathy Essinger). My readers wanted more background information, but I find myself resistant to adding exposition. I did change the title to clarify who the speaker is addressing. 

 

Annie Klier Newcomer founded a not-for-profit, Kansas City Spirit, that served children in metropolitan Kansas for a decade. Annie volunteers in chess and poetry after-school programs in Kansas City, Missouri. She and her husband, David, and the staff of the Overland Park Arboretum & Botanical Gardens are working to develop The Emily Dickinson Garden in hopes of bringing art and poetry educational programs to their community. Annie helms the Flapper Press Poetry Café—dedicated to celebrating poets from around the world and to encouraging everyone to both read and write poetry!


If you enjoyed this Flash Poet interview, we invite you to explore more here! 



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