By Annie Newcomer:
The Flapper Press Poetry Café features the work from poets of all ages from all over the globe. This week, we highlight the work of Tim Suermondt.
Tim Suermondt is the author of five full-length collections of poems. The latest is Josephine Baker Swimming Pool from MadHat Press, 2019. He has published in Poetry, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, The Georgia Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Stand Magazine, december magazine, On the Seawall, Poet Lore and Plume, among many others. He lives in Cambridge, MA, with his wife, the poet Pui Ying Wong.
We reached out to Tim to talk about his influences, passions, and poetry.
Please meet Tim Suermondt!
Annie Newcomer: Welcome, Tim, to our Flapper Press Poetry Café. As I read your bio and scanned the internet to become familiar with your work, there were two questions that I knew I must ask you. Let's start with the first. Does being married to a poet provide a means for you to share your work with another poet as you write and even create opportunities for collaboration? Or do you keep this part separate, as the esteemed Jane Kenyon and her husband, the illustrious poet Donald Hall, so famously did?
Tim Suermondt: My wife, Pui Ying Wong, and I don’t collaborate on poems or do projects together—we work separately on our poems. But once we’ve worked a poem or poems to what we think is a finished or pretty finished state, we’ll usually show it to one another—we’re our first readers. Pui has a sharp eye and ear, and if there’s something she thinks is off, she’ll let me know, and I’ll do the same with her work. We trust each other and have no fear of offending if we decide not to make a suggested tweak or change. It’s amazing how much we usually agree with what we’ve written, and what we initially had, stands as is.
AN: I loved your poem "Josephine Baker Swimming Pool." At first glance I think it may appear easy to include a celebrity and/or a loved one in a poem. However, I actually think it takes skill to pull this off. Might you address how you decide to include well-known figures in your poetry? Is this just a natural ability that you have, or did you develop it over time? Or had you even thought about this before?
TS: I’ve had a keen interest in history all the way from my boyhood. Historical figures, when they enter a poem, do so easily. While I might write a poem with historical figures in mind, most of the time they just show up occasionally in the landscape of the poem. "Josephine Baker Swimming Pool" was brought on by our running into that swimming pool one day as we were walking around Paris—by Bercy along the Seine. I recently finished a poem called "Lunch with Elvis," the younger Elvis. We got on splendidly.
AN: You have been published in so many excellent publications. How do you select which poems to submit to which publications? Any tips for our readers who write as they navigate the submission process?
TS: Selecting and submitting poems remains a mystery, even after all the years I’ve been doing so. But you come to know many of the journals, sites, and the players during the length of time, and it gives you a bit of a leg up; though, like most every poet, I try to find places, often new, to get a sense of the poetry they publish and see if I have a packet of poems that I think they might go for. You’re never certain, though. Just send the poems out and be bold about it, then forget them as much as possible and keep writing others.
AN: I am also impressed by the number of poetry books you have authored. Might you share your process? Do you write a number of poems and then find an underlying theme, or do you decide on a theme first? And in a collection, how important is it that all the poems fit that theme? And the title poem, how do you know where to place it in your book?
TS: I’ve been fortunate in that most of my poetry books have come about because the publisher asked me if I had a manuscript to send to him or her, or because I simply asked. But again, like most poets, I send my manuscripts out into the world and keep my fingers crossed. Lightning does strike now and then. I don’t write poems to fit a specific theme (I write from poem to poem), but often certain ideas and/or emotions will cohere in a collection after I’ve gotten a body of poems and looked into the possibility of a book coming from it. I like to take the title for a manuscript from one of the poems in the collection. Which title and where it’s placed in the book comes about after rummaging through the manuscript and just getting the sense that this will work here, this will work there.
AN: What drives you in your work, and what goals do you still have?
TS: I wanted to be a writer and ultimately a poet—and here I am. It’s nice to be driven by writing and reading, and while my goal is to win a Nobel Prize, as long as a few people honor me by putting up with and reading some of the poems, I’ll be okay.
AN: Sometimes I like to ask a poet to devise a question that they might wish I had asked and didn't and then answer their own question. Would you do this for us?
TS: Question from me: Should a poem always tell the truth?
My answer: A poem should always tell the truth of the poem, and imagination is often the best way of getting to that truth.
I was rereading W.G. Sebald’s brilliant essay "On the Natural History of Destruction"—a sober look at the Allied bombing of Germany in World War II, especially the German attitude after the war and why the Germans were able to rebuild as quickly as they did. One could still see bombed-out buildings in Germany after the war on the landscape. And it made me think of my mother, a young German during the war who witnessed such devastation, and like many people of that generation she was reluctant to talk too much about it all. She married my father, who was in the Air Force, and America became home. Despite a number of military assignments over the years that took them back to Germany (where I was born in an Army hospital), my mother never went back to her hometown. One interesting side note: my mother saw Adolf Hitler up close when he visited her school. She was not impressed.
The One House
It stood on the street
of the city my mother
once lived in, the two-story
unaffected by the lunar looking
landscape of charred blocks,
almost endless in all directions.
The house still had a trellis,
its lovely blue rimmed windows
and a balcony where a couple
used to sit, happy to show affection,
truly sweet and bourgeois
in the best sense. What the bombs
couldn’t accomplish, the city planners
did in a few short years after:
demolishing the house, with a quick
dispatch, rebuilding with an earnestness
that hoped to forget, as much as possible.
I never went to see and my mother
never returned, satisfied that memory
now and then in the new world was enough.
There are things we never want to end, though they do. There have been times when I was reluctant to begin something because I feared its end. This poem reflects that, though I’m glad that in this end, the notion can be a bit foolish—the world has quite a while to go, and there’s sun and friendship, and that breaking heart is still pumping.
My friend insists
“The world will end soon”—
forgetting he’s been saying
this for at least forty years.
Of course, science swears
the world will end one day,
all of it going back to a gaseous
state floating through the universe.
It’s daunting to think of all
the ends that have been, some
so beautiful they broke your heart,
some appallingly tragic,
and all the ends yet to come
before the final fall occurs.
I run into a neighbor and ask him
if he’s thought about the world ending.
“Well, maybe, but not on a sunny
afternoon.” “Just asking for a friend,”
I say, embarrassed by my ridiculous timing.
I have to say it’s true: I don’t know what I’d do without her. And as I did fumble around the kitchen, somehow I was reminded that the beauty and quiet of the night here was not everywhere, that somewhere tanks were always rolling over people and angels, even if you couldn’t hear any of it—you knew. That cake and other delectables in the refrigerator brought me back, and wonder was restored.
My Wife's Birthday
When she wakes from her nap
we’ll make the dinner together.
It’s dark now and unbelievably quiet—
you couldn’t hear angels flying by
or tanks rolling down the narrow street.
I bend to kiss my wife on the cheek
and go to the kitchen for a head start,
searching for the pots I never find
on my own—what indeed would I ever
do without her? I check on the cake,
marvel again at the frosting, the refrigerator
pointing out wonders even I couldn’t miss.
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!
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