Contributor Spotlight: Interview with Susanna Lang
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We love the rich sense of story and the characters in the poem “Launch.” Where did the inspiration come from to write this poem?
Susanna Lang: I have been a middle and high school teacher for thirty-five years, though this is now my last year. When I walked out of school one day last spring, I saw one of my seventh graders perched at the very top of our playground equipment, her twin brother in an identical pose at the very top of the other tower. Maddy had a look of fierce joy on her face, which was striking to me because I hadn’t seen it in class, though she was one of my most responsive, most ambitious students. It made me sad that she did not find the same joy in literature and writing which are so central to my own life, and which she worked so hard to master. She and I subsequently had several conversations about the question of joy and responsibility. Then over the summer, I discovered the chalk drawings described in the opening lines, and was again struck by the joy in the children’s imagination. It was around the same time that I happened on a text that is supposed to be a more accurate transcription of Sojourner Truth’s famous remarks than the one we usually see. This is how many of my poems come together: I gather bits and pieces like a magpie and then let them create relationships among themselves. I feel a little guilty about this poem. While the portrait of Maddy is pretty accurate, and she does have a twin brother whom I’ve also taught, the brother in the poem is pure fiction.
RR: As a sequence of sonnets, “Launch” incorporates some lovely lyric moments and echoes, and yet it also feels strongly grounded in narrative. Does your poetry often incorporate narrative, and can you tell us about how you develop narrative in relation to other elements of a poem?
SL: My father was an extraordinary storyteller, as was his mother before him, so I grew up listening to stories. My early poems were very narrative, and then I moved all the way to the other end of the continuum, and wrote tight lyrical poems rooted in image. Now I think I’m being the magpie about poetic tools, too: I don’t want to limit myself to one kind of voice, and I don’t see any reason why a poem can’t move back and forth between voices.
RR: The epigraph to “Launch” inflects the themes of the poem and also brings in a very specific historical moment. How did you come to include the quote?
SL: Like so many of us, I have been increasingly focused in the past year or two on our country’s unresolved history, which very much includes women’s issues. Feminism is not a new stance for me—I have a sequence of poems begun in 2015 focused on women artists—but it is one of the issues that has intensified for me recently. One worry I had as I watched over Maddy for two years is that she was sometimes held back by her parents or teachers in order to meet her brother’s needs. When I took both twins and one of their friends out to lunch after they helped me pack up my classroom for the summer, he needled her as brothers do—I have one, too—but there was a sharper edge to it. Perhaps I was exploring my own sibling relationship in this poem, but if so, it was unconscious. I was more consciously hoping to write my way—our way—toward a more joyful, more egalitarian relationship between women and men.
RR: Are there writers who have been particularly influential for you?
SL: This has always been a difficult question for me, and as I’ve talked with other writers, I have learned that it is difficult for many of us. That’s not because we aren’t influenced or because we don’t want to acknowledge those influences, but because the influences are so various and so intense that it’s hard to choose one or two or several names to mention. I have recently been rereading Adrienne Rich, but if you had asked a month ago, I might not have mentioned her name because then I was reading Danez Smith and Eavan Boland. I am equally influenced by Walt Whitman and by Emily Dickinson, though they are such different writers. Chaucer first taught me prosody, but A. E. Stallings has deepened my understanding. I’m tempted to say that whoever I’m reading right now—the book I’m carrying is Dots & Dashes by Jehanne Dubrow, who bowled me over at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference this year—is particularly influential.
RR: Are you currently working on any longer projects? What have you been writing lately?
SL: I’m so glad you asked! Terrapin Books published my third full-length collection of poems in June 2017, Travel Notes from the River Styx, and I’ve spent a lot of the last year reading from that collection in venues from small coffee houses to AWP. Right now I’m working on a new collection that includes a series of poems focused on women artists and another series of epistles written to girls who have been my students in the past few years, as well as a selection of the more political and prophetic poems I’ve written in these last traumatic years. That is very much a working manuscript and the title changes almost every day, so I won’t hazard a title here.
Susanna Lang’s work appears in Issue 5.3 here.