The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: What factors — aesthetic, semantic, or otherwise — influenced your choice to arrange the unrhymed and unmetered poems “Or Else” and “Onset of my Quonset” in couplets of relatively similar-length lines? In your opinion, how does a symmetrical visual structure affect a poem’s tone and effect, and how do these effects compare to those of other strict formal elements like rhyme and meter? Basically, how do you decide which strategy works best for a given poem as it is forming?
Susan Grimm: For years, I was kind of obsessed with line breaks (and by extension stanza breaks). I really like that position at the end of the line where the word, emphasized, hovers before plunging into more context and possible duality of meaning—the idea of framing, the possibility that you could understand a poem by only reading these last words perhaps. So I like the precipice nature of line breaks.
I think I have settled on the couplet as my default stanza (when I’m not writing prose stanzas) because of all the white space that then enters the poem—pause and again possibility. The appearance also suggests that there is an order which may very faintly gesture towards the idea of form.
And even though I don’t employ rhyme (usually) or think about meter, I think about sound, musicality, rhythm. The traditions of English literature are still singing outside my door.
RR: How has teaching creative writing at the Cleveland Institute of Art informed your work as a poet?
SG: Teaching creative writing has made me a more thoughtful poet. If you find yourself in the front of a classroom, you have to teach yourself what you’re about to teach someone else. So being a teacher makes me think more about my work. Also, I think the longer I teach the more inclusive I have become about the nature of the poem
RR: Your two poems “Or Else” and “Onset of my Quonset” seem to be at opposite ends of a spectrum, one end future oriented, and the other focused on getting back to the basics. Given the concerns addressed in these two poems, what about current society most captures your attention?
SG: I suspect that I wrote “Or Else” after writing a less successful poem about roombas which referenced among other things Rosie, the maid/robot on The Jetsons. And I think “Or Else” is also an homage to the spectacularly successful engineering of an elbow joint (not sure how Robert Frost crept in there at the end).
“(S)teering the flock” does seem pretty remote from automaton construction, but I think I’m not arguing that either direction is the way to go. Rather that living is an amalgamation, a continual stirring in of the new.
RR: As a poet, what writers have you’ve been reading lately?
SG: I’ve been reading Amy Newman’s On This Day in Poetry History and The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. At the top of my reading pile is Behind My Eyes by Li-Young Lee because I just heard him read last week.
RR: In this age of rapidly-evolving technology, basic characteristics of humans are being applied to certain robotic programs. Your poem “Or Else” explores the choice that has to be made when these creations are afoot: should humanity be inserted into them? What do you believe will be the rewards and consequences of pursuing artificial intelligence?
SG: I don’t think we have a choice about inserting humanity into artificial intelligence since we are its creators. Perhaps the question is really how human will we attempt to make AI. I can see that technology in all its aspects contributes to the release of human beings from unremitting toil (the industrial revolution just keeps on keeping on). This is of course a reward, but also a consequence because I’m not certain how we will occupy ourselves meaningfully if work disappears altogether.
“Or Else” and “Onset of my Quonset” in Rappahannock Review Issue 4.1
Susan Grimm is the author of Almost Home (Cleveland State University Poetry Center 1997), Lake Erie Blue (BkMk Press 2004), and Roughed Up by the Sun’s Mothering Tongue (Finishing Line Press 2011). Her work has appeared in Blackbird, The Journal, The Cortland Review, Seneca Review, and Tar River Poetry. She earned an MFA in poetry through the Northeast Ohio MFA consortium (NEOMFA) and teaches creative writing part-time at the Cleveland Institute of Art. She also occasionally teaches classes for Literary Cleveland. She lives in Cleveland, Ohio, and can be found online at The White Space Inside the Poem.