Q&A With Poet, Artist and Creative Spirit
By Susan Gardner
Publisher: Red Mountain Press
On Sunday, June 9 at 3:30 p.m., Susan Gardner will be at op.cit. bookstore, Sanbusco Center in Santa Fe, to read from and sign her book of poetry, To Inhabit the Felt World. The book received an Eric Hoffer honorable mention for poetry award, and is a finalist for the Da Vinci Eye Prize for cover art and design. Gardner is a poet, painter, photographer and literary editor. Elizabeth Raby, author of Ink on Snow, said of Susan’s work, “I don’t believe I have ever read lines of such ferocity, honesty and pain. Yet Gardner continues, observes, listens... she opens herself to passion.”
I would agree. The work is painfully honest and joyously expressive. You can almost hear the voice of the poet in the structure of the poems and in the powerful cadence of the words. Susan’s work speaks of honest emotion, introspection, and heart. In her Q&A she talks about To Inhabit the Felt World, and her writing journey.
H.Talk about the title, “To Inhabit the Felt World” and what it means to you.
SG. The poem “Sticks and Stones” is about the process of calligraphy — crafting the ink from carbon and glue, fabricating brushes, making the paper and allowing the ink to settle into the paper as a poem or painting. Calligraphy is a joy to me. I wrote my first poems in Japanese calligraphy and experimented with all the phases of the process described in the poem.
The paper is made from a slurry of fibers and then “felts” into the paper sheet. I used this physical process to suggest the felt world of the poem, the felt world of the poet — the observation, experience and emotions we feel and understand through poetry and art.
H. How did you select pieces from your body of work for this collection?
SG. The poems for this book were written during several months in 2012. A few of the poems reconsider earlier themes, but all are new and written specifically for this book.
H. “Trilogy for My Daughter” is heartbreakingly beautiful. What does it take from you to put into words such a deeply personal and life-changing loss?
SG. My daughter's illness and death were a soul-shaking event. For years I had no words for it, spoken or written. Much later, as I started to write about it, my husband urged me to speak clearly and fully. The third section of the trilogy was written just after the death of my much-loved mother-in-law and it was the final reconciliation I needed. The trilogy unites my philosophical persuasions with my emotional sensibility. Although the whole poem was composed almost complete in just a few days, I had a vivid sense of growth and transformation as I wrote it.
H. You are an artist and photographer. How does that inform your poetry?
SG. I have been a painter and photographer for a long time and I see the world through that field of reference. Many descriptions in the poems are influenced by the wonderful names of colors and the vocabulary of the art studio. My practice as a visual artist encourages, even forces, scrupulous attention to fine detail, the particularity that reveals the essence of the whole. It is just the same with poetry.
H. Your work has been described as being a “…landscape of experiences and perceptions not our own, but hauntingly familiar.” What does that mean to you as a writer?
SG. Art-making in all its forms is a universal human need and characteristic. We are related by our human-ness and our place in nature. My job as an artist is to look carefully, point directly, try to shape experience so that we, poet and reader, can apprehend its meaning. We make use of this particular moment, here and now. I hope that through my work the reader will recognize the value of our shared experience.
Art – regardless of form or genre – has the potential to awaken us to our own humanity and to our place in the world. More than joy and beauty, more than sensory pleasure and satisfaction, the practice and presence of art can offer redemption in the face of almost irredeemable sorrow.
H. Your bio also says you are a literary editor. Talk a little about your experience in that arena.
SG. I love the poets and their work. A poet brings me what seems to be a finished manuscript and that is the starting point for creating a book. We look at every line, every poem, trying to see how each element supports every other. Formatting the words on the page is graphic as well as literary. We consider the sequencing within each poem and through the book. We are after clarity, beautiful sound, natural language pacing, each word inevitable.
Most important of all: how do we let the reader hear the voice of the poet on the page? Within the lines, we want to leave room for the reader to breathe with the poem, to come closer to its heart, to the poet’s intention.
The collaboration is intense, creative and for most books, very satisfying.
H. You’ve traveled extensively. Talk about some of the places you’ve been and how those experiences are reflected in your poetry.
SG. Away from the familiar, jolted from the expected and taken-for-granted context, we can see ourselves new, make an opportunity of an unimagined and perplexing puzzle. My early adult years in East Asia were the introduction and context for my exploration of Buddhist philosophy and calligraphy.
I have learned Korean, Japanese, French and Spanish well enough to live in them, sometimes teach in them, for Japanese and Spanish, write in them. Language embodies the values of the culture and contains a point of view. Using a new language, participating in a new culture, shakes me out of old assumptions, forces me out of the ruts of old habits.
In Drawing the Line I wrote:
“I think that Heraclites had it right: it is not possible to step in the same stream twice. Even the Rocky Mountains seen from my window are in flux, uplifting themselves, eroding away, their shadows and colors changing every minute under the high altitude light. I find myself astonished every day by the sights on this expedition, the new, unruly landscape to be negotiated.”
H. You’ve written other books. Talk about them and the inspiration that motivates you to write about a particular subject.
SG. When I began Drawing the Line ~ A Passionate Life I intended to write about the nature of making art. Artist and poet are not a label or description; being an artist is in the context of my whole life. It is not a job but as much my identity as woman, mother, wife, house-builder, garden-planter, teacher. My initial essay speculating about the nature of art inevitably became a memoir.
Part of the artist’s task is to cast what light we can on the human condition. It has been fashionable to say that beauty and harmony have no meaning, that all we need is some adrenaline-pumping, eye-popping hugeness to be satisfied. I believe that humans are hard-wired to desire and recognize beauty in all its forms. It is the human mind that transforms facts into truth, stone into sculpture, empty sounds into poetry and music. Each of us is alone, an anonymous, separate being. Art lets us see who we are; it is the bridge from one mind to another. It lets us hold a transforming mirror to our human qualities and remember who we can be. It is the ultimate freedom.
Box of Light ~ Caja de Luz is Spanish and English poems, about half originally in each language. Moving between languages is moving between cultures. It was interesting to try and capture both sense and music of the original language in the second. The poems are cousins rather than twins. It was a joy to explore these possibilities and I learned so much about language and making poetry.
My first book, Intimate Landscapes, was a chapbook published by St. Johns College. I had a photography exhibition at the St. Johns College Gallery and instead of standard wall text (that almost no one reads) I wrote poems for the walls. The gallery director immediately asked to publish them as a chapbook and made the edition in time for the opening reception. Almost all 300 copies left with the visitors to the gallery and I was left with the pleasure of having my poems in print.
H. Whom do you write your poetry for and what do you hope readers of your work get out of it?
SG. In all my work, as in my life generally, I try to realize the idea of direct pointing, to look carefully, with attention. I try to put aside expectations, fear, preconceptions and acknowledge what I am seeing right here, right now. I hope the readers will recognize what they may have overlooked or forgotten or will re-examine it with renewed attention. Most of all, I hope the work has lasting value and will bring pleasure to readers many years from now.
H. In what ways has writing changed you?
SG. Writing and photography as well as painting are investigative processes.
I accept change as a central quality of life. Each new poem suggests another step in my evolving understanding of the world around us and our place in it.
Writing Drawing the Line was very illuminating. Looking at my parents through a new perspective I found a deeper understanding of them and came to accept the cruelties and anomalies of their lives with more equanimity. I now see some of the ongoing themes of my own life with more clarity and fuller appreciation. The tragedies, achievements and serendipitous good fortune seem to be more in balance.
H. Where is To Inhabit the Felt World available?
SG. The publisher’s website is http://www.redmountainpress.us; also the distributor http://www.spdbooks.org, independent bookstores, and, of course, Barnes and Noble and Amazon.
This article appears in Happenstance Magazine, a digital publication available by subscription. For details go to vandermeerbooks.com.