Photo Credit: Joanna Eldredge Morrissey
Susan Wicks is an award-winning poet, novelist, and translator. She has published seven collections of poetry and has previously been shortlisted in the T S Eliot and Forward Prizes as well as being named one of the inaugural New Generation Poets.
Susan’s latest poetry collection The Months was published with Bloodaxe earlier this year.
Hi Susan. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your latest collection The Months with Bloodaxe. Can you tell us a bit more about the book and how you feel it hangs together as a collection?
Thank you. It’s good to be asked to talk about The Months, though for me, as for many poets, books tend to grow organically rather than as a rationally programmed project. But the themes of this new book are all to do with time, in one way or another – the sort of time that can open out or squash itself together like a concertina when we’ve accidentally turned our backs. So the poems range in subject from time as an agent of age, loss and illness to time as slow, almost imperceptible change, time as joker, time as reversible, time as ultimately cyclic.
With a few poems near the middle of the collection – ‘Boeuf Miroton’ and ‘Winter Saffron’ in particular – I felt that something different was starting to happen: a door had been left open to a more domestic, more intimate area of experience which was even richer than I had remembered. And I wanted to explore what was beyond that door. The long central poem, ‘The Months’ was the result.
The eponymous central sequence documents two mother and daughter pregnancies separated by thirty four years. I’m curious how long it took for these poems to come together and what challenges you faced given that the timelines are interweaved and in dialogue with each other?
I started working on this long poem in spring 2013, from diaries, one from 1978 and one newer, trying to save just enough concrete detail to convey the ordinary texture of a woman’s life. I tried to listen to what I had and give it the shape it seemed to be asking for – and by about midsummer I had a first draft.
It took me another two years’ work before I could consider it the basis of a new collection. Even then, I agonised for several months over the ending, determined to make it low-key and truthful, but at the same time aware that I was in danger of excluding or foreclosing something – until in summer 2015, I think, I had what came to be the final version.
For me, there were several challenges. The first was to make the poem feel genuinely inclusive while not allowing the narrative structure to slide out of control. The second was to remain firmly inside the mother’s viewpoint. I needed to be honest, in the widest sense – and yet still to make it a poem. That was the one preoccupation that really never went away.
Once I had decided to structure the poem month by month and intercut the two stories, the timelines wrote themselves. The narrative arc isn’t something I was creating artificially – it’s the natural mind-set of anyone who thinks about a pregnancy: everything is naturally turned towards the future. And yet the present goes on happening, and complicates everything!
I think it’s that preoccupation with ordinary daily life that’s holding the poem together – that and the dreams and thread of myth. It’s a cliché, but you could say that deciding to have a child is the beginning of a sort of journey – one that involves relinquishing control and takes you inevitably into the unknown.
Another poem in the new book – ‘Southwards’ – acknowledges a debt to Primo Levi’s memoir The Truce and describes a night train journey through Europe. What was it about his book that sparked this particular poem?
In the old edition I have, The Truce is printed with If This is a Man, and in the past I’ve read them together. When I re-read The Truce it struck me as particularly poignant and understated, less obviously tragic and hard-hitting than its better known companion, but perhaps in the end even more suggestive. My found poem uses Levi’s own translated words, sometimes re-ordered, with repetitions, and rather few additions. It’s a small thing – but I felt I was making my own humble acknowledgement.
You also published a pamphlet with Stonewood Press last year called Lace, in collaboration with the artist Elizabeth Clayman. Can you tell us about the genesis of this project and the resulting poems?
Lace is based on a shared project Elizabeth Clayman and I worked on a number of years ago now. The original idea was the brainchild of Lizzy herself and another visual artist, Ellen Montelius, who, under the auspices of our local museum, decided to involve a group of eight women artists, four of them writers.
We were given the freedom of the museum’s ‘hidden’ collections – wearing cotton gloves and delving in drawers in the basement for whatever we might find inspiring. We each made our choices and the objects were brought up into daylight for us to sketch or make notes on and create something of our own.
At that point the names were put in a hat and each artist’s or writer’s work was passed on to one working in the other medium and used as a second starting-point. Lizzy was making charcoal drawings of fragments of old lace, and I was taking the drawings I found most suggestive and writing a sequence of poems.
For both of us, I think, it was a slow, meditative process – and for both of us it held some personal significance: for me the lace became a kind of lace curtain. My thinking and dreaming took on the shape of a woman looking out through that curtain and writing about the images the lace seemed to hold.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed this past year or are looking forward to in the future?
This year the best thing on my own calendar has been two recent very fruitful writing residencies, at Cove Park in Scotland and at the Virginia Centre’s small French outpost in Auvillar, on the Garonne.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
The poem I’m submitting is called ‘Bike-path’. It’s from The Months, and it is concerned with the theme of time, as you see. I wrote it in spring 2011, when I was a Fellow at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. MacDowell is a place where you can finally see the wood for the trees – and smell the wood-smoke as well!
It could take the best part of your life
to find a path like this
protected from the public thoroughfare by rocks,
meandering along between old trees
beside a river, skirting warehouses,
over a plank bridge.
Sometimes you almost gave up
and stopped to read the map,
tracing your route from fold
to fraying fold – not these wheel-trap surfaces
broken and scored by ice
as if some beast had dragged its claws across.
But now you keep on going till it joins a street
of condos, little kids on bikes,
and suddenly it’s hard to keep your face straight
as this small boy explains
the signage of the three-way intersection
and what it means.
This is the scenic way: all sense of where you were
is lost. Though in fact it’s not that far
from anywhere. And look,
you got to see those birds,
these greening leaves, this butterfly that flutters up
like blackened paper to your handlebars.