Expansiveness and Inclusion for Susan Thomas: Embracing Poetry

Susan Thomas
BY Jill Pralle

Born in New York City in 1946, SUSAN THOMAS is an enchanting and exuberant presence. A resident of Marshfield, Vermont, where she writes, translates and grows whatever she can, she has been a dancer, potter, costume designer, waitress, cook and performer in children’s theatre. She has also taught creative writing and mythology in public schools, libraries as well as private workshops, and is the obsessive gardener of a seven-acre perennial and vegetable garden.

Thomas has authored a book of poetry, State of Blessed Gluttony (Red Hen Press, 2004), which won the Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award, and two other chapbooks, Voice of the Empty Notebook (Finishing Line Press, 2007) and The Hand Waves Goodbye (Main Street Rag, 2002). Her collection of short stories, Knock and Enter, was a runner-up for the Bakeless Prize. The Last Voyage: Poems of Giovanni Pascoli, her book of translations from the Italian, co-translated with Richard Jackson and Deborah Brown, will be released from Red Hen Press. Visit www.susanthomas1.com.

You have such wide-ranging commitments and unusual curiosities: organic gardening, Jewish and Italian cuisines, dancing, children’s theater, teaching mythology, poetry, fiction, translating… How have you reconciled the relationship between the art of poetry and the wider world?

I don’t really think about the poems. At first, they’re pretty much finger mischief. Then I start thinking: rhythm, shape, diction, image. I extend the poem further with associative imagery and I try to please my own ear with language that holds tension and surprise. Revision is definitely my favorite part of writing a poem. I don’t really like a blank sheet of paper.

This is where everything else you talked about comes in. I translate because there’s already something on the page. I can be a totally different person, with a different way of looking at things, a different vocabulary. The vegetables, flowers, cooking and dancing come in because they need attention daily and it’s good for the soul to care for something every day. Also, they helped me to stop obsessing about my kids once they were grown.

All the things we do are commitments until we do them long enough and they become who we are.

Mythology has always been an interest and a reference point for me. It teaches us every side of history — who’s telling the story and why they’re telling it that way. Sometimes the lie is more interesting than the truth, because it tells more about the teller.

All the things we do are commitments until we do them long enough and they become who we are. It all comes into my poems as frame of reference, association, rhythm, point of view, and the habit of caring.

Did poetry writing just happen naturally in your colorful life?

I’ve told myself stories since I was a small child, and at some point, I would get fixated on a word that delighted or disturbed me or on a rhythm that became fixed in my head. I think that fixation eventually became my first poems. I did write fiction at one point for about ten years, but I think the fiction was very close to how I write a poem, just without lineation and with a less subverted narrative.

How I came to write fiction is a better story. In my early thirties, I became ill and was unable to continue the work I had been doing, and I thought: what can I do for work if I’m confined to bed? In my dreams at that time there was a story being told, but I didn’t know whose narrative voice was telling it. Somewhere in the dream I would stop and say, “Whose voice is this?” This went on for about two weeks, and finally the great short story writer, Grace Paley, appeared in the dream as part of the crowd, and seeing her, I said, “Oh, that’s whose voice it is.” Then Grace came out of the crowd and said, “Foolish girl — don’t be so stupid. That isn’t my voice — it’s yours.”

And she was right — it was the voice I eventually learned how to use in order to tell story, and it’s even the voice that comes through in my poems. I had known Grace before that in the anti-war movement, and as a writer, but after that, I decided I would study with her and get an MFA in fiction at Sarah Lawrence so I could study with her. She also was my dear friend until her death last year. I had the great pleasure of doing poetry readings with her many times in her last years.

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