Expansiveness and Inclusion for Susan Thomas: Embracing Poetry

Susan Thomas

How did you manage successfully to sit next to the “ghosts” that you’ve translated, without them looming over your own originality?

Well — I do always track the poem I’ve just translated all over my work, with muddy footprints everywhere, with someone else’s rhythm and syntax, sometimes even their diction and associations. So I try to be aware of keeping only a little of it and to be very conscious of what I’m keeping that belongs to someone else, and then to make my own response to them. It’s important to see it as a ghost, to see it as “other” and to talk back to it from your own place, in your own life and in your own tongue.

How do you balance density and liveliness in your poems?

I do get a little carried away when I’m having a good time with a poem. The liveliness sometimes gets to be like dancing too many beats to the bar. I have to remind myself: I actually have serious intentions. I think there’s a moment of stillness that appears somewhere in the poem; you have to grab it as your clue that it’s time to go deeper, to raise the emotional stakes of the poem. Sometimes I have to force myself to go there, but it has to be done or the poem is flimsy, lacking in weight and tension. You have to care enough to up the ante and bear the pain it almost always causes.

Writing poems that are accessible to a wide range of readers seems to be an important agenda for your work. Is this a conscientious decision as a writer?

Susan Thomas with her husband and friends
in her garden in Vermont

I am drawn to expansiveness. I like inclusion in every aspect of my life. I also love language that you hear in the street, in the kitchen, at the coffee shop, at the grocery store. This diction is part of what I love in some of my favorite writers — Mandelstam, Szymborska, Vasko Popa, Nazim Hikmet, Miroslav Holub, Isaac Babel. I love bashful, scatterbrained, hubbub. And I guess I do long to be understood. I always ask myself what my reader doesn’t know, and what my reader needs to know. I like clarity. I don’t really like to be confused and I don’t wish confusion on my readers.

You have a flair for ekphrastic poems. Bonnard, Brassaï, Fra Angelico… to name a few. Share with us your attraction to paintings and how they play a role in molding visuality and sensual energies for your writing.

Do you remember being a little kid and wanting to go inside the illustrations of your favorite books? It’s like that. I got this book of famous paintings of the world from my grandparents when I was six; every time I was sick I got to stay in bed and read, but some of that time I was having these big adventures in the paintings of Vermeer, Leonardo, Bellini, etc. I stayed home a lot as a kid. Lots of sore throats. I still go to museums all the time. In New York, we have so much art to look at. We’re very lucky. When we were living in Vermont full time, that was what we missed the most, I think.

Poetry in Action:
Susan Thomas’ Garden, Vermont
BY Emily Dwyer

What are your current projects?

I have a new manuscript, In the Sadness Museum, that I’m sending around, and I’m continuing to write lots of different kinds of poems, right now some city poems with what I hope is a subverted narrative, and some formal poems — a villanelle, a pantoum, a sestina, and then some more ekphrastic poems — we’ve had some terrific art exhibitions in New York this year.

I am also translating some of Pavese’s uncollected early poems — he was quite the sullen teenager — almost a precocious beat poet. Luckily, I am pretty immature, so I have some patience for this material.

Also, I’m helping other people revise manuscripts — I have some private students, I’m dancing every day and gearing up for spring in Vermont — there are all those nascent vegetables to worry about.

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