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.

State of Blessed Gluttony

State of Blessed Gluttony
BY Susan Thomas
(Red Hen Press, 2004)

The Hand Waves Goodbye

The Hand Waves Goodbye
BY Susan Thomas
(Main Street Rag, 2002)

Voice of the Empty Notebook

Voice of the Empty Notebook
BY Susan Thomas
(Finishing Line Press, 2007)

You’ve recently given a talk at the Frost Place on “Translation, Adaptation, Imitation and Theft.” This sounds very intriguing and witty. Why the word “theft”?

In that talk I spoke of the opportunity translation gives us to expand and deepen our range as poets. We project ourselves into the work of another poet and we learn more than just the craft of translation — we learn the real stuff of poetry. I’m an analeptic translator with no left brain so I need to get all the way inside the poem, otherwise I can’t figure out what’s going on in there, even with the best dictionary.

We project ourselves into the work of another poet and we learn more than just the craft of translation — we learn the real stuff of poetry.

Then I need to separate from the poems I just translated in order to write my own poems again. That’s where the adaptation, imitation and theft part comes in. These are the tricks I use to escape from the translation. I make a poem in response to the poem I just translated. Call it imitation or adaption, but I think of it as talking back to the translation using whatever parts are sticking to me, but breaking away from the translated poem into my own images and opinions.

Sometimes, I end up keeping only part of the new poem — an image, a word, a rhythm — but sometimes it comes out as a kind of dialogue with the poem that I translated. I do that with Pavese a lot. I broaden my associations to it, but keep the basic architecture of the poem, talking back to it about my own life. It really is a kind of theft, but I always feel that I’m honoring the poet and I always cite the poem.

Tell us more about the translations that you’ve embarked upon. How did this work become such a central aspect of your writing?

I think translation has given me much of my poetic education. It teaches me the poetics and rhetoric of work I admire. When I’m translating, I have to say the poem to myself several times, and then I start looking for the nouns, verbs, objects, which pronouns belong to whom. I get the picture of who is doing the talking and of the poem’s shape from the inside out. I begin to see the poem’s architecture — where it’s going and how it’s getting there. Then I figure out most of the words I couldn’t find in the dictionary, because the poem’s diction has become my diction. I start to understand what is untranslatable, but also the essence of poetry — the “unsayable,” as Rilke calls it.

Last Voyage

Giovanni Pascoli
Last Voyage: Selected Poems

BY Deborah Brown, Richard Jackson AND Susan Thomas
(Red Hen Press, 2010)

From the Publisher:

“This first appearance of Pascoli’s poems in English translation provides an introduction to his work for the English-speaking reader. The first section of the book includes some of Pascoli’s brief lyric poems, many of them displaying his innovative use of image narrative. We see scenes of country life in his village near Barga, Italy, in the Apuan Alps, at the end of the 19th century. We see the aurora borealis, chickens, donkeys, women hanging laundry, the new railway and men crushing wheat.

The second part of the book consists of three somewhat formal narrative poems set in classical Rome and Greece.

The book ends with a long narrative sequence, an exciting and poignant
re-imagining of Odysseus’ famous tale told from the perspective of an old man. The aging hero falls asleep by the fire with Penelope and dreams a final voyage, in which he reassembles his old crew and visits the scenes of his earlier adventures: Circe, the Sirens, the Cyclops, Lotus Eaters and Calypso.”

Your translations of the Italian poet, Giovanni Pascoli, The Last Voyage, that you worked on with Deborah Brown and Richard Jackson, will soon be released from Red Hen Press. How did this book come about?

The Pascoli project began in Ferrara, Italy when Rick picked up an enormous book containing all of Pascoli’s Italian poems. (Pascoli had also written in Latin and Greek.) Rick lent me the book and I translated a few of the poems. After Rick discovered Pascoli had been a strong influence of Pavese’s, Rick, Deborah and I thought we’d translate some more of them to figure out what this meant, as we were already familiar with Pavese. It also became apparent to us that Pascoli had not been translated into English before.

We began to see the progression of an image narrative, in the elegaic lyric poems Pascoli wrote in his later years. (He had settled in Barga in the Apuan Alps north of Lucca in 1895.) He seems, in these poems, to be exploring this new landscape in which he has begun to put down roots, but is, at the same time, becoming more and more haunted by the spectre of death, which has preoccupied him since the murder of his father when Pascoli was ten years old.

Susan Thomas, Maxine Kumin, Richard Jackson

Susan Thomas at a conference with American poets Maxine Kumin and Richard Jackson

We actually translated almost everything that Pascoli wrote in Italian. Rick, Deborah and I established a pattern, each translating a draft of one poem, then passing it to the others, who would comment and suggest changes. We all agreed the poems should follow the general form and stanzaic patterns of the original, with line breaks especially crucial. But we also agreed that the success of the poems in their “target” language would be the deciding factor in choosing to include poems in a collection.

Rick decided that we should tackle the late narrative poems inspired by Latin and Greek literature. In these, Pascoli transforms the scenes of his own life and expresses his own concerns through the voices of characters from antiquity.

In the longest poem, The Last Voyage, he speaks through Ulysses, nine years after his arrival home in Ithaca. Now Ulysses has the task of gathering his old shipmates and ship and must bury Poseidon’s oar in a land far from the sea. He retraces his famous first voyage and in recreating the voyage of The Odyssey through an old man’s point of view, he becomes an image for Pascoli’s own retreat into his past to evaluate his adventures, his triumphs and his failures.

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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