Political Awareness, Social Consciousness and Memory
in Susan Tichy's Poetry

Susan Tichy
BY Gushikawa

Susan Tichy lives life to the fullest. Besides writing and teaching, she holds a strong sense of belonging to nature, Scottish culture and community activism. Born in Washington, D.C. and raised in Maryland, she left college to work in a community clinic and an inner city high school before finishing her BA in 1975, at Goddard College in Vermont, and her MA at the University of Colorado, Boulder in 1979. Her first book, The Hands in Exile (Random House, The National Poetry Series, 1983) was inspired by her four months’ stay on an Israeli kibbutz on the Golan Heights, where she also picked fruits, painted fences and herded cattle.

She married Vietnam combat veteran, Michael O’Hanlon (also an active mountaineer) in the early 1980s, and together, they built and lived in a cabin for six years — without electricity, running water or telephone — in a ghost town of the southern Colorado Rockies. Later, they also owned a bookstore in the nearest town, Westcliffe, and co-founded the world’s smallest Amnesty International group in 1983. Her second book, A Smell of Burning Starts the Day was published by Wesleyan University Press in 1988.

Since then, Tichy has taught at George Mason University, but never separates herself from the mountains. For more than a decade, she has been working on a book-length project, Trafficke: An Autobiography, a mixed-genre meditation on family myths, history, and words. In 2001, she embarked upon Bone Pagoda, revisiting her experiences and accounts of the Vietnam War, a war she considers to have shaped her life. Gallowglass, her new title, was just released from Ahsahta Press in March 2010. With San Isabel Land Protection Trust, she continues to contribute actively to the preservation efforts of open spaces and wildlife habitats.

Scottish folk songs and traditional ballads are a vital and consistent inspiration to your writings, their voice, lyricism and musicality. How did your relationship with ballads begin?

In my family. As a child I heard recordings by Jeannie Robertson and Belle Stewart, two of the greatest traditional singers of the 20th century, along with field recordings of other singers from Scotland and England. We also had recordings of Appalachian and cowboy music that derived from the Scots, English, and Irish traditions. Later on, I discovered singers of my own generation — Dick Gaughan, especially — whose love of (and apprenticeship to) the tradition included a keen political awareness and a social sense close to my own.

…my sense of how collage and quotation tie a poem (materially, sonically, rhythmically) to collective experience is directly influenced by ballad form.

Much is said about the politics of content in folk song, but I am also interested in ballad form as a mediating device between the individual and the collective. For me, the permeability of a ballad text by other texts means not only the presence of formulaic phrases and stanzas (which show up in multiple ballads, and signal similar plot situations when they do) but also the presence of singers as co-creators, along with all the cultural and historical contexts these phrases, stanzas, stories and melodies have passed through. It’s not quotation, because there’s no urtext to say a line came from. Nor can you call it collage — an artistic term not invented till the 20th century. Even so, my sense of how collage and quotation tie a poem (materially, sonically, rhythmically) to collective experience is directly influenced by ballad form. The ballads’ implacability has also shaped my perception of experience: the sense of a world where a murderous and chaotic Otherworld — the terrible Fate or the big Lie — is always near-to-hand, ready to swallow us whole, and it’s just a few words that protect us, or take us down. Is it “Six king’s daughters have I drowned here / And the seventh shall surely be thee” or “Six king’s daughters have you drowned here / And the seventh has drownèd thee”? Here’s another version, derived from my husband’s war stories:

One quiet night on the Mekong River, a guy goes out to piss off the fantail of a gunboat. Fire opens up from the bank, and a rocket-propelled grenade goes through his neck. Another quiet night on the Mekong River, a guy goes out to piss off the fantail of a gunboat. The boat hits a mine. The guy is thrown clear by the explosion, and lives.

Bone Pagoda

Bone Pagoda
BY Susan Tichy
(Ahsahta Press, 2007)


BY Susan Tichy
(Ahsahta Press, 2010)

From the Publisher:

“Tichy is a poet embedded: with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, twined together through history; in the landscape disrupted by war, perseverating on a deer killed by a mountain lion, or hearing direction in birdsong; and in the language of war — ‘gallowglass’ is a corruption of a Gaelic word for ‘mercenary soldier,’ and dark, ancient ballads appear like forensic evidence. Surrounded by cultural touchstones from Pythagoras to the Grateful Dead, Tichy refuses to let the reader’s gaze, or her own, turn from the violence of modern living.”

Your poems expand skillfully on collage techniques from different approaches. How do you deal with Time as a unity when writing a poem that consciously weaves (and rejects) contesting as well as associative imageries, narratives and spaces of memory all on one page?

I try to honor the Taoist concept of reality as additive and interactive, in which each of “the ten thousand things” retains its own integrity and fullness, though always defined by movement, change, and transformation. In terms of poetics, this means respecting the image or phrase — the thingness of the thing — while not allowing it to repose in stasis or isolation. The important time in the poem is the time of writing and reading, the movement of mind, sound, and rhythm, which mark the transitions and boundaries among and between the fragments. I like to say a reader should run her hand over the surface of the poem and feel for the bumps and gaps, the changes in texture, size, or weight… which is another way of saying she should read aloud. The metaphor is spatial because the time of the poem is the present: I rarely work in any kind of fictional projection of my mind into other times or characters, and in recent years have not felt much interest in constructing a narrative unity. Narrative enters in fragments, as would any other element, personal or collective.

I try to honor the Taoist concept of reality as additive and interactive, in which each of ‘the ten thousand things’ retains its own integrity and fullness, though always defined by movement, change, and transformation….

As a poem develops, I establish a time (and sometimes place) of meditation, from which my gaze extends and into which I gather the fragments, from past or present, that become the speech of the poem. As in any meditative poem, keeping that center constant is important in holding the poem together, even when its location (or even existence) is not apparent to a reader. At the same time, challenging that position, via contradictions of various kinds — tense, register, historical sources of the images — keeps the speaker implicated in the instabilities of changefulness, keeps us mindful that point of view defines each and every piece of language we encounter.

Bone Pagoda, a strong book of poetry — your third — appeared after a long lapse of silence. Why so?

It was a lapse of book publication, not a period of silence. I published individual poems and mixed-genre pieces in those years, some of which won awards and so forth. I did write three books in the interval, all unpublished. Two will remain so, as I now no longer want to see them in print. The third, Trafficke, is a monstrously large (and monstrously strange) mixed-genre project in which I try to sort out and reconcile, recombine and re-complicate the various strands of my maternal grandmother’s family history. I finished it once, about ten years ago, then set it aside because I knew other people were researching related questions that could turn the book on its head…. which, in fact, has happened, so I am now tearing the book apart and re-making it.

Susan Tichy
BY Terra-Raye Carter

Trafficke was instigated by the life of Alexander Magruder, my earliest immigrant ancestor, a Scotsman who was transported to Maryland as a prisoner of war in the 1650s, and sold into indentured servitude. He died twenty-five years later, owner of 1200 acres of what had been Native land, four indentured servants, and one slave. His descendents were slave-owning tobacco farmers — but that part of the story played no part in my childhood, because his descendents also invented a different, more legendary past, attaching themselves to the most Romantic and storied clan in Highland history, Clan Gregor, victims of the most severe genocidal laws ever enacted in Britain. You can read a few pieces of Trafficke online, in its earlier iteration, though some of the “facts” therein are now under revision.

Susan Tichy

Would you consider Bone Pagoda a “ghost book” of Gallowglass?

Your phrase is evocative — but I think, rather, the two books are close companions, almost one book in two parts.

Both Bone Pagoda and Gallowglass contain overlapping themes of war with cross references from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Why (and how) is this overlap in the two books important and meaningful to you? How do you relate this overlapping to your personal memory of similar events?

This is hard to answer without a sense of diminishment — by which I mean the two books, especially Gallowglass, would be my reply — but I’ll do my best.

I had just begun Bone Pagoda when the 9-11 attacks took place, so, though its subject is Vietnam, it was, from the start, overshadowed by the current wars. There’s a long history of writing about current events in the guise of historical subject matter, from “Flowers of the Forest” — an 18th century Scottish Jacobite lament, ostensibly about a 16th century war — to Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant — a film dissecting the ethics of guerilla tactics employed by the British during the Boer War, released in the aftermath of American (and Australian) involvement in Vietnam. I wasn’t exactly doing that — my book really is about Vietnam and I had been preparing to write it for some time before September 2001 — but I could hardly avoid the parallel. Later, there was a period when I was finishing Bone Pagoda but had also begun Gallowglass, so of course there were questions of boundary and inclusion. I think the difference between the two books is one of foreground versus background: Bone Pagoda is a book about Vietnam, written in the presence of our current wars. Gallowglass is not quite the opposite, because its other unifying subject is my husband’s death, but it is a book about the present, into which the past is inextricably woven.

Politically, and even militarily, the parallels between the Vietnam years and now are too obvious to enumerate. America’s hubris is tragic in the classical sense — a blinding flaw in an otherwise useful and admirable character…

Politically, and even militarily, the parallels between the Vietnam years and now are too obvious to enumerate. America’s hubris is tragic in the classical sense — a blinding flaw in an otherwise useful and admirable character, which demands catastrophe and suffering as its wages. Too bad we always excise the last act, in which the protagonist learns from his mistakes. For myself, Vietnam was the war that shaped me, and then haunted the quarter century I spent with my husband, a combat veteran. Because I had been an anti-war activist, and he a reluctant but deeply embedded participant, there was never a single version of the war in our household. However, through abiding anger at the war’s proprietors, sorrow for its victims, and gradual self-forgiveness, we did, over time, evolve a shared and reasonably stable analysis of its political and ethical meanings.

As it happens, that quarter century spanned our country’s time “between the wars” — marked, certainly, with many smaller foreign depredations, but with no sustained and public commitment, and no rhetoric of being at war. Our attack on Afghanistan, and, even more so, our invasion of Iraq, felt eerily like a return to normal for our nation. In the shocked aftermath of my husband’s death, this made my life with him seem like a privileged interlude enjoyed between the acts of a greater and more vicious drama. As the years of these wars grind on, my thoughts turn more and more to the veterans — of whatever nation — and to their families. I know what they are in for, in the next twenty years or so. That’s why grief is the subject of Gallowglass — not grief and recovery, but grief as a state of consciousness, both private and collective. A line from one of my recent poems, “An Old Scat Full of Red Fur,” asks, “How old is the song called ‘The Wars Are Not Over’?” Older than any of the wars I write of.

In addressing loss, trauma and war via a disjunctive style towards prosody, how much of “meaning” are you willing to compromise or foreground to “language”?

I would say, rather, that disjunction and foregrounded prosody create meaning by different means. I am especially interested in the way sound can form a bridge between two apparently separate streams of content or experience. People do this all the time, via rhyme or pun, though most are more comfortable when the result is funny. Another way to create comfort is to explain your transitions of thought — as when a writer describes how the sight of a purple skirt makes her think of an iris, which triggers a memory of Dürer, and via Dürer an image of her father’s desk. Poems take place in language, and I want an active reader, unafraid of that fact. The meaning of the poem includes that openness to difference, even error. But the effort to contain experience, whether immediate or remembered, within a narrative unity is as artificial as any other writerly tactic. I am more interested in triggering open associations than in recounting the exact path of my own thoughts; in misting the glass we peer through toward the world, rather than inviting readers to pretend the glass is not there. Poems take place in language, and I want an active reader, unafraid of that fact. The meaning of the poem includes that openness to difference, even error. In poems with open syntax and heavy reliance on rhythm and sound, reading aloud requires a reader to make choices among possible syntactic resolutions and, thus, among available meanings. A different choice might be made by a different reader, or by the same reader on a different day. It is not far off, in effect or intent, from poems with un-policed juxtapositions of content. Readers build bridges, follow swerves, arrive someplace they had not been led to expect. I don’t know what to call that experience, if it’s not part of meaning.

Who is your ideal reader? Who would you like to reach out to in terms of readership for both Bone Pagoda and Gallowglass?

Susan Tichy
BY Verna Wefald

As I’ve said, an active reader unafraid to take part in the poem. A reader not rendered insecure by the absence of overt direction toward thesis or catharsis. A reader who does not consider history dead, or nature the opposite of the human. The subjects of my books sometimes attract readers who otherwise would shun what they see as “difficult” poetry, and for them I hope the poems expand their definitions.

Do you fear that your work will be conveniently categorized as “war poetry” or “political poetry”?

Certain subjects are considered, by some, to be off-limits for poetry — or, as you suggest, admitted only in special categories. This is especially true in the U.S., where poetry is still widely regarded as belonging to a private realm, too fragile for exposure to civic discourse. Just as we insist on political innocence — no matter how many times we are forced to lose it — so we insist that poetry flourishes best in a political vacuum. This rejection of the actual history of poetry, both Western and Asian, has always puzzled me, but I don’t lose any sleep about where my work will be placed. I have survived an early mentor who called my work journalism, and several editors who pleaded with me to stop wasting my talent on these subjects. Some even suggested other subjects, as if alternatives might never have occurred to me! But in fact, all my books are extremely personal, growing from my own experience or from family history. And the recent books are far too dense and oblique to engage most readers of political poetry. In activist events, I am included only when organizers are consciously trying to expand the aesthetic range of the program.

My work is also deeply engaged with the natural world, the early poems also with outdoor labor. I’m currently working on poems about mountains and walking, bringing that experience into the foreground, relegating war and politics to the role of backdrop — a reversal, I think, from the poems in Gallowglass. I doubt these poems will fit into the political pigeon-hole.

Beyond poetry, how would you like to contribute to humanity at large?

Susan Tichy
BY Gushikawa

The idea of contributing to humanity at large strikes me as hubristic, except, perhaps, for those among us who invent vaccines. I will rephrase the question as “what else do you do that is useful?” To which I can reply that I have taught for more than twenty years, and try to be a good mentor; and, at various times in my life, I have worked with Amnesty International, with community clinics and women’s groups, and with a land trust preserving open space and wildlife habitat near my Colorado home. I designed, helped build, and still live in that home — a solar-heated cabin that consumes little power. I feed the birds.

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