By Sarah Minor
Susan Briante discusses writing in the context of travel and being still, the ruins of American cities, and poet/activism in this interview with essayist Sarah Minor.
About Writer, Activist, and Teacher Susan Briante
Susan Briante is the author of two books of poetry: Utopia Minus (Ahsahta Press, 2011) and Pioneers in the Study of Motion (Ahsahta Press, 2007). Of her most recent collection, Publisher’s Weekly writes, “this book finds an urgent language for the world in which we live.”
Susan also writes essays on documentary poetics as well as on the relationship between place and cultural memory. Some of these can be found in Creative Nonfiction, Rethinking History, Jacket,and The Believer. A translator, Briante lived in Mexico City from 1991 to 1997 working for the magazines Artes de México and Mandorla. She has received grants and awards from the Atlantic Monthly, the MacDowell Colony, the Academy of American Poets, and the US-Mexico Fund for Culture.
She is finishing work on a new collection of poems, The Market Wonders, inspired by the current economic crisis. Some of these poems can be found in Colorado Review, Third Coast, and 1913 as well as in the chapbooks The Market is a Parasite that Looks Like a Nest (Dancing Girl Press) and $INDU or Ghost Numbers: October 1, 2009 – December 16, 2009 (Longhouse Press). She is an associate professor of creative writing and English at the University of Arizona.
Terrain.org: In your hybrid workshop you’ve spoken about the long-term intellectual project, especially in regards to Charles Olson’s Maximus. Pioneers in the Study of Motion and Utopia Minus resulted from very lengthy investments, both in terms of time and depth of research. You’re currently immersed in a third lengthy writing project on the stock market. What about the long project draws you? Is it a mode you think you’ll continue to work in? How long is a short project for you?
Susan Briante: I prefer the phrase “book-length” to “long-term” project, especially when we use Olson as a reference point. The Maximus poems were a life work for him, the one lens through which he wanted to see everything. (Olson told the poet Ed Dorn to “dig one thing or place or man until you yourself know more about that than is possible to any other man.”) I don’t approach my work on those terms (although I think there are interests that span much of my work). For me the book project starts because I want to explore a new subject or subjects and its language as well as teach myself how to write in a new way. In addition, the book-length project has always been a way to push myself out of the realm of the purely autobiographical or to set the autobiographical into the service of larger issues and contexts.
Of course not every project becomes a book project. I have always loved serial poems because they help me to overcome my fear of the blank page offering a form or a theme with which to begin.
Despite whatever formal characteristics my work takes, it is always inspired by a “lyric” or “metaphoric” tendency. Shelley argues for the intellectual vitality of poetry because poetic language “marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension.” No matter what I am writing about, that lyric tendency springs from a desire to forge connections and reveal complicities instead of making arguments.
Terrain.org: Your first book, Pioneers in the Study of Motion, came out of your own physical movement, and at its heart is a kind of travel writing. Your poems skip across continents–within them images shrink and expand. As a recent transplant to Tucson, what do you think the affect of physical motion has on your current process and the work that results afterwards? Do you find motion necessary? Freeing?
Susan Briante: Travel does feel liberating, a method, like art, to shock us out of our habitual modes of perceptions, to paraphrase one of my favorite definitions of art from Viktor Shklovsky. Motion, at least in the way I was thinking about it, refers to something larger—the circulation of people, goods, and capital often in the service of profit. That kind of motion affects all of us—not always positively.
I wanted the poems in Pioneers in the Study of Motion to consider motion as well as offer a homage and critique of variety of travel narratives from the field note to ethnography. I wrote those poems after living in Mexico City for six years. I wanted to write out of that experience, but I knew there was a complicated history of foreigners writing about Mexican culture and getting it wrong. In the references to travel narratives, I wanted to highlight the fact that representation fails. I wanted to draw attention to the surface of the poems, like someone using a stick to churn up the surface of a pond, in order to remind my reader that they were confronting a representation. Collage, juxtaposition, fragment, and polyvocality helped me to achieve that.
You’ll find examples of all kinds of travelers—cartographers, explorers, day workers—throughout. I love travel and the way that a new vista can spark new ideas. And yet, as I get older and I consider the heavy force of late capitalism on my own life, I am more interested in what I might gain from being still, what happens when I look at the same thing for a while, or when I train myself to see in a new way, instead of looking for a new object.
Terrain.org: I’m interested in your inclination to be still in one place and consider the act of focus, of seeing. Place does play a central role in both of your books. In Utopia Minus, we see human structures in these places, whole or in remnants, or in the reverse ruins of American suburbs. You seem to get at ruinous events through the shells of things and people they have ruined. What draws you to these kinds of structures? Is it their aesthetic? Or the way they serve as evidence? Do they signal dystopia?
Susan Briante: I grew up in central New Jersey surrounded by the ruins of a post-industrial landscapes: abandoned factories and warehouses, fields of old shipping containers, housing projects falling into disrepair as the recession of the 1970s shredded state and local budgets. Landscapes can be texts. Those structures told stories of economic change and even racial prejudice.
Acknowledging their beauty was not about denying those narratives but about recognizing their symbolic power. In 1992 the great photographer of Detroit ruins, Camilo José Vergara, proposed that the city create a moratorium on razing abandoned skyscrapers, stabilize the buildings, and leave them to become “a memorial to our throwaway cities.” I think his proposal is provocative because it suggests a reconfiguring of our self-image as Americans. People associate ruins with ancient civilizations and failed ideas from a distant past. I am interested in the failures these contemporary ruins represent and what they can teach us about contemporary culture. The poems in Utopia Minus were an attempt to reorient the reader’s gaze towards these sites and what we might learn from them.
Terrain.org: For me, each of your books, and your previous comment on ruins, seems to be in part addressing the concept of apocalypse or pre-apocalypse. Perhaps this is because the statements you make through lyricism often seem like careful warning signs about the ways humans manage land, culture, and commerce. Is the idea of apocalypse present for you while writing? Is your work ever eyeing, egging on the radical end?
Susan Briante: Many of the poems from Utopia Minus were written during the early 2000s at the beginning of the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan. At the time I was studying with the literary critic Ann Cvetkovich at the University of Texas at Austin. Out of her work with Public Feelings groups (the most famous of which is the Feel Tank at the University of Chicago), Ann organized an event called “Political Depression,” in which students, scholars, artists, and activists gathered to talked about the political helplessness many felt. The event left a strong impression on me. People cried. I think that sense powerlessness became a part of Utopia Minus. In the poem, “11 Railway Lines Stretch from Chicago by 1861,” you’ll find the lines:
a boy from down the road
who will read you differently
who steps out of the trees responsible
for love, under a system that pays him
no mind no heed no blossoms
yet on the redbud
but space cleared for their coming
I was very interested in that notion of a system (economic, political) that pays no attention to those of us who live under it. I still am.
I think it’s very easy to write about apocalypse these days. We face large-scale environmental poisoning, an increasingly unbalanced economic system, political gridlock. It is hard to feel good about the future. The challenge I set for myself, then, is to think beyond what you call “the radical end.” If it all falls apart, what new possibilities will be created? Can we envision utopia with as much ease as we can imagine the apocalypse? In “Revolutionary Letters No. 19 (for The Poor People’s Campaign)”, Diana di Prima writes: “remember / you can have what you ask for, ask for / everything.”
It might seem like an act of privilege to imagine a utopic future, but it is also an act of necessity and survival. “No blossoms” yet, but we have to imagine their coming.
Terrain.org: You earned your Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin, and worked as a journalist and a translator in addition to writing essays and poetry, and teaching. Your work is that of an academic engaged deeply in conversation with the canon, but also seems to subvert and critique the academic institution itself. Do you agree? Do your experiences within and outside of academics equally feed your creative work? Are they ever at odds?
Susan Briante: There is a constant tension between the academy in its many forms and creative work. As an institution the academy is both a place of privilege and exploitation. The academy has become increasingly aligned with the expectations of the corporation: productivity and efficiency. That’s not necessarily good for creativity, exploration, or innovation. To return in some way to your earlier question about the book project—my new work was born out of the recent economic crisis. I was thinking about the GDP or Dow Jones Industrial Average as the measures by which many judge the health of our economy. I started to think about the danger of the book project turning into the book product. We shouldn’t let the form of our work be solely directed by the expectations of the market: i.e., the book that gets you a job, the next that gets you tenure. We need to ask ourselves: What needs to be made? Is it a book or something else entirely? What does it mean as an artist to not be productive? Where is the creative potential in those fallow periods?
I think university professors also have to realize our relative privilege comes on the back of adjunct workers. We need to see ourselves as allied with them and work against rising administrative costs. Administrators don’t want that. They want adjunct and tenure-track faculty to believe our relationship is oppositional, but change will only come when we realize we are fighting for the same thing: better pay and working conditions which will only lead to better education for our students.
On the other hand, the classroom should be a transformative place for both student and professor, as well a site for activism. The classroom is a site for collective inquiry, and when I think of some of my best classroom experiences (in workshop with Campbell McGrath or in the seminar room with Ann Cvetkovich) I felt like student and professor were equally involved in learning something. As an educator I am always looking for a balance between bringing forth knowledge and expertise as well as a willingness to be surprised. In that, the work of the educator is very much like that of poet.
Terrain.org: One thing I admire about you as a writer is that you take aim at the very heart of large-scale world issues through poetry. You address the complex numerical systems of the stock market, the culture of the developing world, and the figures working behind these through fragment, poignant image, bits of personal scene that are yet highly accessible. You were the first to draw my attention to the title “poet activist” and I consider you to be this kind of artist. In another interview that you tell of how you sent the direct address poems in Utopia Minus such as “Dear Madam Secretary of Homeland Security” to the actual corresponding government official at the time, which made me activist-swoon. On the first page of Utopia Minus you write, “What policy might we bring forth on our front-yard folding table?” But the question of real-world impact seems a struggle for many writers today. How do you think writing can affect the real world? Is the poet/activist always engaged in two roles, or do these two actions combine in the work they produce?
Susan Briante: Many writers come to mind when I think of models for the poet activist: Muriel Rukeyser, of course, but also Mark Nowak, who has worked with labor unions both in the United States and abroad, and Brenda Hillman, a long-time anti-war activist and member of Code Pink, just to name a few. When we began this interview, I heard news that the poet Amiri Baraka died. I first read his poem “Preface from a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note” in an anthology I found in a storage room of my New Jersey public high school. It was one of the first poems that made me want to write poetry. I memorized the poem and stole the anthology anyway. Art has the power to change people’s lives in the way that my encounter with Baraka’s poem changed mine. If you follow Baraka’s career (which is not without controversy), you’ll see that he was always deeply engaged with not only critiquing but re-imagining the world. The Black Arts Movement, of which he was a founder, left a profound influence on American culture as a whole from poetry to painting to popular music.
As writers part of our job is to critique and subvert. Lisa Robertson reading Shelley reminds us “Revolution, like metaphor, is a previously unperceived relation of things. . . . Metaphor (or revolution, in our reading) is what keeps language (and thus society) alive.” The poem is only the beginning. Our activism cannot stop at the margins of the screen or the page.
Terrain.org: Baraka’s (and what seems the poet activist’s) method of critiquing while re-imagining the world seems tied to your own process of teaching yourself to write in a new way each time you tackle a new subject for a book-length project. Perhaps, also to your comments on the classroom as a place of exchange. Likewise, what Robertson says about metaphor seems also about the lyric—a revolutionary re-imagining, or new apprehension through language. Do you think these aspects have always been inherent to your writing/thinking? Or, how much has your academic study fed and bolstered these small revolutions in your poetry? I’m curious about your MFA thesis as well—did activism play a role in that earlier project? How much did your thesis feed the making of your first book?
Susan Briante: Creative writing workshops generate their own clichés; for example, “show don’t tell.” One of the clichés I heard during my graduate work was “write from what you know” or “write the book that only you could write.” Like all clichés there’s a bit of truth in that. But writing from what I knew into what I wanted to learn or think about seemed like a far more interesting prospect. The lyric can be a space for speculation or exploration instead of knowing.
The differences between my MFA thesis and my first book come from that desire to keep exploring certain ideas and the kind of language associated with them. One of the most helpful steps in moving from the thesis to the book came from a graduate school requirement to write an “abstract” for the thesis. The requirement was intended for scholarly projects, so I decided to approach it as if it were a blurb for my book. The act of summarizing the major themes in the thesis helped me to notice the threads that were holding the poems together and to generate new material.
Terrain.org: What’s next for Susan Briante?
Susan Briante: I am finishing up work on a manuscript, The Market Wonders, that considers the recent and continuing economic crisis. The book is both fundamentally documentary (in that much of it comes from my recording of the closing number of the Dow Jones Industrial Average over a two year period) as well as imaginative (as I personified “the Market” for a series of poems).
I have spent a great time with it thinking about the power of numbers. I’ve been reading The Book of Revelation and looking at the ways in which the act of counting plays a role in a folk tales. That led to me thinking about physics–the act of trying to literally find an equation to explain everything in the universe. So I have started work on a series of poems that include the phrase: “The Physicists Say.”
In the end, it comes down to keeping ourselves interested over the course of the years it takes to finish a book. In Plainwater, Anne Carson writes, “I will do anything to escape boredom. It is the task of a lifetime.” That’s as strong an ars poetica as I can imagine.
Header photo of lavender courtesy Pixabay.