Sarah Suzor

portrait Sarah Suzor

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 187 ~ December, 2012

Sarah Suzor’s full-length collection of poetry, The Principle Agent, won the 2010 Hudson Prize and was recently published by Black Lawrence Press.  She also has a forthcoming collaboration, After the Fox, which is co-authored with Travis Cebula and will be available from Black Lawrence Press in 2014. Suzor’s poetry has been published widely, as well as anthologized, translated and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She lives in Venice,

Sarah Suzor

Sarah Suzor

California where she is a founding editor for Highway 101 Press, and a guest lecturer for the Left Bank Writers Retreat in Paris.

Derek Alger: It took a while but I told you on Michigan Avenue in Chicago earlier this year we’d talk.

Sarah Suzor: You’re a man of your word, Derek. I like that. The Chicago AWP Conference offered some unexpected surprises, meeting you was one of the more pleasant. I had planned on attending that conference for months. I had scheduled a reading, book signings, and travel arrangements. Well, when I went to buy my conference pass— the item that allows one access to the conference–– the passes were completely sold out. Luckily, my dear friend shared his pass with me, and I was able to make it to my commitments. But it was hilarious; I was running around the conference with a man’s name tag, faking as though I was him in order to get through the door. Not one of my shining moments.

Outside the conference, and when I could go back to being Sarah Suzor, I participated in a great off-site reading that was organized by some of the presses I am affiliated with (EtherDome Chapbooks and Highway 101 Press). It was held downtown at a hot dog stand called America’s Dogs. We packed the place, which is rare during the AWP because there are so many off-site readings going on at once. We had a hugely successful raffle for Woodland Pattern. It was three-plus hours of non-stop poetry, ketchup and mustard; the event was pretty exceptional.

DA: You’re a Wyoming girl who found a home in California.

SS: I was born and raised in Sheridan, Wyoming. I’m literally one-in-a-million. My mom’s family is from Wyoming; my dad is from Ontario, Canada. They met in the 70s when he was playing hockey for the now non-existent Colorado Rockies, and my mom was in Colorado attending college at Boulder. It was off-season love, and we all ended up staying out West.

Wyoming is pretty remarkable. I personally have never done too much, well, any, hunting or fishing, so the traditionally appealing aspects of the north country were never too appealing to me. I grew up playing basketball and trying super hard not to get into too much trouble. I had a group of a four best girl friends, and we were together constantly. We were raised by each other and each others’ families. I was the only one of the five who played sports for the duration of high school, but two of them were classically trained dancers, another was eccentrically creative beyond her years, and the other knew every beauty secret in the book. We were all boy crazy. So, as romantic as growing up in Wyoming sounds, I wasn’t biding my time breaking horses; I was learning how to make my own fun, which usually entailed something slightly rebellious. I lived 10 miles from town, and at 13-years-old I was eligible for a learner’s permit driver’s license. From 13-18 my friends and I had free-reign over those vast, open highways. We were smart, though, we had our small town politics down, and all the antics we got ourselves into, we creatively got ourselves out of. I remember my sophomore year I had acquired an unheard of amount of absences in Algebra II, and I had to plead some doctor to write a note accounting for about 20 “appointments” I never really scheduled, let alone attended. Wise? No. Fun? Yes.

As a parent, my mom was brilliant; she gave me so much freedom but it was always curtailed with: “It’s not my problem if you get in trouble; you’re the one who will have to break the bad news to your coaches.” That thought, and the idea of the potential rumors that were bound to ensue, was crippling. When I left Wyoming at 18, I had a strong feeling I wouldn’t return.

And when California entered my radar, there was absolutely no going back to the isolation of wide-open spaces. I thought I’d end up in San Francisco, but at 21, I visited Los Angeles and immediately fell in love with the city. From that point, even when I wasn’t living here, I was manifesting possibilities that would enable me to slip down to Southern California.

DA: You started to delve into more serious writing in college.

SS: I’d say so, but some of my first professors might disagree. I went to the University of Colorado, Boulder. I had good grades at my public high school, but I had figured out the system, so those grades weren’t necessarily a reflection of either my work ethic, or my smarts. I felt beyond sub-par when I showed up at this huge university where many of my peers had spent their adolescence attending prep schools. My freshman English teacher took a peek at some of my critical essays and suggested I scratch my intention to major in English. My writing, she said, was better suited for Journalism. At that time CU had a separate, highly selective Journalism school that required students complete a thorough application process in order to be admitted. Well, on my first attempt applying I didn’t even get in! I really started thinking: “You know, Sarah, you and this writing thing… it might not work out.”

DA: But perseverance prevailed.

SS: I eventually did get accepted to the Journalism program, and it was a great experience. I wrote for The Campus Press covering their LGBT beat. My writing interests were not necessarily pointed in that direction, but — surprise, surprise —  I had skipped the first day of class when everyone was choosing their assignments. The LGBT beat was the only one left. Reporting those stories was an incredible challenge but a really empowering exercise. I quickly learned the art of becoming an “expert” in something I knew very little about. During my junior year I realized I needed a little less objectivity, and a lot more creativity, so I signed up as an English double major. I had no intention of completing the English degree, but it was the only avenue to get into English classes. The good ones. Again, I faked the whole thing. (I know what you’re thinking: I’m a compulsive faker. Really, I’m not.) I’ll never forget when graduation rolled around, and I went to visit my advisor, she said, “You can’t graduate until you complete the English end of your double-major.” And I looked at her and said, “Ahhh, let’s just drop that one.” Advisor, “Are you sure?” Me: “Absolutely.”

Moonlighting in the English department enhanced my desire to actually attend classes. I was able to take a seminar based on the life and work of Emily Dickinson. I also had workshops with the poet Lorna Dee Cervantes. And it was there where I met my most influential professor, and now friend, Elizabeth Robinson. Elizabeth’s publishing history is so impressive; I can barely keep up with her publications, but I think she’s the author of at least 11 collections of poetry. She was a turning point for me, the embodiment of everything I found worthwhile.

DA: You owe Elizabeth a great deal.

SS: Umm, if she told me to go jump off a bridge, I would. Teasing there, but every wonderful thing that has happened to me in the literary world is because of my relationship with Elizabeth. Strangely, I almost never met her.

DA: How so?

SS: At 22, I was still in Boulder and perfecting my California-manifesting. I ended up getting the “job of my dreams” at Angeleno, a local L.A. luxury living magazine. I had one Journalism class to wrap up at CU, but I moved out to Santa Monica for the summer and immersed myself in L.A., and Angeleno. When that summer ended I did not want to go back to Boulder to finish my final class (which was an internship at the local newspaper, The Daily Camera). I pleaded with my counselors to let me stay in L.A. They insisted I come back to CU. To make that last semester bearable, I signed up for an Advanced Poetry Workshop. Elizabeth happened to be the teacher.

I remember sitting in the back of her class, arms crossed, scowl on my face, doing nothing but California dreaming. Elizabeth hung in there with me. Really, she was the first person that took a serious, vested interest in my creative work. She introduced me to other ways of contributing to the writing community by writing reviews, starting publishing projects; she would also loan out books from her personal library, and she strived to know her students as individuals. In her class you were her equal. At our last meeting that semester — she did the greatest one-on-one meetings with the twenty-plus of us — she said I should continue writing creatively. She knew, because of my pathetic collection of California lovesick poems, I was headed back out to L.A., so she told me about the MFA program in Creative Writing at Otis College of Art and Design. I applied, got in and was offered a substantial scholarship, opportunities that, no doubt, had to do with my connection with Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s connection to the writing community.

DA: Just proves, you never know.

SS: At Otis I met other influential professors, like Paul Vangelisti, who is the Chair of the MFA Writing Program. I dedicated the The Principle Agent to Paul. He is so insanely brilliant; I read his work sometimes and I want to hang up my boots. He’s published a zillion books, won some of the most coveted translation prizes. I’ve borrowed more writing techniques from him than anyone else I’ve read, and it was really the conversational aspect of his creative work that peaked my interest in the program. I was also able to take classes from writers like Douglas Messerli, Martha Ronk, Standard Schaefer, Guy Bennett and Dennis Phillips. Despite having all of these brilliant minds at my disposal, I hated it at first. It was the first time I was receiving highly critical commentary about my creative writing. It was also the first time I was being critiqued in a male dominated environment. I love men, believe me, ask anyone who knows me: I love men. I’ve found, sometimes, men have a different sensibility than women when it comes to expressing their opinions. One time Paul looked at the first line of one of my poems where I had used the word “tambourine.” He threw it down on the table and said, “Sarah, I’m stopping right here; the word ‘tambourine’ should never be used in a poem.”

DA: Good to know.

SS: I find the statement hilarious now, and potentially true, but to 23-year-old me, the incident was mortifying. Retrospect says: any harsh feelings I had about the program were generated solely from my bruised ego. Paul and Dennis were running the workshops, and they had a very good cop/bad cop vibe. They never promised anything, they always challenged, especially Dennis, who seemed to me to be more like the “bad cop.” Neither of them wanted any part in teaching their students “how” to write, they wanted us to understand, recognize and respect the role of the writer. They wanted us to appreciate the power of language.

At the end of my first year, Dennis walked up to me and somewhat enthusiastically said, “I can’t wait to see how your creative thesis unfolds.” I looked at him thinking, “Is this a joke?” But it was a tiny victory: I felt if I could get Dennis’s attention, I could get anyone’s attention. I learned so much from Dennis. He preached that a writer’s career was a continuum, almost a serial thing; each book produced should be different than the last, but somehow the same. He has one of the most fascinating lines that he returns to in many of his books: “Perfectly coastal and random.” It’s a beautiful line, but also seeing it used through different stages of his career brings up this idea of a self-reflective body of work. And I still run the majority of my manuscripts through Paul’s stamp-of-approval. If he throws them down on the table I know I need to break out the eraser. He read my last completed manuscript The Important Questions or the Prettiest Girl in the World and said, “People are either going to love this or hate this.” The statement was thrilling to me because I knew the manuscript wasn’t a collection that played it safe. I consider the opportunity to attend Otis, and meeting everyone I encountered there, as one of my biggest blessings. Without the experience, who knows, maybe I’d still be writing poems about tambourines.

But briefly back to Elizabeth, in 2009, her press EtherDome Chapbooks also published my first chapbook. It was the first time I had a tangible product to promote my writing with, and, to me, it was a big deal. EtherDome Chapbooks, which Elizabeth co-edits with Colleen Lookingbill, is a press that only publishes women who have yet to publish a book. They came out with one of the most beautiful anthologies this year as a celebration of their 10th year in publishing. It’s called As If It Fell From the Sun. If anyone has the chance, they might want to snag a copy. Elizabeth was this great gateway for me. And, I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get to this: she is a remarkable writer; poetry, prose, reviews, essays, she’s unbelievably thoughtful and always evolving. I’ve been riding on her coattails since the day we met.

DA: Tell us how the Left Bank Writers Retreat came about.

SS: Four years ago–– and as all good Paris stories begin–– I was in the middle of a quarter-life crisis. My long-term boyfriend and I were breaking up, and I had just spent months applying to PhD programs I wasn’t accepted into; it was nothing life or death here, it was just a “this isn’t how I planned it” phase. Darla Worden, one of my dear friends, and a fantastic writer from Wyoming, proposed I take the “transitional moment” and head to Paris for a week or two. She was planning on taking French lessons there, so she had all her accommodations set, and she graciously offered me a space to rest my head. Despite every reasonable bone in my body, I booked the trip.

Darla and I had always shared a special bond as writers, and much of my aspirations to become a writer were fostered by growing up in Sheridan around her influence. We were not one bit surprised to discover that Paris was a little more exciting than ole’ Wyo. We dove into experiences anyone would love, but experiences that writers would really love: literary tours of the Left Bank; museums; cafes; gardens; hours combing Shakespeare & Company; Versailles and Montmartre. The inspiration I acquired from being surrounded with so much immediate culture and world history really knocked my socks off.

The next year Darla founded The Left Bank Writers Retreat, where she incorporated many of those original adventures into a program that also focuses on writing workshops. She asked me to sign on as a guest lecturer, and I jumped at the opportunity. The summer of 2013 will be our fifth year in Paris; this year’s dates are June 16th– 21st. We hold workshops in the mornings and then we head out to some exciting, educating endeavor in the afternoons. It’s a weeklong course, open to 10-20 writers of all levels and genres. We also incorporate a lot of Paris’s literary history into each day by using writing prompts inspired by Ernest Hemingway, Charles Baudelaire, Gertrude Stein, and even artists like Vincent Van Gogh. When it’s all said and done, most of our students seem to leave Paris a different person than when they arrived. Maybe it’s Paris, maybe it’s the retreat, but I will take an educated guess here and say it’s probably a little bit of both.

DA: You also founded a small press.

SS: Annie Pentilla and I started Highway 101 Press. I had worked for Seismicity Editions at Otis, so I had a pretty decent grasp on the ins and outs of the small press publishing industry, and Annie was in an MFA program in San Francisco. We wanted to combine our environments. Truly, we started the press as a way of interacting with the writing community via the Editorial side. It has proven to be a very fulfilling project, one that I hope to foster as time goes on.

DA: Your collection The Principle Agent was the winner of the Hudson Prize.

SS: It was. Winning that award was the most defining moment of my life. In 2010, I had been doing a lot of research on first-book awards and I came across the Hudson Prize, which isn’t a first-book award, but I thought: what the heck? My writing seemed to align with much of Black Lawrence Press’s catalogue and their previously published authors, so I went for it. And I won. I didn’t know this at the time, but they apparently had received 500 submissions that year. I was, and still am, elated by having claimed the prize. I saved the voicemail from BLP editor Diane Goettel for about two years. If anyone is looking for an easy way into my heart just tell me, “We’d like to talk to you about your manuscript.”

The Principle Agent

The Principle Agent

DA: You were a perfect fit for Black Lawrence.

SS: Well, I can’t speak for them, but I can say they were a perfect fit for me. I hit the publisher jackpot with Black Lawrence. Editors Diane Goettel, Kit Frick, Angela Leroux-Lindsey, and the rest of the staff have all been a dream to work with. They are super active in the social-networking side of the industry. They’re also helpful with promoting and organizing readings; and they’re growing. I am so proud of them. As a poet, as a person, I simply couldn’t ask for more. I have another collection coming out from them in 2014. It’s a collaborative book, After the Fox, which I co-author with Travis Cebula. I simply can’t wait for this project to come out.

Travis and I started working on this book in fall 2010; we were scheduled to read in NYC at the Poet’s House, and before we got there we thought we’d come up with a story that was based in New York. The project continued for the next two years, and we ended up taking its characters all over the country.

DA: You and Travis have an interesting way of interacting.

SS: Travis writes as “Nocturnal,” and I write as “Morning.” We constantly chase each other. On the surface, the book is a hyper-dramatic love story, but there’s so many other facets we explore: gender relations; the city versus the natural environment; silence versus sound; the attributes of “day” and “night;” desperation; thirst; fire, water, wind, air; and, of course, a fox gets mentioned once or twice. It’s truly one of the best projects I’ve ever participated in. And, no doubt, Travis’s talents as a writer put me to shame. After writing collaboratively with him, it’s near impossible to be impressed with what I come up with on my own. We’re currently working on a new manuscript tentatively titled Last Call. If these projects keep up, he’ll be dealing with me for a lifetime.

DA: Elaine Sexton described The Principle Agent as “a narrative made up of fragments that expose a razor-sharp intelligence, an unnerving sophistication, an echo of the poet Anne Carson.”

SS: And she was absolutely right about the “narrative” part of that statement; the book does contain a semi-cohesive narrative structure. I love Elaine’s work and I was so lucky to meet her and read with her at some of the NYC Toadlily Press events. I have a little bit of a difficult time speaking to the statement itself, so I’m going to digress.

The Principle Agent has a funny back-story. I haven’t shared it with many people, but I suppose now’s the time:

In 2009, I had completed about half of the book. At that point the manuscript was pretty lifeless, there wasn’t much cohesion, direction or flow. Then I was coerced to attend  (of all things) a business conference in Chicago. At the conference one of the speakers was berating us with all this economic jargon, saying: “If the principal agent is this… then the catalyst is that….” Well, I just took those phrases, switched the spelling to “principle,” and ran with it. The book came together within six months.

As its author I’m completely intertwined in the back-story of each line in The Principle Agent, so when I hear words like “razor-sharp intelligence… unnerving sophistication,” although I appreciate the description very much, I don’t even know how to respond. My favorite lines from the book are: “The sun’s light hit the windowsill. / She looked up and said: not as sorry as I am.” I’ll never tell the truth about the origin of those lines, but I sure get asked a lot of questions about them. I’ve decided my answer to every question that deals with the content of the book is, “Yes.” For example, is the book commenting on the ecological state of the world right now? Yes. Is the book commenting on the economic state of the world right now? Yes. Is the narrator a woman? Yes. Is the narrator a man? Yes. Is the book just a bunch of words thrown together? Yes. Is the book intentionally hyper-deliberate? Yes.

See, that’s why I write poetry. I never have to tell someone, “No.”

I will say this about my thoughts on the book: words are my vehicle for attempting to reach that thin, far off horizon where imagination (wildest dreams) and manipulation (psychology/sociology) coincide. That seems, to me, like a pretty good place to evoke emotion. The Principle Agent was the first time I achieved finding that point. At least in my mind, the book either screams emotion or screams deliberate melancholy. Sophisticated, intelligent, call it anything; I think it’s as much of a challenge as you want it to be, but I also think a ten-year-old could read it. And, of that, I’m proud.

DA: You may very well be the only poet I know who has interviewed herself.

SS:

*

Q: What does he mean by that?

A: I don’t know, you tell me.

Q: Should I talk about the self-interview I did?

A: Maybe talk about the process of self-interviewing.

Q: Isn’t that boring?

A: Probably.

Q: Well, I should be thankful he’s not asking me about my literary influences, right?

A: Yeah, you hate that question.

Q: Who influences your work?

A: Anyone from Bruce Springsteen to Vladimir Nabokov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Randy Travis, George Oppen, Laura Riding, and the guy on Washington Blvd. that holds the: “Smile, it could be worse, you could be me” sign, Laura Moriarty, Dan Beachy-Quick, Sam Cooke, and my new preoccupation with how many different ways Obama’s “Please proceed” can work, Lorine Niedecker, and the guy that used to talk on the broken pay phone outside the 14th St. Post Office, and Baudelaire, Gertrude Stein, LCD Soundsystem, Charles Alexander, minutes 1:49- 4:28 of Florence & the Machine’s song Cosmic Love — the Unplugged version, my old roommate who had the best reasonable solution to every problem: “Actions speak louder than words,” Norma Cole, Henry Miller, oh, and I bought a new journal last week that started with the phrase: “In the case of loss, please return to,” so I’ve been obsessing over playing with those words for the last couple of days.

Q: Have you shared that list with anyone besides me?

A: Oh god. No. People would think I was nuts.

*

DA: You recently spent a short stint living in New York City.

SS: I did. It is an incredible city. And the literary scene there is incomparable. Had I moved there before I lived in California, I would still be there. I swear though, Venice and I were made for each other. I came back from NYC this May to move out of my California place and head back to The City. I about died. I simply couldn’t divorce Venice again. Seriously, the whole ordeal was the equivalent of a nervous breakdown. It was a tried and true realization of that awful, awful saying I frequently make fun of: “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.” I’d spent so many years growing accustom to the immediate ocean, the sun, my car!

As an aside, there was one NYC day in March when I was walking down East 12th, and I saw my old car parked on the street. Well — and this is embarrassing to admit — I stood there by the car and wept. Not for a second or two, but for about fifteen minutes I was bawling and peering into the car while everyone scurried past me. People probably thought I was attempting to steal the thing. Had I had a couple drinks, I just might have tried.

Even though my time in New York was a brief five months, the city really impacted my life and writing. I moved to a couple to different locations in Manhattan, so I got to know a lot of the goings-on in diverse areas. I loved the high-level banter; readings at St. Marks; strongly opinionated East Coast brainiacs; Central Park covered in snow; the museums; bridges; city kids that hadn’t been north of 14th St. in nine years; art nights in Chelsea; food in the lower-east, or the upper-west, or the food in general; the late night/early morning conversations with cab drivers; mingling with authors I had only read about; and those glorious, glorious subway musicians. I loved the New York experience. These were all foreign things, characters, and circumstances; I tried not to take any interesting moments for granted. There was just one thing that I couldn’t deny: everyone I met in those five months had the same comment for me: “I can tell you’re a California girl.” Coming from a New Yorker, I realize that probably isn’t a compliment, but I also realize that’s probably the truth.

DA: And now you’re back in Venice.

SS: Yes, I am. And I don’t intend on leaving. I rarely have difficulty coming up with material for my writing, but if I ever need a little extra inspiration I’ll haul myself down to the waves, throw on a very epic-sounding play list, and write. There, somehow, words always come to me. The ocean seems to work pretty well with my psyche. I think the power of water is such a beautiful reminder of mortality for me, especially since I run around like a cat-in-a-bag 90% of the time, thinking I got this whole “co-existing” thing licked. The ocean is just flat-out humbling. I also have a tendency to fall head over heels for surfers, but let’s keep that between you and me.