Sometimes, reading poetry will trigger a memory so intense that it takes a moment before you realize that the memory it triggered belongs to someone else. That’s what it felt like to read Susana H. Case’s work. Here, I’ve asked her to speak on her work, in the hopes of sharing it with some fellow poetry enthusiasts who would also like to spend some time in the moments she crafts…
Q (Infamous Scribbler): As I perused the Internet, I found many author bios that included a list of your many publications, but not many that talked about who is Dr. Susana Case, and where did she come from. Can you share a little about yourself, the ‘behind-the-scenes’ so to speak?
A (Susana H. Case): I grew up in New York City in one of the outer boroughs (Queens), though I’ve lived in Manhattan most of my adult life (except for a few years in Ohio). Though I’ve traveled widely, sometimes for months at a time, I’ve always lived in the United States. The only child of a public school English teacher and a dietician, who gave up her career to become a full-time mother, I first had some of my poems published in my late teens, but then went in another direction. I earned a Ph. D. in Sociology and became a university professor. In the early 1990s, I returned to my first love, poetry, though I still continue to teach Sociology. The combination of interests means that there are a number of social themes that run through my creative work. For example, I teach a course in gender, and there is a lot about gender that runs through my poems. I’m also interested in power from many different perspectives and that interest is threaded through several of my poetry collections, for instance, my first full-length collection, which was inspired by archival materials from the Salem witchcraft trials (IS Note: Salem in Séance), and also a later book of prose poems inspired by copper mining and the early history of the labor movement in the United States. I’m interested in injustice, but I’m also interested in love, in its many manifestations. You can find one or the other or both practically everywhere you look in my poetry.
My interest in war comes from that interest in power and injustice and is the reason that warfare is the background of two of my collections. My first published chapbook, The Scottish Café, which won the Slapering Hol Press chapbook competition in 2002, and was later translated into Polish and re-published as a dual language (English-Polish annotated) edition by the University of Opole Press was the first series of poems I wrote in that vein, with World War II as the imminent event for a group of mathematicians in what was, in those years, a city that was part of Poland. I returned to thinking about life under war with Erasure, Syria, which has just been released. Having never had to live where a war was in the process of being fought, I consider myself lucky, and my interest in looking at what happens while people are living in those conditions has led me to try to imagine it within the framework of my (very different) experience. What I connect to is the interest in survival, in trying to fashion a life under the worst types of circumstances, a form of persistence and luck. Those are things that interest me. I’m married, to a visual artist, and also live with a dog, an elderly Scottish Terrier.
Q: In your poem, The Apartment, you explain that it was part-experience, part-research, part-imagination. Is this a common theme in your work? If so, how does that amalgamation coalesce when you’re working on a poem? If not, what about the process made this poem unique?
A: Yes, it’s common for me to draw upon my own experience or to project my own experience onto unfamiliar situations and I use imagination a lot. I also read widely if I’m writing about anything that has a historical basis or a basis in fact. Empathy probably also helps. But what I like about writing poetry is the ability to shift from the documentable to the realm of fantasy. “The Apartment” is a poem written about the apartment in which I currently live and the state it was left in at the time I moved in. There had been two people living in the apartment: an elderly man and his schizophrenic adult son. The son was not able to live on his own, and his remaining family eventually moved him out, but the disheveled state of the apartment piqued my interest in the two of them and what their lives must have been like in those final years. I didn’t know them, though I previously lived across the street. The apartment was full of guns, and there were external locks on the internal doors. The son did sleep on a mattress in the middle of the living room. Most of the rest, I imagined from what I know about schizophrenia. I did hear a few details from neighbors as well, the detail about the squeaky wheelchair, for example, which belonged to a resident who had died way before I moved in, coincidentally one of the wives of Robert Moses, the New York planner-builder. I was told that the noise of the wheels irritated the father enormously, that he was not a nice man, but in the poem, I ascribed the disturbance over the sound of the wheelchair to the son.
Q: Your book, Drugstore Blue, resonates, I think, with any woman who grew up in the 1980s. Can you talk about the decisions you made of what to include in the poems in the work, as well as a bit about creating the work in the present with the memories of the past?
A: Although I draw upon my personal experience and biography quite a lot in Drugstore Blue, it’s not a straightforward autobiography. The collection began in its conception as a book of poems about travel. But I soon realized that I wasn’t writing about travel so much as I was writing about the nature of navigating the world as a woman. I then organized the poems in terms of expanding circles of experience, starting with my roots, then moving outward to other parts of the United States, then moving further outward to the world, finishing with a section populated by many who are not of this world, have died, or are mythological, and so forth. But within each of those levels of experience, it’s the nature of being female, and what that means in terms of growing up, love, work, respect, etc., that were important to me for inclusion. I do not have a great memory, so whatever I can remember I’m grateful for, and what I can’t remember, I make up. I generally have not kept a journal, though maybe that would have been a good idea. I think adversity can be mined for creative content and we all struggle, we all have setbacks. I’ve tried to take some of that and turn it into “lemonade” so to speak, something better than it might have been as I was experiencing it. I don’t mean to suggest that my life has been terrible; I’ve been relatively very fortunate. But struggle is universal. We all have problems we are trying to solve. We all want to be loved, and to be happy, and to be fulfilled in our endeavors, and to be somewhat centered. None of that comes easy.
Q: I see from your schedule that you often read your works in public. What about reading the work aloud (as opposed to private creative process) is similar or different to publishing it in a book or online?
A: I was an extremely shy college and graduate student. If anyone had told me then that I would make my living teaching or, worse, that I would get up in front of a crowd of people to read my poems, I would have laughed and said, “no way.” I don’t know exactly what happened—maybe it was the sheer repetition of doing it that eliminated the anxiety, a form of immersive desensitization therapy—but I’m not that shy person anymore, thank goodness. I’ve very happy about that because it made my life at the time more difficult. I could barely say anything aloud. From that kind of history, I’ve come to a place where reading my work in public is something that makes me feel very much alive. But part of the private process for me is also hearing it read aloud. I need to hear it to see if it sounds right before it’s ever sent to be considered for publication.
Q: Your newest work, Erasure, Syria, from Recto y Verso Editions, came out this year. Can you talk about the creative process that went into the works in this book? Many of your other books bring an aspect of personal life from private experience to the public profound. How do you bridge the gap between your process and the lived reality of the war in Syria?
A: I have no ethnic roots in Syria and, as I mentioned earlier, have never lived or worked in a war zone. I had been following the news. My reaction was to the destruction of a country. It was less a political reaction and more a response to the heartbreak of the situation. I have met a number of Syrians over the years living in other countries who would have preferred to be home, if there was an intact country to return it. It doesn’t look like that will be possible. I mean for my project, which has just been released, in fact the link isn’t even up on Amazon or Barnes & Noble yet, to be a universal response to this kind of upheaval, even though it uses news coverage specific to the situation in Syria. I have been interested in erasure poetry for a while, though I have not included erasure poems in my other books.
Erasure, Syria is a series of erasures of the daily news on Syria. I created one erasure a day and condensed the erasure into a black square in which I paid attention to spacing and other visual elements. It was an attempt to make art out of tragedy, something positive out of something horrific. I was fortunate to work with a publisher with excellent in-house design skills (Christian Ortega) and the book, which is about a terrible sets of events, turned out to be very beautiful. It was the publisher’s idea to also include some pages that showed the process of using this technique to select and arrange text and so it’s also instructional in a sense.
In addition, not that there’s any real money in poetry—that’s not why poets write—I decided I would donate from my part of the royalties to the International Rescue Committee’s programs in Syria. They provide medical and emergency help to refugees within the country and also in bordering countries and also provide water, sanitation, educational, and counseling services within refugee camps. Children and at-risk women are a substantial part of their client base. In this way I felt I would not just be feeding parasitically on someone else’s tragedy. In line with this, if anyone donates $35 to the International Rescue Committee directly, through this link (help.rescue.org/donate), and sends me a copy of the receipt via facebook messaging, I will send that person a free copy of Erasure, Syria. If you live outside the United States, please make a donation of $45, as my shipping costs will be greater.
Q: Anything to add?
A: I have accumulated a large number of poems in which crimes of various sorts are threaded through the works. I’ve now begun to focus more on filling in the holes remaining in the sequences I currently have and this will be my next project.
You can purchase a copy of Erasure, Syria from the publisher, Amazon, or by donating $35.00 to the International Rescue Committee and messaging a copy of the receipt to Susana Case via Facebook. You can also find her online at her Website.