interview: Susanna Childress

Posted on April 12th, by dave in f&w 2012, interview, poets. 2 comments

interview: Susanna Childress

when you picture someone reading your poetry, how do you see them? what do they think about, wear, and do? or, maybe a better way to say it: who do you write for? and how do you see your writing nourishing others?

The truth is that I don’t often think of people reading my poems. In the composition process, I can’t think of readers at all, except to demand from myself crafts(wo)manship that is worthy of readership. Perhaps it’s too modest, or, too solipsistic an admission to take seriously. But poetry readers are both a motley and singular bunch (and yes, that’s a lovely paradox)—I have little understanding of who actually does read my work, by which I mean I am surprised when readers contact me or come up after an event to express interest in or attachment to my work. Part of it, certainly, is the unexpected grace of readership at all, and part of it is coming to an understanding of the wide-ranging appeal that this particular kind of poetry does end up having, despite the gloomy state of poetry readership compared to, say, the novel, the memoir, the self-help text, or, for that matter, most instruction manuals. Here I mean the lyrical personal narrative—a relatively brief story (sometimes but not necessarily autobiographical), rendered with particular attention to language and to the senses and to the power of the experience as it bears upon not only the body but also, always, also the spirit. And so, there, circuitously, is perhaps how I hope my work may provide nourishment: by offering the universal in the particulars, thereby giving voice to or calling into the light the experiences many of us may have had but not all of us are able to articulate.


how do you use poetry as a practice for spiritual exploration, discipline, or growth? can you offer any practical advice or sure-fire practices for folks interested in allowing writing to inform their spiritual discipline?

This is the boon and the bane of being a writer: what is sure-fire? My writing practice is crippled by a mercurial disposition, by fits and starts, by fatigue, by diurnal and serial responsibilities. And the rub, of course, is that my spiritual practice is too. What I can say—for both sets of beautiful rituals, meaningful down in my bones, and what my bones know, more than anything, I need—is that I am never, ever sorry to have spent time in prayer or in poetry writing.

I am never, ever filled with regret that I opened my little leather-bound Bible, that I “wasted” my time teasing out an image or getting a line just right.

I’m not equating the two; I’m simply sorely aware that for all the discipline it takes to make myself do either (and yes, most often I must make myself), it is not only worthwhile but sustaining and generative. Way leads on to way, Robert Frost famously said. Sometimes I think of this not in terms of paths through the woods, directing the course of my life, but tiny doors opening upon tiny doors opening upon tiny doors in the dark chambers of my heart. And here the psalmist prefigures Frost so beautifully: deep calls out to deep, yes? Yes. And yes, and yes.


when you approach your desk, journal, computer—where ever it is you tend to create—what are some of the processes you use? what’s going through your mind? tell us about your habits of writing, no matter how quirky, mundane, strange, or small.

I allow myself to be consumed. I close the door and ignore what is beyond it. I put a good song on repeat so that I’m hearing it, tapping into the emotional space of it, but not listening to it. I let myself get lost. (And I didn’t realize what a luxury this was—is—until I had children, when “ignoring” and “losing myself” and “being consumed” happens, maybe, during nap time or precious babysitting hours or the bits and pieces of Papa’s watch.) If I’ve had something going through my head, I start in right away to the writing, but if I’m stuck, or curious, or shy, or scared, I pick up work by writers I love or even read my own published poems to myself—since I’m continually mystified by why I said what I did, when I did, how I did. It compels me both to find that spot again and also to improve upon it.


when you go to revise work, how do you typically go about it? are there best practices you follow? give some wise instruction for those of us ready to get cracking on revision!

My best advice is to follow a pattern of immersion and distance. Get lost, get consumed, get entirely engaged in the piece. Then put it aside; hide it from yourself. Days, weeks, even months. Then go at it again, diving into it with a dogged relentlessness. Then leave it alone. Then begin the obsession all over again.

Let yourself do this for 6 months to a year—even with one poem—before you pursue publication. If you have a workshop group or circle of readers, don’t submit your work to them until you’ve gone through this process at least twice.


what’s the best advice you can give to a person just beginning to write, struggling to write, or feeling stuck? what’s something you wish someone had told you starting out?

I wish I’d known two things—and they’ll seem in conflict with each other but, truly, they must be held in a timid and loving balance with one another:

1)       It’s all about you (how determined you are to write; how willing you are to “go there” emotionally and psychologically; how artistically you choose to use the flinty, dark things of your own experience or this world to find a way to speak of beauty, redemption, joy).

2)     It’s not all about you (sometimes you’ll need to just get out of the way; sometimes you’ll want to represent or give voice to experience that’s not your own but that you still feel deeply about; sometimes it doesn’t matter how strong your writing is, the market, certain literary trends, and other factors might not fall in your favor…and you can’t take that personally or let it affect faithfulness to your craft).

{Antler: Susanna originally didn’t send along a poem to share, but after an email to her she sent this wonderful gem back! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did…}

When at Night Zane Says His Prayers


The neighbor boy has cancer, has a fifty-fifty
chance, has taught my son how to play Wii, has spoken
of heaven, has planted four beans, has relapsed,
has used the word aspirate correctly in a sentence, has fallen
in love with our dogs which he is timid to admit
since his own dogs are nearly as lovable, has grown
his hair back, has mentioned Jésus, too, has cancer
and gave him a Hello Kitty sticker yesterday
at hemoc—hematology/oncology, has transformed
legos into a pixilated basket of fruit, has blown up
a balloon and tied it to himself with a string, has beaten
the highest score in Rubble Trouble, has relapsed,
has built a fort with my son featuring moat,
back door, and windows, all out of snow, has prayed
for Jésus and also Ben and also Tara and also Cameron
and also for my son, who does not have cancer
but a stomach virus which kept him from playing
Sidewalk Chalk and for which this kid remembers to lift
the syllables of my son’s name from his tongue to God,
like Pop Rocks, blueberry-blue, crackling, loud,
my son’s name in that boy’s open, irreducible mouth.




Susanna Childress holds a Master’s from The University of Texas at Austin and a PhD from Florida State University. Her first book, Jagged with Love, was awarded the Brittingham Prize in Poetry from the University of Wisconsin and the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award from the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale; her second book, Entering the House of Awe, was released last October from New Issues Press. She lives in Holland, Michigan. See her website for upcoming readings, audio files and links to her work.

2 Responses to “interview: Susanna Childress”

  1. Great interview and STUNNING poem. I’m still feeling the weight of those images and will be thinking about the poem all day.

    • dave says:

      i agree addie! susanna’s thoughts on practice and craft are accessible and well articulated. and if you haven’t read her poems, you should pick up her book immediately! she’s one of the best if you ask me!

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