Outsiders looking in: An interview with Suzanne Roberts
Name: Suzanne Roberts
Cultural heritage / Ethnicity: British mother/Jewish father
Languages spoken: English, Spanish
Based out of: South Lake Tahoe, California
Education: PhD in Literature and the Environment, MA in Creative Writing, BS in Biology
Current work / projects: I am currently working on a book of travel poems, a hiking memoir, and a book of travel essays. I am also co-editing an anthology of skiing and snowboarding stories.
Books published / forthcoming: Shameless (Wordtech Editions, 2007), Nothing to You (Pecan Grove Press, 2008), and Plotting Temporality (forthcoming from Red Hen Press)
Writers / Journalists whose work inspires you: I am a big reader, so I could name hundreds, but here are some of my favorites: Rainer Maria Rilke, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, the Brontes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Federico Garcia Lorca, Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath. Contemporary writers I especially admire are Michael Ondaatje, Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Li-Young Lee, Mark Doty, Louis Glück, and Ann Carson.
Photographers whose work inspires you: Annie Lebovitz, Ansel Adams, and Catherine Roberts Leach (that’s my sister!). I also like Nevada Photographer Peter Goin’s Black Rock desert work and local Tahoe photographer Corey Rich’s work.
Books / magazines / media currently reading: Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit, One More Theory about Happiness by Paul Guest, Black Nature, edited by Camille Dungy, Collected Poems by Lynda Hull, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, and Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy. I always have at least five books going at once. I read the New York Times everyday as well.
Last concert attended: Does a Bassnectar rave at Burning Man count?
[DM] Your work seems to fit somewhere at the intersection of poetry and travel writing. Although it seems like there should be a natural overlap (and audience) when you put these two elements together, it seems divided, at least in the publications I’ve found.
Most literary journals seem to publish certain styles of nonfiction (with “travel writing” often seeming a pejorative term), whereas travel magazines publish other styles, much of it very homogeneous (with terms like “literary”or “poetic,” potentially seen as pejorative). Have you found this to be true? And if so, how have you “bridged” it?[SR] I find everything you have said absolutely true, and to tell you the truth, I was surprised when I found out that travel writing is seen in a pejorative light. I think that’s because of the nuts and bolts nature of the where to stay/what to do/where to eat-type articles, but these serve a very important purpose for their audience.
Poetry is the ideal medium to capture sense of place because of the poem’s imagistic in-the-moment nature, but you are right, the travel journals don’t typically publish poetry. Therefore, I don’t think I have “overcome” or “bridged” the attitudes you suggest.
I have been shopping my hiking memoir around, and one agent told me it would be hard to find a mainstream publisher because I don’t have any real books out—she then said, “You know poetry doesn’t count, right?”
And in the marketplace, poetry doesn’t count unless you are Dante or someone else long dead. We often forget, and I include myself in this, that it is the writing and not the publishing that’s important.
I think most poets finally come to accept this because we have to write the poems while knowing that most likely, they will not find a very large audience. Yet, at the same time, this can be very freeing. In poetry, I often feel like I can write whatever I want, because really, who is going to read it?
In much of the work in your upcoming collection, the narrator is an outside observer to other people’s realities, specifically, poverty in India. The themes deal with distance (the narrator is often looking out on the scene from “the ambassador’s car”) and separation from local people.
As an outside observer to these realities, how do you reconcile creating poetry or art out of them? How do you distinguish what is poetry / art / expression and what is rendering (or even glorifying) guilt or “white man’s burden”?
When I have returned from places, such as India, people have not wanted to look at my photographs; they have said, “Don’t tell me anything sad.” I think by ignoring the sad realities of the word, we make them worse.
We stop at a streetlight. The camber of the moon appears, disappears—a white cutout in the smog. Out of the smoky night come the children—the brown iris of their eyes like dinner plates. They have emerged from their roadside tents to knock on the windows of the ambassador car. Our driver, Sharma, says, “So poor … so many so poor. What is it we can do, Ma’m. What can we do?” The children knock harder and put their hands to their mouths, miming hunger. I am afraid they may break the glass. My friend says she wishes she had a lollipop. Sharma says “Work is worship.” The light turns green, the weak smiles of the children fall, and we leave them behind—ghosts of smog, still miming their hunger. My friend rubs her temples. I turn around, look through the window’s globe, watch them disappear into the quilt of night, of smoke, and of distance.
My hope is to relay an observation, give an unflinching view of the difficult realities to the reader, and he or she can decide what to do with it.
One of my favorite writers, Chris Abani, says that guilt is a wasted emotion. I think what he means is that we often turn to guilt as a way to make ourselves feel better, which seems paradoxical, but if we can say, “I feel guilty,” then it is enough for us, and we can look away, and move on without really doing anything.
Making poems is my way of not looking away, my way of asking the reader to consider things. Sometimes, the world shows itself to be a cruel place, and I feel helpless, as many people do, and I ask myself, “What can I do?” My answer, I suppose, is to write a poem.
And you are right, I write these poems from the perspective of an outsider looking in, but because I am a visitor, writing the poems any other way seems disingenuous to me. If we think there’s no difference between ourselves and the locals when we visit a place, we are fooling ourselves.
Whenever we are traveling, we are outsiders looking in, no matter how we travel. In some respects, the poet also places herself outside of things because she observes the world from a distance. James Joyce says, ”The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”
Therefore, in writing about different cultures, that distance is doubled, creating dissonance for both narrator and reader. This dissonance, though, can be powerful in poetry because it is in this place where meaning happens. Carolyn Forché’s beautiful collection The Country Between Us creates an incredible amount of discomfort in the reader, and that’s one of the reasons the poems are so remarkable. No one can forget the human ears pressed to the ground in “The Colonel.”
Do you feel like you write from a developed religious / philosophical / epistemological framework? If so, could you describe it?
Because of my studies in literature and the environment, and before that, biological sciences, my writing is deeply concerned with the natural world, and our human connection to it. I am especially interested in how the ways in which we view and classify nature can reveal cultural values and vice versa.
I dislike didactic writing about the environment, which functions to alienate readers, so I try to stick with observations and let the reader decide what to think.
What is your typical work routine?
I work whenever I can. I am a binge writer, so I prefer long stretches—8 to 12 hours, but I will work on a poem between classes or in a doctor’s waiting room. I also work late at night when I can’t call someone or go out jogging to distract myself. I have gone to writing residencies, and getting away really helps. I would recommend a residency for anyone trying to finish a book project.
How does teaching affect your writing?
I think it depends on what I’m teaching. I am at a community college, so I teach everything from ESL to literature and creative writing, but we often carry a heavy load in composition. Sometimes the grading associated with all the composition courses takes me away from my writing, but at the same time, the interaction with my students inspires me.
I begin every class with a writing exercise, and I write with my students. I have started many of my poems from exercises I give my students. I also believe that I need to stay active in my writing if I am going to teach writing—anything else would make me feel like a phony. I can’t ask my students to develop a daily practice of writing (and reading!) if I am not actively engaged in my own process, so on the whole, I would say that teaching has been good for my writing, especially when I have a fun group of students.
Please visit SuzanneRoberts.org to find more about her work and upcoming projects.