On Reading More Slowly, Child’s Play, and Understanding Languages:

An Interview with Susan Stewart (2015)

Susan Stewart –  American poet, Princeton professor, Genius Award recipient – visited UConn as our 2015 Wallace Stevens poet on April 1st. I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions on her work and influences. Through her answers, I came to a greater understanding not only of her work, but of poetry at large.

1) One strand in your book Red Rover is concerned with play and the language of childhood games. Since you mentioned at your reading that you started writing poetry as a child, I wonder if those games played a part in your early poetry as well? Are there forms, subjects, or styles from your first writings that you still return to?

This is an interesting question; I don’t believe I wrote poems based on children’s games consciously until I wrote Red Rover, but I’m sure the structure of games [with rules, fixed beginnings and outcomes that could be described] influenced my sense of literary form. And as well the structure of play [open-ended, fantasy-laden, solitary, or built with other children] helped me, as it helps everyone, enter imaginary worlds. The repeating circles of games and ongoing linear forms of play seem to run beneath many of our ways of understanding and shaping our worlds. The first poems I wrote and remember came as I learned to read and were, I’m sure, responses to reading. I was especially taken by Beatrix Potter and Robert Louis Stevenson–for, although I certainly didn’t have words then to describe it, their syntax, diction, and sense of rhythm enchanted, and still enchant, me. And, re Stevenson, I always have loved travel literature: an early book about Eskimo fishermen and Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels were great favorites. In adolescence, like many young people, I wrote poems as a way of understanding my feelings, but I also had teachers who helped me try to make those pieces into works of interest to others.

2) You’re a noted translator of Italian poetry. How does your understanding of Italian influence your writing in English? Do you speak any other languages?

I don’t believe that I am a noted translator: I’m much more of a translator by happenstance. And in fact I try to keep my own poetry away from my translation projects, for to translate involves coming very close to the intention of the original poet and letting go of one’s own preoccupations and tendencies. I don’t mind translating when I’m not in the thick of my own poems, but working in French and Italian [and I also worked with a Hellenist to translate some Euripides years ago] involves coming into a whole different sense of sound and rhythm and meter and syntax–one that really isn’t of much formal use to an English language poet. The Italian poets I’ve worked on most intensely–Alda Merini and Milo De Angelis–have very strong poetic personalities and sensibilities that are entirely their own. So influence is problematic.
I have studied French and Spanish from my high school years and can read French fairly well and Spanish a bit. My French accent is quite poor–I suspect because my beloved high school French teacher may have spent little more than a semester in France and I have never lived in France more than a few months at a time. I learned the Italian I have [which is far from fluent] as an adult. A branch of our family lived in Firenze for many years and I have Italian nieces and nephews; I also attended the Urbino Semiotics Seminars a number of times as a young scholar and I taught in a summer graduate program in Rome for ten years. In that period I developed many Italian friendships, especially in Rome. I like to translate with poet and writer friends who are native speakers of Italian and, in a kind of circle, to help them as well translate English into Italian. Working this way gives us a chance to talk about our understandings of our languages and to make a stronger work than any of us could make alone.
3) What are some of the energies or emerging trends you find most noteworthy in contemporary poetry in English?

 I can’t describe energies or emerging trends without thinking of the work of individual poets. I do think that we no longer have such bifurcated poetry worlds as, to be simplistic, we once had both in the U.S. [the academics vs. the Beats; the new Formalists vs. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E] and in England [Cambridge vs. just about everyone else]. The poetry scenes are vibrant and intellectually diverse. I edit the Princeton University Press series, with an open submission period in May of each year, and I’m always struck by the originality and intensity of the best manuscripts I receive. Many contemporary poets are interested in using traditional forms and inventing new forms, writing about experiences that previously were invisible, exploring diction and modes of address, and constructing books that are coherent on the level of the book as a work of art. These are promising developments.

4) In an interview with the University of Pennsylvania, you said that your goal as a poet is to “get people to read more slowly and to reread, and read a whole book and go back to the beginning to see connections.” How do you try to achieve this goal?

This is difficult to summarize, but I try to let my poems have an effect on first reading that is changed by further reading–the predominant narrative might be undermined, or an allusion might open up to include multiple allusions, or a later poem in a book could provide a shadow of, or gloss upon, an earlier poem in a book. I always am exploring how I might do this, writing poems in pairs and sequences, building relations between works, and I learn a great deal from the techniques of novelists and other artists. The fundamental structures of lyric– recursive and circling; argument-laden; musical; self-citational–often are a great help to the construction of poetry books.

Nikki Barnhart is Interviews editor.

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