In this interview with poetry editor Rick Barot, Susan Mitchell describes the profound, physical influence of classical music on her work as a poet, as well as the experiences—a train trip in a blizzard, a surprise visit from a bear—that led to her three poems in NER 39.4: “Soprano Tough Orange,” “The Bear,” and “Snowover.”
Rick Barot: Your three poems in the current issue of NER are marvelous in so many ways. One of these is the sonic richness of the poems. I imagine that sound is a crucial part of your writing process. Is this so?
Susan Mitchell: Your question understands so well an essential part of my creative process. I began to read, write, and play the piano at around the same time—between the ages of five and six. So for me, piano playing, with all its musical considerations, cannot be disentangled from reading and writing. I even approach poems by other poets the way I would a musical score—scanning first for patterns of sound and rhythm and then reading for semantic meanings.
Before “Snowover” started up, I had been immersed for several weeks in the preludes of Chopin, Rachmaninov, and Scriabin, as well as in the 24 Preludes & Fugues by Shostakovich. I was listening to a Shostakovich CD through headphones when I traveled by Amtrak from New Haven to the northernmost parts of Vermont near the Canadian border. It was December. Soon after we left New Haven snow began to fall, and by the time we entered Vermont, the train was making its way through a blizzard, chunking drifts several feet high to clear the track. After Bellows Falls, with its huge frozen waterfall, I was the only person in the first car, and to better enjoy the blizzard and the solitude, I removed my headphones. Snow intensifies silence, and as I let myself sink deep into the silence, I felt enveloped and veiled, cocooned. I was dissolving into a silence bright with snow, yet dark with night, and after a while I began to hear the crunch of boots in snow, a sound that kept repeating in my reverie of walking through a stillness of woods in falling snow. The poem was born out of that sound which itself had been born out of silence. The same way that many musical compositions are born from silence, and in their opening measure, actually include the silence that immediately preceded, perhaps generated, their opening sounds. In fact, twelve of Chopin’s 24 preludes begin with rests for either right or left hand, sometimes both hands, in the first measure or two.
A while after the Amtrak trip, when phrases and images now in “Snowover” started to enter language, I realized that the crunch of boots in snow, that sound, had been calling my attention to a phrase we often use, which never enters the poem verbally, but which haunts or ghosts the poem—crunch time. With that realization, I understood what the poem’s speaker was journeying toward and let the increasingly dark images of the poem, as well as those words that play with the sound of crunch—hotchpotch, crouch, honeybunch—carry me to the edge of my mortal knowledge. But this makes the writing process that culminated in that poem sound a lot more conscious than it actually was. So maybe a more accurate way for me to describe that process would be with a line from “The Staircase,” a poem in my first book, The Water Inside The Water: “When I awake, my lips are swollen with the sound.”
As a poet I have learned a lot from music. That I was listening to Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues was important to the form of “Snowover.” The repeated listening pressed into me a fugal structure, even though I wasn’t thinking consciously of fugal structures when I listened to the CD or when I wrote the poem. Rereading the poem now, I feel something fugal in the way that the image of roots emerges, vanishes, then emerges again. I don’t think that would have happened if I had not been listening to fugues over and over. This isn’t something sonic. It’s more a way of thinking that is totally nonverbal and also without images. A thinking with my body, since I was not analyzing the fugues. When I was writing many of the poems that went into my first book, The Water Inside The Water, I had never written a poem in sections. I had no idea how to go about it, how to think meditatively as opposed to narratively, how to come at an idea or feeling from many different directions. So, to write the first poem I ever wrote in sections, “The Road Back,” I listened to Bartok’s six quartets, as played by the Emerson. I felt over and over the shift from movement to movement, and the shifts within movements. And when I say “over and over” I mean for whole days. I was a Hoynes Fellow at the University of Virginia, so I had the time. One night as I lay on my bed and listened, I suddenly “got it”—and went straight to my typewriter and wrote “The Road Back.” After that, I had no problem writing the other five poems in sections in that book or subsequent books.
RB: Can you say something about how “Soprano Tough Orange,” “The Bear,” and “Snowover” came about? In addition to the music in these poems, the imagery is also wildly vivid. This makes me wonder if your poems come from visual/auditory prompts, or from a narrative starting point.
SM: All my poems start with a strong urge of some kind, and my having no idea what I’m doing or where I’m going. The word urge comes from an Indo-European root connected with flogging, beating, pushing, driving. So something is beating at me from inside and outside, a beating that gives me the beat of the poem, its emotional and rhythmic pulse. And there is always some kind of twoness, two seemingly unrelated things or images or rhythms that finally come together to make the poem. Sometimes even three unrelated whatevers. Since I’ve already talked about “Snowover,” I’ll focus on the other two poems.
With “The Bear,” two totally unrelated events occurred around the same time. I had orthopedic surgery at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan, and after four days in hospital and ten in rehab, I stayed in a condo in the northwestern part of Connecticut, a very woodsy and hilly region. The deck of my condo overlooked a forest preserve and a brook, Bee Brook, which you can see on my FB home page. A wonderful place to recuperate. One morning, as I was having breakfast, I looked out toward the forest and—whoa!—there was a black bear on the deck looking in at me. I was thrilled, excited, and deeply honored. Until this moment, my physical energy level had been very low because I had lost a lot of blood during the surgery and refused a transfusion. The bear was as good as a transfusion. I experienced the bear as a healing energy, and though I wasn’t aware of this until long after I finished the poem, for many peoples, the Norse and some Native Americans, for example, the bear has healing powers, and shaman often dressed as bears. In shamanistic societies, the bear was thought of as a spirit animal that dismembered and cleansed, strengthening and reconstituting their skeleton so that the old structure of being was replaced with a new one. Of course, I had just undergone that literally during hip replacement surgery. But as I said, I knew nothing about the ways in which ancient and indigenous peoples thought of bears, and that was probably a good thing because that knowledge might have intruded on the poem and ruined it.
The bear’s visit energized me, so I began to jot down images, but there was no narrative. After a while, the bear images began to stir up images connected with my hospital experience, but I had no idea what to do with this material until I realized that many of the images connected with the bear were actually metaphors for feelings about my hospital experience that I found very difficult to articulate. Though I felt no fear when the bear first appeared on the deck of my house, at night when it was impossible to see what was out there in the dark, I would be afraid that the bear was lurking somewhere and that at any moment it might smash through the sliding glass doors and enter the house. So my feelings about the bear were mixed. It was simultaneously a healing energy and a terrifying energy that could dismember me. I had the same mixed feelings about surgery. It gave me a brand new hip, but to do that it had taken me apart. And I actually awakened enough during the surgery to experience, without any pain, the terrific pulling and banging that went on while the surgeon removed the hip’s femoral head and replaced it with a ceramic ball, the implant.
When I reflected on this later, I felt as if I had been given secret or esoteric knowledge. But these two incidents, the bear’s visit and the surgery, would not have developed into a poem without the arrival of the refrain line which has its own music, at once jaunty and plaintive, defiant and pleading. When the refrain entered with its three rhyming Old English words, so did other lines—the darkest in the poem. I liked those rhyming Old English words for their tune. But once you know their meanings, the Old English words have their own darkness, especially given the context. As a verb, thirl means to pierce, to drill. As a noun, it can mean a thrill, and also a hole. So the refrain compresses many of the tensions the poem expands on, and in doing that it comes close to working as music does. A good many years ago, the Emerson Quartet visited a poetry workshop I was teaching at Middlebury College. The four musicians—first and second violinists, cellist, and violist—were performing one of Bartok’s quartets that evening, and they demonstrated how each instrument’s part sounded alone before combining them. What amazed me was that one instrument’s music was joyful, another’s sorrowful, still another’s meditative, while the fourth instrument’s was agitated—but when all four played together the music was complex and very different from any of the parts taken alone. For the poet, I think the challenge is to try to find a form to hold all the very different, and often opposing, energies in our psyches.
“Soprano Tough Orange” began very differently. The first six stanzas simply erupted, pretty much as they are now, and then the impulse stopped. That original impulse came in response to a profusion of orange flowers I had seen along Route 84 in Pennsylvania. Again, there was no narrative. But I did have strong feelings, and what I felt was a oneness with the energy of those flowers, the energy of seeds, the energy of all of us to grow and flourish. What I was feeling is perhaps close to what the gorilla Koko expressed when she signed, “I am gorilla, I am flowers, animals, nature.” I’ve always loved that. For me that feeling danced and sang itself into lines with strong rhythm and rhyme. What allowed me finally to continue and finish the poem was the realization that a different musical impulse needed to enter the poem once the violent images of the highway break in. The highway introduces energies that destroy and thwart, and those energies are in me too, though I guard against them in the poem with a series of rhetorical phrases—”let me not” and “blessed be” and, finally, “let me mercy.” For the poem to continue I needed to recognize my own conflicted feelings and acknowledge them without naming them.
RB: Your last book, Erotikon, was published in 2000. I’m sure I’m not your only fan avidly awaiting your next book. Are the three poems in NER part of a book manuscript?
SM: Yes, they are an important part of a book manuscript that, I think, is almost finished. And the only other thing I’ll say about that book manuscript is that it includes a poem dedicated to Eugene Drucker and David Finckel, first violinist and cellist in the Emerson at the time that quartet was in residence at Middlebury College and visited with my poetry workshop. Finckel has since left and been replaced by Paul Watkins. It amazes me how much I learned from Drucker and Finckel in a very short period of time, and some of what I learned led to the poem dedicated to them. As well as to other poems in the book manuscript.
RB: Who are the writers you’re turning to, or returning to, these days? And what about the artists or musicians whose works you’re keeping close?
SM: I’ve been reading Stephanie Burt’s The Poem Is You, a very interesting, eclectic, and exciting anthology of difficult contemporary poems with brilliant commentaries by Burt—a collection that I know I’ll keep returning to in the way that I return to David Lehman’s Best American Poetry anthologies, especially Best American Poetry 2012 guest edited by Mark Doty. What I love about that volume, besides the superb poems, is that quite a few poems by contemporary poets dialogue and argue with poems by earlier poets—with Wordsworth, for example. And I’m always discovering new poets to pursue into books I somehow missed through issues of Poetry, New England Review, American Poetry Review. Through an issue of Poetry devoted to Native poets, I was introduced to the poems of Sy Hoahwah, of Comanche/Arapaho ancestry, a terrific poet I’ve invited to Florida Atlantic University, and he’ll be reading his poems on February 28th.
But Yeats is the poet I return to more than any other, largely, I think, because his imagination, like Shakespeare’s, encompasses so much—heaven, hell, and even the realm of fairy, and because he is able to include in his poems his own contradictions and vacillations. His later poems question and argue with his earlier poems, and he even reimagines his audience when his original audience proves disappointing because it isn’t equal to his imagination. Yeats’s development as a poet is phenomenal. He refuses to let his imagination shrink in response to pressures that would restrict or constrict it—refuses to live in a diminished world that excludes mystery, awe, wonder, and the irrational. And the music of his poems is gorgeous. I find myself actually moving into singing voice when I read some of his poems aloud. And, he is still our contemporary, anticipating our fragmentation and entropy.
Marianne Moore is another poet I am always rereading for the thrill of her language, the pleasures her difficulties provide, and the way in her big poem, “Octopus,” she compels you to move rapidly between the large picture and tiny details. Something that the choreographer Twyla Tharp also does in some of her creations. In Tharp’s dances that generates extraordinary intensity because as viewer I feel compelled to hold in me simultaneously everything danced on stage. For readers who may never have experienced Tharp’s dances, perhaps I should explain: in classical ballet, couples dancing within a large group are almost always dressed alike and going through the same movements at the same time. In Tharp’s dances, each couple is unique, and its movements are different from the movements of all the other couples. So the viewer has to keep switching rapidly between the movements of the group, taken in as a single gestalt, and the movements of each couple. For me, that makes for tremendous excitement and intensity.
And since I’ve brought up dance, I learn so much from choreographers like Wayne McGregor whose award-winning ballet triptych, Woolf Works, first performed in 2015, is based on Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. I watched him rehearse one segment of The Waves. He had coerced the great Italian ballerina Alessandra Ferri out of retirement (she was 54) to dance in this work and she’s astonishing. The critic Arthur Pita said of her: “She has so much information and experience in her body. You just look at her back and how it moves, and you see all this history.” For me as a poet, to think of wisdom stored in the body—well, that’s a large part of the experience I have when I learn from music, and I think Yeats would have immediately understood wisdom of the body, or at least have fallen madly in love with Ferri in order to understand. I experience that when I play piano works by Bach, Chopin, Mozart, and Debussy: whatever those composers thought and felt enters through my fingers and travels all the way to my shoulders, shuddering and trembling into my body.
I’m always listening to music, mainly classical, and feel tremendous gratitude to NYC’s WQXR which provides a free app that gives me live performances of contemporary and new music, as well as superb archived recordings—and the brilliant insights into piano repertoire offered by David Dubal who teaches at the Juilliard. And also to the Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall with concerts streamed live from Berlin that somehow reach me intact via a transmitter in Maryland, though this is for subscribers only.
But I have a messy mind, so I’m also reading Andrew Roberts’ new biography of Winston Churchill and David Blight’s new biography of Frederick Douglass. I’ve heard Blight lecture on the American Civil War and the Restoration period at Yale, and he never fails to move me to tears just through his choice of quotations selected from letters and other documents. Along with these, Haruki Murakami’s Absolutely On Music: Conversations With Seiji Ozawa, which is exactly what the title says it is.
And finally, a brilliant novel, Milkman, by Anna Burns who was born in Belfast and now lives in East Sussex, England. This novel—deservedly—just won the Man Booker Prize, and Burns’s narrator has a voice—well, it’s wild, eccentric, breathless, urgent—it’s a voice that creates its own world.
SUSAN MITCHELL has published three books of poems and has been honored with fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her collection Rapture (HarperCollins, 1992) won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and was a National Book Award Finalist. Her poems have appeared in numerous volumes of Best American Poetry and Pushcart Prize anthologies. Mitchell grew up in New York City and now lives in Boca Raton, where she teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at Florida Atlantic University.
RICK BAROT has published three books of poetry with Sarabande Books: The Darker Fall (2002), Want (2008), and Chord (2015). His poems and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Poetry, the Paris Review, the New York Times Magazine, Tin House, Kenyon Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Stanford University, where he was a Wallace E. Stegner Fellow and a Jones Lecturer. Barot lives in Tacoma, Washington, and directs The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Pacific Lutheran University.