Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

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  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Longing, Desire, Mortality, and Quirky Delight: A Conversation with Susanna Childress

~ edited by Elizabeth Mizelle

Linda Mills-Woolsey: One of the things that struck me when I was reading Jagged with Love, especially the second time through, was that it’s a painful book in some ways, but it’s a deeply joyful book. It seems to me that it’s exuberant. There’s a lot of play in it. How do you see the role of the poet in balancing those two things: the pain of the life and the joie de vivre?

Susanna Childress: Well, I think that’s probably why I titled the book Jagged with Love. I think that there are very few experiences that don’t involve some measure of pain. I mean, what relationship do you know that is deep and rich that isn’t without its complexities? I don’t know why I necessarily move towards discussing relationships except that most of my poems are narrative in form, and so I’m telling the story of something, and often the story ends up being about relationships.

I was really surprised when Billy Collins picked this book. Most people find Billy Collins very funny, which I think is one of the reasons he’s so popular. People laugh at his jokes and find a lot of joy there. And I expressed my surprise to Ron Wallace, the series editor for the Brittingham prize, and he said, “Are you kidding me? I thought, if your poems weren’t laugh out loud funny, there was a lot of humor and some hilarity in there.” And I was like, “Where was that? I missed that. Where was the hilarity? Point me to it.” Back to the question of the poet’s responsibility or the poet’s place to negotiate pain and joy: I think the poet’s place is to offer both.

L: Well, one of the reasons that I took a lot of these poems as more joyful than perhaps you feel is that there’s a lot of playfulness in the book. That playfulness most stood out to me in your quirky delight in the body, in things that are sensory. In some of the poems this playfulness about the body and physical life is coupled with the speaker’s focus on being seen and being desired. I found that kind of surprising. Given, you know, the text on the back of the book, I was expecting something different.

S: You mean how many times they mention lust on the back cover?

L: Well, yes, yes.

S: That was great. My mom loved that.

L: Well, yes, I imagine. Mothers love that.

But the body stuff is much more complicated than that. Would you comment a little bit about embodiment, desire, sex, physicality. What were you after?

S: I have no idea.

I don’t know that I consciously worked towards expressing quirky delight in the body. I know that… and this can encourage, or threaten, those of you who are in college. Two of these poems were written when I was a senior in college and the rest were written between the time I was twenty-two and twenty-five. That is a chaotic time for any person, but especially for a woman who’s been raised in the evangelical protestant culture, a Christian culture where nobody talks about sex. There is, from a very young age, a strong, strong desire to love and to be loved and to know and be known. And now I know what that is. That is the relationship of the Trinity. That’s the work of the Father and the Spirit and the Son, and their relationship with one another, and that intimacy placed within us, our desire for intimacy and for belonging.

I’m really grateful that you wouldn’t just label it lust. It bothers me that it’s described as lust. I wrote these poems when I was young, but I would say that the same is true now. The body is such a strange thing, the way that it works and doesn’t work, how we choose or don’t choose to follow its impulses, and the way it ages, and the way it works with and against our spirits. And so it wasn’t as if I wrote sex into the book, but I imagined what life would be like as a married person, or as someone who was completely comfortable with the body and completely comfortable with sexuality. A lot of the persona poems give themselves over to that and are written fully from those perspectives.

L: You just mentioned tying together your longing and desire and theological things, but there are also the meditations on illness and mortality and tumors. And even when you’re thinking about what we would call the downside of the body, its tendency to go awry, you don’t seem to be afraid to imagine it really physically. That’s one of the things that I really envy, the frankness of your speaking. The persona poems fascinated me and that, I think, is one of the ways you get more of a range than you often find in a first book of poems. Can you tell us a little bit about how you started doing that?

S: Sure. I often read a poem called “Daughter in the Waiting Room.” I was a senior in college and my roommate’s best friend’s mother had a hole in her skull, and my roommate relayed this to me and was telling me that they were going in to do surgery on her. They were going to cut from ear to ear and peel back her scalp and look at this hole, because they had never seen anything like it. They’d seen cancer, but they’d never seen absence. At that point I was distraught about the surgery and whatever this mysterious illness was. I was just so moved that a girl my age would be going through something like this with her mother, so I sat down and wrote from her perspective.

I think it’s so important that, as Shelley mentioned, poems ask you to put yourself in someone else’s place, to actually visualize yourself in someone else’s place. Sometimes my own life just got a little weary to me, and I wanted to write about more important things. The way for me to do that was to allow my big old sponge of a heart to get sucked into someone else’s situation and try and imagine what it would be like. Such imagination leads to migraines and nightmares, but thankfully this imagination has allowed me, as a poet, to go lots of places and to imagine lots of things, for example, being a mother with breast cancer. I hear stories, and I soak in other people’s experience. I know that God created us with that capacity for sorrow and joy, and so thankfully we’ve been given outlets for those great repositories of sympathy.

L: Sometimes when I was reading Jagged with Love, I was thinking about Donne. Some people separate the Donne who writes love poems and Donne who writes devotional poems, but I see one poet when I’m reading him, and I thought your poems had that kind of sacramental awareness. It seems that the theological undercurrent in Jagged with Love is a kind of tie running beneath the surface of all of the physicality. A lot of the imagery is very sensory, very in the moment, and it seemed to me that it was an interesting mix of thanksgiving, puzzlement, irony, and devotion. Could you say a little bit about your theology, as it was then, and as your journey is taking you now?

S: Sure, sure.

Well, maybe.

You know I came from a Christian school, Indiana Wesleyan, and then was very rudely thrust into the carnivalesque world of grad school. I saw somebody roll a joint for the first time in my life. I had never ever known a homosexual person before. So there were a lot of firsts in grad school and I think – no, I know – that shaped the way I wrote poems. It wasn’t as though I went undercover, I just recognized that I wanted people to get to know me first as Susanna, and then if they did get to know me, they would find out that I had a passionate faith and love for Jesus. Well, they were often very shocked, but then they created space for me to be a Christian and perhaps widened their understanding of what a Christian could be, that perhaps maybe Christians can be thoughtful, or write good work.

After my first reading at Florida State University, during my doctoral program, a guy who was maybe in his fourth or fifth year of doctoral studies came up to me and said, “You have just ruined a theory that I’ve been working on for the last ten years.”

I said, “Oh my goodness, what is that?”

And he said, “That evangelicals don’t make good art.” He was trying to compliment me, but, wow, was it backhanded.

I think I desperately wanted there to be an understanding of God’s goodness in my poetry, and a holiness and beauty not from ourselves, but I don’t know that I wanted to name it and pin it down. I certainly did not want to be known as a Christian poet. And in fact, that’s still something that is confusing and mystifying to me.

I also write short stories, and I ran into Brett Lott, who edits an anthology of the best Christian fiction every year. He said to me, “Oh, send me your stuff.”

Well, first, I don’t think my fiction is good enough to meet Brett Lott’s standards, but second, I met with Scott Cairns and asked him, “Do you think that’s a good move for me?”

He said “I don’t want to tell you what to do.”

So I asked, “What would you do?”

And he answered, “I would not have done that at the beginning of my career. Perhaps now.” I don’t know how old he is, but at least 50, deep into his career, very established at the university where he is, at the University of Missouri at Columbia. He’s deeply respected by writers across the country. He said, “I would do it now, but I don’t think I would do it at your age. Because people immediately will categorize you and make assumptions about you.” So I’m still wrestling with that.

The second thing I want to say is that writing about faith is difficult. It just takes such thoughtfulness to write with freshness about faith. It is way too easy to rely on clichés and the same old metaphors and the same old sort of gestures that you might make. And I can’t yet do it. It’s too powerful a thing. I’ve tried. Actually, the very last poem in the book, “After the Virgin of Vladimir, 12th century, Anonymous,” came out of an assignment I gave myself. I was going to write a poem for every icon that was in Henri Nouwen’s Behold the Beauty of the Lord, where he goes through and looks at the Virgin of Vladimir, Andrei Rublev’s Savior of Zvenigorod, and a couple others that I never wrote about. I didn’t finish the assignment. But writing an ekphrastic poem was a way for me to get at my faith and to sort of wrestle with issues of faith.

The epigram in my new book is from Johnny Cash. He said once, “My arms are too short to box with God.” That’s the epigraph of my new book. So I’m letting it out a little more, and yet I have to say that wrestling with God is fairly fashionable, so I don’t want to stop there. I don’t want to stop with wrestling. I want there also to be in this next book, and in anything else I write, absolute love and joy in His presence, and an understanding of His grace and forgiveness and healing. So I hope that too is in the book. I hope it’s not just wrestling.