One-on-One with Visiting Writer Susan Briante
December 8, 2016, by Melanie Brkich
Last month, Susan Briante visited Houston as featured guest of the Gulf Coast Reading Series. Her most recent book, The Market Wonders (Ahsahta Press), was a finalist for the National Poetry Series. She is also the author of the poetry collections Pioneers in the Study of Motion and Utopia Minus (an Academy of American Poets Notable Book of 2011). A translator, she lived in Mexico City from 1992-1997 and worked for the magazines Artes de México and Mandorla. Briante has received grants and awards from the Atlantic Monthly, the MacDowell Colony, the Academy of American Poets, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Fundand the US-Mexico Fund for Culture. She is an associate professor of creative writing and literature at the University of Arizona. Read on for our exclusive interview following her visit.
- Your new collection of poems, The Market Wonders, personifies the economic structure we live by and philosophizes its existence. Can you talk a little bit about how the concept for the book was born and why you felt compelled to write it?
As the financial crisis began to take hold, the endless crisis from which many of us have never felt relief, I began to notice the dissonance between how that crisis was reported and how it was experienced. Stock market indices are described as if they were the most important measures of our national health. That’s not necessary. The way we prioritize the strength of our financial markets over everything else is dangerous to the values of this country.
The Market Wonders reflects that market obsession by turning the market into a lyric obsession. Media descriptions of stock market indices constantly personify the market. The market doesn’t just rise and fall. It worries. It rallies. It gets jitters. I wrote poems in which I turned The Market in to a character, a somewhat bumbling, aging baby boomer. I wrote procedural poems in which the daily closing number of the Dow Jones Industrial Average became my muse: I would plug the number into various on-line search engines, letting the number generate some text or information that I would then weave into a poem written for that day. I wrote a poem that runs like a stock ticker on the bottom of the book’s pages. I wrote essayistic reflections on the market’s intersections with poetry and parenting.
I wrote poems in which I turned The Market in to a character, a somewhat bumbling, aging baby boomer
Literary scholar and affect theorist, Lauren Berlant writes about how important literature can be in tracking the everyday crisis produced by the erosion of the social safety net, stagnant wages, and what she terms the fantasies of “upward mobility, job security, political and social equality.” In that spirit, I hope my book serves as counter narrative to some of the more dominant financial narratives of the past few years. It’s not meant to be representative of some universal perspective; it provides one example of lived experience and reflection on that experience since the dawn of the financial crisis.
- You worked with our beloved UH faculty member Roberto Tejada on the journal Mandorla when you lived in Mexico City–what was it like working with him and living there? Does translation remain a big part of your work?
I feel incredibly grateful to have had the chance to work in Mexico City in the 1990s and to work with Roberto. The passage of NAFTA and subsequent Peso Crisis were foundational to my understanding of the brutality of global capitalism. When you experience a national currency devaluation as we did in Mexico in 1994, you begin to understand the fragility of system. At the same time, I was witness to an incredible cultural scene in terms of the work of Mexican writers and artists being made at the time.
Of course, the opportunity to work with Roberto was equally foundational to my development as a translator and poet. He opened up the world of transnational experimental aesthetics for me. He taught me how to be a translator, editor, poet and scholar. He’s been a mentor for me in so many ways. I can think of few people in the poetry community as intelligent or generous. He continues to have a profound influence on my work both on and beyond the page. You are very fortunate to have him as part of your community.
- As someone who has lived a lot of different places, how does your environment influence your writing? Is there a place where you feel most at home?
Place shapes our lived experiences. Most of my poetry reflects the ways in which our environment is also a storehouse of our histories. You can learn a lot about a place by paying attention to what remains recorded on a landscape, through traditional and informal memorials, as well as what is erased. In my second book of poems, Utopia Minus, I wanting to document and understand the overlooked sites of the American landscape—from abandoned factories in New Jersey (where I grew up) to half-constructed corporate headquarters in Austin. In doing so, I feel like I became less blind to the legacies of social and economic inequalities and violence that undercut our history.
You can learn a lot about a place by paying attention to what remains recorded on a landscape, through traditional and informal memorials, as well as what is erased.
I’ve only lived in Tucson for three years. I remain a student of Tucson’s history and geography (It’s the first time I lived in a desert for an extended period of time.) Despite the newness of the place for me, it feels like home because of the tremendous community of artists and writers who live here. I work with an amazing group of colleagues in the MFA program at the University of Arizona. The UA Poetry Center is a unique resource and venue for poetry. Because of their robust reading series, I’ve met writers I admire from all over the country. And Tucson is home to many writers beyond the university whose work and friendship mean a great deal to me Sam Ace, TC Tolbert, Brian Blanchfield, Wendy Burk… just to name a few.
- What was the highlight of your visit to Houston?
Coming to Houston the day after the presidential election shaped the visit for me in so many ways. Many of the people I know and love feel very vulnerable right now. So it was amazing to meet students—both through one-on-one conferences and at the Gulf Coast reading—and to get a sense of the strength and support of your community. The systems under which we live as well as the places we inhabit shape so much of our experience, but our communities have the potential to provide solace and power. It was wonderful and inspiring to me to get a glimpse of the writing community in Houston.
- Why do we need poetry right now?
We always need poetry because it’s a venue for some of our boldest thinking and fiercest imagining. The Oxford Dictionary named “Post-Truth” the “word of the year,” and many believe (as I do) that the phenomenon shaped the outcome of the presidential election. Poetry is invested in Truth, not some exclusionary universal ideal of truth, but truth as a record of how people actually live and feel. Poetry can do the work of documenting the world as it is, of returning meaning to a language that’s been decimated by politics and economics. Poetry can activate compassion and provide a place of refuge as well as a place to imagine new possibilities.
Poetry is invested in Truth, not some exclusionary universal ideal of truth, but truth as a record of how people actually live and feel.
Still, poetry is not enough. All of us will have to learn to work beyond the page, following the example of a writer like Muriel Rukeyser, who was arrested when she was 19 at the trial of the “Scottsboro Boys” (nine black youth falsely accused of raping two white women) and was a reporter in Barcelona during the early days of the Spanish Civil War.
In an untitled poem that begins “I lived in the first century of world wars./Most mornings I would be more or less insane,” Rukeyser lays out the job of the poet in the face of terror, violence and the “careless stories” of the news media. She writes: “We would try by any means/To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves/To let go the means, to wake.” I can’t think of a more fitting description for the work that lays before us today.