AN INTERVIEW WITH SUSANNA J. MISHLER
“So much of the day consists of arcs induced
between separate planes—
hand to doorknob, or a trumpet solo
and an ear
pressed to the door.
Which is more beautiful,
The thing vaulting from one side to another
or the dark rift beneath it?”
— from “KNOCK ON WOOD”
— “TERMINATION DUST” — by Susanna J. Mishler
Susanna J. Mishler’s poetry collection, “TERMINATION DUST” (RED HEN PRESS, 2014), casts a wide and well-stitched net over arctic ice fields and southwestern deserts and across abstractions of perspective, identity, geography, and childhood. The broadest scope of “FLYING OVER BUCKLAND, ALASKA” is met by the close-up moment of “WHAT FITS NEATLY IN A HAND,” all with a deft, deserving sense of lyricism and surprise. Language meets landscape, “learn[ing] to dub fall snows termination dust”. This life, the afterlife, and beyond are examined with curiosity and an unsullied, inventive way of seeing.
Susanna J. Mishler – photo credit: Christina A. Barber
Susanna, thank you for agreeing to this interview. I’m so happy for the chance to learn more about “TERMINATION DUST.”
In “WEEKDAY IN SPRING” the human condition is laid bare by way of waxwings and communication, chaos and entropy, Barbie and blueprints. The speaker has ‘the sense of living under a vault, inside one of those snow globes except it isn’t snowing.” Would you tell us about your process of examining nature while tipping human understanding on its side?
“Weekday in Spring” came from a prompt to write a poem about sequencing the human genome. It takes rooms in a house, and houses in a neighborhood, as loose parallels for genes and chromosomes. The poem ended up with themes of information and loneliness—we have the human genome sequenced but we don’t know which genes do—we are inundated by information, yet don’t know what to do with most it or know what most of it means. Which is a little like living in a suburb: I know the street names, but many of my neighbors and their lives are hidden. It’s amazing how isolated one can feel in a suburb during the Information Age. I want to call it a “watershed poem” because the form is stream of consciousness, which pulls from all kinds of sensory input. And so, “Weekday in Spring” is a watershed poem of an Alaskan neighborhood in the 21st century.
The strength of nature is striking in many of your poems, and is present in the form of fauna—from whales, blue sharks, shrews, and Arctic terns to wolves, caribou, vermillion flycatchers, and ravens. They appear in metaphorical form, “bar[ing their] teeth,” in “AFTERLIFE: URSUS ARCTOS;” as image, “running toward us in the summer dusk,” in “CARIBOU;” and in actuality, “at night, walking/on the ceiling,” in ‘WESTERN BANDED GECKOS.”
Observation and perspective are keen in these poems. How do you discover your subjects and decide your focus?
As an undergraduate in Washington State and working on a school project, I spoke with a landscape architect who had worked in Alaska. He said he felt that being in Alaska—even urban Alaska—felt fundamentally different from being almost anywhere else in the nation, because wild lands elsewhere exist as islands in a sea of human endeavor, whereas human settlements in Alaska exist more as islands in a sea of wilderness. Even in Anchorage, one’s sense of place in the order of things, wild and human, is turned inside-out. The presence of wilderness, animals, weather, light/darkness, and season are keen. The solstices may pass unnoticed in San Diego, but in Alaska they’re a big deal—we don’t have such a steady upper hand on our environment. When I write about animals and weather I’m writing about what’s in my daily life, which has elements of both the urban and the wild.
I think, too, that telling stories about animals is one of the oldest human pastimes. We know what it is to be human by contemplating animals. Curiously, when we apply human imagination to animals, we also connect to ourselves as animals.
University Lake, Anchorage, AK with Termination Dust on the Chugach Mountains – photo credit: Susanna Mishler
Would you discuss how content, especially in the poems concerning wildlife, suggests form? For example, how “CARIBOU” includes two sextets followed by two quintets, ending with two quatrains.
Form is a constant question when I compose—often a vexing one. I try to treat each poem as something that has its own kind of volition, as something that has a preferred form, which by listening and experimenting, I help it to achieve. That form could be anything from a sonnet to a lyric essay. A form is the poem’s structure for thinking. I cultivate a variety of ways of thinking—it’s part of why I write poems.
“TERMINATION DUST” as a collection reflects this taste for variety in form and in subject. It ranges from unrhymed couplets to a ghazal; a prose poem to short-lined tercets; roving, single-stanza meditations to short, syllabic lines with fictional characters. I wanted to make a robust collection, one that has themes and obsessions but does not simply feel like different incantations of the same poem. A poem should surprise a reader in some way, as the reader moves through it. So, too, should a book of poems.
“CARIBOU” proceeds from sextets to quintets to quatrains as it moves from an outwardly descriptive poem to a more internal lyric. Shorter stanzas mean more caesuras, giving the poem’s progressively internal content more space. In this case, it has the effect of slowing the poem down, and gives extra room for reflection on the action in the first two stanzas.
“Silas digs a motocross pit in his backyard
for Hot Wheels. The sun on his back and the humid earth
are like Hell, he thinks. Silas knows about Hell
from two Sundays in church with his friend, Jesse—
Hell is uncomfortably warm. He knows, even,
that Hell is capitalized and so is Lord
because they are proper nouns like
Tennessee and Ferrari—things
you can touch or be inside of. People
are a special category, but he’s not sure
if people are special things or special places.
He feels like he’s inside himself, mostly, but
he could walk to the edge of town
and be a different place and maybe
a different thing.”
— from “REVELATION” – “TERMINATION DUST” – by Susanna J. Mishler
Some of the pieces in “TERMINATION DUST” are about a young boy named Silas. “REST STOP, WILDLIFE VIEWING,” “ASSURANCE,” “REVELATION,” “THE IMAGINATION AS A HEDGEHOG,” AND “THOUGHT POLICE” reveal this child from close third viewpoint and at times as if from the perspective of an older sibling. There is a sensibility concerning family and siblings, identity and discovery and loss, possibility and fear in these poems. How did Silas come to you? What did you realize in creating his character?
“Thought Police” was the first poem in which Silas appeared. He’s a mysterious boy. It was challenging to write both convincingly and compellingly from a child’s perspective. He brings another distinct voice and perspective to the book. His poems are woven through the five parts. Silas’s voice brings a kind of vulnerability and a kind of thinking to a subject that an adult character can’t. In trying to make sense of the world, a child’s logic can go surprising places for an adult audience. It was tricky to conjure that kind of logic without either making a parody of it or making it seem merely quaint or nostalgic. Kids are trying to understand the adult world around them with limited information—they draw lines between things that seem unrelated in the adult world—and this is a legitimate way for a poem to move. Through simple, direct association, to see where it goes and how it lands, like a monkey brachiating from one branch to another.
“TERMINATION DUST” – by Susanna J. Mishler – Cover Image: “STORM BIRDS” – by Christina A. Barber
Bobbin, weathervane, or flip-flops in paradise?
Flip-flops in paradise, of course! The bobbin and weathervane are sunning themselves in adjacent chairs.
As an electrician by trade, do you find inspiration in the workings hidden behind walls, pathways that others take for granted and rarely know?
I think it’s interesting that writers use the language of craft to describe what we do. Visual artists have “studios” and “critiques;” whereas, writers have “workshops.” We are wordsmiths who talk about crafting things as if we’re constructing a three-dimensional object. William Carlos Williams famously said that a poem is a machine. If we’ve created this kind of language for ourselves, maybe it’s not so surprising that a poet would also feel drawn to work with her hands, to build systems and machines.
The hidden aspect of the work of an electrician also has similarities to the crafting of a poem. As an electrician, I had to learn the aesthetics of the industry. For electrical installations to look professional, they should be unobtrusive. A conduit run, for example, should not be irregular with regards to its surrounding lines, and it should appear uniform and deliberate. It needs to appear deft and effortless. This is an aesthetic I recognize from crafting poems. A poem should be an experience that does not draw unnecessary attention to its craft, just as a room should not draw unnecessary attention to its electrical system.
“The mind flaps between
shade and glass,
tangles in drawcords,
gnaws thirstily at
ice on the sill.”
— from “(1/5) JANUARY CROSSING” – “TERMINATION DUST”
– by Susanna J. Mishler
“JANUARY CROSSING,” a stunning series poem, is a log of January contemplations. Winter, the arctic, the General, the girl, love, death, enclosed spaces, endless spaces, anatomy, identity (confused, mirrored, unknown), shapes, ice and snow, waking, and memory are revealed in its twelve sections. You’ve paid tribute to Anne Carson’s “BEAUTY OF THE HUSBAND” in this comprehensive, thoughtful piece. How did this series come to you and then evolve?
Years ago I swapped a much earlier version of “TERMINATION DUST” with a manuscript by poet and friend Melissa Koosmann (part of which became the chapbook “ENDINGS,” published by Flying Guillotine Press in 2008). I had Melissa’s poetic voice in my head when I wrote “JANUARY CROSSING.” In her manuscript she was working in short, terse lines, packed with layered meaning and dry humor. I was also looking to tie together some of the many themes in “TERMINATION DUST” in a longer piece. I’d never written a poem more than three pages before and was curious to see how that feels, what opportunities it presents. January and February are long months in Alaska when the cold weather and darkness take on the tedium of a military occupation. It can be a very introspective time, when one sifts through memories and examines events with an edge of cabin fever. A long poem consisting of fragmented recollections and meditations seemed like a good formal fit for the subject and state of mind it attempts to render.
In subzero weather, all animal life feels borrowed. I appropriated Anne Carson’s line, “To stay human is to break a limitation,” from a tortured love poem. The context of her line implies that a hidden, internal limitation is overcome, an emotional one. I mean it more as an external limitation—a marvel that we don’t freeze or starve or lose all shreds of civil society.
“The days are bigger—I wake and am falling
inside them. The cups and clocks open their eyes and are falling.”
— from “LAKE CABIN” – “TERMINATION DUST” – by Susanna J. Mishler
Influenced by Li-Young Lee’s “SEVEN HAPPY ENDINGS,” you wrote your poem, “LAKE CABIN.” The idea of psychic and emotional spaces, as well as enclosed and anatomical spaces, is beautifully imagined here. Do you find that poetry aligned with the natural world is your best inspiration? Tell a little more of your process and what this holds for your literary future.
Sometimes I can’t get a good line or stanza of poetry out of my head. That’s how it was with Li-Young Lee’s “Seven Happy Endings.” I kept thinking about how it would be to open my eyes and find objects around me falling, and for the objects themselves to know they are falling. This image was the seed of “Lake Cabin.” The word, “falling,” became the refrain in a ghazal about falling out of love (Lee’s is about falling in love).
It was since pointed out to me that “Lake Cabin” can be read both ways—as a poem about falling in or out of love—and I like that discovery. That the poem has a flexibility of meaning, yet also has specific sensory details.
The seeds of poems come to me in all kinds of ways. While “Lake Cabin” came from a published poem I admire, I recently wrote a poem inspired by a RadioLab broadcast. Sometimes an image from a dream will stick with me and that will be a seed, or an encounter at work. Finding the subject or seed of a poem makes me think of water-dowsing—as a poet I walk around with my dowsing rod and when the rod inexplicably plunges toward the earth, that’s where I dig for water/poetry. Why does the rod dip where it dips? What force grabs and pulls it? How does the seed of a poem announce itself to the poet? I have no idea—I’ve only learned to feel it, follow it, craft it, and anyway, if I did know it might not be good for the poem. The following comes from a figuring-out, a pursuit and discovery, the suggestion of a mystery or of something much larger than it appears.
Susanna J. Mishler – Photo Credit: Clark James Mishler
Susanna J. Mishler’s poems have appeared in numerous journals, such as THE IOWA REVIEW, MID-AMERICAN REVIEW, and KENYON REVIEW ONLINE. She holds an MFA in Poetry from The University of Arizona in Tucson, where she served as a poetry editor for SONORA REVIEW. She’s the recipient of a Peter Taylor Fellowship in Poetry at the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop. In addition to her literary pursuits, Susanna is an electrician by trade. She lives and works in Anchorage, Alaska.
All photos permission of Susanna J. Mishler. Credits to Christina A. Barber, Susanna J. Mishler, and Clark James Mishler.
The Poppy: An Interview Series
Four to six questions begin as pods, then burst open with answers, bright lapis,
black-stamened, conspicuous—ornament, remembrance, opiate.
First posted in the Arts section of Hothouse Magazine.