Featured Author: Suzanne Highland
Why do you write? What purpose does writing serve for you currently?
The short answer to this question is “to understand.” For me, writing poetry—which also includes reading poetry—is a process of searching for new entryways by which I can enter experience. It’s easy to boil “being human" down to a series of platitudes about love and death and purpose and the self, but it’s much more difficult, for me, to understand my unique relationship to love and death and purpose and the self without poetry as my avenue. I ache for the moment, either in my own work or in the work of another, when I feel, suddenly, “That is exactly the way that that is.” And it’s never when the experience is articulated in ways that have been articulated before. My favorite recent example of this is from Matthew Zapruder’s poem “Poem without Intimacy”—“and then I passed a entire row of plastic flowers / and wanted to be the sort of person / who bought them all / but really I am a runway covered in grass / and all I truly love is sleep”. Like—yes. Exactly.
There’s a second, less self-centered part of this answer, too, which is that, because a poem is an experience, rather than a plot, rather than a punchline, rather than an anecdote, its purpose is to reveal the "mind in action," to use Bishop’s words. In this way, poetry serves a sociopolitical purpose, as well—it engenders compassion and empathy because it reveals us to one another. I’ve never felt poetry’s necessity more strongly than I do right now. I think about family members I have who harbor, for example, prejudice against Muslim Americans, and for most of them, it’s because they’ve never actually met a Muslim American. Short of actual physical interaction, short of actual personal love, poetry is, I think, the most direct avenue to greet someone's humanity head on.
How do you usually start a poem, story, etc?
Typically, a description of something—an image, an event, an encounter with someone—will come through my head as a single line, sometimes just a few words, and I tend to go from there. These lines are rarely good, but eventually, ideally, the poem works its way out of them. Or I yank it out. Or I hide from it for awhile and hope I get braver.
How do you know when a piece is finished?
What writers/artists are influencing you right now?
Oh, man, what a good question. And always so hard for me to answer—kind of like being asked to name all the states and knowing you’ll miss some. I recently saw the film “Moonlight” and I’ve been running those images through my head continuously—a former professor of mine, and Susan’s, Donna Masini, really gave me an appreciation for the connection between film and poetry… I’ve been reading a lot of Ari Banias’s “Anybody;” he handles the slipperiness of leaps in a way I really aspire to; Max Ritvo’s “Four Reincarnations” is a worlds-straddling, gorgeous experience that I’m openly trying to mirror in ways in my own work; Solmaz Sharif’s “Look,” required reading for an even minimal understanding of today’s world; Joshua Bennett’s most recent book, “The Sobbing School,” especially its first poem, in my opinion, is phenomenal. And, as always, a lot of Adrienne Rich, Larry Levis, some James Wright and Lorca. And friends. Rennie Ament, Jen Levitt, Lauren Clark. It’s really fucking cool when you get to learn from and boast about people you like.
What do you want people to know about your work?
I’m not sure I have a good answer to this question. Nothing, outside of what they get from the poems themselves, I don’t think. There are definitely certain things I want people to get out of the poems themselves—an internal sense of recognition, maybe—but whatever that looks like to them, I can only hope it feels true. If I can accomplish that, then they’ll know all I really intended anyone to know.
What question do you wish I asked you?
Ha! These were good ones. When I read interviews with other poets, I always want to know more about what they do “outside” of poetry, so maybe that. I teach, both at CUNY and in a program for public high school students; public education, specifically its role—and its possible role, more importantly—in advancing social and economic justice, is deeply important to me. Especially given our so-called president-elect’s choice for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, who wants to completely gut equitable educational opportunities more than they’ve already been gutted, which is already a lot, I always want a chance to express that, and how important unions are, and how important adjuncts are, and how young people, their imagination and ideas, are so, so important.