The Whole Megillah (TWM): You’ve been publishing a lot of poetry lately. You mentioned in your books before that you had been a fiction writer before turning to memoir. How and where does poetry fit in?
Sue William Silverman (SWS): Ironically, my MFA degree is in fiction, yet this is the genre in which I’ve published the least. Anyway, I began to write poetry after my second memoir was published. At that time, I simply needed a break both from long-form writing, and from such an intense personal focus. My first poetry collection is Hieroglyphics in Neon.
These new poems I’m publishing are part of a second collection, If the Girl Never Learns. Right now, I’m publishing individual poems but the collection itself, as a whole, has not yet found a home.
The origin of this new collection is, well, strange…almost mystical. One night I dreamed an entire poem. When I woke up, I quickly wrote it down before it faded away. The title of it is If the Girl Never Learns to Cook or Sew. From this one poem, a slew of others evolved, all about this “girl” who is tougher than I am, but also, perhaps, more lost. This poem is published in The Bellingham Review, which published additional poems in this series, including If the Girl Receives a Caress from a Man without Hands.
TWM: Some writers say there’s a close connection between poetry and memoir. What do you think about the connection?
SWS: I agree. While memoirs and personal essays usually have some kind of plot or arc, it frequently isn’t as well defined as that in fiction. There’s room to meander and think on the page in creative nonfiction, much like poetry. More than anything, perhaps, the connection between poetry and memoir is how they both pursue emotion and immediacy. Even book-length memoirs rely upon individual epiphanies, and poems can distill years’ worth of experience into just a few lines.
TWM: Is your process for writing poetry different from your process for writing prose? Please explain.
SWS: The main process is the same in that every morning I wake up and write. It’s different, however, in that I feel much more joy writing poetry than I do prose. There’s something about line breaks, that sense of time travel, and the emphasis on each individual word and image that makes writing poems a joyful experience. I feel this to be true even if the poem itself is dark.
TWM: Which poets inspire you?
SWS: My favorite contemporary poet is Lynda Hull. She’s simply astonishing. She inspires me, actually, whether I’m writing poetry or prose. I also love reading Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich.
TWM: Do you get feedback on your poetry before submitting?
SWS: Yes! My partner, Marc Sheehan, is a wonderful poet and my first reader for everything I write.
TWM: Are you particularly proud of any poem? Why (why not)?
SWS: Not really any one individually. In this new collection, If the Girl Never Learns, I think I just feel close to this unnamed girl…who, as I mentioned, is kind of dark, edgy, and lost.
TWM: Does your reputation as a memoir writer affect your poetry placement at all?
SWS: That’s difficult to say. I have gotten 21 poems from the new collection published individually, so that might lead me to think it doesn’t matter. But I am still trying to publish the whole collection. In any event, we have to write what we have to write! And the writing part itself is more important to me than publication or reputation…though, don’t get me wrong, of course I love to get published!
TWM: Do you have any advice for aspiring poets or for prose writers thinking about writing poetry?
SWS: Do it! Follow your energy and write that which won’t let go of you. And if you’re not sure which form or genre to write, try to listen to the energy of the piece. How does it want to be written? Let the first draft be as strange, scary or uncategorizable as it wants to be. There’s always time in later drafts to smooth out the rough edges — or to make them even edgier!
Links to more of Sue William Silverman’s poems:
About Sue William Silverman
Sue William Silverman is the author of three memoirs. Her newest, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew,” was a finalist in Foreword Reviews’ IndieFab Book of the Year Award. Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You won the AWP award. Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction is also a Lifetime TV original movie. Her craft book is Fearless Confessions: A Writers Guide to Memoir, and her poetry collection is Hieroglyphics in Neon. She teaches in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.