An Enchanting Interview with Awarded Poet Susanna Childress

By: Emily Church

Before Susanna Childress’ campus reading on April 6th, I accompanied her for lunch in Whitworth’s dining hall and a discussion about her writing. Knowing that Childress was an awarded, successful writer, based on the research I had conducted before my interview like any good interviewer should do, I was nervous as I waited, in anticipation, for Childress’ arrival with Thom Caraway. She has received an AWP Intro Journals Award, the Nation Career Award in Poetry from the National Society of Arts and Letters, a Lilly post-doctoral fellowship, and her first book, Jagged with Love, was awarded the Brittingham Prize in Poetry. She was everything I wanted to someday be and I couldn’t believe I was getting this opportunity to speak with her.

Susanna Childress is a delightful human being. Once our lunch began, discussion flowed smoothly and, for the first time in weeks, I felt at peace. In our short span of thirty minutes, we covered everything from humor in writing, the magic of public readings, and how different forms call to us at different points in our life.

To feel prepared for my interview, I visited Childress’ website in order to get an idea of her style of writing, since I hadn’t encountered it before. I listened to some audio recordings of Childress’ reading some of her poems and was immediately drawn in. I was amazed by her ability to talk about these difficult, dark subjects while making her audience laugh in the process. When I asked her about the inclusion of humor in her poetry, she told me that while she had thought of herself as a humorous person in her personal life, she had never thought of her writing as humorous until after poet Billy Collins picked her first book to be awarded the Brittingham Prize. She said, “he mentioned how humorous it was and appreciated how there was a lot of whit in it, and I was like what?” It is not in the process of writing, but in the experience of reading her work to the public that finding that humor becomes a priority.  She finds that even though she doesn’t try for humor in the beginning, predicting that if she tried to be funny it would “fall very flat,” she thinks it’s a necessary element for her readers. “I do tend to write about darker subject matter and it seems to me that people are willing to go someplace hard if you’ve invited them into something more humorous…they will cry with you if you make them laugh. If you just make them cry, then they’ll recent you. My goal for every reading to make them laugh before I make them cry.”

Amid our talk about making people laugh and creating time to write in her busy life, she mentioned how she was working on a book of essays with a small independent publisher. I was curious about how her inspiration and process for the essays differed from her process of writing poetry. For Childress, the form of the essay was what she needed in her life right now. She stated how “one of the reasons that I moved to prose was that the circumstances of my personal life required of me a different escape. The way that I was processing the grief and the transition was very dramatic, and in some ways traumatic, and I couldn’t step into the chaos of poetry.” She talked with me about how since she doesn’t typically write narrative poetry, her poetry involves making a lot of leaps and the following of your subconscious. While, in hindsight, she thinks that this process could have ended up being a kind of therapy, it was too much to handle at the time. “The length of the sentence gave me something more restful,” she said. “I felt like the things that were happening in my life were all very connected and I couldn’t make those connections in poetry.” She needed space and a different kind of structure. For me, this discussion highlighted something new about the different forms in writing that I had never thought of before. Sometimes, due to the content of your writing, one form, or genre, may seem safer or more useful than another, even if this new form is different from what you’ve done before. I was amazed and I was inspired.

One piece of advice from Susanna Childress that is pertinent to young writers is the idea that in making time for writing, you will then want to write more. She said we, as students, should be rejoicing in the fact that right now writing is part of required assignments that need to be completed. Through juggling working full time and having small children, Childress understands the importance of those hours that she is able to dedicate each week to write. In creating a discipline for yourself, Childress said, “the discipline feeds the desire. By making time, you’ll want to make more time to write. Building that discipline is difficult, but could be worth it.”

So, keep reading. Keep writing. And go ahead and thank your wonderful English professors for assigning all those essays and workshop pieces. Plus, also thank them for convincing Susanna Childress to come visit our campus.

 

Emily Church (’17) is a graduating senior and the current managing editor of the blog. She is majoring in English Writing, as well as Sociology, with a minor in psychology. She enjoys hiking, discovering new writers, attending AWP, editing, and the prospect of working with juveniles after graduation. 

Pursuing Interest: A Conversation with Dr. Solveig Robinson

By Kristin Bertsch

I hoped that the large cup of coffee in front of me on the lounge table would be a casual excuse for my jitters. I waited for Dr. Robinson to come from her hotel to our little interview room, and every minute past 10:45 was a reassurance that maybe I wouldn’t embarrass myself in this interview. Maybe a department professor had detained her, or maybe she was caught up in preparing for one of her presentations on campus. After two minutes, Dr. Robinson came in, and after introductions shuffled her backpack onto the floor across from mine, and sat tall on the couch opposite me. She cupped her hands in her lap and leaned forward, and we both shifted a little in our seats. Then she gave me earnest eyes and said:

“I’m really glad there aren’t lights and cameras in here. I was so scared. This was the most intimidating thing on my schedule today.”

I was both relieved and amused to know that I was not alone in my anxious anticipation of our conversation. Dr. Robinson had come to Whitworth to give a lecture on her work in publishing and Victorian women’s literature, which culminated most recently in her project on “Victorian Women’s (Publishing) House work: Gender and Cultural Authority in Nineteenth Century Britain.” She had been visiting classes and giving presentation about her areas of expertise. She is an expert in her field, and a highlight of her department at PLU. But sitting across from me talking about the process of research and writing, she was speaking as a student immersed in the thrills and anxieties of a new intellectual pursuit.

“Research is always overwhelming, until something clicks. I try to show my students by example how to channel their own curiosity and interest into materials and topics. It may not be apparent that things connect or even really matter until you approach a topic as a matter of your own interest.”

And Dr. Robinson knows how to explore and make things connect. Her two areas of expertise, the history of the book and Victorian literature, seem to be placed along parallel but separate tracks of English. But during her 36 years in academia, she found a way to intertwine and give direction to both of her academic interests.

“I’m interested in the way books work as a way of giving voices, and how the publishing and print culture works as a way of mediating and curating those voices.”

That sort of intersectionality of interests in something Whitworth English majors recognize and aspire to. Choosing a track and curating a class schedule inevitably means that certain classes are left out, certain projects left undone, certain interests negotiated out of the plan to make room for others. Saying yes to one direction often means saying no to valuable others. And this is something Dr. Robinson sees as a problem for young scholars.

“Among my students, I see this paralyzing fear of specialization. They worry that by choosing to pursue one interest or project, they are forced to give up their curiosity and interest in other things. And that is really counterintuitive to what a liberal arts education is meant to be.”

I asked Dr. Robinson what she saw as being the most valuable asset of a liberal arts education from a university like Whitworth or PLU.

“I knew I wanted to work at a small liberal arts institution because that would be a place where I could explore. The faculty and the students embrace intersecting interests and interaction among projects, and I knew I wanted that freedom.”

Dr. Robinson’s advice for students is to feed as many interests as they can, and to let their interests feed each other.

 

Kristin Bertsch (’17) is a Senior English major at Whitworth. Kristin has studied English abroad in Britain and Ireland, most recently for a semester at Oxford University in spring of 2016. In addition to her studies and contributions to the English Department blog, Kristin works as research assistant to English faculty, as a conference assistant to Communications faculty, and as archiving assistant to Library Director and Art Professor Dr. Amanda Clark. Kristin is an active supporter of local art and theater and a frequenter of Spokane Poetry Slam.