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. 

The Art in Sound, the Sound of Art: Susanna Childress’ Campus Reading

By: Kalani Padilla

Before I talk about Susanna Childress and her poetry, I want to dwell for a moment on the venue.

I still take a lot of (undeserved) pride in the 1.5 semesters I endured as a music major. I sympathize with the struggles of friends now braving upper division theory and ear training classes; I criticize this melodic line or that chord, this translation or that key change; I monopolize the Lantern for long study hours and leave highly-trained musicians to use the lounge just outside the bathrooms. Even before non-music majors, I pretend to qualify as an honorary. After finding out Susanna Childress would be reading in the recital hall, I told people they should “come early,” recalling my own memories of the room being full to overflowing with hosts of loving peers, and hordes of procrastinators (trying to get their last three required recital hours all on one night).

The recital hall is a special place, but when I pushed through the door, I immediately started to prickle with past anxieties. I was remembering all the tears I’ve seen shed— all the tears that I’d shed—in that room as a voice student. Though seeing the room filled with people from my new home department made me feel protected, I also felt like a traitor and a coward. So you’re back, I felt the room say, what are you here for? What are you here as?

And yet, I was given, by Susanna Childress’ performance, the audacity to answer both. Childress’s poems, (and the kind voice with which she gave them) were open invitations to each of us to share in her joy and vulnerability. Her confessional and inquisitive writing compels us to identify with all these jagged notions of love, from the viewpoint of child, father, wife, stranger, daughter. These were poems about the physicality of solitude, the familiarity of strangers, the predictability of intimacy. Poems about learning to embrace that which could cut you. Poems about worlds small enough to cradle like a bird. Poems infused with the laughter and tears that inspired them.

And when she sang, when she sang! I feel like we’re so selfish as audiences, to be projecting our own sorry images onto those brave enough to take the stage. But it happens. I closed my eyes and remembered what it was like to give the gift of my voice without the assurance of it being accepted. Speaking with her after her reading, she laughed when she stated that she wasn’t a trained singer, and I marveled to myself about the journey in-between that, and the stack of fully produced albums to her left. Here was Susanna Childress, boldly demonstrating to us that art is loving the things you’ve created so much that you must share them—even when, and especially when it makes you vulnerable.

This morning I listen to a song cascade from the Lantern’s grand piano down to Main Street, with Childress’s Jagged With Love open on my lap. From here I know the quietude, the turbulent grace, and honest longing of art, and that the sound of the heart is equal parts poetry and song.

Kalani Padilla (’19) is a student of English, Theology, and Film & Visual Narrative at Whitworth University. She is also involved in the music program as a singer and Campus Worship leader. Most of all, Kalani is a proud kama’aina, inspired in all things by the people, culture, and Creator of her home in the state of Hawai’i.

Thursday April 6th: Come to the Susanna Childress Poetry Reading!

Join the Whitworth University English Reading Series in welcoming poet Susanna Childress.

The reading will take place in the Cowles Music Building in the recital hall at 7pm.

Her most recent book, Entering the House of Awe, was publish by New Issues Press, and won the 2012 prize in poetry from the Society of Midland Authors. Her first book, Jagged with Love, was awarded the Brittingham Prize in Poetry from the University of Wisconsin and the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award from the University of Southern Illinois-Carbondale. She has received an AWP Intro Journals Award, the National Career Award in Poetry from the National Society of Arts and Letters, and a Lilly post-doctoral fellowship. She lives in Holland, Michigan.