The Colorado Poet, Issue #31, Spring 2022

An Interview with Susan Tichy on thedemands and ecstasies of North|Rock|Edge: Shetland 2017/2019 (Parlor Press 2022)

Susan Tichy received an MA from the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 1979. Now a Professor Emerita of George Mason University where she taught in its MFA/BFA programs, Tichy has published seven highly regarded poetry collections and garnered a long list of accolades and awards including the National Poetry Series, National Endowment for the Arts Individual Fellowship, and the Pushcart Prize.

KW: I’m going to start with something Naomi Shihab Nye said in The New York Times Magazine about Fran Claggett-Holland’s poem, “On Taking the Measure of Your Book”: " [R]eading is experienced as a supple activity, an actual posture as one moves to engage with textual experience. It’s a physical revelation as well as a landscape — not just a passive stare.” North| Rock |Edge  certainly is not a “passive stare.” I found that reading it demands a constant physical movement between poems, the glossary of Shetlandic words, and the substantial Notes, a text in themselves, which provide references to “borrowed language,” often “cored” from other poetry texts, and detailed geologic and geographic landmarks. This constant rupture to the act of reading I would call no accident. Will you talk a bit about the decisions you made in the over-all shaping of this book and why?

ST: These seem like two questions—one about the endnotes and glossary, another about the use of borrowed language and the practice of coring through others’ poems—united by the idea of a ruptured text. Rupture provides a geological correlative if a reader is surprised by or interested in events of collision and inclusion left visible in the poems’ surfaces in the form of pulled language or other shifts of register and diction.

I love coring—reading / vertically / what had been laid down / horizontally—as a way of sampling a poet’s diction, as well as both alluding to and departing from the whole of the source poem. Though I’ve not always used the geological term, I’ve practiced this off and on for more than twenty years, along with other collage practices. With or without pulled text, collage builds forward momentum through juxtaposition, linking and shifting, which puts all the poems’ material—somatic, sensory, intellectual, linguistic—on equal footing. It allows images to become a way of thinking, while keeping thought and memory tactile, encoded in sound. This is not just logopoeia, the play of words; it’s the bodied aspect of poetry, where sound and rhythm make meaning.

I use endnotes to free the poems from carrying background or explanation. Often, my subjects are unfamiliar to most readers, and I have grown more and more reluctant to piece exposition into the poems. I think of the notes as a platform, allowing both poems and readers to move more freely. Some readers do as you did—shifting constantly between poems and notes—while others prefer to read the poems qua poems before adding information from the notes into their reading experience.

Because this book is highly lyrical and shaped by embodied movement—the demands and ecstasies of walking Shetland’s coasts—there was no place within their short lines for facts like the number of islands or the influence of Norn on modern Shetlandic. Yet I am a person who wants to know such things. My poetic practice is both nested and nesting, in Gaston Bachelard’s sense in The Poetics of Space, and I could not imagine the poems standing in isolation, free of the environment of research and language that surrounds and creates them.

KW: If I may quote a now debunked medieval mapmaker’s phrase, from the start your book warns the unwary reader that “Here Be Dragons.” These poems are not our grandmothers' traditional verse nor our daughters' Tumblr poetry. The title of your book itself, North| Rock |Edge , does not allow the reader to luxuriate in ready singular meaning. What the reader wants to read holistically is broken into substrata. And, yet, the subtitle of the book acts as a dichotomy, naming known place and time. Another “dragon” for the unwary?  The second epigraph of the book, which comes from poet and scholar Susan Howe, who has been closely associated with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. Can you talk about the influences on your poetry, which seem to have ricocheted it out of the traditional lyric poem and even the modern poem?

ST: I like that image—my poems ricocheting like rocks out of their places of origin. In some ways, the subtitle functions as the notes do—to provide the ground. It might also attract the eye of a book browser with an interest in Shetland, (the BBC series having enlarged that cohort). Susan Howe is one of my central influences, for her interests in language, history, and sound. Her classification as a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet has always seemed to me to spring from the years when poets practicing any kind of linguistically investigative poetics were equally spurned by mainstream publishers and critics, and cleaved to each other for community. She certainly is interested in many things the true L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets are not. One of those things is lyric, including the mouth-feel and pleasure of language. Another is admission of a personal, even autobiographical, investment in the origins of her texts. Over all hangs an almost mystical connection between language and the silences of history, a history in which real things happen and real people die, and from which real sounds escape. Howe was the enabling force behind my mixed-form book, Trafficke, an investigation of my maternal family history from Reformation Scotland to the abolition of slavery in Maryland. In North|Rock|Edge I carry only small shards, in three poems, mostly lines that had another origin before Howe used them—much as a rock may have multiple components and a complicated, yet readable, history. My other indispensables are an eclectic bunch: Marianne Moore, Lorine Niedecker, Emily Dickinson, George Oppen, and Brian Teare (all of whom appear in NRE), as well as Czeslaw Milosz, Gary Snyder in the early books, and the Scottish writers/artists Alec Finlay and Thomas A. Clark. I read a lot of prose for each project, and though I usually pull language from those sources, in this book I decided to travel light, carrying only small fragments of poems.

KW: Clearly, you do not want to centralize the Romantic Self of the speaker/poet in these poems. For instance, the common moniker for the speaker in these poems is the synecdoche that identifies the speaker as “boot”: for instance, “boot reports each wave/arriving.”  Yet, I’m going to argue, though I might simply be the reader caught up in the paradigm of language poetry and forced to become “player[s]” who creates meaning too, that there is a very visceral, deeply emotional journey here, starting with the dedication of your book: for Peggy/north was here.  The sense of emotional intimacy continues with the first lines of the book: :  “if you can, haul-to within/the terms of anguish: this rough coast a gate not map, no compass rose.” By the end of the book, the nonhuman “boot,” signifier for the speaker, expands to the flesh of the human: “knee,” “eye,” “brain & spine,” “no limit of skin.” The culminating lines of the last poem suggest the intimacy of vulnerability: “the moment quivers” and serve as a moment of resolution, contradictory as that may be, given the nature of rock as we have always assigned it: “& the hand on rock// takes what rock //takes// & what it gives.” Am I in La La Land or does your poem make room for the personal story? How do the layers of your poem, then, for you,  transpose, transmute, and discover that story?

ST: Yes! To me this book feels extremely intimate. My experience of Shetland’s coasts is intense and concentrated in my body. Walking alone turns the mind inward even as both body and “self” lose their edges, diffuse into the energies of sea, rock, waves, wind, light, and what’s underfoot. I wanted readers to sense the inwardness but keep looking and feeling outward, as I did. The grammatical “I” seemed unnecessary, even inaccurate, for that experience. (It appears just once, in a quote from George Oppen.) I can see how you would read boot as my signifier, but to me it is one of my walking companions, along with my pack and stick, which accompany me as a medieval knight is accompanied by horse, hawk, and hound.

And rock? —oh rock! Hold one in your hand and read how it came to be, how it is still changing, how it absorbs and transfers and is altered by forces as gentle as water or as violent as the gigantic volcanic eruption still readable in the coast of Eshaness. In geological displacements, deep time is visible, indistinguishable from environment. Awareness of what I am actually walking on, and through, has radically altered my sense of place, making place feel far more temporary, contingent, and unstable than its usual meanings imply: less a fixed location than an intersection of forces that I happen to encounter (and take part in) during my brief time on earth and briefer time as walker through a landscape. Tim Ingold has defined place as “a knot tied from multiple and interlocked strands of movement,” and one of those strands is the movement of rock. A body, too, is a “place of existence” (in Jean-Luc Nancy’s phrase), creating both a there and a here through which we perceive and encounter the world…hence the need to move, to walk as an act of perception, and the intimacy I feel with Shetland’s extraordinary—and extraordinarily visible—geology.

When “boot reports each wave / arriving,” it reports upward through my body a literal sensation of rock registering wave’s impact…which means, ultimately, impact from winds, near or far, that created the waves, sending energy from “air-to-water-to-rock-to-bone.” As a reader you are invited/advised to take part in that intimacy as you enter the book: “Arriving, Stand Still / if you can,” and, within the “terms of anguish” we all bring with us, stand open to where you are. I don’t think I noticed the blazon-like scattering of my body parts in the book’s last poems until I had written and assembled them. I was conscious of an ecstatic embrace of the body’s “valiant matter” and “ecstatic vertical solitude” within the immortality of “matter itself.” Another poem, “Skaw Beach | A Turbidite” picks up the “vertigo” of mortality and of time on a human scale, with “duration a figure / for grief, grief / a figure for matter / itself,” and the final poems reply to that without repudiating it. In an earlier book, Bone Pagoda, I exploited the fragmenting conventions of the blazon in relation to war, so it’s interesting to catch myself in a similar scattering, this time unified not by a male gaze but by my own somatic experience, in which wholeness is felt from within rather than seen.

KW: North|Rock|Edge has just come out from Parlor Press, a stand-out book and a stand-out literary press . What’s next for you?

ST: My last four books were done by Janet Holmes at Ahsahta Press. It was hard losing Ahsahta, when Boise State shut it down, and I am brimming with gratitude to Jon Thompson and David Blakesley for giving North| Rock|Edge such an excellent home at Parlor Press. But what’s next? That’s a good question. North|Rock|Edge was meant to be the first of a two- or three-part project sited in Shetland, the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and possibly Newfoundland, linked by North Atlantic ocean currents and radically different expressions of the word island. The pandemic shattered that plan, but I haven’t given up on it. I’m a project-driven writer, I’m afraid—no cure for that. So, while waiting for a chance to resume I’ve mostly been working on my research into enslavement patterns in Maryland and the family trees of some who were enslaved there. I’ve also edited someone else’s book, J.R. Rothstein’s The Alabama Black McGruders, the history of a family with roots in Maryland, and to whom I am distantly related. It’s in the beta stage now, almost ready for distribution.

Recent Susan Tichy poems online: