Writing Towards Home: A conversation with Susan Denning
How to Live Forever approaches the everyday in a way that celebrates it without mythologizing it. In these poems, we’re treated to a fresh take on often domestic scenes that veer slightly towards fantastical without crossing a line of no return. It’s a world in which we are allowed to find joy in normal occurrences without forgetting the condition of being human — as Denning writes in “Owl Among the Ruins,” “I am finding it intolerable / to be me but I am excited / for the rain.” It was my pleasure to speak with her about her process and poems.
AMANDA MCCONNON: Where did the idea come from to house all of these poems under the umbrella of How to Live Forever? What does the title mean for this book?
SUSAN DENNING: Well “How to Live Forever” is one of the titles of the poems, and there is another “how to” poem in the book, “How To Forget” – it was originally titled “How to Forget You are Going To Die”, but that seemed too overtly intentional, so I shortened it. I enjoy asserting that you can live forever, when of course, you can’t.
The poems are ones I’d written over the course of a few years, and I grouped them together in a way that made sense. I think I was trying to be a little more direct in these poems than in the previous chapbook, but I’m not sure if that’s the case or not! I think they cohere, but I didn’t have a master plan for the cohesion.
AM: I feel like a drive for freedom is a big force at play in this book. “How to Live Forever” starts with “It’s possible.” What was it like to write a poem that makes such a big claim that’s obviously false? Did it feel different than writing other poems that stick to truer claims?
SD: I don’t think my poems stick to truer claims much. I hadn’t thought about the drive for freedom being part of the poems, but I love that you saw that in them.
I started out wanting to have a series of “how to” poems, although only two of them made it into the book. But I definitely wanted them to be instructions for things that were not really possible. I definitely like to be contradictory in my poems, although sometimes I think it’s become too easy as a “go to” movement for me in a poem – to assert things that are obviously false or tell the reader what to do!
That said, it feels good to give instructions for how to live forever, as though it were something you could follow instructions for. I guess “Assembly Instructions” is in a similar vein.
AM: I’m glad you brought up “Assembly Instructions,” it was one of my favorites. I really loved the way you created a cookie-cutter perfect home but added just enough strangeness to create a palpable tension. What do you think the role of home, in a domestic sense, is in these poems?
SD: I have a strong affinity for the domestic and even the quotidian and it gets into my poems. So home, as a physical places and a mental place in relationship to the rest of the world, is the place I always write out of or towards in a lot of my poems.
AM: How do poems written towards home differ from those that are written out of home?
SD: Well I guess I would say that sometimes the speaker in my poems is situated in a house or a domestic scene, and sometimes the speaker isn’t, but the idea of home exerts a pull or push in the context of the poem. But I wouldn’t say this always happens, and I wouldn’t want to put too fine a point on it because to refer to this as an overarching principle would probably not really hold true – it would probably dissolve under scrutiny. But I am sort of fascinated by scenes where something is a little askew or off balance, and they often are ones that involve people in relation to each other or their families.
AM: In “Morning” you write “They say a dog’s a wolf but I don’t believe it, / a dog’s a wolf like I’m a peasant in a mud hut.” In other poems you imagine what circumstances brought about the present. What do you think poetry’s role is in reconciling the present with history?
SD: Well the nice thing about poetry is it can dip in and out of history, and arrange time whatever way it wants to suit the poem. Poetry can reconcile the present to history in that it can present alternate ways of looking at history or historical events. It can also celebrate the present in the way that the narration of historical events often doesn’t. However, I’ve never felt as a poet that it was my particular role to reconcile the present with past events, at least not on a grand scale.
AM: What did you envision your role was as a poet in creating this book?
SD: Well first I am a poet who writes poems, and I allow myself as much freedom as I can when I am writing poems. My poems usually start for me with a word, a phrase, or an image. The book was created out of a collection of poems I had written, but I didn’t have that book in mind when I wrote most of them. I think the role of the poet on a very simple level is to play with language and create new meaning and resist the received meanings of words when we can. But I don’t really think in terms of “what is my role here?” when I’m writing poems or assembling them into a book. I’m just trying to write the best poems I can at the moment I find myself in.
AM: Did these poems change or take on any unexpected meaning for you when they were assembled together in a book rather than looked at as stand alone pieces?
SD: Taken together, the speaker in these poems seems a little restless and I think there is an urgency that is more noticeable when they’re all assembled together. And ideas of mortality seem to come back a lot, in different variations.
AM: I’m glad you mention that, because I think the way the book deals with mortality is one of the things that really drew me into it. A passage that was really surprising for me was in “How to Forget” where you write “I don’t imagine I’ll be carried up / into the sky. Someone will walk / over me. On the soles of someone’s sneakers, I’ll see the world again. I’ll love it a little harder.” And then in “Hedges” you write “People die when the world, / stops loving them, / when the world has had enough.” How does poetry help you envision these multiple perspectives on big ideas like mortality?
SD: Yes, and the last lines of the book – “Remember me, I said, back when we were alive?/ Those were unkempt days.”
I don’t think I set out to envision multiple perspectives on big questions. (I apologize I seem to keep refusing your questions!) Poetry is one of the ways I have of making sense of the world, and so I guess I sort through things that I’m thinking about or noticing in the process of writing a poem. But I don’t sit down to write poems with an intent to take on any sort of specific tasks. It does seem like a poet has their obsessions that seem to always show up in their poems, although for myself sometimes I wonder if what seem like “obsessions” can really just be habits of thought that I can start to rely on as kind of “go to” moves for content…. So I don’t feel like I’m obsessed with death and mortality, but it does seem to show up in a lot of my poems in this collection, although it was not an initial intent…I don’t think I answered your question.
AM: I think you did! I like the idea that sometimes in poetry multiple perspectives come through because a need to deal with obsessions, or habits of thought, over and over again that’s not necessarily intentional but just human. Is that sort of what you’re saying?
SD: I think that’s a perfect way to say it – multiple perspectives come through as you work through your obsessions.
AM: What have you been working on since the publication of How to Live Forever?
SD: I’ve been working on some nonfiction pieces, and prose poems. I’m interested in trying out different forms, although poetry is my first home.
Find a copy of How To Live Forever here.
SUSAN DENNING’s work has appeared in Filter, New York Quarterly, Quick Fiction and elsewhere. She is the author of She Preferred to Read The Knives and How to Live Forever, both published by Dancing Girl Press. She was born in Southern California but has spent most of her life in Oregon. She earned her Masters in Writing from PSU. She edited the online magazine Caffeine Destiny for 13 years. She lives in Portland, where she teaches writing and works at Literary Arts, a literary nonprofit. Her website is susandenning.com
AMANDA MCCONNON has an MFA in poetry from NYU. Her poetry has appeared in Best New Poets 2014 and others. Favorite books include Bluets, Stag’s Leap, and Life on Mars.