A Virtual Interview with Susan Rooke

Poet Susan Rooke will be the featured reader on Thursday, May 14, 2015 from 7:15 to 9:00 at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) for May’s 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic.


Susan Rooke writes poetry and fiction, and has had dozens of mainstream and fantasy poems published in both print and online publications.  Most recently her work has appeared in Concho River Review, Naugatuck River Review, Red Weather, Kentucky Review, The Avalon Literary Review, inkscrawl, and the anthologies Pushing the Envelope: Epistolary Poems (ed. Jonas Zdanys, Lamar University Press 2015), and Twice Upon a Time (Kind of a Hurricane Press 2015).

A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a Best of the Net nominee, her poem “All Hallows” (which first appeared in Melancholy Hyperbole) was featured for Halloween on “Freshly Pressed” (WordPress.com). Her writing career began much longer ago than she would care to admit with a contest-winning fantasy short story in The Twilight Zone Magazine. She hopes to publish her fantasy novel The Space Between in the coming year.

The Interview

CH: What was your first inspiration to write poetry? When did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer?

SR: My older brother Bob induced me to read Shakespeare’s Macbeth when I was pretty young—7 or 8.  He thought I would enjoy all the paranormal aspects, especially the three witches.  Reading that play was huge for me.  There was great rhythm and rhyme plus deliciously creepy atmosphere.  I learned all the witches’ lines by heart and chanted them in portentous tones at odd moments.  I took to wearing a black hooded cloak with black plastic toads stitched to it and skulked from room to room, peering around doorframes.  Around this time I read Poe’s “The Raven” too.  I began writing poetry, and also wrote my first short story.  Unsurprisingly, it was a spooky-house-at-the-end-of-the-lane type of story.  But actually thinking of myself as a writer?  Believing in that identity?  That didn’t happen until a couple of years ago.  Despite a lucky publication history it’s taken me a long time to own it.

CH: It has been said that the work of each poet is infused with that poet’s obsessions and preoccupations. What are the obsessions of your work? What themes or images do you find yourself frequently exploring?

SR: I guess the fear of darkness, both literal and metaphorical, is at the heart of much of my work.  But that fear manifests in lots of ways.  My obsession with it ranges from death/illness to what I hear in the night to observing what happens as my husband and I grow older together.  For me, perhaps the most frightening darkness of all is represented by the question “What lies ahead?”

CH: In your bio, you mention that your writing career began with a contest-winning fantasy short story in The Twilight Zone Magazine, and that you have a fantasy novel, The Space Between, that you hope to publish soon. How does your poetry relate to your interest in fantasy?

SR: I think my interest in fantasy was the genesis of all of my writing, whether fiction or poetry.  The poetry I write falls into several broad categories.  Speculative/fantasy, memoir (whether real or imagined) and observations of nature are the primary ones.  But there is plenty of overlap.  I think somewhere at the foundation of each of my poems is a brick of speculation.  At least one.  Sometimes quite a lot more.  And sometimes a poem is just out-and-out fantasy.  For instance, one that’s coming out soon (in an anthology from Kind of a Hurricane Press) is called “The Queen’s Confiteor.”  It’s Snow White’s story told from the POV of her mother (the woman who in later versions of the tale morphed into her stepmother).

CH: How would you describe yourself as a writer? Do you see yourself primarily as a fiction writer or poet? Do either of those labels fit?

SR: I’ve never been able to decide the answer to that.  It seems to depend on what I’m working on at the moment, and how well or badly it’s going.  If fiction, and it’s going well, I give myself a congratulatory pat on the back for being such an awesome writer of fiction.  (Please note this is vastly different from being “a writer of awesome fiction.”)  If it’s going badly I ask myself why I’m attempting fiction when I’m really a poet.  And of course the same things happen when I transition to writing poetry.  Until I get my novel published it’s probably easier for me to see myself as a poet because I have more recent publication successes with that.  It’s the discipline that’s done more for me lately.

CH: I have long admired the craft of your poetry, and your Pushcart Prize nominations and Best of the Net designation bear witness to its strength. How would you describe your journey to deepen your craft as a poet?

SR: Thank you for those kind words, Cindy!  The journey to deepen my craft just boils down to this:  I get older; I write.  Practice is important for cultivating any skill, and writing is no different.  Aging is important for the cultivation of experience.  Between the writing and the aging, I make the occasional observation that serves my work

CH: Who are your literary influences in poetry and fiction? Your favorite writers/books?

SR: This may sound odd, but aside from early influences I’ve already mentioned, some of my most valued ones for fiction have been cartoons and comic books.  I still turn to them today, because I can always rely on them to take me somewhere magical, which is my preferred state of being.  My mother had several books of Charles Addams cartoons when I was a child.  Now that she’s gone, I have them.  I discovered Edward Gorey back in the early 1960s and he remains a huge favorite!  Also there are the fantastical and marvelous Carl Barks Scrooge McDuck comic books, Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle books, E. Nesbit’s Bastable children series, The Chronicles of Narnia from C.S. Lewis . . . I could go on and on.  Turning from my childhood favorites there’s Susanna Clarke’s amazing Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.  It’s her first novel, for heaven’s sake, which is very annoying of her.  Neil Gaiman can write great spec fiction all day long with one hand tied behind his back.  J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which I first read in high school, is still very important to me.  And Ray Harryhausen’s special-effects monsters in the movies will always occupy a special place in my heart!

My taste in poetry is maybe a little more mature (I hope!).  In no real order I take particular pleasure in reading Jane Kenyon, Bruce Bond, Sharon Olds, Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, Tomas Tranströmer, Seamus Heaney, Naomi Shihab Nye and Louis Jenkins (his prose poems are so wonderful, the very definition of prose poetry for me).  I turn to collections and anthologies most often because I like to sample the work of lots of different poets.  The Best American Poetry series is an especially good way for me to keep abreast of what’s current here, even though the poems bear zero resemblance to what I’m writing.  My favorite anthology of the past several years, though, has been Staying Alive, edited by Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books.  It’s perfect for repeated readings, and many of the poems in it serve as triggers for my own.

CH: What similarities do you see (if any) in the poems that have been Pushcart-nominated?

SR: You know, my first impulse was to say I don’t really see any similarities among them.  Two of them arose from experiences in West Texas, one from what goes on in a suburban back yard.  Two are stylistically more elaborate, one has what I’d like to believe is a deceptive simplicity.  But now I realize they do share something fundamental in common.  They’re written from the viewpoint of someone observing the natural world through a dark lens.

CH: What projects are you working on now? What do you see on the horizon after The Space Between?

SR: I see a lot of confusion and inner struggle.  The first draft of the sequel to The Space Between is already on paper.  I started revising it earlier this year, with an eye to having it completed when TSB eventually gets the nod from a publisher.  And there will be at least a third book in the series.  The problem with long fiction is that, even though I love writing it, it gobbles up so much of my time when I’m working on it.  The characters take over my waking and sleeping hours, insisting that their stories be told.  It may sound a little crazy, but they are very real to me, and I would be letting them down if I didn’t do this for them.  However, at some point I have to strike a balance between fiction and poetry, because I want very badly to publish a book of poetry.  Unfortunately the work that requires will take many, many hours that I just don’t have at the moment.  But I feel a pressure to get it done, because:

  1. I’m not getting any younger, and
  2. If I don’t do it, there is certainly no one else to do it for me.

CH: What’s the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

SR: I tend to read from several books of poetry at once, but the one I’ve finished most recently is Stag’s Leap, from Sharon Olds.  All of her stuff just amazes the heck out of me, but she won the Pulitzer Prize for this one.

CH: What advice would you give to an aspiring poet or fiction writer?

SR: Read, read, read.  I think this is especially important for poets.  It’s astonishing how many people who think they write poetry don’t read it.  Seriously?  They have no clue what’s new, or even what poetry is.  Personally, I can’t begin to define poetry, but if I didn’t read it every day I wouldn’t throw as much of my own into the trash as I write it.  Thereby performing a very small service for humankind.

Practice, practice, practice.  I love good books on craft.  For poetry my favorites are the Dos Gatos Press Wingbeats books.  Also recommended are The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux, and Diane Lockward’s The Crafty Poet.  Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is very worthwhile for writers of fiction.

Group critiques can help.  If a number of people pick up on the same issues in a poem, you know they might be on to something.

And here’s a tip that works especially well for me:  Before I attempt to write something, I’ll spend 15 or 20 minutes reading work I admire/envy in the genre I’m tackling that day.  It primes the pump..

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