A Virtual Interview with Susan Signe Morrison

Thursday, February 11, 2021  7:15 – 9:00 p.m.

Event registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-featuring-susan-morrison-tickets-138114936493

Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for additional information.

Background

Susan Signe Morrison is the editor of a recently-released chapbook, Another Troy (Finishing Line Press, 2020), containing poetry written by her mother, Joan Wehlen Morrison. Committed to bringing the lives of women hidden in the shades of history to a wider audience, she has also edited the wartime journals of Wehlen Morrison, which have been published as Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America. 

A Professor of English at Texas State University, Morrison is the author of four books on the Middle Ages, as well as a novel, Grendel’s Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife, which retells the story of the Old English epic Beowulf from the perspective of the female characters. A broader audience has accessed Susan’s work through interviews with Wired, American Public Media, the History Channel, and The New Yorker.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of reading? What role did story play in your childhood?

SSM: My first memory of reading was when I was 7. I know I read before this, but the summer of 1966 really stands out to me. My parents took my brothers (ages 10 and 12) and me to England. While there we walked on the Pilgrims’ Way to Canterbury—a storied pilgrimage path from the Middle Ages. We each had only what our rucksacks could hold which we carried on our backs. We’d walk 5-7 miles a day and sleep at inns. Because we had limited books, we all shared. I read everything from Agatha Christie to A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh.

In third grade, I would bring my beloved stuffed animals with me to class. They included a Tigger (the tiger) and Snakey (who was a…you guessed it! A snake!). My teacher allowed me to present little skits on a periodic basis to everyone. I would make up stories and act them out. Later, I acted on stage in theatre productions, but those moments of making up skits on the spot for my classmates filled me with the joy of creation and sharing.

CH: What inspired your interest in creating a retelling of Beowulf? What did you learn from the process of writing Grendel’s Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife?

SSM: I teach medieval literature at Texas State University. Regularly I have my Old English class. I teach all sorts of shorter works like saints’ lives and women’s songs, but end with Beowulf. As a feminist, I have always gravitated towards highlighting the women’s perspective in the epic. I learned that one can say through fiction what one might also do in scholarly tomes—only you reach a much different, wider, and more diverse audience!

CH: I understand you’ve written four books on the Middle Ages. How did you become interested in this period?

SSM: One semester in graduate school, I took a Chaucer seminar at the same time as a course on Middle High (medieval) German. There was no looking back for me! It was only after my first book on medieval women pilgrims was published in 2000, that I came to realization as to why I became a medievalist. As mentioned above, my parents took us on a pilgrimage when I was 7 to Canterbury Cathedral. Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims also went on such a pilgrimage in The Canterbury Tales. So the seeds were sown when I was a child. Also, once I learned about medieval women and their writings, I was hooked.

CH: How do you see the literature of relatively distant historical periods speaking to a contemporary audience?

SSM: I teach a course on Quiet and Silent Women—with works ranging from Greek myth to the Harlem Renaissance. I designed it in early 2016 and taught it that fall—just as Hillary Clinton was running for president and the MeToo movement began. There is so much resonance between women’s lives thousands of years ago and now—sadly. You’d think things would have changed more in that time span. But, on the positive side, such female figures and women writers have amazing resilience and intelligence—I think they are role models for us all today.

CH: How did you become interested in telling the stories of women? Your volume, A Medieval Woman’s Companion: Women’s Lives in the European Middle Ages, looks fascinating, and I enjoyed the thumbnail sketches I found on your blog, https://amedievalwomanscompanion.com. Tell us a little about your research for this book.

SSM : I have always been interested in women’s stories. After all, I am one! And my mom was a writer as well—an oral historian. Her perspective is: everyone has a story, even if they don’t realize it. I regularly teach a class on medieval women writers. They are so intelligent, sarcastic, and subversive.

CH: Please tell us a little about your mother, Joan Wehlen Morrison.  You’ve published Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America, which your mother wrote and which you edited. As you worked on this project, what did you learn about your mother that surprised you?

SSM: Well: I learned so many wonderful things! That she was intellectually precocious, poetic from her earliest writings (age 10—some little poems still exist), and so funny! Her humor about others and at her own foibles was a delight to behold. She was just the same woman I knew—only much younger. I wish I could have been her classmate. She and I always wanted to write a book together. Now we have: two of them. I only wish she were here to see them—she would be delighted.

CH: Tell us a little about Another Troy. The title of this book of your mother’s wartime poetry makes me think of course of The Iliad. How did you select the title? What was it like to edit this volume?

SSM: Actually, Another Troy was the original title for Home Front Girl, the volume of her diaries from the war years I edited. The publishers thought it was too poetic—hence the name change. But such a poetic name is perfect for a volume of poetry. My mom, Joan, was obsessed with classical languages and literature. She often mentions Troy, Helen, Pompeii, and the passage of time—seeing the destruction in Europe as parallel to that from 2,000 and more years ago. Hence the title. When she has just turned 18, on December 28, 1940 during the Blitz in England, she writes, “The world’s changing. Troy; who thinks of Troy now. London is Troy tonight; London is brave somehow—burning and huddled in shelters; yet walking also in the unlighted streets. . . . London is Troy.”

CH: As I look at the titles on your website (http://www.susansignemorrison.com/) , I see a range of interest that I find fascinating—not only Medieval scholarship, but books like The Literature of Waste: Material Ecopoetics and Ethical Matter.  As a scholar, how would you describe yourself?

SSM: I would say I write about topics lying in the shadows and bring them to light—whether the hidden lives of women or, in my work in the Environmental Humanities, issues like waste and filth. I want to draw attention to these topics so people will pay attention so we can change the world for the better.

CH: What are you working on now?

SSM: I am writing a memoir about my time teaching in East Germany. Using archival research, I am documenting the impact of a 1970s/80s exchange program I participated in between two universities: Brown University in Rhode Island and one in the former German Democratic Republic—East Germany. Ultimately, I show how Stasi (secret police) files—including my own—responding to this program fail to accurately retell what happened. If you want to hear about my experiences, this podcast has an interview with me about my experiences in the former East Germany: https://coldwarconversations.com/episode130

CH: What are you reading these days for pleasure?

Well, it’s stressful, so I’m reading historical fiction to be in another time and place. I think one of the best cures for a pandemic is reading stories by P.G. Wodehouse—so silly and funny!

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