Susan Niz will be the featured reader Thursday, July 11, 2019 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),
Susan Niz’s first poetry chapbook is Beyond this Amniotic Dream (Beard Poetry, Minneapolis, 2016). She has a second chapbook, Left-Handed Like a Lightning Whelk, forthcoming with Finishing Line Press (November 2019). Her short work has appeared in Wanderlust Journal, The Write Launch, Chaleur Magazine, Typishly, Tipton Poetry Journal, Carnival Literary Magazine, Crack the Spine, Blue Bonnet Review, Two Words For, Belleville Park Pages, Ginosko, Cezanne’s Carrot, Flashquake, Opium Magazine, and Summerset Review. She has been featured in live poetry shows in Minneapolis. Susan writes across genres. Her novel Kara, Lost (North Star Press, 2011) was a finalist for a Midwest Book Award (MIPA) for Literary Fiction. She has a Master’s Degree in Education, raises kids, has been a grassroots community organizer, and conserves Monarchs. She recently relocated from Minnesota (having survived the Polar Vortex last winter) to the Austin area where she will delve into new creative and literary projects and enjoy the sun and warmth.
CH: What first interested you in writing? What is your first memory of writing?
SN: In second grade, I got very excited to write a story about a girl who took a car trip with her family. I loved the way ideas became words that tumbled sloppily across the line, down the page, that a story could go somewhere, that it could be read and re-read aloud. I had a teacher who gave us these spiral notebooks with blue covers. Writing time was a special event and that white space between lines became a place of focus where I could put some of myself, which was better than keeping the pain of my isolated home life inside. Later, when I was thirteen, I had another spiral notebook with a blue cover. It became a secret place to feed lines of hot ink in unraveling scrolls of angst and wonder and loneliness. I called it poetry. I had a lot of questions! I then copied some of my angst in Sharpie inside the entire back of a denim jacket (along with song lyrics from The Cure). This writing thing was mine. It was uncontrolled, it was limitless, and the page always listened. I was hooked on this outlet.
CH: When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer? As a poet?
SN: I studied writing and poetry in college as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. I was able to take classes from some outstanding writers, but I wasn’t ready for the work of revision and I wasn’t yet able to access my voice because I carried a lot of shame from a very turbulent teenage experience. I gravitated to language study, learned Spanish, and became a teacher. I even abandoned journaling and part of me was missing. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I finally found the focus to undertake a big project: a semi-autobiographical novel about a sixteen-year-old runaway. I dove into this in a time that I was waiting for a family and worked on it for several years, finally publishing it after my first daughter was born. I also wrote short fiction and published a few pieces. I published one poem that was written based on an image from a dream that I had. About a year later, the journal asked to reprint my poem in an anthology and I got motivated to try more poetry. It felt mysterious to me and for a while I thought my poems had to be conceived in my dreams! Eventually, I gained more of a flow to writing effective poems. I really developed my poetic voice through a series held in Minneapolis called the New Shit Show. I read at the open mic several times, was asked to feature, then submitted my first chapbook, Beyond This Amniotic Dream, to Beard Poetry. My first chapbook is about the two events of my father dying and my second daughter being born, which happened two weeks apart. I experienced delayed grief in order to be a present mother, and writing the poems finally processed the loss.
CH: I know that you write fiction as well as poetry. How would you describe yourself as a writer? Do you have a primary identity as a writer?
SN: I like to write across genres. In addition to poetry, I write short nonfiction essays, which are autobiographical. I wrote a second novel that did not get published because the revisions required would have taken too much time from my second and final baby. One thing that works with poetry for me is that it can be written in bits and pieces, unlike fiction which for me requires long stretches of focus. I think a big thing that defines me as a writer is that my writing is largely autobiographical. Even the idea of a persona poem is something I have not yet tackled. I plan to continue to keep writing across genres.
CH: How has your life as a community organizer and parent shaped your writing?
SN: As a parent, I learned to write sleep-deprived and all hours of the day, which made me a more adaptable writer. It made my writing time much less frequent when my kids were little, but luckily I stuck with it slow and steady and was able to create work and publish occasionally which added up over time. As a community organizer, for a long time I struggled with the idea of writing creatively about Resisting, instead of only more personal topics. I felt that as a white, straight, cis-gendered ally, I had to consider perspective carefully and not try to write a story/poem that wasn’t mine to tell. I think I finally bridged this when I wrote poems about school shootings, a topic that touches me personally because I am a parent. I also use nature imagery to bridge topics. For example, a poem about stitching the wound of a snowy owl (What passes through flesh/ Is forever) is about sexual abuse. Having found a way to enter writing of Resistance, I feel more freed to continue to write about topics such as immigration issues, as my husband is from Guatemala. Writing poetry also made my campaign and advocacy writing more effective and emotionally connected.
CH: What is your writing life like?
SN: Usually slow and steady, but I feel like my move to Texas has helped it pick up momentum. I carve out bits of time to jot notes or record poem ideas using voice to text if I’m running around, then write them out late at night. When I can keep an observant view of the world around me, I get more ideas for poems. When I can read more and hear other poets read live, I write more poems. When I have time and want to produce more, I read a favorite book of poetry and engage in a read-write-read-write cycle, drawing inspiration from the poems. I’ll generally write new poems for a few months, then revise, then submit, and repeat.
CH: What inspired the title of your forthcoming chapbook, Left-Handed Like a Lightning Whelk? How did you arrive at this sequence of poems?
SN: The title speaks to the potential absurdity of the connections I attempt to make with nature. I went to Mustang Island last year with my family. A naturalist had set up a tent and table to show beach-goers some of the sea creatures. I get extremely excited about this stuff. The moments of learning the names of animals, of witnessing them in the wild, are thrilling to me and make me feel very alive. I just moved to Texas from Minnesota, and I’ve raised Monarchs the last several years and I miss them a lot, but I’m planting milkweed and hope to see them in September. The winters there were very hard for me, and warmth and wildlife and time outdoors means I am not in hibernation, which became increasingly brutal to endure. An earlier draft of this chapbook was called “Measure My Wingspan in Words,” which is a line from a poem that is in the book. Maybe that title worked would have worked as well. I write poems about motherhood, which I think sounds saccharine, but I write about the harsh and dark corners of motherhood after a difficult childhood, and with nature often as a refuge and a vehicle for emotions and metaphor.
CH: By the end of this year, you will have published two poetry chapbooks since your novel, Kara, Lost, came out. What are you working on now? Where would you like to be five years from now?
SN: I have been writing a few poems and also short non-fiction pieces. Maybe next I would like to publish a full-length book of poetry or of the essays. Maybe I feel like I can be a little more patient about that now. I’m also working on planning for a poetry workshop that I’ll be leading at several local libraries this year called “You are a poet.” It’s for beginners and all levels. I want to feel prepared with a whole bunch of writing exercises that I probably won’t have time to squeeze in. If I do it well, the participants will do a lot of writing and I’ll do not too much talking. (Please like “Susan Niz Writer” on Facebook to find out where to join a workshop.) In five years, I hope to feel part of the poetry community in Austin. My writing goals have shifted from lofty aspirations to more finding what is fulfilling, challenging, rewarding—without boundaries. I will regather my strength to use my writing abilities to continue to Resist. I think we each need to focus on developing whatever our individual superpower for protest may be—whether it’s organizing, speaking, writing, leveraging and sacrificing privilege, gathering resources—and hone that power, or we’ll get tired of screaming.
CH: What do you do to nurture yourself as a writer?
SN: Making time to go be a part of live poetry is so important. Nature experiences are a given in my life, but following them up with writing is necessary. Establishing boundaries with my kids for them to be more independent and allow me time to read, write, get out. That is the hardest, but easier with time. I think, too, setting goals and having some ambition and also self-love and patience when it comes to setbacks. I’m looking on the bright side of life in between writing poems. Poetry writing can be emotionally painful, but finding joy and ease in other areas of life is important for self-renewal.
CH: What poetry do you find yourself turning to for inspiration? Who are some of your favorite writers?
SN: Jim Moore, Larry Levis, Adrienne Moore, Louise Erdrich, Laura Kasischke, ee cummings, Ocean Vuong, Federico García Lorca, W.H. Auden, Danez Smith, Kendrick Lamar
CH: What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?
SN: Blue Horses by Mary Oliver, Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith, and also Poetry Will Save Your Life: A Memoir, Jill Bialosky
Cindy, thank you for this opportunity to reflect!
CH: You are more than welcome.