Tell us about the structure of Ashes in Midair.
I tried pretty hard not to over-determine the structure, to tell you the truth. I wanted the first and last poems to be “big” poems and to say something about the overall themes, but otherwise, I was looking mostly for a flow from one poem to the next. As it turned out, there is what I hope is a slightly—and only slightly—chronological progression. The first section has more poems relating to childhood and loss of innocence. Parts three and four deal increasingly with adult, with middle-aged, concerns, and coming-of-age issues didn’t seem to fit there. Part three deals with a fair number of emotional crises, and part four begins to view crisis from a spiritual perspective—something that was a surprise to me. The second part, “Kathryn: A Calling,” stands alone; it’s really a sort of novel in ten poems. Because it’s different from the rest of the collection, I didn’t want “Kathryn” to come either first or last. However, the last poem in the preceding (first) section is about a woman who is caught in a hurricane and finds herself flashing back to beatings by a religious fanatic. “Kathryn,” with its storms and apocalyptic angels, seemed to segue from “Hurricane” very naturally.
Has it always been Ashes in Midair or had it gone through different titles?
That’s always been the title. At the beginning, when the manuscript was essentially my master’s thesis, the title was simply taken from one of the stronger poems in the collection. Once I’d settled on “ashes in midair” for the title, the phrase acquired a life of its own. I found myself using images of temporarily suspended particles—not just ashes, but also soot and dust—in other poems, as a metaphor for mortality and the human condition: We look permanent, but we’re simply held up by forces beyond our control for a very little while. At a later stage, when I was doing a major reorganization of the book, the particles morphed into sparks of light in the last section. Although the poems there are as somber as in the rest of the book, I thought that the images of light allowed the book to end on a more hopeful note.
Many of the poems in Ashes in Midair seem to be autobiographical. How hard is it to keep poetry separate from autobiography? Or is this something that you think should be embraced?
I have to admit that this question surprised me. For a long time, I hardly wrote about myself at all. Many of the poems in Ashes are persona poems or involve situations from myth or folklore, and, while many of the others are about real people I know or knew and have some basis in actual situations, there’s not much about myself in them except as witness and mourner—certainly very little that’s autobiographical in the sense of “confessional.” And, of course, I lie a lot to make the situation more interesting or more compressed.
When I do write about myself, it’s an effort of will, and it’s done with a lot of misgivings, not so much from fear of giving myself away as from concern that my rather dull life won’t be particularly interesting to anyone else. Aside from embroidery on some childhood incidents in two of the poems in the first section (“About Glass” and “Slug Story”), the most autobiographical poem—and the hardest poem I’ve ever tried to write—is “Dementia Diary,” about my mother’s Alzheimer’s. While everything in that poem did happen in one way or another, the process of writing it also involved a huge amount of selection and reordering of events to try to give it shape as a poem rather than a journal entry.
As for the tension between autobiography and poetry, I think every poet has to work that out for herself or himself. For some, autobiography is their natural subject, and the work comes alive when they address it. (The poems in Lowell’s Life Studies are much more vivid and interesting than his earlier work, for instance.) Other poets seem to have to get beyond their own stories before their work really catches fire. Some of the poets I admire most seem to be able to tap into the emotional core of the personal and translate it to the larger sphere. I’m thinking particularly of Jake Adam York here and Steve Gehrke in his most recent book, Michelangelo’s Seizure.
There are many places in the poems throughout the book where there are either other speakers, or snippets of dialogue, conveyed to the reader by use of italics. Tell us about your use of additional dialogue within the poems and why this is important in your book and poems.
Not only through italics. I also use marginal glosses in the long poem, “Tarocchi Appropriati” to something of the same effect. There isn’t just one motivation for using other voices, although I think it always adds texture to a poem. Sometimes, the italics are there simply to identify another speaker or a voice in the head of the central character. In “Hurricane,” the woman is hearing the violence of the hurricane in the dark and flashing on the voice of the man whose violence she experienced earlier. In the “Kathryn” sequence, italics often signal the voice of the angel who gives the speaker orders.
Elsewhere, those other, often italicized, voices are there to cue the reader that different realities are bumping into each other. In “Black Hole,” I alternate between snippets of an actual newspaper story about the astronomical Perseus Cluster and an internal monologue relating to the myth of Perseus and Medusa. There’s a gravitational pull between the two, but no direct, left-brained connection. Instead, they are talking “at” each other.
In “Tarocchi,” the marginalia allowed me to interject information and associations involving the tarot deck into the primary narrative, about the deaths of three friends, without bogging down that narrative and its formal structure.
I like bringing in these different voices, but I have to admit they make it difficult to read those poems aloud. For some future readings, I’m planning to use a friend to supply that second voice.
I believe I read in an author’s note somewhere that you’re now retired from practicing law. Had you always been writing poetry before pursuing your MFA a few years ago? What made you decide to eventually earn an MFA in poetry?
You’re really asking for my entire autobiography with this question. I was an undergraduate English major, with a concentration in creative writing, at UNC-Greensboro in the mid-1960’s. Randall Jarrell was still alive when I started, and I often saw him walking around campus, but he died before I could take a class with him, to my lasting regret. When I graduated in 1968, there were very few MFA programs anywhere. UNC-G had one, but I thought that I needed a change of scene. The change wound up being marriage and moving to Richmond. I don’t regret a minute of that, but without the discipline and community of a writing program, I eventually stopped writing poetry altogether.
Years later, when my son was in elementary school, I decided to go to law school. After all, law is also all about writing. But when I was in practice, working fifty or sixty hours a week, there was no time even to think about writing poetry. I went into real estate law and wound up as senior real estate attorney for a major retailer. Then I developed chronic, incapacitating migraines. It’s really impossible to draft or negotiate an eighty-page lease when your eyes won’t focus. I eventually had to give up my practice.
Initially as a way to cope with the depression that followed losing my career and becoming isolated by illness, I started writing poetry again. Poetry seemed to operate in parts of the brain that weren’t so affected by the migraines. At first it was therapy pure and simple, but then my undergraduate training kicked in: I wanted to write good poetry. I started reading poetry seriously again, educating myself on what had been going on during those years when my reading was focused on legal research and the occasional bit of brain candy. I began to get published in a few very obscure journals.
Eventually—and this took a very long time—I realized that I needed professional guidance if I was ever to write as well as I wanted to. It does take a long time even to consider entering a graduate program when you’re in your mid-fifties. First I took an undergrad CW class to get my feet wet. I got enough encouragement from that class and enough support from my husband that I went ahead and applied to Virginia Commonwealth University. I’m very glad I did—I learned a lot, and I made friends who have continued to be a source of support and feedback. The program also led me to working with Blackbird, the online journal published by VCU and New Virginia Review, Inc., where I’m book review editor and associate literary editor and where I have learned so much about writing and publishing, and to other literary friendships.
I sometimes say I’m on a twenty-year plan: I graduated from high school in 1964, from law school in 1984, and from the MFA program in 2004. But don’t look for me to become an M.D. in 2024.
Did most of the poems in Ashes in Midair comprise your MFA thesis? How was that different from the finished product of the book?
While Ashes in Midair started life as my MFA thesis, it evolved a lot after that. As a thesis, it represented not just a collection of poems but also a record of the best work I had at done at VCU. Those two purposes aren’t necessarily identical. I wrote a lot while I was in the MFA program, and the poems weren’t cohesive—I had several unrelated themes and motifs among them. In particular, there were some poems that pointed toward the eventual direction of Ashes in Midair—a concern with what I’d almost call “eschatology”— and others with markedly feminist focus. The two trends really didn’t speak to each other in a productive way—not that they couldn’t, of course, simply that I couldn’t find a way to marry them. With the rising count of deaths of friends and family members and health problems of my own, the poems about mortality became more in line with my personal concerns, though I regretted having to cut the others. At any rate, eventually more than one-third of the poems in my thesis dropped out. About half were replaced (fortunately, I had a rather fat thesis), and a few others were drastically rewritten. Of course, in the process, there was a fairly substantial re-shuffling of the poems as well.
How often did you revise the poems from journal publication to book publication?
I’m very serious about revision, and most of the poems had been extensively reworked before appearing in journals. Sometimes, even after that, I’d go back and look at a poem again and realize I still hadn’t gotten it right. The edits to individual poems became less frequent as, over time, my focus shifted to the structure of the entire manuscript. At that stage, it became more a matter of looking at the overall organization and themes and interrogating individual poems, not with an eye to revision but for determining whether they were carrying their weight in the manuscript.
Did you suggest the image that was used on the cover? Or were you offered choices?
It was my choice, and I’m thrilled with it. I had deliberately not picked a cover ahead of time, partly because I knew that some publishers prefer to work with a designer, but mainly because I was afraid I’d jinx myself. I had visions of my mother’s unmarried older sister assembling the hope chest that she never got to use.
When my editor raised the subject, I was stumped at first. I had a fleeting thought that I’d like to use a Quattrocento sculpture I’d seen in a museum in Florence. One of the poems is about that piece, but the poem isn’t one of the crucial poems in the book, and the thought of dealing with permissions from a foreign institution was pretty daunting, given the short turn-around I had.
I’m glad I gave up on that idea quickly because I’m much happier with the ultimate result, which came about through the good offices of Mary Flinn, my friend and my senior editor at Blackbird. Mary is very knowledgeable about art and has close connections with the School of the Arts at VCU. I asked her for recommendations, and she suggested that I take a look at David Freed’s website. David is an internationally known printmaker, now retired from teaching at VCU, and I was familiar with his portraits of poets like Larry Levis and Charles Wright. I hadn’t seen many of his recent landscapes, however. He had some breathtaking pictures on his website, of dark clouds and storms, with leaves and rain blown around by the wind—very appropriate for the imagery in Ashes. I noted several that I thought would work for the cover, ran them past my editor, and phoned David to ask if we could get permission to use one. He was incredibly generous and allowed me my choice in exchange for some complimentary copies of the book. He said, bless him, that he knew poets don’t make any money on their books, and that he would be content with an acknowledgment and the copies, which he planned to give as gifts.
I think David was pleased with the way the publisher used the print, “September—Weather from the West.” I was so delighted that I used my prize money to buy a framed original.
It seems like Ashes in Midair came out fairly quickly after it was chosen for publication for the prize. Was it hard for you to make sure you gathered the artwork and copy-edited the book in this short amount of time, or was it a welcome experience? I ask because for some poets it can take years from acceptance to publication, and it seems like many presses are different in that sense.
Ashes must have set a record for speed of publication. I was notified on November 26, 2007—the Monday after Thanksgiving, and the book appeared on February 1, 2008. The time in between was pretty frantic. My editor and I were emailing and telephoning back and forth several times a day for most of that time. Fortunately, in terms of speed, he didn’t offer too many copy-edits—the biggest was the decision to eliminate one poem—and both of us are very good proofreaders, so we made it. In spite of the haste, I’m very pleased with the finished product. The only typo I’ve found is a phrase in one poem that appears in italics but shouldn’t—evidently a problem with formatting that we didn’t catch, but something that no one else will probably notice. Given that I have some OCD tendencies and am a strong Myers-Briggs “J,” it was probably much easier for me to go through a few weeks of craziness than to wait forever for the book to come out.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
That day stands out very vividly. My editor wanted the book to come out in time for the Associated Writing Programs annual meeting in New York. Given that the book wasn’t selected until late November, and AWP was scheduled very early, beginning in late January, I didn’t think it was possible, but he and I—and his associates and the printer—kept plugging, and the first few copies were delivered to my editor on February 1, while AWP was still going on. He called to tell me they had come in, but there was a panel presentation by Wom-Po, the listserv for women’s poetry, that I desperately wanted to attend first thing that morning. I’d become very active in Wom-Po and had been looking forward to the opportunity to meet some of the other members face to face. Still, it was all I could do not to jump up and announce that I was giving birth. That’s what it felt like—waiting to hold my baby and count her toes. As soon as the panel wrapped up, I flew out of the room and fought my way through the crowds to the book fair and the Many Mountains Moving table. For the rest of the day, I’d find myself stopping virtual strangers and waving my book at them.
How often had you sent out Ashes in Midair before it was chosen as the winner of the 2007 Many Mountains Moving Poetry Book Prize?
I’m not sure of the count of contests, but I’d been submitting versions of Ashes to contests since the spring of 2004—at a time when, I now realize, it wasn’t ready for serious consideration. Even so, it was a finalist in one fairly well-known competition and a semi-finalist in another in that first batch of submissions, and a very slightly revised version was the runner-up in another contest from that fall, so I was encouraged to keep trying.
Before the day you saw your book for the first time, did you imagine that your life would change because of it?
I’m too old to have expected an event like this to alter my life in any substantial way. I did very much want the book to be accepted for publication, of course. I guess I saw it as a sort of public validation of the work I’d put into it, maybe even a sense of legitimacy, although I know full well that book publication per se doesn’t confer that. Bad books get published, good books languish. On the other hand, the choice to get an MFA and try to get a book published did change my life in many ways.
How has your life been different since your book came out? Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
In some ways I have felt more relaxed, as if getting published isn’t something I need to tie myself into knots about anymore. I’d tried to learn as much as I could about the publishing process during those three-plus years of waiting, and I didn’t expect miracles. I didn’t expect my publisher to send me on a national promotional tour. I knew Oprah wasn’t waiting for me.
The surprises have all been positive. I’ve had several reviews already, all unexpectedly favorable. Reviews are generally rare with a first book, especially one from a very small press. I was particularly surprised that at least two people who bought Ashes (rather than being sent a review copy) read it and liked it enough to review it on their own initiative. Another reader freelanced an interview that will be appearing early in 2009. And a friend, your predecessor in this first-book project, Kate Greenstreet, has lined up readings for me in New York and New Jersey this coming February. I’m really touched by the generosity of these folks.
What have you been doing to promote the book, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I got off to a rather rocky start with promotion. I already had a few readings lined up during the spring of 2008, primarily group readings to promote Letters to the World, an anthology that came out of the Wom-Po listserv, and I was able to sell copies of Ashes in Midair at those events. I had other readings planned, though, and had to cancel them because I became suddenly ill in April and wasn’t really functioning again for a couple of months. By that time, I had missed out on most fall reading schedules. Still, I’ve done one local reading and one in DC and have several others planned for winter and spring of 2009.
In the meantime, I’ve collaborated with another poet, Sofia Starnes, in an exchange of short letters about each other’s books. We’re hoping to parlay that quasi-review into publication and some reading gigs.
To my own surprise, I really enjoy doing readings, and I’ve been very fortunate in the poets I’ve read with. It’s been a great opportunity to network with poets and organizers and readers, not just around the question of promoting my book but also in a variety of projects.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your first book came out?
I don’t go in for a lot of hindsight and might-have-beens. I think I came across the best advice in a Poets & Writers interview with a first-book poet while I was still sending my manuscript out. I can’t remember now who the poet was, but she said that she had schooled herself not to get anxious about contests. Instead, she used the deadlines as a prompt to take a fresh look at her manuscript and make any necessary revisions. I found that process very helpful—I stopped spending all my time obsessing over the manuscript, just gave it a long, hard look every six months or so. It gave me enough distance to be pretty detached about my work.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? And are any new books or other projects on the horizon?
I wish! So far what I’ve written in the last several months doesn’t suggest any overriding themes. I’m really pretty dissatisfied with what I’ve done lately—and with how little of it there’s been. Right now I’m trying to persuade myself that I need both discipline and patience and that something will come out of that combination.
Do you have any additional advice for poets sending out their first books to contests and open reading periods?
Offering advice always makes me feel like a pompous ass, I’m afraid. My instinct is to say, “Question, be ruthless, revise, re-think.” But I know some poets who ought to be encouraged to leave well enough alone. I want to say, “Have faith, keep sending your manuscript out.” But not everyone has the resources to keep shelling out for reading fees and postage year after year. I suppose that poets ought, at least, to determine very honestly how much they want the book, how much they’re prepared to do and how long they’re prepared to wait to get that publication.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Not a question for a cynical recovering lawyer! It’s terribly hard to identify what really creates change in the world—although the recent Presidential election restores my hope that it can happen. But poetry? I have trouble taking too seriously the puffery about “unacknowledged legislators of the world” and people dying “miserably every day for lack of what is found” in poems.
I think it’s a bad idea to start writing with the idea that you will change the world—for one thing, you’re unlikely to get to the second line that way; for another, if you do get past the first line, it will probably turn out to be an abysmal poem. You’ll be thinking too much of yourself as a poet and too little of the work that makes a poem, like John Barth’s wonderful hero Ebenezer Cooke in The Sot-Weed Factor, who decides that he’s a poet without having written a word. It’s only after he’s become thoroughly disillusioned that he produces his epic.
On the other hand, we all know of poems that have changed us as readers. They’re not necessarily good poems or even poems we continue to love, but, when we first encounter them, they wake us up to possibilities we never saw.
How’s that for a lawyerly, “it depends” answer?
Susan Settlemyre Williams is the author of Ashes in Midair, selected by Yusuf Komunyakaa as the winner of the 2007 Many Mountains Moving Poetry Book Contest (Many Mountains Moving Press, 2008), and a chapbook, Possession (Finishing Line Press, 2007). Her poetry has recently appeared in Mississippi Review, 42opus, Shenandoah, Sycamore Review, and diode, among other journals. Her poem “Lighter” won the 2006 Diner Poetry Contest and was selected for Best New Poets 2006. She is book review editor and associate literary editor of Blackbird and lives in Richmond, Virginia.