An Interview with Sue William Silverman
Sue William Silverman teaches Creative Nonfiction in the low residency MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has published three memoirs, a book of poems, and a book on craft. She is currently working on a second book of poetry. Two of Sue William Silverman’s poems, “If the Girl Never Learns to Cook or Sew” and “If the Girl is a Sybil Above the Last New Jersey Turnpike,” appear in issue 72 of Bellingham Review. In the current issue, you can read the first of these reprinted, as well as “If the Girl Knows Where to Fuck” and “If the Girl Receives a Caress from a Man Without Hands.”
Ali Beemsterboer: When you’re thinking about your philosophy on writing, you know so many writers say things like: Dress for writing like it’s a job, or write in a room without a view, etc. Do you have any philosophy on the writing lifestyle?
Sue William Silverman: I sleep with my laptop on the floor next to the bed. [laughs] As soon as I wake up I flop it on my stomach and start writing. I find that I write best when the world hasn’t crashed in on me yet. It’s when I come out of that sleepy-dream state that I have the most focus. It’s a kind of dreamy-awakeness, when I can best enter into the world I’m writing about.
AB: You said that your poem “If the Girl Never Learns to Cook or Sew” came out of a dream. Did you simply awake, pick up your laptop, and go to work on it?
SWS: I actually was not home when I had the dream. I was at one of the Vermont College of Fine Arts residencies, without my computer. So I was in this dorm room, and I had this dream. And when I woke up, this whole poem, even the title, was in my head. Really amazing. I grabbed paper and pencil and wrote as fast as I could. All these images tumbled out, one after another.
Later, when I got home, I typed it out, worked on line breaks, changed a few words here and there, but the poem you’re publishing is pretty much the dream.
What’s amazing is that from this one poem a whole collection evolved.
AB: So do you have a specific girl in mind? Or is she fictional?
SWS: Emotionally the poems are autobiographical. The girl herself is an artistic creation. I was able to write about this girl more metaphorically and less realistically than when I’m writing creative nonfiction.
AB: I think having the girl as a metaphorical persona really opens a door for you in this interesting way. How has she helped you in your creative work?
SWS: I could explore whatever I wanted to with this girl. And it turns out she really has a lot to say. [laughter] It was interesting for me how this one poem opened up this entire world that I didn’t know was inside me.
That’s the magic of writing. Sometimes we don’t really know where we’re going. I had written one poetry collection that was published back in 2006, and I had not written a poem since. I thought well that’s it. I don’t have any other poems to write. I totally believed that! And then all of a sudden poems started falling out of me.
AB: Are there other poems for this collection that have come out of dream-state?
SWS: No. However, that one was so important in terms of opening the flood gates.
AB: It’s like you were given a little gift.
SWS: It was a gift. The poems all arrived in an intense way, as this girl took on a life of her own. Even though I just dreamed the one, it really was a gift in the sense that it triggered a whole collection.
AB: And just to clarify, was the poem from the dream, “If the Girl Never Learns to Cook or Sew” the first poem you wrote then?
SWS: Yes, the first one I wrote for this collection. I wrote it and thought, well that’s it. One poem. But then in about a week or two the other poems about this girl started forming.
AB: In “If the Girl Never Learns to Cook or Sew,” I love the specific images: the “stuffed cat,” the “ivory-tipped walking sticks,” and the “Christmas bric-a-brac”—did you see those things in the dream?
SWS: Yeah, I saw this whole space and room. Some of the images are from the real world that I collected over time. I do know someone who keeps walking sticks and a stuffed cat by the front door. Others are dream images. So it’s a morphing of things. Writing poetry encourages that kind of “mind travel.”
AB: I’m also very interested in the way you use the refrain of “If.” It’s almost as if the poem is asking a question. I wonder if that allowed this poem to crack open, for it to open the door to more poems?
SWS: Yes, all the titles in the collection start with “If the Girl…,” and I think that questioning is a kind of opening up. The questions you ask are usually more interesting than the answers. In poetry, or just in writing, period, I think: “If something, then what?” What are the options? What can happen? It can open up your mind; you can keep asking if if if in a way that you don’t necessarily have to answer or resolve. I think it’s a way to keep images flowing down the page.
AB: That’s something I noticed when I read it for the first time, the “If” really opens up possibility. There’s more than one answer to the “If” questions.
SWS: Yes, the more “ifs,” the more images. And so there’s an unraveling of thought that keeps going – like pulling a thread – from one image to another. And letting one image suggest the next, and the next, so there is a coherence. But, as you say, it is an opening up. “If the girl” – those three words – had a lot of power for me. The title of the collection is If the Girl Never Learns. Never learns, what? There’s an openness to that. What can happen if she never learns? A lot of things can happen if she never learns! That’s how the collection was able to grow and evolve.
AB: It seems these poems resonate with some of the topics of your previous work, particularly sexual addiction and family dynamics. To what extent do your own experiences find their ways into this latest collection of poems?
SWS: Growing up, I felt: “If the girl never has a voice.” That’s not the title of any of the poems, but growing up I didn’t have a voice because of my scary childhood. So who was/is that girl? I learn about her, in part, through writing essays and memoir – but also, in poetry, even though these poems aren’t strictly autobiographical. Instead, there is that metaphorical self, which provides another way of looking at one’s emotional makeup. Most of what we write has some emotional-autobiographical content. I’m still learning about the different ways this can be explored.
To me, writing about the self, metaphorically, is also writing universally. I don’t see a navel gazing aspect to it at all whether it’s creative nonfiction or poetry. If we are writing metaphorically we are writing about the human condition.
AB: Do you find it difficult to explain a lot of times that this isn’t actually true, that there’s a creative persona going on?
SWS: It’s all about context. You’re taking an experience, but you have to craft it, and once you do, it’s an artistic construct. Once you take language and manifest it as art, and craft the metaphors and the lyrical language of the experience, then, paradoxically, it’s a more constructed, yet more genuine, “you.”
AB: Do you feel the collection, If the Girl Never Learns, is coming to a close?
SWS: Yes. I have 43 poems and haven’t written a new one in a while. What I’m doing now is arranging them, finding the order. The poem, “If the Girl Never Learns to Cook or Sew,” is the first one in the manuscript. It just has to be, of course.
AB: That’s so exciting because then you’ll be able to add another collection of poetry and not feel like That one was it for me with poetry.
SWS: [laughs] Exactly. That’s another thing that’s magical about the creative process. You publish a collection but then not one poem, not even a bad poem, not even a line of a poem for years. But then 43 poems fall out of you! Where does that come from? It’s so mysterious.
You can think, gosh, I have nothing more to say, and then BAM! I think part of writing is being a good listener to yourself, paying attention to what’s going on inside of you. Knowing how to listen to the self, I think, is an essential part of writing.
AB: I love that way of looking at it. I think a lot of writers can get in a place where they feel like “I don’t have anything to write” or “I’m stuck” or “I’m not even a writer.” But maybe they’re just not listening. You know?
SWS: Exactly. Sometimes the ego self can get in the way. If you push the ego out of the way, then writing is like following a whisper of words. That requires deep listening and seeing where these words lead you. For me, at least, that’s a large part of writing.
AB: That connects perfectly to the dream state! Well I’m happy that this girl appeared and was able to crack open this whole project for you.
SWS: Thank you. I’m very glad that you heard her voice.
AB: I’m glad I heard it too.
Read more about Sue William Silverman on her website: www.suewilliamsilverman.com
ALI BEEMSTERBOER received her MFA from Western Washington University where she worked as a poetry editor for Bellingham Review. She loves reading and writing multi-genre works that are playful and inventive with form. She practices Brazilian Jiujitsu and is learning how to paint.