Writing “Above Nerve”: A Collage of Persona & the Personal

An Interview with Susan J. Erickson

Susan J. Erickson’s debut full-length collection of poems, Lauren Bacall Shares a Limousine, reflects her view of the world as an unpredictable mix of the serious and humorous. Erickson received a B.S. and M.S. from the University of Minnesota. Susan now lives in Bellingham, Washington, where she helped to establish the Sue C. Boynton Poetry Walk and Contest. Her poems appear in Crab Creek Review, Verse Daily, Sliver of Stone, The Fourth River, The Tishman Review, and numerous anthologies.

EricksonDayna Patterson: Many of the women in this collection have lives fraught with tragedy—Frida Kahlo, Janis Joplin, Lucy Audubon, Marilyn Monroe. Can you tell us what drew you to write about these women in particular?

The epigraph to this book is from an Emily Dickinson poem: “If your Nerve, deny you—Go above your Nerve—.” Not until the collection was mostly finalized did I realize that the women I chose to write about were those who lived their lives “above nerve.”

Curiosity about a particular woman’s life was one of the motivations that led me to select the women I did.

DP: Two of the women you write about, Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe, were painters, and you yourself are a collage artist. Did poetry come first for you, or collage? Why populate your poems with different kinds of artists?

My poetry and collage work began almost simultaneously.

I was fortunate to see original work by Kahlo on various visits to The Dallas Art Museum and of O’Keeffe when visiting Ghost Ranch and Santa Fe in New Mexico. I was drawn to the originality of their work, and I was interested in their struggle as women artists to gain recognition in the male-dominated art world.

In writing about these two artists, I wanted to include everyday aspects of their lives—Frida going to the movies, Georgia making pea soup—activities that any reader might do themselves. At some level each of us are artists creating our own life.

DP: As I read these poems, I felt that I was in the hands of someone who had come to know intimately the details of these women’s lives. Can you tell us about your research process? How could you tell when you’d reached the point of having amassed enough material to begin shaping and refining it?

Yes, I did lots of research on the lives of these women. Assuming the voice of another woman seemed a big responsibility to me. I wanted to research their lives (sometimes reading multiple biographies) and worked to get a feel for how each woman might react or respond. I watched movies and documentaries if they were available. The visit to Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu, New Mexico, revealed much about her artistic vision and her personal living choices. I also visited places O’Keeffe painted like the Plaza Blanca or White Place. On my website (susanjerickson.com) I have a list of the research resources I consulted for O’Keeffe and for the other women as well.

The point when I had amassed enough knowledge was a moving one. Sometimes the recognition was an emotional decision. I’m thinking of writing about Janis Joplin’s disdain for Port Arthur where she grew up. Her dislike of her hometown was visceral, but it took longer for me to get a feel for how her alcohol and drug use took over her life.

DP: You seem to have a gift for metaphor and simile in lines such as: “I can tell you what a relief / it is to hear wind exhale around the corners / of the home like a minor key harmonica. / What a comfort to see grain elevators / like grey cathedrals against the sky” (91). How do you know when you’ve settled on the perfect simile/metaphor in your poetry?

I am enamored with metaphor because it can bring so much power and emotion to writing. I’m thinking of at least two ways I sometimes get to the metaphor that works for the poem.

One is using imagination to immerse myself into the environment of the poem and into the speaker’s character so sensory details emerge.

Practice is another way to generate metaphors with muscle. Ellen Bass talks about brainstorming metaphors to loosen up the mind. If you come up with a list of metaphors they don’t all have to be good, but you may be led to one that illuminates the poem. I recall working with Erin Belieu on “Casa Azul” which became the first poem in the book. I described the color of Frida Kahlo’s house as “blue as flame,” which Erin immediately challenged as being high-end cliché. I proceeded to go through “blue of morning,” “gas blue,” “peacock blue,” and “blue as morning still night.” I really like that “blue as morning still night,” but it too was rejected by Erin. What I finally came up with was, “From the spectrum of ghosts, I painted/ this house blue to guide my father/ and mother to my door.” You could argue whether the final choice was truly a metaphor.

Recording metaphors of other writers in a computer file or journal can sometimes inspire me simply because it puts me in a metaphor state of mind. So that can be a third way to come up with strong metaphors.

DP: Most of the women you write about are historical, but a couple of fictional characters make their way into the collection. What links the Little Mermaid, Dorothy Gale, and Rapunzel to, for example, Amelia Earhart or Emily Dickinson? Why do they belong in the same collection together?

A culture’s attitude toward women is reflected in how it portrays women in its fictional media. In the fairy tale, Rapunzel relies on a prince to get her out of the tower in which she is imprisoned. I created a modern day Rapunzel who controls her own tower experience and bypasses the media to tell her own story. In short she decides to live an “above nerve” life.

The two mermaid poems were written in response to a submission call for a mermaid anthology. I played on the traditional fairy tale and Disney portrayal to create a mermaid that decided to control her own destiny.

With a female author, denouement can take a different slant!

DP: Most of these poems are persona poems, told in the voice of a historical figure or fictional character. With the historical persona poems, did you feel a certain amount of pressure to align that voice with historical data? Where did you feel you were able to take more liberties?

Most of the poems are based at least partly on actual events in the woman’s life—for example, I have Marilyn Monroe imagining her life as menu items at Schrafft’s. I’m certain Marilyn never made such a comparison. But she often ate there while in New York City and sometimes with Truman Capote. Of course, in my research I consulted an actual menu from Schrafft’s.

In the poem “Marilyn Monroe Sits for Andy Warhol in the Afterlife,” I pretty much relied on imagination. Andy did several silkscreen paintings of Marilyn Monroe after her death that were and still are popular. I do not know if he had any remorse for capitalizing on her image. I did use actual events from his life in the poem.

So I did take liberties in how I portrayed the characters of the poems. I tried to make their actions and voice consistent with how I understood their character. So, in the Marilyn/Andy poem I have Marilyn reacting maternally toward Andy, because her desire to have a child was never realized.

DP: Although in persona poems, the speaker is distinct from the poet, are there any overlapping spaces between you and the voices in these poems? Also, there is one self-portrait poem in the collection, which calls attention to itself for being singular. What did the self-portrait form allow you to do that the persona form didn’t? In other words, why does that one self-portrait surface among the many persona poems?

Much of the time I operate via instinct and intuition. This means I am not very good at card games—when I should be counting how many of a suit have been played, I decide to play the ten of hearts because it seems like the thing to do. I included the self-portrait poem because it seemed to fit. In retrospect, I think a self-portrait poem introduces the idea that each of us may be related to the women or a particular woman in the book and may see parts of ourselves in their lives. Another view is that “Self-Portrait as Janis Joplin’s Porsche” could be the disassociated voice of Janis speaking.

Charles Wright said, “The poem is a self-portrait/ always, no matter what mask/ You take off and put back on.” When I was composing the poems, I was not aware of the overlapping spaces between the voices in the poems with my own voice. But in review I would concede they exist. For example, I think of my career conflicts after receiving an advanced degree and trying to fit into opportunities dictated by the male wage earner’s choices.

DP: Can you speak a little bit about the various forms you work with in this collection, from the tried and true ballad to the tweet?

I am attracted to forms partly because of the challenge they impose on writing. The form means that choices such as syntax, rhyme, meter and word use are partly outside my control so my creativity gets pushed and directed to new paths. The poet Barbara Hamby who is a master of the abecedarian form says that “the whalebone corset of the alphabet” forces her to make wild associations that she would not have otherwise made. She describes the form as like a high-speed elevator to the deep self. I agree with Hamby that form can be a way to “grab hold” of the unconscious and “yank it to the surface.”

The idea of historical figures discovering modern technology like tweeting or writing a blog was an imaginative leap that was too fun to resist.

DP: One of my favorite poems in your book is “Emily Dickinson Observes Lent,” where E.D. takes a break from her signature punctuation mark—the dash—to explore other forms of punctuation. Can you talk about where the concept for this poem came from?

I am interested in the idea of sacrifices that people choose to make. For Lent, sacrifice has a religious origin. I suspect I started this poem around Lent after reading about what people chose to give up for the period. Dickinson was raised in a family of devout Christians, but at some point her beliefs became more independent. I imagined she would find giving up something for Lent an exercise in humility. And, in her case, giving up her much-used dash would have been a major sacrifice.

Risking being struck down by lightning for my audacity, I tried to channel Dickinson’s use of diction, syntax and slant rhyme. For the poem I used alternating lines of eight and six syllables, the meter of hymns that Dickinson often used.

DP: What is next on the horizon for you? What projects are percolating?

Promotion efforts for my book have taken me away from writing, so I will devote energy back to writing. Poems for a second manuscript, I suspect, will be more personal and not as tightly focused as the women’s voices project. But I imagine there will be a theme discovered as part of the writing process—maybe it will be self-portrait poems or odes—that will thread through the collection and stitch it together.

Writer, editor, and logophile, DAYNA PATTERSON makes her home in the Pacific Northwest. She earned her MFA from Western Washington University, where she served as the managing editor of Bellingham Review. She is the poetry editor for Exponent II Magazine and the founding editor-in-chief of Psaltery & Lyre.