Susanna Lang is a Chicago-area educator and the author of three collections of poetry: her most recent release, Tracing the Lines is available from Brick Road Poetry Press. Chicago Literati caught up with Lang to ask a few questions on writing, the connection between education and poetry, and her new book in advance of her upcoming reading with Carol Gloor on April 26th at Women and Children First.
What's the story behind the cover of Tracing the Lines and the apparent relationship of your work to visual art?
The cover is a drawing by a good friend, Alan Loehle. He has been working with the juxtaposition of significant images from many traditions and experiences, almost a collaging of images and references, and I feel that my poems often do the same thing. And of course, the image is a line drawing, which works with one of the meanings of the title. I've written some ekphrastic poems in response to visual art, including “Special Exhibit” in this collection, written in response to an exhibit of Michelangelo's work, but it's not my most frequent starting point.
There's a universalized misconception in the writing world that academic degrees are the fixed and usual route to producing and publishing work. Has your involvement with the Chicago Public Schools and involvement with other educational systems been conducive to Chicago's confluence of higher level academics and poets independent of that scene?
To be honest, I often feel like an outsider because I do not have an MFA and I do not work in academia, which provides so much support to writers. It took me a while to find my voice and to find my way in poetry, even though I started early. But I think being outside academia--where I grew up, as my father taught at the university level--has kept my poetry grounded. And I've found writing circles where I can give feedback and receive it, and keep my work growing.
I have worked to bring my writing practice into the public school classroom, and I believe it is crucial to model a writing life for kids. My current students are excited about this book even though the poems were not written with children in mind as readers. But it's lovely to have them as cheerleaders.
Do you find yourself revisiting memory, imagination or immersion most frequently in your creative process? The natural imagery and imagery of the country doesn't really feel like Illinois, then suddenly there's a turn and we're in a coffee shops. Then explicitly in Chicago, then we're in another country again. Now a leaf, next a tree; finally an entire orchard.
The poems are set in different landscapes, some in Chicago, some in landscapes I've never visited, others in the Pacific Northwest or north Georgia where I've spent time though I don't live there. Traveling has always been helpful in generating poems, but the poems of witness are very often set in worlds I've only read about. And you might be surprised to find that some of the poems you don't recognize as set in Illinois really are Chicago poems. I look for the natural world even within the city.
What has your experience been when telling people who might not be familiar that you write poetry? That you have work in journals like The Baltimore Review, New Directions, jubilat? Are the surprised? Do your students know?
Unfortunately, poetry has a limited audience in America, unlike other countries. People feel that they should be impressed with poetry so they often say something encouraging even if they do not read it on a regular basis. But my students and my teaching colleagues do take it seriously, and I feel warmed by their support. Recently I gave a reading in an assisted living facility and found an audience that was seriously interested in poetry although none of them are poets themselves, unusual in a bookstore or coffeehouse reading. I think my parents' generation--the World War II generation--may be the last generation when poetry was read in the general population.
Is there any advice you can give for keeping poetry an active presence in your daily life?
Years ago, when I had a very young child as well as my full-time (and more than full-time) teaching responsibilities, I participated in a workshop at the University of Iowa's summer writing festival. My teacher, the wonderful poet Michael Dennis Browne, insisted that for the week that I was there I should set aside a regular time and place to write, even though I felt that was impossible in my ordinary life. I became addicted, and now I get up extra early to write or read each day before school. It's sacred time, time that I don't allow anything to interrupt. Summers also give me time to write bigger and deeper, along with revising my curriculum. I think that if it's important, you have to make time for it. My mother has always played piano no matter what other commitments she had, no matter that now her hands are crooked and painful from arthritis. That is her sacred time, because the piano feeds her soul. I get cranky and a little crazy when I can't write.