Personal, Political, and Poetic: A Conversation with Susan Briante

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Susan Briante’s third book of poems, The Market Wonders, came out from Ahsahta Press in February 2016. The Kenyon Review calls it “masterful at every turn.” The Volta writes of how the book is “hyper-aware of… political and socio-economic status, military growth and deployment, racial incarceration, and the history of children’s insurance,” which only partly captures the breadth of it. The book touches each social and capitalist construct and traces their dangers back to the home, to texts of faith, to fairy tales, to everything personal. Carmen Giménez Smith says that the book, “asks its readers to pay careful heed of the markets’ inescapable trespass into our interior lives.”

As disruptive as the market’s trespass is, so too are the poems in their formal play with disruption. Poems take shape in prose, in lines, in sections. Some appear left-justified on the page above poems that scroll across the bottom of multiple pages. Titles reappear; lines repeat. These meditations on the market force a meditative state of their own, sometimes fugue-like, sometimes centering.

Briante has received grants and awards from the Atlantic Monthly, the MacDowell Colony, the Academy of American Poets, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Fund and the US-Mexico Fund for Culture. Her work as a translator has appeared in BOMBBombay Gin, Translation Review, and elsewhere. She’s an Associate Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at The University of Arizona.

Last fall I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Briante about The Market Wonders, which continues to amaze me as I return to it.

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The Rumpus: In three sections of the book, poems appear in series with titles like “October 1—The Dow Closes Down 9509” or “ December 7—The Dow Closes Up 10390” calling out dates and closing numbers. Before I talk about the content, can you speak about the form of these poems and how they came to be?

Susan Briante: The dated poems that include the closing number of the Dow Jones Industrial Average came as a response to the Great Recession. I was struck by the difference between the economic crisis as explained within the financial industry and repeated in popular journalism, and the crisis as lived experience.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average (along with other stock indexes) has become a barometer, THE barometer, for our national health. But it’s an artificial metric. Those numbers have become so abstracted from the actualities of our continued economic crisis (unemployment, foreclosure, underemployment, wage stagnation) that they seem to exert a mystical power over us. I understand how those numbers affect pensions and investments, become a measure of corporate strength. But as someone who is not a major stockholder, I feel as removed from them as I do from some mystical wheel of fortune in the sky, from the string held by the Greek fates.

From 2009 to 2011, I began recording the closing numbers of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. I’d put the number into Project Gutenberg, Bartlett’s quotations, various search engines, letting that number lead me to lines from Paradise Lost or The Odyssey, folk tales, and The Bacchae (just to name a few). From these texts, as well as my own notes and observations, I made a poem a day for each day the market was open, to sketch a relationship of tension and influence between economic crisis and the lyric. I also wanted to imitate the way the stock market was sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely welding its influence over my life. As I kept working through these poems I came up with other ways of incorporating numbers, such as numerology, and began to use other forms of non-traditional data, like recording and interpreting dreams.

In this strange way, The Market Wonders became the most procedurally driven as well as the most directly autobiographical book I’ve written.

Rumpus: Below those “Dow Closes” poems, run couplets, at the bottom of the page, under a series of dots, like a ticker. They can be read as a long poem, page to page, across the sections. The first section of the ticker poem juxtaposes parts of Revelations with the story of a samurai. The second shoves Revelations right up next to one of my favorite fairy tales, The Wild Swans, The Six Swans—I don’t even know which version, there are so many. I watched an animation I loved when I was young. The third section puts it all together, plus poets! I love this ticker poem dearly, especially for how the couplets interact with the poems above them, but also as a poem itself. I love giant project books in general because they take someone else’s fascinations and make them fascinating to me. Will you talk about your connections to Revelations and the story of the samurai and the fairy tale?

Briante: The ticker poem came as a meta-reflection, not just on capitalism and the stock market, but on counting and accounting across cultures. I remember being struck by the sheer quantities of numbers represented in Revelations. I started recording them, as well as trying to understand their function. Scholars of Revelations say that measuring or counting was linked to prophesy. That seemed analogous with finance as well. Those who know how to read, predict, manipulate markets are called “masters of finance” or “wizards of Wall Street.”

After writing and thinking about Revelations, I started searching for myths, stories, and folk tales in which counting or accounting played a role. The story of Okiku (sometimes translated as “The Dish Mansion at Banchō”) and “The Wild Swans” traced intersections between counting, power and gender that reverberated for me. Often, counting or accounting is about control (“We spreadsheet…”) as well as about obsession.

Today we have news tickers, sports tickers, weather tickers running across our television screens, all manner of information mashed up without a clear connection or narrative. In a similar way, I wanted the ticker poem to feel unrelenting, a scrolling disaster—not necessarily linear—spinning out of control, barely contained within the couplets.

Rumpus: The book production nerd in me wants to hear more specifically about how you made it happen, if you’re interested in going there.

Briante: I don’t have design experience, so I sent Janet Holmes (publisher and general force of nature behind Ahsahta Press) a mock-up in which I had printed out the ticker couplets and taped them to the bottom of pages. It was very old school. Janet gave me a kind of translation of what my margins should be in Word in order to fit on the book page. I edited the poem with those margins in mind. Then I sent her the poem and she laid it out, and sent it back to me. I made edits and we went back and forth (thank you, Janet!) as I worked the poem into the ticker couplets and found interactions between couplets and the poems they shared the page with. Janet researched stock market tickers and got the idea for the ellipses. I incorporated those varied spaces within the poetic line. Then we went back and forth trying to find just the right font and size to allow the ticker to be legible without overwhelming the poem above.

Rumpus: I love that description of process! I also wanted to ask about how these poems fought with me on the page. I wanted to read the bottom first sometimes, the top other times, I skipped the titles on the right hand of the page, then I remembered they were there, and on and on. I felt like my eye was being retrained on how to read, how to dance across the page. I was wondering if you want to speak to how you consider reading experiences and how they are, how they might be, etc.?

Briante: I wanted to create multiple reading possibilities, so I really appreciate you sharing your experience. I’ve always been interested in the poem as a record of a mind’s attention, and I wanted the design elements of this book to create an experience in distraction (or potential distraction) for the reader.

The design highlights the difficulty of negotiating simultaneously competing and interwoven but incoherent narratives of the present. While the main poem may focus on an anecdote, a moment or a series of images, the title, with its recording of the date and Dow closing, as well as the ticker couplet, might pull the eye away, suggesting another source of action, telling another story that runs concurrent or in competition with whatever the poem records. More directly the titles and tickers insist on the constant presence of an economic system that frames and influences lived experience.

Rumpus: We just spoke about formal constructs for a reading experience, but I’m just as excited about the content choices, the way you ordered the book, the way it escalates. Sometimes I feel like books or individual poems build in a predictable way. If it’s going to get violent, it gets most violent at the end. I love when a poet subverts that. The most terrifying moment in your book, for me, was on page thirty-two, quietly tucked into a footnote. The line would read, “Can you imagine the Market picking up his daughter from school dragging her across a playground touching everything…” But instead it reads, by strikethroughs and italicized additions, “Can you smell the Market picking up your daughter in its teeth dragging parts of her body across a landscape touching everything…” What a transformation! It’s unlike anything else in the book. Would you share your thoughts about this moment—how it came to be or how you seeing it functioning?

Briante: Two sections in the book, under the title, “The Market is a Parasite that Looks like a Nest,” include poems inspired by the personification of financial markets. Journalists and analysts talk about how the market rallies, the market reacts, the market “gets jitters.” I decided to push that personification into a fully blown character: a middle-aged man, not necessarily an evil person, just someone who did not understand or did not want to understand the repercussions of their actions. I think it was an attempt to point to our complicity with the system. Looking back on those poems, I worried that they might be interpreted as making light of the violence and injustice implicit in corporatism.

In the 2005 documentary, The Corporation, the filmmakers wonder: in granting the corporation the legal rights of a person—an act of legal personification—what kind of “person” are we enabling? What kind of “person” is the corporation? Using the diagnostic criteria of the World Health Organization and the DSM IV, and interviews with CEOs and economists, the filmmakers discover that “institutional embodiment of laissez-faire capitalism meets the diagnostic criteria of a psychopath.”

In my own personification of the market, I wanted to signal that whatever compassion, even humor, I provide through this character, the actual market in our corporatist state acts in brutally evil ways. That footnote serves as a reminder.

Rumpus: The book builds in this remarkable way, towards family, towards its feminist strokes, to the last poem, “Mother Is Marxist.” I’d love to hear your thoughts about order, structure and arc.

Briante: Given all of the ways in which this book tries to map an affective experience that is autobiographical, I wanted to remind my readers that my gender, class, and race mediate my experience.

In addition, economics influences structural racism whether we consider how the militarization of police departments influence the ways those departments engage with communities of color or how economic policy and violence drives immigration. We are all implicated in these outcomes, by the purchases we make, the votes we cast, the neighborhoods we live in. “Mother is Marxist” moves beyond a critique of corporatism and the market economy, as currently practiced in the United States, to highlight all the ways in which the system makes us complicit in state violence and racism, both in the United States and abroad.

Despite the so-called free market, one has the overwhelming sensation of living a life out of one’s control in which you can’t choose to live ethically. In the wake of Citizens United, the ethical choice isn’t on the table. I keep thinking of the song “Paper Planes” in which M.I.A. sings “Already going to hell, just pumping that gas…” How does one “stop pumping that gas,” for example, in communities without investments in public transportation, bike lanes, etc.? How does one become non-complicit? How does one feel agency? Obviously, we can’t just resign ourselves to our complicity.

Rumpus: You name some of your influences in the book, like “The Book of the Dead” by Muriel Rukeyser, but could you speak more about who/what/where has influenced you and the creation of this book? Do you have necessary reads to suggest?

Briante: I admire Muriel Rukeyser and CD Wright for their work as documentarians, their fierce sense of social justice, the generosity of their vision, and their ability to both empathize with those in circumstances vastly different from their own as well as to know the limits of that empathy. I turn to Bernadette Mayer for her pioneering use of documentary methods to investigate the self in books like Memory and Midwinter Day. And Juliana Spahr, Bhanu Kapil, and Anne Boyer also inspire me for their amazing prose experimentation on the page, the work they do off the page in the community and classroom.

Rumpus: Reading your book, I feel I owe numbers more of my time, the consideration of numbers and values, valuations. I saw it on page five with, “I wish more poets would write about money,” but I felt it so strongly by the end with, “The work of all mothers is not equal, although the goal to challenge market valuations may be the same. The market exploits our attachments, makes its violent calculations. The market, mothers, divides and divides us.” I still don’t know how to let that into my work, but I’m so glad you’ve planted the seed. How did you come to numbers?

Briante: I grew up in a family transitioning from the working class to the middle class. My father went to college, the first generation in his family. My mother did not. I grew up comfortable, but with a sense of precarity. My mother always worried about money.

As an adult, I have a middle-class income and no wealth. I am part of a generation living with a much smaller social safety net than those that came before us. I’m still paying off my student loans. I’m paying off a house. I’m not confident about retirement or how I will pay for my child’s college education. And I am incredibly lucky. On a personal level, numbers are present all the time in my life in very real ways as I track expenses, try to budget, etc.

On another level, our corporatist economy touches everything and puts at risk our democracy, our environment and the futures of our children. Those numbers undergird every narrative.

Rumpus: How would you describe your relationship to numbers now, after writing this book, after paying so much attention to numbers?

Briante: A preoccupation with economics runs through all of my books. In Pioneers in the Study of Motion, I wrote poems with titles like “Love in the Time of NAFTA.” In the first poem of my second book, Utopia Minus, the market as a character makes its first appearance. That said, no book takes on the economy as so central a subject as does The Market Wonders.

I am writing now more generally about big data accumulation and what that means for poets as investigators and documentarians. I am also thinking about how we put affective experience and alternative forms of knowledge in relation to scientific knowledge. So I am writing these very long poems/lyric essays that often consider an intimate relationship through which the pressures of larger issues or concerns express themselves. One piece, “Towards the Shoreline,” explores the ethics of my choice to have a child in times of precarity and climate change. Another cross-genre text, “The Messengers,” considers the Heaven’s Gate cult, comet science, and a controversial practice known as Inducing Communication After Death within a meditation on my mother’s death, our relationship and legacies of family trauma.

The Market Wonders highlights how our economic system distorts, impacts and impinges on lived relations. It’s also a book that traces my becoming a mother. Personal relations remain at the center of my interests. In a way, my obsession with the economic system reflects a national obsession with our economy and its potential to generate wealth for a small segment of the population at the expense of everything else. Perhaps this obsession points to a way of resistance.

As the poet Uroyoan Noel explains in a recent Harriet blog post, we live in a moment when “the racial logic of the corporate state is laid bare as affording opportunities for a new movement of (anti-racist and working-class) liberation.” Black Lives Matter and the Water Protectors of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe provide models for how to stand up to the violence of our economic system. A recent article in the online magazine Yes! lists seventeen banks funding the Dakota Access Pipeline with the email, phone numbers, and names of their CEOs, urging folks to call the banks, suggesting “banks are more susceptible (than oil companies) to public pressure.” Critiquing the system is only the first step. We can exploit the links between violence and money. Once we understand the system and our place in it, we can work to change it. Poetry can play a role in that understanding, as an art form that works metaphorically, that forges connections and recognizes patterns. But the poem—it is only the beginning.

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Author photograph © Cybele Knowles.


Sarah Blake is the author of Mr. West, an unauthorized lyric biography of Kanye West, out from Wesleyan University Press in 2015. Her first chapbook, Named After Death, is forthcoming from Banango Editions with an illustrated companion workbook. Her epic poem, The Starship, appeared at Berfrois, and shorter poems have appeared in the Kenyon Review, Poetry Northwest, and American Poetry Review. In 2013, she was awarded an NEA fellowship for poetry. She is founder of Submittrs, and lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband and son. More from this author →