It’s embarrassing to admit that when I arrived at Western Washington University’s Master of Arts in English program in the fall of 2001, I could count on two hands—and two hands only—the number of living, breathing writers whose work I knew intimately, whose names had found their way to the tip of my tongue. If I changed the criteria to living, breathing poets, the count dropped to one hand, and my tongue struggled to find their names.
All that was soon to change. During the two years that followed, I was mentored by an exceptional ensemble of contemporary American writers who taught by example that being a writer was not an antiquated identity but rather an ancient and enduring vocation. The first of these was the multi-genre mastermind Susanne Paola Antonetta, with whom I studied poetry and creative nonfiction. She later directed my thesis committee and shepherded me into the literary and academic life long-term.
Susanne and I have kept in touch, and many years later I am thrilled to sate my curiosity with the following questions, which address feminism, marriage, motherhood, and Susanne’s uniquely rhizomatic career as writer, teacher, collaborator, and all-around inspiring creator.
The Rumpus: Yours was the first creative writing course I took in graduate school, and I remember being amazed by the range of poetry we read: confessional, narrative, neo-formalist, nature, and language poems, to name a few. All of these approaches to poeming commingled in that class, and you modeled openness to every one of them. Instead of winnowing my understanding of what a poem could be, you stretched that understanding voluminously. Today I’d like to start by asking you who the poets were who first inspired you to write and who helped affirm your burgeoning identity as a poet.
Susanne Paola Antonetta: First of all, Julie, you are always so kind with your comments on our time together! It means a lot, truly; perhaps my answer may suggest why.
This question of influence has always been intimately tied up with the fact that I grew up in an industrial part of northern New Jersey, dropped out of high school, and had a drug problem, too—not somebody who was reading poetry in any kind of sensible way, or with intellection. I read books—before I got my GED and went to community college, then transferred—that I found in various places: I had an old edition of Shakespeare’s plays, a volume of Wallace Stevens’s poems I got somewhere or other. I had Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. I memorized a lot of what I read, which was crucially important; I did not understand much of this language or the writers’ intentions but I became inhabited by rhythms, in a way I can still summon up: “CALL the ROLL-er of BIG ciGARS,” and so on. I scribbled in notebooks back then, feeling as if the words came from my body, from those rhythms that inhabited me, rolling in from someplace beyond sense.
But I think the question of “affirmation” is a separate question. I was a person who for a long time felt she had no claim to literary utterance, no confidence in claiming such an identity as poet or writer. And I still struggle with this claim—maybe my automatic reversion to third person in regard to myself just now is telling. I ended up leaving the creative writing program of the school where I got my undergraduate degree, and getting a degree in English literature instead. Which was in some ways a good thing—at that age I needed to read more than anything else.
But I also think what happened to me in that program is what a lot of women experience, as well as many others who are just getting admitted into this arena of literature. My teachers understood my educational path but still expected me to know a lot more than I did, and they rejected my writing about the life experiences I had actually had. I remember one teacher not only refusing to workshop a story I wrote but announcing to the class that she was doing so. It was a very lightly fictionalized story about one of my cousins. The teacher told the class she found it “violent.” I felt humiliated and I did not understand—I was told to write what I knew, then when I did, that what I knew was not okay. And the fact was that there had been a great deal of violence in my life. One day a fellow student in that class turned in a poem about driving home to her very rich suburb in Connecticut, and wearing furs, and touring Europe for the summer. The teacher loved it. At that point I thought: I guess there is some code behind this writing business, and I don’t have it.
I have hesitated to answer this question as honestly as I could in the past because I think one of our last taboos is admitting to a lack of authority, in our work or in ourselves—particularly here in the US. We love our braggadocio, and suspect feelings of insecurity, as if we’re all only as good as our ability to out–P.T. Barnum one another. And some writers, generally male writers, ride that braggadocio a pretty long way. I got an advance copy of David Shields’s new book, I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel. The back of the book reads that it will render all future Q&A interviews “laughably artificial.” Now I happen to like David’s work very much, and I expect the book will be fascinating. But whether David or his publicist wrote that language, who would put that phrase on a woman’s book, that it’s so groundbreaking it will render all things similar obsolete? A writer of color’s book? A trans or queer writer’s book?
I do what I do, with some success and plenty of lack thereof. I try to remain in touch with that lost person inside, though; her truth has value. She understood that a code existed, even if she blamed herself for not having it. Now I think what I would like to try to do is help get as many others as possible through the door.
Rumpus: On your website you introduce yourself to visitors playfully: ”I have an alter ego named Susanne Antonetta, who writes most of my prose.” Even as the literary genres are increasingly imbricated these days, how does writing poetry as Suzanne Paola and prose as Susanne Antonetta help you approach your creative endeavors differently than you might otherwise? What can Suzanne Paola do that Susanne Antonetta can’t or doesn’t or won’t, and vice versa?
Paola Antonetta: I often call Susanne Antonetta my evil twin. Actually, I’m kind of consolidating my names right now, using Susanne Paola Antonetta. But for a long time my alternate name formed a key part of my creative process, so I’ll explain her.
Antonetta is a family name. I tell—well into my book Body Toxic—that I’m using a pseudonym and why. My great-grandfather lost his wife and his children to some disease that ripped through the tiny Southern Italian village where he lived, either typhoid or cholera. He and his village were incredibly poor. After the death my great-grandfather sent off for another wife, a woman who was completely forgotten in my family, no clear name, no identity, a bare mention in the Italian Bible that held my family history. I took her name as a statement on behalf of all of the forgotten women in the world.
Susanne Antonetta represented for me women who were lost, who bore children and cooked and serviced the men in their lives and had no other reality, or rather, none that got passed along. I found a more fearless voice in that name. What would she be afraid of, I wondered? Nothing. She had nothing to lose.
Rumpus: I came to your work, as you may know, through Bardo, your first full-length collection of poems and the winner of the 1998 Brittingham Prize in Poetry. I was drawn to the way your speaker described herself in “Tenure at Forty” as “lyric girl who leapt/from one image to the next” and the “Necklace/of impossible moments” she wore. I was also drawn to your poems, “Briseis” and “Red Girl,” where it seems to me now you were using that fearless voice on behalf of forgotten women. I remember thinking as I read lines like “To turn woman is to turn/body” and “I think about this, in a young girl’s bedroom—how we die at fifteen, the critic said, into symbol/and turn part legend” that you were a feminist poet and someone who could teach me, an aspiring poet and feminist, how to be better at both.
Do you consider yourself a feminist writer? What does that word—a word my own students often find threatening or limiting—mean to you? How has your consciousness of forgotten women and others who are erased or overlooked helped shape the writing projects you choose to pursue, and even the images you leap to?
Paola Antonetta: Feminism to me is life’s blood—as a writer and as a human being. I have told the story before, of hitchhiking to NOW meetings as a young high school dropout, so I won’t repeat it all here (the story can be found in Brevity if anyone cares to hear more). That early feminism had its problems, being rooted in middle-class whiteness, but the ideas were powerful and life changing. I find it sad that so many of today’s students reject the term. I think part of what that stems from is less awareness of that process Diderot described, of us women “dying” at fifteen—losing ourselves around the age we come into our sexuality, because at that point the cultural pressure to overwrite us is so intense.
What I tend to hear from younger women today is, “Oh yes, let’s fix that problem, but let’s not go all global and call it feminism.” They might refer to problems like the appalling lack of women being published, as is recorded every year in the VIDA count. We women are most of the country’s readers, but our books are published and reviewed far less often than those of our male counterparts—yet wander through a bookstore, and see how many books and magazines are sold through images of women’s bodies. But to look through a lens of feminism is to see how it is in books as it is in film as it is in walking down the street. The woman who insists on her own power, her voice, is a threat. I can remember being young and living in New York City and walking to my job while men yelled at me to smile at them. And if I didn’t they would often follow me—I mean, belligerent, angry—demanding that I do. Because the smile was not important, but the lesson that a woman does not own her body—it is collectively owned, in a patriarchal culture—was necessary from their view.
I try to function as a woman-oriented woman, particularly as a writer. If I get asked to help with a project, say, write a blurb for a book, or write a tenure review or just promote a work, if it’s a woman’s project, I nearly always say yes. The same is true for anyone outside the publishing mainstream—I want to help that person in particular. I think part of the importance of saying words like feminist is that you are committing yourself to being part of the resistance. I think it is much harder for women to acknowledge the need for feminism than it is, say, to engage in a discussion of racism with people of color, though both terms help us see that the problem is systemic and calls for systemic solution. Part of the problem, I think, is that many well-off women manage to perch on little eyries of privilege, exactly like birds who’ve managed to build a little nest on the side of a cliff. It takes trying to move a step away to realize how little ground is there.
I would say Bardo may be my most overtly feminist book to date, but I am working on a project now that deals with my experience of shock treatment in the early 1970s. I see it as a prose project, a hybrid. The numbers are, sorry for the bad pun, shocking: doctors who used shock gave eighty percent, ninety percent of their treatments to women patients or, as in my case, young girls. Men had to return to work and needed cognitive function; blitzing a woman’s brain was easier to justify. And shock was quite lucrative. It’s upsetting but—if I can do justice by it, which I by no means state that I can—important material to face. Somewhere, somehow we’re no doubt now following the same pattern in our valuation of women. What’s past is prologue.
Rumpus: I’m so excited to hear that you are writing more about the brain and your own experiences with the deeply gendered politics of the mental health complex. As I’m sure I’ve told you by now, your prose volume, A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World, is one of the most important books I’ve ever read. As with your first creative nonfiction book, Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir, as well as your brand-new book of creative nonfiction, Make Me a Mother: A Memoir, you have a literary habit of taking on an enormous subject and approaching it from both an intensely personal and an extensively researched point of view.
Could you talk a bit about how each of these books came to be? Did you intend to write personal narratives about growing up in a heavily polluted region of the country, about your journey with manic depression, about adopting your son Jin from Korea, and then decide to enlarge the frame to include many other people’s stories as well as statistical and sociological research? Or did you begin researching subjects that were of personal interest and then found your own story slipping into the material as you wrote? Or something entirely different? In other words, how do your capacious volumes of literary nonfiction prose get made?
Paola Antonetta: I feel sometimes that trying to see how a book comes to be is like trying to describe a dream. You say, “Well, I was swimming in the Mediterranean and there were scuba divers in shark cages,” but then you stop because you realize that there are a thousand elements to the dream—the way it felt, the shadow of the lost continent of Atlantis down there—that you can’t possibly recapture.
I never feel as if I have any idea where a book will go until it’s finished. I’m a lazy person. If I could summarize something into a few pages, I’d do that! I’ve come to resist placing books by the standard sample-chapters-and-proposal method; my proposals always end up too far from the completed project.
I do have tendencies, though, one of which is to begin with personal narrative in my prose books and become more research-y as I go. I find telling any story triggers intense curiosities. First I just wanted to read the EPA reports on my area of New Jersey for my own benefit, for instance, or learn the history of treatment of the mad, including shipping them out in the middle ages in the so-called ships of fools. Then some pieces of research demand to be in the book. Body Toxic didn’t begin with the story of pollution, at all—it began as a history of my family in the West Indies. But as I wrote the health problems encountered by me and my family members and the disease clusters in our part of the world became a huge, pressing part of the story.
I use research in my poetry, too, particularly so in my book The Lives of the Saints. One long sequence in that book is based on really extensive research on the US Human Radiation Experiments, which went on from the end of the Second World War to the early 1970s. We did some pretty extraordinary and awful things, like injecting homeless men with radioactive isotopes to see what would happen—that experiment is the basis of the sequence, “Patient Six.” Oddly, when I use research in a poem it pretty much always generates the poem, rather than coming in after, as in my prose.
I suppose that ultimately, I am not terribly interested in my own story unless I can connect it to something much larger. I think of Blake proposing that you can see the universe in a grain of sand—every story holds within it a lens on history and the human condition. In a project I’m working on right now, I’m investigating the link between the treatment of the mentally ill in the US and Germany before Hitler came to power—the eugenics movement, which existed before Hitler had any influence at all—and the Holocaust. The first gas chambers were in asylums, and the first victims of gassing were mental patients. Obviously, this speaks to me—a person with bipolar disorder—personally. But I think it also offers a powerful historical lesson, about what small steps can explode into monstrosity.
Rumpus: I’m so glad you mentioned The Lives of the Saints, another formative book for me—and one of my first encounters with persona poetry. The poem you speak of, “Patient 6,” begins, “The premise of science: There must be more./ The premise of art: There must be more./ The premise of history: More. More. More.” These lines are powerful and multivalent, and they mean differently for me every time I read them.
Right now I find myself thinking about being a writer in this competitive publishing market and also about the glutted job market creative writers face when seeking to teach what they love. There is a lot of pressure to do more and be more, publish more and teach more: “More. More. More” seems to be the mantra of our age.
So I guess my question is really a two-part one. First, how do you navigate, and have you navigated, the demands of the publishing world while staying true to yourself and the projects you are most passionate about? How do you balance your writing life with your responsibilities as a teacher of both undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom are writing their own books?
And secondly, what advice do you have for the new generation of emerging writers and writing teachers as they navigate the exigencies of publishing and teaching in 2014 and beyond?
Paola Antonetta: Way to ask the hard questions! Let me take the easier part first. I teach at two places—Western Washington University and City University of Hong Kong. I find that while teaching certainly cuts down on your available unstructured time, it also brings with it an enormous amount of intellectual energy. I’m in dialogue with some of the smartest and most creative people I’ll ever meet—like you, Julie, who attended Western—and with my City U job, I work with folks from all over the world. I am immeasurably lucky. So, while I have to look at my schedule at the beginning of every term and figure out where I’ll get my writing time in—and be flexible when it doesn’t work as planned—I try to keep in mind how many gifts the teaching brings.
The harder part of the question is the demands of the publishing world. The situation with the larger, mostly New York–based, publishing houses has become pretty dysfunctional. Those houses typically sign a lot of books but put their publicity power behind just a few, and they want books with hooks. They want work they can sell easily to an overloaded consumer culture. There’s little room for nuance. The bright side to that situation is the rise of indie houses that are truly amazing: Rose Metal, Black Lawrence, Wave Books—the list goes on and on. I find myself drawn to the riskier works those kinds of houses bring out. But indie presses often cannot get the attention of the reading public. So as a writer, it’s hard. I publish with New York houses—my latest book is from Norton—but I have to accept being a very mid-list level author in this world.
I try to have a baseline for each book I write, as none of my books have been terribly commercially successful. Body Toxic was read aloud at rallies calling for cleaning up parts of southern New Jersey. Once that happened I told myself, okay, baseline met! For my adoption memoir, the baseline is that the book is there for my son to read when he needs it. He’ll know a lot of things most people will never know, in terms of how our family came together.
Another of my personal rules: I do everything I can reasonably do to promote my books. For Make Me a Mother, I even paid for my own radio tour. I created my own blog tour. I put limits on traveling, as I am a mother, but if a reading is important I’ll do everything I can to do it. But once I’ve done what a reasonable writer can do in terms of publicity, I do not obsess. Believe me, I could; I’m kind of like Ulysses stopping his ears so he won’t hear the sirens singing! I do not read reviews of my books unless there’s a good reason. I do not look at Amazon, reviews or numbers. I mean, ever. One night I mentioned this to my son Jin at dinner and he whipped out his smart phone and started reading off reader reviews to me. I hollered and plugged my ears! For me, at least, that way madness lies.
Rumpus: I have one more question for you, Susanne—or rather, I have time and space to ask one more of my myriad questions! This one has to do with collaboration, and it is once again two questions disguised as one.
You mention the “enormous amount of intellectual energy” you gain from your students, and I wonder about the benefits and challenges of working closely with other writers as well. Your co-authored book with friend, colleague, and fellow creative writing professor Brenda Miller, Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, now in its second edition, is quite simply the best guide to the practice of creative nonfiction writing that I have ever encountered. I use it in both my undergraduate and graduate classes, and I frequently draw from the “Try It!” exercises at the end of each chapter for my own creative work. How did this book project come about, and what did you learn about yourself as a writer and teacher through the process of co-authoring this volume with Brenda?
I’m also curious to know, since you are married to another prolific writer and gifted teacher, the poet Bruce Beasley, how your life-collaboration with Bruce contributes to your creative work. For instance, in 2005 your creative nonfiction book A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World was published, and in that same year, Bruce’s Lord Brain, a poetry collection that meditates at length on the nature of the brain, was also published. As a writer, I’m trained to doubt coincidences, and as a former student of you both, I feel certain of the meaningful exchange of ideas that must take place in your home. How do you influence and inspire each other in the work that you do?
Paola Antonetta: You know, Brenda and I knew each other only casually when we decided to collaborate on Tell It Slant—she had recently moved here to Bellingham. A lot of people warned me about collaborating, and how it could turn into a lot of bad feeling and control conflicts, but we had a wonderful time and ended up as really good friends. I think it worked because we did have very complementary styles—Brenda was really fascinated by analysis of the lyric essay; I used a bit more research in my work, more of the bigger picture.
I had not really thought about the timing of Bruce’s Lord Brain and A Mind Apart: funny! As someone who lives with a complex, fascinating and creative person—your wife, Angie Griffin—you must know, Julie, how ninety percent of conversations at any home are of the “Did you pick up cat food?” variety. Bruce and I do share many obsessions—with consciousness, with physics, with the spiritual and metaphysical, construed very broadly. We share what we’re reading and thinking about and we are each other’s first, best readers. I admire Bruce’s writing so much; I feel like it helps me set a higher bar for my own work. And we try to protect one another’s writing space and writing time.
When Bruce and I met, back as undergraduates, eons ago, we were so different, in background, from almost everyone around us. There was a sense of comfort between us, right away. I told that story earlier in this interview, about feeling shut out as a college student, feeling that I didn’t have the code. Bruce gave me an enormous gift of believing in the value of what I had to say. We found in one another an oasis. We still do.