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Interview: Sandra Simonds

         

 

Sandra Simonds is a prolific poet, critic, mother, and professor. She is the author of five poetry collections: Orlando (Wave Books, forthcoming), Further Problems with Pleasure (University of Akron, 2016, and winner of the 2015 Akron Poetry Prize), Steal It Back (Saturnalia Books, 2015), The Sonnets (Bloof Books, 2014), Mother Was a Tragic Girl (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2012), and Warsaw Bikini (Bloof Books, 2009). She is also author of a free electronic PDF collection,  Untitled Collage Poems (Bloof Books, 2016). A sixth print volume, Orlando (Wave Books), is forthcoming in 2018, and Simonds is working on another collection, Atopia. Please see five poems from Atopia and a review of Further Problems with Pleasure elsewhere in Aquifer.

 

Reading Simonds’ work is not unlike plugging into high-voltage poetica, fused with the hard metal of keen intellect, unmistakable humor, the reality of ourselves as sexual beings, and charged with political and social thematic waves. Nothing is at rest in these poems; they shout and taunt, but mostly they invite an engagement to language throbbing with 21st-century life.

 

Judith Roney for The Florida Review:
I’m thinking I was first introduced to your poetry when I received my May/June [2017] issue of The American Poetry Review, and was intrigued by your poem, “Dear Chris,” which is the first of three poems featured in the issue. It’s a hardworking poem, “long,” and of an eclectic construction that gives it restless energy.

 

Contemporary epic, or “long” poems, are my latest poetry-drug, so when I read an excerpt from Orlando in The Brooklyn Rail’s e-journal, I was smitten with its forty-eight flowing tercets, where the speaker seems to address the city of Orlando, but soon we’re accompanying the speaker in a kind of kinetic stream-of-consciousness journey, passing through the land of the body as if were a fantasy theme park like Disney World, which is referred to several times in the poem.

 

The form works fabulously against the energy, creating marvelous tension. Thoughts echo in my reader’s mind of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, yet I sense you, the poet, clearly enter at multiple points. For example, we see the speaker at their desk, trying to compose on a laptop, but they are interrupted, first by the action of another, then technology fails, and the work is lost. A hard-copy diary is remembered: “. . . and that is precisely the moment you fell out of love with me, / abandoning me to the very diaries and bookshelves of my consciousness, both as a teenage/girl and now as a middle aged woman, so I tried to figure out what I could have done back then, / what confession, what moment of weakness, what apology had driven you out of my life, / so abruptly . . .”

 

You have a collection soon to be published (2018) from Wave Books called Orlando. I’m excited about this as both a poet, and as a university instructor in Orlando; is the entire collection an epic poem, or is Orlando a long poem contained therein? Where did this spring forth from?

 

Sandra Simonds:
First, thank you for this question because I’m really excited to talk about Orlando, which I think of as an epic feminist poem that reads like fiction or memoir. In terms of structure, Orlando is composed of two sections. The first section is forty pages and each page is four very long-lined tercets; the second part of the epic is written in a kind of spiraling open form. The second part of the book, in fact, was initially forty or so discreet poems with titles that I, upon revision, transformed into one long second section called “Demon Spring.”

 

I chose the long poem form because I wanted to work in the tradition of the epic which is historically so heavily inflected with masculine energy. The “epic” has been coded “male” and I was interested in the challenges of writing an epic poem given the gender history. Who is allowed to write our history? Of course, I’m not the first woman to do this. Several feminist long poems that influenced me in this project come to mind including Alice Notely’s The Descent of Alette, Annie Allen by Gwendolyn Brooks, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts, and Loba by Diane di Prima.

 

You are right to note that “Orlando” in the poem is an unstable character—sometimes Orlando is a city, other times, Orlando is a lover, and other times Orlando is an idea or set of ideas. When I wrote the book, this instability wasn’t intentional but it turned out to be an effective way that I could talk about both love and relationships using this figure as well as broader cultural concerns, like materialism, entertainment, the surface and what lies beneath the surface and so on. So the instability of the figure creates a kind of creative and philosophical opening that worked for me and relates to the traditional concerns of epic poetry—telling a historical, social and political story about our times but through a distinctly feminist voice.

 

TFR:
As a poet, and poetry reader for The Florida Review, I find it increasingly rare that a poem both challenges and dazzles me. I find the poems of Further Problems with Pleasure just brilliant. How did you become involved with the subject or theme of your book?

 

Simonds:
I wanted to explore a number of themes at the same time: sexuality, sexual violence, sexual liberation, gender shame, the body, perversity, fantasy and how these things are constructed and defined in late-capitalist society. What are the norms? What is taboo? Lacan says, “Do not give up on your desire,” and I think that’s a sort of jumping off point of this book. Okay, well what does that mean for a single working mother living in the Deep South at this particular point in history? What part of our desire is “ours” and what part of it is manufactured?

 

TFR:
In this collection, is there one poem that worked as the spark for the rest of the pieces? If not, which poem do you feel best anchors the collection for you?

 

Simonds:
I think the “Further Problems with Pleasure” poems that are positioned throughout the book anchor it because these poems bring the book back to the central questions surrounding the nature of desire and, when the book veers away a little bit from these questions, they are brought back to the forefront of the reader’s mind. I also have a lot of affection for the last poem in the book, “Dear Chris,” which I wrote in response to a poem sent to me by the poet Chris Nealon. I was thinking about all of the leftists who stand up in society against hatred and violence against the oppressed. I wanted to both acknowledge the struggles that we have encountered both personally and more broadly as leftists, what we are up against, what we will be up against, but also to say that what we do every day, our actions matter. That what we did here, right now, matters, to each other and to our children and that even though we all come from different backgrounds, my hope for the future, is that our children will not have to face what we have faced and if they do, that they will be comrades, that they will be on the right side of history fighting for the same things.

 

TFR:
I’m always curious what literary fields a poet mines; what are you reading now?

 

Simonds:
I just finished Matthew Rohrer’s The Others, which I thought was great. His storytelling and the way he works with narrative is fascinating. I also just finished Rapture by Sjohnna McCray. I had the pleasure of reading with Sjohnna a few months ago and he gave me the reading copy of his book with all of his notes and directions to himself (Thank you, Sjohnna!). I love the way Rapture tells the complicated story of his relationship to his mother.

 

TFR:
I think I’d go as far as calling your poetry “combustible” and timely for what’s occurring in the both the political and social arena right now. It’s like the lines are “plugged in” and feel energized, so I must ask, any writing rituals you’d like to share? That is, where do you write best, what time of day, tea, coffee, wine or a bag of chips?

 

Simonds:
My only trick is to write when you are so desperate that you can’t not write what you need to write—when you read things in the news, write, when you feel a sense of justice, write. That usually puts a bit of urgency into the writing and makes the poems more resonant, so that when you’re drinking a cup of tea, revising those passionate poems, you don’t take out the passion, but you have some passion to work with and frame. I guess that Wordsworth covered this area long before I did, though.

 

TFR:
As a parent and an academic, a working professor, how do you find or make time to write? Is it easy for you or always a struggle, as in some sort of “compromise”?

 

Simonds:
It’s always a struggle to find time for me because I’m just a very busy person with two young children, but I think because I’ve been writing since I was a child, it’s like second nature to me. I think I’m probably a person who would write in any circumstances—in a jail or in a castle, in a factory or in an office. I can’t imagine not being a writer and writers write.

 

TFR:
Who (or what) acts as your muse? Or, perhaps there’s a particular subject you find you keep coming back to again and again?

 

Simonds:
The dead, the people who have struggled before us for social justice, the unborn, the people who will need our writing when we are dead. My themes usually center around the political—I want to make poems that are both political and creative, that are political but not obvious rants or propaganda, that touch people, that make people think.

 

TFR:
In your writing process, would you say you write more by logic (doing research, creating notes, etc.) or intuition, or some combination of the two?

 

Simonds:
I go on intuition and sound always. I have an idea or an impulse and I just follow my gut. Sometimes it’s wrong but more often than not it isn’t. I think that this kind of leap of faith is what you have to really develop and nurture.

 

TFR:
Anything that people THINK they know about your poetry, that isn’t so?

 

Simonds:
I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what people think about my poetry so, honestly, I have no idea.

 

TFR:
What projects are you working on at the present, and what subjects do you feel are calling you for future projects?

 

Simonds:
I’m working on an epic political poem called “Atopia.”

Judith Roney

Judith Roney’s fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in numerous publications. Field Guide for a Human was a 2015 finalist in the Gambling the Aisle chapbook contest. Her poetry collection, According to the Gospel of Haunted Women, received the 2015 Pioneer Prize. A memoir piece, “My Nickname was Frankenstein,” is nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She confesses to an obsession with the archaic and misunderstood, dead relatives, and collects vintage religious artifacts and creepy dolls. Currently she teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida, and is a staff poetry reader for The Florida Review.