Welcome back! Today's interview is with Susannah Simpson, author of the poetry collection titled Geography of Love and Exile, published by Cervena Barva Press. Susannah has been kind enough to share with us her experience entering the world of publishing, no doubt a topic that will be of great interest to readers of this blog. If you like what you hear from Susannah today, please make sure to pick up a copy of her book!
On to the interview!
Where did the idea for this collection start?
Susannah: Probably my poem Band-i-Amir was the start of Geography of Love & Exile. I wrote it almost 40 years ago when I was a kid living in upstate New York farm country and found myself still profoundly affected by the beauty of Afghanistan. My family had been living in Afghanistan and had been back in the States 6 or seven years when I wrote it. While we were in Afghanistan we took a family vacation to the Helmand Valley (Central Afghanistan) to see Band-i-Amir. It is a remarkable collection of glacial runoff lakes which have an unearthly blue-turquoise hue. The name loosely translated from Persian means “king: who’s memory and spirit will never die” I am routinely haunted by places I have lived, the images, smells, and sounds stay with me and live inside me. Some might call it a form of obsession--for example, there is an otherwise unremarkable street in Key West that drifts into my interior vison; I see the shade on the sidewalk under one of the overhanging banyan trees, and the sun on the grey clapboard siding of a particular house on Evernia St. I don’t know why that particular vision erupts or subsides, or even why that street, or that house. But my poem Cayo Hueso is a direct result of that deep nostalgia which manifests as a poetic homage.
Had you ever published anything quite like this before?
Susannah: This is my first published book---my poems have been published in a number of literary journals—but this is the first published full length collection. I have two more manuscripts waiting for final proof, editing, and publishing. The next book: Death, Desire and Dishabille (which is French for half-undressed!) is a two-part collection of poems. The first section examines different kinds of death and the second half are poems which explore different kinds of sensuality. The third book is a collection of studies of people and creatures titled: Etudes.
How long did this project take to complete?
Susannah: I started submitting poems to literary journals in 2005, and by 2010 I began putting the manuscript together. This was an intuitive process because as I looked at piles of poems I began to see how the poems were aligning themselves into an organic order. THEY really made the decisions about arrangement and final thematic thread of the book. This manuscript was ready for publication (minus some minor tweaking) in early 2011 and was accepted for publication in the winter of 2011, then finally rolled off the presses in 2016.
For those of out there who are still seeking a publisher, how did you eventually connect with Cervena Barva Press? Can you discuss the process?
Susannah: I was fortunate to meet NYC poet George Held at a workshop he was teaching. At that time I was hosting a monthly poetry reading on Long Island and invited him to be a featured reader. George is a gifted teacher and a prolific writer. At this count he has 13 or more books of poetry published, has been nominated for Pushcart prize and is asked to read all over the New York area. He became a mentor and inspiration to me, so when my manuscript was ready I showed it to him. He then recommended I contact Cervena Barva’s publisher. I contacted her, told her George had suggested I submit to her, then sent my manuscript. Within about two days she replied with an acceptance for publication. The publisher is running a small press, working full-time and doing her own writing, so she is very, very busy. Originally the book was set to come out in 2013, then 2014, 2015 and finally it happened in 2016. I wasn’t privy to the whys and wherefores of the delays as these were behind the scenes, but I admit there were times when I had lost hope of ever seeing my book in print. As it turned out the book is beautifully done and I am very pleased.
You’ve lived in a number of interesting locations. What place would you return to if you could?
Susannah: My sisters and I often talk about returning to Afghanistan, but are afraid that years of war, conflict, and destruction would make it be too sad to go back. More recently I fell in love with and really long to go back to Johnson City, NY. Johnson City is a grimy, factory town but oh, does it have soul! In fact I am convinced the Susquehanna River and I are soul mates. As a result of my love affair with Johnson City , I wrote and got to read a portion of my tribute 16 stanza poem a “Johnson City” on WSKG/NPR during April 2011’s National Poetry Month—that was a high point!
What inspires you as a poet?
Susannah: Other writers inspire me. I was first deeply influenced by WWI poets Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. I know when I am reading a really fine author when I find myself itching to write while I am reading them. It ALWAYS happens when I read Hemingway, Fitzgerald and especially the Soldier poets of the Vietnam War: Weigl, Bowen. Also Joy Harjo, Szymborska and a super favorite of mine: Naomi Shihab Nye. These writers inspire me to edit out any bullshit and get to the heart of the matter.
What advice can you give to poets and authors who are just getting started?
Susannah: Rector the founder of the MFA Writing Seminars at Bennington used to show the clip from Glen Garry Glenn Cross to the new students. It is the scene where Alec Baldwin is shaming the salesman to: “A-B-C --Always be closing!” Or as Churchill said: “Never, never give up!” If your poems are rejected, send them out again right away to someone else. If one bookstore or coffee shop won’t let you host a reading—find another. In this predominant L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry scene, Narrative poetry gets a bad rap as old-fashioned, sentimental or confessional AND self-indulgent, but narrative poets are storytellers and it is through our commonalities, our shared human emotional devastations, fears, and ecstasies-- these stories which offer connection. Who could say narrative poets are not needed in this dystopian and polarized political climate?
Emily Dickinson or Edgar Allan Poe?
Susannah: Of course I admire the brevity and clarity of Dickinson and am thrilled by the lush edginess of Poe—but I am more of a Rumi, Rilke and Neruda girl. If anyone needs to sway a lover—Neruda’s Sonnet 17 is a guaranteed home run!
What your favorite movie from the 80’s?
Susannah: Hands down-Out of Africa—I re-watch it every year. I love everything about it—the music, sweeping cinematography, Victorian costumes, steamy love scenes—and the part where I always cry—not when Finch-Hatten dies—but when Baroness Blixen has to say goodbye to Farah—and to Africa. I suppose it evokes in me the distress I felt saying goodbye to my first love, Afghanistan—a place I had spent my childhood.
Where can we buy your book?
Thanks so much for sharing your insight with us Susannah! Readers- go out and pick up a copy of Geography of Love and Exile today! You will not regret owning this incredibly original collection of poetry.
This is the first in our new series of author interviews. As mentioned before, it's been a little while since our last series, but we're excited to get started again meeting the newest and most exciting new writers out there. Who's next?
As always, check out what's cookin' on my twitter page, @RimerTom for more author interviews and news from me as I continue on in my seemingly never-ending quest toward Author-dom.