I was very excited when the opportunity to interview Suzanne Richardson presented itself. Suzanne grew up in Durham, North Carolina. She is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Utica College in New York. Suzanne also served as Editor-in-Chief of our very own Blue Mesa Review from 2010-2012 while she was an MFA student in fiction here at the University of New Mexico. Her writing (in all three genres) can be found in New Haven Review, The Journal, Front Porch, Southern Humanities Review, Prick of the Spindle, Pank Magazine, and many other literary journals. Suzanne and I had a lovely conversation about her upcoming poetry chapbook, The Softest Part of a Woman is a Wound, the sexiness of second person, and the struggles of being a woman in the publishing world. The following is the result of our conversation.
Blue Mesa Review: Tell me a little bit about the book and how it came to be.
Suzanne Richardson: One of the things that I was able to do at the University of New Mexico, which isn’t true for every MFA program in the United States, is that I was able to take classes outside of the genre that I was originally looking to study (fiction). I was able to take a poetry class with Dana Levin. A lot of the poems that I generated for this project came from that class. The book travels across the United States, where the first half is about the West with a lot of its imagery, and then the second half of the book is about returning to the East. I use the coastlines to contrast setting, subject matter, and theme.
BMR: Since you work across all three genres, do you feel like ideas for a piece in each genre come to you differently? Or is it all across the board for you?
SR: I think with poetry I usually get a line or some kind of random phrase. Or I’ll have an idea. Right now I’m working on, possibly a hopeless little cycle of poems about Disney characters. It sounds terrible. I haven’t decided if it’s terrible or not. It was prompted by a dare that came from another poet friend of mine in the area. We were talking randomly at a coffee shop, and I was like, “You know what, no one ever talks about how Goofy is a widower.” What I meant was that he has a wife in a few cartoons, and then she kind of goes away. It becomes clear that she passed away, but they never show it or talk about it, and we grow to accept Goofy as a single parent. I find that weird pop culture stuff where they don’t talk about tragedy to be so strange. And so my poet friend’s dare was to write a poem about Goofy being a widower, and that’s what I did.
In terms of my fiction, I’ve found that it’s very voicy, which I think a lot of my poems are too. I write a lot of persona poems. My poetry is closer to my fiction, I think, than any other genre. I’ll get a voice in my head for fiction. I’ll be in the shower and this voice will start talking to me or coming through and there’s a story already attached in some ways. I write a lot in first person, in terms of fiction. Usually it’s a retelling of something that’s happened to a character. I feel like that’s partially a weakness of my fiction. I have a hard time going to third person or omniscient because I really start with a voice first. I tried to write in second person for a long time, but it’s so damn… sexy or something. I don’t know what it is, but it doesn’t quite work for me. I always have to write in first person at least in one draft and then I can change it.
BMR: I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve read of your work, especially the nonfiction piece “How to Explode,” and the poem “When cleaning out the closet I find your needles.” I’m interested in how people responded to your work in the MFA program and how they respond to it now. I’m really disappointed that the idea is still out there that if a woman takes on intense topics, it’s just seen as doing emotional work, whereas men are never labeled that way. I wonder if you’ve run into any of that?
SR: I felt so safe in the MFA. I had the most amazing colleagues and the most supportive professors. Even when a professor wasn’t connecting to my work, they were able to communicate in the kindest way possible that they just didn’t get it or that they just weren’t sure what I was doing. People always say writers either overwrite or underwrite their first drafts, and I’d say I generally underwrite. Then I have to go back and delicately add details so you’re not over explaining and hitting people over the head with things.
BMR: What about your work now, especially “How to Explode?” How have people responded to that piece in particular?
SR: “How to Explode” is a really intense essay and it deals with a lot of issues that could be considered “hysterical” like unrequited love, loneliness, and searching for meaning in every nook and cranny. These are not world changing issues. I’m not solving racism, or curing cancer in this essay–not even close. Women are often told they focus too much on their feelings or “things that don’t matter,” etc., but I think writing about feeling pretty alone and miserable can be relatable and it can help someone else whose felt that way. The human experience is large, why isn’t there room for essays about selfish, unpretty feelings, and why do those essays or pieces of writing have to be devalued or categorized in such a way that makes them seem less crafted or reliable? I feel similarly about the title “Chick Lit.” Fear of Flying by Erica Jong is considered “Chick Lit” and it’s one of my very favorite books of all time. Why can’t it just be literature? Maybe because it’s about sex and desire and affairs and boredom within a marriage. You know who wrote a very similar book? John Updike, and you know what he’s considered? A literary master. It’s like saying if it comes from a woman, we have to immediately say “It’s not true, it’s irrational, it’s unreasonable, it’s hormonal, it’s less than the truth.” If it comes from a man it’s the Truth—capital T—and it’s insightful.
No one has ever told me, to my face at least, that they didn’t like the subject matter in my work. Of course I’m sure people think the things I write are crazy. Students google me and find it, and look at me differently…. more distant family members, colleagues—it happens. If my work alienates people I’m okay with it. One of the reasons I wrote the very first essay I ever published “Throw it Up” (which was about my relationship with my ex-boyfriend who was a heroin addict) was that I kept looking for books about what I was going through and I couldn’t find ANY. Years later I knew I had to write it just in case someone else was up all night worried about their addict partner, feeling like they were floating away from everyone and everything on an iceberg. I’m not afraid to admit what I’ve been through and done if it might reach someone who needs to hear they aren’t alone.
Of course now people talk to me a lot of about my chapbook title, The Softest Part of a Woman is a Wound, and they say “Oh what’s that? Are you writing about vaginas? Are vaginas a wound?” and I always say “Maybe!” My work is very female. I’m not ashamed. I grew up reading Erica Jong, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Sharon Olds. There’s blood and longing and vaginas and sex and anger and fruit and mold and plants and hair. It’s all there. I’m not apologizing and that doesn’t make it untrue.
The Softest Part of a Woman is a Wound (Finishing Line Press) is due out on September 18th. Suzanne is currently working on a memoir about being the partner of an addict.
Brenna Gomez is the Editor-in-Chief of Blue Mesa Review