Suzanne Buffam is the author of two collections of poetry, Past Imperfect (2005), which won the Gerald Lampert Award for the best first collection of poetry published in Canada, and The Irrationalist (2010), which was a finalist for the Griffin Prize for Excellence in Poetry. Her third collection, A Pillow Book, is forthcoming in 2016 from House of Anansi in Canada and Canarium Books in the U.S. Born and raised in Canada, she currently lives in Chicago.
Suzanne and I conducted this conversation in fits and starts via email over the winter and spring of 2014/2015. A kind and generous correspondent, Suzanne shared with me the manuscript for her upcoming collection, A Pillow Book. It’s a wonderful collection, full of sharp and surprising humor, and I’m excited to be able to preview some of it here as well as to explore her fabulous previous collections.
* * *
MURRAY: Suzanne, I thought a fun place to begin would be with the poem “Open Water,” from your first collection, Past Imperfect. Here is the poem in its entirety:
In the dream I have been fatally wounded
by a shark and wake up to discover
I have only been seriously maimed.
Another piece of good news
is delivered in the form of a tiny green bug
that circles my head and flies off
in the general direction of spring.
I vow then and there to take action, before
it takes me. The morning gives back
my face, wide-eyed and bulbous, swimming
upside-down in the bowl of my spoon.
I build a raft in the basement out of blankets and string.
My friends all think I’m in Texas,
which, in a way, I am.
What are some states—however defined—that you find yourself in lately? Do those states play out in any particular way in the poems you are working on?
BUFFAM: Ha! I haven’t looked at that poem in over a decade, but I remember the state—and the northern province—I was in when I wrote it. Texas was a pure abstraction to me then—a kind of psychic inverse of my idea of “home,” however abstract that notion had become by then itself.
The older I get, though, the more complicated any idea of “home” becomes. I still find myself in the state of “Texas,” so to speak, from time to time these days, but in real life I live in Illinois, a state I’d never so much as a considered on a map before moving there twelve years ago. Soon I’ll have lived there longer than anywhere else in the world, but it still doesn’t quite feel like home to me. At the same time, though, as a mother, I feel increasingly responsible for creating a stable and reassuring notion of home under my roof. This gets tricky sometimes, and I often feel restless. For the past five years I’ve been working on a manuscript in which various states—marriage, motherhood, home-ownership, resident alien-ship, insomnia, etc.—play out in innumerable, often quite explicit ways.
At the moment, thanks to my husband’s sabbatical and my current state of unemployment, I’m living in the sunny state of Oaxaca, Mexico where corn and bean fields line the hillsides around me and I can’t help finding myself, however briefly, in a somewhat more relaxed state than usual.
* * *
MURRAY: “The Wasp” is a lovely poem. In it, the speaker observes an insect drawn to a basin of soapy water:
…Why doesn’t it drink?
The wall must be an answer to its will.
Madder in amber, blebbed glass, intention
caught on the edge of act—the small
body blurs in the light. Oh I can tell
it wants in. I can tell by the way it resists.
Many of the poems in Past Imperfect seem to embody aspects of resistance implicitly or explicitly—do you find that resistance is a way of entering into things? Are you currently doing any productive resisting?
BUFFAM: Well, I just spent the past hour watching instructional videos by pre-teens on YouTube for how to make a toy stable out of popsicle sticks and a cardboard box—my daughter’s sixth birthday is in two weeks—so I guess I’d have to say that time itself is my main site of resistance these days.
In a sense, every time I sit down to write, and don’t lose myself down the rabbit hole of distraction, I feel as though I am performing a major act of resistance.
The wasp in that poem, like so much in that book, I see now, is poised on the brink of giving in to a temptation that would likely destroy it. My temptations are different, these days, but no less ubiquitous.
* * *
MURRAY: In your second collection, The Irrationalist, the poem “Trying,” is in part a philosophical examination of the process of deciding whether to have children and how much effort to put into it. The poem is often quite funny, and it also points toward Aristotle’s investigations of the rational and irrational, the human and animal, as the genesis of the title of this collection of poems. Does humor belong to the irrational? It also seems to me that the “Interior” poems—“Ruined Interior,” “Infinitive Interior,” “Telescopic Interior,” “Dim-Lit Interior” and “Romantic Interior”—are connected as well to the exploration of irrationality that occurs in the book.
BUFFAM: I’m tempted to say that yes, absolutely, humor belongs to the irrational. A good joke is often absurd in a way that can’t be explained, isn’t it?—at least not without killing what’s funny about it. The few philosophers who’ve written about humor or laughter tend to agree that it’s marked by an overcoming of rational thought, and they tend, therefore, to disapprove of it.
But what about wit? What about irony? What about good old-fashioned self-mockery? Those seem to me pretty rational processes.
There’s an element of unconsciousness to humor, of course, but there has to be an element of extreme self-awareness—even hyper-rationality—as well. The comedians I love most these days—Richard Pryor, Louis C.K., Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer—are at their funniest when pointing out, in an utterly deadpan way, what’s absurd or insane about contemporary life. The figure of the wise fool is the classic example.
The title The Irrationalist is, of course, to some extent tongue-in-cheek. Aristotle distinguished between the human and animal—and between the rational and the irrational—but he also believed that the sun revolved around the earth and that only fair-skinned women could achieve orgasm.
Meanwhile, recent studies show that dogs, rats and monkeys all laugh, and gorillas crack jokes. Does this make them less rational, or more so?
MURRAY: “If You See It What Is It You See” is one of my favorite poems in your second collection:
I didn’t look at the fire.
I looked into it.
I saw a wall of books
Crash down and bury me
Centuries deep in red leather.
I saw a statue in a park
Shake dust from its fist
And a ship called Everything
Sink down on rusted wings.
Ten thousand triangles collapsed
Into a point
And the point was this.
I cannot tell you what I saw.
My catastrophe was sweet
And nothing like yours
Although we may sip
From the same
Broken cup all afternoon.
Could you talk a little bit about this poem?
BUFFAM: Needless to say, perhaps, I was reading a fair bit of mystic philosophy at the time. Insight, enlightenment, presence, encounter: whatever you call it, you can’t really communicate it. The best you can do is talk around it. This is what poems do, too, isn’t it, in their endless raids on the inarticulate? To the best of my memory, this poem was at least in part an exercise in image-making–a quasi-mystic experience itself, if you will. The poem pokes a little fun at itself in the process, by way of those Zen clichés.
* * *
MURRAY: I was excited to see so many wonderful list poems in your forthcoming collection A Pillow Book. Two early ones that caught my attention were “Sooner” and “Resemblances.” Here is “Sooner”:
Sooner strangle an infant in its cradle than attend another baby shower.
Sooner starve than eat clams from a can.
Sooner join the Marines than a book club.
Sooner sleep with a fool than wake up with a wise man.
A squid, like a scholar, disappears behind a cloud of ink.
A housewife, like winter salad, begs to be well-dressed.
Seagulls, like city officials, scream over scraps.
Poets, like potatoes, ripen in the dirt.
A divorce-lawyer, like a dachshund, digs into deep holes.
In his introduction to The Infinity of Lists, Umberto Eco says, “There is the problem of deciding what a figurative list may be. The few books on the poetics of lists prudently limit themselves to verbal lists because of the difficulty in explaining how a picture can present things and yet suggest an ‘etcetera,’ as if to admit that the limits of the frame oblige the picture to say nothing about an immense number of other things. . . . the search for lists was a most exciting experience not so much for what we managed to include in this volume as for all the things that had to be left out.”
As you were writing A Pillow Book, did you find yourself developing a particular poetics of the list? And a related question: Do you have a list of rejected list poems that didn’t make the cut?
BUFFAM: The lists were the first things I wrote for the book—long before I had any conception of a book at all. During the draining, bleary years of early motherhood, I had zero access to any form of interiority and could not, I found, write a lyric poem to save my life. I did find, however, that I was keeping a steady stream of lists (ounces of milk expressed, smashed carrots consumed, diapers to buy at the drugstore, etc.), and I noticed one day that if I squinted at them, my lists bore a faint resemblance to poems. So I started writing poems in the form of lists basically as a way to keep some sort of poem-writing muscle from atrophying completely.
One pleasure—and challenge—of the list, as Eco points out, is what to include and what to leave out. Where to start and where to end are good questions as well. This is true, of course, of all poems. I wanted my lists, like poems, to feel shapely—to enact small trajectories of action or thought—but also to feel partial. By which I mean subjective as well as incomplete. The acerbic and aphoristic lists of a 9th century Chinese poet, Li Shangyin, and those of the wonderfully opinionated Sei Shonagon, of course, were deeply influential on mine. Juxtaposition, speed, asymmetry, compression, surprise: all those very ancient Eastern aesthetic ideals (which also feel very “postmodern” as well) lend themselves perfectly to a poetics of lists. I have dozens of rejected lists. And dozens more titles for lists I never wrote. What a great idea to include a list of them in the book.
MURRAY: A Pillow Book takes insomnia as its ostensible subject yet also considers questions of motherhood, relationships, creativity, academia, and the notion of triviality. The collection also tells the story of Sei Shonagon, a Heian courtesan whose The Pillow Book documents court life in 10th Century Kyoto, and who loves beautiful paper and composes list upon list for entertainment and edification. I’m interested in the play between creativity and the trivial in this collection, something that recurs in the Shonagon poems. Here are a couple of examples:
. . . I now had a vast quantity of
paper at my disposal, reports a nonchalant Shonagon, and
I set about filling the notebooks with odd facts, stories from
the past, and all sorts of other things, often including the
most trivial material.
As a child I lay awake many nights on my pillow with a
flashlight and a box of cards from my favorite board game,
Trivial Pursuit. To this day, I would gladly recite what
Thames bridge one must cross to get to Kew Garden;
which three European countries begin with the letter A; . . . I am not much fun
to play with, apparently, and have gone unchallenged for years.
Did the experience of insomnia lead to this particular exploration? One of the pleasures of this collection is how you’ve take up particularly un-poetic themes in surprising and interesting ways.
BUFFAM: I’ve never been what’s called “a good sleeper,” it’s true. Becoming a mother, perhaps needless to say, didn’t help. After months of writing nothing but lists, I picked up Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book one night (How could an insomniac not be drawn in by that title?), and discovered not only her marvelous lists, but also a vast miscellany of sections in prose that detailed the most exquisite and trivial aspects of life in Heian Japan.
I’ve long been a fan of minutiae, of small or “minor” things. I’m suspicious of grand claims and notions of “greatness,” which have always seemed to me pretty gendered. There’s a passage in Moby Dick, for example, that’s always stuck in my craw, however much I love and admire that book: “To produce a mighty book,” Melville writes, “you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea.” When I read that, of course I couldn’t help long for a mighty volume about a flea.
It may be hard to think of a subject less weighty than pillows. I decided to start writing about my pillow, on a lark, and just see where that subject might lead. Over time, things spun outwards to include, as you point out, a whole range of other subjects—but buried inside each block somewhere is at least pillow—which is possibly the flimsiest, most trivial constraint ever devised.
* * *
MURRAY: There are many poems in A Pillow Book about negotiating a creative life with your daughter, often called “Her Majesty.” I’m thinking about her trying to avoid a nap and saying, “I want to fall asleep when you do, she whispers into my face. I want to wake up when you wake up,” or her insistence on a tiara instead of a toy cat or toy pony when you agree to buy her a treat. These poems also address the old adage that having children means sacrificing one’s creativity—how do these poems answer or engage such concerns?
BUFFAM: Well, I hope that in a sense the answer to that question is self-evident. The book exists, in the end, not in spite of my daughter’s existence, but because of it.
MURRAY: Thank you, Suzanne, for chatting with me about your writing. I’m very much looking forward to the release of A Pillow Book. One final question: are there any particular poets who you’ve been reading or thinking about lately? I’d love to be able to share them on the website.
BUFFAM: Jennifer Maiden is one of Australia’s most prominent poets and yet utterly unknown, as far as I can see, in North America. I came across her book Liquid Nitrogen a few years ago when I was judging an international book prize, and return to it often. Her poems are mostly long, dense, obsessive, and absurdist theatres of global politics where the spirits of public figures from across the last century—Eleanor Roosevelt, Chairman Mao—share the stage with politicians, terrorists, dissidents, family members, and fictional creations from the present. It’s a wild and utterly eccentric read. The book is, to a large extent, an extended meditation on the uses and abuses of power, but the moral gravity of the poems is off-set by Maiden’s wonderfully self-effacing humor and tenderness, not to mention her elegant lines. Another recent book I admire is Alice Oswald’s Memorial, which deepens with every re-read.