Susan Terris

Memos (Omnidawn, 2015) book coverrr

What’s your chapbook about?  

It’s a series of short letters or memos — unpunctuated –to people I know, people I’ve seen yet never met, people living and dead. There are memos to my house plants, to deadbeat dads, to the names I can’t remove from my address book.

Have you written more than one chapbook?

I’ve had 15 chapbooks published. My most recent ones are:

Memos (Omnidawn)

All Generalizations Are Generalizations (Kattywompus Press)

Bar None (Pudding House)

The Wonder Bread Years (Pudding House)

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

The oldest piece in Memos is “Memo to the Girl with the Port Wine Stain Across Her Face”.

I was in Washington, DC, on a cold February day and saw her posing full-face for her friends, not hiding the side with the huge birthmark. The second was written about a homeless woman with a baby outside a public garage in San Francisco. The third was to my sister-in-law the day before she died. Once I had three memo poems, I simply couldn’t stop — I kept on writing more.

Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?

Revise, revise and revise, always!

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?

I edit a lot of books for other poets as well as a print poetry magazine, Spillway. I believe that every book needs to have an arc. It’s not something I can easily describe. Each poem has to relate in some way or another to the poem before it and after it. I stop rearranging when when the poems begin to “resist” being moved.

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

The artist Diane Rosenblum is a young woman I’ve mentored for years. The image for the cover is a photogram of hers that she calls part of her autobiography. The photogram is beautiful, but it’s alo written so you can’t really read it. That suited me. I worked with Peter Burghardt, the Omnidawn book designer for the finished cover image. We liked the fact that it looks like a small diary.

What are you working on now?  

Omnidawn had accepted another chapbook of mine to be published in 2017. It’s called Take Two: Film Studies. It’s about couples (not just lovers) who are heading for death or some dire future. It will be a 60 page chapbook.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

The best chapbooks are themed, with the poems part of a series of some sort. People often ask why I don’t “keep on” with some series until I have a full-length book instead of a chapbook. The answer: I only write in any series until my poems seems to be repeating themselves instead of exploring new territory. I love chapbook, their tightness, sense of completion.

Does the chapbook form have an impact on the poems that appear inside it?

Yes, short poems of 6-14 lines in couplets with spaces instead of punctuation. This felt memo-like to me. Why couplets? Because all my work the last several years has been in couplets.

What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?

Often the world created is dark or ominous, yet sometimes humorous. The people in it are “ordinary” — whatever that means — yet sometimes venturing into surreal territories.

Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?

The poem about my sister-in-law the day before she dies, when I had to tell her grown children she wanted more morphine, so she could end her suffering. Or the one for my husband suffering from Alzheimer’s, “Memo to the Man Who’s Losing His Mind.” In this case, no explanation is needed.

How has your writing and writing practiced evolved throughout your career? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?

All intuitive. Don’t know how to answer this.

To what degree is your work with writing about binding to form? To what degree is it about freeing ________from form? Is there writing, for you, without the work of writing being a form-married requirement? If so, what does (or could) that look like?

Every poem I write or every series of poems I write dictates its own form to me — the length of line, the stanza breaks etc. etc.. I like form-without-form, so sometimes I’m the only one who sees it as form.

What themes and images “bridge” your work? Have you found that composing a chapbook alleviates these inclinations, or amplifies them?

My friends say I write about twisted things & twisted lives.  Sometimes this is true.

Did you read straight through your chapbook out loud during the revision process or while finalizing revisions? If so, how was your experience of the poems different? How were your ideas about their individual meanings changed?

I always read my work aloud — poem by poem or a book beginning to end.  That’s the best way to hear the music of the line.

What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?

I’m a fanatic novel reader and a theater fanatic — & think these pursuits give me my sense of arc in putting a book together. I also have a prior career in the field of children’s books — 21 books for children & young adults, my primary publisher Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.

What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?

No secret wishes. From the time I was a child, my parents & teachers told me I could write & encouraged me. That’s the best way for anyone to believe he/she can keep going.

What inspires you? What gets you to the page?



Susan Terris’ most recent book is Ghost of Yesterday: New & Selected Poems (Marsh Hawk Press). She’s the author of 6 books of poetry, 15 chapbooks, and 3 artist’s books.  Journal publications include The Southern Review, Denver Quarterly, Field , and Ploughshares. A poem of hers from Field appeared in Pushcart Prize XXXI.  She’s editor of Spillway Magazine. Her chapbook Memos was published by Omnidawn in 2015. A poem from this book —”Memo to the Former Child Prodigy” — was selected by Sherman Alexie for Best American Poetry 2015. Omnidawn will publish her book Take Two: Film Studies in 2017



Memo to the Girl with the  Port-Wine Stain Across Her Face

a teenager    you’re standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial

place which declares all created equal    and your friends

are photographing you    not profile so only the unblemished

shows    but full face and smiling    audacious even

your parents    I’d like to know them    people who love

a girl with dreams  of her own    girl    who lives unmarked


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