“Writing what you mean is difficult. Writing it with conviction and grace makes it even harder.”
Communion of Saints (Paraclete Press, 2017)
What obsessions led you to write your book?
I converted to Catholicism in my late thirties, and had been reading about the lives of the saints for many years. In RCIA, the class that adult Catholics have to take before baptism, we learned that the communion of saints includes all Christians, whether they are beatified or not. I started writing these poems by reflecting on people whose lives represented, to me, saintly qualities I admired or wanted to recognize. They aren’t all Catholic, but I take each of them as models in some respect.
What’s your book about?
It’s about friendship, first and foremost. Also, the holiness lying under the surface of every human being, and the lucky moments we recognize that in each other. Conscience, forbearance, love, suffering, illness, suicide, interfaith marriage, racial inequality, homosexuality, teaching, and the extraordinary care of a group of NICU nurses for a group of premature infants. Oh, and a big section of poems about St. Francis of Assisi.
What’s the oldest piece in your book? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?
“Portrait of Chayo as St. Jude Thaddeus” cracked something open for me. I had been playing with self-portraits, but thinking of my friend Chayo as the saint she was most devoted to offered a much more engaging and freeing way of writing about the lives of the saints. Chayo works as a cook for friends of mine in Mexico, and she became very devoted to St. Jude Thaddeus when her son was very ill. Jude Thaddeus is the patron saint of impossible causes, and Chayo saved her son’s life by giving him one of her own kidneys. That seemed saintly to me. So I wrote the poem, and suddenly I saw how I could do this again–I saw many people reflecting the images of the historical saints.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?
The title’s from the Apostle’s creed we say at Mass–”I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” The book’s arranged in 4 sections: Faith, Hope, Love, and Pax et Bonum (the Franciscan greeting which means “Peace and the greatest good.”) I tried to group my “saints” according to the themes of the three cardinal virtues… the final section is about St. Francis of Assisi, and a pilgrimage my husband and I took to Assisi in 2010, the year I started the process of entering the Church.
Which poem in your book has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
The final poem, “The Wolf of Gubbio,” is based on the story about St. Francis taming a wild wolf. I wrote it some time that year that we visited Assisi. The story goes that St. Francis came to Gubbio and a wolf had been killing people in town. Francis spoke to the wolf and it calmed, becoming a cherished member of the community where it had previously attacked people. I tried to imagine what that story looked like from the wolf’s perspective. Much later I realized that I had written the story of my conversion.
There are others that are just as meaningful in different ways. Several poems are about my friend Charles Hirsch, who died in 2013. Charles sponsored my conversion to Catholicism, having studied to be a seminarian in a Franciscan monastery in his teen years. I met him in his fifties, when I was in my twenties. He had left the seminary at 19 when he was seduced by a nun, and later came out as gay and lived an incredibly full life in New York. He and I were close for years, and I miss him every day. Reading the poems about him gives me a little more time with him now.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
There are a few. “The Angel of Conscience” carries on a dialogue with Gwendolyn Brooks, one of my poetic heroes. It rhymes, which almost none of the poems in this collection do. Another is “A Swarm of Flies,” which is an argument with consumerism from a Franciscan perspective. It’s furious, which almost none of the other poems are.
What were you listening to when you wrote these poems? Did you have any rituals while writing these poems?
Not listening–I need the voice in my own head to be unimpeded–but I was reading a lot: G. K. Chesterton and The Little Flowers of St. Francis and St. Bonaventure’s Life of Francis. I was also reading the Canticle of the Creatures, St. Francis’s beautiful poem to our sisters and brothers in the universe: water, fire, wind, sun, moon, death.
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the book, and how did that affect your sense that the book was complete?
“Portrait of Greta as St. Elizabeth” was the last poem I wrote. I revised the manuscript and proofread it many times before I turned it in–I worry that I drove the Sisters at Paraclete a little crazy. During the final edits, a photograph by Graciela Iturbide reminded me of the story of my broken baby Jesus statue, which my friend Greta helped me get repaired the week my daughter was born. My daughter came two months early, so Greta picked up the statue for me and brought it to the hospital, just before I was due to present it at church to be blessed, on Feb 2nd. It turned out I was released from the hospital on that day, so I brought Jesus home instead of my daughter, who remained in the hospital for almost six weeks, total. I remembered the story of St. Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, who was pregnant with John the Baptist when Mary was pregnant with Jesus, and the two babies and Greta and I seemed somehow to fit into that story, too. In a weird coincidence, my book came out on Feb. 1st of this year–so that final poem ushered in another birth, another blessing.
Did you read straight through your book 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 do often read out loud as/ after I write. I never read the whole manuscript that way, though. There are several poems I can’t read in public without crying. So far I’ve avoided those in readings.
What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your book been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?
I had a terrific time working with the Sisters and with my editor, Mark Burrows. He made some suggestions about order, but he never asked for specific revisions of the poems–he trusted me completely. I did have a lot of input about the cover of the book, and the design team listened carefully to my requests. They came up with something very striking, I think. And they were very patient and flexible as I suggested photograph after photograph from Mexican photographers–Graciela Iturbide and Lola Alvarez Bravo, especially–which all turned out to be too expensive to use.
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your book? How would you answer it?
In general, I wish readers would ask me more about the book. Usually when I read for undergraduates, they ask me questions about being a writer in general. I think the question that I wish for most is the one that makes me see the work in a different way. Understandably, I can’t formulate that question myself. I hope someone will.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
My former classmate and good friend L.B. Thompson published a chapbook called Tendered Notes: Poems of Love and Money with Center for Book Arts many years ago. L.B. is a genius and those are poems I could never possibly write myself–clever and thoughtful and punning, but deeply invested in the currency of our lives and deaths. One of those poems has a refrain of “Timor Mortis Conturbat Me,” which comes from a medieval poem. I wish I had the elegance and erudition L.B. exhibits. Another lovely book is A Length of Night Work by Greg McDonald, an extraordinary poet who worked as a carpenter for the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority. His metaphors and images burn off all the dross, and the poems are impossibly radiant for it.
What might these chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
Probably that I am a better reader than I am a writer.
What are you working on now?
I’ve written some blogs in the past month for my press, mainly about the poems in the book and how they came to be. I’ve relished the freedom of writing in prose. It’s still challenging, but I have so much room to say things–and I’m Southern, so I do tend to go on. I’m also thinking a lot about the frankly terrifying state of politics in our country now–my brain’s working on that all day. Oh, and I’m raising my daughter to be a kind and curious person, which is a lot of work, too.
What is your favorite piece you’ve written? Why?
I don’t have a favorite. I do like some of them very much. In this project, it’s difficult to separate affection for the poem from affection for the person it’s about. I have two poems about my friend Jess Arndt, who just published her first book, Large Animals. I’m really fond of both of them, in part because they wrote themselves after separate (brilliant) hangout sessions. Jess lives in Los Angeles, so those poems make me feel a little more like I’m with her. I’m fond of my poem on Flannery O’Connor, dedicated to my friend Katie Shonk, who also writes fiction. Katie and I share an obsession with O’Connor, as does Jess (and half the free world of writers.) I love the poem I wrote about Trent Pomplun, one of my best friends since my late teens, and a Catholic theologian. I am also fond of the poem I wrote for my husband; after being together for ten years, I found I still had a lot to say about why I love and admire him.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
I would probably choose photography. I had a terrific photography teacher in high school, Janet Moore-Coll, who was ABD with a literature degree and whose sense of humor and delight in the visual image really inspired me. I take dozens of photos every day, after shifting from my old Nikon film camera to a cell phone camera. (Sometimes I accidentally call my cell phone my camera; it gets used that way more often.) I used to sing a lot when I was young, but it’s a hard life following that muse. I like the freedom I have to be at home or travel or spend time with my family, or sleep on a regular schedule. That musician life isn’t for me, but luckily you can sing anywhere, without an audience, and it’s just as fun.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Ambition for a career is vanity–in the “Ecclesiastes” sense of vanity. As in, your life’s work will be in vain if what you want most is recognition. Your ambitions should be for the writing–for it to say what you want most to communicate. Anyone can pick up a set of gimmicks if they study them, but really writing what you mean is difficult. Writing it with conviction and grace makes it even harder.
Whose work helped you in the writing of this book? What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
My priests and nuns. Mark Doty and Marie Ponsot, Greg Orr and Rita Dove, Anthony Hecht and Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks and Gerard Manley Hopkins. All of them were teachers of mine, the first four in the classroom, the last four on the page. Eliot Weinberger, who’s a genius. I met him and told him he was one of my personal heroes. He laughed at me, but he talked to me for quite a while. Like him, I’m inspired by Mexico–I’ve traveled more extensively there than I have in the States. I have a whole manuscript of poems about being an outsider/traveler in Mexico and how that inspired my conversion. My family and my friends inspire me so much, too. I’ve really enjoyed writing this book about them; in the States, we don’t say enough about friendship. This book is a series of love poems to my friends.
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Who wants to trade books?
Susan L. Miller has been published in Image, Commonweal, Sewanee Theological Review, the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Meridian, Iowa Review, and other journals. Her poems have been included in the anthologies St. Peter’s B-List: Contemporary Poems Inspired by the Saints and Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion, and Spirituality. She has twice won Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg awards for poetry. She teaches at Rutgers University and lives in Brooklyn.