Interview with Lisa Summe

Mike Dockins: Describe a seminal moment (or moments) when you knew that you wanted to be a poet:

Lisa Summe: There is no specific moment that told me, “Be a poet”—at least not that I ever recognized as such. I’ve never considered myself a very creative person. An athlete all my life and a kid who entered college as a Dietetics major, I needed other people to notice that I could write poetry, and to tell me so, so these “moments” are actually people—people who told me I could write and, once I believed I could, people who challenged me.

I began writing poems as a sophomore in college, and that was because all of the fiction workshops filled up before I could ever register for them. I settled for a poetry class to learn about “creative writing,” having no real interest in poetry. Don Bogen, my first poetry teacher at the University of Cincinnati, encouraged me to take another poetry workshop after completing his Intro class. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I got hooked—I took a poetry workshop every quarter for the rest of college and forgot all about writing fiction. Erica Dawson, whose intro and advanced workshops I had taken at UC, cheered me on (and still does). It was under her guidance and encouragement that I decided to apply to grad school. She made me feel like the most talented person on Earth, and, while I was, at the time, absolutely writing poems I’d be embarrassed to show anyone today, she saw potential in me. Because of Erica, I definitely want to be a poet when I grow up, assuming I ever do.

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MD: Many poets, including you, get themselves involved in the editorship of literary magazines. How did you get involved with Toad and with the minnesota review, and if applicable, how has being a journal editor changed your perspective on sending out your own poems for publication?

LS: I got involved with the minnesota review and Toad as soon as I started the MFA program at Virginia Tech last fall. VT offers a course, Editing a Literary Journal, where interested MFA students work on the minnesota review. We read all the submissions, choose the work, send out acceptances and rejections, create the table of contents, copy edit, etc. Toad is the brainchild of Bob Hicok. He asked me during my first semester if I wanted to read for the journal, which is run entirely by VT MFA students and alum. Now I’m the Associate Editor.

What’s fun about working on these journals is finding poems and poets I love and getting to talk with them via e-mail exchanges. Sending acceptances is the best part of this work because getting an acceptance letter feels fucking awesome and I really like that my note to someone about how much I like his or her work can just make their day. It’s so magical.

Working on lit mags has helped me to take rejections less personally. When your work is in the slush pile, it’s read by very few people, possibly even a single person, depending on the size of the journal’s staff. I have read many poems for both journals that are well-written but either don’t fit the aesthetic, or just don’t excite me. It’s all very personal and subjective. None of us can expect our work to light a fire under every single editor’s ass. And that’s fine. That’s not to say I don’t get down about rejections. Rejections suck for sure. But when I get one I try to think that I just haven’tyet found the right home for that particular poem, not that the poem sucks or that I suck.

Working on these journals has also taught me a lot about the submission process. It’s really a waste of time to send poems out unless you get familiar with the publications you’re sending to. There are so many places that would never take my poems, not because they aren’t “good” but because this journal or that journal is looking for something that I’m not doing/not interested in.

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MD: You obviously think that poetry is important. With today’s American culture seemingly so mummified in technology—reality TV, psychological addiction to mobile devices/gadgets, texting, social media, and a zillion various forms of instant gratification—say something about this terrific quote by the lovable Dr. William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

LS: Despite the often obnoxious nature of technology and social media (and society’s addiction to them), both have the potential to be really useful learning tools. I find out about many calls for submissions and other writing opportunities via Twitter. To quickly share info with VT’s MFA program and other members of the VT English department, I post on our Facebook group page. If I want to watch adults act like children, I watch reality TV. When I want to get drunk, I send a group text. It’s all very useful to some degree.

So what do poems give us that these things cannot? It feels necessary to discuss what a poem is and what sets it apart from technology and social media, but instead I’ll be lazy and quote A.R. Ammons: “I can’t tell you where a poem comes from, what it is, or what it is for: nor can any other man. The reason I can’t tell you is that the purpose of a poem is to go past telling, to be recognized by burning.” What I think Ammons is getting at is that the primary function of poems isn’t just to tell us things; it’s more than that. Poems provide information, of course, but good poems provide the burn Ammons is talking about. This “burn” might be a beautiful image, a narrative we can relate to, a description of something we hope to find or feel or achieve one day, whatever. Poems make us think, and therefore make us smarter. TV and Internet often make us stupid.

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MD: In an interview with the poet James Tate, Michael Teig said, “Let’s talk about form,” and Tate responded, “Good luck.” I love that. I’ll try it with you: Let’s talk about form. (And I’ll assume that you wish me luck). What does “form” in poetry mean to you (this can go beyond “received” forms, like villanelle, sestina, etc.), not just as a poet working in, and even perhaps creating, form/s, but as a reader?

LS: Lol. When I hear the word “form,” it’s difficult for me to not think of various poetic forms, mostly the ones I’ve had little practice with: sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, etc. Writing in form is hard in itself, plus I was never really trained to do it, and that usually results in a lot of frustration when I’m asked to write in it. I’ve always thought being forced to write in form was really constricting because I could never say what I wanted to in the way that I wanted to because of the limiting nature of meter, syllable counts, refrains, etc. But it turns out that when you don’t normally write in form, like me, doing so opens up a lot of doors, because you can’t use the same moves and tricks you use when writing free verse, and often you come up with some really different stuff, which is interesting to say the least, and sometimes even really useful.

Because formal poetry isn’t generally on my radar, the word “form” has come to mean a different thing to me, too. I basically use it as a synonym for “pattern” or “habit.” For me, my “form” lately is love, heartbreak, coming out, and lesbian existence in the world. It’s also longish lines of verse flush with the left margin. You could call these things themes, style, whatever, but I think that as contemporary poetry as a whole stays interested in free verse, other aspects of writing, such as themes, tone, style, etc., may be incorporated into what “form” could mean in the future.

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MD: What are some poetry projects that you’d like to embark upon, even if right now they only seem like pipe dreams, or even if they seem impossible. (Example: I never thought I’d write long poems, let alone a full-length collection / cycle of long poems, and then it happened.)

LS: At any given moment I typically have more ideas than I can manage to wrap my head around. Right now, I’m working a few things that are in various stages of completion. My full-length manuscript, I Love Youthat I’m currently sending out is a collection of poems situated around a single female speaker and the ways in which she experiences love—sometimes as a memory or present reality, but often as a dream or fantasy. These poems frequently work in a space that positions the speaker’s love interest as unattainable—she’s straight, has a boyfriend, has already broken her heart, is completely made up, or any combination of such. In the midst of shameless desire, these poems are fueled by frustration, obsession, and self-deprecating humor. “Pilot You” is part of this collection.

I’m working on a chapbook as well. It’s a series of about twenty short poems, tentatively titled Bar Bathrooms Don’t Have Chalkboards for Our Love Letters. It discuss both the excitement and difficulties of two women in a long-distance relationship. The speaker lives in Virginia and her girlfriend lives in Ohio. (Strange how this parallels my own life.)

My most recent idea, and I’m just at the beginning stages of this—having written eight or so poems for it—is a chapbook that is a fictionalized re-telling of my experience at an all-girls Catholic high school in the mid-2000s: falling in love with a girl, having her quit our relationship because she said she wasn’t gay (while I was declaring that I wasn’t gay either), trying to date guys to get over it / be “normal,” and having to deal with all of this on my own, as I was not yet out and didn’t feel safe talking to anyone about my feelings because I was taught that my feelings were wrong. These are poems I’ve been wanting to write for a long time, but just couldn’t. Ten years later, I feel ready to go back and revisit both those feelings and that girl with a critical eye and with the ability to shape the whole thing into what I hope will be an interesting narrative about coming out and dealing with the surprises of unexpected love.

As for the future, I’d love to someday write a book-length poem / novel in verse. I’m thinking specifically of Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. I love that book. I’ve always been interested in telling stories, and when I began to think about writing seriously, I wanted to write a novel. So why not write a novel as a long-ass poem?

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MD: Say a few words about style. Why do you think style is important for an individual poet? And how would you describe your own?

LS: I think of style as a fingerprint—it’s what makes you you. Having a distinct style is important because it sets you apart from the millions of other writers who are struggling to be successful / memorable poets. It’s when someone who is familiar with your work (i.e. someone in your writing program / community) can read your poem in another context (i.e. in a journal) and know you wrote it before he or she even sees your name. Everyone has style because everyone is doing their thing. But if you don’t have a distinct style—something people can recognize and say, This is a Mike Dockins poem or This is a Richard Siken poem or This is a Marisa Crawford poem—then you’re just another name in the mix of people trying to write poems, and that seems sucky.

My style has a lot to do with my voice, as my voice is often the most interesting aspect of my work. The language in my poems is always colloquial and the emotional trajectory is unapologetically blunt. I often juxtapose humor with heartbreak and write about the queer female experience. These are a few things that I think make my work recognizable. Certainly other people are writing about similar things and approaching them in similar ways, but I like to think I’m doing something different. Don’t we all.

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MD: Which of course leads me to a question I’ve been burning to ask you—about “Pilot You.” It was a pleasure reading through all the blind submissions for the Atlantis Prize. I remember that when I first read “Pilot You,” the poem hooked me immediately. This was partly because of the repetitive style of the language (this typically draws me in), and partly because of the terrific imagery. To borrow some rhetoric from [Poet’s Billow poet] Robert Evory, I read “Pilot You,” and I thought, “Poem.” It seemed realized, it seemed magical, it seemed “done,” and I’m not surprised that it ended up winning the contest, and I officially congratulate you. Please comment on how this poem came to be, how you feel about it, and also how you have ingested / digested the fact that you won a poetry prize.

LS: Thank you so much, Mike. This is one of those rare poems that just came out right the first time. The version that The Poet’s Billow published is hardly different from the first draft.

What I like about this poem is the speaker’s optimism. She wants this girl, but everything in the world seems to be keeping them from each other. Once they get together, though, it becomes so easy for the speaker to just love her. The way you can want someone is life-changing and, in this poem, heroic.

Finding out I won this prize was pretty unbelievable—I’d never won a prize before! It seemed so unlikely that my poem was chosen from a pool of so many other good poems. I feel so lucky to have my work out there through you guys. Thank you for everything.

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MD: You deserve it. Lastly, and for fun, how should we pronounce your last name?

LS: Rhymes with “dummy,” which is, for the most part, pretty appropriate.

 

A link to Lisa Summe’s winning poem Pilot You

 

Lisa Summe was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio and earned her BA and MA in English at the University of Cincinnati. Her poems have appeared in Fourth River, Mead, The Licking River Review, and others. This year she received honorable mention in the Jean Chimsky Poetry Prize and was nominated twice for a 2014 Pushcart Prize. Currently an MFA candidate in poetry at Virginia Tech, she lives in Blacksburg, Virginia with her very handsome cat, Ozzy.

Mike Dockins was born in 1972 and grew up in Yonkers NY. He holds a B.S. from SUNY Brockport (1999), an MFA from UMASS Amherst (2002), and a PhD from Georgia State University (2010). His poems have appeared in Crazyhorse, The Gettysburg Review, Third Coast, The Greensboro Review, Quarterly West, Willow Springs, Salt Hill, Atlanta Review, jubilat, Mid-American Review, Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, West Branch, Meridian, PANK, and elsewhere, and they have been reprinted on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and in the 2007 edition of The Best American Poetry. His critically-acclaimed first book of poems, Slouching in the Path of a Comet (Sage Hill Press, 2007), after moving 850 copies, is currently anticipating a third print run. His second collection was a co-winner of the 1st annual Maxine Kumin Award in Poetry, and will be published in January 2015 by C&R Press. Mike moonlights as a singer-songwriter. Fame For Zoe, the latest (2005) full-length album from his acoustic-pop duo Clop, is available on iTunes. He lives currently near Hammondsport NY, on a hill above Keuka Lake, where he uses his many and various skills and credentials to enjoy unemployment.

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