In the Spotlight
Tucson, AZ Member Since: 2004
About: Susan Briante is the author of two books of poetry: Utopia Minus (2011) and Pioneers in the Study of Motion (2007). Briante is also a translator and essayist whose recent work can be found in Colorado Review, the Boston Review and Jacket2. Her latest collection of poems, The Market Wonders, will be published by Ahsahta Press in 2016.
Photo Credit: Cybele Knowles
What is the best writing advice that you dispense to your students?
Don’t be afraid to fail. In fact, practice failure on the page. Failure can be productive and generative. It's also a necessary part of the creative process. Many of my favorite books—from James Agee's and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to M. NourbeSe Philip's Zong!—started from or went through moments that felt like failures. In the case of Agee and Evans, a rejected article became a genre bending classic of documentary modernism. In the case of Zong!, after trying many kinds of erasure, Philip settled on the idea of “locking herself inside the text,” rearranging and reconfiguring the words of a legal document to create poems. It was a process that Philip says required a willingness “to sail in the dark with no compass.” It's a willingness and bravery that is vital to the craft.
Can writing be taught? Why does creative writing belong in the academy?
I am not sure that genius can be taught, but genius is a rare thing. Basic writing and research skills, literary and cultural history, critical thinking, current debates in the field, discipline—all of these things can be taught and modeled. And all of these should be studied if one wants to be a writer. The academy has certain structures and resources that can support that education, but is also not the only place where creative writing can or should be taught.
What do your books look like once you’ve finished reading them?
I understand the book as art object. I own some really beautiful editions. I just bought a limited edition version of Ander Monson's wonderful new essay collection, Letter to a Future Lover. I love the books that my publisher, Janet Holmes, makes at Ahsahta Press. But, ultimately, my books are tools, portals, transport devices, muses, talismans—and with a few exceptions—most tend to have flags, notations, broken spines, and coffee stains on them if they are on my shelves.
Do you feel influenced by your peers to produce a certain type of creative work, or do you feel free to follow your own interests and passions?
With each book, I have had a chance to not only explore new intellectual fields, but to teach myself something about craft. I’m still an amateur. I am committed to learning something with each new project. I try to go to the page with as broad a sense of freedom as I can muster.
Where do you get your best reading recommendations?
I get recommendations from colleagues, friends, works cited pages, my students. Most of the writers I know read voraciously and across a variety of fields. Recently, I asked students in my graduate poetry workshop to turn in an annotated bibliography of their current influences. I encouraged them to list nontraditional "texts." I asked them not to include any books of poetry. (My thinking was that we would or should all be reading poetry.) I wanted to get a sense of what was inspiring them. I hoped the assignment would provide an opportunity for them to consider where they find inspiration as well as to motivate them to broaden their sources. I was blown away by what listed: YouTube videos explaining scientific phenomenon, documentaries, books on architecture and affect theory, installation art, objects found in a mother's nightstand. Books are always a source of inspiration for me. But my students reminded me the poem can accept all kinds of data and images.
Would you like to share a project you are currently working on?
I am about to turn in a final manuscript of my book, The Market Wonders, poems that came out of the recent (and, for many people, ongoing) financial crisis. As part of that, I am working on a long poem, “Ticker,” that will be printed across the bottom of the book's pages, replicating a stock ticker. From the Book of Revelation to a variety of folktales, the poem explores the relationships between numbers, mathematics, and mysticism.
What is your favorite AWP Conference memory?
The conference is always an opportunity to see friends from across the country and to discover new work. But my most memorable AWP moment happened in 2007 in Atlanta. I went down to the book fair late on the first day. No one was around and a sheet was draped over the Ahsahta table. I pulled it back to take a look at my first book, Pioneers in the Study of Motion, for the first time. It was a quiet beautiful moment, and surrounded by tables and tables of other books, it was a reminder that there was more writing I wanted to do.