Q&A with local poet Susan Laughter Meyers
She lives past Summerville, on the edge of the metropolitan area where the suburban gives way to the Lowcountry’s expanse of pine, swamp and farmland.
From there, Susan Laughter Meyers observes the world, taking note of what nature and man provide, and finding ways to apply language so that her emotions and perspectives might be shared.
“Susan’s technique of naming things in the natural world elevates the language and imbues her poetry with a kind of music and grace,” said Marjory Wentworth, S.C. Poet Laureate.
Her second book of poetry, “My Dear, Dear Stagger Grass,” will be published next month. Meyers recently talked about her work, a few samples of which are provided.
Q: To many people, poetry is a rarefied, hard-to-access form of writing. Yet it often strives to express universal ideas and emotions that many can relate to. What is your approach to poetry writing, and what is the role poetry can play in our lives?
A: It’s only when I’m revising that I begin to puzzle over whether what’s on the page is relatable to others. As a whole, I consider my poems accessible.
Yet I have ambivalent feelings about accessible vs. difficult poetry. On the one hand, I do think that most poets reach out to others, wanting the reader to experience the emotions of the poem. On the other, as a reader I can enjoy poems that I have little understanding of, the same way that I love abstract art. I sometimes fall for a poem simply for its sounds and rhythms, rather than what it says.
By voicing the emotions, poetry can help us draw from within, for example, at weddings, funerals and times of crisis.
For children, it heightens the creative spirit, and the spirit of play, something it can do, too, for adults. It’s simply a matter of seeking out poems we relate to.
Q: Why do you write poetry?
A: I feel most like myself when I’m in the habit of writing. My life is richer for it. I agree with those who say that poets write to make meaning of life, as well as those who say we write because we love language. Writing poems is simply a part of me.
Q: Tell me about your artistic journey. Have you always been a poet, or did you come to this work later in life? And what have you discovered along the way?
A: I’ve written poems since childhood, but it took me a long time to decide to study poetry seriously. I began to attend workshops and conferences to glean what I could, and I finally enrolled in the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte, because I felt that I had taken my poetry as far as I could on my own.
Along the way I discovered that anybody can be a poet, and any reason to write poetry is admirable.
But if your purpose is to put your work out there for others to read or hear, you owe it to yourself to learn as much as you can about the craft of poetry and what sorts of poems have come historically before the contemporary scene.
I also learned, of course, that it takes more than craft to write the best poems. It takes, too, a willingness to let the poem make its wild leaps and unfold in its own way.
Q: Your first collection, “Keep and Give Away,” published by the University of South Carolina Press in 2006, won the S.C. Poetry Book Prize. Did that surprise you, motivate you, scare you?
A: It surprised me, literally, in a dramatic way. The S.C. Poetry Initiative in Columbia, sponsor of the book contest, held an all-day event in Columbia where at the end of the day the news of who won the prize was to be announced. I went to the event with a friend, thinking that the winning poet had already been notified about the contest results. So I sat there at the awards ceremony, interested to hear who that poet was and wondering if it might be someone I knew.
When Kwame Dawes, director of the Poetry Initiative, started reading the judge’s comments before naming the title of the book, I began to realize, comment by comment, that the winning book he was describing was mine. And, yes, having a book has been both motivating and encouraging.
Q: Tell me about the new book, “My Dear, Dear Stagger Grass.” (It won the inaugural winner of the Cider Press Review Editors Prize.) How did this collection come about? What are you attempting to explore in it?
A: Back in 2007 I chose the topic “Writing Poems: Letters From Within” for a workshop I was to teach at Litchfield that winter. At the time, I had written only a few epistolary poems myself, and since I had several months before the workshop, I set out to write poems in that format.
Rather than writing to people, I found myself writing mostly to the natural world, to abstractions, and to ordinary irritations and wonders of my life, thus, “Dear Atamasco Lily,” “Dear Melancholy,” “Dear Constant Barking” and so on.
Once the workshop was over, I couldn’t stop, so along came “Dear Spelling Bee,” “Dear Snakeskin,” and a slew of others.
When I decided to put together a book manuscript, I could see from my stack of eligible poems, only some of which were epistolary, that I was working with several broad themes and emotions, including place and journey, elegy and awe.
Ultimately, I hope that the poems acknowledge both the ordinary and the extraordinary, loss and whatever connections one can make to move beyond loss. The book’s imagery, naturally, draws from the exterior world, particularly the Lowcountry; but much of the exploration, to me, felt interior.
Q: Share your writing process. How is a poem born and developed?
A: I often start with a line that comes to me — from an observation, overheard dialogue, or words that just pop into my head.
More and more, it feels as if the line comes from the air, but in such instances I might be reading something, a poem perhaps, that generates in me words about an entirely different subject.
Because my poems are typically more lyric than narrative, the rest of the poem is wide open to opportunity, and my best tack is just to follow intuition and my ear.
If I’m smart, I’ll let the poem build from concrete details and I’ll stick with the writing long enough to write beyond the real poem. That way there’s a better chance that the heart of the poem is actually there on the page. For most poems, I spend a huge amount of time revising, often ending up with, say, 20-some drafts, maybe more.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Lately I’ve been writing poems initiated by a line from the Greek poet Sappho, as well as poems about my namesake, an aunt who disappeared back in the 1960s.
Some of the poems I’m writing are love poems, but I also seem to be leaning toward elegy again. An assortment, really, and always poem by poem.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902.