by Terra Ojeda
Susie Meserve was born and raised outside of Boston, Massachusetts, but has lived on the West coast for most of her adult life. She is a poet, essayist, and memoirist whose essays have recently appeared in Salon, Elle, OffbeatMama.com, the journal of The Santa Fe Writers Project, and The New York Times Motherlode blog. Her poetry has been in many literary journals, including Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, and Rock & Sling. She is also the author of the chapbook Faith. Susie is on the faculty at Academy of Art University in San Francisco, where she teaches creative writing and composition. She contributes regularly to the popular writing blog Popcorn, and is currently finishing a memoir called Quiver. She lives with her husband and young son in Berkeley, California.
Terra Ojeda: Do you have a writing routine? If so, what does it look like?
Susie Meserve: I do have a writing routine—of sorts. My mantra is, “write first, before everything else.” If I try to start my paid work first, or start with paying bills or anything else, I never get to the writing. Currently, I write at my kitchen table or at the library or at a coffee shop nearby (though I just had the very exciting news that I may be renting a small studio adjacent to my house as a writing space. I can barely contain myself at the thought of it.) I can’t write every day, since I’m a college writing instructor and I have to teach, but I manage three days a week during the semester and four or more when I’m on break. Every so often I block out a Saturday or a weekend to work, too. I also set very specific goals and deadlines. I’ll aim to finish a chapter, a poem, a section of a book by a certain date—this motivates me and helps me not feel lost and depressed about how much there is to do and how little time I have to do it.
TO: I have noticed that you are a vocalist in a band, Hotel Borealis. Do you contribute to the songwriting for this band? If so, how is it different from other modes of writing? If not, how does this band influence your creative writing process?
SM: This is a great question. While I wrote the lyrics for one song on our upcoming album, and have tweaked Dave Mar’s lyrics here and there, the truth is I’m not much of a lyricist. I keep thinking this will come with time, but so far, it hasn’t. In terms of the music project influencing my writing life, it has and it hasn’t. Writing is very solitary. The music is much more collaborative. But playing and writing music has made me much more comfortable being spontaneous and taking risks—things that have been hard for me, historically. I’m hoping that riskiness translates into my writing at some point.
TO: The same question goes for your role as a wife, mother, and teacher. How do these play into your creative process?
SM: I love teaching, but it doesn’t inspire my creative process except insofar as my students and I discuss artistic process (I teach at an art school). Mostly, teaching is an exercise in forcing me to be super-organized with my time so I can write. Parenting has certainly been the source of material for essays (not so much for poems—not sure why). And having such a lovely kid in my life makes me feel centered when my writing career is not going as planned. My relationship with my husband has been the main topic of the memoir I’ve been writing for ten years, so that’s been central. So, yeah, it all plays in….
TO: I love how you include a variety of connections in your poems. In “Postcard from a Sailor,” you include a fragmented mess of thoughts. Then you close the poem with “all the tools tossed into the sea — if there were a sea if there were any stars by which to navigate –” The universality of this poem is undeniable, yet there is a sense that you are speaking from a specific, individual experience. How do you balance the two?
SM: I see “Postcard from a Sailor” as a kind of thread that came rushing off a spool at breakneck speed. So, in other words: I started with this very personal idea of having a “mess of thoughts” (I like that, thanks), which was something that I was indeed experiencing: my brain was running me ragged with small and big life questions that seemed to be unraveling everywhere, and one day it occurred to me that “pensive” didn’t even begin to describe it. But then as I riffed on that in the poem, the whole world started unraveling (and the list of what would happen if the world unraveled came very quickly).
The list I came up with was how I imagine the post-apocalypse, I guess. I tend to use a lot of quasi-fantastical, end-of-the-worldish images in my poems. I don’t know whether the poem, especially the end, feels depressing or whimsical. For me, the last two lines feel much darker than the rest.
Something else is going on in there that you didn’t ask about. If you look at contemporary poetry, you’ll notice that this phrase “as if ” is totally overused. It’s like all of us poets can’t create an image without a comparison to something that might or might not happen. I wanted to play with that by pushing it: I started with one “as if ” but the next five lines all have an implied “as if.” I thought being relentless about it would subvert it. But that may not be working; maybe I’m just another poet overusing the phrase “as if.”
TO: Whom do you write for?
SM: This is a tough one. With the stuff I’ve been writing lately—personal essays, memoir, more commercially viable stuff, I definitely have audience in mind. In fact, I even spend time thinking about my “target audience” and my “brand.” (I picture a smart woman around my age, probably a mother but not necessarily, who also feels muddled by the choices she’s making and the difficulties and joys of her experience.) But when I write poetry, I don’t even think about audience, is the truth. I just write.
TO: How does writing function for your own personal purpose? Is it a healing process, like writing in a diary? Or does it take on a life of its own?
SM: Writing is definitely healing. For example, when I got things off my chest after writing a couple of essays about my inability to have a second kid, I actually felt that I could cope better with that huge disappointment. But writing is definitely not like a diary for me.
I’m pretty obsessed with making things polished and viewer-ready. And yes, I would say all of my writing takes on its own life. That’s a beautiful thing about writing: you start with an idea for A and end up at Q, at Z, in a different language entirely.
TO: I’ve read and watched excerpts from your memoir, Quiver. How has traveling with your now-husband Ben shaped your life?
SM: That year with Ben was probably the most difficult and the most amazing year of my life to date, if I’m being honest. I still think about it all the time, probably because I’ve been writing about it for nearly ten years (!). Mostly, I think it was an exercise in solidifying what has been the most formative and important relationship of my life. But I think it also shifted my perspective as a writer. Before we went, I was working a very demanding job and barely managing to put together a poem every couple of months. On that trip, I realized that I wanted to be a writer, to really put writing front and center in my life. It also signaled the shift from me being a poet to being something else…whatever I am now.
TO: When you contemplate taking “next steps” in life, what does that look like? For example, the last couple lines of the excerpt from Quiver on your webpage read: “He had made up his mind: he was going to travel for a year. There was very little I could do about it. Except go with him.”
The white space in between the two sentences seems essential, because it represents that space in your mind that says, “Why not?” Does this explain the kind of leap of faith you have on taking big steps into the next stage in your life? Or are they normally subtle, baby steps that ease their way onto your path?
SM: I wish I could lie and say that I often take those kinds of leaps, but the truth is that I’m a total chicken about any big change and I have to worry it to death before I do anything. That excerpt from Quiver ends there, but in the actual book, about two pages of angst and second-guessing and miscommunication with Ben follow before we actually decide to travel together. So I would say, subtle baby steps, for sure. And research. And talking. I’m big on reading a lot of books and having a lot of discussions and generally gathering as much information as I can before I make any big life decision. I have always wanted to be different in this regard. Oh, well.
Terra Ojeda recently graduated from Whitworth University in Spokane, WA. As soon as she first read “Postcard from a Sailor” from Rock & Sling 9.2, she felt a sense of peace with Meserve’s relatable depiction of a human mind, which navigates from chaos to calm in a matter of seconds.
Photo from susiemeserve.com