The Girl Rebels:
An Interview with
Sue William Silverman
Sue William Silverman is an award-winning author of seven books of creative nonfiction and poetry. Her most recent poetry collection, If the Girl Never Learns, won two gold medals from the Human Relations Indie Book Awards. Her first poetry collection is Hieroglyphics in Neon. A recently published memoir, How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, was named “one of 9 essay collections feminists should read in 2020” (Bitch Media). Her first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award, while another, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, was made into a Lifetime TV movie. Her two other books of prose are The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew and Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir. She teaches in the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
June 17th, 2020
LH: If the Girl Never Learns is your second collection of poems. Your first collection, Hieroglyphics in Neon (Orchises Press) was published in 2006. Considering that the books were released in very different social and political chapters of our country’s narrative, can you share with us the differences in how you experienced the writing and the publishing of these two books? What made you want to return to poetry after more than a decade of publishing creative nonfiction?
SWS: The first collection was written as a direct response to the marketing (not the writing) of my second memoir, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction. Marketing that book emotionally exhausted me: too many shock jocks asking me inappropriate questions. I honestly felt I’d never be so vulnerable on the page again.
But then my partner, Marc, a poet, encouraged me to stop moaning and groaning and get back to work. He strongly encouraged me to write poetry—even though I’d never written even one poem, ever. I had no idea how to write it. Line breaks?!
But with great patience he taught me about poetry. It was a freeing and joyful experience. I wrote wherever the words led me. And while I’m proud of this collection, it’s not as cohesive as If the Girl Never Learns.
This second collection evolved from a dream. I literally dreamed, in its entirety, the first poem in the collection, “If the Girl Never Learns to Cook and Sew.” Then the onslaught: This alter-ego simply had a lot to say and poem after poem, all about this same girl, poured out of me.
In short, the poems chose me more than I made a conscious decision to write poetry again.
LH: I am so glad to hear that you did not let this emotional exhaustion keep you from writing more memoir and that your partner so lovingly encouraged you to explore poetry.
Before I knew that “If the Girl Never Learns to Cook and Sew” came to you in a dream—and how amazing that you dreamed this poem into being—I hope for that kind of lucidity someday—I had a distinct feeling of walking through a shared dream while reading the poem. Not just my dream but the “girl’s” dream, too. All of the nouns seem at once so specific, so personal to the girl, and yet I feel I’ve experienced them somehow: “the scent of chlorine,” “ivory-tipped walking sticks,” “bric-a-brac Santas.” How do you see these unique nouns or objects/ things functioning in this poem and other poems in the collection? How do you know when you’ve found the right object for the emotional register you are striving to create?
SWS: “Things” have so much power! I use inanimate objects in such a way that I hope they convey the persona’s interiority. In other words, it’s not a willy-nilly selection. Each noun or object must earn its place in the poem. It must be metaphoric or representative of the emotion I want to convey.
How do I know which objects to select? The ones that stay with me, the ones that resonate, the ones that make my pulse beat faster. I think it’s a matter of paying attention to one’s surroundings, as well as one’s memory.
LH: If the Girl Never Learns is written entirely in third person, which is not something I’ve tried to do before with a poetry collection except by way of persona poems. How did the shift in POV change/ enhance/ challenge your expression in this book? What were some of the limitations and freedoms involved in writing about personal experiences in third person?
SWS: When I started to write this collection, I’d written two memoirs, one memoir-in-essays, and was about half-way through a second memoir-in-essays. I’d also written a craft book about memoir. All of these books, of course, are in first person.
Therefore, maybe I needed a break from the “I.” I needed to stand a bit apart from myself to see myself—or this persona—in a new or different light. I needed to give this alter-ego her own space, separate from my own.
Additionally, I should add, memoir is not about revenge; it’s about exploration. These poems, on the other hand, are filled with rage, revenge. The “girl” rebels against the patriarchal power structure; she rebels against a society that sees women as sex objects; she rebels against a culture that believes men’s narratives are more important than women’s. The “girl” is a bad-ass. She’s seriously pissed off and wants to share her feelings. Frankly, I could never have written this kind of work as memoir…or even in first-person poetry.
LH: I think that writing poetry or any kind of text that has a vengeful drive is a difficult task. At no point in If the Girl Never Learns did I feel like I was reading a rant or a personal screed. The art never suffers in this collection. But I think that for all poets, especially emerging poets, the impulse to trade craft for explicit sentiments is strong, and they miss a lot of opportunities for fresh imagery and personal revelations. Ironically, the rebelliousness they are hoping to achieve might be subdued by clichéd language. What advice might you give emerging writers when it comes to anger, revenge, and rebelliousness in poetry?
SWS: I’m relieved my collection doesn’t read like a rant! Thank you!
The best advice I can give is probably not to start your poem or collection with a rant in mind. In other words, don’t begin by thinking “I am going to vent or rage against X, Y, or Z.” Instead, begin by thinking that I want to explore X, Y, or Z. Then, if rage is part of that exploration, if it naturally and cohesively evolves from the language, then you’re probably on solid emotional and artistic ground.
LH: A follow-up to the previous question: With a few exceptions, male poets and writers have, in the past, cornered the market on writing about violence. I think that’s been changing in recent decades, but slowly. What other female poets, specifically, are writing about violence and doing it particularly well?
Well, I don’t think the Girl in my own poems is too cowed by the legacy of male poets!
But, to your point, there are several women poets in both the 20th and 21st century who either address violence directly, or use images of violence and its aftermath in various ways. The most obvious is Sylvia Plath who, as I see it, uses violent imagery to express psychic distress. Adrian Rich also uses images of violence and ruined landscape to make political points—think of the title of her famous poem, “Diving into the Wreck.”
The poet Ai perhaps addresses violence most directly in her poems, as when she describes a woman dying in childbirth in the poem “The Country Midwife: A Day”: “The woman’s left eye twitches/and beneath her, a stain as orange as sunrise/spreads over the sheet./I lift my short, blunt fingers to my face/and I let her bleed, Lord, I let her bleed.”
Carolyn Forché also looks unflinchingly at violence in her remarkable book, The Country Between Us. Her famous prose poem “The Colonel” is horrifyingly powerful. And fellow Michigan poet Laura Kasischke employs disturbing imagery in ways that range from the real to the surreal.
The #MeToo movement has engendered a poetry movement about violence against women. Two of many anthologies that come to mind are Nasty Women Poets: An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse (Lost Horse Press, September, 2017) and Red Sky: Poetry on the Global Epidemic of Violence against Women (Sable Books, 2016).
LH: The poems are not just about “girls”, as in females under a certain age. The poems follow the female subject into womanhood. I always cringe a little when I hear people—especially men—call a female over the age of eighteen “girl.” I know I’m not alone there. Do you see the collection’s repeated use of the term “girl” as a kind of reclaiming? Something else?
SWS: Believe me, I also cringe whenever I hear anyone refer to a woman as a “girl.” It’s not something I ever do in real life!
Here, however, the “girl” calls herself a girl. I’m quite sure she does it ironically, that it’s meant to be ironic. Maybe, in a perverse way, she’s even mocking all these uninformed men.
My sense is that she uses the word rebelliously. She knows what she’s doing. Also, I envision her as a rather mythic Girl, reminiscent of female figures associated with death or danger—such as Sirens and Valkyries. In many of these poems, the Girl is out for vengeance. She inhabits dark aspects of these mythic figures, thus accessing their female power.
As I mentioned, the first poem is “If the Girl Never Learns to Cook or Sew,” and it means she’s willing to turn away from the hearth in order to inhabit dark aspects of those mythic figures. In that sense, I think she’s more “Übergirl” than “Everygirl.”
Think, too, of the sound of the word “girl.” It sounds tough with all those consonants. Contrast that with the soft-sounding word “woman,” which meanders off into two long syllables. I was after this short, punchy sound, using “girl” as an in-your-face word. Through this word, I was able to unleash an onslaught of revenge. And, I must say, it feels quite satisfying.
LH: Can you talk about the book’s organization? How do the three sections—The Girl and the Man, The Girl and the Myth, The Girl and the End—serve a larger narrative?
SWS: Generally, the Girl’s perspective changes over the course of the three sections. The more she struggles to achieve self-realization, the more she recognizes the world’s inequities—especially how gender roles limit her choices.
She rebels against the notion that to be a girl/woman is merely to be acted-upon, rather than being the one who acts. She sees where passivity has gotten her, and that’s one mistake she’s determined not to repeat, even if it means making many other mistakes.
To me, the collection feels noir-ish in that the Girl’s actions can seem morally ambiguous at best. So the narrative arc is a kind of quest narrative in which the goal is the quest itself—the courage the Girl shows in persevering, in not giving up. She will not be used or objectified no matter what it takes.
LH: I think we need to read poetry like yours right now—poetry that shows the goal is the quest, as you say, poetry that has courage. So many women have found themselves back home again—jobless or unable to go to their jobs. Single mothers are in a particularly rough place, but so are women living with abusive partners. Domestic violence rates have been on an upward trend since quarantine began.
SWS: It means a lot to me that you think my poetry contributes to this larger conversation. We’re all so staggered by this pandemic, and I, too, have heard that more women are at risk. If women are in an abusive relationship, then they are, literally, locked inside with these dangerous men. The physical, emotional, spiritual, psychic fallout from this pandemic is almost too large to wrap your mind around.
To me, then, one of the things we need to hold onto is art, literature, culture. The pandemic enhances the need for personal narrative. The written word engenders empathy and human connections, which is what we particularly need when we’re feeling isolated.
Too, art is how a species survives. Our written stories are immortalized. This is a crucial time for artists to be engaged with their craft.
LH: Sue, it’s been an absolute pleasure to engage with you and your work in this way. I started out reading your full-length memoirs and then your essay collections, and I was thrilled to learn that you were also an astoundingly powerful poet. I also want to congratulate you on your newest book, How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences published by The University of Nebraska Press. To conclude, can you share what book events you have planned during this time of Covid and what other projects you are working on right now?
SWS: Thank you so much for such lovely support and for your meaningful interest in my work. I’m deeply touched.
I am working on a new manuscript; it’s kind of a hybrid “thing,” which means I’m not quite sure what it is! But sort of an essay collection/how to write one’s obsessions…I don’t know. We’ll see!
Here is a link to an event that already took place, but is still available on YouTube. It’s sponsored by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, Virtual Book Club, and I read from my new book and am in conversation with Sarah Morris of AWP.
And here’s a link to a live event, an author talk, as part of the Decatur Book Festival, Sat., June 20, 11-12:30 Eastern time. It’s free, but you need to register. The author talk will be recorded and made available to view if you cannot attend the live event.