Getting to Know Susan Eisenberg And Her New Book Stanley's Girl
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover you wanted to write poems?
I remember being very pleased in 3rd grade when an aptitude test suggested I should become either a Poet or Spy—both had great appeal!—and are, of course, not so different. I still have my childhood copy of A Child’s Garden of Verses with its beautiful colored illustrations. As a child and into adulthood I read poetry and wrote poems following instinct. Then I had the wonderful good fortune to be “adopted” by Denise Levertov in the mid-1970s—taken into her class at Tufts as an audit student, mentored, and befriended—and thankfully introduced to the craft of poetry. The structure of poems became life rafts in a tumultuous time, and—since the times continue to be tumultuous—have continued to be a necessary center in my life. Writing an essay for Denise Levertov, In Company (South Carolina, 2018) about that relationship, helped clarify for me the importance of that start.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I deeply admire people who have a writing routine and a neat desk. I’m more of a binge writer who periodically becomes obsessed and—in between those storms—gathers lots of scribbled lines and notes written on anything handy in a moment of urgency (unfortunately, not always comprehensible when pulled out later). My ideal place to write is Cedar Cottage at Hedgebrook, a wonderful residency on Whidbey Island in Washington State. As an East Coaster and morning person, I’d be writing at my desk while it was still dark, and working away as the sun began to open the forest through my window. Being in an uncluttered space, nurtured by landscape and generous staff, allowed me to mine difficult material.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
Phrases inspire—and are often incorporated into—many of my poems. As an oral historian, I’m drawn to the nuances of what is relayed and revealed through diction and syntax, and the choice of this word over that one. Sometimes phrases resonate inside me for decades before finding their way onto the page. Similarly for tone of voice and gesture. I might only receive the message much later, after more growth.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
Of course, Denise Levertov, as my first teacher, had a strong influence on my writing: technically, but also the responsibilities and patience required of an engaged poet. A bit by Denise’ design, but also by chance, I was in a small theater performance at a conference in Minnesota with the poet Tom McGrath, just as I was beginning to write poems about working in construction. The large scale of his poems, his personal generosity, and his advice to use the language of the workplace all made a deep impression. Lucille Clifton’s ability to create not just strong and clear individuals in her poems, but a community of people, who were contextualized, was an important model.
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was is a project book?
Stanley’s Girl pries open memory in search of compassion. Mining the experiences of women working in construction, poems ask what’s required to become a team player and succeed in a dangerous space where you are unwelcome. Poems in the middle section explore resonances in other spheres—including family, Detroit ’67, Gaza—to explore how systems of discrimination, domination, and exclusion are maintained and passed on: the induction into accepting injustice and agreed-upon lies. The title poem examines the complex turns of the apprentice/journeyman relationship, and one apprentice’ choice to compromise on principles rather than jeopardize the opportunity to work with an exceptionally gifted mechanic. Poems probe workplace-linked suicide, sexual assault, and intentional accidents, as well as the role of bystander silence and the responsibility of witness.
Read an excerpt from her book here:
Everything you thought you knew
must be relearned overnight.
How to walk.
Walk, not trip, over cords, 2x4s,
used coffee cups, concrete cores.
Walk, 40 pounds on your shoulder, across
rebar or a wood plank; glide,
not wobble, not look like the bounce
beneath each bootstep scares you.
How to dress yourself
to work outdoors all day midwinter
and keep warm, keep working, fingers moving;
or midsummer, with no hint of breasts.
How to climb ladders ––
not a stepstool or 4-footer ––
ladders that stretch up two stories
where someone’s impatient
for that bundle of pipe.
How to get coffee ––
hot and how they like it –– to a crew
spread out 10 floors; to carry muffins
three blocks in a paper sack
through sheets of rain.
How to look.
To never go back empty-handed
when you’re told, Grab me a This/That
from the gangbox, if all you’ve done
is move things around, poke here and there;
if you haven’t emptied out the full contents
so the journeyman won’t shame you
by finding that This/That in a quick minute,
after you’ve said, We don’t have any.
How to be dependable
but not predictable-provokable.
Not the lunch break entertainment.
How to read
the mood on the job;
how long it’s okay to sit down for coffee;
how early you can start rolling up cords.
How to do well in school
from the back row
of a seats-assigned-Jim-Crow classroom.
How to learn tricks-of-the-trade
from someone who does not like you.
How to listen, to act-don’t-ask.
To duck when someone motions, Duck!
Or when someone tells you, Don’t talk to Zeke,
to know what they mean
so you don’t even look
at Zeke, the ironworker who’s always first out,
last in, standing there, so four times a day ––
start, lunch, quit –– all the workers walk past him,
like a sandbar, waves washing back and forth,
that catches debris.
How to pick up the phone and call your friend,
the only one of the women not at class
the night the apprenticeship director met you all
at the door
carrying the nervous rumor
that one of the women had been raped
and you all look at each other
and it wasn’t any of you five.
How to respond –– within protocol ––
when someone takes your ladder or tools,
imitates your voice on the loudspeaker,
spraypaints Cunt on your Baker staging,
urinates in your hardhat,
drives to your home
where you live alone
with your daughter
and keys your truck parked
in your own driveway.
Later, you’ll need the advanced skills:
how –– without dislodging the keystone ––
to humiliate a person, how to threaten
a person. Deftly.
So no one’s certain for absolute
that’s what happened. Not even you.