Inside the amazing brains of Susan Tepper, Jim Gustafson, Lori Desrosiers, & Annie Stenzel
Susan Tepper is a twenty year writer in all genres and author of twelve published books of fiction and poetry. Currently she is in production of a stage play titled The Crooked Heart based on artist Jackson Pollock in his later years. Her satirical novel titled Office is forthcoming from Wilderness House Press in September.
BLM: What would you say is the most common theme in your poetry?
ST: Hmm.. that’s a tough question because I’m a nosey-Nellie type of gal who is interested in a lot of things that end up in my writing. I guess I will choose Mortality. Why Mortality? Because I’m so afraid of death. Not the actual dying part, but the loss of everything that makes life dear, like my friends, gardens and trees, the museums, the theatres, the great meals. If I die, who will I spend my time with? Wait—I just learned what the correct answer is to your question: Loneliness.
BLM: What were your absolute favorite record albums when you were 15?
ST: I grew up a tomboy kind of girl because I was the oldest kid in my family and given the responsibility of the other two (since my Mom had to work) plus Mr. Chips our German Shepherd dog had to be walked before and after school. So I didn’t really focus on music as much as being outdoors riding my bike all over town, swimming in a friend’s pool, playing tennis, and sleigh riding and ice skating in winter. My Dad was a big music guy and he bought us a huge stereo and lots of records. I remember singing along to “I Could Have Danced All Night” and trying to do it as good as Julie Andrews.
BLM: What do you feel is your favorite or most successful poem, and why?
ST: My poem “Course.” It was written about fifteen years ago and dedicated to my best friend and poet mentor of 22 years, Simon Perchik. His writing style affected me greatly, and when his wife Mickie got really sick, and Simon was sleeping in his car outside the hospital, I became extremely upset. He was in his 80s and sleeping in his car! He actually loved it, said it made him feel young again. But I couldn’t reconcile that and kept begging him to sleep in a motel (which he didn’t)! So I sat down and felt a deep pull toward Simon and wrote this poem “Course” which is the closest thing I’ve ever written that is near to his style. It’s about a shared course between a mighty poet and one struggling to find her words and place in the poetry world. Subsequently, “Course” was chosen by the Limerick City Arts Council to be part of their interactive poetry exhibit, and it was placed in the window of The Golden Grill Restaurant on William Street. One of my proudest moments.
~ for Simon Perchik
Shared course: the rivers and the streams
our words come out of their harsh winter—
frost melting edges smoothing
spring’s first rush: the birds, shoots;
bristle grass softening to brighter green
—we have learned to take our name
pushed shoreline to shoreline
the wave’s force till it crumbles
shells and the hour
the heart meets itself, blankly
hears its name in the crumpled page
its spool running out in the dark
Jim Gustafson is the author of Friar Fred’s Diary , Unassisted Living, Driving Home, and When we've come farther than we have to go. He holds an M.Div. from Garrett Theological Seminary at North-western University and an MFA from the University of Tampa. He taught Creative Writing at Florida Gulf Coast University. His work has appeared in Rattle, The Red Wheelbarrow Review, The Main Street Rag, and The Tishman Review. Jim and his wife, Connie, live in Fort Myers, FL, where he reads, writes, teaches, and pulls weeds.
BLM: You tend to write narratives, and I can't help assuming that every single one is based on a true story. How many actually are?
JG: Your question brings to mind Robert Olen Butler's From Where We Dream, which implies to me that my writing comes from somewhere within. Yes, I believe most, if not all, of my work is launched from some real moment. Something I see, hear, read, or dream about triggers the start, and I let myself go. Is it "based on a true story?" is a more difficult question. I give myself permission to embellish, exaggerate, and lie. As I read my work, I can see the places and people that dwell within the words. Sometimes the places are real, and the life in those places is a conglomeration of whatever floats within my mind. Other times, the lives are real, and the places imagined. I do not think a poet can escape themselves. We bring to the page all that we are, everywhere we have been, and for better or worse, what is inside.
BLM: What was your favorite movie when you were 15, and why?
JG: Seeing Lawrence of Arabia was my introduction to T.E. Lawrence. I saw it numerous times then and since. I have been fascinated with Lawrence, his life, and his mind. The film introduced me to a part of the world I did not know. I was, of course, intrigued by the climate, camels, and conflict. But, thinking about the film now, I suspect I was enchanted with Lawrence being submerged in a culture other than his own and experiencing blending in yet being an outsider. A couple of years later, as a freshman in college, I read Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the book upon which the film is based. I struggled then, as now, to embrace all it contains. Yet, I have on my office bulletin board a quote from the book: "I had one craving all my life—for the power of self-expression in some imaginative form…;" this, I believe, I understand.
BLM? What do you think is your favorite or most successful poem, and why?
JG: This is a most challenging question. I do not know if I have written a successful poem. However, I know I have some I like much more than others. The first that comes to mind is the first poem I ever published. My college literary magazine accepted it. I have never shared this story publicly before. I read the poem in a workshop led by James Dickey when he was Poet Laureate. I was incredibly nervous as I listened to his critique of other participants' poems. He went line by line, making suggestions, criticizing, and complimenting the occasional word. Finally, my turn came and I read my poem After the Rain. When I was done, I braced for the shredding of my words. Instead, he stared at me for a moment in silence and then said, "Mr. Gustafson, you can write. Next," and he moved on to the next participant. I have clung to that moment. After the workshop was done, Dickey signed his book for me and encouraged me to "never stop writing." For better or worse, I have not.
After the Rain
after the rain
after the rain
that night we
walked to the park
down the street
from the apartment
just before the street
lights went on
I held your shoes
in my hand thinking
how small they were
you could have been
a ballet dancer
our feet got wet
as we stepped off
the path around
a bench moved
in the afternoon
to make room
for a lawn mower
the green clippings
stuck to my shoes
and crept between
your toes and up
on to your ankles
you ran before me
in the grass
and I, seeing
we were alone,
wished it was dry
we could lie
on our backs
and look up
at the night
rather than ahead
to tomorrow's rain.
Poet Christina Lovin says of Lori Desrosiers’ third book of poems “Keeping Planes in the Air is for any of us who have witnessed the ambiguity of holding onto our lives and loves in the constant presence of an impending loss that leaves us (and the poet) with a wounded wonderment ‘which is/ more than [we] can fathom/ or just enough.’” When not writing, Desrosiers edits Naugatuck River Review, a journal of narrative poetry, and Wordpeace, a digital literary and art project dedicated to social justice. Desrosiers teaches English at Westfield State University, Poetry in the Lesley University M.F.A. program, and lives in Westfield, Massachusetts.
BLM: You served as the Beat Poet Laureate. How would you define Beat, what makes writing "beat?"
LD: Kerouac said that the moniker “beat” was more about what other people called them, and referred to being “beat down.” However, in my mind, beat poetry as a movement is definable as a reinvention of Whitman’s free verse combined with a stream-of-consciousness style most obvious in Ginsberg’s work and that of his contemporaries. They often wrote long poems, some book-length, such as Kerouac’s On the Road, Ginsberg’s Howl, Anne Waldman’s Manatee Humanity and Diana DiPrima’s Loba. The “beat” poets were inspired by jazz, using words the way a jazz musician improvises music. They would often read accompanied by musicians. They were also influenced by Buddhism, and those of the first generation who are still with us, still are (Gary Schneider, Anne Waldman). The newer generation of beats don’t always call themselves “beat” but are being brought together because their/our work is influenced by the beat generation. People writing and performing nowadays are a link between the generations. Ron Whitehead and George Wallace come to mind. I’m not sure how exactly I fit in that category, but it was an honor to have the accolade, and it was great fun getting to read with and encourage other poets.
BLM: What has been your greatest shift in thinking as you went from a teenager to an adult to who you are now?
LD: As a teenager and in college I used to write stories and poems, and of course I was a prolific reader. In high school, I lived in the world of my books, gravitating towards fantasy, science fiction and literary novels. My mother turned me on to classic Russian novelists such as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. I did make friends in college, and spent a year studying literature in France, getting my B.A. in French Literature. I went on for an M.Ed. in Elementary Education, but didn’t teach right away. As an adult, I’ve had to reinvent myself a few times. I spent years dipping my toe into various professions, trying to figure out who I really wanted to be, and also because I became a single parent for several years after a painful divorce. There were too many jobs at that time to list, but examples included having my own business as a party planner (and clown), driving a school bus, and substitute teaching. I liked teaching. It seemed to fit my image of myself, and when I had moved from New York to Connecticut to Massachusetts, I got my certification and taught for a few years in middle schools, then went back to school for my M.F.A. in Poetry. I was 50 when I started the program. In order to have a job while in school, I started teaching English Composition at local colleges part-time. The M.F.A. was a huge shift in my world and my thinking. It helped me develop my writing, and it introduced me to the community of poets. This brought me an enormous boost of self-confidence. I still revel in the ability to mentor and encourage other poets in their writing journeys. I’m still teaching English Composition, which is also rewarding in many ways. I feel I am expressing my best self in both my personal and professional lives.
BLM: What do you feel is your favorite or most successful poem, and why?
In 2017, I won the Liakoura Prize for best poem published that year by Pirene’s Fountain. Ami Kaye, the publisher, also nominated it for a Pushcart Prize. The poem is entitled “About the Body” and it also appears in my book, Keeping Planes in the Air (2020) It is about aging, and although its tone is sad, it addresses survival, which is the underlying theme of most of our lives. I had written this in 2015, so it predated my getting breast cancer at the end of 2018. My mother, who is in the poem, died in 2018 at the age of 94. I still look to nature, with all its glory and decay, as a beacon of hope, and I think this poem speaks to the human need to find “beauty in imperfection.”
about the body how the house we carry with us changes what it feels like to see the face age, how the breasts fall how pain becomes a given how the skin was once unblemished and smooth, like the curve of earth or sunbeams bent by trees it is also about caves the ones we dig to hide secrets a wish to get beyond mirrors how my mother is shrinking she says she’ll end up a puddle in the kitchen no one will recognize this poem is about emerging about finding beauty in imperfection how skin stretches to accommodate bones their restless march towards death
Annie Stenzel was born in Illinois, but did not stay put. Her full-length collection is The First Home Air After Absence. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in print and online journals in the U.S. and the U.K., from Ambit to UCity Review, with stops at Atlanta Review, Chestnut Review, FERAL, Gargoyle, K’in Literary Review, Lily Poetry Review, Nixes Mate, On the Seawall, SWWIM, The Lake, Thimble, and Verse Daily, among others. Her second collection was a finalist last year for the Washington Prize at The Word Works. A poetry editor for the online journals Right Hand Pointing and West Trestle Review, she lives on unceded Ohlone land within walking distance of the San Francisco Bay, and pays a voluntary monthly land tax to help restore Indigenous life.
“Annie Stenzel writes with loving accuracy in a voice as strong and clear as her vision, reckoning our past with our present, the two colliding toward a future waiting beyond just the haze. Sensual, laced with wry wit, her writing shows us how the language of poetry and love will outlast us, speak for us even after the Japanese wisteria has overcome the shingled roof, smothering us with its beauty.”
~ Dorianne Laux, The Book of Men and What We Carry
BLM: How has travel inspired or changed your writing?
AS: Decades ago, when I was first a student of poetry, several poets described “the poem” as a perpetual act of attention. And Mary Oliver puts it bluntly: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” Perhaps it is possible to travel inattentively, though to do so feels unthinkable for me. I may always have reading material with me when I travel, but I rarely crack a book or turn the pages of a magazine while I am on a train, plane, or bus. When I am traveling, there is always a different world unspooling outside my window, and I want to feast my eyes on it; there are fellow travelers next to me, or a row or two away, whose unfamiliar lives I can observe, and whose conversations I can overhear. Some of these observations may find their way into poems, but to my mind, nothing of what I see or hear is wasted.
More than 30 years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a year in France, working on my writing and, in a very casual way, teaching English to French middle-school teachers. To find myself planted in such a very different environment was quite a shock for me—a struggle to understand and to be understood lasted most of the year. I recently took a look at material from the several poetry notebooks I filled during that year, and though the poems I write today that had their origin in those notebooks differ from the ones I wrote while I was actually living in Paris, they are fed and informed by my rich experience of being a stranger in another country.
I just had the very good fortune to spend three weeks in Europe (my first trip out of the country since 2013) and it remains to be seen what poems will result. I’m rather a slow coach when it comes to writing, but my mind is filled with images and sounds from my travels, and I am curious to see what becomes of them.
BLM: You’re asked to present a lecture on the greatest thinker of all time. Who do you choose and why?
AS: Gosh. At one time this would perhaps have been a more difficult question. I might have agonized over the choices my parents would have made: my father (a professor of Classics) would certainly have pointed me toward Plato, while my mother might have urged me to choose a beloved novelist like Jane Austen. But these days I choose Emily Dickinson without hesitation. Her genius is a lodestar for me, even though I am baffled by some of her less brilliant writings. The fact that she wrote all she did; the knowledge of her scraps and scribbles collected and tied together, hidden in the proverbial attic or dresser drawer; her certainty that her writing mattered (notwithstanding the doubt expressed in her question to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?”)—I know I have relied upon her courage and brilliance ever since the first of her poems made it into my memory. (It was No. 372, which begins, “After great pain …”) There are plenty of poets whose writings I would be grieved to miss out on if they had never existed, but as a woman writing today I could not manage without Emily Dickinson.
BLM: What do you feel is your favorite or best poem, and why?
AS: I have loved reading others’ responses to this question in recent issues of Boston Literary Magazine, but when faced with answering for myself, find it a real puzzler. Part of me wants to climb into the “way-back machine” and select a poem from long ago that won a prize when I was first beginning to take my poetry seriously. And part wonders whether to choose the poem that is perhaps other people’s favorite poem of mine. But here's a poem that I have loved ever since the first lines came to me on a scorching day in Marin. The poem was first published in Catamaran Literary Reader, and it serves as the final poem in my collection, The First Home Air After Absence. I stand by the enduring truth of it.
One ascent of Mount Vision
If only it were all
uphill from here—
the ground always rising
to meet my feet; each step a slap
at gravity’s vanity.
And the steady filling
of the chest
with air—that’s the body in business:
nucleotides hard at work.
See, uphill allows the heart
to show its mettle
as muscle (sturdy pump
goes gladly to the well
this lovely pounding—
amplifies the sound
to a drum solo in my ear.
And the sea-level poison
pours out, drop by slippery
my grey bandanna.
Please, tell me
I need not descend
skitter-foot over rocks and dirt
like a pushy foe who tries
to chivvy me to the precipice.
Let me continue this steady
climb, angles of afternoon light in my face
the sought object still simple:
because it is too near.