Susana H. Case is the rock n roll poet behind a good number of poetry collections, including Salem In Seance, The Cost of Heat, and the upcoming Elvis Presley’s Hips & Mick Jagger’s Lips. Her poetry has been published through Nostrovia! Poetry and Anaphora Literary Press, along with a variety of journals. You can read Nano Elvis, a Nano Poem Collection, online, free.
What are you currently up to?
I’m well into two projects. One series of poems is a continuation of my interest in poetry related in some way to, or inspired by, rock n roll, a sort of second volume to the forthcoming Elvis Presley’s Hips & Mick Jagger’s Lips. The other series is a continuation of my interest in using history in poetry. I’m working on a series related to labor history and copper mining. Most of what I currently write falls into one or another of these bins, though there are exceptions.
What attracted you to writing about witchcraft and witch trials?
The Salem witchcraft trials is one of those subjects that is always going to be fodder for poetry, novels, plays, nonfiction. It’s easy to find a connection between events then and events now.
It’s like when Arthur Miller wrote his play, The Crucible, in the nineteen-fifties. The United States was in the middle of McCarthyism. Miller could see a connection between the past and the nineteen-fifties in the misuse of political power. So could I when I began working on Salem in Séance. The political extremism of this country’s right wing, the religious fundamentalism, the targeting of women all caused me to draw parallels between then and now.
Many of your poems regard music + rock n roll. What inspired you to start writing about music?
Because rock n roll (and rhythm and blues also to some extent) is the music I grew up with, every significant experience in my life is somehow connected to a song or a collection of rock songs. When I remember events from my biography, there’s a soundtrack attached.
So, in a way, rock music is always on my mind and I wanted to do something with that. I enjoyed—and continue to enjoy—the process of using the music in the songs to inform the music I strive to hear in my poems. It’s just fun, thinking about rock in this way too, as a device, not solely as a part of my history.
When you begin a collection, do you have a theme in your head before you start writing, or does the premise slowly evolve over time?
Sometimes when I start writing, I do variations on the theme, and if I do enough variations, I begin to think about a collection. Usually, whatever I do starts as an individual poem. Several different things can then happen; I’m done, I’ve got more I want to play with, I’ve got A LOT more I want to do.
With historical poetry, I generally know there will be a series because I can see how much note- taking I’m doing in my research. With the rock n roll poems, there isn’t the same kind of research because I lived it. I wrote some rock poems here and there, and after a while, I realized I had a large number of them. There wasn’t the same conscious creation of a narrative trajectory to begin with. That came later when I organized the poems into a book.
What’s your writing process like?
It’s fairly structured.
I can be completely in outer space before I have a basic framework down. Once I have that, then I can go work with my students, go out to a movie, do other things, and come back to flesh out the poem, but I like to have something in my head to start hanging my thoughts on.
The rewriting process is more brutal. Sometimes, there’s little to preserve from the early drafts. I think of it as Revision Hell because that’s what it feels like. Sometimes it feels good to physically tear a poem file up and put the file into the trash bin on my desktop–a total obliteration.
Preferred writing tool? Pen, pencil, or computer?
If I have really good notes–usually done by pen–of where I want to go, I can sit down at a keyboard and see the poem begin to take form. Otherwise, I start with a pen and when the page gets so marked up that I’m afraid I won’t be able to read my own line and word rearrangements and other changes, I keyboard it in and then start marking the page up by pen again. I don’t think I own a pencil.
Which writers had the most impact on your development?
This varies weekly. I admire the way Sharon Olds writes about her personal life, in particular an older poem of hers, “I Go Back to May 1937.” I enjoy David Kirby for his hyper-drive narrative style. Philip Levine too.
But the writer who convinced me in high school that I wanted to write was Langston Hughes. Now he’s someone who was skilled at incorporating a sense of music into his poems!
Other early favorites were Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg. I wanted to be a beatnik, but I was born too late. There were hardly any left.
Ginsberg’s Kaddish was especially moving. What exactly spurred you into writing?
I wrote poetry in college, and before that. My father had been a writer before he became an English teacher. I thought this was what everybody did, although I don’t understand how I thought that when no other teenager I knew was doing it.
It’s one of the reasons I’m intrigued by Nostrovia! Poetry because it seems to offer a community to young writers. I could have used that; I probably would have felt less alienated.
I stopped writing poetry for a time because I needed to write academic works to help develop my career, but when my academic writing ceased to be satisfying, I returned to poetry. By then, it was easier to find other poets.
That’s Alright Mama 2
by Susana H. Case
When Elvis first recorded,
radio stations didn’t want to play the song.
He sounded too black for country,
too hillbilly for R & B,
a portmanteau style: rockabilly.
DJ Dewey Phillips finally played
“That’s All Right” on his show,
Red, Hot and Blue.
He played it fourteen times that day.
Rolling Stone called it the beginning
of rock and roll.
In segregated America,
blues married country,
black finally married white.