Susan Kelly-DeWitt on Becoming A Poet

Susan Kelly-DeWitt Kelly-DeWitt was born in San Francisco but spent most of her childhood in Hawaii before it was a state, living for several years on the grounds of an historic artists’ colony called Wailele. She moved back to Northern California in 1960. Kelly-DeWitt is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow and the author of Spider Season, The Fortunate Islands and nine previous print and online collections . Her work has been widely published in numerous journals and anthologies, both at home and abroad, and has been featured at Wordstock, and on Writer’s Almanac, Verse Daily, and Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry. She is also an exhibiting visual artist.

Mary: Welcome to People Who Make Books Happen, Susan. Let’s start at the beginning: Why did you become a poet?

Susan Kelly-DeWitt: Hard to know! My mother had a beautiful clothbound volume of Leaves of Grass. My father could recite The Iliad though he had only an eighth grade education. My parents also knew Don Blanding in Honolulu in the early 50’s, so I probably heard the word “poet” at a very young age. I was always a voracious reader but I never thought I could actually be a “real” writer or poet myself until I was in my twenties, in college, and read Plath. Having had a lot of trouble and tragedy in my life by then, Plath’s poems showed me there was a way to write about that.

Mary: How old were you when you wrote your first poem?

Susan Kelly-DeWitt: I may have written some small silly ditties when I was a child but the first “real” poem I remember writing was when I was a freshman in high school.

Mary: What was it about?

Susan Kelly-DeWitt: I had read A Tale of Two Cities and subsequently wrote a long poem–two or three pages in rhyme and meter–called “The Guillotine”, about a prisoner marching to his execution. The last lines were: “So spoke my head from its place unseen/ Where I left it, near the guillotine.” I always get a big laugh when I tell this story to high school students!

Mary: That’s hilarious. My first poem was about garbage collectors. So, which poets have influenced you?

Susan Kelly-DeWitt: So many! In childhood/adolescence, Poe, Coleridge, Dickinson–though I never actually thought I could be a poet then. After that some of the biggest influences–where I read everything I could by and about–were Whitman and Dickinson; Blake and Yeats; Rilke; Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Ratushinskaya; Neruda; Bishop; Kenyon, Oliver and Dove; Hillman and Gluck; Kinnell; Merton; Heaney and Boland; Mistral; Milosz; Rumi; Transtromer; Levertov (who was also my mentor when I was a Stegner), and Plath, of course. The three Wrights have been very important to me also–C.D., Charles, and James Wright especially. Finally, and hugely, my early mentors and now dear old friends, Dennis Schmitz and Sandra McPherson.

Mary: What inspires you to write a poem? How do you get the initial idea?

Susan Kelly-DeWitt: Reading other poets always inspires me–I enter into a conversation with them and start replying, connecting associatively via lines that come into my head and make it to the page. Also, when I take my daily walk I frequently begin to get a line. When that happens, I keep it going for as long as I can, memorizing what comes, keeping each line as an evocative unit, in terms of both rhythm and meaning, and push it as far as I can. As I said in another recent interview, I also “see” the poem as a shape in space–a word sculpture. (Now that we have cell phones I sometimes pause to type out the lines on my Notes app.) When I come home I start to work on what I have. Sometimes the poem simply finds me–as one did a day or two ago, when I walked by jasmine vines in bloom and inhaled the perfume–I have been writing and revising it ever since.

Mary: What are your personal poetics? In other words, what are you trying to do with regard to both form and content when you write a poem?

Susan Kelly-DeWitt: I am a big believer in Denise Levertov’s “Theory of Organic Form”–that the poem must find it’s own shape/life, life-force as it evolves on the page. I believe this even when I am trying to write a villanelle or a sonnet. For me each line (as Levertov said) must exist as “an evocative unit of thought.” I also want to write something that will connect across time, space, class, culture–something that celebrates or articulates or witnesses for others in some small way–and/or something that helps someone through its beauty or use, or both.

Of course, as Frost said: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” The poem has to teach me something, take me somewhere new–the poet as detective, solving the mystery. The poet as photographer, developing film in the darkroom.

Mary: You’re the author of nine Chapbooks and two full-length collections of poetry, beginning with A Camellia for Judy published by Frith Press in 1998. How has your poetry changed over the last twenty years?

Susan Kelly-DeWitt: You know, Mary–I’m not sure that I am the best judge of this. I did try, in Spider Season, to tackle some new subjects and to feel my way to a different kind of poem-shape. I think in the early years I was still discovering my own voice, and I hope–especially with Spider Season–that I have now found it. That said, I have always tried to include poems that address history–personal, political, social–in some way. I don’t think this has changed. The natural world and the visual image have always been important to my poetic vision and self (probably stemming in large part from growing up in Hawaii and living for several early years in a defunct artists’ colony surrounded by art and a tropical rainforest)–I’d like to think I have gotten better as an observer of those worlds, but I am not sure that I have. I’ll have to listen to the critics for that.

Mary: You just mentioned your most recent collection of poetry, Spider Season,” published in 2016 by Cold River Press. What does the title symbolize? How did you arrive at it?

Susan Kelly-DeWitt: Coming up with the title was largely intuitive. I woke one night with that title in my head. I had written quite a few new poems during the previous months (known as the “spider season”) and I had encountered numerous spider webs on my morning walks. Spider also means “mother” in dream symbolism. Since this is the first full-length collection I have published since my mother’s death, I’m sure that had something to do with the intuitive part. The book also casts a wide web of connections for me–parts of my life that I have not written about before.

Mary: What are the three most important poems in Spider Season? Why?

Susan Kelly-DeWitt: Well, first let me say: I think we know the writer/artist is often the least qualified to judge her/his own work! That said, the three I might choose from Spider Season now would be “The Subject of All Poems is the Clock” and “First Light.” Number Three would be a tie between “Interrogative” and “Don’t Forget.” I would choose these because they all tackle the large existential questions, and some of them also witness the political and environmental crises that loom over our planet’s future.

Mary: Do you have any other new work you’d like to mention, or any new books in the works?

Susan Kelly-DeWitt: I do. A third full-length manuscript is making the rounds–it is titled The Moon Bee. I also recently had a group of poems published online at Mudlark. They are poems that give voice to some painful experiences I have not written about so explicitly before. 

Mary: You are a visual artist as well as a poet. How do these two aspects of your creative life influence one another?

Susan Kelly-DeWitt: Well, I have often been told that I am a very “visual” poet–that my imagery allows the reader to “zoom in” and focus. Over the years I have taught several workshops where we explored the painter/photographer’s techniques and language as useful tools for the poetry writing process. My life as a visual artist has taught me to “see”–to attend, remove the distance between myself and the subject; it has also helped me (especially watercolor painting) to recognize the fortunate accident, and to know (usually!!) when to stop.

Mary: How has your involvement in the Sacramento literary community influenced your work?

Susan Kelly-DeWitt: Stanley Kunitz once wrote: “Poetry withers without fellowship.” Our literary community casts a wide web of friendship, support and creative energy. Getting involved with the Sacramento Poetry Center in the late 70’s brought me into that web, and I have been there ever since. As one of the early members, readers, program directors, workshop facilitators, and editors of the literary magazine, I found my place in the world, and I continue to treasure every moment spent in that nurturing environment which does not differentiate between “inside” and “outside” the academy. The word “community” (as defined by Webster’s) says it: a unified body of individuals–and so it is, and so we are.
 
Mary: If you could ensure that one of your poems would survive to be read 500 years from now, which poem would it be, and why have you chosen it?

Susan Kelly-DeWitt: Tough question! That said, “Apple Blossoms” would be my choice today because I think that it captures the struggle for survival, the beauties and complexities of the human dilemma in a very plain-spoken way. Kooser used it on his American Life in Poetry column, and I know that a lot of people have connected with it since then. I think it would still relate to a reader as long as there are people, long winter nights, bees and spring blossoms. Of course with Trump’s position on climate change, 500 years may be far too optimistic.

Mary: “Apple Blossoms” is one of my favorites too. Here it is, accompanied by your painting “Pink Leaves.”

Apple Blossoms

One evening in winter
when nothing has been enough,
when the days are too short,

the nights too long
and cheerless, the secret
and docile buds of the apple

blossoms begin their quick
ascent to light. Night
after interminable night

the sugars pucker and swell
into green slips, green
silks. And just as you find

yourself at the end
of winter’s long, cold
rope, the blossoms open

like pink thimbles
and that black dollop
of shine called

bumblebee stumbles in.

                                Copyright © by Susan Kelly-DeWitt Kelly Dewitt 2001

Mary: Do you have any upcoming readings or classes? How can people get in touch with you?

Susan Kelly-DeWitt: I am going to be teaching my Poet as Camera class in Stockton CA on June 24th as part of the University of the Pacific’s Creative Writing Conference . I will also be teaching a five month private workshop on hybrid forms in the fall. People can contact me via my website at: http://susankelly-dewitt.com/. My public email address is: skellydewitt@gmail.com.

As for readings–I just took part, as the Featured Poet for 2017,  in Solano Community College’s annual launch-reading for the Suisun Valley Review, and I am happy to be part of the upcoming launch at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts on September 23rd for Know Me Here – An Anthology of Poetry by Women, edited by Katherine Hastings. Hopefully you and I will be reading together, Mary, since you are also in the anthology.

Mary: Thank you, Susan. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. I’m looking forward to reading the poems in The Moon Bee.

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