This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Susan M. Schultz’s Dementia Blog (Singing Horse Press, 2008).
H. L. Hix: In the “Fore and After Word” to Dementia Blog, you explicitly relate dementia and politics. This is a book that was first a blog: would you also add new media to that set of correspondences (as, say, Neil Postman would), or does the work’s originating as a blog indicate that you would not take new media as corresponding to dementia and the political memory loss you address in the book?
Susan M. Schultz: It depends on what you do with the medium. In general, I agree with Postman and Todd Gitlin that television and computers (email, cell phones, and so on) shorten our attention spans. This is dangerous for a poet who needs time away, space and time not to be bombarded with information, voices, demands. But one of the reasons I am drawn to blogs is that they provide the best source of information on politics. I read Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos, Buzz Flash, and other sites every day. So the way in which the media, in and of itself, contributes to our forgetfulness, our “dementia” in the metaphorical sense, is mitigated by uses of that media to inform us, re-mind us.
HH: Pages 15 and 16 list a few contrasts that I’d like to pose back as questions about the book. Poetry or poetic prose? Sequence or unraveling of? Call to action or to observation?
SMS: The point of the contrasts is that they are all true. The book is composed of many genres, even if they are all absorbed into prose. I’ve had an idea for a long time that you could teach genre and form by way of sentences, ask students to compose sentences that gave them access not to how a form works technically, but how it opens the world up conceptually. Hence, a sentence about sitting under a tree and examining your own life would show you the work that a nature poem can do. Or a sentence in which you remember a lost family member illustrates the work of an elegy. And so on. I found in writing this book that those experiments gave me structures to work through as I wrote my prose sentences.
The book is a call to the action of observation, I suppose. And a way to suggest that observation is itself a form of action, that all action takes as its origin the noticing of something in the world, whether it is language or ideology. To notice is to act. And the “notice” (noun) passes that action on.
HH: I keep returning to the sentence on p. 99: “The situation itself is the poem; you need only take it down.” This seems to me to echo not only what immediately precedes it, discussion of a “moment of lucidity” in dementia, but also earlier observations, such as “Consolation exists, if it exists, in the act of description” (92). Is documentary, then, not one possible direction for poetry, but an essential impulse of poetry?
SMS: I agree with your reading, that “documentary…is an essential impulse of poetry,” something I never imagined when I was younger and less interested in the world as it is. But something else I was getting at is the way in which the world itself, in extreme moments, takes on the shape of a poem, becomes figurative. When my father was in his final illness, he began to “make” things with his hands, and he saw family members who were not there. His real world had merged with an imagined one, which was composed out of his memories. That world seemed to me to be poetic, and I was astonished, because my father was not a poet. (Lesson learned, that poetry is not exclusive to poets.) So that “taking it down” meant finding the poem in the world and rendering it on paper or in pixels. My mother’s world, at the time I wrote the blog, was likewise a mix of real and imagined, present and remembered, elements. It was the poem I took down. The consolation for me is that there is meaning there, in these situations that are otherwise quite painful.
Susan M. Schultz is author most recently of Memory Cards: 2010-2011 Series (2011) and Dementia Blog (2012), both from Singing Horse Press. She teaches at the University of Hawai`i- Mānoa and edits Tinfish Press (tinfishpress.com) out of her home in Kāneʻohe on the island of O`ahu. She blogs at tinfisheditor.blogspot.com. EOAGH will soon publish her edited feature on dementia writing.