an online showcase curated by Maya Kóvskaya



Sandra Simonds
interviewed by Liam Hysjulien



Sandra Simonds is the author of six books of poetry: Orlando (Wave Books, forthcoming in 2018), Further Problems with Pleasure, winner of the 2015 Akron Poetry Prize, Steal It Back (Saturnalia Books, 2015), The Sonnets (Bloof Books, 2014), Mother Was a Tragic Girl (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2012), and Warsaw Bikini (Bloof Books, 2009). Her poems have been included in the Best American Poetry 2015 and 2014 and have appeared in many literary journals, including Poetry, American Poetry Review, Chicago Review, Granta, Boston Review, Ploughshares, Fence, Court Green, and Lana Turner. In 2013, she won a Readers’ Choice Award for her sonnet “Red Wand,” which was published on, the Academy of American Poets website. She lives in Tallahassee, Florida and is an associate professor of English and Humanities at Thomas University in Thomasville, Georgia.

Liam Hysjulien:
In reading your work—especially the poems in Steal It Back—I’m reminded of a quote by the situationist Raoul Vaneigem who wrote, “people who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life...have a corpse in their mouth.” In what ways do you see your own poetry as examining the revolutionary act of everyday life?

Sandra Simonds: I’m a working single mother. I’m a professor and I have a four-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old son. I work in the Deep South. A huge portion of my time is spent just navigating my own survival and the survival of my kids. How will I get them to school? How will I get to work today? How do I get them to the doctor? How do I get myself to the doctor? Did I just eat three cookies all day? Is my bank account in the negative? That kind of thing. Audre Lorde’s brilliant assertion that “survival is not an academic skill” immediately comes to mind. When you are living that kind of precarity (which many people I know are, and yes, professors do experience precarity despite the stereotypes), the political realm is seamless with everyday life. As the literary critic, Andrew Epstein points out in his book, Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture, "for many contemporary poets, the pursuit of the everyday is fiercely political, an attempt to make visible the workings of power, gender codes, capitalism, and consumerism in the smallest details of everyday life. We see this mode in action, for example, in the poetry of motherhood written by Bernadette Mayer and an array of younger poets.” Claudia Rankine, Laynie Browne, Hoa Nguyen, Eleni Sikelianos, and Catherine Wagner are a few of the poets he cites as examples of contemporary feminist poets working in this mode and the subject matter of my poetry overlaps with theirs. To write about everyday life as a single mother is a deeply feminist act because my everyday is vastly different from the everyday life of many white male poets, the traditional writers of “great poetry.”

Further, the connection between the personal and political relates to class consciousness and understanding how class position within capitalism is instrumental in oppression. Marx: “it is not men’s (peoples) consciousness that determines their existence, but on the contrary their social existence that determines their consciousness.” Without class consciousness, revolution isn’t possible and realist art, the attention to everyday details, is one way to relay and record class consciousness. My poetry isn’t about escaping reality, but rather trying to expose ideology and to articulate these ideological constructs more clearly in a way that speaks to people, makes them feel that connection. Sometimes a reader feels that connection but does not have the words to articulate it. My aim is to articulate these connections and by doing so, say, “you are not alone,” and then, perhaps, motivate the reader to political action.  

I think what you are asking also relates to this idea of academic, property-owning Marxists who don’t show up in the streets. (Obviously, this isn’t true for all academic Marxists). I really like the saying, “if you’re not struggling, you’re not in the struggle,” which an old activist friend who was involved in Earth First! once told me. There’s a lot of wisdom in that adage because it gives struggling people agency over praxis and trusts that struggling people can lead the way. Many elite academic leftist simply don’t understand this because the political doesn’t affect their daily life in the same way it does mine. How many elite leftist poets are single moms? Politics is something that they don’t feel day to day and thus they have to use their skills of imagination to transform their political thoughts into feelings; this transformation is noble but not equivalent.

LH: I love this idea of poetry being a tool for exposing the lies of ideology. How is poetry uniquely useful in confronting—maybe even unraveling—these systems of social and structural domination? 

Erich Auerbach’s “Mimesis:The Representation of Reality in Western Literature” had an influence on my understanding of the issues of the personal and the political and the way intimacy can be transmitted through a text. In “Madame du Chastel,” Auerbach details a 14th-century narrative written by a Provençal knight named Antoine de la Sale. The narrative recounts the way Madame du Chastel guides and advises her husband through a very difficult situation. The context is the Hundred Years' War; the English Black Prince has taken the French Chastels’ thirteen-year-old son ransom and won’t give him back unless they surrender their fortress. Late at night, in bed, with her husband, despairing on the course of action to take, Madame du Chastel advises her husband to allow their son to die at the hands of their enemies, rather than give up the fortress. The scene, both that of the conversation between husband and wife as well as the execution scene, are harrowing, intimate, and tragic. Why am I recounting this story? Because Auerbach notes that La Sale, in his narration, recounts very little about the Hundred Years' War or the potential consequences of the fall of the fortress. To put it another way, the intimate portrayal of this couple, specifically the moral dilemma they are forced to undergo, gives us an understanding of the political situation. Auerbach notes that this portrayal is class-based (in this case of course, since this is Medieval French Literature, the aristocracy). Auerbach’s analysis throws into sharp relief how intimacy and sentimentality are capable of defining large-scale political situations in literature. One might call what Auerbach has found in this Medieval text “political intimacy,” and I situate my poetry in a long and various history of the representation of political intimacy via language. I think of Lorine Niedecker when she writes:

In the great snowfall before the bomb
colored yule tree lights
windows, the only glow for contemplation
along this road
I worked the print shop
right down among em
the folk from whom all poetry flows
and dreadfully much else.

Or I think of John Cassavetes’s film A Woman Under the Influence, which depicts a troubled marriage and domestic violence, but it’s also a study of love, and what’s precise about the film is that it’s not moralizing and presents aspects of difficulties in heterosexual love many encounter and can relate to. Radical leftist poets often go wrong aesthetically because they think that they have to represent “political reality” from the vantage of large-scale political realities as if they were historians or documentary filmmakers, but so much art tells us that it’s completely possible to get a large-scale political picture, even much more possible, through attentive observations of the everyday, through the intimate details, through a study of romantic love, and all of these artists prove this.

LH: You seem to be articulating these sentiments in the poem “Spring Dirge” from your new collection, Further Problems with Pleasure, where you write “My poetry/is opposed to the world;/ it is a performance against/ideology and honor/and the nation state/.” Is poetry an attempt to remake the world through language? Or does it function more as a shield from it?  

SS: Much of that collection is both the celebration of desire and the grotesqueness of desire—how so many of our problems, person and cultural, come from desire—from drives—the sometimes insatiable desire to accumulate things or the negative desire to destroy things and people, which is an energy important to poetry. I’ve read a lot of affect theory, particularly Lauren Berlant’s critical writing, and thought a lot about emotional excessiveness in poetry because a lot of people have called my poetry “wild” or “excessive.” I’ve thought a lot about the way emotion is used in late capitalism to control femininity or the “femme” presentation, which is often characterized by excess, how in corporate workplaces, emotion has to be strictly controlled for capitalism to flow, but also how affect is a kind of currency and how it is used to get us to buy things and conform to societal norms. Children, who often cannot “control” their emotions, are often banished from various areas of public space. In my forthcoming book, Orlando, I interweave excerpts from my teenage diary with the narrative of the poem (it’s an epic poem), to explore the uncontrollability of that teenage girl voice. The femme presentation is shamed by society; patriarchy tells us that the teenage girl is silly, that she can’t be political and yet, as a society, we turn to Teen Vogue for our news stories.

Capitalism is about desire without consequences. We trash the oceans and human beings to enjoy cheap computers and phones and cars and kids toys. Philosophically, my poetry is opposed to that world. Poetry is also about showing us other possibilities for the world while simultaneously realizing that we are within these ideological and material structures that we can’t escape from—we are capitalists by default. Nonetheless, the imagination is powerful and it’s something that shouldn’t be underestimated: there is no revolution without poetry.

LH: You talked about the need for poetry to help us feel less alone. Can poetry also make us feel more human? Is there enough empathy in poetry these days? 

I respond poorly to the word “empathy” and prefer the word “compassion.” Empathy to me always feels like this: “I'm going to help you but I am above you and I am at an emotional remove”; compassion is “I am neither above you nor below you and we are going to help each other because we are humans and life is messy; we are in this together even if I lose something in the process.” There's that wonderful line from James Baldwin’s story, “Sonny’s Blues,” where the narrator says, “my troubles made his real.” He's talking about the loss of a child and how suddenly he is awakened to the pain of Sonny’s drug addiction, but it's really at the end of the story when he experiences the sublime effects of Sonny’s musical talents that the narrator feels compassion for his brother. For a moment, Sonny’s music brings the narrator his dead daughter back to life, resurrecting her in his mind’s eye—this is to me, the compassion of art, which moves beyond empathy into something else that involves memory, the body, desire, and love.

LH: Is compassion necessary in poetry? Do we face a kind of poverty of poetry if we don’t acknowledge the power of compassion?

SS: Yes to both.

LH: Terrance Hayes and Saeed Jones once discussed the way in which a poem could be like a machine or an animal. In describing his own work, Saeed Jones said, “[Cynthia Cruz] described once...poems as machines. She was like they are these mean little machines made out of images and sounds, and I just love I think of my poems as machines.” More than the ideas and thematic elements in your work, are there any mechanical properties you take into consideration when constructing a poem?

SS: I think craft and form are important insofar as an artist needs control over the medium, in the case of poetry, that’s language. Thus, there’s value in the knowledge of the craft. You have to spend the hours early on in your writing life thinking about exactly where a line break happens and the differences in meaning that occur when you break a line here versus over there. You need great tools. Even the most talented poet cannot get away without the hours of work early on. That’s just a fact, and no amount of popularity or social media absorption will ever get around this. You gotta do the time. You don’t get to be a Zen monk meditating for five minutes a day.

I resist thinking of the poem as a machine because machines are contraptions that humans have made in order to produce something, and machines often involve efficiency, and I don’t know if I see poems in those terms. I think poems are more like animals—much more messy with blood and spit and milk and semen and don’t necessarily do anything in particular. I mean poems can do things, but they don’t necessarily have any use value, and that’s okay. There’s a long history of lazy, antisocial, amoral, absurdist poems that make explicit their lack of value, but then I value negativity in art, that taking away, when Antonin Artaud says, “all writing is pigshit!” I like that. It makes me laugh. I get a kick out of French Surrealism. 

Any animals in particular?

SS: Probably like Kafka’s bug in The Metamorphosis, when the bug dies? I don’t know. I like how you never really know what kind of bug it is. I guess that kind of animal. Low but mysterious.

In one interview your wrote “I don’t think I’m that interested in “everyday” life in and of itself. I don’t think poetry is about the ordinary; I think it’s about the extraordinary.” Are we too comfortable in what we categorize as being the “ordinary”?

: Writing about “ordinary” experiences got me an invitation to write at Emily Dickinson’s desk for an hour in Amherst last fall. To go to the house, a place I had never been, was like a pilgrimage. All of the sudden I’m sitting at her desk at seven in the morning looking out her bedroom window, and it’s really vibrant and beautiful, but then I notice that you can see the Bank of America in the view from her window. Poetry is about really paying attention to experience. Poetry takes you out of the everyday but it also brings you back around. The Bank of America is what I think of as being brought back around to reality. Noticing the bank is carved into that transcendental, once-in-a-lifetime experience. The bank says “not so fast.” Epstein talks about the “quotidian poetics that is driven by a desire to reallocate attention to enlarge the scope of our noticing – allowing the concrete details, the material conditions, and the micropolitics inherent in being a mother and woman to become visible.” The Dickinson experience was the inverse: it was not supposed to be a quotidian experience, but what I noticed made it one. Because I am both a feminist and a leftist, what I noticed, what I paid attention to within that experience, matters and surfaces in my writing.

LH:  Do we as poets give enough credit to the power of our own work? Where do you see the direction of poetry heading? 

SS: Poetry is difficult. It takes a real readership of people dedicated to the art. As I said on Twitter a few days ago, it’s better to have five good readers of your work than one hundred weak readers. So, my advice is to seek out readers who care enough to dedicate their time and attention to the depths of your linguistic being and don’t settle for anything less. If I was a betting woman, I would say that probably American poetry is at a historical point of maximum “social consciousness,” and I think that a wave of more hermetic and insular poems will follow this. That’s just a guess.

Selected poems by Sandra Simonds from “Further Problems with Pleasure” (Akron Series in Poetry 2017)

Conceptual Poem
Conceptual Poetry is a life sentence of selfies shrugging
in a privatized prison The social role
of the poet was the most annoying girl in the class who cried and cried
all day and in the morning with a picket sign Something I don’t know
a gang bang I don’t want to say that honey He couldn’t move past
his own pornography which was a problem that involved
trucks and generally being an idiot I think my ideas are good
here I’m afraid of art museums and IKEA Oh god I hate
IKEA and you and trucks and Tallahassee and who
is going to pay off all my student loans?

Ode to Suicide, Delirium and Early REM
   One time, I was on Twitter and Elisa or Anne or maybe it was on Facebook
posted this thing about the way the tips of your eyes point and I was disappointed because
mine are not almond-shaped, like my sister’s, my tips are “downturned,”        
something medieval and sad, something fenced-in the manuscript or economic,
            the way they paint the little strawberries are a technological advance,
   and deep green vines up the gold-vermillion boxes to keep the text in, to keep
the lion in, to keep the flow
             of the blue flow robes in,
            Mine point down (Almond eye surgery for downturned eyes? please help, photos)
                        the way Mary’s tips point down, the hue, a libidinous blue,
a corruption, wave, metal star work of mournful
                  space—opening onto the maze of resistance
       or the deep paralysis of a bad aesthetic, how to move on, how to
incorporate, my god, the bad frosted hair, the callous way you are supposed
to treat other humans to “get by,” as in the cells swirling around
                        a pool called “survival,” I can’t do anything else but
this cranked-up harmony, this nerve a sort of beat, slot-machine
or instinct the eyes point down and that is sad and there is no way
around that but I could see right through you, I mean, I am you, or rats,
or the way that horror itself is
            timed and gridded
            and paces around the manuscript too,
like a fabled beast not a real animal no something
            with horns from myth, from what has been passed down to scare
the kids to keep them together
I walked & walked
            & walked & walked
in the black and white forest, found a puff
of woodpecker feathers, made earrings from
a body of flight and pounding
like an animal already deceased but he or she doesn’t know it yet
            and neither do we, seeking shade the kind you throw on someone else
            this is the transport to
torture, stateside, on a salty island, I said I’d write an ode
to suicide, delirium and early REM
               in an ice chair, in the metallic clicks of brute force,
inside our terrible century which isn’t cryptic
at all, but encrypted in the omi-
            nous / anonymous
transactions of bank
errors, pirate’s treasure behind glass in the Florida History Museum
and the little kids go “ohhhh” when they stick
            their puny heads, bouncing with coded ringlets, into one side
of the model cannon, that’s what Charlotte did (my little girl),
Hellooooooo a man said at one end
and Char said Hellooooooo
            and my son and I were hanging on to the ooooooo like the creeping
vines on the manuscript                      
You are rich in grace but poor
            in destruction like cranes flying off for no reason, forming
            their tribute to nature and I thought
to be beautiful, the eyes should point up
because up signifies hope, goodness,
the “white page” “white” “pure” “up,” in control of the means
of production if not now
at some point
in the future
For anything to be beautiful, really, it should strive
The way angels do
                 The way gods do
The way cranes do
            The way human thought is supposed to do
Dear X,
            I have fucked up
Forgive me
            Or make me suffer in some way
these characters suffer
            in this manuscript
bound to their golden horns,
            to their encrusted two dimensions
to their tinted colors
            coagulating like blood
Like loss
   Like things I can’t think of
That I can’t be
   That I am
Like selves that splinter
   And every time I focus
on getting by I think
   Can’t you leave me
to suffer
   Can’t you go
inside your own
            tomb of longing,
your own Sappho-like box
            with a lid on top
Your own Sappho-like
            song box
with a strong song lid
   on top and a gold lock
Leave me to the glass heart this man
   placed in the palm of my hand
            on the bank of the Suwannee River
He said a preacher blessed it
and so I carry it around
in my jean jacket pocket and feel it
I want you to see it
            and feel it because it is smooth and ridiculous
because I can’t bear to throw it away
            because it is over the top
of the box
and so Greek with lament
            that I want you to stay inside my lament
   and feel it
            because I am superstitious and I wish
my lament could be inside your
            head every day like the ocean
            that can’t be depicted
            in the manuscript or the present moment
which Chris Kraus says radicalizes everything
            but I disagree I think it’s the past
that radicalizes everything
            that is the strange light and the lid
and the box and the lock and the red glass
I am more ancient more atrocious
more volatile and laced with inconsistent abstractions
            stuffed with them like a lark or nature
so I go downward
like Ra is to rain
interior of the sun
“demons scatter
in terror”
I’m going to make a big pot of chili this
weekend because I’m broke
as fuck No matter what
I go under the bank vault, under the cannon,
underneath the pigmented clouds, their blue veins bulging
I have erased your box
             with this downwardness
I go under where it’s just the intoxicating smell of money
            and rain and state buildings
and pulsating vines of ivy
I follow these downward tips
            my eye sockets
that are not beautiful after all
            but eternally plain
as coffins, organs,
            I want to survive
but I don’t want to be inside them
            like a black bell
            like torture broken down
for what it is—
             a well or language spiral

Our Lady of Perpetual Help
All this magic against death
Live the light in August that’s it
Look at the way leaves tint themselves for autumn
            The yellow ribbed frog is extinct as of 12/1/2013
I was an amphibian creeping like the bible
Something incandescent or comely but
my eyes can’t dissect your eyes like an electric rabbit
            named Paul Revere
            I will die with a glass heart in my hand
              I will die with a glass heart in my hand
You need to repeat after me
This is Mississippi
            The moon is dusted terrible
You learned how to spell me in school terrible
            You need to mark every place Faulkner was racist
and rewrite the novel as erasure
If you’re good man, you’ll rewrite the moon
and then we will fall for each other backwards
            which is our birthright
Which is the soft land and her animals
            when nature mellows like a porous fruit
As you become a character enclosed in my grammar,
            you become an object I’m ashamed
            The yellow frogs are gone did you see them parting?
Things grow long and unrecognizable
Love is recognized as an archaic structure
            of scribbles, vines, buttresses, spires
              conspiracy theories, weak as gas station coffee
You see six nuns in South Alabama moving
towards a gas station named Brittney
like a prehistoric herd in the mauve twilight
They have gone down the War on Terror
            Memorial Highway in their big bus vroom vroom
They are not right Not of our century
They are the cryptic language of the kill
            They are not who they pretend to be
One is pregnant under her habit
            One thinks she ought not to touch that
One buys a Diet Dr. Pepper and Twizzlers
They go down the highway, a sparkling acid trip
   They are psychedelic and crazed as lions crave energy,
their eyes revolving like enervated shadows
in the painted murals of their thinking
   They are snorkeling inside the waters of death
They are not the gentle motion of waves
but rather the cold deaths of rivers and crosses
  burdened with poison
            They are the death
of orgiastic chimneys, soot
            and the frail air that surrounds it
as the flesh surrounds the heart
            and is also the heart
They go down the highway on God
            I want you to say this, Mississippi   6 miles
            I want you to love terror, Alabama   10 miles
I want you to place yourself on the interior
            of this spiked gothic, Mississippi        15 miles
I want you to listen in and tell me
            you love me, Mississippi        85 miles
I will squeeze it out of you like a glass heart
thrown into parts of the earth
            you don’t want to see[             132 miles
I will die with a glass heart in my hand
as if it’s a diamond encrusted scepter I know it
            I am the queen of this disaster
I can feel it deep inside me
This is a torch
This is a door
This is a tree
This a gun
This is a nun
This is a pregnant nun
This is none
This is the baby inside the nun
This here is Baby None
Say hello to None Hi None
This ain’t Baby None No
Say bye to Baby None No Bye None
Inside the War on Terror Memorial
Highway is Family None
driving to nothin’
None of it I’ve said before
Nothing has gone down
this highway except deer
            and the desolate streaks of None
This is a place of weeping things
            where the world has wept
            and wept and no one has come
No Father None          No Mother None
No Baby None Comes      No Sister
None Comes No Brother None Comes
No One            like None
It’s that kind of place
You’ve never seen it before
It’s blind to everything, everyone
Halfway extinguished, halfway extinct
Never mind the gas station or the girl who barfed
in the van of Christmas tinsel
or the nuns who have dissolved
into the South Alabama mist
No one sees them except us and that
is why we love each other
This is my life
I don’t want it I do
            These are the frogs I don’t want them I do
These are the nuns I don’t want them
I do no more I do
I do know more           I know I do none
I do no more   none I know I do
I do to you      

First appeared in American Poetry Review and is used by permission of the author.



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