Poet Suzanne Roberts speaks to BIJURAJ
on politics and what it means to be living in America today
popular is poetry in the U.S?
many people in the United States do not read poetry. People are afraid
of it. I see this with my students. They automatically think that they
will not understand it, so they immediately don’t like it. Of course
once we read it together, they do like it. There is, of course, a small
minority of people who are very dedicated to poetry. And it seems that
there are many people out there who want to be poets as evidenced by the
number of MFA programs and poetry contests. I think the majority of the
poetry audience is comprised of poets or at least want-to-be-poets.
What is writing
for you and how did you turn to it?
me make sense of the world. I think it was EM Forester who said “How
do I know what I think until I see what I have said.” I see writing
as a way to figure out how I feel about things. I also see writing as
communication. I am trying to convey an idea or a feeling in order to
create a connection. Writing has come naturally to me because my father
was a writer. He wrote and directed Broadway plays and towards the end
of his life, he wrote soap operas. I grew up to the sound of a typewriter
clicking, so writing has been ingrained in me since I was a little girl.
As far as style is concerned, my poetry and even my scholarly essays are
narrative, and I think that is because I like to tell stories.
often mix English with Spanish. How do you evaluate yourself with cultural
I have a series
of Latin American poems that explore what it is like to interact with
another culture, including another language. The title poem of my book
“Nothing to You” juxtaposes an intimate relationship with
a man from a Latin American culture with the narrator’s alienation
from that culture; because of the situation, she is both inside and outside
of the culture. The title “Nothing toYou” refers
to what the taxi driver tells her, that the money for the hotel room is
“nothing to her.” But the title is also ironic because the
affair, the man on the side of the road, her lost faith (the Jesus with
the scratched out eyes) is everything to her. When writing the poems,
the Spanish words seemed necessary. In most places, though, I tried to
incorporate the words so that someone who does not speak Spanish will
still understand the words in context.
to be a lot of Latin American influence in your poems...
I can say that I greatly admire the works of Gabriel García
Márquez and Federico García Lorca, and I can only hope that
by reading them, they have influenced me. The poem “A Story”
parallels the unlikely love of Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza. I think
the novel Love in the Time of Cholera shows how love can make
people do crazy things. I also think society has always restricted love
affairs, which somehow makes them more attractive even if they were not
attractive to begin with. The same is true of Lorca. In his case, his
homosexuality created the automatic situation of forbidden love. Whether
it is heterosexual or homosexual, the theme of forbidden love has always
How much can you self-expose in poems...
As far as self-exposure, I think all writing is self-exposure. This doesn’t
mean that the things in my poems or stories actually happened. Sometimes
the facts must be distorted in order to tell the truth. I want my poems
and stories to be true to the emotion rather than true to the facts.
How does your poetry deal with the political?
is political. The choices we make in using language reveal our attitudes,
beliefs, and politics. Many of my poems explore love and lust with the
female narrator as object rather than subject. By deconstructing the usual
gender roles, I am making a political statement. I think much of the injustice
in the world stems from sexism. Though women are much freer in the United
States and in Europe than they are in other place in the world, women
are still repressed. Our media is full of images of sexually liberated
women, but real women are still stereotyped and stigmatised; if a woman
openly enjoys her sexuality, she is labeled as sexually promiscuous or
even called names such as a slut or whore. Men, on the other hand, are
congratulated for sexual prowess. Certainly it is more complicated than
this, and my poems attempt to explore the feelings of shame and guilt
associated with sexual freedom in a restraining society, especially for
How is your poetry related to your activism?
I am currently
finishing a doctorate program in Literature and the Environment at the
University of Nevada, Reno, and my dissertation explores the connection
between the oppression of women and nature. Likewise, some of my poems
explore the repression of both women and nature. My poem “The Falling
Sky” ponders a post-apocalyptic world where the female narrator
is not allowed into traditionally “male” space even though
the sky is literally falling. I hope that my scholarship and my poems
will prompt my audience to question our treatment of both women and nature.
Tell us something
about the state of literature in the US?
This is a hard question for me to answer because I am biased. I am most
familiar with American and British literature because of my academic training.
So I would say yes, American literature is up to the international standard.
The other difficult part of this question is that when I read international
writers, I am reading works in translation; while there are some very
good translations out there, it is never the same as reading the work
in the original language. As for the “masters,” I think that
many of the multicultural writers have established a voice in the US.
Writers such as Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, Maya Angelou, Sandra Cisneros,
and Maxine Hong Kingston have shown us that there are lots of ways of
being American. As far as poetry goes, I think there has been a recent
trend in poetry that is intellectual and even verging on the esoteric
side. Nathaniel Mackey recently won the National Book Award for his collection
Splay Anthem. His poems are rich in sensual image but also very
difficult and very experimental. It is hard to say because the pendulum
is always swinging from difficult lyrical poetry to grounded narrative
poetry. I admire both, though my own work tends to the narrative.
There's a lot of resentment against the US abroad. What's your take on
Every time I travel outside of the US, I am reminded that people hate
the US government but not necessarily the American people, a fact for
which I am grateful. First off, I was and am against the attacks of Afghanistan
and Iraq. I also think our current administration is to blame. Even the
Republicans are now calling Rumsfeld the worst Secretary of Defense we
have ever had. The polls also indicate that Bush has less than a 40% approval
rate. Almost everyone I know is against the war in Iraq. With that said,
I can try to explain how the American people could have allowed for this
to happen in our supposed 'democracy'. After the attacks of 9/11, the
entire country was in shock to the point that whatever Bush did, he could
have gotten away with. Also, many people were afraid. Bush and the current
administration continually feeds off that fear. Now, though, I think things
will turn around. Both the House and the Senate have a Democratic majority
for the first time in many years, and hopefully in 2008 we will end up
with a Democratic president. I do think a shift in the president will
result a dramatic shift in foreign policy.
According to you, what are the reasons behind the US invasion of Iraq?
Some would say
that the US has occupied Iraq because we want others to have our freedoms
and our way of life, which of course doesn’t work—these imperialistic
notions destroy countries and cultures, especially when they are delivered
with force. I think the occupation in Iraq has taken place because the
USA consumes too much of the world’s resources, and Iraq has a lot
of natural resources, namely oil. I think it more accurate to call USA
oil-thirsty than to call it bloodthirsty. Many Americans, including myself,
are very afraid of what Bush will do next, especially in regard to Iran
and North Korea. However, now with a Democratic House and Senate, it isn’t
as easy for him to whatever he wants. He is currently calling for the
deployment of 21,500 more American troops to Iraq, yet the Senate has
thankfully blocked his request.
Generally it is said that after 9\11, America lives with fear.
What do you say?
I do think the US lives in fear. I think it is just a matter of time before
the US is attacked. Of course the US would call these terrorist attacks
but considering the attacks on Iraq, I would just call it the unfortunate
consequences of war. I am not sure why it is war when we attack another
country and when they attack us, it is called terrorism. Language is powerful,
and people believe what they hear. Semantics allows people to do horrible
things and smooth it over with euphemisms. The language of fear also creates
powerful divides; I am sure many other countries would refer to the American
attacks on Iraq as terrorism and their own actions as defense. Everything
looks differently depending on your perspective. For this reason, I think
it is the job of the poets and writers to expose the falsehoods of language,
create awareness, and work toward establishing a common ground.
like to see the coming elections will help correct the course of America?
As I said earlier, I do think it will change. People are holding peace
marches and protesting the occupation of Iraq quite loudly. I do not know
what the answer is, though. Some of our politicians are calling for an
immediate dismissal of all US troops from Iraq. Though leaving Iraq with
no infrastructure isn’t the answer either. I don’t know if
there is a way for the USA to help Iraq rebuild without violence, but
I hope there is. I do think the US owes Iraq much in the way of reparations
Do you expect a black or woman president in US?
The female candidate we have at the moment up for a Democratic nomination
is Hillary Clinton. I am afraid, though, that many people would not vote
for her because she is a woman. We still have a lot of sexism in the United
States. Barack Obama is a black man who is also in the race for nomination
in the Democratic party. I personally think he would have a better chance
at the presidency than Hillary Clinton. Many people, however, would disagree.
There are both much sexism and racism in certain parts of the United States,
especially in the rural areas of the south. I would like to think we are
ready for a woman or ethnic minority, but I am not sure if such a candidate
would get the votes. I suppose time will tell. Chances are that either
Clinton or Obama will be on the ballot in 2008.
How do people view the present administration?
Generally, the American people are dissatisfied with the government. Dissatisfied
is probably not even a strong enough word. Most people are disgusted;
this is evident in the 35% approval rating of the president.
To get back to your writing, what are you working on
My collection of poetry Nothing to You will be published from
Pecan Grove Press this year. I am also working on a memoir about women
and hiking that will be ready for publication late next year. In addition
to my creative works, I am finishing my dissertation, which will hopefully
evolve into a book, on the intersections of Gothic and Pastoral literature
entitled The EcoGothic: Pastoral Ideologies and The
Gendered Gothic Landscape.
If you were
not a writer, then what would you have been?
As long as I
can pick up a pen, I will be a writer. I don’t think writers are
defined by publication records. A writer is someone who writes. Most people
cannot support themselves thorough their writing. Most writers teach like
I do or find some other way to support themselves. If I could have been
anything else besides teacher and writer, I would have been a rock star,
though that is pure fantasyland since I have a terrible voice and I don’t
dance all that well either!