In Conversation with Suzanne Buffam

Suzanne Buffam, by Ellen Dunn

Half-close your eyes and squint into the shadow this side of the window. There she is, in the chair across from you; she's just said something, and the pith of it is still twirling, hovering in the air.

SUSAN GILLIS: What first brought you to poetry?

SUZANNE BUFFAM: I guess, like most poets, poetry brought me to poetry.  Reading it as a child--an ancient anthology of my father's I found lying around the house, I remember-- falling in love with the then-to-me-opaque music of poets like Shelley and Dylan Thomas, memorizing poems whose content escaped me almost entirely.  Also, I had some great teachers in high school.  Mr. Heath, wherever you are, I hated you with your clipboard roaming the halls and scolding me for my nail polish and hiked-up kilt, until I took your English Lit class in grade twelve and fell in love, through you, with Shakespeare and John Donne.  What else?  Heartbreak, melancholy, boredom?  "To fill a Gap--" says Emily Dickinson.

SG: Many of your poems share certain characteristics with other, more everyday forms: the memorable aphorism, a really good joke—the zing of truth delivered in a concise yet complex language packet I feel I could carry around with me like a pocket stone. Is this a form you continue to work in? What other forms are you probing?

SB: I love aphorisms.  I also love Thomas Bernhard's hilarious excoriation of them, and those who write them, in his masterpiece of self-mockery, The Loser, which I'm reading right now: "So-called half philosophers for nurses' night tables...those disgusting tagalongs of philosophy who exist by the thousands...I could also say calendar philosophers for everybody and anybody, whose sayings eventually find their way onto the walls of every dentist's waiting room...the so-called depressing ones are, like the so-called cheerful ones, equally disgusting..."  This made me laugh out loud, with the sting of recognition.  I think it's safe to say that my thinking still leans towards the petty, but I often find myself feeling restless when it comes to form.  For the moment, I'm working on something longer, which is mostly in prose.  Made up, mind you, of petty units.  

SG: What’s inspiring you these days?  

SB: Over the past year or so, I've spent a lot of time reading Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book--an 11th century miscellany written from within the gates of Heian Japan--and thinking a lot about the form, such as it is, of this unruly text.  Anecdotes, descriptive passages, etiquette tips, gossip, and of course her famous lists--all these, and many other sub-genres, find their way into this book, and rest side by side with no clear sense of structure (and certainly no scholarly consensus on structure).  In the work I'm doing right now, I'm hoping to find a way to make a home, within a somewhat coherent whole, for an assortment of styles and genres, including a lot of lists.  Also, lately reading a lot of darkly hilarious prose--along with Bernhard, lots of Lydia Davis.  And watching reruns of Louis CK, who just may be my favorite living artist today.  

Suzanne Buffam is the author of two collections of poetry, Past Imperfect (House of Anansi, 2005), winner of the Gerald Lampert Award, and The Irrationalist (Canarium / House of Anansi, 2010), a finalist for the 2011 Griffin Prize.  Born and raised in Canada, she currently lives in Chicago. Read her poem "Altered Proverbs" here.