Susan Lilley has a fine literary bio and I'll get to it. But first, something about Susan her terrific bio doesn't say. When thrown into the mix of genres, personalities and possibilities in an MFA program, it's easy – and wrong – to dismiss entire groups of people and ideas in order to focus intently on one's interests (in my case, creative nonfiction). Lucky for me, during my MFA experience, among the wonderful (and patient) faculty and students from other specialties, was poet Susan Lilley, whose outstretched hand and genuine interest in connecting across genres made a real difference. She's a gem both off and on the page.
Okay, now the facts: A Florida native, Susan is the 2006 co-winner of the Yellow Jacket Press Chapbook Contest for Florida poets for her collection, Night Windows. She's a 2009 recipient of a Florida Individual Artist Fellowship, and her work has appeared in anthologies and journals including The Florida Review, The Apalachee Review, The Fourth Genre, and Poet Lore. Susan has taught literature and writing at the University of Central Florida, currently teaches at Trinity Preparatory School, and is an adjunct professor at Rollins College. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Stonecoast at University of Southern Maine
Please welcome Susan Lilley.
When I had the chance to be part of a cross-genre workshop last summer during my MFA graduation residency, it made sense to me that poetry and nonfiction should be paired together. After all, don’t my poems usually start with true-life experience? Many times I have wondered if a certain poem or another really should be allowed to grow into an essay, but usually ended up cutting back instead of pushing outward, distilling further instead letting loose the tide of information and detail that would surely overwhelm me if I dared to consider the subject more fully--and in prose.
But I followed the orders of our master class leader, poet Kazim Ali, and wrote one piece in the other genre to put before the group, all women of rich and skillful experience in the craft of creative nonfiction. They did the same, and their brave and lovely poems convinced me that poetry is indeed closer to CNF than it is to fiction. And the poetry I found in their prose—such moments of dazzling lyricism and liberating (sometimes shattering) honesty! They also blessed me with special insights on tone and the overall shape a poem takes for a reader. With less emphasis on line breaks and other nuts and bolts of a poetry workshop, I was able to see my work through a different kind of literary reader’s eyes.
Mostly, I was in awe of these writers’ commitment to courageously telling the truth. I began to wonder; as a poet, don’t I tell the truth? It’s complicated. My friend Ruth Foley, a poet, reminds me of this complication in every email with a quotation from Cocteau that appears as her signature: The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth.
I hadn’t fully realized how much I depended on the liberty, in poetry, to speak emotional truth by making stuff up. Sure, I start with the truth. Then as I work on a poem, if things are going well, the piece begins to have needs of its own, which I now must pay more attention to than the facts. Sometimes people are surprised or feel cheated when they learn that there are a few big fat lies in one of my poems they just read or listened to. (“You mean you did NOT eat the poison berries in your grandmother’s garden?” “What? That wasn’t you who had that fight and roared off in the silver car?”*)
In trying to produce a viable piece of nonfiction, I found that I constantly had to restrain my natural urge to change, replace, embellish along the way. And I developed even greater respect for the writers of nonfiction who stick to the facts while still shaping a riveting piece of writing. I am not saying that poetry is full of bald-faced lies. Some of life’s most ineffable truths are best illuminated in poetry, I believe.
Lately, it’s clear that the once-reliable division between poetry and nonfiction is turning into a delicious, messy shoreline. The concept of the lyric essay is exciting for those of us looking for new ways to think about writing. Some subjects lure me to explore the edges, where one genre spills into another and becomes a new element. I hope I’m brave enough to wade in.
Note from Lisa: C'mon in, Susan. The water's fine.
Readers, to enjoy one of Susan's poems, The Endless Boogie, click here. She swears every word is true.
* Susan has also allowed me to post below more of her work, this one from Night Windows (Yellow Jacket Press 2006; originally published in The Florida Review). She's not saying how much of this one springs from real life.
A Woman and Her Car
Gone. Gone in a blaze of red tail lights
and dust, that’s me,
dust swirling on the dirt road.
Better than horses, it roars—
my ally, weapon,
partner in crime.
Helps me say, “I’m leaving,”
and really do it,
miles in minutes.
There’s no sense in running after me.
So you don’t.
I exceed the limit,
but I won’t be stopped.
Patrolmen look into their coffee
when I streak by.
They, too, are terrified of angry women;
they don’t want to know why.
But my car is not afraid,
my chariot of fury,
my dented silver beauty!
My demons are released in little screams
with every curve.
Later, I’m back in your driveway
honking brazenly for forgiveness,
car idling nonchalantly beneath me.
I put on lipstick in the rear view
while I wait for you,
my laughter spilling out
through eyes washed blank with happiness.