Sue D. Burton’s BOX, selected by Diane Seuss for the Two Sylvias Press Poetry Prize, was awarded Silver in the Foreword INDIES Poetry Book of the Year (2018), and was a finalist for the 2019 Vermont Book Award. She is also the author of Little Steel (Fomite Press), and was awarded Fourth Genre’s Steinberg Prize. She apprenticeship-trained as a physician assistant at the Vermont Women’s Health Center and is an alum of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and Vermont College’s MFA. Her poem “& in Swanton, Vermont, today the swans in the center of the green are nipping each other or perhaps they are kissing” may be found in WTP Vol. VIII #1.
Interview with Sue D. Burton
By Sara London, WTP Poetry Editor
Sara London: Your career as a physician assistant has immersed you in the wear-and-tear of the “bodily” world. And the bodies of women in particular are the subject of your award-winning collection, Box. Some women in your poems are literally in boxes and subject to the “magic” of being sawn in half. Diane Seuss has characterized these poems as “bad ass and defiant and imaginative as hell.” Can you tell us what inspired this work?
Sue D. Burton: The “Woman Sawn in Half” poems and my book Box started with Nettie, my great-aunt Antoinette Bope, who died of an illegal abortion in 1902. This was a family secret. My mother never told me until after I’d been working as a physician assistant in women’s reproductive health care for over ten years. I said, Why didn’t you ever tell me? And she said, Oh, it was a scandal. In all the papers. I’ve told you everything I know.
So I did an inter-library search for 1902 Columbus, Ohio, newspapers and came up with an article about Antoinette Bope: She had been “taken in a delicate condition to the place of a Mrs. Beatty.” I assumed that Mrs. Beatty had performed the abortion, and as a physician assistant (on the periphery of the medical hierarchy), I identified with her. It was a disturbing connection for me, though, because Nettie had died. Several years later I unearthed more newspaper coverage—and Nettie’s story was more complicated. Incompetent doctors had performed the abortion, and Nettie may not have even been pregnant. She was taken to convalesce at the midwife Mrs. Beatty’s home. The “author of Nettie’s ruin” as they called him in the newspaper, skipped town. There was a big trial, headlines in the paper for months. (Legally, in 1902, there was a controversy whether a woman who’d had an abortion was a victim or a perpetrator of a crime. Hard to believe we’re back at that place again!)
I had reams of facts—I didn’t know how to begin. I’d literally worked myself into a box. That’s when I started writing the “Woman Sawn in Half” poems. She came to me “out of the blue”—an outrageously different voice from my own earnest historian-speak. Of course, nothing just comes out of the blue. I’d featured a “Headless Woman” in my long poem Little Steel, based on a beheaded saint whose U.S. shrine was in my Ohio hometown. The wonder is that not more women have headless or sawn women in their poems!
London: How did you think about issues of structure and form for the poems in Box?
Burton: After working on the “Woman Sawn in Half” poems for about a year, with Nettie languishing on my desk, I heard Carol Potter read her heroic crown of sonnets called “The Miss Nancy Papers” (in Some Slow Bees), based on the 1969s TV series Romper Room. It’s an amazing poem. (A heroic crown is a series of 14 sonnets, linked by repeating the last line of a sonnet as the first line in the next. The final, 15th, sonnet takes lines from each preceding sonnet.)
I heard Carol read and I said, Oh, I could do Nettie as a crown sonnet! And she agreed to midwife me through the process. There’s something to be said for structure, this little 14-line box, for controlling material. Because of the line limits—my heroic crown “Box Set” is a series of prose sonnets—I had to jump cut, I had to drastically limit my beloved newspaper clippings, I had to allow fragmentation and erasure into the story.
London: Who inspired your earliest love of poetry?
Burton: I came to poetry pretty late in life. My thesis at Hopkins was a one-act play, theatre of the absurd. Then I got involved in women’s reproductive rights and didn’t write for years. But I started researching a significant steel strike in my Ohio hometown. I had historical documentation, oral histories, family history. Like my later Nettie project, I didn’t know what to do with all the information. For whatever reason—a romantic vision passed along by some teacher somewhere along the line—I thought poetry was the form to make something happen. (I hadn’t yet read or misread Auden’s provocative claim, “poetry makes nothing happen”!) I’m not sure what I envisioned happening. A friend gave me a copy of Tar by C. K. Williams. Williams’s passion and ruminations (especially his cranky political ones), and his driving lines, inspired me to go back to school—to learn about poetry, to see if I could do it, to tell the steelworkers’ story. History is important to me. What Williams said about history (in Poetry and Consciousness) still inspires me: “We are in history, like it or not. The only question is how conscious we will be of how history is affecting us, and how we are possibly to affect it.”
London: Your historical sensibility has served you well as a poet. Of course responding to contemporary events that have immediate emotional resonance for us can pose other writing challenges.
Burton: When Brett Kavanaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court, I was beside myself. I worked for months on a lament, leaning heavily on Jeremiah. But the poem never rose to the political occasion. (Well, the prophet Jeremiah wasn’t that successful in his own times!) I think part of my problem was that I’ve testified or spoken at so many rallies over the years on behalf of women’s rights that I couldn’t get into the language of poetry. I couldn’t get beyond my public persona. I finally had to put the poem aside—or I’d still be working on it.
London: How important is it for you to share your poems-in-progress with others for feedback?
Burton: Very. Extremely. The failed Kavanaugh poem is one example of the beauty of having trusted readers, who know me well and pump me up during my laments, but still approach every draft with rigor and respect and don’t let me off the hook.
London: Would you name one or two favorite poems by others and briefly address their appeal?
Burton: I could happily talk about something from C. K. Williams, maybe “Tar,” or about James McMichael’s brilliant book-length poem Four Good Things. Or any number of Diane Seuss’s poems from her four-legged girl or Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl. Or, or, or. Wojahn. Ruefle. Szybist. Or Elizabeth Powell. Alison Prine. Marsha de la O. Ada Limón. Anna Blackmer. Or Tyehimba Jess with his commitment to history/truth and his sass and his play with form.
But I’ve settled on J. D. McClatchy’s “A View of the Sea.” It’s a fairly straight-forward narrative, but the quiet unfolding, the visual details and the painful implications are exquisite. It’s exploring love and loss. The speaker in the poem opens by describing a scene in which he catches a glimpse of his lover who’s cheated on him. He realizes the relationship is over, and at the same time is acutely aware why he loved this man in “the bright beginnings” and still does. He launches into a carefully crafted story, “as when the master of the tea ceremony” built the perfect tea house but included the emperor as merely one in a painting of the ten most famous men in the world. The speaker is like the emperor, who wants to be the only man and orders the tea master to commit ritual suicide. But the speaker is also like the monks who come to be with their friend on his last day and see themselves “in a small opening, / In a long-planned accidental moment, / In their rapture and their loss, in a view of the sea.” And he is also the meticulous tea master, (poetically) crafting the details of his own unavoidable parting.
London: McClatchy includes such layered notions of ritual in his poem—ideas that have inspired you to offer WTP writers this prompt, which we’ll end with:
Write a poem describing a ritual or an architectural form and employ the same techniques as are used in the ritual or form itself. Think of McClatchy’s “A View of the Sea,” and aspects of the tea house/ceremony: the quiet; simplicity; refinement; reverent attention to detail, to the five senses; the offering and the grateful acceptance of a gift.
This interview was conducted in the winter of 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S.
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