Terese Svoboda is Weapons Grade

An Interview by Neil de la Flor

Neil de la Flor: How’s it going? In other words, what’s changed since our last interview ?

Terese Svoboda: I’m on a roll. I gave up trying to get big presses and voila! I have two more novels scheduled, one for 2010, and 2011.

ND: Delightful. What’s the gist, scoop, anti-plot? Any pilots involved?

TS: I wish somebody were on pilot. Pirate Talk or Mermalade is coming out from Dzanc Press just before Talk Like a Pirate Day. It’s all in dialogue, no description. In other words, madness. Parts have been published in Conjunctions and Fairy Tale Review. The other one is my answer to Willa Cather, the bugaboo of Nebraska who is really a Virginian and don’t you forget it. Anyway, she appears in the book, saying O Pioneers! The star of the show is a spunky girl who’s building a mound for an Indian because her father lost her in a bet. It’s a book about honor.

ND: As you may know, your most recent collection of poetry, Weapons Grade, was just published by The University of Arkansas Press. Why the title Weapons Grade and not Dad In Suspenders?

TS: It was called Wooly Bully for six years. My fabulous editor, Enid Shomer—I’ve never had a poetry or fiction editor before!!!!!—said the title wasn’t good enough. I took it from a not-good-enough poem and tried to write another poem under it so there would be a title poem but that didn’t work. She was happy when I decided to make it a video game.

ND: What makes a good-enough poem good-enough?

TS: Scrutiny. Scrutiny with both eyes open as opposed to sidelong, just-as-soon-as-it’s-born. Scrutiny every time it gets returned with the No Thanks note. Best of all, some windfall of language.

ND: Weapons Grade has been called disturbing. When will you write your memoir?

TS: I just read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. I thought my childhood was miserable!

ND: What would be the first line or paragraph of your memoir? Give us an exclusive.

TS: Who, me?

ND: Thanks! In our last interview, we discussed the notion of justice within the United States military during its occupation of Japan during World War II when/where secret executions of black GI’s were authorized up the chain of command. Your latest book, Weapons Grade, continues this conversation. In it you blame us for this past injustice. For example, in the poem “Secret Executions of Black GI’s in Occupied Japan”, you conclude with the line: “We wear the mask of the guy who did it—the present.” Who is the masked man and how do we stop him?

TS: You were the best interviewer for Black Glasses! Re: the masked man. Wars R us. One of the points made in the book was that people instinctively don’t like killing each other even during war and will avoid it at all costs. It’s only when money and (distant) killing are entwined—and, of course, the drugs that conquer our natural aversion—that war cannot be stopped.

ND: The toll of wars of mass destruction—whether psychological, emotional or physical—and their impact on American soldiers, Americans, and those we are fighting, is devastating. Are we at an emotional tipping point in light of Fort Hood and 8 years of war?

TS: Ft. Hood was very close to where my uncle lived before he committed suicide (See Black Glasses Like Clark Kent), within hearing range of the ordnance practice. It could have been his tipping point.

ND: Has “just” been put back into justice since the 2008 elections? And do we have a chance?

TS: It was a miracle that Obama was elected therefore other miracles are possible.

ND: Most of your work deals with the politics of war, moms & brothers, dads & sisters, uncles & groundhogs, child slavery & global warming, and suspenders. In the poem “Midwest Glacier” from Weapons Grade you write, “I’m still trying to see the glacier a-glitter, saved.” What do you see in the near term & long term?

TS: Looking at the bright side for the near term—mine—and the dark side for everybody after.

ND: Cannibalism or Healthcare? Afghanistan or Armageddon?

TS: Funny cannibalism should be yoked with healthcare. Population control is key to environmental degradation. The Swiftian solution? The two A’s aren’t an either/or situation either. More causal.

ND: Is poetry becoming more inclusive to alternative forms or closing up?

TS: If Neil de la Flor has anything to do with it—and he should—alternative will dominate!

ND: No idea who this person is. In any case, do you think poetry has become too introspective and less political and therefore less compelling to a larger audience?

TS: While very ars poetic, Brenda Hillman’s poetry reaches for political engagement. Mostly poets write asides, backdrop to the language/lyric, the way politics are perceived in this country. Larger audience? What larger audience?

ND: The epitaph for the poem “Carwreck” is a quote from Sophocles: “They command us, though they speak not words.” There’s been some debate about poet’s using epigraphs in their work. Note my impulse was to type epitaphs. What’s the difference between the two and why do poets use them? Are they a crutch or a tool? A tease? A hint of jasmine?

TS: Epitaph-writing should be another source of poetic income! Yeah, well, of course I should find a way to include the information I put in the epigraph in the body of the poem but what if I don’t want to sustain a different tone and just want a little textural complexity the reader can refer to? Like all poets, whenever I hear “can’t,” I can.

ND: If the poem can’t speak for itself, then maybe the poem needs work?

TS: How is the poem not speaking for itself? An epigraph is part of the poem. It’s just using the white space differently.

ND: Do they cannibalize the poem or do they illuminate?

TS: Always with the eating. I would hope that they turn on a little light. The epigraph for the “Convoy” poem is my favorite: Why should we hear about body bags, and deaths–. I mean, it’s not relevant. Why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that? –Barbara Bush on ABC’s Good Morning America, March 18, 2003.

Mrs. Bush had to make a turn. I could have had her words in italics throughout, I suppose, but then the magical part of the dead would not be doing the same dance.

ND: When I read your poetry, I often annotate it with the check mark and stop myself from scribbling all over the pages. I think it’s because I don’t want to disturb your character peeking at “her hose-crotch bed-height” as her breasts double over. What is it that gives you the power to demand absolute stillness from the reader?

TS: Excuse me while I try to get this panty hose on straight.

ND: What about those of us with A.D.D.?

TS: My entire family has A.D.D. so I speak with some experience when I say that A.D.D. people, once they are focused, can’t be distracted. They are gone.

ND: Oh, I almost forgot, how does writing poetry shape your prose or is it the other way around?

TS: I crack the whip over lazy verbs when I’m a fictioneer. I can see an adverb sneaking up a mile away.

ND: Why, in “Your Awful Wedded Husband”, does a man walks into a bra?

TS: He left his car in the lot.

ND: Right. So, before I forget, I hear Trailer Girl, I keep writing Grill, has been reprinted with a fabulous new cover. What do you love about the book now that you didn’t when it was first published? (You can’t say the cover.) And, why should we read it?

TS: For its unpredictable wildness. Predictable wildness is different, you know they’re going to get into trouble, it’s in the title or it’s on the cover. Not with Trailer Girl.

ND: What are you reading now?

TS: Everyone’s sweetheart, Mary Jo Bang, and the fabulous Caroline Knox in the poetry world. Looking forward to reading Brenda Hillman’s new book. Donald Keene’s Chronicles of My Life: an American in the Heart of Japan about the great translator, and Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, short stories of brilliance. I just finished An African in Greenland by Tete-Michel Kpomassie which was terrific.

ND: Almost done but there’s one line that haunts me. Why do you think a woman loves her beater?

TS: My answer would be too pornographic.

ND: Is space the final frontier?

TS: Location, location, location.

Terese Svoboda‘s newest books are Weapons Grade, a collection of politically-inspired poems about sex, death and occupation that have appeared in The New Yorker, Paris Review, American Poetry Review, Tin House, Yale Review and elsewhere, and Trailer Girl, stories praised by Vanity Fair as “violent and enthralling.” She lives in New York.

Neil de la Flor earned an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Miami. His first book of poetry, Almost Dorothy, won the 2009 Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize and will be published in January 2010. His literary work has been published in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Barrow Street, Sentence, 42opus, Court Green and others. In 2006, Facial Geometry (NeoPepper Press), a collaborative chapbook of triads co-authored with Maureen Seaton and Kristine Snodgrass, was published. He currently lives in Miami and teaches at Miami Dade College and Nova Southeastern University. He can be reached at neildelaflor.com.