Suzannah Russ Spaar is a poet from Charlottesville, Virginia, who received her MFA from the University of Pittsburgh. She co-authored the chapbook Undone in Scarlet (Tammy, 2018) with Lucia LoTempio. Read more at Luna Luna, The Boiler, and elsewhere.
Suzannah’s poem “Terraform” will appear in the Winter 2019 issue of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Sunday, January 13, for special savings.
“Terraform” is a striking title. Did you write a poem to fit the title? Or did the title come after you created the worlds in your poem?
The title came first, which rarely is the case for me. I actually had given my Intro to Poetry students a prompt that asked them, among other things, to use campy sci-fi language. I was writing poems along side them; the prompt and the word itself gave me a way into making this poem.
I know this happens to a lot of writers. You have the heart of your material but it’s gunked up, too slippery to pin down with words. Sometimes, any boundary can slow down the material enough to grab ahold. I love the word “Terraform” from every angle. It carries its own body with it, makes its own shape. It has an objectness but functions as a verb. The stable terra, being transformed. The body that remains, that resembles the same body, even when everything inside and outside of it has changed.
Your poem has two worlds within it—the old and new, one filled with warmth and the other with absence. Many things seem to change between these worlds, but I was curious about the relationship between the speaker and the “you.” What is the loss that occurs between these worlds? The end of a specific relationship, or the more global shift in communication we are all living through?
All of the above! No, I can be more specific than that. I grew up in Charlottesville, VA and wrote this poem shortly after August 12, 2017. In all fucked up manners, many people are having experiences with their hometowns and asking, here? Hatred here, shootings here, violence here, trending here as a hashtag.
I was present for the counter-rallies, but then went back to Pittsburgh the following week. It was a strange experience to watch something I felt so personally connected with through wires and screens. I think there is a way some people feel more connected by the Internet and social media when tragedy strikes, but for me it feels flattening. Makes the grief too consumable. On one hand, a transformative lens of one’s city and country is not bad in that we should be made to see our homes and their flaws, the violence that already exists here. On the other, when our homes are invaded we feel it deep in our bodies.
I viewed your last line as a hopeful one—the unexpected flutter signaling a chance for renewed connection. What feeling did you hope your reader would leave the poem with?
Yes, hopeful, I think. At the same time I wrote this, I was falling in love. The only harder thing than grief is grieving beside another person. We are all figuring that out—it seems to be essential right now. It’s a dance of how to give a person space, how to ask for it yourself, how to keep affection and connection through all of this. Inevitably, things change. The fact is, we survive these changes, and hopefully weather them together until we change them in a way we can live with, not just survive.
What books or writers have most influenced your writing? What are you reading right now?
I read to find a joy in the language and image. Poets I return to again and again are Anne Carson, Bhanu Kapil, Elizabeth Bishop, Ada Limón, to name a few. Currently, I am reading a lot of 5th and 6th graders’ book reports and stories. It’s been so wonderful to work with kids this age—they’re able to approach things from such surprising angles. I love watching them encounter books and material for the first time. As I’m writing this, the court trial for the driver who killed Heather Heyer on August 12th is happening on the block next to the school where I teach. I love to see my students learn and develop in their thinking, and it has been a real source of encouragement in these uncertain times.