★ Back to the headwaters: Susan Hankla’s CLINCH RIVER

Roanoke based Groundhog Poetry Press has released Clinch River, Susan Hankla’s debut poetry collection. The 58 narrative poems form a landscape of memory. The terrain is snowy white and coal black. Blood red and peacock blue. The green of algae. Knowledge of the world and the self is colored by what is revealed or hidden. Words are cut from books, redacted by librarians. God is in the Hostess cake and the suet bell. And then there’s Glenda.

On the occasion of the book’s release, Susan Hankla generously waded a little deeper into Clinch River with us.

BOOK CITY Roanoke: Congratulations on the collection. It’s funny and sweetly sad. It’s filled with small horrors, yet I found it oddly comforting. At the heart of that mix for me is Glenda. Who is she?

SHankla2Susan Hankla: It’s strange that you ask that because only last week I received mail from a friend with the subject line, “Who’s Glenda?”  For me she is the “still point” in the book.

My immediate family lived in a small town in the Appalachian Mountains coal belt. My father was a pharmacist. One day he had me deliver medicines to a girl in my second grade class, and that was a weird thing for me to have to do. Up to then, I’d not had a sense of separation, so that day caused me much anxiety. It put distance between the girl and me. First I had to look for her, and then think of something friendly to say as I handed her the bag, as if I were part of an adult wellness team. It was an awful — and very early — transition for me.

The recipient of Dad’s paper bag became Glenda. Glenda is the girl who never gets to leave, and therefore she is closer to everything than is the narrator who leaves, but has to return, being the poorer for having left. So there’s a reckoning and a leveling that happens in the book. But nothing is solved, and there’s beauty in almost touching that girl’s hand on that fateful day when she began to become Glenda.

BCR: They say you can’t step into the same river twice, but I was struck with a sense of continuity in Clinch River. You summon a universal situation, a set of conditions we confront. So here, the river stays the same, but the approach of the narrator shifts.  Can you tell us a little about the arc you’ve structured in the collection?

SH: The book took a long time to gel and I didn’t exactly have a plan, but I realized that a setting was always there, always the backdrop of the Appalachian Mountains. There’s beauty in the carpets of moss on the ground, and every time I thought about my characters, they’d have to do some things outdoors. I imagined them with foggy breath when they spoke. My cover artist, Laura Pharis, imagined “a landscape pregnant with snow,”and that is really how it felt there. And for me I had a feeling of yearning all the time. That’s why I have Glenda age in the book and look back on her life. Finally, she sees the ghost that lives in the dried sunflower she has saved.

BCR: After reading the first few poems, I wrote “Where is beauty?” And then about midway through, in “Mermaids,” the questions arise, “Where’s my beauty at?” and “where is anyone’s beauty at?”  So what do you think? Where’s our beauty at?

SH: In writing Clinch River I remembered that once I had lived in a place where in the wintertime, children, like Zen masters, wore flip flops as their only shoes to school. Their hands were encrusted from doing chores and hauling up freezing water from wells. Hands were black from handling coal, indelible once it’s on anything, futile to try and wash off. So where is the beauty in all that? It’s in earthly doings. It’s in human actions. It’s in frostbite. “I wanna hold your hands, I’m saying, and live in Grace,” but I also have to go.

BCR: In “Everyone was Innocent” you implicate us for the mess we make in living. I identified strongly with that piece, and cheered the impish exit. What’s the alternative?

I see this poem as being about survival, and humor is absolutely necessary to that end. There are a number of misdeeds in the poem, and blunders of etiquette (sleeve in the butter); I have always wanted to get back at the affably strict!

BCR: In the lines that close “At the New School”  the father throws the narrator “to the biggest wave / to teach me to cry.” What do we learn when we learn to cry?

SH: That’s how it has to be. Otherwise, how does the narrator know she has to live her own life, away from him, when she leaves? But this is complicated, too. I’ve mentioned above how the narrator who leaves is poorer for having left. So there’s a tension there.

BCR: Both you and your sister, Cathryn Hankla (profiled here) are accomplished poets. How did Southwest Virginia and aspects of your youth contribute to your drive to write? Basically, what’s in that Clinch River water?

SH: That’s a deep subject. The spirit world may have arranged for us to have that in common in order to keep us connected. I don’t know. Our mother loved to read books  and did, every day of her life. And our father was very much in touch with the outside world—“the public” he called it. My sister and I both thrive on that inward and outward alchemy for writing, I guess. I think we both find balm in this kind of work that is often its own reward.

In my case, I had a wonderful writing teacher, Valery Nash, when I lived in Roanoke.  She was published in literary magazines and books. I never knew poems could be talked about in the way that she shaped her high school creative writing classes to do. She was challenging and extremely encouraging, because she was a practitioner.

And I feel grateful to Roanoke-based Groundhog Poetry Press for what is now this book of poems.

BCR: Will you be reading from Clinch River around here anytime soon? 

I’ll give my first reading/book signing of “Clinch River” in Richmond on September 13 at Chop Suey Books, but then I’ll read in Lynchburg at Riverviews Artspace on Sept 15, where my cover artist, Laura Pharis and her brother, John will play fiddle and acoustic guitar. October 22, from 7-9 PM, I’ll read at Rapunzel’s in Lovingston, VA. Then on Oct. 22, I’ll be back in Richmond reading and signing at Book People. I’m still just starting to plan appearances in the region.

Want to arrange a reading and booksigning? Contact Susan below. ★


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