Susan Hahn is a Chicago-based poet and playwright, and the editor of TriQuarterly Magazine. Her latest collection of poems is titled The Note She Left, and it follows The Scarlet Ibis, published in 2007. Windy City Times spoke with Hahn over the phone.
Windy City Times: Could you talk about The Scarlet Ibis and The Note She Left—what they might have in common and how they differ?
Susan Hahn: I had never intended to write The Scaret Ibis. I was on a fellowship for an entire year, and when I applied, I put in my application that I wanted to write a book entitled Self/Pity. I finished [that] book at the end of November; I had these months ahead of me and I always knew the next book would be entitled The Note She Left. I finished that in February of 2004 and I had till the following September to write.
I had these two beautiful photography books, The Earth from Aboveand The Earth from Above for Children. In the children’s version is a picture of all these scarlet ibises in flight, and I’d never seen anything so beautiful. I didn’t know anything about scarlet ibises or birds. And I was so captivated by the picture. … It brought me real peace of mind. The more I researched it, the more I fell in love with the bird. The Scarlet Ibisis a really personal book about disease, beauty and messages that we should pay attention to.
Then I thought of illness and disappearance. The Note She Leftis more of a traditional book. Because of the title, I decided that it should be published after The Scarlet Ibisbecause it’s completely different. I mean, both are about departure [and] both are about extinction and disappearance, but they’re very different pieces of work. The Note She Left got ignored in the shuffle, and that was one of the reasons I decided to give a reading at Women and Children First when I was invited, because I need to pay attention to this book.
I decided if you have a title like The Note She Left, it can’t be: whine, whine. whine. You have to step out of yourself and get a perspective of not only private history but public history. It just seemed, for me, that I had to step out of myself and look at the world. There is some personal detail in the book— [but] it was important for me to look at the world in a historical way. I used “The Bells” and “The Crosses” [the first two sections of the book] to do that. I do that in “Widdershins” [the third section] too.
I had never heard the word “widdershins” before. I came across it in an essay, and immediately looked it up. I fell in love with the word because it means going against the nature of things. And once you start going against the nature of things, well, what’s the end of that? It’s witchcraft. So [laughs] , I was able to read a lot about witchcraft.
The Note She Leftis about this woman who, in her mind has tried everything to get some peace. But nothing seems to work. So [in] “Widdershins,” she [decides to try Orrisroot]. It’s about somebody trying to get some answers as to why things are why they are. But nothing seems to quite work.
WCT: You write about a near-death experience in “The Bells: IX,” about an aneurysm. Is that related to a personal experience?
SH:That poem isn’t the voice of me, but it worked within the poem. … I do have trouble with my hearing—that led to the writing of “The Bells,” because I was always hearing this ringing in my head. I'm just used to this constant sound … [But] it’s more of a metaphor. It’s a very powerful image. … It’s not to be taken autobiographically.
WCT: Gender and femininity come up a lot in your work. You write about cross-stitching as therapy, and the last poem, “Clean” ends with the lines “The kitchen is so clean, / everything’s in its nook.” The lines seem ironic, almost sarcastic at points.
SH: [“Clean” is] a metaphor for mind-peace. I do use what is a clichéd female task for mind-peace. After all the turmoil in this book, everything’s in place. That’s very positive for me.
In the cross-stitch poems, I’m a little bit sarcastic … almost unbridled sarcasm [laughs] because she’s doing what she’s been told to do [by these doctors] , these little cross-stitches, on an “even-weave pattern” I like that because it’s like a pun. And she’s “allowed … the autumn colors -- / so overheated.” I do envision the therapists, who are giving her these items to bring her peace of mind, as masculine.
Susan Hahn will be reading from The Note She Left at Women and Children First, 5233 N. Clark, Friday, September.19 , at 7:30 p.m.