Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Life of a Poet - Susan Chast

Kids, in our interconnecting  circles online, we bump into each other in many of the same venues. One of the emergent voices in recent months is Susan Chast, of Susan's Poetry. Susan has a wonderfully clear poetic voice, and a very intriguing philosophy and belief system. So come fly with me, as we swoop over to Philadelphia, home of the famous song. We shall need at least two cups of tea, for this conversation is going to be very interesting, and we don't want to miss a single word.

Poets United: Susan, it's wonderful to be chatting with you at last. Would you set the scene for us? What does your life look like these days?

Susan, on-site and......

...........on the Isle of Skye

Susan: I live near Philadelphia where I own a little Dutch colonial that has one apartment upstairs and one down.  I live on the second floor, and a BFF of 37 years lives on the first.  Her cat is Stuffing, mine is Miracle—a silver tabby who is now 17 years old. 


Pierette is the name of my beloved black and white cat who died two years ago at age nineteen.


Poets United: Oh, I'm sorry, Susan, I know what it's like to lose a long-time fur companion. Both kitties are so beautiful. Where did you grow up, and do you have a childhood memory you’d like to share?

Susan, age six-ish

Susan: I grew up in the countryside south of Albany, NY, between the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson River.  There I was part of a 4-H youth group and laughed and played and read a lot.  I won the album West Side Story by calling a radio station at the right time;  I won my only writing award for an essay about Thomas Cole, a painter of the Hudson River School.  That’s where the climbing tree and the campfire were.

Susan, high school, 1969

Poets United: I see in your writing references to your grandmother. Would you say she  influenced  your creative and artistic pursuits?

 Susan, with her mother and grandma

Susan: Mary Berner, my maternal grandmother, was an amazing woman.  Born in 1901 in Nurnberg, Germany, she came to the USA with her own grandmother in 1919 and immediately took a job.  She was a designer, artist, and teacher.  In fact, she was my art teacher, but was very critical, which may actually have made me lose interest in visual arts. 

She didn’t influence me as much in creative and artistic pursuits as in my outlook on work and politics.

She was a workaholic who lived alone after grandfather died.  I think I was 9.  She graded drawings and painted and wrote way into the night.  She was a gardener and a chef and an activist in local issues.   Her “Letters to the Editor” fill boxes.  She was one of the founders of Citizens to Preserve the Hudson, and in the Athens Town Hall a plaque commemorates her for keeping power plants out of the upper Hudson Valley.  She and Pete Seeger knew each other through this work, so she introduced me to his ship and his folk festival, both called the Clearwater. (Maybe 30 years ago?)

Susan, college graduation

Poets United: She was an activist! Cool! (By the way, I'm enjoying watching your emergence in this series of photos!)

Susan: Mom, also an artist, had a more positive influence on creative and artistic pursuits.   She took my brothers and me to the library every week, so I was always reading.  She and Dad took us to museums and parks and zoos.  Mom encouraged me to write for the literary magazine and the Historical Society.  And she encouraged me to be part of 4-H where I not only sewed and baked and home improved, but also directed and acted in my first drama—one of those bloody awful shadow shows of an operation where a body is sawed open and junk is pulled out of the stomach: strings of sausages, old boots and other funny trash.

My Gram's art
Susan:  Grandmother is in the poems “Giraffe”  and “The Dream,” both of which show how close we were.   I have journals full of her and a little movie maker thing of some art, but I haven’t set out to commemorate her yet. And as you know, I refer to her unkindness in my blog entry “A Gift.”  

My mother's artwork

My mother, Dot Chast, is in “Arcadia in the Catskills” and “Star Power.”  She and I also have our issues, but not in the moments in these two poems.

Poets United: It is clear you come by your creativity naturally. As a retired English teacher, would you tell us a bit about what your work meant to you? I enjoyed reading in your bio how you drove to work smiling, preparing for the day, and that, “as a teacher in love with learning, I think I was kind”.  Lovely to feel that way about your work. And lucky kids, to have you for a teacher!

Susan: I think I have always been a teacher, from when I demonstrated home-making methods for 4-H and started a Future Teachers of America chapter in my high school, to retirement this year.  Maybe I am still a teacher.  I am not yet sure what this solitary writing is meant to serve.  I enjoy being part of learning communities, and these blogging poetry groups are meeting this need now.

A villanelle by Roethke speaks to learning in my life:

The Waking
By Theodore Roethke

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground!   I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

Poets United: Oh, I so adore this beautiful poem. You write so beautifully about your beliefs as a Quaker, a belief system that has always resonated with me. When did this journey begin? I love that you wrote, “As a Quaker, I am a Friend of Truth”.  A friend of kindness too, I believe.

Susan: I hope so, but Quakers can also be a little gruff and blunt, as we avoid small talk and refuse oaths.  Truth is always truth.  But when I first met Quakers—members of the Religious Society of Friends—it was kindness, openness and humor that attracted me.  These qualities were rare in the highly contentious movement as it manifested at the Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice in the early 1980s. The Quakers’ persistence also impressed me.   

I started attending Meeting for Worship in the silent tradition (there are others), where I learned that my own experience of God is central to my faith and practice.  No substitute exists, really, in a tradition that is experiential and at times mystical.  The faith community with its readings and meetings both enhances and provides clearness for experience and choice.

Poets United: This is so interesting, Susan. Thanks for telling us about the Friends. You walk a fascinating path. You mention having been an actor and stage director. Would you tell us more about this part of your life? I think it must be quite wonderful. 

Susan: Still early in my Quaker life, God passed me a message which I interpreted this way:  "Why sit in front of the tanks like everyone else when you have a God-given talent which you should be developing?”  I had already been a founding member of a collaborative theatre company called This River of Women, which affirmed that theatre was not a luxury.  It was  a political and personal necessity.  

After the message, I organized and collaborated to create a performance for the peace movement.  Called “It is Better to Speak’ from an Audre Lorde poem, the performance grew from contributions we solicited from movement people—written items that gave them either despair or hope.  

Poets United: That is absolutely fantastic! You likely reached many people with those performances.

Susan: Next, a series of Quaker clearness committees helped me decide to go to graduate school for theatre—first for a masters and then for a PhD.  At the time, I didn’t realize that I would have no time for ground-up organizing for many years.   What I did have was a lot of support from my faith, community and grandmother. 

Recently, I wrote about this graduate school time: 

The Dream

Product of the radical seventies and one decade late,
I donned my turtle hood to exit luxury, traveling
light and slow back to the proverbial road not taken

"Halt the erosion of truth," Grandmother called
from her White House upon the hill, where she sat
Typing out letters and letting them fall

Evergreen-trees lined the night as Australia
Became a no-nuke zone and an actor aligned
His springtime in America to re-organize the right
And Grandmother wrote “Dear Editor” from her remote site.

I, Turtle, moved slowly through acres of passivity
While fateful animals piled earth on my shell
And played out the original rite of creativity
Grandmother called out for my group to smite
The pharaoh and his henchmen—like Moses to fight.

The living image stays now though I close my eyes to sleep:
Old women awake in a tower, Turtle inching straight,
Pharaoh underground spinning orders that make
Wrinkled hands type letters, clocks tick, bosses take.
Money moves, truth dies, turtles walk.  I sleep at night
My eyes focused upward, I see her steady Light.

Poets United:  This is incredibly beautiful. And deep. I love it! Are you still involved in theatre, or performance art? 

Susan: In odd little ways, yes, though I have stopped the directing and teaching of theatre I did in various colleges from 1984-2000.  Part of that time,  I also taught and did public speaking and performance.    Since I started teaching HS English in High school in 2000, I have been too tired to pursue evening work in theatre.  Yet, my classes were heavily drama- oriented and I also assisted the theatre teacher in my high school and met with student poets.  Poetry club led to slam competition and also to building up the  literary magazine.  Now, I am writing poetry and looking for places to participate in public readings.

Dad and me in Williamsburg

Poets United: How did your writing life develop? 

Susan: I remember a story in a literary magazine, the prize-winning essay, and some love poetry. But I have none of these.  I have years of journaling that includes poetry, and a folder of poems from periods of creativity between jobs. I’ve always been under a lot of pressure to BE a WRITER, to PUBLISH—which I hope is not why I haven’t done it!  Over the years, I have told myself I prefer theatre that ends, rather than publication that lasts for 300 years.  But this explanation has become a lie. 

Poets United: What is it about poetry, that you chose it as your means of creative expression?  

Susan: I chose stage directing first, but that part of my life ended over a decade ago.  Becoming a poet is a wonderful and still awesome surprise.  I find I actually complete the poems I write.  And I love reading poetry aloud—my own and especially the poems of others.  I enjoy poetry’s devices and sensual description and new comparisons.  This is the style I want even for novels and plays.  Poetic language wakes me up, slows me down, tickles me and always gives back lively spirit even within the most devastating of passages.  And the words and phrases I love are often just what I hear around me.  I think that the novel I am working on is composed from poetry.  The first 7 chapters are delightful in that way. 

Poets United: Oh my goodness! Tell us about your novel!!

Susan: What I can tell you about the novel is that I started writing it 2 summers ago during the SUISS creative writing class in Scotland.  The main character is a librarian and storyteller.  It is  semi-autobiographical,  of course,  which means that it includes theatre and writing, feminism and spirituality, teaching and relationship, and conflict and humor.   I don't know if I will finish it this year or if it will take ten years, but I will finish it.   

To get back on track,  I will have to write the next chapter with my first cup of coffee in the morning and and only turn to the poetry blog after meeting a daily goal.   That's on the calendar for September, God willing.   Seems this is the first September of my life that I am not going back to school.   It's so incredibly amazing to be "retired." 

Poets United: I know what you mean about writing before going online. Once in, it's hard to get out, of a morning! Your novel sounds wonderful, as if it would be fun to write. Keep us posted! Do you have a poem of yours that you think gives insight into who you are? 

Susan: Hmm, maybe this one:

“Nicely spun” they say and instantly I become Charlotte
using my web for the welfare of others while waiting
for the two facts of life: offspring and death.
I am told that they come at the same moment
and have to remind myself that though I am a spinster
I am not a spider.  Spider is just my avatar
and, truth, my house is home to multiple spiders
whose webs hold it together, and whose yarns
I overhear from the edge of sleep:
Do we truly have a safe harbor?  A human being
who asks first and shoos later?  Who
has a brush for a hand instead of a rock.  Who
cares more about the yarn than the trap
and can we stay and un-spin our luggage
shouting as if from Whosville: listen, listen, if only,
hear us and meet us and do not eat us
and we will spin your tales into gold, and
decorate your bookshelves, world without end
My tenants have already traced their paths from
children’s books into poetry and the classics
and one recent waking dawn they told me to write a play
in which Charlotte, Anansi, and Ariadne meet
for a beauty contest with a human judge
I said I am not interested in world politics,
and they said, this is our home, and we are
your blessings, speak.  And my tuffet became
their hang out and drop in while I spun and spin
and spin with ink as my yarn or the word process-
er on and they move my fingers while I sleep.

Poets United: I so love this! I need spiders like yours! Which book affected you most profoundly as a child, and why?

Susan: Black Beauty.  Oh, I loved horses for their proud beauty and size and strength and eyes.  I hung out in the livestock barns of the 4-H Youth Fair and at the State Exposition.  I never wanted to ride a horse so much as pet and curry and feed and talk to one.  The character Beauty was completely abused and taken advantage of which hurt a lot.  This book had a lot to do with my care of fragile things and awareness of abuse in the world. 

(Other powerful books were first read to me: The Little Engine that Could and The Magic Bus and Twilight Fairy Tales.  The characters in these books became symbolic and mythic to me.  I understood the world through them. I read them over and over again.)

Poets United:  I think maybe someone read The Little Engine That Could too many times to me. It's been Uphill ever since, hee hee. Favorite place in the world? 

Susan: I like being at home best.  I feel that way now, and I felt that way in Berkeley, Williamsburg, and upstate New York.  It’s a turtle thing, maybe, or connected to the Cancer star sign of my birth. 

Poets United: Me too, on both counts.

Susan in Scotland

Susan: The two countries I like so much that I have returned more than once are Scotland and Mexico.  In Scotland, the Isle of Skye with its ocean and mountains gave me hiking and writing time alone with the spirit of the land and my own spirit.   

"Arthur's Seat" : view from my dorm room at the University

And Edinburgh University’s summer writing course is where I started taking my writing seriously two summers ago.  The city of Edinburgh is a place of international exchange that brings many of my interests together: history, art, theatre, gardens, landscapes, book fair, fringe festival, poets, music, King Arthur’s Seat and other great walking and writing places.  

View of the Palace of Holyrood in Edinburgh

View from Edinburgh Castle where I also saw the Military Tattoo. 
SO many miles are visible in all directions that this hill 
has been important to community defense 
back to the beginning of history

Poets United: What an amazing summer that must have been - the writing, of course, and in such a glorious setting!!!

San Cristobal de las Casas

Susan: In Mexico, I love the little town of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, where I enjoy the food, coffee, colors, language, music and mixture of the ancient and the modern in every area.

Poets United: It is so beautiful, and you look very at home there, among the locals. What makes for a perfect day, for you?

Susan: Waking rested after a good night’s sleep, drinking good coffee, writing a new piece that I like and: cat greetings,  no stress, low pain, good food,  time and temperature for walking or for dunking at the local swim club, attendance on God and liveliness.

That usually means morning is divided among writing, emailing, catching up on world news, and social networking; afternoon is reading or a nap or a visit with a friend to museums, gardens, or the zoo; and evenings are  watching movies on TV, attending Meetings, or volunteering (currently on phone banks for the Obama campaign). 

Poets United: I wish Canadians could vote, we'd re-elect him in a heartbeat!

Susan: And I enjoy taking time off to visit friends and family in Austin, Raleigh, Cincinnati, Orlando, NY City, and anywhere on the ocean.

        I find myself more interested in cooking and recipes since I retired.  Partly this is because I have to control the weight gain from taking lyrica and lowering stress activity, partly I just have more time and energy.  I’ve been reading up on nutrition and health, and I’ve started buying from Harvest Local Foods, a distributer for farmers who use non-chemical and kind methods of growing food and raising animals. 

2     I truly love movies, and can gaze at old movies for hours.

       And I love a good game of Scrabble, preferably in person. 

Poets United: I see you started blogging recently, in April of this year. How has the blogging world impacted your writing?

Susan: Great question! I visit that world 2 to 3 times daily.  It’s certainly made me more daring more often in my own writing.  By that I mean that I show more of myself than I could in any of my other work settings.  I do not hesitate anymore to include my faith and God.  I have grown more confident that my voice and point of view matter and that I am not wasting my time.  I don’t wait for approval—though I like approval—and I finally have mine.   

I am lucky to have found small communities that care to read and respond to poetry, like this one—Poets United—and Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads, dVerse PoetsPub, Magpie Tales, Haiku Heights, Poetic Bloomings, Poetry Jam, and occasionally others.   

This month, my blog link is included in the Sweepy Jean’s Third Sunday Blog Carnival, where my poem “Pushed” is one of the features.  Now “Pushed” was my response to a challenge by Brian Miller at dVerse Poets Pub.  We are all interrelated, which is fun.  I find that the ongoing challenges that we poets give each other through blogging are helping me to grow as a writer.

Poets United: Me, too, kiddo.   Poets United is so lucky to have you. We look forward to enjoying much more of your work. And kids, do check out Susan's other blog, Susan continued, where the poet discusses various interesting topics in prose.

Well, kids, there you have it! A poet, a Friend, a seeker and speaker of Truth. Isn't it true that the people behind the pens are some of the most interesting folks around? I think we have proof of that in this interview series! Come back to see who we talk to next. Who knows? It might be you!


  1. Sherry, another wonderful interview, thank you ~

    Susan, it's a pleasure to know and read more about your life and work. Your experiences are so rich and varied, and you can certainly contribute a lot to the poetry communities around blogger world. Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm and lovely words ~

  2. A wonderful interview first thing this morning. Thank you.

  3. Sherry, as Grace said, another wonderful interview. Susan, I have enjoyed your poetry wherever you have linked it; so it was fascinating to read your diverse background. What a lovely experience that writing workshop in Scotland must have been. Enjoyed reading about your teaching & your theater work. Good luck with the novel...which is indeed a time-consuming, but rewarding, undertaking.

  4. Thank you, Sherry. I enjoyed our emails and talks which opened many memories. Gosh, I am speechless. So many pictures! Very well spun!

  5. I liked Susan before; now, I absolutely adore her! What a fantastic interview!

  6. "I don't know if I will finish it this year or if it will take ten years, but I will finish it." And I believe you will! Your life is full of accomplishments and travel! Oh, how I would love to do that, but somehow, I think it won't happen for a long time! What I LOVE about our poetry groups is how diverse we all are, yet we all support and encourage each other. :) Love the old pics of the 60's and 70's.

  7. Great interview. Your life is an inspiration for those who love the spoken and written word, Susan. You show how dreams should be pursued.

  8. Wonderful interview Susan! So nice to get to know you better~ I love how you see the world and keep trying new things! I love what you shared and look forward to your poetry~ What an interesting life you have had so far~ I dream of taking a writing course in those surrounds!
    Great job ladies ;D

  9. Another fine interview Sherry - good to get to learn a bit more about you Susan, I will continue to follow your poetry and keep watch for your book which I fully believe you will finish! Thanks for this - it was fascinating.

  10. Susan...i was so happy to read about are a wonderful person....I think i can read your poems from a new perspective poetry and the personality is so interconnected....I think so...

  11. To the Courageous and loving Readers of Interviews with Sherry:
    Grace, Nancy, Mary, Mama Zen, Margaret, Kerry, Ella, S.E and others who did not leave their names,

    Thank you for your kind words and enthusiasm.
    Sherry's Interview is a major milestone for me--even a little scarey--and you all helped me to achieve it. I am happy to be getting to know such positive and creative people.

    It's a mutual inspiration society . . .

  12. Susan Ma'am,
    Only lately that I got to your poetry blog. You write with such fervor and maturity of a true poet that I really enjoy reading. And what strikes me most are your responses in 'comments' for other blogs. You really take the efforts to present convincing and sincere comments in more words than what most others do. This interview is fantastic! You've covered so much grounds, very exhaustive! Thank you!


  13. Hank, thank you for this feedback. I like knowing that you value my reading and writing. I enjoyed your interview, too, and so I can relax and enjoy the mutual admiration! grin.

  14. Recently I got to know about your poetry blogroll, Susan.Wan to join this group.
    The interview is awesome! You paint pictures with your words...very very inspiring read!!
    Good to know you :)Thank you.

  15. Glad I read this / getting to know Susan and what is her driving light

  16. Found this later, intrigued to learn more of the interesting person behind the blog. Glad to meet another who appreciates spiders!


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