Interview with Poet Sue Blaustein

In 1080, Su Tung P’o was a
“Special Supernumerary”
of the Water Bureau.
I’m a Water Plant Operator I,
so I feel a bond, fattening up
in civil service, preparing
             a one room cabin
for retirement.

                  from “For Su Tung P’o”

I know Sue Blaustein from the open mic scene in Milwaukee. A generous and present poet, she’s always performed work that I’ve admired. When I heard that Sue was self-publishing a book of poems called In the Field: Autobiography of An Inspector, I looked forward to spending more time with her work.

The book centers on Sue’s work as a food safety inspector, positioning the speaker as an itinerant fly-on-the-wall who keenly observes the range of human experience that occurs in restaurants, bars, corner stores, and the like.

I admire Sue’s social justice themes and the “summertime” sequence of poems that reoccurs throughout the book. The poems fit into a proud tradition of Milwaukee poets writing about work.

The collection is well-crafted, well-structured, and a pleasure to read. Check out our interview below, and if you’re interested, you can order Sue’s book on her website.

Unbeknownst to Sue, I decided to make a playlist of the songs mentioned in the book. It gives you a taste of the milieu of the work, I think. You can listen along as you read the interview.

FM: Would you describe your publishing process? What was the journey of writing and publishing this book?

SB: I wrote a lot when I was a child, then left it for a period of time. I got the urge to write again when I was in my mid-thirties. Woodland Pattern had a Weekly Writers Workout starting in the early 90’s and I loved going. I also connected with a personal writing coach there.

I worked one-on-one with this coach for nearly 18 years. I crept along, completing poems slowly, so my manuscript grew by accretion. I submitted poems to journals and have placed many of them over the years. When I had enough pages, I submitted to chapbook, and then manuscript contests.

In publishing, print yielded to digital over this time. Around 2014, I got involved with Ex Fabula, Milwaukee’s storytelling organization. Through Ex Fabula, Facebook (and always, Woodland Pattern), I met younger poets. And all of a sudden, they’re announcing their book releases!

I felt irate at first. I’d been paying my dues submitting and getting rejected and coughing up contest fees for years, and 20-year-olds have books out. I’d also concluded that teachers in university programs are obligated to the students who are going into debt to study with them; they have their own work to create and they don’t have time to shepherd outsiders’ books into creation too.

So, I sat down with some of these talented youngsters and asked them where and how they got their books done and how they got paid. Print-on-demand is a wonderful thing! Fortunately, I retired in 2016, so I had the time to pull the manuscript together. I’d taken a one-year certificate in printing at Madison Area Technical College in 1977 and worked for a small weekly newspaper. Even though that was in the pre-digital age, I knew a thing or two about copy prep, so I did all the prep and proofing myself.

I’m really happy with the results. I’ve recovered the cost of printing the book. Economically, if you look at what I paid for my education (coaching, workshops), at the hours I spend at open mic events trying to sell it, as well as the hours of work on prep and creating it, it’s completely ridiculous.

I’ve talked to some friends who have books coming out with small presses, and it looks like they have to put a good deal of work into marketing and prep anyhow. I appreciate everything small presses do, but I enjoyed publishing my own book so much, I’ll probably do it again, if I can ever cough up enough poems to fill another one. Help with distribution would be wonderful though. I set up a page for my book on Goodreads, hoping I can get reviews up there.

FM: The speaker in this book is a food inspector. As she fulfills the duties of her day job, she’s also making a poet’s observations: the gossip among customers in the convenience store’s aisles, the bright fish tank in the dark bar, the Ricki Lake episode on the TV. I love the idea of the inspector as poet. Can you talk about this vantage point and how it informs the book?

SB: Being an inspector was a perfect day job. I was paid to observe and write down what I saw. I could do what poets do anyhow—look in from the outside, investigate—try to make sense of the life around me. The job also enlarged my world. It got me out and around to places in the community I never would have visited otherwise. But while an observer, I was also a participant, responsible to others—my co-workers, the public, facility operators. That kept me grounded.

FM: Several of the poems feature dogs. It’s difficult to write about pets—too easy to be sentimental—but you do it well. How do you write about pets and avoid sentimentality?

SB: Bad news—the key to my dog poems, and nearly every other sort is that I take a really long time to write them. Months and months from initial idea to completion. I wish I could be more prolific. I follow hunches, threads and connections, hit dead ends, then back out of them; but I stay with it until I finally find what I want to say and say it properly. It’s a formula for hours of frustration and constant feelings of inadequacy—extending the worst of adolescence straight into old age. But I don’t know what else to do!

FM: One of the other themes of this book is love, a long-time love in which the lovers must live apart because

Every night
my love loads his pistol.
For thieves, for neighborhood
peace—to be ready.

Every year
he needs this more—to be ready
at any hour. If that night comes,
when he must act, I’d be in the way.
So I can’t be there.                                  

                 from “Who Wrote the Book of Love?”

I connected with the honest telling in these poems about what love really is versus what society tells us it “should” be. The writing balances the beloved’s guardedness—perhaps even PTSD?—with the tender moments and loving loyalty we see again and again between the couple. Would you talk about the experience of balancing these two elements in the book’s love poems?

SB: We are over-exposed to images and ideas about what love and relationships are “supposed” to be. I wrote about my relationship with Maurice because it’s been the deepest animating and learning experience of my life. And, to put things we’ve gone through in a larger social and historical context. How do you learn from, and love someone whose life experiences are entirely different from yours? How do you deal with loneliness when PTSD takes your partner to a place you can’t go to with them? How and why do you stay in it?

I wrote these poems as I worked it all out (still working it out, every day) in my life. That’s why I call the book an autobiography. If you don’t find your place in a broader context, you’re left with the misery of individual failure.

FM: Many moments in the book are overtly political, such as the lines “Capitalism is ruthless” or when the speaker discusses writing columns for the AFSCME Local 1091 News. But for me as a reader, most of the political content was subtle, especially as we move through Milwaukee’s North Side on Holton, Walnut, North Avenue, and other streets. What importance does political content have to your work? Has this changed over time?

SB: Every choice I made from high school on was influenced by my involvement in political groups and movements. Politics and social justice are paramount to me. But I don’t set out with a plan to place political content into my poetry or respond to events the moment they unfold. I’m a political person, so the politics will be in my work, but well composted.

I think more immediately topical poetry can create feelings of connection and solidarity. I’ve felt that. It can be powerful and we need it. But I’m a print person at heart and one who likes silence and solitude. When I sit alone with a book I want to read something where the author has extracted something from their place and time that holds for all time.

I found a poem, (A Ritual to Read to Each Other) by the late William Stafford, in an anthology recently. It doesn’t mention a single “current event” or take a stand on any issue. But there are two lines: I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty/to know what occurs but not recognize the fact. For me, this captures our national life and dialogue right now with such stunning clarity that I repeat it to myself constantly. I don’t know how he came up with that poem and I don’t even care. It helps me see clearly.

But I don’t make rules for other poets. I’ve got enough work of my own to do. It’s entirely possible that someone with a different (faster) process than I can write a poem today about something that happened yesterday that will meet that test. I think you’re balancing that well in your work! “Small Lungs” has pets, recent events, love…all done well.

Learn more about Sue Blaustein on her website.

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