I met Tim Suermondt at the inaugural Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 1991. His humor, warmth and strength helped me to cope with the life-shaking experience of immersing myself among poets and writers for two weeks in the remote mountains of east Tennessee. He encouraged me greatly in my fledgling poetic efforts, and we corresponded for years by what is now known as “snail-mail,” and lately by the e variety.
We also saw each other at a later Indiana Writers’ Conference, and we have frequently met on my trips to New York City, including an ill-fated journey in which I tried out for a job with The New York Times. A rabid Mets fan, he lives in Queens and is an expert user of the subways, often giving readings in New York. I am looking forward to meeting his lady friend, Pui Yin Wong, herself an outstanding poet.
One of my favorite early poems of Tim’s describes the funeral of a magician and how members of his guild pay homage to the deceased master. To me, Tim is a magician of language, conjuring mysterious, striking, beautiful poems from what appear to be simple words. I’m glad that he’s the first poet in this interview series.
– Louis Mayeux
Here are Tim’s autobiographical notes: “My first full-length book of poems “TRYING TO HELP THE ELEPHANT MAN DANCE” came out last August from Backwaters Press. I have two chapbooks and have been published in many magazines and online, including: Poetry, The Georgia Review, Poetry Northwest, Bellevue Literary Review, The Southern Poetry Review, Atlanta Review, River Styx, Barrow Street, Cortland Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Poets & Writers online and Blackbird.
I’ve had poems in two anthologies that I’m particularly proud to be in: “Poetry After 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets” ( Melville House Publications, 2002 ) and “Visiting Walt” ( a Whitman anthology, University of Iowa Press, 2003 ). I just ended a 17-year run as a partner at Stonebridge Associates, a headhunting firm for stockbrokers.
For those unfamiliar with Tim’s work, here’s his fine poem on Walt Whitman’s Civil War service. The poem was published in Poetry magazine.
BRIEFLY EAVESDROPPING ON WALT WHITMAN,
Officer Adolphus Jay,
I’ve been helped by a hare
that charged the ground littered with the wounded,
a hare seeking a lane into the woods,
its powerful feet twirling its body round and round
in fear at the howls and cheers
the men subjected upon it. “Skee-daddle,
Johnny Reb. Skee-daddle!”
Boys I watched die later this evening
joined the hubbub, their laughter
as large as mine, tears
running down our cheeks like hickory water.
Officer Adolphus Jay,
tonight, because of a hare
I’ll have no nightmares of wagons
endlessly bringing in the sick and dying,
the stacks of arms and legs
won’t grow beyond such infernal heights.
The hare might even remind me how future years
will forget this war as they should,
a tiny consolation I’ll whisper from now on
to each brave man I hold in my arms.
This interview was conducted via e-mail. I sent Tim the questions and he responded over a snowy
New York weekend.
1. What inspired you to begin writing poetry? Who were your influences?
I actually started writing poems while in grade school. I took to reading the way many kids today take to video games. I couldn’t get enough: Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, Dickinson, Whitman, Frost, you name it — all the big guns. And it wasn’t long until I decided to try to write a few poems myself, only to discover I was a much better reader.
I wrote more diligently in high school, cornering the market on The Sorrows of Young Suermondt — I loved John Greenleaf Whittier. But it was Paul Goodman’s reference to baseball in some of his poems that got me thinking about expanding beyond my interior landscape. It wasn’t until I moved to NYC from a small town in Florida — I was 28 years old — that I slowly began the process of sending work out in earnest, and dreaming about having a book of my own. Little did I know that I wouldn’t have a full-length book of poems until I was 55 — may as well start early.
2. Unlike most poets today, you have no MFA and have a business background. What advantages have this given your work?
Yeah, no MFA — I should be tarred and feathered. Had I wanted to be a teacher of poetry, I probably would have gone for one. But while I love learning, there’s a part of me that likes a certain distance from the university. Lord knows, I’ve attended enough writers’ conferences to quality for assistant professor somewhere. I was restless to go into the “real world” and for me the decision was the right one. Besides, I’ve always been an outsider, whether I want to be or not — and what work outside of academe gave me, from laborer to business partner, was some necessary tough, practical mud on my boots, which helped whenever I felt a poem veering into the pretentious. Stanley Kunitz, as he often did, put it best: “Poetry is the enemy of the poem.” Of course, since my business sidekick and I shut down our headhunting business earlier this year, after 17 years, I’m expecting a call from Harvard, imploring me to join the Creative Writing staff.
3. Part of the new formalists’ program was a return to narrative verse. While you don’t appear to share the formalists’ use of traditional forms, your work shows narrative strength; you tell stories. What role do narrative and story-telling techniques play in your work?
I tell everyone that I am a formalist. It’s just that I employ “Suermondt’s Formalism,” which is exclusively my brand. As for the new formalists, I don’t believe they deserve as much credit on the narrative front as I’m sure they think they do. We owe thanks to our prose brothers and sisters for letting us co-opt some of their techniques. Naturally, since we’re poets, we would have taken them anyway.
I enjoy using narrative because it helps ground the poem when it needs it — solid details can be of immense help. I am basically a meat and potatoes writer: In one of my poems in the book, I have the line “Lyricism has always escaped me” but I’m closing in a little more lately. If I’m lucky the lyrical will be good enough to stand with the narratives and let me have my cake and eat it too. I wonder who first came up with that expression? And I should add that I use a lot of dialogue (with quotation marks) — more so than most poets. For me, it’s a definite plus.
4. As a possible ancillary to the last question, I’ve been struck about your use of history and historic figures, such as Walt Whitman in your fine Civil War poem and Stonewall Jackson in the poem about the visit to Chancellorsville. You’ve also looked at more obscure or unusual characters, such as the Elephant Man. How does history inform your poems?
I’m a history buff. Currently, I have my nose in a book on the French Resistance in World War II and a book on the first one hundred days of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency. And I’m sure I’ve read more books on the Civil War than even I realize.
I’ve always maintained that poetry ought to include just about anything — spaceships and cockroaches, as much as moons and flowers in the garden. History provides a nice expanse: and I love populating poems now and then with historical figures and events, both well-known, and obscure — like me. Even the Elephant Man kids me about it. Stonewall Jackson isn’t a kidder, but we get along fine. In fact, he and I and Borges are having dinner next week after a Knicks game. That can be the beauty of history and poetry.
5. You also show a whimsical humor, and at times surrealistic, dreamlike atmosphere. Charles Simic’s work comes to mind as a possible reference point. How do you use humor and surrealistic techniques?
Thanks for the “dreamlike atmosphere.” In one poem I have an epigraph from Wallace Stevens: “Realism is a corruption of reality.” And here I’ve been talking about meat and potatoes, but I’m glad I can slip into another realm, one often just as real. How wonderfully strange it all is. I agree with Louis Simpson who said you have to have humor in poetry. The humor in my poems doesn’t come from the seltzer down the pants ( although I love that ), but from the fact that the world is often so tragic. In a perfect world, who needs to laugh? In our imperfect one, laughter sure comes in handy. To me, humor is as serious as seriousness.
I’ve never thought of myself as using surrealistic techniques per se, but oddities can raise their heads in my poems — the odd as a way to better clarity. Charles Simic would go along with that—he’d better.
6. How would you describe your overall poetic vision?
It's tough to talk about poetic vision at my pay grade. I suppose the best way to approach it is to repeat what I usually say when I get a question in that vein: I try to write poems as well as I can, and hope to surprise and enlighten and entertain myself — and if I feel I’m successful in that endeavor, people gracious enough to read my poems may feel the same.
One last thing: my poems are shorter than longer because I’ve always liked that about poetry — you can get in and get out. James Michener said he was always amazed to find that poets could say in a single line or two what took him over one thousand pages to say. That’s poetry worth striving to write.