Susannah Nevison is the author of Lethal Theater (The Ohio State University Press, 2019), the recipient of the Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize from OSU/The Journal, and Teratology (Persea Books, 2015), the recipient of the 2014 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize. She is also the author of In the Field Between Us, a collaborative collection with Molly McCully Brown (Persea Books).
Her honors include the 2014 Patricia Aakhus Prize from the Southern Indiana Review, the 2013 American Literary Review Poetry Prize, an Academy of American Poets / Larry Levis Prize, and recent Pushcart Prize nominations in both poetry and nonfiction. Her poems and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Crazyhorse, Pleiades, The National Poetry Review, and elsewhere.
She holds degrees from the University of Southern California, Columbia University, and the University of Utah. She is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Sweet Briar College. She hails from Massachusetts.
Molly McCully Brown is the author of the poetry collection The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded (Persea Books, 2017), which won the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize and was named a New York Times Critics’ Top Book of 2017, and the forthcoming essay collection Places I’ve Taken My Body (Persea Books, 2020). With Susannah Nevison, she is also the co-author of the poetry collection In The Field Between Us (Persea Books, 2020).
Brown has been the recipient of the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship, a United States Artists Fellowship, a Civitella Ranieri Foundation Fellowship, and the Jeff Baskin Writers Fellowship from the Oxford American magazine. Her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Paris Review, Tin House, Crazyhorse, The New York Times, Pleiades, The Yale Review, Blackbird, and elsewhere.
Raised in rural Virginia, she is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Stanford University, and the University of Mississippi, where she received her MFA. She lives in Gambier, Ohio, and teaches at Kenyon College, where she is the Kenyon Review Fellow in Poetry.
Written collaboratively by Susannah Nevison and Molly McCully Brown as epistolary poems, In The Field Between Us conjures the landscape in which their bodies reside in radical surgical intervention, creative agency, and—crucially—the restorative balm of friendship. The resulting poems are, like most things rooted in the natural world, surreal and stunning. Fittingly, this interview was conducted over email: our contemporary, digital analogue to letters.
Sarah Cooke: In The Field Between Us started off as letters you wrote to each other without intending to ever transform them into poetry. Who wrote first? And when did you realize that the letters were something you wanted to transform into a poetry collection?
Susannah Nevison: The project began as epistolary poems—much of the writing we’ve done together is comprised of essays or prose segments in conversation, and the idea was to have a conversation through poetry first. Epistolary poems seemed like the natural place to start because they are so immediately personal and specific by nature of their address. And because writing and talking with Molly is a specific and immediate part of my life as a poet and writer, arriving at that voice on the page also felt natural. I wrote first—that poem is the first poem in the book—and from there we began to exchange poems that responded to each other’s previous poem. Eventually, we realized we had enough to turn the exchange into a more public project: it evolved from the two of us pondering privately the various implications of living in disabled bodies into a public conversation we began to publish in journals. When journals began to accept the poems, we realized that the conversation could be a public one, that there was room for it, and the rest of the book developed from there.
SC: In The Field Between Us is structured into four acts—Aftermath, Recovery, Operating Room, Pre-Op Holding Room—that are divided by interludes to “Dear Maker,” a figure who can be read as spiritual, medical, or some combination therein. What was the process of arranging and editing the poems into this structure?
Molly McCully Brown: The poems that make up the bulk of the book, the epistles addressed to “M” and “S,” occur roughly, although not exactly, in the order in which we initially drafted them. In this sense, the book is a chronological record of the evolving conversation Susannah discusses above.
But we wanted the book to do more than just chronicle our conversation; we also wanted for it to enact our experiences of living in bodies that have been—since practically the moment we were born—continually reshaped and reconstituted by surgical intervention. This is an experience that both of us understand as marked by a kind of continual longing to return to an unknowable original self, as Susannah writes in the collection: “go back to before / I knew my body as shrapnel / and shred.” This preoccupation with origin, and knowledge that the present of our bodies is never permanent, creates a sense of living in an aftermath which is always, also, a before.
When we sat down together to consider the poems we’d drafted and discuss ways to shape them into a manuscript, we knew we wanted to bring that duality to the forefront. The reverse chronological order of the book’s sections, which both places the poems in an explicitly surgical setting and inverts its relationship to time, gave us a structure to achieve that.
As for the “Maker” poems: we wrote those alongside our letters to one another, at first without any clear sense of exactly how, or if, they would fit into the larger project. But pretty immediately we were interested in the range they offered the project, how they contrasted with the kind of certain intimacy of the letters we were exchanging—these entireties to a necessarily unknowable entity who, as you astutely point out, is both divine and surgical, and who we couldn’t find, and converse with, as we had found one another. As the manuscript took shape, it became clear to us that these poems were also an opportunity to blend our voices for the reader, and to create an address that was collective, rather than individual, because the author of those poems is not immediately clear.
Although we each drafted individual poems separately, we revised the manuscript as a whole together, largely in moments when we were able to visit one another, and spend rare time in the same physical place. In this sense, although each poem has an individual author, I think they all bear both our stamps. And the process through which these poems became a book was as communal and collaborative as our friendship itself.
SC: Over the course of two essays you co-wrote in the New York Times in 2017 and 2018, you both reflected on the imposition that our world places on you to translate your body’s physicality in terms that those of us who are able-bodied can either understand or accept. You also discussed the profound relief you have in your friendship, that there isn’t that imposition of translation; as Susannah wrote, “there was simply the joy of being recognized, that rare and easy space.”
While reading In The Field Between Us, I was struck by just how much language actually does involve translation—whether it’s translating pain into animals, because it’s a pain so intense that it exists beyond our human language, or whether it’s the transformation of a surgeon or a holy spirit into the Maker figure. How do you navigate that tension between translation as both a burden and artistic agency?
SN: This is such a smart question! I think one of the reasons this whole project was possible is precisely because of a kind of common language that Molly and I share, language that arises, like Molly says above, from our collaborative friendship, but also from our shared understanding of living in bodies at odds with the world around them.
When talking about translation in terms of disability, I think it’s important to distinguish between two different modes. There’s the literal translation of disability into terms that able-bodied folks can understand, through rendering disability in relatively fixed, concrete terms—similar to the language medicine assigns to disability through diagnosis and intervention. But disability, of course, is a fluid state, and therefore resists, always, any kind of fixed definition. That literal translation of disability is, at best, an approximation, an attempt to render disability knowable within the medical or able-bodied paradigm.
What feels so important to me about In The Field Between Us is that it depends entirely on a different mode of translation: the translation of the body into metaphor. The project is less interested in literal translation and more interested in rendering disability in terms that aren’t fixed, but ones that are, as you say, “beyond our human language.” That kind of translation into metaphor also depends on a shared, common language with Molly—but it’s one that we get to invent, that we get to bend or break as we go, in the same way that disabled bodies bend or break constantly and fluidly. That second mode of translation is where we get to assert artistic agency without having to do any form of explanation, but because it hinges on metaphor it’s also, we hope, legible to a wide range of folks—we hope that it opens, rather than narrows, how the disabled body can be read.
SC: There was a line that struck me as a driving aim of your project: “trying to make an animal of what / they left us with when it was over.” The desire to retain creativity after such extensive medical intervention is such a radical act of care. In the landscape of these poems, it seems like there is a whole taxonomy happening—you have horses, you have birds, you have creatures who defy the human idea of what an animal is. What does it mean for the field between you to be so richly populated with both known and potentially unknowable life?
MMB: This is a wonderful question! Susannah talks beautifully above about the ways in which the project of the book ponders the ongoing implications of living in a disabled body. Further, I think it’s a book that’s deeply invested in the possibilities engendered in imagining and evoking a world where disability exists at the center rather than on the margins.
Ultimately, I think that’s what the densely and wildly populated nature of the collection is about. The speakers are trying to traverse the nearly unnavigable thicket of a civilization that isn’t made for bodies like theirs, but they’re also, meanwhile, describing and creating a universe that is theirs: that mirrors the wild, untamable, off-kilter, “unfixable” nature of their bodies. And in this universe they build they aren’t alone. They have the company of other wild, wounded, and transfigured creatures who are at home in the landscape: horses, foxes, birds with holes in their centers, and—most powerfully—each other.
SC: Susannah, you mentioned in an interview that you did in 2017 for Ruth Awad’s Pet Poetics project (which I loved!) that you see resonances between the disabled body and poetry—specifically that “both are made objects, and demand a near-surgical attention to movement, sound, appearance, nuance, detail. Both demand that you see and experience the world differently, with a special kind of attention.” When did you first make that connection, and did it alter the way you approached poetry?
SN: I’m not sure when I made that connection, or if perhaps I came to poetry because it mirrored something about my understanding of how I navigate the world. The language of poetry, in some sense, is the first place I saw that you can make something out of disparate parts, that fragmentation and resistance of strict denotation can open up a space that allows something else to emerge. That felt, and still feels, really important to me.
I think that realization didn’t change the way I approached poetry, but brought me to poetry in the first place: it was where I began to imagine my body on my own terms, beyond diagnosis, and where I realized that language can, like the disabled body, remake itself meaningfully by altering its margins.
SC: In April, you both did an online reading for the Kenyon Review. One of the many things that struck me was the discussion of joy in your work. Molly, you said the project restored for you “an absolute sense of joy.” How do you both renew joy in your work? How do you restore joy to its rightful place in your lives?
MMB: This ties in really beautifully to the question above. In that discussion with the Kenyon Review, one of the things that I highlighted was that the reason working on this project with Susannah was so joyful was because it was an exercise simultaneously in trust, freedom, and connection.
The space of our project was one in which it felt possible to write without knowing exactly where I was headed, or what the “ambition” of a particular poem was, because I had to: because I was always both responding to something to Susannah had written, and clearing a path for her to venture forward in whatever ways felt most meaningful and urgent. This was possible both because I trust her completely—because I’m never embarrassed to take risks and be vulnerable in her presence, either artistically or personally—and because I admire her intelligence and imagination, and was deeply curious about where her next poem would lead us.
After the experience of working on this book, I now feel conscious of looking for that simultaneous sense of both faith and excitement in my relationship to my own writing, and in whatever projects I undertake, because that combination is what joy looks like for me.
SN: When Molly says “freedom and connection,” I think that’s exactly right—restoring joy is about letting go of whatever preconceived notions or expectations you have for a poem, and letting yourself fully inhabit the poem on its own terms. What was so joyful is that inhabiting a poem, in terms of this collection, meant inhabiting a space that was created by the poem before it, so I always felt like I was entering a space Molly made for me. And that’s where “connection” emerges in relationship to joy: it’s the feeling that I wasn’t ever inventing a space alone, but reshaping one with Molly as we went.