Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Professor and poet Sue Standing indulges the possibilities of language

Professor Sue StandingFor the fall dedication of the new Mars Center for Science and Technology, Professor of English Sue Standing wrote a poem (inspired by a musical composition by Professor Delvyn Case) in honor of the building. It was one of the highlights of the opening ceremonies and one of the many poems she has written and published over the years. A faculty member since 1979, she currently is writer-in-residence and coordinator of Wheaton’s creative writing program. She has published four collections of poems and has been featured in numerous journals, including the Atlantic Monthly, the Harvard Review, the Nation, Orion and most recently Ploughshares (“Self-Portrait”). Her short story “Fast Sunday” won a 2005 Pushcart Prize. She also has won grants from the Radcliffe Institute, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fulbright Foundation. The Quarterly recently asked her about her writing and her research.

What inspired you to write “Ode to Mars” in honor of the new science building?

Ode to Mars
What are we to time and time to us?
Praise lumens, black holes, and cosmic dust.
How can we see the birth of a star?
Praise telescopes, lasers, and strange-flavored quarks.
How can we decipher the wind?
Praise geodes and magma and gyroscopic spin.
What is the music of the spheres?
Praise sine curves, oscilloscopes, and artificial ears.
Where is the language of leaf and stone?
Praise reagents, Petri dishes, and fossilized bone.
How can we communicate with the ideal?
Praise Fortran, COBOL, Java, and Perl.
Why are birds and dinosaurs?
Praise ornithology, ecology, and vernal pools.
How can we know our destiny?
Praise DNA, dividing cells, and anatomy.
How can we know ourselves, our loves and fears?
Praise periodic tables, Pyrex, and planispheres.
How can we ponder all these vexations?
Praise scientists’ unanswered questions.

Delvyn Case, in the Music Department, was asked to write music for the opening of the Mars Center. He asked me if I’d be willing to collaborate with him and write the lyrics. I love collaborating with composers and visual artists, so I jumped at the chance. I decided I would write it as a praise poem to scientific endeavors, and use a Q-and-A structure. I tried to include as many of the research and teaching interests of our natural science, math and computer science faculty as I could. I knew that many of the words I included would be hard to sing, almost tonguetwisting, but Del’s setting and instrumentation was really playful, and the Wheaton Chorale, under Tim Harbold, did a terrific job, as did all the musicians.

Talk about “Self-Portrait” in Ploughshares. 

The genre of “self-portrait” is more well known in painting or photography than in poetry, but there are quite a few writers who have played with the idea. Just as an artist’s self-portrait might be representational or abstract or imaginary, a poet’s self-portrait doesn’t have to stick to the literal truth, and there are many invented details in my poem. My twist on the genre is that I structured it as a kind of faux tragicomic curriculum vitae that goes backward from the present moment to birth.

Tell me about your current research.

I’m writing a series of poems about the anonymous itinerant 12th-century sculptor called the Master of Cabestany. His work can be found in Romanesque churches in a band stretching from Catalonia through southern France and into Tuscany. Romanesque architecture is a passion of mine, and I’m hoping to explore that time period through these poems. I became interested in his sculpture in particular when I saw one of his capitals in a small, amazing seven-sided church in Rieux-Minervois. On a Fulbright grant at the University of Toulouse-Le Mirail a few years ago, I was able to visit all the places where his work is identified. At the same time and in the same places that the Master of Cabestany was chiseling his marvelous tympanum, capitals, and sarcophagi, the Troubadour poets of Languedoc were inventing new  poetic genres and forms. So I am writing this series of poems in some medieval poetry forms and genres, such as albas, ballades, jeu parti, lais, planhs, rondels, rondelets, sestinas, terzanelles and villanelles, which trace back to the Master of Cabestany’s time and still are in use today. These poems draw on my interests in landscape, visual art, culture and history.

What first led you to write poetry?

I started writing poems and stories when I was in elementary school. The character of Jo in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was a big influence on me. I was always reading, even at times I was not supposed to be: under my desk at school, squished in the car with my siblings, at church with my book hidden in the hymnal. I loved to swim as well, and I hoped someone would invent a device that would make it possible to read while swimming.

What do you enjoy most about writing? 

I enjoy the process of translating sensory impressions into language—I particularly enjoy writing about landscapes and visual art. I love working with the sounds of language as well, to find the right combination of sense and sound that works for a particular poem. One challenge is that sometimes I like part of a poem I’ve written, but can’t seem to revise it well enough so that I like the whole poem. I’ve got drawers full of partly written poems.

How does being a poet tie into your coursework at Wheaton?

My life as a poet and my teaching are hard to separate. I introduce my students to a wide range of writers and writing techniques; I bring other poets to campus; and I spend a lot of time outside the classroom working with students individually to help them revise their writing. In turn, their innovation and enthusiasm inspire me. I hope my students become alive to the possibilities of language, that  they become fascinated with the process of making, as poet William Carlos Williams wrote, “a machine made of words.”

Nicki Pardo photo