“If our body inherits trauma at the cellular level, why not longing?”
—Poet and former TLR contributor Suzanne Frischkorn discusses her forthcoming book Fixed Star.
Suzanne Frischkorn is a Cuban-American poet. In addition to Fixed Star, she is the author of Girl on a Bridge, Lit Windowpane, and five chapbooks. She is the recipient of The Aldrich Poetry Award for her chapbook Spring Tide, selected by Mary Oliver, an Emerging Writers Fellowship from the Writer's Center for her book Lit Windowpane, and an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism. She is an Editor for $ -Poetry is Currency and serves on the Terrain.org Editorial Board. Her poem "The Dark Horse I Rode in On" appeared in Issue 22.
TLR: The poems in Fixed Star contend with loss—loss of origin, language, and ancestry, particularly in terms of parentage. Lines like "That's all the Cuban my father gave me," and a "tiled shrine to Mary, my only mother," speak to the grief of what was not given. Could you talk about the loss and grief in the poems?
SF: These particular lines both allude to the stream of loss and grief that ran through my early childhood. It was not a happy one, nor was it the type of first-generation experience that is often portrayed in films, or novels. In my childhood home we did not speak of Cuba for fear of upsetting my father. The stories parents tell their children about their ancestors, the customs and traditions they pass on to them that help to center a child’s identity, all of it was lost. I was left with a sense of being an outsider in both cultures.
TLR: And yet! The poems are not only about loss. They read as a retrieval of self and origin. There is a mythmaking in the poems that draws from history, family story, and the narrator's own place in the world. Lines like "A lace dress. A first language. / All myths once we move north" and "So I continue with my father's story / making up details as I go along" are examples of a recurring urge in the poems to know what is true without concrete evidence, to know without seeing.
SF: Yes! I am so pleased that came through for you. The US embargo and the prevention of travel to Cuba made some of the retrieval of self and origin necessarily intuitive.
TLR: The body serves as a vehicle for history and memory—poems like "My Body as a Communist Country," "My Body as The Tropicana Nightclub, 1952," and "My Body as Revolution" among others. What is the role of the body in relation to memory?
SF: We know the body inherits trauma, and isn’t trauma memory? There are six other scientific theories about the body and memory, but my theory, unsubstantiated by science, is that if our body inherits trauma at the cellular level, why not longing? Longing for homeland, longing for freedom? As for desire—manifested in the body it’s a powerful force. It can lead to horrific acts, for example, when what’s desired is power, or money, yet it also leads to knowledge and passion. My own mind and body connection is so strong that for years I would experience a sciatic nerve spasm whenever I went to visit a certain relative. This was before I had learned to set healthy boundaries, and it still amazes me that after I did set those boundaries my sciatic nerve never gave me a problem again. I doubt I am alone in this. The body remembers.
TLR: Language is part of the lost origin of the speaker. The speaker speaks of multiple kinds of translation. What is the relationship between language and origin and/or language and grief in Fixed Star?
SF: I spoke Spanish for the first five years of my life. When I started school my parents were told to speak only English at home and in turn I lost my first language. The realization that even if I became fluent in Spanish today I would not be fluent in the Cuban dialect was a particularly difficult grief for me. While writing these poems I was reading a lot of poems translated from their original Spanish and was thinking about what is lost in translation. Rhythm in particular. When I hear poets read their poems in Spanish I feel those poems through my entire body, and that goes back to what we were speaking of earlier about memory and the body. For me the loss of fluency in Spanish is where this journey began.
TLR: Many of the poems are part of a linked sonnet sequence characterized by a water-like fluidity in their language. These linked sonnets are often interrupted by poems that have a more precise geography or history, almost as though the sonnets are metaphoric and disrupted by poems that are metonymic. I was deeply moved, for example, by the poem "Black Spring" that draws from interviews with Normando Hernández González, one of the 75 Cuban journalists arrested in 2003. The poem resonates even more deeply because it feels surprising by its very placement between sonnets. How did the form of the book develop?
SF: I’m happy to know the poem surprised you by its placement, and thank you for letting me know it resonated with you, that’s wonderful to hear. I know many people don’t read poetry collections from beginning to end, yet some do, and I kept those readers in mind when arranging the book. My intention was to juxtapose the poems of the mythical, glamorous Cuba with those about Cuba during and after the revolution. I also wanted a loose narrative arc, one that would allow the reader to accompany me on this journey, and made an effort for the poems to “speak” to each other; for the beginnings and endings of the sections, and the book as a whole, to echo each other. The goal was to keep the occasional beginning-to-end reader engaged, and I hope the effort will keep the readers who flip through poetry books engaged as well.
TLR: There is compelling tension between capitalism and communism. It's interesting to me how these large forces are enacted in the intimate world of the narrator. Both establish a geographical distinction and one of identity.
SF: My father was a captain in the Cuban Revolution, and my parents met when he was transporting arms for Fidel Castro through the border town of Brownsville, Texas, where my mother lived. Once Castro took power and revealed his true intentions of dictatorship rather than democracy my parents boarded a plane to the United States where my father ultimately became a US citizen. In this way the tension between capitalism and communism in my life began before I was born. I was witnessing all the ways capitalism fails us, and I was also immersed in research about Cuba’s history, the United States’ history with Cuba, the Revolution, the Special Period, and learning all the ways communism fails its people. I found that often those ways of failing are very similar. People are suffering under both systems.
TLR: Imagery from the natural world is present throughout the poems: the sea, conch shell, jasmine, papaya. These are much more than idylls though, particularly sugarcane. How do you see such imagery working in Fixed Star?
SF: I suppose the imagery works to give the reader a sense of place. These poems cross many terrains—Cuba, Spain, Florida, Pennsylvania—with varied landscapes. Sugarcane has played such a major role throughout Cuba’s history that the two are almost synonymous in my mind and that’s why it figures prominently in Fixed Star.
TLR: Your poem published in Tahoma Literary Review is not part of this collection. Are you working on something new?
SF: My poem in the Tahoma Literary Review is in the new manuscript that I’m working on. These poems home in on the past six or seven years of living in the United States — in many ways it’s a book of witness.
TLR: What are you reading now? Or what books are you hoping to read soon?
SF: Right now I am reading the essay collection Codependent, by Amy Long. I’ve read some amazing poetry books this year as well. A few that come to mind are Last Pawn Shop in New Jersey, by James Hoch, Look at this Blue, by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, Magnificent Errors, by Sheryl Luna, Our Lady of Bewilderment, by Alison Pelegrin, Instructions between Takeoff and Landing, by Charles Jensen, Shade of Blue Trees, by Kelly Cressio-Moeller, The Queen of Queens, by Jennifer Martelli, Tortillera, by Caridad Moro-Gronlier, Dear Selection Committee, by Melissa Studdard, Wikipedia Apocalyptica, by Steven D. Schroeder, and What Flies Want, by Emily Pérez. I’m eagerly anticipating new books by Diane Seuss, and Carmen Giménez—I might be mistaken, but I think they're coming in 2024—and others that are just around the corner, such as your new book (!!) Yours, Creature, by Jessica Cuello, Solastalgia, by Brittney Corrigan, and If Some God Shakes Your House, by Jennifer Franklin.