Suzanne Buffam was born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia. She completed an MA in English at Concordia University and an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her first book, Past Imperfect, won the Gerald Lampert Award and her second collection, The Irrationalist, was nominated for the Griffin Poetry Prize. Her most recent book is A Pillow Book. She teaches at the University of Chicago.
I did read poetry in high school, although almost none of it was contemporary. I loved Keats and Shelley and Marvell and Donne, all of whom I read in a wonderful class I took on British literature. I remember being extremely moved by the 20th Century poet Wilfred Owen's antiwar poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est" and having my first passionate literary argument about irony and tone. Contemporary poets — women poets! — were late-ish revelations to me. I memorized Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror” somewhere along the way, and still grimly return to it from time to time as I age...as, that is, “an old woman / rises towards (me), day after day, like a terrible fish.”
I began to write poems the way most teenagers do -- melodramatically and full of pathetic fallacy. From an early age — 14 or 15? — I took myself very seriously. Unfortunately, most of the time, I still do.
In his “Defense of Poetry,” Shelley famously proclaimed that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” This has always struck me as a noble and stirring job description, but not necessarily one I feel suited for myself. Shelley was, after all, a markedly political and public figure, full of conviction and zeal, which I am not. Neither was Kafka, on the other hand, who famously avowed that “a book must be an axe for the frozen sea within us.” Toiling away in my bathrobe day after day in the dimness of doubt, I tend to incline towards this more austere and craftsman-like belief. With every failed book I write, I keeping trying to forge a stronger blade.
I was out of work at the time I wrote [“Dream Jobs”]. I spent a lot time, while not writing poetry, contemplating alternative careers.
I would choose Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Windhover.” It’s one of the most charged and dynamic verbal performances in the English language. I did, actually, memorize it once, years ago, and so far it hasn’t left me.