Holiday shopping this weekend for any literary lovers? Earlier this year, The Backwaters Press published Susan Firer’s most recent collection of poetry called "The Transit of Venus." Fans of Firer’s past writing will recognize her signature subjects such as Milwaukee, the natural world, memories and Catholic-flavored spirituality.
However, Firer wrote this collection from a new place in her mind, heart and soul, created out of loss, grief and resilience. "How can we throw away beauty?" she asks in "The Dog Stars."
Experimental poem "His Last Receipt" works particularly well and "Check List" infuses the text with Firer’s poignant humor. "Let life prepare us for ourselves" is the last line of the poetic checklist right after "straighten your dance cap of light."
For those who have found themselves tearful over Firer’s powerful prose, "Venus" will keep the eyes glistening with gorgeous heart wrenching gems like "Before I Give Away His Favorite Coat."
OnMilwaukee: When did you start writing this book and when did you finish it?
Susan Firer: I frequently say that writing is like travel: you start with a destination in mind, but you never know where you’ll end up. I was already working on my next book in 2007 when "Milwaukee Does Strange Things to People: New & Selected Poems 1979-2007" was published. The focus of that initial manuscript was happiness. In 2012, my husband, the writer Jim Hazard, went to the store for a few items and died a few minutes after leaving the store. When I was able, I abandoned the book that focused on happiness and started focusing on transience. In 2015, I was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, which bought me the great gift of time to travel and finish the manuscript that became "The Transit of Venus."
How much did the loss of Jim influence this writing?
I’ve already mentioned that Jim’s death changed the focus / vision of the book, but it also changed the tone of the book because there are a number of elegies in this book. When writing, I came on the following statistic: In the United States someone dies every 16 seconds. That statistic made me realize how many people are carrying around grief or trying to learn how to carry grief. That reality made me try to write poems that I hoped weren’t just personal but were hopefully more universal poems that might be useful in other peoples’ experience of grief.
The whole experience changed even the materials I worked with like the language, facts and forms. For example, the poem "His Last Receipt" uses the store receipt Jim had in his hand when he died. Jim and I lived, loved and worked together for almost 40 years. I would have felt dishonest if I hadn’t somehow dealt with this very seismic loss in poetry, the genre that we loved and spent our life together exploring on and off the page.
In numerous ways, Jim’s life, death and poems continue to inform my writing and daily life.
How is this book different from your previous five?
There are a number of differences. In "Milwaukee Does Strange Things To People," the setting of most of the poems was Milwaukee. In "The Transit Of Venus," the poems exist in more diverse geographical settings. For instance, there are poems set in Istanbul, Sicily, Florence and Zurich. Also, I use forms I had never used before, such as the cross-out poem, catechism, epistle and checklist.
Also, a new constellation of astrological facts, imagery, and events layer these poems. Still, Lake Michigan waves and glistens throughout the book, along with poems set in Milwaukee that employ local landmarks. There are elemental odes like in my poem "Grapefruit" and other forms I love and have frequently used like list poems and fractured and tattooed lyrics.
In 2013, after 35 years of teaching, you retired from your position as Adjunct Associate Professor at UWM. What have you been doing since aside from, of course, writing?
I’ve definitely had more time to write and also to travel. In fact, if I was still teaching, I probably would not have had the time to apply for the National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship I received in 2015. That fellowship gave me the time and support to finish "The Transit of Venus" and travel to Russia to visit some of the Russian writers’ house museums, like Dostoyevsky’s and Anna Akhmatova’s houses.
I fill my days with friends and family; lake watching, walking and listening; star watching; yoga; travel; and words, always words; and trying to pay attention to the many startling, mysterious and wonder-filled lights of each day.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.