Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Susan Tepper Interviews Tree Riesener

Susan Tepper Interviews Tree Riesener

EK: Poems of Ekphrasis
Cervena Barva Press

Susan Tepper:  In your prologue (About the Poems), the beginning of your new book EK, you conclude by stating: "These are poems of witness."  Can you explain further what you meant by that sentence.

Tree Riesener: The book is called EK, a shortening of the Greek word “ekphrastic,” which refers to using detailed description to have a conversation with a work of art. Each poem riffs off another art form—painting, sculpture, text, music and so on. In order to witness something and to hope your words may effect some change, you first have to observe it closely.

ST: I find this form utterly tantalizing. There is so much freedom for the poet to explore.

TR: Yes. As an example of my approach, the first poem in the book is an exploration of the ideas in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a book many of us have read in a literature class, where we were left with at least the idea that the governing men of the village forced Hester Prynne to embroider a scarlet A on her clothes to let the world know she was an adulteress.

ST: That’s the poem which you’ve titled “on a field sable the letter A gules.” An intriguing title for this particular poem.

TR: Yes, it is the last line of the novel, describing her tombstone in heraldic terms. As a very unskilled amateur embroiderer, I enjoyed playing with the idea of the decisions Hester would have had to make as to color, placement, etc. of her embroidery. It was an opportunity for me to explore many types of stitchery possibilities, from nobleman’s coronet stitch to maltese single- or double-whipped chain stitch.

ST: I never would have thought of it. Great choice!

TR: What would it do to a person’s psyche to be publicly identified with sin forever? I decided to conflate embroidery with tattoo art, which would be a permanent identification, and the descriptions in the poem gradually shift to the idea of the A being tattooed, leading to the lines “abuse is written deep/what is written on the skin sinks to the bones.”

In the end, her fine character led to her being seen almost as a saint by the other women in the village, who eventually buried her with honor. The poem ends with this line:

never forget they said/this primer’s written on the bone/A is for abuse/with children there that’s what they said.”

So the women witness, and the poem witnesses, for the readers, I hope.

ST: This is a tremendous poem that spans lifetimes of women. Regarding her embroidery choices you wrote:

they had said red / I’m thinking she said / considering / bittersweet brick burgundy cardinal / … flaring mingled watery vibrating / …

settled on scarlet…/ which scarlet…/ plied the needle threaded with red / drew bright spiderwebby loops and swoops / over her flesh under her dress / …

I’ve picked out some sections of this poem to illustrate the tremendous tension of word play here that goes on to deliver the denoument. I have to say I’m in awe of this work. You’ve divided EK into five parts and this poem is in the section titled documents. The second section is called paintings, and from the gorgeous assortment of poems, I’d like you to tell us more about one titled the disappeared ones.

TR: The two ideas that are explored in this poem are the traditional Piéta, Mary holding the crucified Christ on her lap, which I saw at The Cloisters in New York City, and the Argentinean Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, the mothers of the disappeared children and young people after the military coup of 1973.

The Piéta has always been one of the most heart-wrenching icons of Christianity. The Christ figure is often shown child-size, believed to suggest that Mary remembered her son as a small child. The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo wore white headscarves to represent the diapers of their children as the babies they had cared for.

ST: You write it in this way:

she has herself painted / cuddling him tiny and dead / to explain he was a tender child / so they won’t crucify anyone again / then she trudges around for years / pushing a supermarket cart of canvases / everybody knows her / …”

The merge of long stretches of time and the present is particularly grueling in this context.

TR: From this section of the book you chose the poem that still makes me cry every time I read it. Thousands of these young dissidents, their children, simply vanished. It is now believed they were thrown alive from helicopters into the freezing water of the Atlantic. The mothers, demanding answers, in 1977 began to march around the Plaza de Mayo that surrounds the Presidential Palace.

In the beginning, fourteen women demonstrated every Thursday at 3:30 p.m. The movement grew until many were marching. Now the original demonstrators are in wheelchairs but they still march. There are Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. There have been more than 2000 marches. Unfortunately, the records have never been found and probably never will be. At least the mothers’ efforts have led to more than 1000 of the torturers and killers being tried and sentenced.

ST: There is solace in their relentless activism bringing forth a just result.

TR: It is a dreadful story. I hope their faithfulness is witnessed in this poem, a small tribute to the great love of mothers, especially mothers whose children are killed in the stupidity of war. Mary (with her shopping cart of canvases) is trying to place the paintings of herself holding her dead child all over the world, thinking it will prevent such tragedies from ever happening again, a fruitless hope, as we know.

ST: In the final section of the book you have a chapter titled miscellany. I was drawn to a particular poem “galileo’s telescope” (after the exhibition of the telescope at franklin institute september 2009 philadelphia pennsylvania)

You wrote:

“…/ guard came up started to talk / he knew sniggered bet you’d like to look through that baby / yeah I said let my words hang in the air what’d it take / he said twenty minutes you and me in the broom closet / I countered how about this fancy hazelnut and chili pepper / chocolate bar / he unlocked the case / …”

What I admire about EK is the way you have taken the most serious of subject matter and brought it into the world view via some of these flawless, lush poems, or, as is the case with this poem, a humorous take on people and their foibles.

TR: There is so much grief in the world, and as Carolyn Forché said, a poem may be the only evidence we have that an event has occurred. Because we have so much devastation to deal with, sometimes we let the little things, the kind things, the beautiful things, even the funny things, go by. But these things are important, too.

The event I wrote about in the Galileo poem almost happened the way I wrote it, and I actually did get to look through the telescope (although I didn’t have to go in the closet with the guard to do so). I write poems about the light side of life as well because that is what we are hoping for, that somehow, sometime the horrors will be gone, and we’ll be able to look at life and nature, at newborn babies, at the stars, and smile.

******Susan Tepper is the author of seven books of fiction and poetry. Her latest title 'Monte Carlo Days & Nights' (Rain Mountain Press, NYC) is a novella set on the French Riviera.  More at


  1. Wonderful interview between two great writers.

  2. Michael Keith, so kind of you to leave a comment, I will alert Tree, also. Very happy you enjoyed it.

  3. Thank you so much, Michael!