Poetically Speaking with Nova Ren Suma

poeticallyspeaking2Nova Ren Suma is the critically acclaimed author of several novels for young adults including Imaginary Girls and 17 & Gone–two mysterious novels imbued with elements of magic realism. Both Imaginary Girls and 17 & Gone were named Outstanding Books for the College Bound by YALSA in 2014. Her latest novel The Walls Around Us was released in March 2015 and has already received numerous starred reviews and critical acclaim.

Today Nova is talking about her love of Anne Sexton’s poetry and the role Sexton’s poetry almost played in The Walls Around Us.

On Anne Sexton

A long time ago, before I began writing novels, I wanted to be a poet. I was seventeen, eighteen, still in high school and on the edge of becoming an adult and starting my real life. Back then this felt like a dangerous thing to want to be: Not everyone survived it.

Only, I didn’t know how to survive without it.

I wrote awkward, painfully autobiographical poems in my notebooks and typed them up on my word processor, the keys pounding out every word and beat and note to make them feel more powerful. I typed up other poets’ work, too, and pasted them to the walls of my bedroom. The poet who took up the most space on my walls—and in my heart at that time—was Anne Sexton.

I was
the girl of the chain letter,
the girl full of talk of coffins and keyholes,
the one of the telephone bills,
the wrinkled photo and the lost connections,
the one who kept saying —
Listen! Listen!
We must never! We must never!
and all those things . . .

(from “Love Song” by Anne Sexton)

Her collection of poetry kept the most coveted spot on my shelf: closest to my bed. Phrases and whole stanzas were underlined, titles starred, the corners of page after page turned down. I wasn’t obsessed with her suicide—this was a thing I wouldn’t let myself think about too often, couldn’t face… I wanted so badly to escape and to live my life—it was her words that connected me. Her confessions. I would read her poems again and again, aloud to friends and whispering to myself, alone in my room. I thought I could see into them. More than that, I thought she could see into me.

How she spoke about being a girl. About growing up to be a woman. About a kind of madness I recognized coiling inside myself. It was terrifying and honest, almost too honest, and I couldn’t look away.

I am unbalanced — but I am not mad with snow.
I am mad the way young girls are mad,
with an offering, an offering . . .

I burn the way money burns.

(from “The Breast” by Anne Sexton)

When I was writing my newest novel The Walls Around Us (Algonquin, March 2015), part of which takes place in a girls’ juvenile detention center where the only thing that can save some of the girls is a book from the library, I decided to slip in some pieces of what saved me.

I wanted to include short epigraphs at the head of every new section from an author or poet that deeply influenced me as a young person and as a developing writer. Margaret Atwood is there. Edna St. Vincent Millay is there. I wanted Anne Sexton to be there.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to secure the permission, but I still see her words there, ghostly and shimmering, which if you read the book is fitting.

Maybe it’s for the best, because I had such trouble choosing which poem to quote from. There were so many that felt so imperative to me back then and felt connected to my story. Finally, I settled on one, just one, among so many. This was the one that would have ended up inside the book:

The sky breaks.
It sags and breathes upon my face.
in the presence of mine enemies, mine enemies
The world is full of enemies.
There is no safe place

(from “Noon Walk on the Asylum Lawn” by Anne Sexton)

I may not have been able to secure an Anne Sexton quote for my novel, but it doesn’t matter. Even though I gave up poetry in favor of writing novels (truth is, I couldn’t shut myself up), it’s her words that led me to write the words I do today.

A woman who writes feels too much,
those trances and portents!
As if cycles and children and islands
weren’t enough; as if mourners and gossips
and vegetables were never enough.
She thinks she can warn the stars.
A writer is essentially a spy.
Dear love, I am that girl.

(from “The Black Art” by Anne Sexton)

Because of Anne Sexton, I became that girl, too.

Thank you again to Nova for this beautiful post.

If you’d like to learn more about Nova and her books, be sure to visit her website: http://novaren.com

You can also find my reviews of Imaginary Girls and 17 & Gone (and my interview with Nova) here on the blog.

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