THE POET – Interview with Suzanne S. Rancourt

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An interview with Suzanne S. Rancourt

Thank you for taking time to chat to THE POET Suzanne. You have been writing since a very early age, do you remember writing your very first words though?

Yes, I started writing at an incredibly young age. My first recollection of writing: I was probably around three or four years old. I remember writing a two-page story on lined notebook paper, filling each line with what we call in the field of literacy as ’emergent writing,’ i.e. scribbling with a blue Bic pen. The problem I encountered, however, was that I realized I had written this story but could not yet read; the thought that one had to be able to read in order to write never entered my mind. I simply knew that I had written a story and needed someone to read it for me. I sought out one of my older sisters, handed her the paper stating that I had written a story and would she now read it back to me. I remember the look on her face as she must have seen the scribble and was now faced with a dilemma; tell me it was scribble or make up a story? I can’t recall the story she made up. I only know that she did and from that point on I called myself a writer. Never doubt the aspirations of wee ones, as they are more pure than us adults who are full of doubt, questions, and social beliefs that are harmful to children.
My poetry began early as well, as I was raised in rural mountain areas and was allowed to run wild in the natural and (at that time) safe environment. Numerous encounters with animals and natural phenomena. Even as a child, I would wake up in the night and write about the creatures or experiences, often with observations that children of my age weren’t ‘supposed’ to have.

Again, a reminder, that children are born uncluttered and often have awareness well beyond their years. Valid questions coupled with real emotions. I worry about what humans are doing to the world.

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Did you have any early influences or inspirations?
The Natural world has always, and continues to inspire me. The beauty and wonderment are exhilarating, even when I have found myself in devastating and horrific circumstances. It takes sheer will, sometimes, to rally up the courage to find the beauty in the horrific. This can lead to that limbo realm of ‘cognitive dissonance.’ As a writer, this place can scare the crap out of me. It is the most powerful too. Emotionally, this is where all my humanness can struggle. Writing, whether poetry, creative nonfiction, fiction, songs and singing, and photography, are integral to my salvation and survival; I keep going to let others of this awareness know, we are not alone and our voices are necessary. This is art we are living.
How have you developed as a poet since those first early words?
Well, I don’t rhyme my poetry any longer, and I hope that I have improved! Interestingly enough, I often go back to that ‘child place’ for inspiration, and to find a type of innocence and beauty, and yes, a naivete necessary to contrast the harsher realities of contemporary society. This gives me hope. And no matter where I am travelling, children are hope. I have learned to be as mindful and respectful to human spirit, even when we don’t speak the same verbal language. Our souls can.
You are from Abenaki/Huron decent, for the readers, please explain what this means, and does your cultural heritage influence your writing?
Abenaki, pronounced Ah-Ben-Ah-Key is a northeast woodland Indigenous America Tribe of people. The name means ‘People of the Dawnland.’ Huron is also an Algonkian Tribe of Indigenous people located in the American Northeast and throughout Canada. All of my ancestors are of people who worked and lived close to the land. Hunters. Warriors. Protectors. My dad and his dad worked in the woods and instilled in me at an early age that there is a way of balance that we humans must live by to ensure food and natural resources for future living. There was a code of integrity that we had to live by. When this balance is disrupted, life gets hard. Life is Sacred, and never to be taken lightly. The loss of innocence can cause serious harm to one’s Soul. This is what I was taught. My life got hard and it was the Ceremonies that brought me back and continue to bring the Soul repair necessary for me to live. My writing, my telling of these stories, are a significant part of who I am as a human being, and why I must keep making art. This too reflects my Tribalness, and the influences a particular culture has on who I am. All my ancestors and family are people of the land.
I have been told my so called educators that “Native writing isn’t writing and is not to be pursued.” I have been made to feel and have been treated less than, or sub-human, ignorant, because I wasn’t the right region, or from the right societal strata, poverty, etc. My first language wasn’t English and my accents and sensibilities were often made fun of, or punished in schools. However, I am a survivor and I was always taught that someone has to have the courage to speak the truth of what they are experiencing, seeing, feeling in that moment and more. No matter what.
Is there a strong culture of poetry within your tribe?
Yes. Art making among Tribal people is prevalent in keeping cultures alive and, of equal significance, writing a history of events, changes, challenges. All of my ancestors are of people who the telling of stories is essential in preserving traditions and one’s existence. For example; when a Warrior returns, there is a Come Back Ceremony that calls back the spirit of that person. There is the telling of encounters, privately, it is part of the cleansing and Soul Repair (to use my friend Rita Brock’s words) that must occur for a person to heal from trauma. Art making modalities can range from writing poetry to stacking wood.

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Describe the process of transferring your original ideas in your mind into final words on paper.
The initial write is just that. NO EDITING must occur at this phase of creating art. Why? Because the initial write or act of creating needs to be unfettered from ego, linearity, false beliefs, social expectations. Just write what you feel or hear or see. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, punctuation – none of that. Just write. The part of your brain that you use for this process is entirely different than the brain centre that we use for editing. After you have something on paper, or computer, let it set for a while. Then go back and read it, both visually and aloud, taking note of natural rhythms, nuances, see and FEEL what emerges from the work. The skill of the craft of writing then can be applied to the shaping of the work. This is how I work, and it is referred to as Organic. This method can be learned using the Amherst Writers & Artists’ (AWA) method, and is also naturally congruent with the methods of Expressive Arts Therapy (EXAT). This is how I have always worked long before there were professional fields of therapy and established methods. This way that I work is directly connected to my cultural upbringing.
For stanza and lines breaks and other forms of punctuation, reading allowed and breath work is how I determine those. This strategy was taught to me by a psycholinguist decades ago. I could never diagram a sentence and English grammar made no sense. Remember: my first language was not English… it was French. It is those same language qualities that I now exploit in my creative writing that have become my voice. Keep that in mind; hold tight to your original language.
Your work has been published in a great many titles around the world, but do you remember your first ever published work?
I think my first piece I ever published was in a college newspaper under a pseudonym. Not my strongest pieces for sure. They were still full of naivete, idyllic protest and denial in my own involvement of conditions. Having grown up in a rural, mountainous setting, I hadn’t had much interaction with larger cities, and the people that come from such large populations. I was easily misled and exploited. Nonetheless, that first time you see one of your works published can be a life changing validation to keep at it. My first actual writing professor simply told me that perseverance is what a writer must have more than anything.
Is there a publication you are most proud to have your work featured in?
I know a lot of writers who feel that their work isn’t any good because they can’t get accepted by some of the Ivory Tower journals and magazines. Those mags are often Eurocentric in their tastes and egoism. They often use language and the power of exclusionary language to further elevate that type of supremacy. I know how to speak that type of language, and can when necessary. However, that isn’t who I write for. For example: my dad. He was a labourer who could not complete grade school due to family commitments. Still, even in his 80s, the computations he could do on a slide rule were amazing. I read to him a poem that I had written about him; Whose Mouth Do I Speak With. I remember how he actually listened, like when we would be out in the woods and he would take in all sounds, smells, etc. When I finished, we sat silent for a moment or two before he simply responded with a, “huh.” That response told me that he understood the poem and would continue to think about. That “huh” also told me that he was realizing that I had been taking it all in at a very young age. I write for the Souls of people so they know that I see them. They are not alone. I send my work out to places that are diverse and publish writers regardless of income, race, religion, orientation, age, language etc., and those are the publications I am most proud to be featured in. We are people and sometimes we need each other to remind us of our own humanity.
Do you have a favourite genre of poetry?
No favourite. I read all forms, although, to this day my favourite line comes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “…eyes as green as leeks…” I was just thinking about this on my way to the wood shed to bring in wood the other day.
Tell me about your first book Billboard in the Clouds.
I mentioned earlier that I had been told that “Native writing isn’t writing and is not to be pursued” and, being me, I pursued it and was then dismissed from that graduate program. Nine years after that, and after losing my mum to cancer, I got pissed off enough to start doing something about the illegality of that statement. Billboard in the Clouds was the manuscript that came from that final semester at that program that, after I graduated from, went on to win an international first book award and was picked up by Curbstone Press, at that time one of the longest running independent presses in the U.S. Curbstone was then bought out by NU Press (Northwestern University Press) which is significant; since the release of my second book, murmurs at the gate, 2019, NU Press sent Billboard in the Clouds to reprint which, for poetry, is a big deal. Perseverance. Perseverance.
Whose Mouth Do I Speak With
I can remember my father bringing home spruce gum.
He worked in the woods and filled his pockets
with golden chunks of pitch.
For his children
he provided this special sacrament
and we’d gather at his feet, around his legs,
bumping his lunchbox, and his empty thermos rattled inside.
Our skin would stick to Daddy’s gluey clothing
and we’d smell like Mumma’s Pine Sol.
We had no money for store bought gum
but that’s all right.
The spruce gum
was so close to chewing amber
as though in our mouths we held the eyes of Coyote
and how many other children had fathers
that placed on their innocent, anxious tongues
the blood of trees?
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Whose Mouth Do I Speak With is from Billboard in the Clouds. Because we were poor financially, and because we were people not afraid of physical labour and lived in relationship with the land, we were better off than many. As a child I didn’t realize how much of a blessing this ability to survive and the knowledge of the earth was powerful. And, certainly of far greater value than money. Because money couldn’t by what I was given as a child.
Tell me about murmurs at the gate.
murmurs at the gate is decades of work both as a writer and as a human who has survived trauma and profound love. Some of the poems published were those that academies stated were crap. The academies were wrong. My voice evolved in the 200 some poems. I never throw out work, and used many of the poetry written and not accepted by dominant society in the early years. I edited with a more mature, less naïve eye and sensibility. The manuscript underwent several title changes, and kept getting longer. I had strong Elder Native women writers reminding me to be patient, the work is strong, keep going, and I did. Finally, when my military service concluded, and yet another wave of hard living sloshed through, I sought help for PTSD. On my way home from an extremely intense session, to decompress, I stopped at a Barnes & Nobles bookstore. In the café area there was one high top table and one chair available, and on the table was one book and a magazine. The book was written by a Dr. Shawn Talbott, The Cortisol Connection, and the current issue of The Writer’s Chronical, opened to a posthumous interview exploring the violence in the multiracial poetess, Ai. Even after death, Ai not only gave me strength, but she gave me ‘permission’ to use my poetry to write about trauma, survivors guilt, shame, grief and sensuality. I left the bookstore with both items, changed the name of the manuscript to murmurs at the gate, and let the narrators, characters, survivors tell their story through my poetry. I can only hope and pray that my actions can further the voice of someone out there struggling the way I was to write their stories, no matter how ugly the truths are. There is still beauty in this action in that when we transform our traumas into art, we do so in comparison to what we know them not to be. That’s trauma, or for some that cognitive dissonance often referred to as Moral Injury.
Do Shadows Have Shadows?
i continue to sweep the hallways and corridors of a large house
right to left
i am a vacuum cleaner wearing a black trench coat
i am wondering if wounds ever heal
my body is a tangled schematic of sleeplessness and i am still wondering
if i will have to spend the rest of my life
nurturing salted sorrows – why does this dilemma even exist?
my humanness recalls its uncanny tendency
to trust to love to believe
to soar to become to love
to lick my wounds
they are the only thing
a lover leaves
Do Shadows Have Shadows? is from murmurs at the gate. I was thinking about what is the criteria for a lover, literally, the definition of the word. Intimacy is a must for anyone or anything, to be a lover. Yes, based on the word intimacy, any one thing can be a lover. This possibility includes sexual relation and much more than the physicality of sex. There is the intimacy of shared experiences such as birth, death, violence, collective consciousness, nightmares, flashbacks of any kind are all occurring on a level of intimacy and therefore can be experienced as a lover.
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What would you say to someone starting out on the road to exploring poetry?
If journaling works for you, do it. If carrying a recorder works, then carry one. If you can discipline yourself to write at a certain time of day and a certain length of time, then do that. I am not a prolific writer. Hypervigilance i.e. situational awareness can be transposed to a writer’s most powerful tool because we are sensing, synesthesically – using all six senses and then some i.e. spidey senses all the time. As an artist this gives us new ways to describe, new metaphors, new language to tell our stories. (Part of the AWA method is to NEVER ASSUME that the narrator and the writer are one and the same. Maintain this buffer as it 1) Helps the writer to feel safe, and 2) Give the writer permission to simply give over to a narrator, and this could simply become a fictional work but true in the essence of the tone, etc.)
I was initially trained as a photo journalist and photography continues to be a significant aspect of my art making, as my mind sometimes creates snapshots. Sometimes those snapshots are already in my head. Society doesn’t necessarily welcome the ugliness of war, even when they ask “how are you?” they really don’t want the details. Unfortunately, this can lead to too many images, sounds, smells banging about in our craniums. I used to try to keep them quiet with excessive amounts of alcohol, to no avail. Ai gave me permission – as I hope I am giving someone reading this permission – to release those images through writing that lets characters simply speak and do, or perhaps through painting, pottery, hiking in nature – remember; part of the cleansing and healing Come Back Ceremony is in the telling of stories, dance, paint. Every piece of art you create is valid and significant. Don’t let others silence you. Don’t silence yourself either.
Do you have a favourite writing space?
No, not really. I’m more like wind than water. My centre is wherever I touch down.
What are your future plans as a writer and poet?
Keep creating. Send off my third manuscript to an acquisition’s editor i.e. stop at the post office on my way to the Dojo.


Suzanne is Abenaki/Huron decent, born and raised in the mountains of West Central Maine currently residing in the Adirondack Mountains, NY. A multi-modal artist, she has work appearing in Bright Hill Press 25th Anniversary Anthology, Dawnland Voices 2.0 #4, Northern New England Review, Bear Review, Three Drops Press, Snapdragon Journal, mgversion2>datura, Sirsee, Slipstream, Muddy River Poetry Review, Ginosko, Journal of Military Experience, Cimarron Review, Callaloo, numerous anthologies, translations, and text books. Her book, Billboard in the Clouds was the winner of the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas First Book Award. Suzanne holds rank in both Aikido and Iaido reflecting her 18 plus years of practice and training. She is a veteran of both the USMC and US Army. She continues to serve through the Saratoga County (NY) Veterans Peer to Peer Mentoring program. Suzanne’s second book of poetry, murmurs at the gate, (Unsolicited Press) was released to acclaim earlier in 2019.

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