The title “poet laureate” sounds like it comes with a lot of responsibility and maybe a bit of pressure. The person granted this honor represents a particular area, writes poems for special occasions, and creates a deeper appreciation for the reading and writing of poetry.
As the official poet laureate of Orlando, native Floridian and educator Susan Lilley is up to the task.
Let’s start at the beginning. Did you start off writing in iambic pentameter at a very young age?
I started off as a terrible poet in elementary school. My teachers fawned all over some of my most awful poems. And I knew they were bad. For instance, I wrote an absolutely hideous poem called Hawaii, a place I have never been. And I just wrote it as the way I dreamed of it.
My teacher made a big deal out of it and dragged me from fifth-grade room to fifth-grade room so I could read it to everyone. I’m surprised I didn’t get beaten up behind the gym.
Not exactly an inspiring start to your poetry career. What happened next?
After that, I kind of forgot about the whole thing. Then I studied literature in college, then I got a master’s degree in English literature. I was fully convinced that there were too many good writers out there, and you sure don’t need another poet. I was just in love with literature. I didn’t have any real yearning to produce it.
It was when I was a new mom that I started writing again. The creative impulses about mothering and writing are very similar for me, and I just had to start writing poetry. My first few poems were either love poems or observation poems about being a parent and how weird and wonderful it is. I just couldn’t hold back anymore, so I was a late bloomer.
And at that point, you had two degrees in literature to give you some perspective.
I really knew what poetry was. I wasn’t one of those students I’ve taught who say, “Oh, I don’t read poetry. I just want to write it.”
Please talk to me in about 10 years after you’ve read a lot. I really believe in any kind of art, you need to know the tradition, even if you’re going to break all the rules.
The other perspective you bring is that of a Central Floridian. Where does that come from?
I think that I have such a strong sense of place about Central Florida since I was born and raised here. I’m like many natives. We feel sort of defensive. At the same time, we have the same frustrations about things like the humidity. But, you know, gone are the days when everybody could complain that there’s no culture in Orlando. That has really, really changed.
Do you have a favorite place in town to go to write?
Usually my bed!
Sometimes I will go to the Maitland library or the Winter Park library and just find some little corner where I feel no one’s gonna bother me for a while. If I have several pieces I want to work on, or if I have one that I really need to finish, I like having people around. Especially people that have nothing to do with what I’m doing.
I have never really been successful in coffee shops. I totally relate to the idea that there’s a buzz of activity so you’re not in silence, because silence can be very pressurizing. It’s just this kind of comforting buzz of activity of the human race all around you. You’re just sitting there doing your thing.
But mainly I get in my bed. I’ve read about 19th-century women writers, and most of them composed their poetry and their novels in their beds. One writer even compared it to a ship that she gets in, and nobody can bother her. Like, the kids can’t jump up. I really related to that one.
2019 will be your second full year as Orlando’s poet laureate. What do you have planned?
It’s been a really interesting experience. Now that I’ve done it a year, I have a lot more understanding of how things in the city work and what’s possible. I’m focused now on using my title to make people more aware of the idea that writing your own poetry, or nonfiction, or fiction is, as William Stafford the poet said, a free human activity.
I’m going to do a workshop at the Orlando Museum of Art starting in January, and it’s all about poetry, but it’s focused on responding to art.
At one of our senior centers in Orlando, I’m hoping to do an autobiographical poetry workshop with the older people. I’m hoping to launch some sort of a contest where we decide on some pieces for public art, public poetry, or poetry in public spaces.
You go to other cities like Dublin, you get off the airplane, and there are Irish poets’ works written beautifully on the walls. There are poems on park benches in various cities. Miami does a lot with poetry in public spaces
None of this is set in stone by any means, but this is my focus for this year.
You don’t look at this as an honorary title.
They asked me, “How can we support more creative writing in our community?” I’m not holding back on ideas for how to do that.
Susan’s first book of poetry, Venus in Retrograde, will be available in April from local publisher Burrow Press.