“You Are No Damsel in Distress:” An Interview with Susan Vannatta by Bianca Glinskas

A Brief Disclaimer: Susan, author of Whiskey Letters (Arroyo Secco Press 2018) and I met in college while attending California State University of Long Beach. We had just about every class together, and so our friendship was sealed by fate. I have heard many stories from these pages firsthand and I have seen many of the pieces which appear in Whiskey Letters in their earliest drafts. I have also witnessed her personal growth and artistic development as a friend and fellow poet.

Bianca: Congratulations on publishing your first chapbook, San! Since I know you, interacting with Whiskey Letters, reading and examining the work, has been a different, sometimes difficult experience–and that much more rich and rewarding, too. Your lyricism in these poems has wowed me and the pain in these pages has wounded me. Here readers will read a taste of the larger whole, a sample of the smoky, sweet and bitter flavors you’ll find tucked within its pages.

Throughout this work, you as the poet clearly inhabit the voice of the speaker. There is a powerful sense of ownership in this, in the stated truths, the firsthand feelings, its factuality and non-fiction. This creates a sense of intimacy and urgency. In a way, readers get to see you and your world through your eyes, and the message is clear: you are no damsel in distress. Your heart is sore but strong, and its chords ring throughout this work.

There is a stunning sharpness to the narrative, its climactic arc. This work confronts the profound stress and psychological upheaval of your life. The personal traumas in this work are an ongoing test of your inner resources and emotional resilience.  

The book begins by introducing readers to the love interest/real life antagonist, Philip. We readers see and believe the affection you feel for Philip, such as in, “Philip is Buying Beer Again”.

At Legends

Phillip is buying a beer again.
That makes four, I think,
so far. At least
in this bar. He drinks IPA.
Not because he likes the taste—
more so for the ABV.
It is thick and dark
like melted licorice.
He licks his lips and smiles.
A small child
plays skip rope
in his eyes, and his laughs
and sighs carry high and light
through the room, bouncing
off of leaning wooden tables
and splintered stools.
The glass perspires
in his hand. He sets it down
for a few moments.
It’s almost as if the whole bar pauses,
As Philips stops to breathe.
As soon as he recovers
his drink, the room clinks
and clanks back to life again—

each person a turning
cog in the ticking clock
of his moving tongue. It spins
tall tales and spits torn truths
to couples in old tattered red
booths. And they believe him.
Like peasants to apostles,
they are mindful and watchful
as he dances on stick slick
bar floors from each
to each, and all want more.
But wait. One minute.
One Moment.
An instant.
Phillip is buying a beer again.

Soon enough we learn he is no Prince Charming. This poem roots the work, an affectionately narrated moment, which reveals the strong emotional hold Philip has over you, who we can refer to as the poet-speaker, and begins to paint the wealth of personal history between these two people.

San, can you share about the true story behind Whiskey Letters

San: From a young age I was exposed to domestic violence, substance abuse, alcoholism, abandonment, sexual assault… You name an unhealthy environment or situation and I had already been in it well before my first relationship. I was already normalizing the unhealthy and harmful behaviors. The last abusive relationship I was in, and I can say “last” with absolute certainty now, I made everything out to be this grand love story. I was going to get married. It didn’t matter that I might have a black eye that he couldn’t remember giving. A, and when the cops were called on him, I told them he just loved me so much. Those things were romance to me. Passion and fire and the moments of softness and tenderness between. That’s what this chapbook is. A romance that very much should not have been. 

B: Throughout the work, we witness a pattern. These poems are written with fierce, secretive awareness, so much so that the reader becomes a witness and confidante to the poet-speaker’s private, internal confessions. This pattern is visible in “Air Freshener”:

Air Freshener

You tried to put your fist
through the dashboard (there was
already a hole there
from the last time).
I tried not to watch
the swinging blue felt tree
mocking with its “New Car Scent,”
when we both knew
that the air was stagnant
like your breath, or mine,
or whatever life was left between us
in the front seat of a car
lost at two a.m.

The freeway ended. We missed
our exit because you
were yelling (or I was
yelling). I couldn’t tell
the difference anymore. I couldn’t
separate my voice from your voice.
When did that happen?
The smoke swirling in the front seat
could have been from your cigarette
or mine—was it my mouth
That tasted like whiskey
or your words when I swallowed
them and turned them into my own?
And the blood that pumped
in my ears—the hollow
whoosh whoosh whoosh—

It must have been to the beat
of your heart.

Philip behaves abusively and the poet-speaker refuses to accept her lover’s mistreatment, a denial which eventually leads to her self-destruction and, like a phoenix, rebirth.

How has writing affected your emotional processing of these traumas? Did you know, at the time you were writing, that they would form a collection? 

S: It took me writing these poems, which are, in their essence, still love poems, to realize that love does not make people do what he did–what I did. I was right there beside him in that spiral of abuse and toxicity and dysfunction. I almost went back to it even, about a week before this chapbook came out. When I saw those poems in print, though, I couldn’t. Them being out there, being real, meant that it happened, and I couldn’t play pretend like I used to. My poems got me not only through my abuse, but kept me alive through my struggles with my mental illnesses. Some poems were written in my depression, some in my mania, some to ease my anxiety. A couple pieces in the book were actually written in the times that I spent in mental health hospitals. Writing them had always been a therapy for me, of course. It would allow me to understand why things happened the way they did. Sometimes it took rewriting the same two minute event, or thirty second memory, or a half second of a feeling over and over again for me to work out what it really was. The writing always helped, but the actual publication was what finally made the story EXIST. It was no longer a minute or a memory or a feeling. It was my life. It had happened to me. I could finally move through it. I’m not saying I’ll forget or “move on,” exactly, but it gave me so much peace and strength to know that my story wasn’t in my head anymore. It was there, in that book.

The poet-speaker arises from the abuse as a survivor, somebody prepared to thrive, who finally accepts the grim devastation of her present circumstances. The buried awareness which emerges throughout the work, finally comes out of the sand. This is especially evident in “Epilogue”:


We began to sleep on opposite sides of the bed, that’s when
I started leaving early and you started coming home later.
I should have known what was supposed to happen then.

If I brought myself to ask you where you had been,
you’d raise your whiskey to your lips—your glass communicator.
We began to sleep on opposite sides of the bed. That’s when

we learned that the worst things are said at three a.m.

between us, every syllable was lining up into an equator.
I should have known what was supposed to happen then.

When you’re in the middle of it all, you can’t see it begin,
can’t see your world starting to crumble into a crater—

we began to sleep on opposite sides of the bed—that’s when.

In the books I read, there’s always a foreshadowing to the end;
a prologue of the heartbreak to come by an indifferent narrator—.

I should have known what was supposed to happen, then. 

So why is it that I still had to say, as I packed, “I can’t comprehend
how this happened to us. What happened to the people we were?”

“We began to sleep on opposite sides of the bed. That’s when
you should have known what was supposed to happen. Then.”

We discover alongside the poet-speaker. As she discovers her inner strength she recognizes her fierce self-awareness, the ability to look at herself in the mirror, to face her life, and to finally confront it with confidence and clarity. The pot burns, and the phoenix rises.

B: When you read these poems now, how does it feel? 

S: Reading these poems now, over a year after publishing them and over three years after the story really ended, I feel grateful most of the time. Grateful I get to tell a story, grateful someone cared enough to put it in print, grateful that I made it out of that, and hopeful that it might help someone else make it out as well. Sometimes, though, I read a poem or two out of it and miss… something. Miss him, maybe. Miss some of who I was. Like I said, it’s a continuous coping mechanism. All I have to do is switch from “Stairs” or “Harvest (on Philip’s Hair)” to “When to Speak (Bees),” and I am back to remind myself why I fought my way out of there, quite literally. “Psalm for Philip” is a big one. I still hear glass when I read it, and I feel hot. It is one of the biggest reminders. 

B: How did these poems come to the page? Tell us about Arroyo Seco Press and about the overall publishing process which went into getting Whiskey Letters printed.

S: I had no idea they would be a collection. I wouldn’t have even thought that they would form this story. To be honest, I owe so much of this to other writers. You, obviously, being one of them. Zachary Locklin, of course, for telling me that I had something worth putting together in the first place. It was actually him that reached out to Thomas at Arroyo Seco. I had come to him looking for advice on some pieces that I thought might work well together, and he contacted Thomas. R. Thomas, who then reached out to me. He said that he wanted to publish my chapbook. I didn’t have a chapbook! I had some stray poems and complete uncertainty. I offered to send him some pieces for editing or advice, or even just to see if he liked my writing, and he said that if Zach said I should be published, I should, and that he was going to be the one to do it. That’s when I really started putting everything together. Arroyo Seco Press, and Thomas, have been absolutely amazing. The press is set up by Thomas as a way of giving previously unpublished or under–recognized poets a voice. He wants to give us the confidence to put ourselves into the publishing and poetry world, and Arroyo Seco is such a great platform to do that. The other poets are amazing, too! I have been to readings with them, and Thomas really does have a knack for finding people who have something to say, and a necessity to be heard saying it. It’s been wonderful.

B: What has the reception of this work been like? From friends? Family? Strangers?

S: As far as reactions from Whiskey Letters, it was honestly much more than I expected, in that it hit so hard with readers. Having been through it, writing and rewriting and editing and rereading and publishing and reading again so many times, I suppose some of the things that happened started to lose their sting. But that wasn’t the case for readers, obviously. I had family members that couldn’t make it through the book at first. I had friends and family calling crying or writing that they had no idea how much I had gone through. I had strangers online relating to my story. I had friends that bought the book to share with someone they thought needed help through similar experiences. Of course there were those that were upset, very obviously my ex-fiancee. And I did divulge a lot about my upbringing that I believe upset my mother, but it all needed to be said. The most amazing reaction, though, by far, has been my little brother. He was so genuinely moved by the chapbook that he wrote his own poem to me. From there, he has been writing constantly, becoming a poet of his own he didn’t know he could be. He has been offered publication as well, now, and we have our own Instagram project that pairs and contrasts our writing. He is very much the big thinker, with existential ideas, and I write about small moments in time. Together we are @thebigandthelittlethings. 

Really, Whiskey Letters was just the beginning, and I’m so glad to say that. I am glad that story was just a small chapbook in my life and that I am going to have so many more and so many better things to come after it finished. But it’s also great to know that it’s sitting there, on my desk, ready to remind me if or whenever I need it again. 

B: What are you writing now? Any upcoming projects in the works?

S: I actually am also published in the first of the Press’s Literary Journal, Redshift 1, and am set to be published in the third release as well, Redshift 3, this fall. I’ve been working recently on another chapbook collection, something longer and more varied this time around, but it’s been great knowing that if I did it once, I can do it again. 

Buy this book: Amazon / Indiebound

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