Tag Archives: Susan McLean

Using form: Roundel: Susan McLean, ‘No Thanks’

No one wants to be the damsel in
distress, the one in need of chivalry,
chained to a rock in nothing but her skin.
No!  One wants to be

the one who skirts the trap and steals the key,
testing the rope bridge with a shaky grin.
Whoever longs for victims he can free

is not a hero, but the villain’s twin.
So save yourself.  Don’t go expecting me
to play the clingy wimp, the might-have-been
no one wants to be.

*****

Susan McLean writes: “This poem got its start when I heard that Kirsten Dunst said, about playing Mary Jane in Spider-Man (2002), “I just don’t want to be the damsel in distress. I’ll scream on the balcony, but you’ve got to let me do a little action here.” It struck a chord with me. I was so tired of watching action movies in which the male hero does all of the derring-do and the female lead exists only to be saved, over and over again. Men still write, direct, and produce most films, so I guess it is not surprising that most movies reflect male fantasies. But women have fantasies, too, and screaming while I wait to be saved is not one of mine.
“The poem is a roundel, a poetic form invented by Algernon Swinburne. As in a rondeau, the poem has only two rhymes, and the first part of the first line appears twice more. Part of the fun of writing it lies in finding ways to vary the repeating line, and part lies in the challenge of finding five rhyme words for each rhyme. English averages fewer rhymes per word than French, the language in which the rondeau originally appeared. Swinburne chose to make the roundel shorter than the rondeau (which is fifteen lines long) in order to make it easier to write in English.
” ‘No Thanks‘ originally appeared in Mezzo Cammin, an online journal that features female formalist poets. It was also included in my second poetry book, The Whetstone Misses the Knife.”

Susan McLean has two books of poetry, The Best Disguise and The Whetstone Misses the Knife, and one book of translations of Martial, Selected Epigrams. Her poems have appeared in Light, Lighten Up Online, Measure, Able Muse, and elsewhere. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa.
https://www.pw.org/content/susan_mclean

Painting: ‘Andromeda Chained to the Rocks‘ by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, ca. 1630

Susan McLean, ‘Out-of-Town Conference Texts’

He:      Met with a colleague for cocktails.  Last night is a blur.
            Having a wonderful time.  Wish you were her.

She:     I’ve been tidying up and arranging while you’ve been gone.
            When you want to retrieve your things, they’re out on the lawn.

*****

These two couplets by Susan McLean were recently published in The Asses of Parnassus; she comments: “I got the idea for this poem by misreading a line in a poem by Amit Majmudar.  It is not the first time I have gotten an idea for a line by misreading or mishearing something: aging has its unforeseen benefits.  The line was the standard phrase from postcards, “Wish you were here,” which I misread as “wish you were her.”  I immediately saw the comic potential of that phrase, and at first I thought of the exchange as written on postcards. But then I realized that conferences are often short, making sending a postcard impractical, and that no one tends to send postcards anymore.  So I reconceived the poem as texts–which also have to leave a lot unsaid because of their length.  I left open the question of whether “her” was an accidental typo or a deliberate choice.”

Susan McLean has two books of poetry, The Best Disguise and The Whetstone Misses the Knife, and one book of translations of Martial, Selected Epigrams. Her poems have appeared in Light, Lighten Up Online, Measure, Able Muse, and elsewhere. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa.
https://www.pw.org/content/susan_mclean

Photo: “Business Affairs” by edwicks_toybox is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Susan McLean, ‘My Evil Twin’

My evil twin is full of feminine
self-deprecation. Don’t be taken in
by her rapt nods and deference, which mask
her sly, satiric humor. While you bask
in her respect, she’ll turn away and grin.

You think you’ve won an argument? Her chin
is cocked. She’s packing nitroglycerin.
Why can’t she let the matter slide? Don’t ask
my evil twin.

One minute she’s as sweet as saccharin,
but then, like any snake, she sheds her skin.
If you suspect that it’s a hopeless task
to coax this genie back into her flask,
you’re right. But don’t be fooled: I’ve always been
my evil twin.

*****

Susan McLean writes: “I have always loved the French repeating forms for their songlike appeal. The villanelle is my favorite among them, and I have also written a fair number of triolets, but the rondeau is a form I have rarely tried. At fifteen lines long, with only two rhymes, it is extremely demanding to write, since in English most words have relatively few rhymes. That difficulty made for a fascinating challenge and some unusual rhymes. It’s hard to imagine another poem in which I would use both ‘nitroglycerin’ and ‘saccharin.’

Twins have a long history of featuring in comedies of mistaken identity, from Plautus to Shakespeare and onward, but the ‘evil twin’ is a relatively recent development, I think, with origins in Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde. Soap operas, comic books, and serial dramas are full of them. Yet in real life, most people behave differently at different times and with different people. Actors often prefer playing the villain to playing the hero; viewers love to watch characters who break taboos with impunity, a sort of vicarious release from the inhibitions of civilized life. So, is this poem a self-portrait? More a self-caricature, but caricatures are often more recognizable than photographs.

This poem was originally published in the online journal Umbrella, and it also appears in my second book, The Whetstone Misses the Knife.”

Susan McLean has two books of poetry, The Best Disguise and The Whetstone Misses the Knife, and one book of translations of Martial, Selected Epigrams. Her poems have appeared in Light, Lighten Up Online, Measure, Able Muse, and elsewhere. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa.
https://www.pw.org/content/susan_mclean

Photo: “(Be Gone) Evil Twin Gum” by found_drama is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Susan McLean, ‘Rules for Love’

Don’t wear make-up, ever. Don’t act girly.
Don’t collect shoes or shop until you drop.
If your hair is straight, don’t make it curly.
Don’t play dumb or play his games. Don’t stop
reading or saying what you think. Don’t flatter.
Don’t claim that you love football if you don’t.
Don’t sidestep. Don’t pretend it doesn’t matter
if he puts down your friends or if he won’t
do his fair share of housework. Do your best
to give your talents scope and free his own.
Grill steaks; eat chocolate. This is not a test.
If he won’t love you, you’ll do fine alone.
Sex is a bonus. Give as good as you get,
but make it clear you don’t intend to marry.
Love what you have, and what you don’t, forget.

These worked for me. (Your own results may vary.)

*****

Susan McLean writes: “This poem got its start in answer to a contest at the magazine The Spectator in the UK for a poem about “rules for love.” The words rules and love don’t normally go together, because love is something that often seems to break all the rules. Yet most people have their own mental set of requirements for love, which they will not easily set aside, as well as an internalized list of dos and don’ts that they think are the way to achieve love. I found it entertaining to try to pin down some of mine, knowing that each person will have a different list. How often women run into articles in women’s magazines that purport to tell them exactly how to find lasting love! This poem tries to be funny by saying the sorts of things that would never appear in those articles. It was not among the winners at The Spectator, but it was a lot of fun to write. Trying to pin down one’s own rules for love produces an indirect self-portrait. The poem first appeared in my second book, The Whetstone Misses the Knife.”

Susan McLean has two books of poetry, The Best Disguise and The Whetstone Misses the Knife, and one book of translations of Martial, Selected Epigrams. Her poems have appeared in Light, Lighten Up Online, Measure, Able Muse, and elsewhere. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa.
https://www.pw.org/content/susan_mclean

Photo: “love rules” by hmmlargeart is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Susan McLean, ‘Deep Cover’

Nakedness is the best disguise.
When you discard the final veil,
it always takes them by surprise.

Because men think that compromise
is weak—that if you yield, you fail—
nakedness is the best disguise.

Though you expose your breasts and thighs,
your mind is as opaque as shale.
It always takes them by surprise

to find out that the body lies.
Surrender can conceal betrayal.
Nakedness is best. Disguise,

equivocation, alibis
can be seen through. To lay a trail
that always takes them by surprise,

hide nothing and you’ll blind their eyes.
Go ask Judith. Go ask Jael.
Nakedness is the best disguise.
It always takes them by surprise.

Susan McLean writes: “When I think of which subjects have lasting appeal in poems, I think of the subjects that have never changed and never will, such as human nature, but also of the questions that have no definitive answers, such as the nature of truth.  This poem expresses several paradoxes: that overt shows of openness are the most successful ways to deceive someone; that everyone lies, so telling the truth is always surprising–and is often not believed; that no matter how much truth you tell, there is always much that you don’t say; that when there is a power difference between two people, surrendering can be a tool of resistance. 

“Another thing that I think gives a poem lasting appeal is the use of rhythm and sound to create a music with words.  Though we live in a time in which free verse is dominant and ubiquitous, I don’t think people will ever lose their innate love of the songlike in poetry, a quality that also makes poems easier to remember. One of the most songlike of poetic forms is the villanelle, and it has been one of my favorite forms for many years.  Though I know that many readers find the repeating lines in villanelles to be tedious, small variations in the lines, in their punctuation, and in the surrounding lines can enable the narrative to move forward without losing the appeal of a songlike refrain.” 

Susan McLean grew up in Oxon Hill, Maryland, attended Harvard University and Rutgers University, and taught English for thirty years at Southwest Minnesota State University. She has published two books of poetry, The Best Disguise (winner of the 2009 Richard Wilbur Award) and The Whetstone Misses the Knife (winner of the 2014 Donald Justice Poetry Prize), and one book of translations of the Latin poet Martial, Selected Epigrams. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa.

‘Deep Cover’ was originally published in Mezzo Cammin, a journal of modern formalist poetry by women. Susan McLean’s ‘Lessons From A Fool’ appears in the Potcake Chapbook Careers and Other Catastrophes.

https://www.pw.org/directory/writers/susan_mclean

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Susan McLean, ‘A Woman of a Certain Age’

I read more slowly now, because I read
between the lines.  The heroes of my youth,
who gave their lives for justice, art, or truth
(consumed with purpose, driven to succeed),
now seem like puppets pulled by strings of need,
while those who died unknown (except by those
they fed, taught, nursed through illness, mended clothes
and cared for) doled out grace unmixed with greed.

A quilt, a tablecloth she hand-crocheted,
some tips for making piecrust, kneading dough,
the memory of a gumdrop tree she made—
small things of use, of beauty, of delight
are what they leave when they have left our sight.
Don’t tell me what such gifts are worth.   I know.

Susan McLean writes: “This poem was inspired by reading that people read more slowly as they get older, because everything they read reminds them of something else. As I thought about that, I also thought about the people I would have called the ones I admired the most, and about the people I actually loved most and why I loved them. The former were mainly men, which made me realize that the lives of women (until recently) have often been invisible in the world and have left no written record. What they leave instead is the impact they have had on those around them, and little things they have said and done and made. My maternal grandmother and my mother are both unseen presences in this poem. My life has been very different from theirs, with opportunities they never had. But that does not mean that I value less what they did.”

Susan McLean grew up in Oxon Hill, Maryland, attended Harvard University and Rutgers University, and taught English for thirty years at Southwest Minnesota State University. She has published two books of poetry, The Best Disguise and The Whetstone Misses the Knife, and one book of translations of the Latin poet Martial, Selected Epigrams. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa.

https://www.pw.org/directory/writers/susan_mclean

Formal Launch: Potcake Chapbook 3 – Careers and Other Catastrophes

The launch of the third Potcake Chapbook brings us a passel of fresh Potcake Poets into the Sampson Low list, a couple of returning friends, and a slew of new art from Alban Low. Good news all round!

Careers! We’ve all had one or several of them, for better or worse. Marcus Bales and Daniel Galef review the frustrations of shopfloor sales and professions, while Annie Drysdale gives an exhilarating view of farmwork. From the newcomers (Gerry Cambridge, Martin Elster, Brian Gavin, Susan McLean, Rob Stuart, Tom Vaughan and Mindy Watson) we have everything from office workers and cafe proprietors to a madame ageing out of her profession and a hangman lamenting his obsolescence.

But really, there are no “newcomers” here. As always, the chapbook features poets who are very well-known as well as extremely skillful and experienced with formal verse.

And whether the writing of verse should be considered a career, or merely another catastrophe… well, that’s for future discussion.

Meanwhile, enjoy this for a couple of quid or have a copy mailed to someone who needs a fresh perspective on life.