In this episode, poet Suzannah Evans discusses James Tate’s ‘Making the Best of the Holidays’ and how reading this work influenced the writing of her own poem ‘A Course in Miracles’.
In the interview, Suzannah reflects on the use of form, tone, humour, and the notion of objectionable or challenging narrators as she unpicks James Tate’s piece ‘Making the Best of the Holidays’. She goes on to discuss her own work ‘A Course in Miracles’, in relation to ideas of faith, encountering different kinds of spiritual or transcendental experiences, and absorbing the sustenance that is on offer.
Suzannah Evans is the author of two collections of poetry, Near Future and Space Baby, both published by Nine Arches Press. Her first pamphlet Confusion Species was a winner in the 2012 Poetry Business Competition, and her second, Green, will be published by Little Betty Press next year. She lives in Sheffield and is a creative director of Sheaf Poetry Festival.
A Course in Miracles
I’ve been counting the fly agarics
on the library lawn and today
there are 31. At lunch the theology scholar
laughs because I’m wearing slippers.
I eat a baked avocado, which I’ve
never eaten before. I watch the yews
that brush the churchyard wall
while he pronounces the Greek Αποκάλυψic
and asks me what is being revealed
that might not be known otherwise.
The avocado has been cooked in its skin
with red onion and pepper. A visiting vicar
tells me Christians are unafraid because
they know they will be saved and asks
if I have a faith like that? I imagine myself
in the ruins of my house, fashioning
a fallout shelter from a blown-off door.
When John ate the scroll in Revelation
it tasted both bitter and sweet
and allowed him to speak prophesy, but
did he wash it down with anything?
The teacher of A Course in Miracles
says consuming food is not essential
but a human experience we’ve grown used to –
while polishing off the last forkfuls
of a tuna jacket. Every day
more toadstools rise out of the grass
like cartoon thought-bubbles.
I have been reading about the expanse
of their finely rigged root systems
and how they communicate with trees.
If I have faith in anything it’s the plants.
When the time comes they’ll eat me inside out.
Making the Best of the Holidays by James Tate (Harper Collins, 2004)
Justine called on Christmas Day to say she
was thinking of killing herself. I said, ‘We’re
in the middle of opening presents, Justine. Could
you possibly call back later, that is, if you’re
still alive.’ She was furious with me and called
me all sorts of names which I refuse to dignify
by repeating them. I hung up on her and returned
to the joyful task of opening presents. Everyone
seemed delighted with what they got, and that
definitely included me. I placed a few more logs
on the fire, and then the phone range again. This
time it was Hugh and he had just taken all of his
pills and washed them down with a quart of gin.
‘Sleep it off, Hugh,’ I said, ‘I can barely under-
stand you, you’re slurring so badly. Call me
tomorrow, Hugh, and Merry Christmas.’ The roast
in the oven smelled delicious. The kids were playing
with their new toys. Loni was giving me a big
Christmas kiss when the phone rang again. It was
Debbie. ‘I hate you,’ she said. ‘You’re the most
disgusting human being on the planet.’ ‘You’re
absolutely right,’ I said, ‘and I’ve always been
aware of this. Nonetheless, Merry Christmas, Debbie.’
Halfway through dinner the phone rang again, but
this time Loni answered it. When she came back
to the table she looked pale. ‘Who was it?’ I
asked. ‘It was my mother,’ she said. ‘And what
did she say?’ I asked. ‘She said she wasn’t my
mother,’ she said.
Various other books are mentioned in the podcast. I'll highlight some of them here in the order that they were mentioned:
Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times, edited by Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney (Faber, 2004)
Rookie: Selected Poems, by Caroline Bird (Carcanet, 2022)
There are many Tony Hoagland books out there. His last was: Turn up the Ocean (Bloodaxe, 2022)
The World Doesn't End, by Charles Simic (Ecco, 1989)
The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers (Canongate, 2012)