Susan Lembo Balik’s first book of poetry, Sinatra, the Jeeperettes & me, was published in July by Garden Oak Press. She is Associate Director of Cultural Affairs at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ (home to the Poetry Center). She has a master degree in journalism from New York University, and has worked as a newspaper feature writer and columnist. Her poems have appeared in The Paterson Literary Review, Lips, Paddlefish, Tiferet, and other literary journals.
Geosi Gyasi: Can we start from your education in Journalism? You obtained your MA in Journalism from New York University. Did you know at the time of your study that you would one day become a poet?
Susan Balik: No, I thought I’d get a job at a magazine, since that was my focus in graduate school. Poetry was in my distant past (age 7 through 17). Then, in 2006 or 2007, I was working at a newspaper and I interviewed Maria Mazziotti Gillan for an article on the Dodge Poetry Festival. During the interview, she invited me to one of her poetry workshops in Mendham, NJ. It took me a year before I had the courage to attend. But once I started writing I was hooked on poetry. Maria is now my boss and my mentor, and I tell her often that she gave me an incredible gift.
Geosi Gyasi: What is journalism, if I may ask?
Susan Balik: Mostly, it is writing about events and issues or profiling people for newspapers, magazines or online media. It can take the form of hard or soft news (also known as features) or editorials.
Geosi Gyasi: Your first book of poetry, “Sinatra, the Jeeperettes & Me,” was published by Garden Oak Press. How did you manage to secure a publisher?
Susan Balik: I am grateful that I found my publisher. He turned out to be perfect for me, because he “got” my work. He grew up in the Riverside section of Paterson like my dad, who is the subject of many of my poems. Turned out I also knew his aunt but we didn’t discover this until my book was close to being published. It’s been an amazing journey.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your book, “Sinatra, the Jeeperettes & Me,”?
Susan Balik: When I started writing I never thought I’d have a book. I just kept writing and after five or six years I had more than enough poems. Maria wouldn’t let me rest until I put together a manuscript. I am grateful that she pushed me. My mom died four years ago, but my dad is still alive, and it has been wonderful to share this with him. After reading the forward Maria wrote for my book, he said he felt like a celebrity.
Geosi Gyasi: What does it take to work as a newspaper writer and columnist?
Susan Balik: A degree in journalism is a good start. Also, I think it helps if you enjoy writing, doing research and talking to people (as interviews are a big part of it). As a columnist, you need to be passionate about particular subjects and have an opinion; usually you find a niche. When I did my column I focused on holistic nutrition, environmental concerns, outdoor family activities and various parenting topics. My children were young and informed a lot of what I wrote.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the major difference between a newspaper writer and a creative writer or poet?
Susan Balik: While a poet often writes about places, people or things that are real, he or she will do so creatively and more succinctly than a news story. Poems are generally not that long so every word counts. In poetry, imagery and metaphor are also important. Observation is one thing that overlaps for me in poetry and journalism. I often use that skill I honed as a journalist in my narrative poetry.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a favorite poem in your book, “”Sinatra, the Jeeperettes & Me,”?
Susan Balik: The last poem in the book, “What Is It I Love When I Love You?” I’ve written lots of poems to my husband but nothing I’d necessarily want to publish. I wrote this poem in one of Maria’s Mendham workshops and I love it because it’s not sappy or sentimental. I think love poems are hard to write for that reason.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you ever get rejections?
Susan Balik: Yes, often. It is part of being a writer. The important thing is not to let it stop you from writing or from sending your work out.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you do poetry readings?
Susan Balik: Since the book has come out I’ve been invited to be a featured reader at a handful of local venues. Coming up on St. Patrick’s Day, I have one at the Carriage House in Fanwood and another at the Sidewalk Café in NYC on June 13th. That’s part of the Italian American Writers Association poetry series.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you do as an Associate Director of Cultural Affairs at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, New Jersey?
Susan Balik: I pretty much split my time between working on Poetry Center programming and managing the Passaic County Cultural & Heritage Council (PCCHC). The PCCHC re-grants funds from the NJ State Council on the Arts and the NJ Historical Commission to about 40 to 50 Passaic County non-profits to use for local arts and history programming. I love my job because I am always doing something different and I work with kind, creative people.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the most difficult poem you’ve ever written?
Susan Balik: “Love Poem to My Father”. It took me about five years to get up the courage to write that poem. I tried to dance around the issue a few times but nothing good came out of it. Then, I took one of Maria’s workshops and the poem just tumbled out of me in about 15 minutes. I might have changed a word or two, but otherwise no other editing. That’s unusual for me.
Geosi Gyasi: Who are your literary forebears?
Susan Balik: If you mean who inspires me, it would be poets like Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Joe Weil, Richard Blanco, and Marie Howe, just to name a few.
Geosi Gyasi: Which books do you often read?
Susan Balik: Usually, I read a mix of fiction and poetry, though I also like biographies and other non-fiction, particularly if it’s well-written or if it reads like a novel. Recently, I’ve read Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and Unbroken and Seabiscut by Laura Hillenbrand. Now, I’m reading a murder mystery by Carol Goodman. In between, I’ll often pick up contemporary poetry, both books and journals.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you hope to achieve with your writing?
Susan Balik: To get more brave in my poetry and to finish this novel I’ve been working on for what seems like forever. I plan to keep writing regardless of whether or not I get another book published. For me, getting published is a plus but not a goal. I think when you’re writing, if you focus on getting published, it changes what you write.
Geosi Gyasi: Are there times you feel like not writing?
Susan Balik: Yes, but not because I get writer’s block. I usually have the opposite problem—too many ideas or observations. But sometimes if a subject is too emotional, I may not be able to write about it for a long time.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you think of the future of poetry?
Susan Balik: I love writing, reading or listening to narrative poetry, especially when it is honest and brave or simply makes me feel something. I think sometimes poetry can be esoteric or academic or flat and I don’t see the point in that. So, I hope the future of poetry is more in the heart than in the head.
Geosi Gyasi: What things are likely to be found on your writing desk?
Susan Balik: I live in Hawthorne on the upper floors of the two-story house I grew up in, and my dad lives downstairs. I live there with my husband and my daughter (my son is away at college) and my dogs. There’s not a lot of room for a desk, so I write usually sitting on a stool at my kitchen island or in a big comfy chair on my sun porch or on my bed. There is no room for anything except my laptop and some notebooks, where I’ve jotted down snippets of stories and ideas for poems.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you engage in any ritual before you write?
Susan Balik: No rituals.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the best time to write?
Susan Balik: My creativity is best in the early morning, but I can pretty much write anytime except for late at night.
Geosi Gyasi: What has been the reception of your book, “Sinatra, the Jeeperettes & Me,”?
Susan Balik: I love when people write to me and say they connected with one of my poems or a particular image from a poem. That is the neatest thing about writing poetry—sharing stories and starting a conversation.