“The Daughter of Man: A Conversation with L.J. Sysko and a Portfolio of Poetry” — curated by Kristina Marie Darling

L.J. Sysko is the author of THE DAUGHTER OF MAN (April ’23, University of Arkansas Press), selected for the Miller Williams Poetry Series by Patricia Smith, and BATTLEDORE (Finishing Line Press), a chapbook about early motherhood. Sysko’s poems have been anthologized in BEST NEW POETS and LET ME SAY THIS: A Dolly Parton Poetry Anthology (Madville Publishing) and have appeared in publications such as Ploughshares, The Missouri Review’s “Poem of the Week, and Mississippi Review, among others. An MFA in poetry from New England College, a Virginia Center for Creative Arts Fellow, and a 2022 Palm Beach Poetry Festival Thomas Lux Scholar, Sysko is Director of Executive Communications at Delaware State University. You can learn more about her online at ljsysko.com.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Your debut collection, The Daughter of Man, will soon launch from The University of Arkansas Press.  What three questions would you like readers to ask as they delve into the work itself?

L.J. Sysko: The first is: who is the woman on the cover? She’s a feminist retort to Rene Magritte’s famous self-portrait called The Son of Man: the one of the guy wearing a gray suit and bowler hat with a green apple obscuring his face. I accepted Magritte’s premise—the essential critique of society’s homogenization of man—and said, well, if that’s a portrait of masculine experience in post-industrial Western culture, the feminine contends with the sclerotic force of patriarchy to boot.

The extant heroine’s journey is laughably scant, owing to a caricaturized, centuries old fairy tale schema. To be fair, Joseph Campbell’s work renders the masculine as conquering hero, which, unto itself, is a narrow construction of maleness largely divorced from contemporary verisimilitude. Nonetheless, consider the contrast: the hero departs for his road of trials to enact violence upon some distant Other before returning home traumatized and overqualified while the heroine goes no place. She remains hearthside, cribside, and homebound—paying the price for “peace” with a domestic yoke. Nowhere does the heroine’s monomyth account for the “wars” she wages to keep the domestic sphere functional, which is actually tougher to do—to correct structural errors while dwelling within that structure, adjusting for injustice while leading those systems ... all while living there amongst/with/surrounded by the “vanquished.”

See how the fundamental notion of “enemy” doesn’t even wash in her world? The parameters for storytelling are different, the lexicon unique. There’s no road of trials, no thresholds to cross, few mentors, and the warrior’s boon isn’t something she can hoist high in slo-mo unless we count her own sanity.

Once I let go of my book’s initial organizing principle in which I had it sectioned according to genres of western art—nudes, self-portraits, animals, histories, landscapes, etc.—and embraced the idea of a pseudo-temporal treatment of “the daughter” as she aged, I felt compelled to solve for the Queen to Crone gap.

The heroine speeds straight from Queen to Crone with no in-between! Think of the Queen serving as de facto leader—finally, finally a chance, when the King’s away/dead/crazy—then being told when she wonders, “What’s next?” that the natural thing is of course ... retirement to kingdom’s edge. This absurd gap derives from a patriarchal failure to apprehend womanly value as separate from fecundity as well as a deep and abiding mistrust of feminine talent, wisdom, or achievement, even if all of those could tally to society’s benefit. In other words, maidens come of age, there’s a meet-cute with a man-prince, fertile fields are harvested, and then she becomes—despite the metaphorical medicine she could administer—a muttering pariah. Thus, the Maven. I didn’t set out to prescribe anything to anybody, but, well, I found the elixir along the way, and so ... open wide.

Why characterize the titular character relationally—as “daughter”? Much of “the daughter’s” external conflict derives from advice heard—repeated exhortations to be smaller, imprecations to conform, and reinforcements by sexual and/or violent means. Her predictable protests are seen as justifications for her chains. Then there’s the kicker of undue and paradoxical pressure placed on her by other women, manifesting in internalized misogyny. The Bechdel Test could add this question: does the story cycle from mother to male to mother with a defining incident of repressive violence at a crucial developmental stage? If yes, then we’ve got an accurately represented 21st c. woman.

I could not believe it when I read about the painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Her rape by a teacher—facilitated by a female servant in her own household—and the subsequent trial during which she and her virginity (as proxy for her character) were more concertedly put on trial than either her rapist or his character. (Remarkably, the suit was brought by Gentileschi’s father to force the rapist to marry Artemisia.) Some of the tale is shockingly familiar, even at this remove centuries later. I think of Christine Blasey Ford. Hell, I think of every woman I know.

As I un-erased, I found that, in each composition, teachers appeared—as silence, as conformity, as violence—to guide her. Like Dickinson’s carriage driver, they do her a gallant favor by showing up to court her/legislate her development/abridge her free will. Mini deaths abound (I delightedly accept responsibility for the pun on orgasm).

What’s with the gum? This album cover is for all of us refugees from the ‘80s. (Gen Xers, and maybe all Americans, will recognize that hubristic pose of ferocity that actually bespeaks a certain egoistic fragility). If Madonna and Magritte had a baby, here she is. Or, Warhol’s Marilyn meets Munch’s screamer. Her gum is like a tragicomic binky—a self-imposed bit of self-flagellating frippery ... a stylized muzzle bordering on the grotesque ... a satirical capitulation to those who’d prefer she leaven her confrontational pose with some comfortingly pink superciliousness. One of the book’s first poems was “Self-Portrait with Bubble Gum,” which is a Pop Art-inspired treatment of the middle class, mid-Atlantic “girl-monster.” But, every poem in the book is a mythic etiology of one womanly stripe/archetype or another.

The cover was painted by a wonderful artist named Chloe McEldowney from a photograph of me—not always part of the plan, but I was the most accessible and economical model, it turns out. Does “the daughter’s” countenance, especially the look in her eyes, strike you as aggrieved or empowered? Fierce or fearful? My wish is for both predatory and hunted. Like a Rorschach Test: is she arising heroically out of a roiling Atlantic or drowning in it?; is she goddess transcendent or mortal unremarkable?; you choose your own adventure.

KMD:  I’m fascinated by the way you use experimental forms as a vehicle for feminist social commentary.  With that in mind, what is the relationship between social justice and innovation in language for you as a writer?

LJS: If we look at Gregory Orr’s Temperaments, which are like the Myers-Briggs of poetry personality, I am an I-S-M-S (Imagination-Story-Music-Structure). (Or, I thought so, but this question’s making me think.). Whatever experiments in form happened in The Daughter of Man occurred because I was using structure to temper and mold my associative inclination.

In fact, I thought of my process as making “poem-paintings.” Can you tell? I’m laughing; it’s a little like that scene from The Birdcage when Robin Williams’ character coaches the dancer to “Martha Graham-Martha Graham-Michael Kidd-Michael Kidd” in his head rather than attempt actual enactment of those influences. So, yeah, I asked myself whether and to what degree a poem could achieve visual arts’ effects. Rothko, Pollock, Duchamp, Hopper, Hockney, Johns, Sherman, Lichtenstein, Singer Sargent, Walker, Wyeth, Warhol, Modersohn-Becker, Matisse, and Gentileschi all made their way into the book whether you collect they’re there or not. I’ve gotten it off my chest now, so I can cease muttering, “Cindy Sherman-Cindy Sherman-Jasper Johns-Jasper Johns.”

My preoccupations were with stuff like vanishing point, foreshortening, focal points, brush technique, canvas size, color ... and how these corresponded to figurative/stanzaic shape and arrangement, poetic line as optical and aural unit (American sentences vs. fractal caesurae vs. prose, couplets indented or outdented...), point of view, grammar, dialogue, tone, antithesis, and on and on.

I found a lot of delightful attentional correspondences. For example: yes, a poem can create surprise by establishing phanopoeiac expectation (playing a little rope-a-dope with melopoeia, too) then subverting it with a splash (“Pool”), and actually a poem can achieve the surprise perhaps better than a painting, which is stark naked there on the wall, apprehensible in toto whereas a poem is more a temporal thing, strip-teasing ordinally (at least the first time). How can a poem create vanishing point? One way’s to use a jarring instance of logopoeia to create cognitive depth (think Dickinson’s relatively accessible image of a snake as “a narrow fellow in the grass” juxtaposed with the sublime pov vortex of “zero at the bone”). This one achieves a cinematic effect, too, akin to Hitchcock’s dolly zoom, but I digress.

In “Trompe L’Oeil,” the poem pretends to be a thank you to an old teacher, but its “classroom management” countdown in the final lines suggests something wholly else—that third/middle finger reveals the joke. I used a stanzaic “countoff” form in “The Daughter of Man” triptych—1-2-3 threatened in perpetuity as though patriarchy’s always headed to the naughty corner but never gets there. Prose poems are action paintings with all their imagistic excess and modifier slippage; these feel like the rush and torrent of history. But that same sense of the ungovernable is applied in grammar-less forms with negative space and suspension of syntactical order providing the tension. In that case, the fat medial pause I call a “fractal caesura” is less likely to feel like a respite than a fraught and stylized limb on which to pant, viewing the terrain/prey/Anthropocene horror below. I tried for Minimalism and failed (“General Accident” began as an exercise in the minimal, I admit). Gregory Orr says some poets need to seek the solace of structure; I may be one.

KMD:  I’m struck by the way your poems use style and technique to make compelling claims about philosophy and culture.  What advice do you have for poets who struggle to create a meaningful relationship between innovative forms and the story they’re trying to tell? 

LJS: Pugnacious as it seems on the cover, the book is actually humbly mulling this question: how does one woman—swimming within the endemic circumstances set forth by patriarchy—create a good life? Are there workable philosophical paradigms to help her accommodate external pressure or internal recrimination, or to discern the difference? I tried on Hedonism since pleasure is a forceful if ephemeral boon that can face us future-forward. (This was all a theoretical dream as I got sucked into the couch of Covid quarantine.) But, “nothing gold can stay,” so what about a little Spinoza or Heraclites or Stoicism? Existentialism (obviously) and a bit of Buddhism; the Bible does make its way in here fleetingly. In fact, it’s all rather offhand and I don’t want to make any grand claims since the book refuses to do so, and I definitely wouldn’t offer anybody advice. Good gracious. As Patricia Smith said to me on the phone when I (gulp!) asked her if I could retain the manuscript reorganization I’d undertaken literally the day before she called to accept it, “I would never tell another artist what to do with their work...”

I can tell other poets this: a springboard conceit is indeed helpful until it turns into a stymying contrivance ... let another, better conceit appear. I can say to other poets that I sustained this project with a moratorium on first person pov poems until I had to break my own tablets and succumb. I can offer that steadfastly focusing on the It of the project rather than on the Who of you as a writer is the best way to minimize grandiosity—wasted effort swinging from worthlesness (“Why would I presume to write actual words on a page thinking anybody anywhere would want to read them ever?”) to arrogance (“I am the unheralded genius of this and every household.”). It’s not about you. It’s about “poem-paintings,” so report to the studio of your mind and muck around with your palette. Ask “what if?” until “aha!” takes over for a while. Repeat. Try the American Sentence, try prose poems, try taking all the grammar out of a poem then putting it back in, try letting your voice rip, try ruthlessly constraining it, give in to the music to the point of absurdity, let the image win. Grind an ax or ax a grind. Let us together acknowledge that people who say they won’t give advice and then do are assholes.

KMD:  In The Daughter of Man, shifts in form frequently become content, especially when considering how form unfolds over the arc of the collection.  Can you tell us about your experience sequencing the poems in this manuscript? 

LJS: In a book that establishes humor as a prevailing timbre, there are moments at which comedy and tragedy elide in such a way that it’s really a reader decision. I think everything ended up that way—form, too. If you think a poem is accessible and orderly, is it? If you think a poem is awash in accretion, maybe it’s actually rather ascetic. Assailed by the existential freedom of grammarlessness? Get over yourself. What “the daughter” knows (“I remember, I remember”) is the answer’s always “both.”

In the beginning... there was... dogged resistance to temporal arrangement of my manuscript. It felt too easy and disingenuously memoir-y to move from girl to old lady. But the poems had burst past the confines of art genres and into more complex and self-conscious territory vis-à-vis story’s identity-making power. I realized, too, that the book needed the unifying force of character archetype to lend coherence.

Anyway, I resisted for months—maybe almost a year. The breakthrough came when I named the stage between Queen and Crone. The day “Maven” came to me, I knew I had to give this schema a shot.

It was exciting, even drawing forth new work in the offing. I loaded the first section, “The Maiden” with more accessible, narrative, single focal point compositions (though bifurcation already begins to assert a tug here) then moved to more faceted (no longer Manichean), fragmented trials in subsequent sections. And the dreaded temporal order of “the daughter’s” life span is roughed up, owing to the nasty kick memory and myth can assert on identity. And so it’s less linear than cyclical. Maybe almost symmetrical, like book-matched halves.

As far as its essential bookness goes, many callbacks and obsessive echoes announced themselves more clearly in this arrangement, too. For example, the final poem “Girl Icarus” is the counterpoint to “Plinko” (and “Date Rape”) in that the olive pit “O” presented here is a positive invocation to the self (rather than a negative space 0) and the form falls haphazardly according to chance; it’s arranged in couplets (wings), returning us to some semblance of coherence with some elements centered rather than pushed to the margin.

“The daughter” bounces from underworld to Olympus, from grocery to garage. She’s a subsistence feminist, farming her own narrow suburban parcel, pressing bloody hands together in prayerful thanks for the roughest rock in her plot so that she can sit a while. She’s lucky and unlucky; she’s aging yet forever stuck back where the damage first struck. If there are conclusive claims made by my book about the most serviceable philosophical or psychological framework to guide Woman’s life, let me know. To my eye, there are many viable constructs and exactly none. Isn’t it tragic? Isn’t it funny?

KMD:  Will you share a writing prompt with us? 

LJS: If you stand in the front window of Philadelphia Museum of Art looking out over the Rocky steps and toward City Hall, you’ll be within view of three generations of Calders.

Alexander Calder’s “Ghost” (1964) hangs from the ceiling right behind you. It is an evocative mobile. I see dinosaur bones, but what do you see?

At the base of the Rocky steps is Swann Fountain (1924) designed by Alexander Stirling Calder (the father), and the statue of William Penn that sits atop City Hall was sculpted by Alexander Milne Calder (grandfather) in 1894.

In an era when “nepo babies” are in the news, and societal structures in support of such inheritances are suspect at minimum and sources of deep resentment at most, consider this particular lineage or one like it. How can it happen? What would life within such a family have been/be like? What would their Netflix series be like—comic or tragic? Why do you think that?

Ok, put that aside for a moment.

Now, take your life’s most embarrassing moment. Write it out as a maximal story in ten minutes. Locate your pain, your shame. Tell the story. Relish in dumping the details. Go.

Next, consider the advice you would give to a subsequent generation about this shameful episode, designing that advice to be technically instructive so as to transfer your knowledge. Your choice is to advise the child against such transgression, or you can take the ironic path and advise the child on how to absolutely mimic the nightmare. The trick is: reduce your story down to advice and image only. Shop from among what you’ve already written if you like—underline, box, highlight what you want—and translate it into advice form. Be frank, honest, and helpful. Ten minutes.

Step three: Consider that one of the genetic impetuses mammals feel is toward cooperation, and nowhere is that more evident than within a functional family unit. The role of parents is to guide, instruct, prepare, and support. That said, humans also compete, and sometimes nowhere is that more evident than within a family. So, going back to your initial thoughts about the Calder lineage—regardless of whatever they were—place yourself in the supportive, benevolent, and sage role of helpful ancestor ... to yourself. Reduce the monumental effigy of your shame (William Penn several stories high) to a classically balanced fountain where people can gather and chat or children can romp and splash. Then, if you like, keep going until you have nothing but a spare ghost of the original wound dangling fetchingly in gentle air currents.

In other words, in ten minutes: reduce, alter, combine. Add story to advice. Or don’t. How far can you make your shame fly?

KMD: What’s next?  What can readers look forward to? 

LJS: Two projects—one a further feminist exploration, tentatively called Cul-de-Sac Vexicon, and another  research-based project on Levittown.

For those who don’t know, Levittown was the original post-WWII, prefabricated suburban housing development, as designed by Bill Levitt, a New Yorker of Jewish ancestry. The men in my dad’s family, including his uncles and father, were friends with Bill Levitt and worked with/for him as laborers. One summer, my dad actually severed the top of one of his thumbs feeding flashing into a cutting machine. (He loves to hold it up and show people at parties.)

I was raised in a town called Yardley, PA, but my dad was raised in nearby Levittown, PA after having moved south from the original Levittown in NY. He drove me past his old house once or twice. It doesn’t strike one as monumental now, but Levittown is a very specific 20th c. American built environment predicated on post-war notions of social mobility, material culture, and the good life. Its significance in American cultural history is hugely complicated as is Bill Levitt’s role as an entrepreneur. Levitt’s racist exclusion of Black buyers culminated in a 1957 incident of protest during which a white family purchased a home for a Black family in secret. I knew nothing about this conflagration until I began research recently. But Levittown is a crucible, and I’m interested in seeing if I can materialize it in poems.