Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: Susan Terris: ‘Memo Poems’

This week’s feature comes from a chapbook called Memos written by Susan Terris, who invented the form you see in the three poems below. Terris’s “memo poems” are an example of a “nonce” or made up form—here unrhymed and unmetered couplets with no capitalization and no punctuation. Although the poems below each have three couplets, the book includes poems with as few as two and as many as six couplets.

“Memo to the Girl with the Port Wine Stain Across Her Face” was the first of about 50 memo poems that Terris wrote and then drew from to create her book, 39 poems written “to” a wide variety of subjects: Terris’s house plants, the NRA, the cat who persists in presenting Terris with half-dead birds, a deadbeat dad, the miners of West Virginia, the editor who repeatedly rejects Terris’s work, the man who thinks it’s funny when Terris talks about sports, a family lake house in Minnesota, Terris’s sister-in-law on the day before she dies, plus many Memos to Self. According to Terris, the apparent informality of the poems is “deceptive” and produced work that was, for her “uncharacteristically raw and intimate.”

It may seem paradoxical that form can allow access to deeper feelings or wells of the imagination, but I had this experience when I wrote for about two years almost exclusively in the sonnet form. Perhaps concentrating on form allays anxiety about the blank page and “tricks” the writer into forgetting they are trying to think of something to write. Or perhaps focusing on formal constraints allows a poet to unhook the carabiner of rational thought and go into creative freefall; that is, to think in ways other (and more imaginative) than critically or logically. Whatever the reason, many poets have noticed what some call “freedom in chains” when writing in fixed form, and some, like Wordsworth in his famous sonnet called “Nuns Fret Not,” have even written about that freedom in a poem. I enjoyed reading the poems below and the others in Terris’s Memos for much the same reason she enjoyed writing them: they seemed “easy” to read, but then they surprised me with their depth and range of emotion.

 —Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor


Memo to the Girl with the Port-Wine Stain Across Her Face

a teenager   you’re standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial
place which declares all created equal   and your friends

are photographing you   not profile so only the unblemished
shows   but full face and smiling   audacious even

your parents   I’d like to know them   people who love
a girl with dreams of her own   girl   who lives unmarked



Memo to the Woman Who Thinks You Can’t Be Too Rich or Too Thin

the coda you added to rich and thin was white blouses  
one could never have too many   you said   then

the daughter who tried to starve herself into submission  
changed my mind about thin   and old ladies   I’ve noticed    

come either too thin or too fat   one a-penny two a-penny    
money its own story   coins for the ferryman may be required

but happy has no price tag   and thin is better for watches
or pancakes   though you may be right about white blouses



Memo to My Twin Polar Star

yes   we explore dark matter   and dark loins
which Lawrence found so compelling   or consider

Marvell’s wingéd chariot   but space is empty  
pathetic fallacies abound   poetry only

muddles the issues   how many light years
when there is not world enough   love   or time



From Memos (Omnidawn 2015), and reprinted with permission of the press. “Memo to the Girl with the Port-Wine Stain Across Her Face” was first published in California Quarterly, “Memo to the Woman Who Thinks You Can’t Be Too Rich or Too Thin” was first published in Talking/Writing.


Terris_5-3-15Susan Terris’ recent books include GHOST OF YESTERDAY, New & Selected Poems (Marsh Hawk Press, 2013) and Memos (Omnidawn, 2015). She is the author of six books of poetry, fourteen chapbooks, and three artists’ books. Journal publications include: The Southern Review, FIELD, Denver Quarterly, and Ploughshares. A poem from FIELD was in PUSHCART PRIZE XXXI, and a poem from MEMOS (“Memo to the Former Child Prodigy”) was selected by Sherman Alexie for Best American Poetry 2015. Ms. Terris is editor of Spillway Magazine.

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  • USA UK BIGGEST NEWS SITE August 23, 2015 at 10:34 am

    You could certainly see your skills in the
    work you write. The arena hopes for more passionate writers such as you who aren’t afraid to mention how they believe.
    At all times follow your heart.

  • Laurie Petersen August 5, 2015 at 7:59 am

    Interesting piece and interesting poems. On a personal note, I have always wanted to contact Susan T. as a way of finding her daughter-in-law, whose husband taught at Brandeis, to apologize for being rude in conversation in Chester, Vermont in 1997. I know it seems that the statute of limitations should have passed on this by 1998, but it still bothers me. (Yes. I realize I should get a life.)

  • Therese Halscheid August 3, 2015 at 11:26 am

    The Poetry Sunday reviews are wonderful, and the memo poems are amazing. Thanks for sharing Susan Terris’ poems this week.