An Interview with Susan Cunningham

On this week’s podcast, Dan sits down for a conversation with Susan Cunningham, a therapist, poet, and facilitator with The Allender Center. Dan and Susan reminisce about their deep friendship, which formed through years of working together leading Recovery Weeks—six-day workshops designed to help victims of sexual abuse explore the issues related to their recovery through individual work, group work, and lectures (the summer Women’s Recovery Week just concluded on Friday).

Susan shares how, as she and Dan have partnered in this intense, difficult work, Dan has always emphasized the importance of play. “The word play was always so difficult for me,” she says, “because I couldn’t figure out how I was going to play—until I realized that I play with words. So poetry has been, for me, this new, artistic way of playing with words.” For about five years now, Susan has been exploring the art of poetry and its ability to relate stories, ideas, and emotions that other media cannot.

“Poetry is full of metaphor, and I think metaphor is a way to help us understand the things we can’t understand. The Scriptures are full of poetry and metaphor—things that help us because they tell us what something is like. When you’re talking about the beautiful, it’s so vast, so deep, so much, and sometimes we can only get close to it when we compare it to something else. Poetry takes something that’s very concrete—like a vinyl seat, or a bus, or a raindrop—and asks us to use our senses to feel it, see it, touch it, and then takes us to a deeper place. And I think the beauty is in the discovery and the uncovering of things that are very hard to express directly.”

Dan invites Susan to share three poems throughout their conversation, each revealing the bits of heartache, beauty, and playfulness that emerge when we engage our stories and the stories of our culture. Poetry, for Susan, has been a way to approach the truth from a new angle, hoping to discover something that had eluded her before—like the great Emily Dickinson quote: “Tell the truth, and tell it slant.” Dan suggests that, because of the ability to address painful material through lyrical beauty, poetry is a glimpse at the interplay of death and resurrection—trauma and glory—that we find in Christ.

“Even people in my poetry workshops have said, ‘I relate to your poems because I have my own history, I have my own story, I have my own past abuse, I have my own way of being silenced or feeling oppressed. So it’s very particular, but it’s also very universal.”