Sue Landers at PLAYA Summer Lake Artist Residency

Sue Landers finds inspiration for writing about New York City in the desert landscape at PLAYA Summer Lake, an artist residency in south-central Oregon.

Excerpted from conversation with other artists in residence at PLAYA: Renee Couture, Rachel Zollinger, Donna Henderson.

PLAYA at Summer Lake is a spectacularly beautiful place, in the high desert with a dry lake bed, where the light and color of the landscape change every hour and every day. Looking out into the scenery feels like a hallucination, like my brain is being rewritten after so many years of staring into the concrete, glass, and steel of cities.

It might seem unlikely that such a place could inspire poems about New York City and the subway (my current project), but the subtleties in its color palette, and the blurry lines between land and lake and sky, mirror certain characteristics of my work. Many of the pieces I am working on now occupy that liminal space between poetry and prose and are concerned with personal transformation and political change.

And since I am writing a book about mass transit and moving through space and never being in one place, but many, at all moments, I’m more than a little obsessed with all things “transitional” right now. And it turns out that a dry lake bed, a playa, in winter, is just that. Each day the wind shifts the lake’s shallow layer of water away from the shore or back. It can be difficult to even see where the water begins as you approach it. There is no clear line between clay beach to mud bank and water.


For the first few weeks here, I was afraid to go in to the water because I thought I’d get stuck. But the other day I just kept walking. One step I was in mud, the next in water. So, I splashed around in a few inches of water for a bit and then stopped to take a selfie. But standing still caused me to sink into the mud and in trying to get unstuck I tipped over and fell in. I fell into a physical manifestation of a transitional state. But I was solid. Solid in the silt and the shift. It was terrific. And this is an experience I suspect I will draw from over and over again as I work through writing this book.

Sculpture shown here is Black Rock Diamond by Rebecca Davis and Roger Asay (2014)

This summer I was reading George Stanley’s book Vancouver, which details his travels through Vancouver on the bus and by foot. I had just started a similar project in New York where I have been riding every subway end-to-end, walking around the neighborhoods at each terminal, and using the city as my studio to create a book that reflects New York at this precise moment in time. (Though, exactly what time it is, I’m not sure—late capitalism? Peak oil? Middle age?)

Writing a project of such scope can be overwhelming at times, so over the past few weeks of working on this project at the PLAYA Artist Residency I’ve taken great comfort in this quote:
Photo credit: Sue Landers
I hung the quote over my desk as a reminder that the long poem, or any big project, or even a giant metropolis, is something to explore and wander. And in that meandering, new connections, insights, etc. can emerge and will be even more likely to emerge if I remain open, associative, curious—and careless.  

Rockaway Beach, Queens

I have been taking a lot of photos around New York for the past six months and am starting to notice a trend. I keep taking shots of lines moving towards focal points. I think I am obsessed with perspective, with looking at different angles that move towards (making) a point. And this shot I particularly love because it both veers towards and away from a single focal point, which mirrors the kind of complexity I hope my poems can achieve.

Rachel Zollinger told me this image provides no immediately discernible scale, which I hadn’t realized, but is super interesting since I also like to move in and out of micro and macro level detail in my work.

Because We Need Each Other

F train to Coney Island
Take care of each other, New Yorkers

saxophonists and contractors

mailmen and temps

coders and poets and moms

the looking the not looking

on your way there and back

take care.

Look up strangers and neighbors

renters the all set the unhoused

the booted at the turnstile

the bodega and the beach

let them out first

move aside

it's time.

It's showtime dreamers

charmers and smiths

hummers and fairies

the twisted the whistlers

the swift.

Gazunheit witches and cynics

empaths and cranks

sad sacks and hagglers

Cassandra, here,

take my seat.

Hold the door, drunks,

for nanas, pharmacists,

and other haulers of stuff,

the sweaty, the petty, the sick,

the folks with no fucks left to give

what you came in with is enough

spare some change.

Follow the signs

archivists and librarians,

mapmakers, the rats.

Take care of me, New York

My hand is out to catch or break

one or both

of our falls.
                       —Sue Landers

Sue Landers is the author of two books of poetry, 248 mgs., a panic picnic and Covers, and the multi-genre collection Franklinstein. She has an MFA from George Mason University, and recent residences include Saltonstall and PLAYA. Her current project explores New York City and its subway system. Visit


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