Poet Susan Rich (Niger 1984-86) Talks Poetry
The Writer’s Block: Living a Writer’s Life
As I’m sure you all know, it’s National Poetry Month, and I was happy to catch up with a very busy Susan Rich to ask her about her newly released book, The Alchemist’s Kitchen (White Pine 2010). Also the author of Cures Include Travel and The Cartographer’s Tongue ~ Poems of the World, Susan has received awards from PEN USA, The Times Literary Supplement, and Peace Corps Writers. Recent poems have appeared in the Antioch Review, Harvard Review, Poetry International and TriQuarterly.
Q: In The Alchemist’s Kitchen, you write about many topics, among them love and loss, journeys and transformation – when did this collection begin to come together for you?
A: Putting together a collection is such a strange process — an alchemy of a sort — if you will accept my pun. I find it a really difficult thing to do. In some sense, the book came together for me last summer when I met the photographer, Philipp Schumacher, whose art work is on the cover. The mixture of the surreal and the film noir helped me to re-order the poems and to write a few more that needed to be in the book for a more organic, unified whole.
Q: Your collection includes poems of Bosnia, Somalia, and Alki Beach. How do you balance poems of global concern with a more domestic world?
A: Good question. I’ve been thinking about global citizenship a great deal lately. Does the poet have an added responsibility to write from an extended outlook? This question was hotly debated in South Africa in the 1980s. Many poets and writers went to prison for the words they wrote against the Apartheid regime. Poets like Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca who were active in protesting their governments fascist regimes also come to mind. Closer to home, I think of Sam Hamill refusing Laura Bush’s invitation to attend a tea party at the White House. Instead, he started a national movement of Poets Against the War. In my poetry, I want the global and local ideas to intermingle. A friend of mine who has never traveled outside the United States once told me that my poems about the Tuareg of Niger seemed as accessible to her as a plate of scrambled eggs. Since I have lived in several corners of the world, I don’t believe in the exotic; I believe instead in the road trip, the Peace Corps, the passport in one’s hand that leads us all further down the road.
Q: You’re not only a poet but a professor at Highline Community College – how do you fit in the time to write? What’s your process like?
A: Most of my writing happens over winter break and during the summer. In fact, each summer for the last fifteen years I’ve traveled to a writing colony or retreat center so I could take intense time for my work. Two years ago, I converted my one car garage into a writing studio. Sometimes I can steal an hour or two to work on a poem in there. So to answer your question, my process is uneven. I need to see hours, if not days, spread out before me. I also read a lot as I write — and eat a fair bit of grapes or chocolate.
Q: In what ways does your work – from being in the Peace Corps to teaching English and Film Studies – affect your poetry?
A: I am a poet of place first and foremost. Now that I live in Seattle, there are ferry docks and waterways coursing through my poems. I write out of my awareness of a certain time and place. Since I teach full-time, I spend a good deal of time with students. As a result, The Alchemist’s Kitchen has several poems inspired by my students lives. There is even a poem where my students are discussing a film.
Q: Poetry can be challenge to market to mainstream audiences – what do you most want readers to know about poetry and why they should read it along with novels, nonfiction, etc.?
A: I would like to (politely, of course) turn your question on its head. Why should anyone read novels or non-fiction? Our earliest literature is poetry, not prose. Edward Hirsch states there has never been a culture anywhere in the world that did not have poetry.
Think of poetry in the way you think about food. You wouldn’t decide not to eat because you don’t care for green beans. Same with poetry. Poetry is sustenance for all of us. After September 11th occurred and our nation was plunged into mourning, newspapers around the country began publishing poetry almost immediately. The poems of W.H. Auden and Naomi Shihab Nye were passed person to person via email over and over again.
Another reason: The day The Alchemist’s Kitchen appeared on my doorstep I
had an experience that will stay with me forever concerning the power of
poetry. A woman I know was at my house when the boxes arrived. She told me she wasn’t smart enough to understand poetry. I responded by reading her a poem from the book: “At Middle Life: A Romance.” It was a spontaneous action. When I finished reading, she touched her hand to her heart and told me what was already clear. She was moved. She said, “I inserted something of my own experience into the poem. I felt it.”
Q: Which writers are among your main influences?
A: When I first began to take my writing seriously, I took the poet Elizabeth Bishop as my dead poetry mentor. I read all the poems, the letters, the biography and critical essays. I wanted to learn everything I could about her life and work. She’s still my touchstone, still somewhere in my poems (I hope!) but more recent influences include Federico Garcia Lorca, Olena Kalytiak Davis, Carolyn Forche, and Charles Wright.
Q: How is The Alchemist’s Kitchen different than your other two books?
A: Well, with a first book, there’s usually many years for the poet to work on making it the best it can be. Often, and this was true with The Cartographer’s Tongue, the poems span a ten-year period. This often insures that only the best poems are published. With the second book, the sophomore attempt, the book usually garners much less attention. It’s compared to the first book and never fully comes out of that shadow — especially (and this was true in my case) if the first book did very well.
So there’s a belief among many poets I know that the third book is where a poet comes of age. By now, the poet’s obsessions and ideas have become more apparent. I’ve tried in The Alchemist’s Kitchen to push myself into new realms. For example, the middle section of the book is called “Transformation” and is comprised of a poem sequence on the life and photographic work of Myra Albert Wiggins, the first Northwest woman to make her living as a photographer. Conducting historical research and writing poems from photographs was new to me and forced me into unexpected areas of creativity. I found myself writing poems I hadn’t ever expected to write. I found myself taking on the inner life of a woman who lived in the 19th century.
I think this book contains my best work, but it will be up to readers to decide this for themselves.
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