A Look at Susan Rich: A Massachusetts Poetry Festival Feature Poet

Susan_LaughingSusan Rich is a prolific poet with the energy to pursue both her creative and her humanitarian impulses. But the poetry in Rich’s life, as she explains below in her own words, was almost cut short by professors who advised her to try “something else.” Rich set poetry aside for a time, but, lucky enough for all of us, she returned to her craft after twelve long years away.

Rich was educated at our own University of Massachusetts and Harvard University, as well as the University of Oregon, and now lives in Seattle. In Seattle, she teaches at Highline Community College, as well as running a reading series there, “Highline Listens: Writers Read Their Work.”

Rich’s love of travel is apparent in her poetic works, her humanitarian efforts, and in her choice of Elizabeth Bishop as what Rich calls her “dead mentor.” Rich is the author of four collections of poetry: Cloud Pharmacy, The Alchemist’s Kitchen (finalist, Foreward Prize and Washington State Book Award), Cures Include Travel, and The Cartographer’s Tongue (winner, PEN USA Award for Poetry and Peace Corps Writers Award). Additionally, Rich has received a number of awards and fellowships and her work has been featured in several reviews. She is one of the editors of The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Writing Across Borders and has lived and worked around the world, including working on staff at Amnesty International and living in West Africa as a volunteer with the Peace Corps.

If the interview below isn’t enough for you, be sure to check out Susan’s blog, The Alchemist’s Kitchen, for more of her insights on poetry, travel, and living the creative writing life. Of course, you’re also more than welcome to come see Rich live and in-person at the 2014 Massachusetts Poetry Festival, this May 2-4!

A Few Questions for Susan Rich

Who had the most impact on your writing when you were a beginning poet? In what way?

I was estranged from poetry when I discovered the beautiful work of Elizabeth Bishop, particularly her poem, “Questions of Travel.” At the time, I had just returned from two years in the Peace Corps in West Africa and felt a great deal of affinity to Ms. Bishop’s life and work. The fact that she had also grown up in Massachusetts, had traveled faraway, and then lived on another continent caught my attention. Her underappreciated humor and cadenced lines infused with irony and heartbreak have kept me a fan for life. Now I live in Seattle and have visited the apartment building (The Brooklyn) where she lived during her time teaching at the University of Washington in Seattle. It’s as if I am on a lifelong journey with her. Whenever I travel, Bishop’s Complete Poems accompany me. When I teach, I often encourage my students to choose a “Dead Mentor” so that they, too, can claim a poet for life.

What convinced you that you had to be a poet?

Poetry was a constant companion since I was very young. At thirteen I wrote a poem filled with teenage angst and showed it to my English teacher, Mr. Katz. From there, he brought the poem to the principal and before I knew what was happening, my poem became our class graduation performance piece. What a strange and wondrous thing!  Still, flash forward another 10 years and I had all but given up on poetry. I had been told by my university professors that I had better try something else. And for 12 years I did; their condemnation shut me down. It was a very painful period. Yet, when I began writing again, began changing my life to put poetry at the center, I knew that poetry had come back to stay.

What do you think is the most exciting development in poetry today?

New presses popping up in Detroit, Seattle, and lots of other places not traditionally known for publishing houses is one great new thing. Of course these “houses” are often basement sofas, coffee shop offices and pick-up offices. The ability to  record poems and send them over smart phones onto the internet thrills me. I love hearing poets read their own poems.  I love the strangeness of reading my poems into my phone alone in a hotel room or out for a walk and then finding then online in an interview the next day.

What emerging poets do you find interesting? Why?

I like new poets Kate Lebo’s Commonplace Book of Pie and Rebecca Hoog’s Self-Storage. I’m also a fan of Kelly Davio’s Burn This House and Erin Malone’s What Sound Does It Make? These are all Washington State based poets and their work deserves to be read beyond state lines. Actually, I hope all poets stay in the state of emerging — that place where experiment and ardor meet.

What are you most looking forward to at the Mass Poetry Festival?

I’m really looking forward to listening. The community here takes poetry seriously and knows how to celebrate it. At the Mass Poetry Festival I feel as if I’ve found my tribe. There’s always some serendipitous moment when you hear a new poet or discover a new art installation in a shop window. I look forward to being surprised. And of course I’m hoping for an extra day to wander through all of the Peabody Essex Museum, my absolute favorite Massachusetts museum.

One of Her Poems

Cloud Pharmacy

How many apothecary drawers
could I fill with these deliberations?

The pharmacist’s paper cone
parsing out a quarter cup

of love’s resistant drug,
spoons measuring new prescriptions

for my uncertainty, hipsway, gesture.
Give me cobalt bottles

leftover from aunt iska’s cures,
albastrons of ointments, resins to resolve

the double-helix of desire inside of me.
Where is the votive, the vessel,

the slide rule calculation—
to know how much good love

alchemically speaking is
good enough?

I want spindrift nights on swimmer’s
thighs. I want an Egyptian

elevator inlaid in camphorwood and ivory;
a West African drumbeat, an eggnog, a god.

I want waves and summer all year long.
I want you. And I want more.

(This is the title poem from Susan Rich’s fourth book, Cloud Pharmacy, and appears here courtesy of the poet’s website.)