The Wise Owl talks to Susan Rich, an award-winning poet, editor and essayist. She lives in Seattle and teaches at Highline College where she runs the reading series, Highline Listens: Writers Read Their Work. She is also co-founder and director of Poets on the Coast: A Weekend Writing Retreat for Women.
The Interview : Susan Rich
(Rachna Singh, Editor, The Wise Owl, in conversations with Susan Rich)
The Wise Owl talks to Susan Rich, an award-winning poet, editor and essayist. She has authored seven books including Gallery of Postcards and Maps: New and Selected Poems Cloud Pharmacy, The Alchemist’s Kitchen, named a finalist for the Foreword Prize and the Washington State Book Award, Cures Include Travel, and The Cartographer’s Tongue, winner of the PEN USA Award. Along with Brian Turner and Ilya Kaminsky, she edited The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Writing Across Borders. Demystifying the Manuscript: Essays and Interviews for Creating a Book of Poems, co-edited with Kelli Russell Agodon has just been released. Her poetry collection, Blue Atlas, will hit the bookstores in 2024.
Rich’s international awards include: the Times (London) Literary Supplement Award, a residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Center in Ireland and a residency at Fundacion Valparaiso in Spain. Other poetry honors include an Artist Trust Fellowship, 4 Culture Awards, GAP Awards and a Fulbright Fellowship. Her work has been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net Awards. Her poems have been published in various prestigious journals (The Gettysburg Review, New England Review, Poetry Ireland) and anthologized in The Path to Kindness: Poems of Connection and Joy; Best Essays of the Northwest, Poets of the American West, among others.
Susan Rich lives in Seattle and teaches at Highline College where she runs the reading series, Highline Listens: Writers Read Their Work. She is also co-founder and director of Poets on the Coast: A Weekend Writing Retreat for Women.
Thank you, Susan, for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl.
RS: You are an award-winning poet with 7 books under your belt. For the benefit of our readers, please tell us a little about your journey as a poet and writer.
SR: From the moment my older sister, Ruby, read me bedtime stories as a child, I was hooked on the textures and sounds of words. Before I could even read, I wanted to be a writer. In books I inhabited living worlds so much more interesting than my parent’s home. There was a country called England, there was a place called Middle Earth. Books felt multi-dimensional to me in a way that television did not.
In college, however, I had professors who actively discouraged me from writing. They went out of their way to tell me I shouldn’t be a poet. And let’s be clear: I had never asked their opinion! As a creative writing professor now myself, I can’t imagine what motivated them to actively discourage their students from writing. Perhaps I was the “wrong” gender?” The “wrong” religion?
It was seven years after that, after I had returned from my time in Niger, West Africa, when I started to write again. I had worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a small city deeply damaged by drought. So much “life” had happened to me since college. Back in Boston my friend, the poet Jennifer Markell, knew about a poetry workshop which took place in the poet’s dining room. In that class with no academic structure, around a dining room table, I found my way back to writing. This was the beginning of me finding my path to poetry in the "grown-up" world.
But it was the great American poet, Linda Pastan, that perhaps influenced me the most. She was the first poet I ever saw in-person when she visited my high school library. Perhaps that’s why, twenty-some years later, I chose to work with her at the Breadloaf Writers Conference. When she said good-bye to me after the two week conference she hugged me and said, “Keep in touch. I want to follow your career.” My response was to turn around to see who she might be talking to. Dear Reader, she meant me. Those two brief sentences really changed my life.
RS: Our readers would be curious to know about the creative influences in your life. Are there any contemporary poets or traditional masters who have inspired you to write?
SR: Well, I think I’ll continue with Linda Pastan. She was a contemporary of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, publishing fifteen books of poetry. Her most recent book, Almost an Elegy: New and Selected Poems is stunning. I believe she’s a greatly underestimated American poet. Imagine if she had had a powerful poet friend like Robert Lowell!
Elizabeth Bishop is another poet who I found early on. Bishop's focus on maps and travel (she lived for more than two decades in Brazil) and her nomadic life allowed me to make sense of my own. In the work of both poets I am drawn to the infusion of the image with an almost alchemical glow. Other poets that have meant a great deal to me are Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney, Denise Levertov, W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich (no relation) and so many others. I’m intentionally mentioning only poets who have passed on from this realm. There is such a strong compulsion towards the “new” in our culture and I find myself consciously wanting to push against it.
RS: I was intrigued by 2 of your poems. In ‘Boketto’ you say, ‘I try to exist in the somehow, the might still be—’ and in ‘Still Life with ladder’ you say ‘I’ve improvised my life ~ let the sky pull the strings.’ Do these poems echo your philosophy in life? Our readers would be happy if you shared bits about your philosophy of life?
SR: I think poets are by definition also philosophers. Poetry requires meaning, even if it is the meaning of a television show from childhood like "Bewitched." I like to think of the poet as high priestess of metaphor and sound.
RS: You are an award-winning and prolific poet and writer. What advice would you give budding poets on how to hone their craft and grow and evolve as poets?
SR: I like to say I'm not actually that prolific, I've just lived awhile. In Seattle, I'm very lucky to be surrounded by a strong poetry community. Having many different poetry friends not only in Seattle but also in Massachusetts (where I'm from) and in Ireland (where I've travelled regularly) makes a big difference. I tell my students that they need a writing community and that can happen in so many different ways these days: weekend classes, summer retreats, or on-line writing groups. The important thing is to find a place where you are valued as a writer as opposed to the other hats we all wear.
RS: Your book ‘Demystifying the Manuscript: Essays and Interviews on Creating a Book of Poems’ would be of great interest to budding poets as it is a literary toolkit on how to put together a manuscript. What quick advice would you give poets who are putting together a poetry collection?
SR: Oh, thanks so much for asking! My friend the poet Kelli Russell Agodon and I began this book nine years ago. We were on a road trip, between Florence, Oregon and Seattle WA (about a six hour drive) and both of us had just had our fourth book of poems accepted. We felt we'd learned so much about ordering poems, choosing cover art, looking for a publisher, etc that we wanted to share what we knew with everyone. There was nothing out there that covered the breadth of what we wanted to create. For example, what is the difference between a chapbook and a full length collection? Why choose one publisher over another? As we were creating this book, we realized how much more amazing we could make it by including a diversity of voices! We immediately began interviewing dozens of poets and editors to include their wisdom, too. We solicited interviews from well known writers such as Linda Pastan and Spencer Reese as well as first time authors like Saddiq Dzukogi and Su Hwang.
The quick advice is to get a hold of ‘Demystifying the Manuscript: Essays and Interviews on Creating a Book of Poems’ and take it as your new best friend. There's wisdom from over 35 writers included in these pages and it's only $20 but libraries should have a copy, too. Perhaps the best aspect of the book is that we break the experience of creating a book into manageable parts. Here's one tip for working on ordering your poems! Invest in a package of colored note cards (about $5 at your local pharmacy or stationer's) and at the top of the card write the title of one of your poems. Skip a line and copy out the first line of the poem. At the bottom of the card, write the last line of the poem. Use the colors to divide your poems into different sections. You can see how the last line of one poem might connect to the first line of the next. Notecards are so compact that they can travel with you on the train or you can shuffle through them while talking on the phone.
RS: Your Book ‘Blue Atlas’ is forthcoming. Tell us a little about the book and the inspiration behind it?
SR: This book, Blue Atlas, my sixth book of poems, is a "project book" in that I knew that I was writing a book about a coerced second term abortion that I experienced in my twenties. It's taken me most of a lifetime to explore that time in poetry. The poems in the book have been written over a ten year period. It's not a book I wanted to write, it's a book I had to write. That pressure between wanting/not wanting to write about the abortion led me to try out several invented forms.
RS: You are the director & co-founder of ‘Poets on the Coast: A Weekend Writing Retreat for Women. What prompted you to start a separate workshop for women?
SR: Kelli Russell Agodon and I started Poets on the Coast: A Weekend Writing Retreat for Women because we were inventing the retreat we most wanted to attend. We dreamed this idea up over a glass of wine while staying at a writing retreat.
If we organized a writing retreat there would be no classes in unheated stairwells, there would be gifts for everyone! We'd have lots of free snacks and wine. Everyone at the retreat would feel seen and appreciated. And so that is what we created! Each participant has a one-on-one conference with a faculty member at no extra charge. There is morning yoga for those who want to participate and an open mic. Most of all, we created a safe space for women, from new writers to widely published writers to create community. In recent years we've invited guest poets to join us such as Diane Seuss, Maggie Smith, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, Claudia Castro Luna, Rena Priest, and many others. This year we are hosting Jessica Gigot and Jane Wong. There are still a few spots available!
Thank you, Susan, for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl. We are delighted to feature you in our magazine. We wish you the best in all your literary & creative pursuits and hope you continue with your prolific writing.