Interview with Susan Rich

I first met Susan Rich through her poetry, published by White Pine Press, and her blog. I later was able to attend the writing retreat, Poets on the Coast, that she co-leads with Kelli Russell Agodon. In this interview, I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about Susan’s work, writing influences and commitment to literary citizenship. -Jessica Gigot

Photo Credit: Rosanne Olson 

JG: What poets/poems have been most influential on your work? You mentioned Elizabeth Bishop in your blog awhile back, but what other writers/teachers have shaped or continue to shape your work?

SR: Emily Dickinson was the first poet I discovered. As a first year high school student, I was lucky enough to take a course devoted to Dickinson. Later on, I attended university in Amherst, Massachusetts where my bus stop home from town was situated in front of the Dickinson house — at that point inhabited by a professor (now recreated as a museum). Dickinson’s sparseness and mystery, her musical lines and lasting elements of surprise have meant a good deal to me over the years. Recently, I feel like I’m returning to her work again and appreciating it all the more.

Later on, and for a very long time, the triumvirate of Elizabeth Bishop, Denise Levertov, and Adrienne Rich became my poetic touchstones. Poets we discover when we are very young, I suspect, seep into our bones. We carry them with us for a lifetime.

JG: Speaking of your blog, The Alchemist’s Kitchen, I find it very informative and helpful. What are your thoughts on blogging and how it intertwines with your life as a poet?

SR: The first year of the blog I posted a new article almost everyday! I love Top 10 lists so I have a top ten tips for sending your poems into the world and another top 10 list for applying to writing residencies, and another for dealing with rejection. I believe that for a blog to succeed it needs to do two things well: offer practical information to others writers and provide insight into the imaginative life of the blogger.

JG: Your poem “Boketto” was featured by the Academy of American Poets last year. I find this poem to be a serene meditation on both seeing and being. Can you talk more about the inspiration for this poem and how it came together for you? Is it part of a new manuscript?

SR: Thanks, for asking me this question, Jessica! Yes, “Boketto” is part of my new manuscript. I hope I am close to finishing this book, my fifth poetry collection, but I really don’t want to rush this one.

You describe the poem with good insight for your readers (and for me). “Boketto” comes from several places — my longstanding interest in words that have no equivalent in English, the ritual of having my morning coffee while staring out the window ostensibly looking at the Olympics. And finally, a writing date with my friend, Elizabeth Austen, where we give each other prompts to try — ways to trick the brain into new ways of writing.

JG: Between your reading series WordsWest, teaching at Highline College and your annual retreat Poets on the Coast, you are very involved in literary citizenship in the northwest. What do think your role is a literary citizen and how does the role affect your writing?

SR: Since January 20th, I think the role of literary citizen and activist have both become more urgent than at any other point in my lifetime. Growing up, my mentors were few and far between. It wasn’t until I moved to the northwest, attended Hedgebrook, and walked into Open Books in Seattle, that I began to understand that literary citizenship existed all around me. I think it is natural to want to give back, to want to give more expertise and advice than I was able to benefit from as a young poet.

I am by nature a shy person and so my literary citizenship almost always involves a friend or two. For example, WordsWest, the monthly reading series I co-curate in West Seattle is a monthly collaboration with Harold Taw and Katy Ellis. On April 19th we welcome Terrance Hayes and Jane Wong. I’m also the cofounder of Poets On the Coast: A Writing Retreat for Women where I partner with Kelli Russell Agodon and this year, also with Elizabeth Austen. We still have a few spots left for this weekend in La Conner. For more retreat information click here.

You can find links to Susan’s poetry here.