Meet Susan Rich: The Alchemist's Kitchen

Seems as if Susan Rich and I have known each other longer than a few months, but we met in April at AWP Denver. When we sat down for lunch, we immediately swapped books, talked about poets we knew and respected, and figured out a way we could read together. Well, Susan and I will be reading together on November 17 at Porter Square Books in Cambridge. And, while I haven't seen the schedule, I believe we'll be reading together at the Miami International Book Fair on November 21. Twice in one week? Who would have thunk it?

Susan was gracious enough to answer a few question for me. You can check out my interview on her blog, The Alchemist's Kitchen.


Q. Susan, you are the author of three titles, The Cartographer’s Tongue, Cures Include Travel, and The Alchemist’s Kitchen. How was the process of creating this manuscript different than previous works?

A. I think the world of American poetry has changed in a number of ways since 2000 when The Cartographer’s Tongue/Poems of the World was released. There is more emphasis now on a collection of poems creating a linear narrative — something I’ve never really wanted to do. However, for The Alchemist’s Kitchen I did my best to create a book within a book: I embedded the story of Myra Albert Wiggins. Wiggins (1869-1956) an early 20th century Oregon photographer and a member of Alfred Steiglitz’s photo-secessionists. Researching Wiggins’ life (she also painted and published a memoir) in order to write poems was a new experience for me. I learned a great deal concerning photography and the history of the northwest. These poems form the second section of the book.

Q. The Alchemist’s Kitchen is such an intriguing title. How did you know that was the right title for this collection?

A. For Cures Include Travel I sent out a list of six titles to a group of my friends to see which one they liked best. Not surprisingly, they all very strong preferences but the trouble was, no one agreed. I went back and forth on several titles. Happily, The Alchemist’s Kitchen, was my one and only title for this book. I think that it serves as a vessel for the disparate themes I’ve braided throughout the book: solitude/imagination/relationship. As poets, we take the everyday flotsam and jetsam of our lives and try to elevate it to something universal, a reality that others can enter. Alchemy comes from the ancient Arabic word al-kimia which was both a philosophy and a practice of changing base metals into gold, but the ultimate goal was to achieve wisdom. In fact, the discoveries of the alchemists are the prototypes for modern chemistry. Later, after the book was published, I found that the alchemists were also seeking the secret of everlasting life and that Carl Jung had reexamined alchemy to recast its meaning to be a spiritual path into the self. The more I learn of alchemy, of creating what we desire out of what we have, the more I appreciate the title.

Q. Can you tell us about the cover art? Did you have much input in choosing the image?

A. My publisher, Dennis Maloney, at White Pine Press, has allowed me to choose the cover art for each of my three books. This is in equal parts terrifying and thrilling. I have taken the task very seriously and spent months looking in galleries, art books, and on-line to find just the right image. Actually, I’ve always wanted to use the work of an artist whom I knew, but until now that hadn’t worked out. The cover art for The Alchemist’s Kitchen is by my friend Philipp Schumacher.

I met Philipp at Fundacion Valparaiso, an artists’ residency in the south of Spain. It was a Sunday afternoon, the hottest part of the day, too hot to do any work so I asked to see a portfolio of his work. I fell in love with the cinematic aspect of his work – one shot films — as Philipp calls them. The play of light and shadow, the ominous clock face, the glowing porcelain pots --- it all reminded me of a film noir. But not only that. This was kitchen where anything could happen, a kitchen out of time. I like that.

Q. What is your favorite poem from this collection? Please tell us why?

A. Tough question that changes often. For tonight it’s “Cruise of the Christians” or maybe “At Middle Life: A Romance.” These are both poems that I find immensely pleasing to read aloud. I consider myself a poet of sound first and foremost. I sometimes worry that it makes me a shallow person, but I will sacrifice sense for music. I suppose that’s because I believe that sound has a higher meaning. These two poems seem, to my ear, to be carried along by an undertow of sound that builds. The subjects are very different – in the “Cruise of the Christians” the subject is Myra Albert Wiggins cruising to Jerusalem and the photographer as godlike; in “At Middle Life: A Romance” the subject is self-evident – and fun.

Q. Do you have any advice for emerging poets submitting their titles to contests and open reading periods?

A. Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems edited by Susan Grimm is now free on-line at google books. I have read some of the stronger essays each time I put a collection together. We may write dozens, hundred of poems, but we put only a handful of manuscripts together — and yet, the collection as a whole is what matters when you submit to book contests. Know that a collection of poems is a living, breathing, thing.

Q. The question I should have asked you goes here!

A. Thanks, January. Thanks for putting this together. How about, “Do you have any upcoming readings?”

As a matter of fact, I will be reading with you at Porter Square Books on Wednesday, November 17th. And by a fortuitous act of the universe, we will also be reading together in Miami on Sunday, November 21st. I also love the fact that you will be reading this December with my friend Major Jackson at my hometown library where I clocked many hours and where I gave my first poetry reading ever. I am so happy that our on-line meeting is turning into a face to face friendship.


Maureen said…
Great interview. I have been so delighted to have found Susan's blog months ago and, especially, her wonderful poetry.
January said…
Thanks for stopping by, Maureen!
Jessie Carty said…
Great interview and thanks for the link about the putting a manuscript together :)
Jennifer Jean said…
susan & jan, i hope to make it to your porter square reading! i've read elsewhere against this trend in collections having a linear narrative but i haven't seen much of that--maybe rita dove's wonderful "sonata mulatica." i rather would like to see the trend emerge in (though not glut) the poetry market. why the wariness towards this format? (jan, i'm just realizing susan may not see this comment...i guess i'm sending out my query generally... :)
Susan Rich said…
Hello Jennifer Jean,

I do hope to meet you in Porter Square - but to respond to your question now: I have nothing against poetry collections built around a narrative arc - but I believe that is only one way to create a collection. Many times I feel a book is straining to tell a story, but would be better off with another organizing principle. Hope this helps!
Kathleen said…
Nice interview, and have a great reading trip together!

I appreciate Susan's comments on the narrative arc issue, as someone told me she was reading one of my books for the narrative arc...and I had a different organizing principle. There were indeed interweaving stories, but it wasn't a single, straightforward narrative. She found one, anyway, and liked it!

So I guess it's something to be alert to--the readings and misreadings that might be imposed by expectations and trends. I guess I am always hoping readers will read what is there, not want they want or expect to be there, but I keep learning that's not always the case. Even the individual poem.

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