Everyone, please get comfortable and let's hear what Susan has to say about her new collection.
Diane: You have two previous collections. Is this new one a continuation of or a departure from those books? What's familiar, what's new?
Susan: I think The Alchemist’s Kitchen is a departure in a number of ways. This is my first time composing poems out of history, out of visual art, out of what it means to be living in middle life. My past two books, Cures Include Travel and The Cartographer's Tongue, focus more on the external world, the poems located in the different countries I’ve worked in: Bosnia, Palestine, Republic of Niger, and South Africa. And although I still love to travel, I’ve now claimed a more permanent geography in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, this summer the anthology New Poets of the West, comes out and it includes two of my poems. So although I grew up in Massachusetts and lived there until my mid-30’s, I am now officially a “new poet of the west.” This makes me ridiculously happy.
More importantly, perhaps, is that The Alchemist’s Kitchen is my most ambitious book. Dealing with my mortality isn’t easy, let alone writing about it. There are many poems in The Alchemist’s Kitchen that I didn’t want to write. For example, the third section of the book focuses on the strangeness of aging with poems like “The [In] Visible Architecture of Existence,” “Letter to the End of the Year” and “Curating My Death.” Perhaps because I passionately did not want to write these poems, they seem to have an extra sense of urgency about them. My personal sense of privacy and decorum lost. The poems won.
This is also true of the poems concerning the life and art of Northwest photographer Myra Albert Wiggins (1869-1956). Drawing inspiration from the visual arts always seemed a little too hoity-toity to me. I began writing the Wiggins poems as a challenge to myself. Could I focus on a historical artist, one that is all but lost to history (the way I may someday be) and re-infuse her work with life? I acquainted myself with her husband and her daughter, her trips to Paris and Jerusalem. By the end of two years, I felt I knew Myra better than I know myself.
Getting back to your question, some things stay the same, of course: attention to cadence, image, and surprise. I’m constantly trying to push forward in these areas. I hope I’ve succeeded, but that’s for my reader to decide.
Diane: Tell us the story behind your cover.
Susan: I think we need an all weekend party for this story! The cover comes from a photograph by the German photographer, Phillip Schumacher, whom I met last summer at an artist residency in Spain. Phillip creates what he calls “one shot films” which means his pictures usually include a broken narrative, an unexpected situation and sometimes a detail of the absurd. The kitchen pictured is located in the Villa Hugel, the family home of the German Industrialist, Alfred Krupp, which is now a famous museum. I hadn’t expected to use a literal kitchen on the cover, but I fell in love with the pans illuminated in a lilac glow, the door within a door, and the overall film noir atmosphere of the image. Plus, I loved featuring the work of Phillip, a photographer whose work I admire so much. Phillip is only at the beginning of a very successful career and it’s an honor to introduce his work to North American audiences. One more thing: the cover only features 1/3 of a very large image which includes a life-size plastic stag, an angry chef, and an oven. Interested guests can visit my blog to see the the photograph in its entirety.
Diane: Why did you title the book The Alchemist's Kitchen?
Susan: The title of this collection came to me far more easily than the titles of either of my past books. I was re-reading Denise Levertov’s New and Selected Essays—many of which were written, I believe, during her time in Seattle. In her essay "Biography and the Poet" (1992), Levertov takes up the question of literary biography of poets (and by extension, she expands, all biographies) as to whether we need to know about the drugs and dalliances of the poets’ lives or if they are “the chaff which the imagination has discarded.” For the most part, she rallies against being too inquisitive regarding the facts of the writing life. But the essay is balanced with praise for certain biographies such as Walter Jackson Bates' Life of Keats, where the biography is in service to the poems or to essays or journal pages some poets had published. Sometimes, Levertov says, while understanding the life of the poet, “one is grateful for a glimpse into the alchemist’s kitchen.” I immediately felt myself drawn to the phrase.
I’ve re-interpreted Levertov’s original sense of looking at a poet’s memoir or biography being the alchemist’s kitchen to the poems themselves being the material of alchemy—the ordinary objects turned to gold. In researching more on the nature of alchemist—in its original meaning—I learned that Alchemy has a double origin in Greek philosophy and Egyptian texts. The origin of the word itself is thought to be Arabic. But what fascinated me the most was that the alchemists were not merely interested in turning base metals into gold but were also in pursuit of spiritual discipline and that the transformation of metals was secondary to the wisdom that the alchemist would himself attain through his work. One of my favorite quotes by the poet Stanley Kunitz goes like this: “The first task of the poet is to create the person who will write the poems.” So to answer your question, I’ve used the term “alchemist’s kitchen” as a metaphor for the process of writing poems. That said, I also am a great lover of food — growing it, preparing it, bringing friends together to enjoy it.
Diane: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
Susan: Joy. Wisdom. Entertainment. A hearty appetite for the power of poetry to transform our everyday existence into something better—a way to make sense of the incongruities of our lives. As a reader, when I pick up a poetry book, I yearn to be surprised, to find words that teach me about my interior life, that make me want to read a poem or a line over, and over again. My hope is that I’ve created such an experience for other readers—or at the very least—made them hungry for “a praline heart” or “Spanish torte.”
Diane: Please choose a favorite poem for us and, if you like, tell us why you chose this one.
I’m afraid to own a body, you said
the regressive tax on breast and thigh
would be too high; then you circled
my wrists, held them brightly
and I registered in your eyes, the look
I imagine of accountant or old paleontologist
appraising semiprecious finds.
When you pose me toward the light
and we touch, you take
a transparency with your eyes;
as if April evenings can be
known things, as if
our rental car agreement
extended to tongues and only then
under certain conditions
to wondrous singing.
Praise song for contracts signed
in pocket parks where we
descend with little savings—Bless
even the promissory note
reneged, the unreality of love’s
retreating. Your voice remaining
a little distant, but still companionable
like the announcer on late night radio—
Susan: I chose “Rental” because it is a poem I most definitely did not wish to write. It was the first poem I finished last summer while I was in residence at Fundacion Valparaiso. A relationship that I had been involved in in Seattle had ended abruptly and the last thing I wanted to do was wallow in those knife wounds of heartbreak. There I was in Andalusia, on the shore of the Mediterranean, and yet memory kept interfering with the sun. Until I wrote this poem, no others would show up. Not surprisingly, once I finished “Rental” it became easier to move on to new work. And somehow, in spite of how much I didn’t want to write this poem, I’ve ended up liking it very much. I especially appreciate the ending which tries to name that odd sensation of hearing the ex-lover’s voice—the same voice that uttered love cries during the relationship—speak in the aftermath. Poetry works in a myriad of exasperating ways. How lucky I feel to be a poet in this life. Sometimes I need to remember how much I wanted to be a writer from the time I learned how to read. And here we are—living the writing life—having drinks and even ice cream in the blogosphere.
Now comes the best part of our salon. We get a chance to hear Susan read her poem, "At Middle-Life: A Romance."
What's a party without something delicious to eat? Please help yourselves to a parfait, some cookies, fresh fruit, and cold fruit punch.
Overheard at the party:
"These are poems of praise and wonder graced by a delicate touch."—Brian Turner
“Don't read Susan Rich’s latest book on an empty stomach. Although The Alchemist’s Kitchen contains a wide, intelligent, and thought-provoking variety of poems, it does food better than most of the restaurants I’ve been in.”—Mark Brazaitis, Peace Corps Worldwide
Be sure to pick up a copy of Susan's book. Then while you enjoy your snacks, please feel free to ask Susan some questions. Leave them in the Comment section. Susan has promised to respond. And thanks for coming to the salon.