Saturday, May 10, 2014

Susan Rich On Her Most Recent Book - Cloud Pharmacy

Interviewed in April 2014

Susan Rich is the author of four collections of poetry and her most recent titled Cloud Pharmacy, published by White Pine Press came out last month. Susan’s work is not new to me as I've read two of her previous works, Alchemist’s Kitchen and Cures Include Travel. She has won the PEN USA Award for The Cartographer’s Tongue (2000). The Alchemist’s Kitchen (2010) won the Washington State Book Award and was a finalist for The ForeWord Book of the Year Prize in Poetry.

MAW: Susan it’s kind of you to talk with me about your newly released Cloud Pharmacy.  As I read this book I felt you were pushing and expanding your poetic horizon for readers.  I’m interested in role that Hannah Maynard played in this book. Can you tell us a little about how this came about and what it meant to this collection of poetry?

SR: I met Hannah Maynard, or rather her work, in the William James Bookshop in Port Townsend. It was Thanksgiving weekend and I was enjoying a day of wandering Water Street – the main artery of the town. The photography section is small but well curated and there are often things that catch my attention. That day it was Magic Box: The Eccentric Genius of Hannah Maynard (1834-1918). On the cover a replica of a sepia toned self-portrait held me rapt. There were three different Hannah’s in this piece: one leaning out of a picture frame, and pouring tea on another Hannah’s head. The third Hannah looked right out at me.

It took more than two years before I found a way into these proto-surreal pieces, work so startling can leave little room to improvise. I was stymied. It wasn't until I wrote a grant to work on a sequence of Hannah Maynard poems that the project began to cohere. I told myself if I won the grant, I would find a way to inside these self-portraits; otherwise, I would quit. Fortunately, I was awarded the grant. This meant I had to really push my abilities to create something I felt was worthy of Maynard’s genius. I needed new approaches to writing poetry; the old ways were no longer enough. What I found was a latent love of the surreal. Not in the vein of the 1920’s Parisian surrealists, but this new found private invention that married surreal images with intense emotional content. During the six years Maynard created these self portraits, two of her daughters died. It doesn't seem too farfetched to see these portraits as an express response to grief.

MAW:  I could not help but notice the words alchemically speaking in the title poem Cloud Pharmacy. Given your repetitious use of alchemist between two of your poetry collections I have to wonder if you don’t feel as a poet you have to practice a bit of such chemistry to arrive at  your destination as a writer. Can you tell us about the connection between your writing and alchemy?

SR: When I was a Senior in high school I read, no I devoured, 100 Years of Solitude by Gabrielle Garcia Marquez. I was in love with his imagination. This novel was like nothing I had encountered before. The part of the book I remember best was the story of the alchemists. This sense that men mixed potions not only to find the recipe for gold but also to further their knowledge of themselves appealed to me – a sense of inner and outer discoveries paired together.

Only with Garcia Marquez’s recent death did I make this connection back to my first encounter with alchemists. So I don’t claim that poetry is the only alchemy --- I believe it is the work of many writers --- as well as visual artists and musicians.

MAW: One of my favorite poems is the one titled, Invention of Everything Else.  You have used color a good deal in this book and blue seems to pop up frequently. I’m interested in the usage of the blue at the end of this poem.   Can you expand on this?

Actually blue is a touchstone word for me. Before I sent Cloud Pharmacy to Dennis at White Pine Press I needed to remove many of the blues from different poems. Sometimes it turned into yellow or green, other times I took the adjective out altogether. Color is an effective way to help a reader visualize a “yellowed cup” or “blue grass.”

I think my interest in ekphrastic poetry may have triggered my use of color in some of these poems. I teach several Film Studies courses and the idea of a colorful image is perhaps connected to the cinematic approach. It’s hard for me to say.

MAW: I know that you are a part of the Seattle area (tribe) poets, an area that seems to have no dearth of poetry talent, and yet this book as well as others by you seem to have a very expansive universe. I almost think of you as poet without borders.  Do you feel that way?  How has life experience informed this view?

Thank you, Michael, I will take that as a compliment. Of course it also means that my roots are not especially deep – although I've now called Seattle, WA home for 15 years.  In many ways I do feel a real part of the poetry community here. I've created organizations such as BookLift  which allows women authors to help “lift” up each others books. I've been an editor at Floating Bridge Press and I’m the co-founder with Kelli Russell Agodon of Poets on the Coast: A Writing Retreat for Women.

MAW: Susan, I’m re-reading Cloud Pharmacy for the third time. Things seem to unveil themselves (if I can use personification here) with each reading. I would recommend this book to anyone but especially those with any interest in the Arts.  Since all three of the books of yours that I have read have been extraordinary can I ask what we might look for next? Any there projects in the works?

Thanks for asking! I've been spending most of my time doing readings and celebrating National Poetry Month at Highline College where I teach. It’s the curse of the poet with a new book to feel she will never again be back at the desk, writing. Having said that, I do have a few new poems out in the world. My interest in the surreal and in photography continues. Really, it’s a bit early to know but I will be grateful for a new project when it appears.

MAW:  Thank you so much Susan for taking the time for this interview and for all your poetry that has been so enriching.

Cloud Pharmacy is available from White Pine Press or Amazon

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