Oct/Nov 2005  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Poet, Traveler, and Teacher Susan Rich

Interview by Elizabeth P. Glixman

Someday I'll write a travel piece on the places I've slept or tried to sleep while on the road, but who will believe it? A hotel under gunfire in Croatia, a whorehouse in Mopti, one haunted Edinburgh flat. As much as these nights are emblazoned in my memory, they are not the reason I keep answering the allure of travel still whistling at my door. Responding to this calling, opening this blue door, sends me somewhere more complex than these adventures imply. For me, the external journey of the traveler and the internal mapping of the poet are different sides of one central desire: the search for an extended worldview.

Susan Rich is a poet, teacher, and human rights educator. She has served as a writer in residence in Zimbabwe, an electoral supervisor in Bosnia, a human rights trainer in Gaza, a volunteer in the  Peace Corp in Niger, and  a Program Coordinator for Amnesty International USA. Her work has appeared in  publications including the Christian  Science Monitor,  North American Review, Poet Lore, Witness, The Massachusetts Review, Alaska Quarterly,  Harvard Magazine, and Poetry International.

Rich has received numerous awards including a Fullbright Fellowship and grants from the Blue Mountain Center, the Millay Colony of Arts, Cottages at Hedgebrook, and Fundacion Valaparasio. Her book of poems The Cartographer's Tongue: Poems of the World ( White Pine Press, 2000 ) was awarded the  Peace Corps Writers Poetry Award and The Pen West Poetry Award.

She lives in the Pacific Northwest and teaches at Highline College and the Antioch University MFA Program in Los Angeles.


EG       Are you involved with any humanitarian organizations at present?  

SR       Yes, I am active with the Somali Rights Network, a group of which I am a founding member. The Somali Rights Network (SRN) works to promote human rights for Somalis in Somalia, and Somalis in the diaspora, in three ways: through an international campaign with human rights advocates, community education, and policy advocacy. I am mostly involved in the educational aspect of SRN through my project Somali Voices in Poetry.

EG     Tell us about the Somali Voices in Poetry project.

SR     Essentially, I am interviewing Somali-Americans and through those interviews hoping to set-up a living archive documenting the lives of individuals as they live through civil war and then the complexities of settling in a new country—one which Americans have little understanding of beyond Black Hawk Down. Instead of an oral history project, I am working on a collection of poems based on the interviews.

For fourteen years now, Somalia has been without a functioning central government, and all civil institutions including schools, hospitals, and police stations have ceased to exist. It's true that private schools and hospitals have slowly started appearing, and so those with foreign currency can pay for these services. Today it is clear that a million people are close to starvation and that international organizations who want to help starving Somalis have to pay bribes to warlords in order to get access to the people. All this mayhem is due to the actions of warlords, who are just a few individuals. Fourteen peace negotiations have thus far failed because of the aggressive objections brought about by one warlord or another (or by the combination of several warlords). To date, not a single war criminal has been brought to court.

My own involvement in Somalia was born out of my friendship with a former student who started a campaign to keep a Somali war lord from visiting Seattle for a fundraising dinner. Through the efforts of my student and several of his  friends, the warlord decided not to come to our city for a visit after all. The energy and sense of accomplishment that that ad hoc project ignited was the impetus for SRN.

From a more personal perspective, I wanted a way to stay involved with international human rights work without having to go on the road again. I've been inspired and then re-inspired by the Somali community in Seattle. Bringing poetry and human rights work together in one project thrills me. The first poems have been published in journals around the country and so, slowly, the story of Somalia is being heard, poem by poem.

EG     In what journals can we find the poems?

SR      International Poetry Review, Jack Straw Writers Anthology, Poetry International, Elixir, and Folio.

EG     When you  travel to a country as a human rights worker, what kicks in first, the poet's eye or the hopes of an activist?

SR     That distinction doesn't ring true for me. There is no thinking when entering a new place; it's a kind of falling in love. Every smell, every slant of light, every taste of street food is accentuated. Experience is heightened and judgment suspended. My friends who travel, especially to the less homogenized countries of the world, all say they feel more alive when they travel then when they're stateside.

A few summers ago, I went to Ireland to stay at an artist's retreat. The Tyrone Guthrie Center had invited me to spend three weeks there. This was the first time I was able to write about a country while physically being in it. Usually I am too overwhelmed with the feeling that I know so little of the place I find myself in that I feel I have no right to the material. I worry that I'll understand only the most basic parts of the culture or the people, but as I get older and have more years of writing behind me, that worry seems to dissipate, which is a good thing as it is utterly debilitating.

EG     Were your parents socially conscious people?

SR      Yes and no. My father was a great one for joining all sorts of organizations and getting quite involved. He was a life long Mason and before he died was the Assistant Grand Master for the Cambridge, Massachusetts, district—a position he took great pride in. I once gave a talk about the Peace Corps for one of his lodges and sensed that eating well and socializing were both large parts of the Masonic allure.  However, when my dad was ill there wasn't a day that went by where a brother didn't stop by the hospital for a visit. On Thanksgiving there were turkeys given out to families that were down on their luck, and I know that my father took his civic responsibilities quite seriously.

EG       Do you see politics and  human rights activities as compatible, the same side of one coin?

SR      No, I don't. Not at all. At times, development work is linked to the political aspirations of our country—why else do Israel, Pakistan, and Egypt get the most US foreign aide each year? However, my work with Amnesty International and Oxfam America received not one dollar of governmental funding. I intentionally chose to work for organizations that would be relatively free of a political agenda.

EG     When and how did you get interested in doing humanitarian work, and what was your first activity? Some people know from an early age what they want to do when they grow up.

SR      I think learning about the Peace Corps and then joining up was my first exposure to humanitarian work; the first time I learned that I could do something in the world beyond worrying about my own small existence. I also remember my father taking me to visit the Shriner's Burns Hospital outside of Boston. He helped me understand at an early age that he, and by extension, I, had a duty to do good work in the world. Helping others was simply a given to him.

EG      Do you think you are a particularly adventurous person?  Have you ever felt fear in your travels?

SR      I think I am an extremely fearful person who believes in strong measures to overcome those fears. I never set out to be shot at in Croatia or work alone in Gaza or arrive in Italy via a small ferryboat at midnight—but in all of these instances I survived and learned something about survival. Much of life is dumb luck. I am no braver than the next person, but I am desperate to walk through the world without wondering who might be walking behind me. One of my fantasies is to work as a war correspondent, but I think it will have to wait for the next life. Now that I am finally situated at forty-five, in one country, one city, one house, I have become less intoxicated with adventure. Or to put it another way, I've learned to translate my traveling life more into my writing life.

EG      Are you a serious person?

SR     I'm not sure that one can write poems about Bosnia or the Iraq war and not be at least a little bit serious. Well, maybe more than a bit. However, I think there is a difference between taking oneself seriously and taking the world seriously. My work and my life teaches me not to be afraid of sorrow, to confront the fact that unimaginable pain exists in the world. In a sense, that allows me an opening, a way to not provide my own worries and disappointments with too much play. When I worked for Amnesty International, I met many people who had been Prisoners of Conscience, been tortured, had their loved ones killed or spent time on death row. Almost without exception, the people I met had no time for self-pity. Most people I got to know always compared their experience with someone else who they believed had it much worse than they did. I remember one woman telling me she was "only" tortured for a few months, and then she went on to imply it was not significant compared to what others suffered. Perhaps what I want to say is that I don't believe my life should be taken too seriously. That's  not to say that I don't feel upset when things don't work out the way I wish them to, but that I believe there's much point in being overly serious. I'm teaching a course called "The Art of Laughter: Comedy Across Cultures" in the fall and then "Art Out of Torment: The Holocaust and the Humanities" during the winter months. I strive for balance.

EG      I know you teach global studies at Highline College. Why did you choose to teach global studies rather than teach writing?

SR     I think I would go mad if I could only teach one kind of course. I teach creative writing, essay writing, women's travel writing, film appreciation, comedy across cultures, and a course on the Holocaust—but not all at the same time. There are probably a few I am forgetting as well.

EG     How long did it take you to write The Cartographer's Tongue?

SR      The poems in the book span a nine year period.

EG     I see the title The Cartographer's Tongue as a contradiction. A cartographer works with numbers and space relationships. It is a science with hard edges. A tongue is soft and human and is not  directed by quantitative tools.  In your personal poems of love and relationship the aspects of the organic tongue were obvious.

SR     A friend once told me that I was the only extroverted introvert he knew, and that seems right to me. It took me years to get comfortable in front of the classroom because it seemed absolutely unnatural for me to be speaking while a room full of people listened to what I had to say and even sometimes took notes. And yes, a cartographer does work with spatial relationships but also has to make choices as to what to leave off of the map, what to emphasize,  and which lines need to be [something] other than true. In cartography, there is a desire for objectivity as well as a striving for it, while all the time knowing that it's an impossibility. Mark Monomier wrote a book called "How to Lie with Maps" about ten years ago that is now a classic. So the cartographer keeps quiet, she bides her time, and eventually makes choices as to color and shape. Poems are like that, too. It takes enormous amounts of listening and thinking and feeling before I'm ready to try out different forms, often years before a poem seems complete. I wanted to give the cartographer a voice, a tool that wasn't in her cartographer's toolbox. The juxtaposition of the scientific and the sensual appealed to me, but I also wanted the unexpected point of view; we don't expect a cartographer to use her tongue or to speak at all, so what would the world be like if she did?

EG     Is it a poet's job to show the what ifs and/or the unexpected point of view?

SR     That's one way to put it.

EG     The poems in Cartographer's Tongue are cinematic. They each tell whole stories and multiple stories.  Many of your poems could be short stories or novels, like this one:


It's 4 a.m. on her birthday
as she prepares for morning mass
wanting the luck
Early prayers are said to  bring.

Today she's turning sixteen
and the only one awake.
She brushes her hair back, drawing
it into a braid, puts in the silver earrings
tiny as insect eyes, and turns to admire
the curve of her legs in silk stockings.   

She spies her brother's jacket
lifts it from the hook, singing under her breath.
The day is fine. The breeze feels cool along
the edge of her skin. She walks out onto the porch.
A shadow blocks her way down the stairs,
a body propped against bougainvillea
rigid against clay pots.

Here is a gift from the Ton Ton Macoute,
someone's brought Papa home.
A note pinned to his collar like a caption
she writes for her scrapbook. The face is
swollen, the soles of the feet burnt,
the lips one long purple bruise.
This family had 24 hours to leave.

There are no words to remember,
no beginning or end to this day.
Her mother puts them on the boat,
nodding good-bye from the dock,
I will join you.
The girl wonders when they became flecks
of glass, bits of color thrown out to sea.

She listens to the priest bless their voyage,
wondering at his words asylum seekers, doesn't  know
she is one of ten thousand faces, that those like her
are not believed, are sent home, followed, and will leave

again. She  watches her mother turn into the  horizon.

SR     You've chosen one of my favorite poems from The Cartographer's Tongue. And yes, this poem is more narrative driven than most of my work, although it ends in a lyric movement. These days I seem to be moving away from work as journalistic as this one. The idea for this piece came straight from a woman I knew when I did human rights work, and this is essentially her story. Sometimes I think about playing around with short stories or attempting a novel, but so far it's just a vague idea. In fact, one of the things that I love about poetry and which I don't find true in my prose writing, is that poetry strips down language to the image and the music of what I want to say. It keeps one honest in a way that prose writers don't need to be or can't be. What do I mean by that? Let me explain with an example of a poem written in the form of repeating couplets. When a poem is surrounded by all that white space, every word, every syllable has to be exquisite or the poem fails. I don't think that even the short story, which comes close, demands so much exactitude in the work. So perhaps poems can evoke story even better than a story can. Of course there are many who would disagree with me.

EG     How much is  created and how much is actual experience with people and events?  

SR     Of course it's a bit of both. However, my poems that are placed in Bosnia, Gaza, or South Africa tend to be more real than unreal. The hyper-reality of a war zone and the surreal experiences that follow need no embellishment. If I am writing of my experiences in Bosnia, then what I want to do is better understand the person or historical complexity of my time there. It seems to me very wrong to create a hypothetical person or embellish someone's sorrow or ecstasy. However, in a poem such as "The Men You Don't Get to Sleep With," there is a great deal of over the top creation. Perhaps this is a good place to set the record straight that I have not slept with a Bosnian jailer.

EG      The record is now set straight.   The truth can set others free. Is this poem  in your new collection?

SR      "The Men You Don't Get to Sleep With," appears in the anthology Sea of Voices, Isle of Story published by Triple Tree Publishing. It will also be in Cures Include Travel.

EG     The world you show us through your poems is large. It is a world where you are the cartographer of inner space  on a voyage. What strikes me the most in The Cartographer's Tongue was the sense of connection you had as a poet with the people you wrote about as in the preceding poem. You were part of the poem in a large way. But your  "I-ness" was not invasive or self serving.

SR     Thank you for that comment. In my writing I am not interested in explicating a situation or imposing my consciousness upon another world. Although I am by no means a Buddhist, my minute, flawed understanding of Buddhism is  that one practices an erasure of the I. That kind of sloughing off of the self, I believe, is crucial in creating any kind of art. In Linda Pastan's "Ars Poetica," the last section of the poem is as follows:

Leave behind
a room
washed by sun
or moonlight.
There should be a chair
on which you've draped a coat
that will fit anyone.

I love the sense of illumination and inclusion she creates. The poet "leaves behind" an object lit naturally, a simple chair that waits ready to welcome the reader into the poem. Anyone should be able to enter here and feel at home, to experience in full consciousness, the well-lit room.

And to be honest, I'm just not that excited by my own opinions or theories. I'm more interested in looking at the way that coat embraces the chair, how its hem hangs slightly askew far above the floorboards.

EG     What poets do you read?

SR     I return again and again to Elizabeth Bishop, Denise Levertov, and Adrienne Rich. They are, in a sense, my poetic foremothers, without whom I couldn't have begun writing. However, I am always searching for new poets to inspire me, to teach me alternative ways to push my own work. Recently, I've returned to Mark Doty's poems—he can expand time and make it sing like no other contemporary American poet I know. His work risks sentimentality and goes beyond where I thought a poem could reach. "On Broadway" is a work of his that I've just taught to my students to show them how the universe can be captured and then expanded upon. I want them to see that in a flash as you stand on a dirty city street while an old woman tries to sell you turtles, you can literally be transformed; you can break through time and space in poetry.

EG     What other types of books do you read?

SR     I also like to read about maps, which is no surprise, and I read a good deal of international literature.

EG     And you write about maps:

THE MAPPARIUM, Boston, Massachusetts

In geography class we learn the world
of oceans, continents, and poles. We race
our fingers over mountain ranges and touch
rivers lightly with felt-tip markers. Deserts, islands,
and peninsulas tumble raw and awkward
off our tongues. Kalahari, Sumatra, Arabia.
We visit the Mapparium on a field trip.
A made-up word we learn
for the place where the world resides.
We clamor in with falling socks and high octave squeals
Palermo, Kabul, Shanghai,
exploring the globe, crossing its circumference we take flight
touch down on the see-through bridge.
The earth as it was, a time called 1932
stays in a room—retracts our breath,
our lives—makes history into color and light.
We look up at the Baltics, see Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia,
lands my grandmother left. Sixteen
and wanting the world.
I want to stay inside this world, memorize
the pattern of blue that conceals
the origins of every sea. A wave
hitting stone is the sound my voice leaves
as a pledge of return on the glass.
Feet to Antarctica, arms outstretched
like beacons toward Brazil;
I'll take this globe as my own.

SR     Funny that you should choose this one. It is the second oldest poem in the book. When I came back to writing, after ten years away, this is the first poem that I wrote. I had never read any Elizabeth Bishop nor did I know how soon theories of cartography would morph into the new darling of post-modern critics. I see this poem, now in hindsight, almost fifteen years after it was written, as the poem that brought me back to the world of poetry.

EG     Why did you stop writing?

SR     There were a number of factors. It's hard to say which part of the configuration was more to blame, although blame doesn't seem quite the right word here. I had several teachers when I was an undergraduate who were openly discouraging of my work. Sometimes it was personal, as in a professor who thought I should perhaps try writing children's books. Someday I would love to write a children's book. I don't think it would be easy, but this male professor was patronizing and patted my hand, letting me know that the elite gates of poetry were not to be scaled by the likes of me. Another teacher told an entire class of creative writing students, "None of you will write a word once you reach the age of twenty-six." Imagine! Telling an entire class that they weren't serious about poetry, that they were mere dabblers. Until I attended college, I had the highest regard for poets. For some reason I was certain they were great optimists and wrote in order to create a better world than the one we  presently inhabited. I believed, without question, that poets were exemplary people in love with life. Imagine my surprise  to overhear my professors mumbling about their careers and who got published where. The world of poetry was not the world I had created with utter certainty in my mind.

I also remember telling myself that I had yet to live an interesting life. What could one twenty-something woman who'd lived almost all her life in Massachusetts write about? Weren't there already enough poems singing the praises of New England's stems and leaves? I knew I needed to go out and extend the margins of my simple world before I'd know anything worthy of a poem. And so I joined the Peace Corps, traveled the desert, took care of children during the famine. And even then, I didn't believe I could write. The entire two years in West Africa I wrote one essay that was published in "The Camel Express," our Niger Peace Corps newsletter. Yes, it was an essay that people seemed to quite like, but it was a far cry from poetry.

It wasn't until I returned to Boston, finished my graduate degree in international development, got a job with Amnesty International, and attended a class on watercolor painting (where I was by far the most ill-suited student in the class) that I found my way back to poetry, this time on new terms.  As a young writer I had dreamed of changing the world, now I believed the only way I could return to writing was to have absolutely no expectations. It finally occurred to me that writing was its own reward. What did it matter if no one else cared? I couldn't write if I needed to be the next Elizabeth Bishop. My sole reason for going to graduate school in poetry was so that I could take myself just a little bit more seriously and hopefully convince myself that I had a right to write. I grew up in Boston at a time when unless you had the right pedigree which led to the right connections to Knopf or Scribners or Farrar, Straus, Giroux, there wasn't much of a place for new writers. I needed to completely let go of changing the world, of being a writer anyone cared to know in order to let myself learn.

EG     How did you begin this "letting go"?

SR     It was in a poetry workshop held in a living room in Brookline, Massachusetts that for a year or so allowed me to begin my journey back to writing. From there, I went on to work with Pamela Alexander, then Linda Pastan at Breadloaf, and finally on to the University of Oregon where I worked with Garrett Hongo. No one ever told me I was the next Elizabeth Bishop, but no one ever told me to try writing toothpaste commercials either.

EG     Is the pen mightier than the sword? Can poets influence people's views?

SR      I think that poetry does make a difference. I think it can imprint on the human soul—why else write poetry at all? I know that sounds ridiculously lofty, especially in the 21st century, but I know it's true. The great example of our time is how local newspapers across the country were publishing poems in their pages right after September 11th, and that W.H. Auden's "1st September 1939" was passed back and forth across the internet so often that it arrived in my inbox at least half a dozen times. More recently, hundreds of thousands of people contributed poems to the Poets Against the War website in the lead-up to our invasion of Iraq. Yes, poetry matters. When I taught Contemporary American Poetry in South Africa I asked my students, why would anyone choose to write poems? Why not write a screenplay or create a television comedy instead? We all agreed that the financial rewards would be far higher, but students also remarked that during the semester they'd studied Adrienne Rich, Naomi Shihab Nye, Yusef Komunyakka and the others, there had been at least one poem that had changed the way they felt about the world, changed something inside of them.

EG       There are poems in the collection where the sense of physical  movement is palpable, and then there  are poems where the  inner life's movement is felt.  Sometimes these elements intertwine. Here is one:

Leaving Sarajevo

The bus driver stops to pick plums
from an abandoned late summer garden,

the pale blue carrier bags pulled from his bed
where he sleeps underneath the bus.

All night we watch movies
drink beer in the dark, cross borders

where Bosnian, Croats and Serbs
will read and re-read our passports,

our papers: the litmus test of war.
We travel Prijedor, Banja, Luka, Tuzla,

toward an airport light of home;
past minefields and orchards

fueled by sweet Sarajevan plums
our hearts are no longer our own.

And  an excerpt from "Take Off," the last poem in The Cartographer's Tongue.

Take Off
(an excerpt)

alone in this fuchsia sky
the ephemeral becomes
the real, thinking

temporarily wiser.
And I begin to see my life working
like a gyroscope

increasing in power
as I detach from regret
and fly incrementally
towards fire.

It seems like the landing and taking off is over, but will the journey continue and have you found the fire you speak about in the poem?

SR     Hmm. If the fire is my obsession with language and human rights, then perhaps, yes, the journey continues. I have a second book, Cures Include Travel, coming out from White Pine Press in October, 2006, and I'm still teaching, writing, reading, and sometimes traveling to unusual places, even if all these activities occur closer to home than before. The new book has a clearer tension between a domestic life and a more daring one than Cartographer did.

I'm not sure how to address the first part of your question. The sense of physical movement in the book comes from a life that was always having to reinvent itself in another city or continent. When I applied to the Peace Corps, they asked me for a list of where I'd lived over, I believe, a ten-year period. I added up all the different apartments, dorms, rooming houses, and squats I'd lived in and came up with over twenty. I knew how unstable that looked, so I eventually paired it down to a mere eleven. In other words, that sense of palpable physical movement emerged from a very transient life.

I wrangled with unhappiness for many years as a young adult. Traveling allowed me an acceptable path out of my own skin. Traveling in extremity opened me to a more instructive world view. As I said before, the journey of the traveler and the internal mapping of the poet are different sides of one central desire: the search for an extended worldview. Perhaps transience, if one is very lucky, can become a kind of transcendence. Perhaps letting oneself get lost in the world allows a stronger self to emerge. That sounds a little bit too much like dime store philosophizing to my ear, but so be it. I know that for me poetry and travel are inextricably linked to my own survival.


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