Sunday, November 20, 2016

News in My Small Corner of the Poetry World

Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head Caught in a Kiss

One of the better things happening in the 21st century is the proliferation of small presses. One such press is Terrapin Books, the brainchild of poet Diane Lockward. Diane's first anthology with the press is The Doll Collection which came out earlier this year. With all the craziness in the air these days, I am thrilled to be able to focus on a bit of good news. I've just been told that my poem "Potato Head" first published in The Doll Collection has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Terrapin Books.

This is a beautiful collection of poems with work from Denise Duhamel, Richard Garcia, Mary Ellen Talley, Ingrid Wendt, and Cecilia Woloch among many others. If you are looking for a holiday gift, this would be a good place to start.

Here is my contribution to the collection; I hope you enjoy. Are there still any Howard Johnson's left? The orange and blue signs were scattered across New England promising ice cream and a clean place to sleep. Sweetheart soap was a chidlhood obsession. 

Potato Head

I’ve told you where I’m coming from

so you can piece it together:

Mr. Potato Head sessions with

         Mrs. Potato Head arguing over

         the grocery bill, sex, the imminent

         shut off of the heat. Here in the basement

of grey cement and bare bulbs,

we jabbed plastic spikes deep into Idaho

spuds, added enormous eyes and ears,

       yarmulkes and long beards.

      In the coldness of that house

      I built an empire of miniature soaps

from budget inns and Howard Johnson's

for Mrs. Potato Head to drown

in dishwater: her cups and plates dripping

     Sweetheart clean. We played and played

     not knowing the lives we were inventing

     were old flimflam landscapes

of too much work for not enough pay.

Though sometimes we’d borrow an orange

from the fruit bowl and give it a small hat,

      toothpick legs, and blue magic

      marker boots. We didn’t need maps

      or mirrors to find a way out of the echo

chambers of childhood – just

a vegetable and a fruit repurposed

for two Jewish girls in a basement

      trying with spells and with death-

      defying stubbornness, so hard

     to reshape the afternoon blues.

                    Susan Rich, The Doll Collection, edited by Diane Lockward

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Saturday Morning Poetry Prompt with January O'Neil

If you read The Alchemist's Kitchen, you know that I am a huge fan of January O'Neil's poetry. She has the ability to render complex emotions in a deceivingly accessible poem --- and make you recognize yourself in the process.

In her most recent book, Misery Islands, O'Neil imagines a future where her children will write the tell all book of their childhood -- a sort of Mommy Dearest for the 21st century. Of course, O'Neil is a very different kind of mother --- a loving, if sometimes distracted, single mom. In the poem, her children turn to raisins while the speaker watches baseball or they complain that she "would rather write than speak."

When January O'Neil came to Highline College where I teach, I studied Misery Islands with my creative writing students. For many of them, it was their first time writing poems. Since only a few of them are parents, we decided to switch the title to "What My Mother Will Write About Me in Her Tell-All Future Book." These were some of the strongest pieces of they wrote all quarter. The mix of humor and pathos appealed to them --- and of course "telling" on their mother seemed to be great fun.

I also offer the option of writing about a father or grandmother or big sister --- clearly not everyone will have a mother to write about. I  use this exercise every quarter and the results are always amazing. Students are excited that they've written something about someone they care about --- and O'Neil's poem as a model keeps them from getting too syrupy.

I've also po-jacked this poem and tweaked it a little: "My Mother Returns from the Dead to Appear on Oprah." But that will wait for another posting. For now,  enjoy this poem and try a "tell-all" poem of your own. 

What My Kids Will Write about Me in Their Future Tell-All Book

They will say that no was my favorite word,
more than stop, or eat, or love.

That some mornings, I’d rather stay in bed,
laptop on lap, instead of making breakfast,
that I’d rather write than speak.

They will say they have seen me naked.
Front side, back side—none of which
were my good side.

To read the rest of this poem go to the Cavaan Kerry website. This includes an interview with January O'Neil by Nin Andrews.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Poets on the Coast - Special Guest Star!

BREAKING NEWS!  We are wildly happy to announce that for our 7th year at Poets on the Coast, in La Conner, WA, Elizabeth Austen, Poet Laureate of Washington State (2014-2016) will be joining us. We will continue our traditions of one on one consultations, art museum visits, and an assortment of classes on generating new work.

On the second weekend in September, September 8th - 10th,  an intimate group of poets from around the country (and Canada) will come together to talk, write, and breathe poetry. However, what seems just as important each year is the community that we build. Poets who meet at Poets on the Coast create writing groups, build friendships, and encourage each others growth as poets.

Registration is open and this event sells out every year. We also offer the Russell - Rich Scholarship. If you are a woman who wants to deepen her poetry practice, please think about joining us! Right now are the lowest rates for the weekend; they will increase as of January 2017. Why wait? We would love to have you join us at Poets on the Coast for our 7th year celebration.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Pomegranate, Radio On - for Madeline DeFrees - What Do You Think

Here's my poem for Madeline DeFrees made into a short film. I have mixed feelings about it. While I am thankful to Helen Magazine for publishing this poem set to images and music, the blatant ignoring of all line breaks feels like a kind of violence has been done to the poem. This is a poem dedicated to my most important poetry teacher, Madeline DeFrees who mentored me when I was a young poet in Massachusetts and who, a few decades later, connected with me in Seattle.

Pomegranate, Radio On

for madeline defrees

Begin with the fruit in your hands—
hold the weight of its rough skin,
its nested, cell interior.

Take your time.

Choose a lilac
blue bowl; pull your sharpest knife
from the cutlery drawer.

This has become your life, not the headlines

but the fine print
of the back pages. Read
slowly the small, good stories—

each seed another worldly

exchange. You’re here
at the sink caressing—
there’s no other word—

until the dazzling light lets go.

Until surreal tomorrows extend—
beyond sustenance, beyond juice,
stained fingers, stained news.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

My Foray into Journalism: The Seattle Review of Books

I've always harbored the fantasy of working as a private detective. I love the idea of interviewing people and fitting the pieces of a psychological puzzle together. Conducting radio interviews was my favorite task as curator for the Jack Straw Writers Program. Jack Straw invites one curator to lead a team of a dozen writers for a year. Writers learn how to give readings, create community, and at the end of the year celebrate with an anthology and a reading series around the city. Jack Straw applications are being accepted now!

So when the Seattle Review of Books asked me to write an article about the controversial requirements of the Washington Book Awards (authors born in the state are eligible even if they no longer live in the state. Authors who live in the state must have lived here for three years.) This year, three of the five poets nominated live out of state and have for several years --- if not since birth.

I loved writing this piece but what I learned in the process is that journalism (unless its interviewing poets on their work) is not for me. While I received an enormous amount of support and thanks from many people who had felt hurt and helpless in the light of this year's announcement of nominees (no winner announced until October 8th) I also received some pointed backlash. Who knew people in the literary community could be so mean?

The Seattle Review of Books asked me to write about this birth right rule and my hope is that by pointing out the injustice implicit in how we choose nominees, there might be a reexamining of such requirements in the future. Since the Washington Book Awards began nearly 50 years ago as the Governor's Awards, I suspect there was a clear bias towards Washington natives, a subtle (or not so subtle) way to keep newcomers at a disadvantage.

We aren't wearing the same fashions as 50 years ago nor do we live in the same way (think no home computers, no cell phones, no same sex marriage, no American Disabilities Act) so why not review the rules surrounding eligibility for this important prize?

If you care about this issue please consider writing a brief email to the Seattle Library Foundation.
Emails can be found at the end of the page.

Here is the opening to my article:

Why does Carl Phillips need the Washington State Book Award?

The truth is, he doesn’t. In fact, Carl Phillips is confused about the controversy his nomination is causing among Washington state poets. When I spoke with Phillips this morning he mentioned his total surprise and delight when informed by his publisher that his book Renaissance was nominated for this year’s Washington State Book Award. He went on to say that the book was submitted by his publisher, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. “It wouldn’t have occurred to me,” to send the book, he said, and followed up with how honored he felt. And why would Carl Phillips believe he was eligible? Phillips left the state a little less than a year after his birth and has returned exactly twice – once for the recent AWP in Seattle and once to board a cruise ship. He doesn’t think he will be able to attend the October 8th award ceremonies.

The real problem is not his nomination — Phillips is a lovely man and an extraordinarily gifted lyric poet, he deserves many awards. But for this year’s Washington State Book Award in Poetry, three out of the five finalists do not live in Washington State. They are residents of Missouri, Tennessee, and Utah.

 To continue reading, click here!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Thank you to the Saturday Poem - As Things Ought To Be

I studiously avoided thinking about the 15th anniversary of September 11th. 

Instead I co-lead, along with Kelli Russell Agodon, Poets on the Coast: A Weekend Writing Retreat for Women. This year, my September 11th was filled up by thirty women poets writing, laughing, and learning together. 

I did such a good job focusing on women poets and not past horrors that I was surprised when "Mohamud at the Mosque" was chosen for the Saturday poem, As It Ought To Be

I began this poem 6 months after September 11th 2001 and finished it more than a year later. When I sent the poem out to magazines for publication, no one wanted it. Eventually, I was honored to have Poetry International choose to publish "Mohamud at the Mosque"  and a few years later it appeared in my second book, Cures Include Travel. 

So more than ten years after its first publication, here it is again.

By Susan Rich

          ~ for my student upon his graduation

And some time later in the lingering
blaze of summer, in the first days
after September 11th you phoned –

if I don’t tell anyone my name I’ll
pass for an African American.
And suddenly, this seemed a sensible solution –

the best protection: to be a black man
born in America, more invisible than
Somali, Muslim, asylum seeker –

Others stayed away that first Friday
but your uncle insisted that you pray.
How fortunes change so swiftly

                    to continue reading, click here

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Who is your dead mentor poet? Mine is Elizabeth Bishop

From the Documentary, "Welcome to This House"

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) is a poet I have admired for several decades, ever since I read her poem, "The Map" and then went in search of Questions of Travel and Geography III.

Here are poems of equal parts music, feeling, and meaning. Here are poems that could break your heart. "Awful but cheerful" are the words engraved on Bishop's tombstone in Worcester, Massachusetts. Bishop's childhood has been well documented as "awful" and her later life often ruled by her dual demons of drugs and alcohol. But these facts do little to explain her extraordinary genius with words. In fact, I fell in love with her poems, not her biography. She would be pleased by this. Of the Confessional poets of her generation she once said, "Sometimes, I'd rather they kept it to themselves."

But there are stories that make me feel I would have loved her and been exasperated by her as a friend. She certainly was not easy. Perhaps I loved the fact that when she began teaching at the University of Washington, she told anyone who would listen that she had taken the job just to get the funds she needed to fix the roof of her Brazilian home. Her honesty --- and her coyness. I loved that she and Marianne Moore kept a lifetime friendship going from trips to the zoo (when they were in the same area) to long letters (when they weren't).

And like any good magic--- it's the poems themselves that have lived long inside of me. The poems that first made me want to become a poet. To try and get it right. What Bishop admired most in a poem (she said -- but she said many things) was to watch the mind in motion. That is but one of the beauties of this villanelle.

One Art

The art of loosing isn't hard to master,

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent

The art of loosing isn't hard to master.

Then practice loosing farther, loosing faster:

places and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! My last, or

next-to-the last, of three loved houses went.

The art of loosing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent

I missed them but it wasn't a disaster.

Even loosing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident

the art of losing's not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop

Monday, September 5, 2016

Michelle Obama - The Poem I Keep Thinking About - January O'Neil - And a Prompt

First Lady Michelle Obama lifting some intense weight

I first read this poem a few weeks ago when it appeared on the Academy of American Poets website and I've been thinking about it ever since. In this short piece, the speaker is clearly seen as "other," albeit Michelle Obama other. How can one not be charmed to be compared to the most outstanding First Lady of our lifetime?

Although it is unstated, we can assume that the compliment comes from a white man who is perhaps "interested" in the speaker ("all night he catches sight of me") and that the speaker is a black woman.

Just past the center of the poem comes the line, that for me, the entire piece pivots on: You’re working your muscles to the point of failure. The muscles of the speaker's forced smile meet the physical muscle work of the First Lady's weight training. In both cases, the work of the day is to make body and mind unassailable - to become stronger by hovering in the place of hurt and pain.

Many years ago when I first moved to the Eugene, Oregon, from Boston, Massachusetts, I met several people who wanted to tell me about the wonderful Passover Seders they once attended. I remember being genuinely confused as to why everyone wanted to discuss Passover in September? It took me a long while before I realized that this was how these well meaning Oregonians were trying to tell me they were okay with my Jewishness. That they, too, had eaten matzo.

So what is the correct response? To feel relieved that one is not with an anti-Semite (hey, it's okay that I'm not Christian -- great) or to acknowledge that for many of us, talking about cultural difference is a clumsy business. Or to immediately feel like an outcast, an other, a person whose personhood is in question.

It's a complicated and as O'Neil states, an awkward business to respond to such a "compliment". The speaker doesn't mean to insult --- quite the opposite --- and yet the sting of not being seen for who one actually is remains in high relief.

"On Being Told I Look Like FLOTUS, New Year’s Eve Party 2014," allows for that negative capability to thrive in a way that I have not ever seen so deftly handled before. And in today's political climate, I can only hope that many English classes will feature this poem as we head back to school.

On Being Told I Look Like FLOTUS, New Year’s Eve Party 2014

Deep in my biceps I know it’s a complement, just as
I know this is an all-black-people-look-alike moment.
So I use the minimal amount of muscles to crack a smile.
All night he catches sight of me, or someone like me, standing
next to deconstructed cannoli and empty bottles of Prosecco.
And in that moment, I understand how little right any of us have
to be whoever we are—the constant tension
of making our way in this world on hope and change.
You’re working your muscles to the point of failure,
Michelle Obama once said about her workout regimen,
but she knows we wear our history in our darkness, in our patience.
A compliment is a complement—this I know, just as the clock
will always strike midnight and history repeats. This is how
I can wake up the next morning and love the world again.

January Gill O'Neil on the poem:

“It is a flattering comparison, but I'm keenly aware that I live in a part of the country that’s less diverse. So when people say I look like Michelle Obama, I know they are trying to make a connection with me. This poem is a recognition of the awkwardness, the effort, and the patience it takes to let the moment unfold.”
—January Gill O’Neil

Poetry Prompt: 

So if you're still reading, here's the prompt: think of a time when you've been "otherized" in some way. Perhaps it was due to your religion, race, class background or simply because of the fact that you didn't know how to swim. Begin with the incident itself and try to enter it without any sense of judgement --- be more compassionate in the poem than you might have felt in real life. Feel free to invent what you don't remember. What large idea can you end with as O'Neil does with the hard won last line of her poem.