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Susan Rich–A Poet Is a Poet Because of Other People

 

 

I am lucky. I live in five intersecting rings of poetry. It wasn’t always this way. My poetry life, and therefore my poetry community, has been hard won.

In college, one poetry teacher told our entire class, “Most of you won’t write one word once you reach the age of twenty-six.” Another professor took me aside and whispered, “Perhaps you should concentrate on children’s books.” By the time I had graduated with a degree in Creative Writing, I was without faith — not only drained of belief in my own work, but more importantly, utterly disheartened by the world of academic poetry. The community of poets I had idolized, poets such as Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, and Muriel Rukeyser as they went off in 1972 to investigate the war in Vietnam had all but disappeared. The famous friendship between Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton had ended with the suicide of Sexton in 1974. The world of poetry didn’t look very promising.

Instead of pursuing poetry, directly after college I joined the Peace Corps. I wanted to travel, to learn from different cultures and experience new ways of living radically different from my own. I knew that if I were ever to have anything to say, it needed to be augmented with an extended worldview.

When I eventually returned to Boston from my two years in the Peace Corps, I found solace in books such as William Stafford’s Swimming the Australian Crawl and You Must Change Your Life. I took classes in the living rooms of poets who needed the extra cash. The casualness and camaraderie of those Thursday nights complete with a cup of tea brought me back to myself. The idea that there might be a way, after all, to be a poet in the world outside of the strictures of others’ beliefs started taking shape in my mind. Ironically, working with a grassroots community is what freed me of the need for acceptance.

After the death of my parents, I took a leap across the country and changed my life, as instructed by Rilke. At age 36, I registered as a student in the MFA program at the University of Oregon. My classmates were a strained group of twelve, representing a diversity of age, race, economic background and global geography.  Really, we were a ragtag bunch and with little more in common than a burning desire to write. And yet, eventually we learned not only to get along, but to rely on one other, and to open our hearts. The program changed us; it made of us more tolerant humans, more aware of how to live in a literary community.

Today I live in Seattle, WA, a city most famous for its coffee connoisseurs and serious readers. My first visit to Seattle left me wondering what these citizens had accomplished in their past lives to be reborn as Seattlites. The Seattle area includes mountain ranges, beautiful bodies of water, and books. Here, more people buy books per capita than in any other U.S. city. This statistic is often followed by a joke about the weather or a line that exaggerates our slate colored skies. But that is only half the story. Seattle overflows with literary organizations – most of them founded by a small group of people sitting somewhere on a sofa and asking, “why not”?

 

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Community of Geography

 

In Seattle, poets celebrate Open Books: A Poem Emporium, as our physical and spiritual home. Owned by accomplished poets, John Marshall and Christine Deavel, the store schedules readings by nationally and locally famous poets twice each month. Often, there’s a house party following the event with everybody invited.  The focus is to bring new voices into the community, not lock them out. A community focused on inclusion.

The belief that poetry is meant for everyone, that no one holds the magical keys to the lyrical city is echoed in the organizations, residencies, and presses throughout Washington State. A prime example is Floating Bridge Press (FBP). The press has its roots in the basement of poet Peter Pereira’s house. A group of friends clustered together on Peter’s couch naming all the excellent poets they knew who had yet to be published. Why not start a press? Why not?

What inspired me to join the editorial board of FPB — to spend midnight hours reading manuscripts, answering emails, and mailing out journals was the spirit of the editors. Our desire was to discover new writers and give them a voice; to open out the community of writers by organizing readings, paying poets, and publishing new people each year. More than any other organization in Washington, I believe that Floating Bridge Press has created a lasting legacy of generosity among poets. Poets Kelli Russell Agodon, Elizabeth Austen, Allen Braden, Timothy Kelly, and Katherine Whitcomb have all been published by Floating Bridge Press.

But that’s just the beginning. Writing groups, reading groups, and residencies play an integral part in the literary landscape of my home. My Community of Poetry Readers, otherwise known as COPR’s comes together every month to discuss a book of poems and to gift individual poems that we’ve discovered. Anne Carson, Deborah Digges, Mark Doty, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg reflect the diversity of our tastes. We are a group of seven poets and two non-fiction writers who travel across the state one Sunday a month to talk about poems together and to share some aloud. We create a time out of time for each other in a ritual that allows us to be fed by poetry: a communal meal.

 

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Community of Poetry Friends

 

Here is the secret nobody knows: poets need friends. OK. If you are reading this, you know it, and I know it, and so did Elizabeth Bishop. From Brooklyn over the Brooklyn Bridge this fine morning please come flying. In “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore,” Elizabeth Bishop celebrates her deep friendship with another woman poet: her mentor and lifelong friend, Marianne Moore.

I know that Bishop and Moore shared poems, went on outings to the zoo together, and when Bishop moved to Brazil in 1951, wrote long letters.

I think if we look close enough, we’ll find that every serious poet who produces work over a lifetime has poets whom they can rely on. We need poets to drink coffee with, to talk craft with and finally (when it’s almost too late) to retell favorite stories of past and future dreams. Maybe because poetry is so far from the mainstream of American life, we need reminders that our hours, days, weeks, spent in seclusion are okay. More than okay.

I know that without my dearest poetry friends: Kelli Russell Agodon and Katherine Flenniken I would not be as brave as a poet. Without my dearest poetry teachers: Madeline DeFrees, Pamela Alexander, Linda Pastan, and Garrett Hongo, I would not be as well trained in the craft  (of course there is always room for improvement). Without my dead mentors: Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop and Anne Sexton, I would not have begun writing at all.

 

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Community of Peace Corps

 

A long time ago, I was a college drop out. The only thing that convinced me to finish my degree was the possibility of joining the Peace Corps. I knew I wanted to see the world and that I wished to write about it. At age 25, I was looking for myself by getting as far away from my own life as I could. Unbelievably, this worked.

And I am not the only one. There are many poets who began their writing lives as Peace Corps Volunteers: Derek Burleson, Sandra Meek, and Anne Neelon are three examples ~ all of them went on to publish poetry collections exploring their tenure in Africa.

But it is not only the other Peace Corps poets that I am drawn to. More important to me are the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, who perhaps find something recognizable in my poems regarding their own Peace Corps experience. My two years in Niger, West Africa, was nothing short of surreal. All I had learned about life to that point was turned upside down and tossed next to a sand dune – soon to be digested by a goat or a camel. Many of us were just out of college, inexperienced in the larger world, and ill prepared for desert life — especially during a drought of biblical proportions.

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I stubbornly subscribe to the old fashioned need for my poems to serve others. I know my poems can’t feed the hungry, house the homeless, end wars, or pass a more just stimulus package in Congress, but my job as an artist is to keep myself and others awake.

 

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Community of the Grand Double P ~

 

Poetry and politics: a subject so often avoided in literary circles in the United States. Is political poetry merely another way of saying a poetry that is engaged in the world?  Are my poems detailing the lives of Bosnians during the war inherently political or are they more humanist? Is humanist a bad word? Does it imply a hedging of bets without wanting to upset anyone? I could write an entire piece on the slippery space the Double P inhabits, but I would remain estranged from a definitive answer. This is by choice. If I write poems that when complete are “about” the inhumanity of state executions here in the United States or the rampant racism Americans exhibited after September 11th, or the inhumanity happening in Palestine right now, that was not explicitly why I wrote the poem.

For the record: I am on the side of political poetry. I believe poets have a responsibility to our society at large.

 

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World Community of Poets

 

My poems often reflect the people I meet. Since I have lived on three continents, these meetings frequently occur outside the United States. I’ve worked in several cities scattered across the globe – in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in Cape Town, South Africa, and in Gaza City, Gaza. While in Ljubljana, Slovenia I read on a candlelit stage with a translator by my side and later, outside of Galway, Ireland, I read to the mountains with an Irish friend. My poetry community is not restrained by border crossings. I believe in a global community of poets.

 

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And yet. I am dissatisfied. This listing of people and places seems flaccid next to my vision of what constitutes a community of poets. My mind conjures Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin with their dedicated phone line, their linked handsets perched on the corners of their desks as they worked.  I try to conjure the solidarity of poets who went to prison for their beliefs in South Africa – or anywhere in the world where human rights violations occur. I think of Jeremy Cronin’s poem  — Motho Ke Motho Ka Batho Babang (A Person is a Person Because of Other People) that details the wordless conversation between two prisoners as a guard scrutinizes them. A poet is a poet because of other poets. We need each other. It’s that simple.

 

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Susan Rich (http://susanrich.net & blog) is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently, Cloud Pharmacy and The Alchemist’s Kitchen, which was a Finalist for the Foreword Prize and the Washington State Book Award. She is the recipient of awards from Artist’s Trust, The Times Literary Supplement of London, Peace Corps Writers and the Fulbright Foundation. Individual poems appear in the Antioch Review, New England Review, Poetry Ireland, and The Southern Review. Along with Brian Turner and Jared Hawkley, she edited the anthology, The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Crossing Borders published by McSweeney’s and the Poetry Foundation. Susan lives and writes in Seattle, Washington.

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