Susan Rich's poems are beautiful music

Susan Rich’s poems thrum with a rhythm all their own. Read any of our May Poet in Residence’s poems and you’ll likely be absorbed in the rhythm of the thing — dense internal rhythms, tricky beats in single lines, sentences that shouldn’t exist but somehow manage to thrive.

I don’t know, for instance, how Rich makes a line like “we accordioned together vaudeville-style” work. But in “Self Portrait with Abortion and Bee Sting,” it not only scans but it feels essential — like the only words that could logically fit there. Her poems are full of those impossible lines — if I ever wrote something as beautiful about an earthworm as “Pink hermaphrodite of the jiggling zither,” I would probably retire in triumph.

“Rhythm is super-important to me,” Rich confirms over the phone, but she sounds unsure about exactly why it takes on such an importance for her. “I studied scansion. On a good day, I can tell you iambic pentameter from iambic hexameter.”

But she’s not driven solely by beats. When writing a poem, Rich says, “sound is important, and the playfulness of language is paramount.” She calls herself “very interested in the sounds of vowels and the sounds of certain consonants,” and she has lately been admiring the poems of Frank Gaspar, saying that from the beginning of his book Late Rapturous, “it was clear there was a lot of sounds” packed inside. “The ‘o’ was everywhere,” she says.

“I started writing when I was young,” Rich says. “I loved reading and writing, all through elementary school.” But when she attended the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, she says, calamity struck in the form of “old white poets who went out of their way to tell me I wasn’t a poet.” Rich still sounds offended when she thinks of those men, who she describes as “pretty famous poets.” Because of their criticism, she didn’t write poetry for a decade. Eventually, after a stint in Niger through the Peace Corps, Rich took up painting – mostly “moldy oranges and grapefruits and shimmery shiny fruits” — and then returned to poetry.

More than just a writer and a teacher of poetry, Rich is a voracious reader of poetry, too. “I try to read everything. There’s amazing poets coming out all time,” she says, and she seems to fall in love frequently. She’s breathless when she talks about the relentless rhyming in Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” for instance. “That ‘master’ and ‘disaster,’” she says, “wouldn’t hit you on the head when you read it a second or third time,” but she calls it “the rhyme that keeps coming." Other poets she admires include Adrienne Rich (“no relation,” she quickly adds) and Ellen Bass and Denise Levertov.

In Rich’s fantasies, she’d be a great singer, and that aspiration to musical talent does come through in the writing and the reading of the poems. That said, “I think rhythm in poetry is different” from music. “I’ve been told I don’t read the poem the same way each time,” Rich says, and she sounds happy about that. “I don’t want to sing my poems, I don’t want to do the terrible poet-voice. I love reading.”

When she writes, Rich says, “I have no interest in being obscure.” But she’s not a narrative poet, either. She keeps a distance from her subject: “my point in poetry is usually hovering above.” Sometimes, she feels uncategorizable. “They don’t know where to put me. They say I don’t fit in a Northwest poetry tradition.”

“I suppose the element that keeps me from being a narrative poet is the surreal,” but she quickly corrects herself: “I don’t claim to be a surrealist.” Then, more thoughtfully: “I’m not sure there are even surrealists walking around. I’m not sure anyone ever wanted to be claimed by that title.”

And sometimes surrealism is nothing more than an accurate reflection of reality. “I have a poem that comes from a news story of a 99 year old woman waking up one morning and finding a kinkajou — an exotic animal from Brazil — sleeping on her chest.” Rich says that image “grabbed my imagination and I had to imagine what would it be like to be a 99 year old woman, husband dead, to find this warm thing resting on her chest.”

The resulting poem is gorgeous, with the kinkajou — "this feral thing she’s never known before" — resting on the elderly widow “like an unexamined question.” Rich found the heart in the news story, and she reported the loneliness and the excitement back to her readers.

Rich is working to complete a new book of poetry that centers on “a relationship I had when I was in my late twenties that ended disastrously in an abortion. That’s as baldly as I can put it.” This summer, she’s going to work to finally get the poems edited and ordered and “off my computer.” Rich sounds a little scared of the new book, but entirely confident that it’s the book that she needs to be writing right now. “Poetry is the way I make sense of the world,” she says.