Interview With Mary Peelen & Susan Rich

MP:  You began your first post-MFA job teaching poetry around the time I married your sister, Ruby. A decade later, I started writing fiction and then poetry, too. What do you think? Is having another poet in the family a positive thing?

SR: Yes! I am thrilled that you met, fell in love with, and married my sister. And that was well before you started your MFA at San Francisco State. I think I was the first poet you ever met?

MP: Before we met, I hadn’t considered that “poet” was something one could become. Maybe I thought poets were born that way? Or they were anointed? I’m not sure—but having a living, breathing, working poet in the family made a far-fetched notion into a perfectly reasonable and obtainable goal. And look at us now. Two poets with published books! We even did a reading together for the launch of my first collection, Quantum Heresies.

SR: Yes! Last May we read with Kelli Russell Agodon at Open Books: A Poem Emporium in Seattle, and it was an absolute pleasure. Of course, I would have loved reading with you whether you were my sister-in-law or not but our family connection made it even better, warmer. I truly believe in the old proverb, “a rising tide lifts all boats” so I believe your successes will push me further as well.

MP: I’m glad you mentioned this. I also believe there’s room for everyone in this poetry community, and supporting the poets we know and love not only lifts their “boats” but it buoys our own work, too. You were an early mentor for me, encouraging me to publish while I was still in graduate school. Specifically, you urged me to submit work to Alaska Quarterly Review because they’d published your poetry and were supportive in an ongoing way. That submission became my very first professional publication, and indeed, I’ve received wonderful support (and additional publications!) from AQR over the years. 

Do you have a mentor?

SR: Lately, I’m finding that we are all each other’s mentors. A little more than ten years ago, I helped a twenty-something poet prepare for his first academic job. I shared the questions I’d been asked at my recent job interview, sent him my c.v., and whatever else I could think of that might be of use. Fast forward to 2019, and this poet is now a poetry rock star. He has helped me more times than I can count with advice, promoting my work, and true poetry friendship.

MP: I love this story!—and I hope I can do a half as much for a poet someday.

SR: I’ve no doubt that in the future I will come to you for advice.

MP: I hope so! The writing life contains a few delicious moments of triumph but there are so many more long days (months and years…) of disappointment and feelings of failure. It is vital to have encouragement, and a regular reminder that creativity itself is important.

SR: We need a term for this—”collaborative mentoring” maybe.

MP: I like that, because we each have our own strengths and abilities to offer. I’ll admit that I often worry that I don’t do enough. Since I have a physical disability, I can’t teach nor am I able to show up for most readings and conferences. I do what I can: I comment on the books and poems I read, and often send a note to a poet or writer whose work has moved me—and never have I encountered a writer too famous to appreciate the gesture. Are there other ways you support poets?

SR: As you know, I also co-direct Poets on the Coast: A Writing Residency for Women each September and I work as a freelance editor on poetry manuscripts, residency applications, and poetry submissions. These are paid gigs but my aim is to make myself obsolete by teaching poets the practical advice I’ve picked up along the way.

MP: What’s your best advice for emerging poets?

SR: Read everything, be kind to other poets that you meet, and persist in your own work. This isn’t sexy advice but I think it is what makes the difference between someone who tries poetry on like a new dress and someone who stays at it over a lifetime.

MP: I certainly agree that reading is pretty much the most important part of working as a poet. What book is on your desk right now?

SR: I actually have two books that I’m excited about right now. To Float in the Space Between by Terrance Hayes, which is subtitled, A Life in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight. I’m completely entranced. And just this morning I started Elizabeth Bradfield’s gorgeous, Towards Antarctica. I love that both these poets produce different kinds of books, create groundbreaking literary projects, and are exemplary poet citizens. This matters to me more and more in this current world.

What are you reading?

MP: I’m in Michigan at the moment, where I’m visiting family, so I’m reading fiction. My mom is an avid fiction reader, so we chose two novels to read and discuss during my visit. I selected Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers which is about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. I was weeping when I finished it last night. It’s a beautiful and important book. I just started reading my mom’s choice, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. I’m not in love with the book (yet?) but I appreciate the natural world the author describes. She’s a zoologist and this is her first novel.

Do you ever read fiction?

SR: There are several novels on my bedside table, some abandoned for months before I pick them up again. I’m halfway through Milkman by Anna Burns and I’m intrigued with how she takes the specifics of the Irish “troubles” and enlarges them to work as a fable on how war effects a nation. I’m also reading Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. Since I lived in Africa for several years, I love reading books that feature strong African female characters (this time making their way in New York City). So far, it’s hard to put down.

What are you reading besides fiction?

MP: I’m a little afraid to admit this in a poetry journal but I read more science books than anything else. Science excites me; it is the literature that informs and inspires my poetry and short fiction. Currently I’m reading Dispatches from Planet 3, a collection of essays on cosmology by Marcia Bartusiak who teaches science writing at MIT.

SR: My first book, The Cartographer’s Tongue, has a poem based on science: “Science Lessons.” I really enjoyed writing it, and would like to write more poems that deal with scientific theory, like “String Theory with Heartache.” I have a mini retreat coming up. Could you give me a science essay recommendation? Something inspiring. What book should I start with?

MP: I might start with a collection of essays called The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman. He is a physicist who’s skilled at conveying large ideas about astrophysics—I’ve even read his textbooks, and they’re great! But he’s also a novelist who teaches creative writing. The two disciplines don’t intersect very frequently but when they do, I’m in love. How the Universe Got Its Spots by Janna Levin, is another good place to start. It is super-smart and packed with science but it’s written as a letter to the author’s mother, so it’s personal and full of love.

For the best overview of quantum physics, I’d start with Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli. It’s easy to digest because the lessons are bite-sized. He’s a passionate writer—as much as he loves science, he seems to love philosophy and poetry even more, rhapsodizes about Anaxamander and Dante (for example). I love all of Rovelli’s work.

I lean towards reading science, and I know you go tend more towards art history, do you think we share a similar aesthetic?

SR: When I first read your poem “String Theory,” I immediately reread it, delighting in its intelligence and verve. It made me want to write something as smart and as heartfelt. As you know, Kelli and I used your poem as a prompt for our writing date. Now all three of us have string theory poems in the world! So although I don’t think anyone would mistake a Mary Peelen poem for a Susan Rich poem, I do think they play nicely together and would enjoy the same bars.

MP: Do we share any favorite poets? 

SR: How have we never talked about this? My favorite poets are always changing but there are my three “Dead Mentor Poets” who have stayed as my foundational poets over time.

Very early on, when I was living in Cambridge, a workshop leader told me I should read Elizabeth Bishop so I went around to the Grollier Bookshop (for the first time) and bought The Complete Poems 1927-1979. Her poems “Questions of Travel,” “Filling Station,” and “Arrival at Santos” immediately thrilled me. I would learn to appreciate many others later on. This book has traveled with me to at least a dozen countries and many more houses besides.

Other major influences are Denise Levertov and Adrienne Rich, both of whom I was lucky enough to hear read when I was in my late teens / early twenties. These major poets of the 1970s have stayed with me in terms of important lessons in sound, syntax, and poetic citizenship.

What about you? Who are your favorites?

MP: My favorite poets change almost every day. But there are a few to whom I return frequently, mostly Rilke. When your sister and I came to Seattle for the launch of your collection The Alchemist’s Kitchen, I was reading Rilke translated by Stephen Mitchell, and you suggested Edward Snow’s translation instead. I immediately went out and bought it in hardcover and that volume makes its way to my desk at least once a week or so.

SR: I never knew that! I’m glad you like the Snow translation.

MP: Oh yes, Snow’s is definitely the best. Along with Rilke, Wallace Stevens and Sylvia Plath are the Dead Mentor Poets I admire most. Laura Kasischke is my favorite contemporary poet du jour—I think her book Space in Chains is a masterpiece. She has a weird quirkiness combined with wicked sharp intelligence that really appeals to me. I have her collected poems, Where Now on my desk right now. This week I’m also loving the poetry of Melissa Crowe, Laura Read, and Jamaal May. 

You have published four books of poetry and are in the process of creating two more. Are you finished here? or are you hoping to grow or change as a poet?

SR: Poetry is evolving in new and exciting ways, and the best poems redefine the genre; they explode open in language, form, content. I’m thinking of fabulous collections like Terrance Haye’s Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin and Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic. Both of these books push at the boundaries of what poetry can do. These poets reconfigured, or let’s say finagled, other forms to bring something new into the 21st century American poetic tradition. For Hayes, I think it’s honoring and reanimating Wanda Coleman’s American sonnet and for Kaminsky it’s bringing Eastern European fabulism into contemporary American poetry. There is an organic matching of form and function that I admire immensely.

I came of age believing that writing a fine poem was the goal. Now I want to do more; I want to push at the boundaries of what is possible — in a way that feels authentic and fresh — to write a poem that I might find strange or even a little disconcerting. In my forthcoming book, BLUE ATLAS, there’s a poem titled “Post Abortion Questionnaire Sponsored by Survey Monkey.” The poem takes actual questions from an on-line questionnaire and then offers surreal and dreamlike responses. Writing the poem felt extremely uncomfortable and I was sure I was constructing it only for myself. It wasn’t until I sent a part of it to my poet friend, Kelli Russell Agodon, and she showed (what seemed) like genuine excitement that did the work to keep going.

MP: One last question: I’m going to France for four months for Ruby’s sabbatical. I can only take a few books with me. What shall I pack?

SR: Oh, what a delicious problem! I love matching big, fat books that I often don’t get the time to delve into such as The Poetry of Rilke (translated by Edward Snow) with newer poetry collections. Of Ghosts by Diana Khoi Nguyen speaks to our discussion of new forms. I’m extremely fond of Human Hours by Catherine Barnett and Chord by Rick Barot—both high lyric poets, to my mind.

In other words, take old friends and some new acquaintances. Oh and one wild card! Maybe Jumpa Lahrii’s In Other Words—it’s a bilingual book (she wrote it in Italian) about her love of a language she was far from proficient in understanding. It’s a wonderful inquiry into what is language and writing. You could categorize it as a memoir but really it’s more a hybrid genre. Whatever you take with you will likely become a touchstone for you, an intimate friend.

Mary Peelen is the author of Quantum Heresies (Glass Lyre Press). Her poetry and fiction have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, The Minnesota Review, Antioch Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, New American Writing, Poetry Review (UK), and elsewhere. She lives in San Francisco with her partner, B. Ruby Rich.

Susan Rich is the author of five books, most recently, Cloud Pharmacy (White Pine Press), shortlisted for the Julie Suk Prize, honoring poetry books from independent presses and The Alchemist’s Kitchen (White Pine Press), a Finalist for the Washington State Book Award. She coedited The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Crossing Borders (Poetry Foundation) with Catherine Barnet, Ilya Kaminsky and Brian Turner. Her newest book, A Gallery of Postcards and Maps: New and Selected Poems, is forthcoming from Salmon Press.