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2005 Writers Forum
Susan Rich ~ with curator John Mifsud

Susan Rich is the author of The Cartographer's Tongue: Poems of the World, winner of the PEN West Award for Poetry and the Peace Corps Writers Award. Her poetry oftentimes reflects her experiences working with Amnesty International, the U.S. Peace Corps, as well as human rights work in Bosnia and Palestine. Susan's poetry has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, North American Review, Poetry International, Prism International and Witness. Recent awards include a Fulbright Fellowship to South Africa, an Artist Trust Fellowship from Washington State, and a Pushcart Prize nomination. Susan lives in Seattle, is an editor for Floating Bridge Press, and teaches at Highline Community College. Her second collection of poems, Cures Include Travel, is due out from White Pine Press. Please visit Susan at www.susanrich.org to find out more. Susan Rich photo
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photo credit:
dean wong
Read and listen to writings by Susan Rich
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Personal Background Community/Outreach (2) Why write Place
Recent Publication Creative Process (2) Crossculture Research
Influences Inspiration Outcomes Sharing Work
JM


I'm here today with Susan Rich, who is the author of The Cartographer's Tongue, published in 2000 by White Pine Press. Susan, tell me a little bit about The Cartographer's Tongue.
SR













The Cartographer's Tongue has poems from about ten years of my writing, and during those ten years I was pretty much a nomad. There's poems from my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, West Africa, from my work in Bosnia, my human rights work in Gaza. I hadn't come to Seattle yet, so Seattle doesn't arrive, but a little bit of Oregon, where I was living for some of that. And mostly it's sort of grappling with the idea of "home," and trying to find a home when one is living in so many disparate places. I think the South Africa time that I spent is also included. When I had applied to the Peace Corps, one of the questions they asked was how many different places you'd lived in the last three years. And when I counted it up and found 24, I thought, "Well they'll never take me, it just looks like some vagabond," so I narrowed it down to seven, and that made me feel much more sane.
JM



So given you've lived in so many different countries, and it sounds like have a history of activist work, in the Peace Corps and maybe with other programs, where did you start? Where were your beginnings?
SR















Well, I started in Boston, Massachusetts, where I was born. And loved writing from the time-well before I understood how to read I remember just being really mystified by the alphabet and letters and older siblings that were reading, so it probably started pre-reading, pre-writing. I wanted to be a novelist, which I think I secretly still wish for. Poetry came probably in elementary school, something that I continued to do until college, and that great higher education stopped me cold, with professors that were anything but complimentary of the work. And I just decided, "Well, there's people that are stronger writers than I am, maybe I should do something else." And I also had a little bit of wisdom for a young person, and knew that I hadn't lived enough and thought, "Well, what am I going to write about? I'm from Massachusetts, I've lived my whole life here so far, and perhaps if I went out and learned something about the world, maybe then I'd have something to say."
JM



What are the particular circumstances that you need, or the situation that you need to feel like you can do good writing? Is there some sort of comfortable setting or things that you need around you?
SR











I think what I like most when I'm writing is to be far away from my life. I have the unfortunate desire to have long stretches of time when nothing else can interfere with my writing. Certainly that doesn't always happen, and I can write on a bus, and I can write between classes, but not very well. So what I've learned about myself is that if I can go to a residency-anywhere, really-and get a period of time-two weeks, a month, six weeks-my writing will change, and I will have more ambition, I'll have more self-confidence, and the writing will reflect that by longer and more difficult pieces. And even though I don't have lots of interruptions day to day, psychologically it's very different to be somewhere where the reason to be there is to write.
JM

I understand. Is there a way that you could describe your creative process? What is that for you? How does it happen?
SR I wouldn't wish my creative process on anyone else at all.
Mostly what I start with is what I like to call Señor Jalepeño, Señor Hot Pepper, who sits on my shoulder and says, "Susan, why are you even bothering? Why are you even trying to get words on paper? Because really no one cares, and you're not very good, and isn't it a lovely day and wouldn't you rather be outside?" So, I've learned how to make him be quiet. And, he's sort of a lazy guy, this Señor Jalapeño, so he goes to bed early and I can stay up late and write, and he's just too tired at that point. And he also sleeps late, so getting up in the morning, and writing before I'm completely conscious, is another way to sort of get that critic, which is what he is, off of my back, or my shoulder.
JM


So, once he's gone to sleep, or he hasn't woken up, and or whatever-how does inspiration come to you and how do you respond to it?
SR




























Probably a couple of different ways. I've taught a workshop recently on revising and what I've done is I've opened up my process of writing for my students, and seen that what happens is that it comes in different ways. Sometimes it may be that there's something-for example September 11th-that happened, and was sort of too enormous to really know what to think about it, and yet it also wouldn't go away. I have a friend named Mohamed, who was a former student of mine, and I was quite concerned for him during those first days when there were threats to mosques and I would call him every day and tried to be casual about it, and just say, "How are you, what's happening?" I didn't write anything for probably eight or nine months, and then there were so many stories I had of different things that had happened to him daily, that that's when I realized, okay, I could try to get into this experience. Not by my own watching the television, reading the newspaper, but by somebody who was having to deal with what was happening in America on a daily basis, and go through his perspective. So that's one way. Another would be where I might sit down with my students and give them a writing exercise, and at the same time give that exercise to myself. I can think of an example, of asking students to sort of meditate on the idea of "home," which is one of my obsessions, and by giving myself that assignment: What's home, what does that mean? Write something of anywhere you've been that feels like home. I got a rough draft that, through another 26 drafts became a poem, but that came to me whole, as opposed to the experience with Mohamed, which I really had to sort of struggle and pull out. What did I really have to say about this event, what could I say that would be meaningful?
Inspiration



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JM And were you able to engage Mohamoud in your process?
SR






I'm kind of shy about that. I often write about other people, and I feel strongly that they need to, at some point when the piece is more or less finished, see what I've written, and either give it their blessing to go out into the world, or say, "Susan, could you put that in a drawer and not let it see the light of day?" So he did see it and he did have the ability to comment on that when it was done, but I didn't engage him in the process.
JM And what was his response to the outcome?
SR











Both embarrassment and pleasure. Both of those things were true. It was a funny situation. I was reading at the Richard Hugo House, and I had invited him, it was going to be the debut of this poem along with some others. And I didn't see him anywhere, so I thought, "Well okay, if he's not here I can read this and not worry about what he'll think," and only learned afterwards that he'd come in quite late and didn't want me to see that he was late so he'd snuck off to a corner of the room, and heard this poem having no sense that I was going to read it. But he's a smart man, and he knows that what happens to him as a Somali Muslim is not his story alone, and so I think he understands that my writing about his experiences have a larger meaning in the populace.
JM



A lot of the work that you had submitted, and the new work that you've shared with me recently has a focus in the Somali Muslim community, and I'm wondering what is the connection for you, in that it is not your community of origin-what calls you about it?
SR


















There are many things that have brought me to working with the Somali Rights Network. The concrete example is a former student of mine, who had only been in the United States for a year when he came into my classroom, and was brilliant, really quite smart, but had never had the opportunity to be in college before. And his desire to do something for his people-he knew he was here, he was a little older than some of my other students, probably 22 when he came-and his looking for some way to make a contribution back to Somalia was very moving to me. And he's the person who's kind of brought me in slowly but surely, giving me opportunities to do different work with the local population here. I think a lot of people don't realize we have the third largest Somali population in the United States. The other things that I've always been passionate about in my life are human rights work and poetry. And I made a conscious decision that I needed to find a way to bring those parts of my life together. And I don't live in Africa or Bosnia anymore, so it made sense to find something here that I could work on that would contribute to the community that I'm now part of.
JM

How do you perceive your role as a voice reaching into their experience?
SR




















That's a good question. When I first came up with this idea that I wanted to interview Somalis in the area about their experiences, I wasn't sure how I would be accepted. I know from my own experience-my family is Jewish and my relatives, some of them escaped from Lithuania and Russia during the Holocaust-that lots of people don't want to talk about the bad things that happened. And that's universal. "We're in America now. Let's not think about the past. We're the lucky ones. Let's move on. Let's go to another wedding." Those are the types of things that I know are true for the Somali population as well as for my own family. So I broached the subject with the young Somalis that I know quite well, who know me already and have a sense of who I am, and said, "Here's an idea. I don't know what you'll think of it. I don't know if anyone will talk to me, but what do you think?" And it was a unanimous positive response saying, "Thank you for caring enough to want to hear our stories." And they're smart young people, so they said, "Well, if we do it, if we say, 'Okay, I sat down with Susan and told her my story,' then it will be easier for us to recruit other people, who will think 'okay, she can't be so bad, because Uba, or Awali, or Mohamoud, has sat down and spoken with her.'" So my role is to me fluid, and I take my cues from the people I work with.
JM

So, would you be willing to share some of that writing with us this afternoon?
SR












Certainly. I'll start with a poem that's called "We Talk of What You'll do When You Return." And it's probably helpful to know that there's going to be a point in the poem when there's something called the counting of names. The counting of names is what any Somali will do when they meet someone else, and it's sort of like we say, "Where did you grow up? Where did you come from? What school did you go to?" This is the reciting of the names which is sort of giving, "I am born from this person, from this person, from this…" My friend jokes with me that no documents were lost in Somalia because everybody carries them in his head. He said, "If I don't know who I am I just need to ask my neighbor. He'll tell me." So, this is called "We Talk of What You'll do When You Return-for Mohamoud."
<reading follows>
JM

The writing pays tribute in a way and honors an experience that's not your own. It's very beautiful, and lyrical, and yet poignant.
SR




I think I might be a little bit unusual from some other writers, in that I am actually most comfortable with other people's stories. I'm much more curious about other people's lives, especially lives that are different from my own, than I am about writing of my own experience.
JM



And I think, because you had interview processes with people from that community, that the writing is richly informed and textured by that. So you do reach a target that is unusual and yet a breath of fresh air, it feels like. Will you read some more?
SR











Sure. What I'd like to do is go back to your question about my writing process, because this occurred to me as we've been talking. I have one very short poem about a Somali woman that I had interviewed, and then a much longer poem. And really they came together. It was very hard material to work with, and so I didn't know how to approach it. I think I had to write this very tiny little poem in order to say, "Okay, now maybe I can approach as the larger harder topic." So if I can, I'll read the short poem and then go into the longer poem. Again, a short explanation: I'm starting with a word called nadra. It's a Somali word and it has a dual meaning of both conducting research, and following the footprints of the lost. The poem is entitled "Nadra."
Creative process










<reading>
This next poem is called "Iska's Story," and it's two voices, one of the writer and then one of Iska's actual testimony.
<reading>
JM


So, in the best of worlds, what would be the outcome of your efforts, especially with this subject matter, and the poetry that you've created for the Jack Straw Writers Program this year?
SR










The outcome of working on this material is in some way political. It's saying "pay attention." Somalia hasn't had a government for the last 13 years, and that means there's no police, no hospitals, no fire stations. It's a country that's really been forgotten in many ways by the international community. And that may be true of many other places as well, but what seems to me so compelling about this story is that the Somali people are now here in the United States, and so the commitment is both from an international point of view, but it's also as fellow American citizens. So there seems a dual responsibility to me to say, "Let's look at this problem, let's see what can be done."
Outcomes

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JM

For those of us that are not familiar, might you tell us a little bit about the history of Somalia?
SR


























I'll give it a try. The more I read and the more I learn, the more complex the history of Somalia becomes, so I'll want to kind of make it simple enough that I'm saying things that are true. Sometimes it's hardest to talk about something that you know enough about to make it very complex. And Somalia for a long time has been a pawn in terms of the interest that Kenya had in what happens to Somalia, the interest that Ethiopia has, the interest that the US has, the Italians have; there's been a sense of whether Somalia at one point was a Communist country, or not a Communist country… so it's hard for me to talk about it. Somalia, before the United States was involved with it in the early 1990's, was a place of great culture, it was a modern way of living. When I talk to the people that I know here, for the most part they were citizens of Mogadishu, which was what we might think of as a European city: large parks, large promenades, cinemas, cafes, French schools. And that is no longer true, the country has kind of been left to the different breakdown of the clans and the tribes, in terms of people warring. And what my friends tell me-and part of the reason this is difficult is because the definitive text on Somalia has yet to be written, so I go by the interviews I've had, I go by the different pieces I've read in the New York Times, I go by the novels that I've read about Somalia-is that, it's really about people who don't know how to get out of the situation that they're in, that there's generations of people now who have been hurt from one side or the other. And at the same time, most of the Somalis I meet have a little bit of a mix in their clan; so the sense that it's really a clan warfare is not true. That I can say for sure.
JM




What you had mentioned earlier about what it means to pay attention, often means when we have neighbors from different countries, we do a little bit of homework, in trying to understand the circumstances that they came from. In order to better be able to communicate with them; have some point of reference.
SR






One thing I can say is that there's one Somali writer who's gotten lots of worldwide acclaim, and one of the things he's said he has as a mission is to keep Somalia alive in the international community. His name is Nuruddin Farra. He was in Seattle last year with his new novel, Links. So I would say to anyone who wanted to learn more about Somalia, that the novel Links is an excellent place to start.
JM




It's interesting because you say that the true story or the whole story hasn't quite been written yet. I'm sure that Links, just like your writing, is all an attempt to start, to try to create that narrative, that documented experience that will allow more people to understand exactly what that experience is about.
SR






That is one of the parts of this project. The poems are coming from something called Somali Voices in Poetry, and our goal is to get things up on a website that has not only the poems I write but the actual testimony of the people that I'm interviewing, photographs where appropriate, and really to start making a living archive for the people that are here who don't have their stories written down.
Community/
Outreach

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JM What a wonderful idea. That sounds terrific.
JM




I would say that it gives me an added pleasure because I'm hoping that through being a Jack Straw Writer the story of the Somali people is going to be just a little bit better known. That's my goal, to write poems that are going to bring this story to a larger audience.
JM


And, do you see your writing, taking a different direction in the future, are there gleamings of other inspirations that are coming your way that might inform your future poems?
SR








Wouldn't it be nice if we could tell the future? I'm not a poet who works by the topic of the next book, I've never been able to do that. As soon as I think I'm on to something it sort of evaporates. I will say that along with the poems that I have on my interviews from the Somali citizens here, I always write about the place I live. And I'm quite enamored with my section of Seattle, West Seattle, Alki Beach in particular, and so, whether I plan it or not, there's more and more poems that seem to involve ferries and water, and a little bit of the history of Alki.
JM

I'm anxious to hear the one poem that refers to the experience in front of the mosque. I'm hoping you'll share that with us.
SR


Interestingly this was the first poem of the project, and it's entitled "Mohamed at the Mosque: for my student upon his graduation."
<reading>
JM

So then in closing then I might just ask, is there anything left unsaid?
SR






I think the only thing I'll add, and I think I've already gotten to it so, forgive me if I'm repeating myself-I feel strongly about the fact that writing to me is a way to bring yourself into another world, to experience someone other than yourself. I teach a lot about bringing the other into your work. So I would encourage people that are looking for subjects to write about something other than their own life.
Why Write
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Read and listen to writings by Susan Rich
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