friday feast: practicing rapture with our surprise guest, susan rich!

#11 in the Poetry Potluck Series, celebrating National Poetry Month 2010

Sometimes the nicest things happen by accident.

Not too long ago, in one of my relentless searches for good food poems, I stumbled upon Susan Rich’s “A Poem for Will, Baking.” It brought me to my knees, as I remembered losing my aunt and my cousin’s grief. The poem also resonated with many of you, and later I was pleasantly surprised to hear from Susan herself.

When she asked whether we could combine forces for National Poetry Month, I knew she would be a perfect surprise guest. She’s written other food poems, some of which are included in her new book, The Alchemist’s Kitchen (White Pine Press, 2010). What I didn’t know was how succinctly her chosen “potluck poem” would define the provocative relationship between food and poetry.

Sometimes you’re hungry for something, but don’t know what. You search for words to feed your soul. Beyond the sheer musicality of food names is their inherent sensuality, the way they instantly trigger fond memories, their uncanny ability to tap into yearning and unearth deep-seated emotions. The chanterelle mushroom is shaped like a trumpet; the term, “chanterelle” is derived from the Latin cantharellus, which means, “little cup.” I love how Susan’s poem, like a lovingly prepared, well orchestrated meal, fills me to the brim with its nourishing song of pure bliss.

 photo by KarmenRose.


Perhaps consider poetry
a gourmet grocery shop,

endless pyramids of
shape-shifting fruit:

persimmon, star flower, pomegranate —

and across the aisle
in hand-woven oval baskets:

Vietnamese coriander,
Thai basil, Chinese leaves.

Experiment without knowing
the exact region where

the pomegranate is grown
the pronunciation of the Chinese leaf.

But don’t set out to deceive
the check-out girl;

you can’t pretend that you’re
a kumquat or a chanterelle.

And get away with it.

Instead, practice rapture —
and inquisitiveness, pose

a question to the golden
beet, the artichoke heart;

engage with a yellow fin.
The page relies

on the clean attempt
to move beyond the safe way.

Where is the ineffable?

Bring home a mango
polish it with Kosher salt.

~ from The Alchemist’s Kitchen (White Pine Press).
   © 2010 Susan Rich. All rights reserved.

Here is what Susan had to say about her new book and “Chanterelle”:

Jama, thank you so much for featuring my book, The Alchemist’s Kitchen, and for asking me about my collection which is just out this month. As is implied by the title, there are several poems here concerning food, mixed drinks, and even a grocery store. For over a year, every time I wrote a poem, an almond cake or a pomegranate, a dreamsicle or perhaps dark chocolate, would wind up making its way into a stanza. I actually worried that I couldn’t write a poem without feeding it.

What I needed to be reminded of is this: obsessions are good for writing — and now that food does not always show up in my work — I miss it.

You asked me about the poem I’ve included here with my recipe, “Chanterelle.” This poem has an interesting history and has been published three times (now on your site makes four) under a different name. This is the only poem I have ever written that began as a journal entry. In fact, it’s original (and less exciting!) title was “December 14th Journal Entry.” I began the poem at an airport in Los Angeles where I had been teaching in the Antioch MFA Program and was headed back home to Seattle.

I remember wondering about why I write poetry, what compels me. That word “Perhaps,” that begins the poem is very important to
me — as is its placement as the very first word of the poem. If this poem is a kind of manifesto, a kind of explanation of what I believe poetry can do as the poem says: “practice rapture and inquisitiveness . . . ” then on another day I might have chosen something else in the gourmet grocery shop to focus on.

One of the reasons I write about food is simply for the music of the words like “asiago” and “machango” or “golden beet” and “artichoke heart.” I teach English at a small college and this week I asked my students to introduce themselves by saying their favorite word. There was a banana and a watermelon as well as a mocha and a chocolate mousse! Food is so elemental, so literally and figuratively a part of who we are that it makes complete sense to me to write about it. As Shakespeare wrote, “If food be the music of love, eat on.” Actually that’s not quite what he wrote, but I believe that’s what he meant.

Here is a favorite recipe that works well as a main vegetarian dish. My carnivore friends appreciate these so much that they have become a regular staple at our Thanksgiving table. I have adapted the recipe from Louise Pickford’s Book of Vegetarian Cooking.

 photo by ghetto of our mind.


2 pounds puff pastry dough
2/3 cup boiling water
2 T. olive oil
1 cup diced eggplant
3 cups finely chopped fresh mushrooms (chanterelle or a mix of chanterelle with buttons)
1 clove crushed garlic
1 tsp. fresh thyme
2 T. tomato paste
Salt and pepper
1/3 cup diced goat cheese
1 egg, beaten
1 T. milk

On a lightly floured surface, roll out dough into 2 (13″ x 9″) rectangles. Cut out 6 squares from each rectangle. In a large pan heat one T. of the oil. Add eggplant, stir 3-5 minutes. Add mushrooms, garlic, and thyme; stir fry 3 minutes. Stir in tomato paste, salt and pepper, and water as needed to make thick stew consistency. Let cool.

Preheat oven to 425F. Spread a large mushroom and eggplant mixture in the center of each square leaving a narrow border around the edges. Top the mixture with diced cheese. Dampen the edges of the squares with a little water and top with remaining squares. Press edges together to seal and cut a small slit in the top of each puff pie. In a small bowl, beat egg and milk together. Brush mixture over each pie. Transfer to baking sheet. Bake 15 to 18 minutes or until puffed to a golden brown.


Susan Rich is an American poet, essayist, educator, Fulbright Scholar and human rights advocate who has published three collections of poetry: The Cartographer’s Tongue: Poems of the World, Cures Include Travel, and The Alchemist’s Kitchen. She’s received awards from PEN USA, The Times Literary Supplement, and Peace Corps Writers, and her poetry has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals, including Harvard Review, Antioch Review, New England Review, and Northwest Review. Her writing is informed by her experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, West Africa, and human rights work for Amnesty International and other organizations, which took her to such places as Bosnia Herzegovina, Gaza and the West Bank, and Croatia.

Besides her Fulbright fellowship, she’s been awarded grants/residencies from the Blue Mountain Center, The Millay Colony of Arts, Cottages at Hedgebrook, Fundacion Valparaiso in Spain, and the Tyrone Guthrie Center in Ireland. Susan currently teaches creative writing and film studies at Highline Community College in Seattle, and serves on the boards of Crab Creek Review, Floating Bridge Press and Whit Press. I highly recommend visiting her website and spending a little time listening to her video interview with Nancy Pearl. She talks about how important it is to have a safe place to write, where one feels taken care of. There is also a recent interview at here.

You can order signed copies of all three of Susan’s books through her website. The official launch party for The Alchemist’s Kitchen will be held at Open Books in Seattle on Sunday, April 25th, 3 p.m. Susan blogs at The Alchemist’s Kitchen: Elements of Poetry, Travel and the Creative Life.

♥ Congratulations on your new book, Susan, and thanks for coming to the Potluck!

Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Jules has lots of coffee, pie, and a passel of poems for your reading/dining pleasure.

Copyright © 2010 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.

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