Getting to Know SUSAN EDWARDS RICHMOND and her new book BEFORE WE WERE BIRDS

Available now by Adastra Press through Amazon

Susan Edwards Richmond writes about the relationship between humans and wild nature. In addition to Before We Were Birds, Susan is the author of Increase, Purgatory Chasm, Birding in Winter, and Boto, and her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies. Susan also writes for children; her first picture book is due out with Peachtree Publishers in Fall 2018. A passionate naturalist, she is poet-in-residence at Old Frog Pond Farm & Studio in Harvard, Massachusetts, and works at Mass Audubon’s Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary. She lives with her husband, Jim, and has two daughters.

Susan Edwards Richmond writes about the relationship between humans and wild nature. In addition to Before We Were Birds, Susan is the author of Increase, Purgatory Chasm, Birding in Winter, and Boto, and her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies. Susan also writes for children; her first picture book is due out with Peachtree Publishers in Fall 2018. A passionate naturalist, she is poet-in-residence at Old Frog Pond Farm & Studio in Harvard, Massachusetts, and works at Mass Audubon’s Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary. She lives with her husband, Jim, and has two daughters.

When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover you wanted to write poems?
Ever since I was a young child, I’ve kept a notebook in which to record poems, stories, songs, or musings. I’ve been a naturalist all my life, as well as a huge reader, and my early work was filled with animal stories and observations of nature. I loved Beatrix Potter and the poems of A.A. Milne and Robert Louis Stevenson. When I was in elementary school, I wrote my first poem sequence featuringwoodland animals—a raccoon, an otter, a fox! It wasn’t until I was an undergraduate at Williams College studying with Lawrence Raab, however, that I chose poetry as a focus, and completed a thesis under his direction.  

Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I have toyed with various routines over the years, but basically I write when I can. Sometimes I’m able to devote whole days to new work or revisions; other times, I jot down lines before bed—or even, occasionally, when I wake from dreaming. I do set myself deadlines for submissions or critiques, so am usually writing towards a goal. I prefer to start poems plein air, or out of doors, immersed in a natural setting and then revise in a quiet space at home.

Where do your poems most often come from?
My poems usually begin with a question, a desire to understand the workings of a natural process or place, or my connection to it. How can I understand someone as foreign in time and ideology as a Shaker woman, or a resident of the Amazon? Why does the behavior of this particular animal at this time speak to me so strongly? I also enjoy approaching a question from different angles, different sensibilities, which is why I’m so attracted to sequences. I love to research my subjects to learn particulars of their history or natural history, stories or myths.

My first collection, Boto, came out of a curriculum project with the Jason Foundation for Education. When I learned that the Amazon pink dolphin was known by many river people as a shapeshifter, luring human lovers to an underwater world, I became fascinated with the metaphorical questions surrounding those stories. Boto was first published by Gary Metras at Adastra Press as a letterpress chapbook, now out of print, but I was delighted to be able to give it a second life as the opening of my new book, Before We Were Birds, also by Adastra. Two of my other collections, Purgatory Chasm and Increase, are grounded in places: the first, a state reservation of the same name in Sutton, Massachusetts; the second, the Harvard Shaker Community and collection at Fruitlands. 

What writers have influenced you the most? 
In early years, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and, of course, Shakespeare. In college, W.S. Merwin’s The Lice opened my eyes, and, in grad school, I was drawn to books with a narrative thread, work by Louise Glück, Seamus Heaney, H.D., and Diane di Prima. I am grateful to mentors Heaney, Raab, and Metras, Gary Snyder, Alan Williamson, Sandra McPherson, and Joan Houlihan, and to the work of Marie Howe, Naomi Shihab Nye, Galway Kinnell, Mary Oliver, Jeffrey Harrison, Fred Marchant, and many others.   

What else can you tell us about your new collection?
Before We Were Birds is organized around three sequences: “Boto” opens the collection; “The Kingfisher Ring” lies at its heart; and “River Crossings,” a collaboration with sculptor Linda Hoffman, brings the work to a close. Interleaved are two sections, Familiar I and Familiar II, composed of individual poems and one triptych, “Familiar” referring both to animal spirit guides and to that which is seen and well known.  

The poems blend myth and story with close observations of natural and human landscapes. The book’s title is a more universal twist on The Kingfisher Ring’s opening poem, “Before They Were Birds.” This central sequence alludes to the Greek myth of Ceyx and Alcyone, in which the gods take pity on two grieving lovers by transforming them into a pair of kingfisher birds. This story of two people torn apart by war and resurrected through nature resonates deeply with me. The idea that human encounters with wild things and wild places bring about metamorphoses and healing informs many of the poems in the book, and is indeed at the core of my belief.  

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Read 'Piping Plover' from Before We Were Birds here: 

Piping Plover

Solitary ghost, nearly erased
by sand, wanders so close

to the beachcombers’ path,
we are told, beware

the right-of-way of all endangered
creatures. Spindly legs impress

the shore, picking up the light
body, scuttling in the halting

manner of characters from old
cartoons who tiptoe in barrels,

behind cactus. It wears its own
disguise, rubbed out at the horizon

when concentration wavers, then
awakes in each new movement,

markings so clear, the throat ring
catches and pulls, the wind’s collar.

Friendship is not a flock of birds
rising as a single phrase,

but the one who stays, moving
when the wind

moves, materializing
out of the shapeless shore, running

parallel, sometimes crossing, no,
blessing, the path, no matter

how close you come, not standing
still, not flying away.