Susan Rich
It's About Time Writers
   the writer's craft
Poems, Pastries, and Politics
Presented at the It's About Time Writers Reading Series, Seattle, WA., Thursday Nov. 9, 2006

Why connect the writing of poetry with an appreciation of good food?  On first consideration, the juxtaposition of poems and pastries might seem frivolous.  Isn't poetry sustenance for something more than the physical body?

Recently, I taught a workshop at a local college advertised as "O Taste and Write: Food Poems" and perhaps a subtext of free food is why sixty people appeared on a Tuesday afternoon ready to write. And why not? Isn't a poem that takes your head off and a sumptuous crème broulee both causes for celebration? Doesn't each experience awaken its audience with a sensory jolt, tossing us deeper into the world?

I admit it. When pomegranate crisps and madelines first appeared in my work, I was horrified. My years with Amnesty International, Oxfam America, and as a Peace Corps Volunteer imbued me with a belief that poetry is serious business. I've worked in countries where famine was far more frequent than French cuisine, where neighbors shot neighbors for sport. Food kept me alive; ready to dodge land mines and sniper fire for another day. So how could I move from poems about civil war in Somalia to poems of the cereal aisle?

Let me explain. After my first book, The Cartographer's Tongue, Poems of the World appeared, focusing on my experiences in Africa and the Middle East, it seemed reasonable that I'd keep exploring human rights issues. I tried, as best I could, to call attention to the women and men I've met who lived more courageous and complex lives than my own.

I wrote about Yves-Rose, on her sixteenth birthday,  finding her father's mutilated body on the family's front porch steps a gift from the Ton-Ton Macoute. I wrote about Giovanni Soto, a Guatemalan street kid, disappeared by the Guatemalan police, about middle-aged Bosnian Muslims bombed by their neighbors as they hid under the stairs in a spot meant for preserving potatoes, not people. In short, I wrote about political subjects. Poetry, to my mind, needed to change the world.

And while I still believe that, still write poems concerning the civil war in Somalia and the ongoing war in Iraq, I also believe deeply in interweaving these poems with ones that focus on the direct dailyness of bread and wine. Food poems allow me to look at my subject sideways, to explore baked goods as a metaphor for grief or the aisle of a grocery store as a stand-in for childhood. I don't worry about whether I am misrepresenting a plum tomato or placing a tiramisu in an unfavorable light. And the mix of watermelons and war crimes may be where my imaginative strength lies.

If poetry can change the world, someone has to read it, someone has to be moved to care about a mother dodging bullets in Mogadishu, a young boy shot by Israeli forces in the political quagmire of Gaza City. I don't want to conjure a world of despair but rather a world as vibrant and alive as any I have ever experienced. The comfort of a family supper or the Dreamsicles of a corner grocer might, in the end, prove more vital to the story than the type of explosives used or which political party abused its power.

I'd like to share some ways that I've folded food imagery into my poems. Perhaps these suggestions might inspire others to create new work. Poems, pastries, and politics might someday cook-up an utterly different kind of cuisine, one that ameliorates the human spirit as well as the body.

Write a food poem of exaggeration

This is an opportunity to play. Write a poem exaggerating your appreciation or distaste for a food you know well. Permit yourself to go wild. I began a recent workshop asking participants to introduce themselves by naming a food they loved or hated. "I'm Stan and I loathe lobster" one older man proclaimed, "I'm in love with a wild salmon," a nursing student confessed. "A cheddar sharper than I am ought be outlawed," another participant offered. The results included a poem where a salmon stood in for an erotic lover and an aged cheddar cheese began a meditation for one woman's self-reflection.

Try a historical appreciation of the eggplant or an ode to an artichoke.

This poem requires research. How fun to delve into the history of what we eat. For a poem still in progress I've learned the lurid past of the eggplant and why the Imam fainted, as in the fabled Middle Eastern eggplant dish. While researching a poem concerning the fantasies of a lonely baker, I found one website that listed over eight hundred different kinds of cake. Intersperse historical fact with your own taste sensations to create thirteen ways of looking at an artichoke.

Challenge yourself to write a political poem that uses food as a central image.

There was a common joke among Palestinians in the early 1990's before the creation of the Palestinian Authority that referred to the fact that the red, green and black colors of the Palestinian flag had been outlawed by the Israeli government. "Did you hear," the joke went, the Israelis have outlawed watermelons! It's a common site to see farmers selling watermelons in late summer by the side of the road. In Gaza, watermelons were political. Write a poem where a food is inextricably linked with a social cause.

In "First Supper at Salama's" [Rich, Susan. Bellingham Review, Volume XXIX, No. 2, Issue #58]a Somali man offers his country's specially prepared bread and meat along with political commentary.

Ghazal for the Woman from Vitez

It's the best watermelon in the world
but there's no way to say it in words.

She had squatted in the space for apples and pears
under the staircase, a year, beyond the place of words.

Now she comes back with tea, examines me closely,
my out-of-date phrase book, my mispronounced words.

I ask for the toilet and she shows me the bedrooms, bombed
by neighbors who should have known how to use words.

We walk out to her garden in late afternoon light,
survey squash plants and corn stalks, we re-enter words.

In Bosnian the tomato is called paradise, sweetness
transferred from some other country's words.

We drink rounds of whisky, call her sons on the phone
laughing because we have found our way out through words.

Reprinted from Susan Rich, The Cartographer's Tongue: Poems of the World, White Pine Press, NY

Susan Rich runs the Somali Voices in Poetry Project and has worked for Amnesty International, Oxfam America and the served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger, West Africa. She won the PEN USA Award for Poetry and the Peace Corps Writers Award for The Cartographer's Tongue / Poems of the World.. Her next book, Cures Include Travel, is forthcoming from White Pine Press. She lives in Seattle, WA and teaches at Highline Community College and the Antioch University MFA Program.



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