Susan Richardson is living, writing and going blind in Hollywood. She was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa in 2002 and much of her work focuses on her relationship to the world as a partially-sighted woman. In addition to poetry, she writes a blog called STORIES FROM THE EDGE OF BLINDNESS. Her work has been published in Stepping Stones Magazine, Wildflower Muse, The Furious Gazelle, The Hungry Chimera, Sheila-Na-Gig, Chantarelle’s Notebook, Foxglove Journal, Literary Juice and Sick Lit Magazine, with pieces forthcoming in Amaryllis and The Anapest Journal. She was also awarded the Sheila-Na-Gig Winter Poetry Prize.
Literary Juice: After learning of your condition, Reitinitis Pigmentosa, and reading your blog, "Stories from the Edge of Blindness", one can see you possess a deep perception of life around you. You notice beauty, or magic, in places most people tend to overlook. Has this always been a part of you? In what ways has RP influenced your insight?
Susan Richardson: Wow! This is the loveliest thing anyone has ever written about me and asked me. Your questions are so thoughtful and I hope my answers will do them justice. I have always been drawn to the beauty of things that are overlooked or perceived as unusual, and having RP has definitely played a part in enhancing my perception of the world. When I was told that I was going blind, I spent a long time thinking about loss and how losing my vision would change what the meaning of loss looked like. I had experienced loss in the death of loved ones and in difficult rites of passage, but going blind, slowly as most of us with RP do, thrust me into the minutiae of loss; losing my vision wasn’t something I could tuck away and come back to later when I was ready or feeling stronger, it was happening in every moment of every day. I began to look at the world with more care, patience and compassion. I started writing "Stories from the Edge of Blindness", which is, in essence, about what I see on my journey into blindness; the irony of which is not lost on me. Having RP has helped me write, live and look at the world more honestly than I ever have; I look beneath the layers more fearlessly and with new understanding. I love that you use the word magic; I believe it applies to so much in life, and that it is what you get when you look beyond the surface of things, when you choose to stop and truly see rather than step over what might make you feel uncomfortable or afraid.
LJ: Are there days where RP challenges you as a writer? What strategies do you employ to overcome those obstacles?
SR: Living with RP presents me with an array of challenges every day, and some of them are definitely connected to my writing life. One of my most severe RP symptoms is light sensitivity; this includes sunlight, bright indoor lighting and the glare from computer and tablet screens. My writing environments have to be lit in very specific ways, or my eyes begin to ache and sting within minutes; if it’s too bright, I can’t see, and if it’s too dark, I can’t see. I am fortunate to be able to work from home where I have created a good working space for myself. As for the computer, luckily, there are accessibility options on devices that allow me to invert the colors on the screen; looking at a black screen with yellow text is much less painful and enables me to write for longer periods of time. However, I still need to make sure to take frequent breaks; over- use of my eyes, even in less harsh lighting, can result in a day of extreme pain and the inability to use my eyes for anything. I also have trouble focusing and have to increase the font sizes on all of my documents and emails; this can be time consuming when revising or submitting work, but it isn’t difficult. I can remember the days when I wrote all of my poems long hand, but my inconsistent focus makes that impossible. I can no longer read bound books, newspapers or magazines comfortably, but in the RP world, I am lucky; with the help of technology, I can still read and write without the use of a screen reader because, for now, I have relatively good and usable central vision.
LJ: Tell us about how you develop each poem. Are they inspired from within? From the world around you? What does your writing process look like?
SR: I know it sounds cliché, but I really try and allow my writing process to be as organic as possible. My poetry happens in a variety of ways. Some of my poems begin with the language; a word or a line will come into my head, and from there I look within to find the emotional origin for the words. Some of my poems are sparked from memory and some from visceral responses to the world around me. I have also recently gotten into Ekphrastic challenges; I love the idea of art inspiring art, and I have been incredibly surprised by what an image can bring out in me and in my writing. Perhaps, because I am going blind, the act of seeing takes on new meaning and I translate that into my poems that are inspired by paintings or photographs. I have always felt that subjectivity is a big part of what makes art exciting. When people ask me what (or who) a specific poem is about, my tendency is to leave them wondering; I am much more interested in what my writing brings up for the reader, what it makes them feel. There is one constant in my writing; I have always lived my life from an emotional place and because of that, everything I write is, in some way, a reflection of my emotional responses to being alive.
LJ: What do you think is the most difficult part about writing poetry? Do you think there is such a thing as writer’s block? Why or why not?
SR: A couple of years ago, I finally developed a true writing practice; I write every day. The writing isn’t always good and I don’t always feel inspired, but I do it anyway. I realized that being a writer is in the act of writing, not just in the love of language or in moments of inspiration. If you had asked me this question 2 years ago, I would have had a different answer, but now I don’t buy into writer’s block. I used to use it as an excuse for not writing, but I believe there is always something deeper that keeps us from our creative selves. Writing can be scary and isolating; we sit down with our demons and let them unfurl themselves onto the page. In my experience, poetry, more than other forms or genres of writing, is a dissection of the self, and that can be terrifying. The art of poetry is exacting but also requires fluidity; I find this incredibly challenging, but ultimately exciting and fulfilling.
LJ: What do you want to be remembered most for? What will be your legacy?
SR: I always wanted to be remembered for being a writer whose work inspired people to see beyond the surface of things, to look at themselves and others more fearlessly and with more honesty. I still feel this way, but RP has changed the way I look at the world and now I also want to be able to leave people with my honest account of what it is like to go blind. I think that the fear of vulnerability is a human condition, and that is why blindness is so terrifying to so many people; I want to give blindness a face and a heart. My legacy will be one of words; words that I hope will make a difference in the way people see.